ANCHORAGE - Looking for ways to revive Alaska's ailing salmon industry, the state Board of Fisheries approved a dramatic change in the way one of the state's major salmon fisheries operates.
The board unanimously approved a plan Monday to allow fishermen in the Chignik sockeye fishery to form a cooperative to combine their efforts and save expenses.
It means potentially dozens of fishermen who hold state fishing permits for the Chignik area along the Alaska Peninsula can park their boats and let other vessels catch the fish. At the end of the season, the idle fishermen will be paid for their shares of the value of the fish.
If the plan works in Chignik, it might be considered in other state salmon fisheries.
Supporters of the Chignik plan call it a vital step to cut the industry's high costs and better compete with a flood of cheap salmon from foreign fish farms. The supporters spent a week at the Anchorage Marriott Downtown, battling other Chignik fishermen who felt the plan will treat them unfairly.
Jamie Ross, a Homer fishermen who campaigned for the plan, was jubilant. He and other supporters jumped to their feet when the board confirmed the plan about 9 p.m., after a 13-hour day of haggling.
"This is a milestone," he said. "This is absolute history."
"I just lost my job," said fisherman Jason Alexander, who lives in Seattle and who has fished at Chignik for 30 years. He said the plan won't allow him to catch nearly the same number of fish he's caught in the past.
The plan involves splitting the fishery into two shares. The larger share would go to a group of perhaps 70 fishermen who want to idle some of their boats and join forces to harvest their fish with only about 15 boats, thus saving major expenses. Another 30 boats would get the remaining smaller share and would continue to fish the traditional way, by competing with one another.
The boats in this second group are likely to be the "highliners," or boats that traditionally have caught more fish than average. They are upset that perhaps 70 percent of the fish might be off limits to them, reserved for average and below-average performers.
The plan faces many potential legal pitfalls, said Lance Nelson, an assistant attorney general. In particular, it's not clear whether the board has authority to make separate allocations to the two groups, which both use the same type of seine nets and whose state permits generally should guarantee each fisherman equal access to the fish under state law.
The co-op plan applies only to the Chignik fishery, not to other major salmon fisheries around the state such as Bristol Bay or the Copper River.