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.

And the same for the catches of Cheyne Blough, who is leading the protest demanding processors increase what they’re paying for Bay salmon and provide more transparency as to how they set prices.

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.








17 replies »

  1. Just curious as to how many of these commercial fishers are actually truely full time Alaskans.

  2. Let me get this straight, your position is that individual people because they are commercial fishermen should have to disclose their earnings publicly. Their gross? Their net? How about just take it a step further and require their entire tax return be made public complexities and all. How about if bloggers have to disclose their earnings? Or let’s say the grocery store clerk or the chiropractor, the physician, the dentist? Oh how about the Alaska sport fishing guides that live in Idaho, Colorado, CA etc., do you want them to disclose their personal income? I’d love to know what heli-ski operators earn, or sport fishing lodges all across the state, I bet they’re all making BANK. This is a ridiculous assertion unless ALL ALASKANS are then required to publicly disclose their income. What a stupid thing to advocate for but let’s see YOU lead the way Craig.

    • That isn’t what was written, Marcella. And I don’t expect it. But when people make money off an Alaska resource, the Alaska public ought to be able to find out how much of that resource they are taking.

      Bloggers, grocery store clerks, chiropractors, physicians, dentists, etc., etc. aren’t taking common-property resources. As for fishing guides, their logbooks on how much fish their clients are harvesting should be as public a commercial fish tickets, although the guides aren’t really killing any fish but providing a taxi service.

      As for hunting guides, the information is pretty much out there already if you want to look. They all brag about their success rates, and how many clients they are allowed to take every year is public information. It isn’t hard to take the two and figure out their harvest numbers.

      Heli-ski operators are also using a public resource. They pay fees for that use. That information is public. We can debate whehter the fees are too high or too low if you want, but how much should the fee be to use some place no one else goes to or cares about in winter when it’s covered in snow. I admit I don’t know.

      • The info is out there Craig. If you research, you can find average gross earnings for each commercial salmon fishery. It does not narrow it down to individual earnings, nor, at least in my opinion should it.

      • I’m well aware of what’s out there in terms of public records. And your opinion is the one I would expect from a commercial fisherman.

        That doesn’t change the fact that fish are a common property resource belonging to all Alaskans, and they damn well ought to be able to find out how much money individual businesses are making by killing the fish that belong to them. A lot of these “fishermen” are, in fact, “corporations” you can look up on the Dun & Bradstreet website, where you can find a rough estimate of how much they are making by taking an Alaska common-property resource.

        How accurate those reports? Who knows.

        Anchorage’s Leonard Herzog, a Bristol Bay permit holder, is on the Dun and Bradstreet list DBA Diamond Seafoods Inc. and reporting $280,000 per year in earnings, but most of those on the fishery list are reporting $100,000 or less.

        How do they arrive at that $100,000? Impossible to tell. But I’m sure you know better than me the many ways commercial fishermen manipulate the costs of doing business to minimize net income reported to the IRS. And frankly, how any individual does his or her taxes to avoid paying the least in income tax is a private matter that should remain between the individual and the IRS.

        That doesn’t change the fact the average Alaskan shouldn’t be able to find out how many fish – a common-property resource belonging to all Alaskans, to repeat – these companies are killing.

        Exactly why shouldn’t Alaskans be able to find out just how many fish these companies pull from beneath the waters of Bristol Bay in the same way Alaskans can find out how many barrels of oil ConocoPhillips pulls from beneath the ground on the North Slope?

        Or, simply put, what makes commercial fishing businesses so special that they, unlike other business, don’t have to tell Alaskans how much of a public resource they’re benefitting from taking for their own profit?

      • It’s easy to find out how much of the state resource, in this case salmon, you are referring to is taken by commercial fishermen. All commercial harvest is reported within hours of take to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. You are fully aware of this. Every commercial fish taken is reported and tracked by ADFG. Still trying to understand why you think you and others are entitled to know the exact earnings of individual fishermen?

        There are users that take from this resource though that are not obligated to report their take and received a VOLUNTARY survey months after that season closes. If they do not report their take via that survey there are no consequences and they live to fish another day so to speak. If your concern is tracking the harvest of state resources this is the take that should be of concern rather than a harvest that is reported literally within hours of take – no other state resource is tracked to the degree of commercially harvest fish. You are simply trying to vilify and villanize commercial fishermen as always.

        You say that heli-ski operators are exempt from your financial witch hunt because they pay fees to use the resource. You know that commercial fishermen pay used fees too. Annual license renewals based on the value that CFEC places on the limited entry permit they hold.

        So you’re saying that commercial fishermen and not sport guides should have to disclose their earnings publicly. Not oil field workers, not mining workers, not timber workers, (MANY of whom are out of state residents)? Those folks all take state resources. What’s transparent here, again, is your disdain for your fellow Alaskans, because of their line of work, hard working folks just like everyone else trying to feed their families, buy homes, buy vehicles, put braces on their kids teeth, pay team fees for them to play hockey, and contribute to their communities at large and keep the economy of the state chugging along. Oh and by the way, they provide the best protein in the world for other folks to eat and be nourished by. Next time you order seafood from a restaurant menu remember who provided that resource to your favorite restaurant.

      • Marcella: Can you read? To repeat, there was never any reference to anyone disclosing “their earnings publicly.” It’s about businesses – and that’s what commercial fishing operations are – disclosing how much of a state resource they take. Every other business actually taking a state resource does that.

        This isn’t about villifying anyone. It’s about the public right to know whose benefitting and how much from the extraction of a public resource. Mining is mining, and all fishermen really do is mine the sea.

        Heli-ski operators aren’t taking anything. They’re using it, which is different. But they still pay to use it.

        Were they to also start mining – saying removing a mountainside to sell for gravel instead of skiing down it – how much they were taking would automatically be public knowledge. Fishermen are the the only businesses exempted from reporting how much “they” “take.”

        So why is it you think they deserve special treatment? Do you think commerial fishermen the only Alaskans who are “hard working folks just like everyone else trying to feed their families, buy homes, buy vehicles, put braces on their kids teeth, pay team fees for them to play hockey, and contribute to their communities at large and keep the economy of the state chugging along?”

        P.S. I never order Alaska seasofood from a restaurant menu. I learned long ago the quality was often substantially inferior to the salmon I catch and process myself. Not all commercial fishermen pay attention to quality control, although standards have improved hugely since the 1970s. Hugely might even be an understatement.

      • Sorry, Craig. But you are wrong. I am a retired registered hunting guide . In 40 years of guiding, no one knew my “reported” income other than my accountant and the I.R.S. Tough for you to admit, but even armchair experts got to admit they are wrong once in a while.

      • Gunner: Please don’t play games with me. I know you were a registered guide. You also hold a 2023 SO3H state fishing permit that allows for drift gillnetting in Cook Inlet. I don’t know if you are fishing it this year or not, but your involvement in that fishery goes back to the 1980s.

        Disingenuous comments like you’ve made here do nothing but undermine the credibility of Alaska commercial fishermen in general. Stop it.

        P.S. I agree with you on the .375H&H. I have one two with a short barrel and peep sights. Great bear stopper.

  3. The only things sure in life are: death, taxes, and the fact that craig and alaskans first will never pass up an opportunity to beat up on commercial salmon fishers. I too am concerned about the transfer of permits to nonresidents of Alaska. But to constantly berate my industry gets a little tiring. No feeling of entitlement here. I borrowed money to purchase my permit and boat, and work hard from april to september with gear preparation and repair. I have never received 1 red cent of disaster money, unless you count the exxon valdez settlement. With the lack of work ethic that is prevalent today, hard working commercial fishers should be respected, rather than bashed.

    • Thanks for weighing in. Maybe you can help with a question. Why is it commerical fishermen demanding transparency take the suggesiton the suggest they should be transparent about their catches as the “industry” being “bashed?” Are the oil, mining, timber and other Alaska industries dependent on Alaska resources being “bashed” by requirement they report their earnings on said resources?

      And do you think commercial fishermen are the only Alaskans (or non-Alaskans harvesting Alaska fish) the only people in the state working hard “from April to September.” I’ve actually met a few who work hard from January to December and don’t make much money.

    • Gunner, what facts , other than my opinions that Bay permit holders feel entitled and that they are their own worst enemy, is inaccurate in my comment?

      No beating up on commercial fishers in my comment. They beat themselves up all by themselves by making bad choices. I simply recited well known facts. You could not get five out of ten fishermen to kill a rat in a tub. How could they ever stand up against a processor who knows their efforts will collapse with so many breaking ranks.
      Some may even agree with my opinions! btw.
      More importantly Gunner, do you have any ideas or solutions to offer the BB permit holders.

      • Yes I do have an idea ak first. I would suggest that instead of focusing on c volume of poundage, try focusing on quality. Most b.bay vessels are equipped with rsw or slush iced holds,but you still see them coming in deckloaded.

      • Gunner: so is the decision to deck load instead of more carefully handling the salmon just one more self inflicted injury because of bad choices?

    • Gunner. It is difficult to consider that there may be any credibility in what you say about articles Medred publishes because of how it is always influenced by your antipathy for him. Here is what you had to say about Craig on Sept 7, 2016 in a comment to “Medred” published on “ Fisheries Management Alaska Outdoors Forum”.

      “While extremely interested in cook inlet salmon issues, I won’t waste my time reading any garbage written by medred. He spews b.s. like a pathological liar. Probably why the dispatch had to show him the door”.

      “Pathological liar”? Won’t “waste” your time reading Medred? Really, Gunner?

  4. It’s hard to feel sorry for BB permit holders. Not only do they have a competitive edge because of limited entry they also feel entitled to the resource at a price they seem fair. . When in fact all they have been given is the right to fish. They were never promised they would catch any particular number or how much they would be paid for the fish they caught. Yet hey invest great sums of of money on monster sized 32’ boats, large crews, maintenance; improvements, insurance, fuel, storage, etc. and then cry foul when they don’t get paid what “they” think is fair.

    They are their own worse enemy. They have time and again proven that they are unable to organize themselves into a bargaining unit that could meaningfully negotiate with the buyers. And when they tried striking many of those who cried about the low prices were the first ones that crossed over and fished anyway.

    They don’t have to fish not knowing what they will be paid. But they do. All their decisions are their choices. Sure, they have debt services on their expensive capital investments. But they knew the rules and it was their choices.
    Their feeling of entitlement is wrong . And it is difficult to have sympathy for them. Particularly when you consider the money made by some who complain the most.

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