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In halibut turf wars, no one's looking out for the little guy

Craig Medred

The time is well past for contemplating why the U.S. government would stick it to Alaska halibut fishermen least able to defend themselves, but that doesn't make the question moot.

Too long it has been ignored, and in that regard I am forced to contemplate the long-ago comments of an acquaintance highly placed in the hierarchy of the bureaucracy dictating the management of fisheries in the north Pacific Ocean. 

For reasons about to become obvious, this person will remain nameless. Suffice to say, however, that it was a member of a federal bureaucracy that is supposed to protect the interests of all Americans with the emphasis on "all."

Here I cannot help but think of the classic exchange of lines between Pfc. Louden Downey and Lance Cpl. Harold Dawson in  the movie "A Few Good Men:"

Downey: "What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong!"

Dawson: "Yeah we did. We were supposed to fight for people who couldn't fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willy."

This is what government officials of all stripes are supposed to do. Fight for Willy. Fight for the people who can't really fight for themselves, fight for equal treatment for the people on the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder -- not for the ones on the highest rung. 

And the folks on the lowest rung in what has become a long-running battle over Alaska halibut are Joe Sixpack and Susie Bagofdonuts, the bartender or barista who might go halibut fishing but once a year or once every two years or, for those visiting the north from Outside, maybe once in a lifetime.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have over the course of the past several years conspired to price these people out of the halibut fishery.

Hell, they've priced me out of the fishery. Halibut charters for next summer, judging from online booking prices, will start at $250 and go up. Given the sub-20-pound size of the average halibut these days, I couldn't justify paying $250 for a charter if the limit was two fish per day.

But it looks like the limit is likely to go to a fish and a half per day in Cook Inlet -- i.e., one halibut of any size and one halibut of starry-flounder-size or smaller. So you get a 20-pounder and a 10-pounder, which figures out to maybe 15 pounds of halibut after the fileting is done. 

Do the math. We're in the range of $17 per pound for that halibut. I'm not paying $17 per pound for any fish. End of story.

So how did we get to this point?

The answer to that is easy. We got here because the big, fat, oversized federal bureaucracy that is supposed to look out for the interests of everyone, and most especially the interests of the least powerful among us, didn't. 

When the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a group dominated by commercial fishing interests, moved to limit and reduce the number of charter boats in Alaska -- a move destined to reduce competition and thus drive up prices -- the bureaucrats who are supposed to watch out for the interests of all Americans didn't just sit silent, they cooperated in the slashing.

When the International Pacific Halibut Commission suggested that if restrictions were in order for Alaska recreational halibut anglers, those restrictions should apply to all Alaska halibut anglers -- charter or otherwise -- the bureaucrats who are supposed to watch out for the interests of all Americans said nothing. 

When the North Pacific Council subsequently suggested taking halibut away from the charter sector and giving it to the commercial sector to "share" the burden of conservation, the bureaucrats who are supposed to watch out for the interests of all Americans again did nothing. 

And that's where this story gets interesting.

Because that old, well-placed bureaucratic acquaintance of mine was among the minority of Alaskans who own an ocean-going boat, and this individual would regularly complain about how "something had to be done" -- "had to be done" -- about those halibut charters.

Why? 

Because this angler didn't like the competition. Because this angler thought charters were sometimes "fishing out" favorite halibut holes, and never mind that one commercial fisherman with an almost invisible skate of gear with its hundreds of hooks could do that quicker than a whole gang of halibut charters.

This issue of "localized depletion," as it is called, is a very real one in Alaska. Halibut move around a lot. No fishermen, commercial or sport, can actually fish them out, but heavy fishing can significantly reduce their numbers in local areas for a time.

This is why there should be commercial closures around the state's larger sport-fishing ports. But, of course, there aren't, because the management structure of the federal fisheries system is controlled by commercial fishing interests. I can live with that. I admire their ability to muster political power.

What is troubling, however, are those bureaucrats in cahoots with the commercial fishermen to protect their own selfish, personal interests. I don't know how many of these people there are in the system. But I know there was at least one, a very influential one, and the splitting of Alaska recreational halibut fishery into two groups has to make a reasonable man wonder if there aren't a whole bunch more.

Maybe there should be a special law saying halibut charter limits apply to all government officials fishing in Alaska just to help keep them honest, because government officials have stood by silently as the recreational fishery was split in two. 

Southeast Alaska has for years now had a limit of one halibut per day of a certain size for charter anglers, while people wealthy enough to own their own boats continued to get limits of two fish per day. 

Why? Because. Just because.

In reality, there is no difference between a rod-and-reel halibut angler on a charter boat and a rod-and-reel halibut angler in his own boat other than maybe social status. The latter tend toward the upper middle-class and up, and the former the middle-class and down.

Oh, wait; there is one other difference. If you're one of those people wealthy enough to own your own boat, the fewer of those damn charter anglers there are out there the better:

"They don't deserve to catch a fish anyway, given that they're driven to a prime fishing ground by someone who knows how to find fish. Shouldn't the lower-class scum at least have to find the halibut themselves?"

See how easy it is to rationalize behavior in your own selfish, personal interest? If, of course, you own your own boat. It's different for halibut anglers with limited incomes. 

I don't know many baristas, or reporters for that matter, who can afford a big ol' ocean-going fishing boat. Most of the latter now live in Anchorage or Fairbanks where it is extremely hard to justify the cost of a such a watercraft given the hassles of transport and storage.

I will, however, confess I owned a big boat long ago when I worked in Juneau. I lived on it, and I too disliked charters in those days. We were in competition for fish, and competition sucks, unless of course you're a consumer benefiting from it.

If you're not benefiting from it, all you want is to get rid of it. It's human nature.

Now, I don't know how many of the people in the offices of the National Marine Fisheries Service in that high-rise in the state's capital city own boats and dislike charters the way I did, but I'm sure they number more than one.

And selfish personal interest is the only thing that can really explain what has happened to the Alaska halibut fishery. That commercial fishermen acted in their own selfish personal interest is to be expected. That the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game sat silent while this happened is equally understandable; she's bound to commercial fishing interests at the hip. What's good for them is good for her.

That Gov. Sean Parnell did nothing, well, that's easily written off to his not giving a whit about huntin' and fishin' in the 49th state in general. Sure he should have demanded the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conduct an economic study to determine what is in the best economic interests of Alaska before giving away most of the farm to the commercial fishing business, but it's not like this is something to which Parnell pays attention.

What's in it for him? A lot of those lower-class folk who can only afford a charter once a year are tourists who can't vote, and many of the rest are likely Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents. Remember Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's remarks about the 47 percent

And even the charter-boat anglers who tend to vote Republican don't have a lot of money, if any, to contribute to political campaigns, unlike commercial fishing interests, which are regular donors.

So the governor sees nothing to be gained from getting in the game. It's perfectly understandable.

But those federal bureaucrats, those people whose job it is to look out for the interests of all Americans, there is only one word for their behavior -- contemptible. They should be embarrassed and ashamed. They should be red in the face about the claim they couldn't study the economics of halibut allocation because it is too difficult. Too difficult? 

But of course, they aren't embarrassed at all.

Because this is what our democracy is becoming, a system of cronyism to the nth degree. If one looks rationally at the federal "family," as it calls itself, running the fisheries in the federal economic zone off Alaska's coast, the cronyism has now reached the point at which there is really only one word that describes it: corrupt. 

Only we don't use that word in America. That word is reserved for third-world countries where the system operates like ours. Apparently bribery is required. If people simply conspire to protect their own personal self-interests, it's OK. How could there be anything wrong with that?

And if the average American lacks a seat at the table when this happening? Well, hey, screw the average American.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.