General proposition: We are seafarers and fishermen

Posted: Friday, September 30, 2005

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

The sights and smells of the waterfront seem to be bred in our bones if you live in Alaska. Of course, there are a few farmers in the Matanuska Valley and around Fairbanks, and the Empire pointed out a week or two ago that there is a local corn producer. Even my friend Ralph Swap planted a small garden this spring in my yard, and I'm still digging potatoes and cutting stalks of lettuce. The peas, beets, carrots and onions were sure good.

But the general proposition is that we are all seafarers and fishermen.

This is a busy time in the care and regulation of our fisheries. I went up to the office of the United Fishermen of Alaska, where Mark Vinsel is the director, to ask a few questions. The UFA is an organization of 31 member groups.

I learned that it can be complicated at times to separate the various regulatory jurisdictions. The Alaska Department of Fish basically runs the salmon business and the other in-shore marine resources, out to the three mile limit.

From there out to the 200 mile limit, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council runs things, mostly concerning the bottom fisheries like cod and pollock. We're lucky because most of the members of the council are Alaskans and dedicated, like the people working for the Alaska Department of Fish, to protect the stocks of fish and crab on a sustained basis backed by sound scientific study.

Halibut is managed a little differently because the regulation is under the control of an international commission established by treaty between the United States and Canada. In Alaska the shares allocated to the fishermen are overseen by the Federal Marine Fisheries Service. There is an argument brewing because the charter boats, particularly around Sitka, are taking a rising percentage of the halibut catch.

Also, the federal government has a voice in allocating the subsistence fish to Alaskans living in rural area. The state lost this right to serve its own people, by the refusal to agree to the federal demand that rural residents had a subsistence preference under law. I think this is mainly the fault of the Alaska politicians who refused to put the question to a vote of the people.

Alaskans have always been scared, though, of regulation that comes from Washington D.C. or Seattle instead of from managers living here in Alaska. This goes back to our early history.

For years the federal government and judiciary condoned a system of permitting fish to be caught by large industrial devices called fish traps that were owned by canneries headquartered mainly in Seattle. This practice was repugnant to most Alaskans and outlawed under the state constitution in 1959.

You have to keep an eye on people trying to manage things who really don't know anything about what they're doing. One example is the draft of a bill prepared in Washington and reported in the Empire of Sept. 20 that would allow "fishermen a two-year grace period in which they could continue to harvest over-fished or depleted stocks."

This type of thinking is anathema to people working for the Alaska Department of Fish and the North Pacific Council and generally to all the people of Alaska. Alaskans have always believed that the protection of the fish comes first, before the welfare of the harvester or the processor. In the long run this has ensured the health of the fisheries and has made Alaska's regulation the envy of the rest of the United States and even of the world.

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

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