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The Salmon Project: Salmon are worth more than money

If the Pebble Mine prospect is worth as much as they say, the owners could buy all the gillnet permits in Bristol Bay for a tenth of a percent the ore’s worth. If the only reason to save wild salmon is because of its economic value, then the battle is probably lost. But I don’t think money is the reason to save salmon runs, or ever was. Courtesy Charles Wohlforth

(Eighth of 15 parts)

Most Alaskans care about salmon for more than the obvious reasons. We love to eat them. We love to sell them. But we eat and sell a lot of things without believing they define the place we live and the way we live here. Even salmon doesn’t mean so much if it comes from a Styrofoam package in a grocery store, especially if it was raised in a pen. Salmon matters most when it connects us to our place.

Human beings are emotional beasts. Often, intangibles matter more to us than money. Our relationships. Our homes. Some people love money more than anything else. Most of us hold those people in contempt.

It’s odd, then, that we see fisheries almost exclusively through the lens of money. Permits that commercial fishermen buy and sell give them the right to catch and sell fish. Guides and tourism businesses fight to bring fish into the rivers like swimming paychecks coming home. Even subsistence and personal use fishermen often talk about the avoided cost of food. All have a personal relationship to salmon, but that’s usually not the topic of discussion. It’s usually about who gets how much of the economic take.

Don’t these fish, and the ecosystem that produces them, mean more to us that the material wealth they provide? And how did we adopt the language of private property for the free-swimming salmon, that potent symbol of the wild?

Alaska became a state in large part because of the belief that Alaskans could do a better job of protecting salmon runs than the federal government, which mismanaged salmon harvests into a desperate scarcity in the first half of the 20th century. But the early years after statehood were no better. Too many fishermen chased too few fish. Only after the state was more than a decade old, and with a state constitutional amendment, did a limited entry system come into force that would hold down the number of commercial fishermen, and give each a vested interest in enhancing the total size of the catch.

Not everyone liked the idea. Jay Hammond, not yet governor, was one early opponent. Always attuned to the impact of new laws on village Alaska, Jay saw risk in handing out property deeds to a wild resource that had been owned by all. He feared Alaska Natives could become alienated from the food resource that had always sustained them. Unfortunately, he was right. Although Native communities got extra consideration when permits were allocated in the 1970s, the decades since have seen many villages lose permits. These permits are valuable assets, easily sold during hard times, taken by the IRS, or put on the market through the life events that affect every family. In cash-poor communities, the permits are unlikely to return.           

Non-Native Alaskans also saw their relationship to fisheries change when new laws assigned fish ownership. In salmon fisheries, the boat and permit owners got older. Young fishermen had to work a long time before they could afford permits of their own. More fishermen listed addresses from cities and areas Outside, fewer from Alaska’s coastal towns.

Many such private stories have accumulated to become the statistics kept by the state’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. Since the system started in 1974, the number of permits owned by rural residents for fishing from their own communities declined from 8,219 to 5,987. In Bristol Bay, locals with salmon drift permits declined by 352 while non-Alaskans gained 285 of those permits and urban Alaskans 43 of them. In 2000, Dillingham had 274 permit holders; 10 years later, the number had dwindled to 227.

The system of Individual Fishing Quotas for federally managed species such as halibut and cod had an even more dramatic impact, dividing fish from communities that used to rely upon them. Anthropologists writing for the American Fisheries Society in 2008 reported coastal communities with new classes of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ depending on who was lucky enough to get fishing quota shares when they were handed out, or rich enough to buy them after the system started.

Another unintended consequence of permit ownership came about because the private property idea worked too well. As intended, limited entry permits did provide a financial interest in the health of the total catch. Fishermen invested in hatcheries, and within a decade of the system being in place catch numbers exploded.

But more salmon aren’t always a good thing. There’s a limit to how many predatory fish an ocean ecosystem can sustain. There’s good evidence that wild runs suffered when huge numbers of hatchery fish entered the ocean. There’s also evidence that ocean ecosystems can be reordered in new, less resilient ways when they are overwhelmed by hatchery salmon: other species that occupy the same roles in the food web are displaced, and that reduction in diversity yields a less robust system.

The ecosystem evidence isn’t very strong, however, and there’s another, related reason for that. Biologists don’t study those other fish much. They focus on the “money fish,” the salmon that bring fishermen’s paydays and fish tax receipts. It’s almost as if non-commercial species don’t exist, for the lack of attention from scientists monitoring Alaska’s coastal ecosystems.

What’s wrong with that? Maybe nothing, if all we care about is eating and selling salmon. But if we care about the place, the ecosystem, the wild salmon, and how the fish relate to our cultures, our communities, and our sense of ourselves, then there is something wrong with severing the fish from anything but its economic value.

We live in an economic and political system that teaches us to think in certain ways. Many cultures through history and pre-history have subsisted cooperatively and sustainably on shared natural resources without creating schemes of private ownership. Our system of free enterprise and representative government doesn’t account for that. Our solutions depend on economic and political competition—on the dual struggles to make money and make laws. Private ownership often seems like the only way to incentivize conservation in our dog-eat-dog world.

But if we want to keep coastal ecosystems intact, and coastal people an essential part of them, we need new ways of thinking about our relationship to nature. We need to manage ecosystems in whole, not only the money fish. We need to value the relationship of an entire community to the sea, not only the people who stand to cash in.

In the end, a more holistic approach will benefit everyone—including the fishermen. Because hazards threatening the oceans now are much larger than fishermen can handle alone. They need the rest of us.

In the global economic arena, fishing is a puny industry. Oil, mining, and all the myriad industries contributing to climate change and ocean acidification are immeasurably mightier. If the Pebble Mine prospect is worth as much as they say, the owners could buy all the gillnet permits in Bristol Bay for a tenth of a percent the ore’s worth. Through the lens of money, salmon lose.

Economically, the world can do without fishing entirely. We don’t even need fishermen to supply seafood restaurants: many diners actually prefer farmed salmon. If the only reason to save wild salmon is because of its economic value, then the battle is probably lost.

But I don’t think money is the reason to save salmon runs, or ever was. Most Alaskans would like to know healthy wild salmon runs will be swimming up our rivers a century from now. Not because we will be eating them or selling them. We’ll all be dead by then. We care about the children who come after us and the lives they will lead. What was good for us we want to be good for them.

As an economic resource, salmon are transitory, like everything that rises and falls in the market of buying and selling. But these wants are not economic. If we save salmon, it will because we fulfilled our deeper hopes for the world. It will be because we cared enough to save something we loved.

Charles Wohlforth, a resident of Anchorage and Kachemak Bay, is the author of ten books. This essay draws on ideas developed in his book, The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth.

The Salmon Voices Series is supported by The Salmon Project, an experiment in telling and hearing the stories of Alaskans and our salmon. The project hopes to highlight and deepen Alaskans' strong personal relationships with salmon as food, a source of income, and a way of life. Support for the project is provided by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.