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Fish wars obscure need to manage for max economic yield

Craig Medred
OPINION: Vitriol, spin and a sense of entitlement keep Cook Inlet fishermen at war and solutions at bay. Loren Holmes photo

Clarification: This story was updated Aug. 21, 2014 to include Wally Page's denial that he intentionally tried to swamp dipnetters by guiding his boat close to shore. Page said he did not set out to produce a large wake with his boat -- "It's complete fiction," Page said -- even though Medred and other dipnetters who were there that day felt differently.

KENAI RIVER — On the very day Arni Thomson, a spokesman for commercial fishing interests in Cook Inlet, complained in Alaska Dispatch News that the salmon resource is being used “as a platform for division,’’ the F/V Peregrine was cutting in close to the north bank of this river at the ideal speed to send a rolling wave of wake washing over dipnetters along that shore.

Talk about creating division ...

The Peregrine is a commercial fishing boat owned by longtime Inlet driftnetter Wally Page. The Facebook page of Peregrine crewman William “Beau’’ Johnson would reflect what appears to be the general view of the Peregrine crew as regards the dippers: “Dipnetters go home," one post reads. Page would later say his crewman doesn't speak on his behalf and that he never swamped dipnetters. But that's not how it felt by some near the shore.

Nonetheless, hopefully, Johnson's attitude is not shared by Thomson. Hopefully, Thomson and I, and everyone reading this, agree on one thing: It would be great if the participants in all of the fisheries around Cook Inlet could get along. This would include the silver and king salmon fishermen working the streams at the head of the Inlet in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the commercial fishermen catching the bulk of the fish in the Inlet, and the dipnetters and myriad anglers chasing salmon in the Kenai River, ground zero for Inlet fish wars.

Distortions like those made by Thomson don’t help douse the fires of war. He writes that “with 500 boats dipnetting, a thousand nets are in the water at any time from July 10 through 31. The shore-based fishery brings another 4,000 nets into the mouth of the river. The total harvest in 2012 was 526,000 fish, a whopping 139 percent increase since 2009.”

Some of this is true. Some of this is speculation. And one key fact plays dreadfully loose with the truth.

The 2012 catch was indeed 526,000 fish, which was down from 2011. But most importantly, the 2012 catch was near twice as large as last summer’s official catch of 347,222 red salmon in the dipnet fishery.

Thomson knows full well the size of the 2013 catch, just as he knows full well that any numbers as to nets in the river on any given day are pure speculation. There were likely times a thousand nets were in the water from July 10 to 31 last year. There might well have been days when there were a lot more than that in the water, but there were most certainly days when there were a lot less.

Waiting for the pulse

The reality of the dipnet fishery is this: How many people fish and how many salmon are caught is directly dependent on how lucky the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is in managing the commercial fishery in the Inlet.

The goal of managers is to keep a steady, spike-free stream of red salmon flowing into the Kenai. They have done a masterful job of that this year. From the start of July, the daily escapements — the number of fish escaping to reach the spawning grounds — have been in the range of 9,240 to 39,024 reds as counted by an upstream sonar. The result has been pretty mediocre dipnetting. If the trends continue, the dipnet catch for the year will likely be closer to 2013 than 2012.

Dipnetters are catching fish, but it takes a long time to do so. Many don’t want to spend hours upon hours standing in chilly water waiting, waiting, waiting. So they go home with few fish. For the dipnetting to be good, really good, dipnetters need a slug of fish to hit the mouth of the river, like the 72,000 to 96,000 that entered from July 15-17, 2012, or the 88,000 to 111,000 that followed on July 22-24, or even the 60,000-plus that continued from then until July 29.

There was a reason dipnetters caught a lot of fish in 2012. The dipping isn’t simply two times better at 60,000 fish than 30,000 fish, it is three or four times better because of the way the river concentrates the fish. This year, there has not been a day close to 60,000 fish, and only three over 30,000, which is bad news for dipnetters.

There are likely a good number of them today having problems swallowing the PR Thomson is spinning about “political strategies focused on scapegoating Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishermen only serve to perpetuate the so-called Cook Inlet fish war and delay rebuilding of Mat-Su stocks.”

Dipnetters don’t like me much either these days because their behavior is often offensive to anyone who values the Alaska environment, and I’ve said so. The ignorance in the dipnet fishery is astounding.

When a dipnetter was Friday informed he was fishing not just outside the boundary for the shore-based fishery, but way outside the boundary, his response was that he didn’t know there was a boundary. Granted, it doesn’t help that the dipnet fishery at the mouth of the Kenai is the only fishery in the state of Alaska marked by only one point, but that doesn’t eliminate the obligation to acquire at least some knowledge of the regulations before fishing.

Economic yield differs from biological yield

The north bank of the river, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is closed “from an ADF&G marker below the terminus of Main Street to ADF&G markers near the Kenai City Dock.’’ Figuring out exactly where the closed line is on the river is impossible because of the lack of a marker on the south bank of the river, but this would be a minor point in the general, overall mismanagement of Cook Inlet fisheries.

None of which is meant as a criticism of the biologists at Fish and Game. They do an excellent job of managing the fishery for maximum sustained yield on a biological basis. The problem is that the political process provides no mechanism for managing for maximum economic yield, which is how all Alaska fisheries ought to be managed. The state tries to extract every dollar out of “our oil,” but seems happy to largely give away “our fish.”

Let’s look at the numbers for a minute. Approximately 1,300 people hold permits to commercial fish salmon in Cook Inlet. That’s a tiny sliver of Alaska’s population. Another 35,000 pick up permits to dipnet, as Thomson notes, but only some 22,000 to 30,000 people actually fish those permits. Either way, this is another tiny slice of an Alaska population now estimated at 750,000.

And yet, the Alaska Board of Fisheries manages Cook Inlet salmon almost solely to suit the desires of commercial fishermen, dipnetters and a handful of vocal anglers. All told, the various interest groups barking at the board might number 50,000 by the most liberal estimate.

What about the other 700,000 Alaskans? What about the more than 90 percent of Alaskans who own this common property resource but never fish it? What benefits them? That question is actually pretty easy to answer. What benefits them is the state getting maximum economic value out of every fish.

Conflicting self-interests

Commercial fishermen here have a strong argument that in terms of economic management their fish are far more valuable than the salmon in the dipnet fishery. The dipnet fishery is like Alaskans taking oil out of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline instead of sending it to a refinery and taking the cash.

Catch a fish in a personal-use dipnet and you feed yourself. Catch a salmon in a gillnet, sell it, and you feed an industry that creates jobs that feed a far larger number of people. Sell someone the chance to catch the fish in a sport fishery, whether on the Kenai or in the Mat-Su, and you might create jobs that will feed even more people.

But, of course, no one involved in the Cook Inlet fisheries wants to talk about this. Why? Because of all of them have a simple interest: They want theirs.

Commercial fishermen were angry because they were taking “their fish.’’ On the beach, meanwhile, there were plenty of dipnetters angry because Fish and Game had efficiently used a wall of gillnets to maintain a steady but slow return of reds into the Kenai, which made it harder for the dipnetters to get “their fish.”

Who knows, upriver somewhere there might even have been a tourist from California angry that she didn’t get “her fish’’ to fly home in a cooler. Although it must be said in the defense of the tourists that Alaskans of nearly all fisher-types hate that tourists seldom harbor the sense of entitlement now ingrained in Alaskans. Or in the commercial fishermen from Outside who come north to make their living over the course of few months each summer.

Like real Alaskans, they clearly understand life in The Entitlement State, which can only leave a real, year-round Alaskan with one question: If we get an oil dividend because the oil industry is dominated by Outside businesses, why the hell don’t we get a salmon dividend from the fisheries industry dominated by Outside businesses?

Isn’t it about time the state ship us our oil checks, and our share of salmon to get us through the winter? Then we’d all be happy, and it would be easy to get along, and we wouldn’t even need a dipnet fishery.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.

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