Fish Traps and the federal judge

Posted: Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Here's a history lesson. Which state constitution in the more-than-200-year record of the United States had, as an integral feature, a provision banning the use of large industrial style fish traps? The answer is Alaska.

Courtesy Of Alaska State Library Historical Collections
Courtesy Of Alaska State Library Historical Collections

Nothing aroused the ire of the citizens of Alaska in territorial days, pre-1959, so much as the continued use of the fish trap. It was usually constructed of logs and netting. A lead line might extend a thousand feet or more so that when the salmon hit they were guided into the trap. These devices were owned by large canneries, whose headquarters were in Seattle or California. The seiners and gill netters and other common citizens of Alaska hated these traps, because they took the bread out of the mouths of our people.

The fish trap was perpetuated by regulation from Washington D.C. and rulings from the federal courts. Often the federal administrators of Alaska's fisheries, in pre-statehood days, were subject to political influence and even, in my opinion, at times to corruptive bias.

That was why when statehood came and Alaska gained control of the fisheries the fish trap was banned. The successful propagation of the salmon became the first order of business without toleration of political pressure from anyone, either from the canned salmon owners or other processors or from the fishermen themselves. Sound biological study and fearless regulation became the order of the day, under the supervision of a professional staff of employees of the

Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

This began a record of accomplishment which is the envy of the rest of the United States and the world. Today, over a hundred million salmon are caught each year.

Look at the record in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California and the eastern coast of the United States, with their depleted marine resources, to see the reverse side of the coin, where politics and politicians and special interests are allowed to intrude.

That is what is so pernicious about the recent halibut ruling, regarding charter boat allocation. It is like a knife in the back when a federal judge, located in Washington, D.C., who knows absolutely nothing about the fisheries, upsets a harvest allocation that scientists have determined as necessary.

At the constitutional convention the delegates approved the following language, which became law when endorsed by a vote of the people at the effective date of the constitution:

"As a matter of immediate public necessity, to relieve economic distress among individual fishermen and those dependent upon them for a livelihood, to conserve the rapidly dwindling supply of salmon in Alaska, to insure fair competition among those engaged in commercial fishing, and to make manifest the will of the people of Alaska, the use of fish traps for the taking of salmon for commercial purposes is hereby prohibited in all the coastal waters of the State."

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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