Bay commercial fishermen want transparency
Commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay were today protesting the low prices being paid for their catches of wild sockeye salmon this year and demanding the state to intervene to “make prices more transparent,” as the trade publication IntraFish put it.
Oh the hypocrisy
This is the same interest group that long ago convinced the Alaska Legislature to make them a special class of business interests with profits protected from the prying eyes of those members of the Alaska public who might want to know just how wealthy the state’s commercial fishermen have become by exploiting a common-property resource.
ConocoPhillips can’t keep this sort of information secret. Not only are its reports to the state on North Slope oil production public information, the company actually goes and puts the information online.
Much the same for Kinross Gold. How much of the valuable mineral it digs out of the ground at the Fort Knox mine is public information, which ends up actually getting reported in places.
How many salmon do the most successful Alaska commercial fishing businesses kill in Alaska? Private. Confidential. Secret. You’ll never know.
It’s the law.
The state is afraid Alaskans might use catch information to figure out how much some individual fishermen are making off the fish the state Constitution very specifically says belong to all Alaskans.
There is, of course, an exception to this belonging to everyone rule. Alaska voters in 1972 approved an amendment to the Constitution to prevent just anyone from throwing a net in the water to catch fish and make money.
Part of the reason for this was that commercial fishermen lobbied for restrictions to limit the number of Alaska fishermen so some could make a living off the fishery versus everyone picking up pocket change.
Part of the reason was so many Alaskans were starting to commercial fish that state fishery managers said it was becoming difficult to manage the fisheries to prevent overfishing.
So an overwhelming majority of Alaskans – 78.73 percent – in 1972 voted to amend the Constitution to give the state authority to establish a limited number of permits for each fishery.
The Limited Entry Act was approved by the Legislature the next year, and the state Commercial Fishery Entry Commission began determining how many permits should be allowed in 19 different salmon fisheries and who would get those permits.
A point system was set up that favored fishermen with long histories of participation in the various fisheries, and eventually the majority of the most experienced fishermen were issued permits which then became a nice, little, gift of private property from the state that they could buy or sell as they wished.
The law very specifically spelled out the fact that this “entry permit constitutes a use privilege that may be modified or revoked by the legislature without compensation,” but commercial fishermen have ever since considered it an entitlement.
And there has been a lot of buying and selling of permits over the years by older fishermen wanting to fund retirement or villagers deciding they needed cash.
Partly for these reasons, and partly because the limited entry system and better salmon management made the harvest of salmon more profitable over the years, about 62 percent of the most valuable permits in the Bay – those that allowed for drift gillnetting in Bristol Bay – moved out of the Bay.
A fishery takeover
Today, more nonresidents – 745 – own Bristol Bay drift permits than do local residents – 712. Another 418 drift permits are spread among Alaskans living outside of the Bay, according to a November 2022 report prepared by the commission.
Though the permits were originally supposed to be limited to one-per-fishermen, that law was later amended, and 30 percent of the fishermen now own two permits, according to the same state study.
The most successful of these fishermen live either Outside or somewhere in Alaska other than the Bay. The Anchorage Metropolitan Area, home to the majority of Alaskans because of the urban amenities it offers, is the place to which a fair number of the in-staters have moved.
The state report says that the dual-permit-owning, nonlocal fishermen and non-resident Bay fishermen hauled in an average of more than $240,000 worth of sockeye in 2021, the last year detailed in the report, with the nonlocal take averaging $276,327 and the nonresident take $243,306.
How this money was divided between the lowest earners and the highest earners is a secret. How much money the most successful nonresident fisherman made off Bay salmon is also a secret.
So, too, just about everything else but those average earnings showing the fishermen from outside the Bay doing much better than those who live there.
The 2021 average for the local, dual-permit holder was $171,577 – more than $100,000 less than the earnings of a nonlocal. Earnings for single-permit locals fell to $98,647 on average.
Single permit holders from outside the Bay and Outside the state hauled in more than $130,000 each on average, with a $148,356 average for the nonlocals and a $130,171 average for nonresidents to be exact.
This pattern of nonresidents and nonlocals who visit the Bay for a couple of months each summer making more money off the Bay’s salmon than the people who live around the edges of the Bay has been going on for decades now, according to state data.
How much do the hi-liners among these outsiders make each year? Well, that’s an official state secret, too.
And how many of the “local” fishermen are actually Bay residents? Well, that’s an impossible-to-quantify question because the state has never tabulated fishermen claiming residency against fishermen claiming permanent fund dividends (PFDs).
The PFD sets stringent standards for the amount of time one can spend Outside and still remain certified as an “Alaskan.” State law makes the licensing standard for fisheries somewhat more lenient:
“Alaska Resident per AS 16.05.415(a): ‘resident’ means a person (including an alien) who is physically present in Alaska with the intent to remain indefinitely and make a home here, has maintained that person’s domicile in Alaska for the 12 consecutive months immediately preceding this application for a license, and is not claiming residency or obtaining benefits under a claim of residency in another state,” however.
“Per AS 16.05.415(b): A person who establishes residency in the state in accordance with the residency provision above remains a resident during an absence from the state unless during the absence the person (1) establishes or claims residency in another state, territory, or country; or (2) performs an act, or is absent under circumstances, that are inconsistent with the intent required under the residency provision above.”
So, basically, if someone owns more than one home and spends more time at the other home or homes than in Alaska, he or she can still claim to be an Alaska resident for fishing purposes as long as no such claim is made elsewhere.
How many people do this? Who knows? Possibly some fishermen who want to be able to vote to stop the Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay watershed?
Alaska residency requirements for voting are even more lenient than for fishing. You must “have been a resident of the state and of the election district that you seek to vote for at least 30 days before an election,” according to the state Division of Elections, and you must “have registered to vote on or before the registration deadline; and are not registered to vote in any other jurisdiction.”
But this is something of a minor issue given that the trendline for the Bay fishery shows the entry of ever more admitted non-residents. The “rate of new entrants,” according to the state, has tracked steadily upwards since the 1980s with the number of nonlocals generally steady, and the rate of Bay locals tracking steadily downward in parallel with the nonresidents tracking upward.
The shift in the shore-based, setnet fishery has generally tracked that of the drift fishery. Only about 34 percent of the 874 setnet permits are still held by locals, according to the state report. Thirty-seven percent are held by non-residents with nonlocals accounting for the remaining 29 percent.
As in the drift fishery, the average earnings of nonlocals and nonresidents significantly exceed those of locals. The 2021 averages were $61,801 for locals, $75,329 for nonlocals and $81,025 for nonresidents.
The earning differences could relate to the fact many of the nonresidents and nonlocals are better capitalized because along with fishing in the Bay for weeks each summer, they are involved in other fisheries or have good-paying jobs elsewhere.
A random sample
For instance, three of the four fishermen quoted by Dillingham public radio station KDLG in a Tuesday story about fishermen being “outraged” by low prices were nonresidents, and at least two of them appear to have decent jobs.
Leo Jennings from Touchet, Wash., bills himself as a commercial fisherman and hay farmer, and Logan Branstitter runs a successful tree service in Boise, Idaho, where there is considerable demand for arborists who can delicately remove large, old trees from among the houses in the older parts of that city.
The third non-resident was Tyone Raymond from Vashon Island, Wash., one of the nephews of the late Jon Rowley who helped create the legend of Copper River salmon as the best from Alaska. Rowley’s obit described him as “an influential marketer and restaurant consultant (who)helped make and shape Seattle’s reputation as a food destination while earning his own reputation as a culinary evangelist nationwide.” The Raymonds appear to have continued in that business.
How much Alaska salmon contribute to the cause is unknown. Again, it’s a state secret.
KDLG described Blough as a “Naknek fisherman,” but he’s not from Naknek. He’s really from Hoonah, a Southeast Alaska community to which he moved with his missionary father in 1985.
Robert McCheyne Blough has since fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a serious commercial fisherman in Alaska. Both he and his wife, Ronda, now hold Bay gillnet permits, and his wife and one of his sons hold permits to longline halibut, according to the Entry Commission.
Blough patriarch Ron Blough, now 90, eventually moved back to the states, but he had great adventures in Alaska and left a legacy in Hoonah, where son Cheyne started gillnetting in the Inside Passage before seizing the opportunity to get involved in one of Alaska’s most lucrative salmon fisheries where he appears to have built a very successful family fishing business.
How successful? Well, that’s another state secret because there is by law no transparency whatsoever as to how much those killing Alaska salmon for profit benefit by making a business of killing Alaska salmon.
But Blough was among a select group of about 265 Alaska commercial fishermen reported to have received $100,000 grants, the maximum allowable, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act during the pandemic. which would indicate that prior to this year’s sockeye price crash he was doing well.