The woman who filled the roll of “fisheries reporter” for Alaska’s largest newspaper for years has retired with an admission of what was obvious to fishery-educated readers a long-time ago:
She was a propagandist for the state’s commercial fishing industry.
“The goal always has been to make readers aware of the seafood industry’s economic, social and cultural importance to all Alaskans,” Laine Welch wrote in her farewell column.
That would the “commercial” seafood industry which has regularly been in conflict with the tourism fishing industry, which delivers more value per pound of fish; some state “personal use fisheries” that help to provide food security for tens of thousands of Alaskans, many of them with low incomes; and the subsistence seafood economy.
Most Alaskans think of subsistence as simply “living off the land,” but anthropologists have long defined it as a “socioeconomic system” wherein wild resources take the place of money.
As a propagandist, Welch ignored the conflicts that naturally arise between these various interests competing for slices of the limited supply of Alaska fish, or portrayed the commercial fishing industry as the victim of greedy’ sport, personal-use or subsistence interests.
It is hard to imagine a much bigger misrepresentation of the factual situation. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, commercial fishing interests net 98.2 percent of all wild resources harvested in the state – both fish and wildlife.
Of the remaining 1.8 percent, 61 percent goes to subsistence which legally has a resource-harvest priority in the state, but usually only sees that priority applied in any meaningful way to the harvest of wildlife.
Alaska personal use fishermen, Alaska hunters abd Alaska anglers, plus non-resident hunters and fishermen all combined harvest 0.7 percent of the resource with tourists, primarily anglers who help support a thriving tourism business, taking the biggest share of that at 0.3 percent.
There are, of course, regional differences. The percentage harvest by personal-use fishermen and anglers in Cook Inlet, the finger of the Gulf of Alaska that laps at the shores of Alaska’s largest city, is closer to 20 percent than 2 percent.
Most of this 20 percent of the harvest – whether the fish are caught in the Inlet, in the streams of the Kenai Peninsula or in the creeks and rivers of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley – goes to support a tourism and recreational fishing industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars that competes directly with a commercial fishing industry limited to 1,386 permit.
A necessary business
Those permits are in the hands of fewer than 1,300 people (some commercial fishermen hold mulitple permits), who annually split the profits on the 80 percent lion’s share of the Inlet catch and often rightfully so.
Salmon return to the Inlet by the millions each year. The sport, personal-use dipnet and subsistence fisheries don’t begin to have the fishing power to capture the number of fish surplus to scientifically determined spawning needs.
The commercial fishery thus plays a vital role in the management of Inlet salmon, but there is a delicate balance. Small percentage shifts in where and when the commercial fishery catches salmon can have huge impacts on the quality of fishing in the streams and rivers that drain into the Inlet, and it is in those streams and rivers that most sport, personal-use and subsistence fishing takes place.
Welch long ignored the inherent conflicts between commercial fishing, tourism and individual Alaska fishermen to sing the praises of the commercial fishing business or, as she put it, “make readers aware of the seafood industry’s economic, social and cultural importance to all Alaskans.”
Imagine the ADN fronting an oil and gas reporter who had a goal of making “readers aware of the oil industry’s economic, social and cultural importance to all Alaskans.” And there are plenty of good things that could be written about the oil industry.
It provided the seed money the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation used to build a state savings account now valued at $80.6 billion. Though not the economic powerhouse it once was, the industry still accounts for about a quarter of all wages and salaries in the state. On the social front, it has been and remains the biggest, private supporter of the state’s many nonprofit social service organizations.
One could easily devote a lot of ink to singing the praises of the oil industry, but the ADN, to its credit, has not done that becuase there are both costs and benefits to any industry on the environmental, economic, social and cultural fronts. Thus the state’s largest news organiztion would never think of using an oil-industry propagandist as its “oil and gas reporter.”
And yet it did this with the fishing business for years.
When first called out on the issue, the newspaper’s big solution was to stop identifying Welch as an “independent journalist” in favor of identifying her as “a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist” and later as the author of “Fish Factor, a weekly roundup of news and opinion about Alaska’s commercial fishing industry.”
This was a creep toward the truth that never quite got there. ADN readers actually had to go visit the Fish Factor website at AlaskaFishRadio.com and look at the sponsors and advertisers there to discover Welch was wholly funded by the commercial fishing industry.
When once asked to explain how a reputable news organization could cover the complicated and multifacted world of Alaska fisheries in this way, ADN editor David Hulen explained that it was because fisheries coverage was just “too complicated” for anyone on his staff to untangle.
He conceded the newspaper should probably put a reporter on that beat to figure out how the state’s fisheries work and to objectively monitor the state’s regular “fish wars,” but that never happened.
That Welch provided her “news” for free to the ADN probably had a lot to do with this, though it is hard to imagine the newspaper running an “Oil Factor” report funded by the oil industry to spread oil industry propaganda.
Were this the end of a sad tale of journalist ethics gone down the toilet, this commentary would be bad enough, but this is not the end.
All the things wrong
The end was written by Welch herself who, after admitting to her years of propagandizing for the fishing industry, went on to outline the many ways in which Alaska has suffered at its hands.
Honest to God, to quote the former humor columnist Dave Barry, “I am not making this up.”
Here’s Welch excerpted:
- “I hope that Alaska can find ways to keep more of its fishing revenues in the state,” she observed, noting that 78 percent of the $718 million (or $560 million) made on the harvest of pollock and other groundfish caught off Alaska’s coast goes into the pockets of out-of-state fishing interests.
- “Fifty-two Alaskans own 31 percent of the snow crab quota share pool; 200 nonresidents own 66 percent. Forty-nine Alaskans own 28 percent of the Bristol Bay red king crab quota; 181 nonresidents own 70 percent,” she wrote. The crab fisheries are, pound for pound, the state’s most valuable commercial fisheries.
- “I hope that more salmon permits remain in Alaskan hands…residents of Bristol Bay communities, for example, now hold less than one-quarter of the region’s salmon permits. And more than 60 percent of gross earnings from the bay’s driftnet fishery leave the state,” she said.
- “My wish is to see more of every Alaska fish fully utilized. Nearly all other protein industries around the world use animals ‘from the rooter to the tooter.’ But in Alaska, the fish skins, heads, organs, shells and undervalued species like sculpin or arrowtooth flounder are mostly discarded or ground up and dumped,” she reported. No Alaska agency reports how much of the seafood harvest is dumped as post-processing waste in this state each year, but the McDowell Group, a consultancy, presented these figures in a 2017 report: “In 2015, Alaska harvesters caught 2,740 thousand metric tons of (round-weight) seafood. Not including meal/oil, Alaska processors sold 1,300 thousand metric tons, a yield of 47.5 percent. Alaska meal/oil operations utilized an estimated 395,000 to 483,000 round metric tons, or 14 to 18 percent of the total harvest volume (in round terms).” Those numbers would indicate somewhere between 35 percent to 38 percent of Alaska seafood is still being wasted in processing. U.S. researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and the University of Florida report that in Norwegian there is “almost zero waste occurring at the processors. The silage, that is, fish heads, guts, trimmings and ‘floor fish,’ is used to make fish meal, pet food, fish oil or another byproduct.” Alaska processors are improving their use of waste but still lag.
- “I believe Alaska is getting left behind in terms of patented or trademarked ‘intellectual properties’ stemming from things like bioengineering, advanced analytics, decarbonized vessels, robotics and other high-tech industry advances seen in other states and nations,” Welch wrote. Given the state’s salmon processors have invested little in the research that drives this sort of work, this is no surpise. The comment does, however, make one wonder exaclty how clueless Welch might be as to how the world of R&D works.
- She did, however, note the technological progress elsewhere and how “the robot makers believe the system will help solve workforce problems in remote processing plants where it’s tough to recruit enough workers.” She makes no observation on what this will mean for the rural communities near those plants which are now supported on a year-round basis by the neednto maintain facilities to house and feed the large, annual influx of non-resident workers. Replacing that work force with robots will have a ripple effect on those communities.
But never mind writing about that. There’s propaganda work to be done.
As Welch observed in closing out her ADN “reporting,” it has been a privilege to be a voice for Alaska’s seafood industry, and I will continue to be.” She’s already got a blog up and running.
Everyone should wish her luck. At least now she’s being honest and not claiming to be some “independent journalist” dong what journalists are supposed to try to do: Explain what is happening, identify who is benefitting and where and when, and – in the best case – try to get some handle on why.
It’s the old 5Ws – who, what, where, when and why.
Propagandists are lucky that they can ignore them becuase they’re not journalists. They are sales people, and Welch has been doing a good job of selling Alaska’s a line for decades.