Alaska is an amazing place — we have come a long way since statehood. But success has made many of us complacent. For years, our leaders have ignored deeply entrenched structural problems that threaten our future. The Governor and Legislature recognize that we can no longer afford business as usual. While they may not agree on solutions to the state fiscal crisis, they are actively challenging the status quo, charting a new path to help the next generation of Alaskans achieve the prosperity that my generation has enjoyed.
The western Alaska Community Development Quota Program, often referred to simply as “CDQ,” faces the same dilemma. It was created in 1992 to help people living on the coast of Western Alaska participate in the world’s most productive fishery. It allocates portions of Bering Sea fishing quotas to six organizations, called CDQ groups. These groups use the money generated by the quotas to develop diversified economies in 65 communities that are home to over 26,000 people.
On the surface, the CDQ program appears to have achieved tremendous results. In the 25 years since it began, the CDQ groups have accumulated over $1 billion in assets, and some have emerged as major players in the international seafood market. This growth, however, is simply a means to an end. The ultimate goal is to leverage the public resource of the Bering Sea to promote economic development and alleviate poverty in coastal western Alaska without relying on government funding.
Although hundreds of millions of dollars have been expended on economic development and benefit distribution, the people living in CDQ communities have not benefitted equally. The CDQ communities have experienced major population changes, but fishing quota allocations have remained relatively stagnant, causing significant inequities.
Some CDQ communities have experienced dramatic population losses. Larry Cotter, CEO of Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association (“APICDA”), acknowledged that fact. He recently told the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference, “Today’s reality is substantially different in most communities from the 1990s. Populations are declining. Schools are in danger of closing at Atka and St. George. No year-round economy exists.”
Other CDQ communities are growing. As Chairman of Coastal Villages Region Fund (“CVRF”), the CDQ group for communities from Scammon Bay to Platinum, and as an individual living in Napakiak, I can attest to the fact that, although CVRF communities have the same if not more economic problems as APICDA’s, we are faced with a much different reality. My region is growing. We are the largest CDQ group, larger than four of the other CDQ groups combined. We serve over 9,200 people. We are vibrant. We love where we live, and we easily fill up our schools. I am optimistic about the future, and I want to firmly clarify the reality for our region: Our population is growing. We have 11 communities that are each bigger than all of APICDA combined. Although we are in the poorest region in the state and perhaps the country, we are enthusiastic about our opportunities for developing our economic base. We are learning to take charge of our economic destiny.
For political reasons, fishing quota allocations have not been adjusted to match these population shifts. That failure has created staggering and simply unacceptable imbalances in the capacity of CDQ groups to deliver benefits. For example, APICDA serves just over 400 of the more than 26,000 people in the CDQ communities. Although APICDA’s communities have a much lower average poverty rate than all but one of the other CDQ groups, from 2007 to 2015 APICDA received so much fish per capita that it was able to deliver over 13 times more in benefits per person to its communities than the other five groups combined.
This is a deep structural problem that threatens the long-term sustainability of the CDQ program. The current system discriminates against the majority of the population it is supposed to serve. A foundation of equality must be established. The CDQ program has great potential to help the Alaskans it serves toward a prosperous future, but only if it is fixed to share the public resource of the Bering Sea evenly between all residents of the CDQ communities.
My organization and the communities we serve are fighting for that equality. CVRF and the CDQ program cannot solve the state’s fiscal problems, but rebalancing the allocations to share the fish fairly will go a long way toward helping the people of CDQ communities achieve economic independence.
Congress will soon begin work on reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which regulates the CDQ program. On behalf of my fellow residents, I look forward to working with Congress to fix the CDQ program and spread its benefits fairly and evenly across the CDQ region.
• Richard Jung serves as Coastal Villages Region Fund’s Chairman and represents the village of Napakiak on its Board of Directors. He resides in Napakiak.