One cannot help but feel sorry for commercial fisherman and former chicken farmer Russell Clark, one of the 735 people who hold permits to set net for salmon along the shores of Alaska’s Upper Cook Inlet.
As the old saying goes, “when it rains, it pours,” and the world has poured all over Clark as of late.
First came the failure of his Oklahoma chicken farm, then the 2019 Oklahoma bankruptcy, followed
by, in order, a lousy 2019 Inlet fishing season, the pandemic which pushed down fish prices in 2020, and this year the early closure of commercial set netting in the Inlet to protect a struggling run of Kenai River king salmon.
The closure sadly didn’t work.
This was but 80 percent of the minimum goal and marked the third year in a row that too few kings made it back to meet the biologically determined escapement of 15,000 to 30,000 of the fish.
Historically, this is how wild salmon runs fade to remnants of their richness. Overfished, they trickle steadily downward.
Unfortunately, because set gillnets are indiscriminate in what they catch, the set-net closure in the Inlet to protect Chinook forced commercial setnetters to watch somewhere between $5 million and $10 million worth of surplus sockeye salmon swim past their fishing sites.
The sockeye are the target of the commercial fishery. The Chinook are what is called bycatch in the commercial fishing business.
Setnetters have had decades to work out fishing schemes for how to catch sockeye without catching Chinook, and they have refused to do so.
In earlier years, when the kings came back in large numbers, setnetters denied the fish were bycatch and claimed they were entitled to catch their “fair share” to sell even though a king caught in a set net by a man from Oklahoma like Clark contributes a fraction of the money to the state economy as does a king pursued by an angler from Oklahoma who comes north to fish the Kenai.
To some degree, kings in the Kenai are bait for the state’s biggest moneyfish – tourists.
Tourists make large contributions to the Alaska economy even if they don’t catch a thing because they are willing to spend thousands of dollars just to try to catch a fish.
This has always been a hard idea for setnetters to swallow, and the closure of the commercial fishery this year in order to manage the Chinook resource for robust biological productivity has them all angry.
No one knows how many kings they would have killed if they’d been allowed to keep fishing, but it’s doubtful it would have been a big number.
State harvest records show a catch of 1,247 Chinook in set nets prior to the closure of that fishery. As of the same date, 3,717 kings had made it into the river.
These numbers would indicate the nets were ensnaring – at most – about 25 percent of the returning fish. That’s a maximum number and unrealistic one to use in assessing the catch.
Some of the set-net caught kings were bound for the Kasilof, Susitna or other Cook Inlet spawning streams. Some of the set-net caught fish were undersize kings unlikely to add much to the spawning cohort.
The setnetters like to make a big deal of how many of these fish were smaller than the kings of 34 inches or larger counted by the state sonar on the Kenai. But that debate is a waste of time given that there are Chinook smaller than 34 inches that put eggs in the gravel to produce more Chinook in future years.
Still, it is reasonable to assume the set nets would have caught less than 20 percent of the Chinook that came back after the closure and probably far less. For the sake of argument, let’s say 15 percent.
Slightly more than 8,100 big kings were counted entering the river after the set-net closure. Fifteen percent of that works out to a little over 1,200 fish.
So the setnetters gave up about 1.1 million sockeyes to put 1,200 Chinook in the river. That Chinook number is admittedly small. It represents but 8 percent of the minimum spawning goal for big kings.
The actual percentage might have been even smaller. Clark, and setnetters like him, have plenty of reason to be angry. Few business people would not be angry at giving up potentially millions in profit to save 1,200 or fewer salmon.
And business people are what the setnetters are no matter what claims they might make to a “traditional lifestyle” or a rich family history of fishing the beaches.
Yes, there are some who can legitimately make a claim to a long family history on the beach. Most can’t.
The records of the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission (CFEC) show a huge turnover in permits since the state gave them to 746 people who could show a documented history in the fishery prior to 1975.
These so-called “limited entry” permits became the property of the historic fishermen. They were allowed to do with them as they wished going forward, and thus the permits became a marketable commodity now regularly bought and sold in the marketplace.
About 36 percent of these transfers were among family members, according to the CFEC, the rest of the permits were sold, traded or gifted to friends, business partners or strangers like Clark.
The CFEC records reflect he bought his first permit in 2005, back when he was a successful chicken farmer in Heavener, Okla. He has been coming north to profit off Inlet salmon ever since.
From a business standpoint, he made a decent investment. Salmon prices were depressed in the early 2000s, and the CFEC records report an average going price of $10,000 for a permit in 2005.
Permit prices have never climbed back to anywhere near the almost $100,000 value of 1990 when the state of Alaska banned net-pen salmon farming, and some commercial fishermen jumped to the conclusion the state had locked up the salmon business.
All it really did was shoot itself in the foot, but that’s another story. The Alaska ban temporarily drove the value of salmon sky high, which gave Norwegian fish farmers plenty of incentive to dive into the farming business.
They did so with a vengeance, and the value of salmon soon after plummeted. But the availability of the product also increased its popularity, which eventually pushed up demand, and as demand increased, the prices for all salmon – farmed or wild – crept upward.
So, by 2018, according to the CFEC, a Cook Inlet permit was worth an average of $18,000. As to its value in the future, who knows.
This year can’t be good for permit sales, but those on the market now are being offered at $17,500 to $19,500 with an open offer from one buyer to pay $16,000.
So it would appear Clark could recover the cost of his permit and get out of the set-net business with a small profit, but he doesn’t want to because there is an amazing sense of entitlement that comes with owning an Alaska commercial fishing permit, and at 61 years of age his fall back options don’t look good.
Clark a few days ago vented on his fishing problems in the comments section on this website. He was complaining about a story explaining the difficult problem of managing mixed-stock fisheries such as the Kenai where it is easy to overharvest the weak stock (in this case Chinook) to satisfy demands to maximize the commercial harvest of the strong stock (in this case sockeye).
Everyone else’s problem
In his comments, he tried to point the finger of blame for falling Chinook stocks at the in-river Kenai sport fishery that targets kings. He either did not understand or did not care that such fisheries are easily turned on or off depending on the number of fish returning.
They were turned off – ie. shut down – this July when it became clear the run of kings was weak. And they have long been set up to close on July 31, weeks before the king run ends, as an added management precaution.
This year more than half the kings that made it into the river to spawn arrived after that date thanks to the long-established sport closure and the state’s decision to shut down the eastside set net fishery as well.
This didn’t stop Clark from pointing fingers.
“It’s articles like this that are part of the problem,” he charged. “When talking heads only report part of the information and part of the information they do report is false then that reporter should not be trusted….Believe it or not the sportfishing guides and charters are all commercial fishermen. Their job is to crank out as many fish as possible which is fine but let’s go ahead and call it what it is.”
He also took issue with the observation that there was this year more than ever a huge financial incentive for setnetters to lowball their king catch either by rolling dead fish out of their nets and back into the Inlet, or taking them home to cook and then forgetting to report them.
Setnetters are not required to report fish rolled out of the nets, and though they are required to report all the kings they take ashore, there is no onsite monitoring of the fishery.
“You need to get out from behind your computer and actually go out and see how things are done before you start lying about setnetters being deceptive on reporting kings,” Clark wrote. “…This is the problem when you have someone that (sic) sits behind a computer and makes their living criticizing people that work their butts off in often dangerous situations and put in long hard hours to provide for their families. You talk about kings being bycatch for setnetters but say nothing about kings that are kept by dipnetters and sport caught.”
The claim dipnetters caught kings is interesting, given that dipnetters were not allowed to harvest kings this year, and it would be hard to sneak one off the busy dipnet beaches without someone noticing.
And his accusation of “lying,” coming as it does from someone whose own reputation for honesty doesn’t look good, only underscores the arrogance of those in the commercial fishing business who think they own the fish.
The court records don’t offer any more details, but the $300 fine is the standard fee imposed on non-residents claiming to be residents to save a few hundred dollars on the purchase of a hunting and/or fishing license.
The court files also reflect the state filed “false statement” charges against Clark again in 2007 and 2008. He was, it should be noted, accurately reporting his nonresidency to the CFEC at that time.
From 2005 through 2018, he claimed residency in Oklahoma in CFEC records. It appears he didn’t move to Kenai until 2019, the same year he told the Oklahoma bankruptcy court the Clark family was planning its future in the 49th state.
“Debtor Russell Clark testified that he and his wife had been chicken farmers since 1993, and also raised cattle,” the court documents reflect. “The poultry operation ceased two years ago when OK Foods terminated their contracts, as well as those of other farmers in their area. Clark believes that OK Foods supplied them with infected chickens; OK Foods blamed the farmers for the poor condition of the chickens.
“Debtors are also in the commercial fishing business, with operations in Alaska since 2002. They do not intend to resume poultry or cattle operations, but intend to focus on salmon fishing in Alaska. They wish to keep enough property in Oklahoma to live on during the off season, and to sell the rest of their property to pay their debts.”
OK Foods is a major chicken producer with a processing plant in Heavener. It depends on contract farmers to supply the chickens. The claims of infected chickens could not be verified, but it is clear from the court documents the Clarks hit a rough patch and were selling off a lot of their property to pay their debts.
They were apparently looking at Cook Inlet as their fallback plan.
“They own real estate in Alaska, including a home in Kenai where they live during fishing season valued at $75,000, and a one-room cabin and five acres valued at $27,000,” the bankruptcy court reported.
“Debtors have two lifetime commercial salmon fishing permits issued by the state of Alaska. Each permit allows them to have two leases annually. They estimate the value of their four salmon fishing leases at $68,000. They move to Alaska in late May for salmon fishing season and return to Oklahoma in October.
‘They each fish in different locations in Cook Inlet, have four boats and four to six employees. They provided past and future forecasts for salmon fishing published by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The 2019 forecasts are for a higher than average harvest.
“…Currently, they have no income but anticipate selling real estate and having an increase in income from fishing operations based upon the favorable projections for the 2019 season. Russell also proposes to work on a stone crab fishing crew in Florida during the winter months. He estimated his income from that endeavor to be $ 1,500 to $ 2,000 per week less weekly expenses of $400.
“Bonnie Hackler, trial attorney for the U.S. Trustee, stated that her office has concerns regarding Debtors’ income and ability to manage the duties of a debtor in possession in a Chapter 11. Debtors’ income has steadily declined since 2016. Their net profit from the fishing operation in 2017 was $ 20,165. Figures for 2018 were not finalized but at present there is no income stream.”
Bad to worse
The year 2019 was better, but not all that much. It came in at 37 percent below the 10-year average, according to the state.
Then came the pandemic, and the worst season of all with both salmon returns and prices collapsing.
“The commercial harvest of approximately 1.2 million salmon was 65 percent less than the recent 10-year average harvest of 3.2 million fish,” the state reported. “The estimated exvessel value of the 2020 harvest of all salmon species is approximately $5.2 million, the worst exvessel value on record, and roughly 81 percet less than the previous 10-year average annual exvessel value of $27.0 million.”
Clark has every right to be angry about all of this. He looks to be a man cursed, but it’s not the fault of state regulators trying to maintain a troubled Kenai Chinook run or of dipnetters, anglers or Kenai River guides.
If anyone is to blame, it is Clark’s fellow setnetters who had decades to fix a bycatch problem that has been well known and much debated since the 1980s. But they chose to close their eyes and pretend there was no problem.
To some degree, he was merely echoing what some if not most setnetters believed for decades. And thus they went on catching, killing and selling Chinook in the foolish belief that there would always be a big enough surplus to allow the sockeye fishery to continue with its bycatch.
Or that they could apply enough political pressure on state fishery managers to force them to avoid closures intended solely to put more kings in the river.
As a result, when they really, really needed a tool to fish sockeye without catching kings, or at least catch sockeye with catching as few kings as possible, they didn’t have it.
If anything, Clark is a victim of this ignorant unwillingness to recognize and face the very predictable problems of mixed-stock salmon fisheries everywhere.
But it is always easier to point the finger of blame at someone other than your own.