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Tug-of-war over salmon on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula may reach fever pitch

Craig Medred
Cook Inlet setnetters pick salmon from their nets. Setnetters are the second-biggest group of commercial fishermen in the Inlet, with 736 permit holders. State of Alaska photo

Each summer in Alaska, salmon by the millions flood into the great mixing bowl of Cook Inlet between the popular and populated Kenai Peninsula to the south and the towering, wild Aleutian Range to the north. The fish are money -- Alaska wild silver prime for the taking -- and for that reason they have come to fuel one of state's longest-running and most contentious political battles.

To understand it, you have to understand the fisheries themselves. The elephant in the room is the Cook Inlet drift gillnet fleet, about 570 salmon fishermen, approximately 30 percent of them nonresidents.

If you follow the money, these 570 people are the major players.

Permits cost up to $100,000 today

An amendment to the Alaska Constitution in 1972 limited entry to all salmon fisheries, guaranteeing incomes for commercial fishermen. Ever since, commercial fishermen have pretty much figured they own the fish.

Original fishermen were given permits to catch these fish based on their experience in each fishery. The permits became their property. Commercial fishermen have been buying and selling permits ever since. 

If you want to join the group that drives the salmon harvest in the Inlet just south of Anchorage, you can today buy a permit for about $85,000 to $100,000. Whether they are worth that much is debatable.

The drift fleet caught more than 1.5 million sockeye salmon, the big-money fish, in the Inlet last year. That catch, combined with their haul of almost equally valuable silver salmon, brought the drift catch to about 2 million salmon -- approximately half of the entire Cook Inlet salmon catch.

At season's end, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game valued the total harvest of 4 million salmon of five different species at $34.2 million. The drift half would be about $17.1 million. Split 570 ways, that breaks out to a payday of about $30,000 per drift permit holder.

Some did better. Some did worse. All had overhead. Boats, fuel and nets cost money. Crew members have to be paid. The money to be made in the Inlet fishery is good for the few weeks of work involved, but it doesn't support many people.

Other jobs needed

All of which is why most commercial fishermen have other jobs. The region's fishermen, the Alaska Department of Labor noted in a 2011 study of Alaska fisheries, "as a group, earned the most in non-fishing jobs and had the highest average annual earnings at more than $41,000. The region includes Anchorage and the Mat-Su (Borough), high population areas with diverse economies and a variety of job opportunities."

"Setnet permit holders were especially likely to also have other jobs," the report noted.

Setnetters are the second-biggest players in the Inlet. There are 736 set net permit holders, and they basically split the other half of that $34.2 million payday in 2013.

"Setnetting is a small-scale type of gillnetting, often done by families, and is seldom the permit holder’s only source of income," the department noted. "More than 50 percent of all setnet permit holders also had a known wage and salary jobs" or were self-employed.

The family of former Gov. Sarah Palin would fit in this category. Palin, widely believed to be a millionaire after bootstrapping a failed bid for vice president into national celebrity status, is a setnetter in Bristol Bay along with husband Todd. The Palin family doesn't really need the fishing income but enjoys the fishing experience.

A fair number of Cook Inlet commercial fishermen -- doctors, consultants, businessmen and teachers among them -- fall in the same category.

None of which has stopped commercial fishermen from tugging at the heartstrings of the Alaska public with claims as to how salmon allocations in the Inlet affect their "livelihoods," as if they might starve if the huge slice of the salmon pie that is theirs gets reduced.

Big changes in Cook Inlet

That they act this way is understandable. The commercial fisheries in the Inlet are old and increasingly threatened by newer sport and personal-use fisheries that only arose after Alaska statehood.

Setnetters are in a particularly tough spot. Their fishing for sockeye also nets a significant number of Kenai River king or chinook salmon, a now-depleted species. Setnetters are not trying to catch kings, but the big fish are unavoidable by-catch.

The Kenai is now in a position where fishery managers need to get nearly all returning kings safely to the spawning grounds to ensure future production, which puts the setnetters in the bulls-eye between the drifters -- who can catch plenty of sockeye without catching many kings -- and sportfishing interests who want to see all the kings back in the river.

Were an old-time Kenai fisherman to come back to the region today, he'd be shocked at the way things have changed. For one thing, at the time of statehood, anyone who wanted to buy a boat and a net could go commercial fishing, and there were no fish wars fought between competing interest groups.

Only 226,000 people lived in Alaska in 1960. Today, the population of the Municipality of Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough is nearly twice that number, and everyone living in the state's urban core wants what he or she considers a "fair share" of the fish. 

But population growth isn't the only thing haunting the Inlet.

Years ago, few fish on Kenai

The state's economy has changed, too. In 1960, after Alaska voters banned fish traps as fishing gear, Kenai Peninsula commercial fishermen -- both gillnetters and setnetters -- pretty much had Inlet salmon to themselves. And because of the depressed nature of Alaska salmon fisheries in the 1970s, the situation stayed that way a long time.

The commercial catch of sockeye salmon in all of upper Cook Inlet was 497,000 fish, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game statistics. There were so few fish, they weren't worth fighting over. 

Such a piddly number of sockeye got into the Kenai that it wasn't really worth anyone's time or trouble to try to catch them in the turbid, glacial water. The non-commercial catch primarily came from the clear water of the Russian River, a Kenai tributary. That's where the anglers went while what subsistence or personal-use take there was usually came out of the nets of commercial fishermen. They took home a few fish to eat instead of selling them.

It was a more peaceful time on the Kenai, and a tougher one. State fisheries biologists imposed strict conservation measures on commercial fishermen through the early 1970s in an effort to rebuild salmon fisheries. And with a little help from Mother Nature in the form of a warming north Pacific Ocean, what the biologists did worked.

By the late 1970s, commercial catches of sockeye were on the rebound, climbing into the millions. Through the 1980s, things just kept getting better. The Inlet saw a peak commercial catch of 9.5 million sockeye in 1987, and the Kenai River that year was chockablock full of fish.

Bounty, for better or worse, brought opportunities and problems. With growth in the commercial fishery shut off by limited entry, entrepreneurial Alaskans seized on the opportunity to market world-class sport fishing -- not only for sockeye but for monster king salmon as well -- to anglers around the globe.

Lodges and hotels were built. Tourism exploded, and not just on the Kenai Peninsula. It boomed throughout the Susitna River drainage at the very head of the Inlet, and soon residents of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough -- the region's fastest growing area -- began complaining that not enough of "their" salmon were getting through the curtain of commercial nets floating in the Inlet. Kenai River interests made the same complaint.

Net economic value

Suddenly commercial fishermen found themselves with a whole bunch of competitors for the catch. By the end of the 1990s, those new interests were beginning to turn up the heat on the Alaska Board of Fisheries, which had never managed fisheries -- and still doesn't -- to produce the maximum economic benefit to the state.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association continues to push for salmon allocations based on "net economic value'' -- not who can yell the loudest at Fish Board meetings, or twist the most arms in back rooms, or organize the strongest flow of campaign financing for politicians.

The sportfishing association argues that management based on net economic value is just good business for the state. A study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage published in 1999 concluded that sportfishing has become a major industry in Alaska. 

"The economic effects of sport fishing start when anglers spend money," the study said. "Sport anglers spent an estimated $540 million—residents $341 million and visitors $199 million — for sport fishing in 1993." A 2008 study done for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game upped the revenue number to more than $700 million for Cook Inlet alone.

"Notably, much of Southcentral’s economic activity centers around Cook Inlet, partly because because Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna valley(s) are such large population centers such large population centers with good fishing nearby. The Kenai River, for example, is an easy drive from Anchorage and is widely known among anglers as one of the world’s foremost salmon rivers. In addition, there are large sport fisheries for halibut and other groundfish that are accessed from several communities that border Cook Inlet. In the Cook Inlet region (a subset of Southcentral region), anglers spent about $733 million in 2007, which supported 8,056 jobs and generated $55 million in state and local taxes," the study said.

Nonresident anglers' spending in Southcentral was put at more than $420 million, which raised a lot of eyebrows given that nonresidents -- no matter how much Alaskans might dislike them flooding the state in the summer -- take home few fish. Despite Alaska urban legends spun around tons of salmon supposedly headed south in the coolers of tourists departing the state through the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the reality is otherwise. 

William Romberg, a researcher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, concluded that about 52 percent of visiting anglers take home fewer than five sockeye and more than 78 percent take home fewer than 10. The Kenai River is the prime destination for nonresident fishermen, and the entire annual rod-and-reel harvest for both residents and nonresidents remains in the range of 250,000 to 320,000 fish per year, a fraction of the commercial fishery catch.

Tourist anglers, the ISER study noted, are a good deal for the state. They spend a lot more per pound for salmon than salmon are worth in the commercial market. But they just add to the problems for commercial fishermen who find themselves battling not only Alaska anglers who want more fish in Alaska rivers so they can catch them, but owners of tourism businesses who want more fish because it's good business.

And it doesn't end there. 

With the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, what was called "subsistence" -- the idea people could live off the land, even in the 21st century -- became a holy grail in Alaska. 

The feds gave a subsistence priority to rural Alaskans, even if they lived in urban-looking communities like Kodiak, and then the state extended its subsistence priority to all Alaskans no matter where in the state they lived.

Personal-use dipnet fishery

Commercial fishermen in Southcentral Alaska, recognizing that a subsistence priority for all Alaskans had the potential to put them out of business, convinced the Board of Fisheries to declare Cook Inlet a special non-subsistence area. But to placate the firestorm that change sparked, the Board created "personal use" dipnet fisheries on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. 

The personal-use dipnet fisheries look exactly like the subsistence dipnet fisheries they replaced. The only real difference is that the catch limits went down slightly and the subsistence priority went away. Alaskans still get to dipnet salmon, but the Board is under no obligation to see they get the number of fish they say they need. 

Unfortunately for Cook Inlet commercial fishermen, the change to personal use did not stop the growth of the dipnet fishery. Over the past decade, the people's fishery at the mouth of the Kenai has become the state's most congested and arguably its most popular fishery.

All of which has only added to the number of voices screaming for their "fair share" of Inlet salmon.

Fishing did not go so well for the dipnetters last summer. Many of them left the beaches unhappy. The Board is expected to hear from a significant number of them when it opens public hearings on Cook Inlet salmon issues at the Egan Convention and Civic Center in Anchorage on Saturday.

All of it is enough to make a reasonable Alaskan almost feel sorry for the commercial interests. They are sure to find themselves an embattled minority at the Fish Board meeting, but the good news for them is that dipnetters and anglers mainly just whine, while commercial fishermen organize and raise money for politicians. 

In political wars, just as on the modern battlefield, it's not simply about how many troops you rally to the front, but how you fight the battle. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.