Salmon fishermen reconsider taboos to save way of life

Proposals include fish traps, public buyouts, cooperation

Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2002

ANCHORAGE - With the value of their catches plunging, commercial salmon fishermen are beginning to embrace once-taboo ideas to save their livelihoods.

They include a return to fish traps, a hated symbol of corporate and ecological abuse banned when Alaska became a state in 1959. Other ideas include a public buyout of state fishing permits and a shift from competition to cooperation among fishermen in some areas of the state.

All the ideas face legal or other impediments, not the least of which is the long tradition of bitter squabbling among fishermen, seafood packers and regions.

But fishermen, regulators, economists and others at a workshop Monday and Tuesday at the University of Alaska Anchorage said industry reform is vital to keep fishermen and coastal communities alive.

The industry has two main problems. First, Alaska's still-abundant wild salmon have lost their dominance in world markets during the last decade because of a huge rise in farmed salmon, chiefly from Chile.

The second problem is inefficiency. In most of the commercial salmon fisheries from Ketchikan to Kotzebue, too many fishermen have boats and permits. In better times in the late 1980s and early 1990s, all these fishermen thrived. But now salmon prices are too weak to sustain everybody, and many are struggling against rising debt.

"The value of salmon has dropped 50 percent in the last two years," said Tom Gemmell, executive director of the Juneau-based trade association United Fishermen of Alaska. "That's a pretty good drop in anybody's paycheck."

In fact, total dockside salmon value has plunged by 82 percent since 1988, from $782 million to $141 million this year, according to the Department of Fish and Game.

At Nelson Lagoon, a small fishery in the shadow of the state's most valuable harvest at Bristol Bay, fishermen could catch their sockeye with a lot less trouble and expense by erecting a trap, or sea corral, said Brian Hartman, an Anchorage resident who fishes commercially at the lagoon.

Such traps were once highly efficient salmon catchers. With a trap, fishermen could dock their expensive boats and form a cooperative to split up operating costs and profits, Hartman said.

Hartman said he recently burned up 2,000 minutes on long-distance calling cards talking to legislators, but none committed to the idea. He said he knows he faces a tough fight because the Alaska Constitution forbids fish traps. To remove the ban, the Legislature would have to authorize a statewide vote.

Salmon traps, typically made of pilings and wire mesh and placed in salmon migration paths, usually were owned by canneries and negated the need for many fishermen. When leading Alaska politicians such as Ernest Gruening campaigned for statehood in the 1950s, they condemned federal tolerance of the use of traps to decimate salmon runs.

Many fishermen remain leery of traps. But with salmon economics in such poor shape, some in the industry are beginning to warm to the idea as long as fishermen could control them.

Terry Johnson, an agent with the university's Marine Advisory Program, noted traps are still widely used in other salmon-producing countries such as Russia and Japan.

Frank Charles of Bethel outlined plans to convert the troubled Kuskokwim River fishery from a competitive fishery to a cooperative. Fishermen who have battled one another for decades would join forces to catch fish with far fewer boats and divide the proceeds among more than 700 permit holders.

It would mean a sad exit from the fishing way of life for some people, Charles said. But Kusko fishermen are exasperated. This year permit holders netted only about $400 apiece from their mainstay silver salmon fishery, he said.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries authorized such a co-op for fishermen at Chignik last year, and has agreed to consider the Kuskokwim idea in the spring.

The Legislature in January expects to receive a plan for reforming the state's commercial salmon fisheries from a House-Senate task force that's been meeting since summer.

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