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Outside commercial fishermen get even more cash for fishing Alaska waters

Amanda Coyne
Aaron Jansen illustration

It looks like 4,471 Outside commercial fishermen from places like Washington state and California will cash checks this fall courtesy of the State of Alaska. The amount these fishermen will get ranges from a few dollars to more than $63,000. All told, the fishermen will split their share of a $33.5 million settlement, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled.

The state has no plans to appeal. 

The Carlson case springs from Alaska's attempt to try to support local over Outside fishermen, and the debate over who should control of Alaska's fisheries. It's a debate that has raged since territorial days, and was a main impetus behind Alaska becoming a state.

Prior to statehood, fisheries were controlled by an incompetent federal bureaucracy that all but gave away Alaska's bounty to wealthy and powerful Seattle fishing interests. Alaska's constitution goes as far as to ban fish traps that benefitted those interests.  

The case goes back to 1984, when Donald Carlson balked at what the state was charging him to take fish out of Alaska waters so he could take his profits back home. At the time, Alaska charged nonresidents triple what it charged Alaskans for commercial fishing permits. The thinking was that resident fishermen were already paying the cost to manage the resources; therefore, nonresidents should pay more.

In 1984, Carlson and other nonresident fishermen took their case to the courts, claiming the state needed to justify the higher rate. It was the first case of its kind. in the country on this specific issue. Eventually, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the nonresidents. 

Because it took the state until 2002 to come up with a firm justification about how much it charges Outsiders, every fisherman overcharged between 1984 and 2002 (and a handful between 2003 and 2004) will get a check. 

Generally speaking, the more money Outside fishermen made catching fish from Alaska waters, the more money they will receive. That's because the state charges more for licenses where fishing is more lucrative.

"That might be difficult for some Alaskans to reconcile," Lance Nelson, a state lawyer working on the case said. "It may be hard to engender a lot of sympathy for those who are receiving the checks."

Indeed, the case is likely to remind Alaskans who really benefits from the spoils of Alaska waters. In 2010, Alaskans held 76 percent or 15,477 of all 20,275 Alaska commercial fishing permits. However, Outside permit-holders earned about 55 percent of the roughly $1.5 billion gross earnings from Alaska's fisheries in both state and federal waters.

According to Kurt Iverson, fisheries analyst for Alaska's Commercial Fisheries Commission, Outsiders are making so much more than Alaskans because of their dominance in "high revenue ground and crab fisheries." 

Another irony? Because there hasn’t been a similar class action in any other state, other states can charge Alaska commercial fishermen whatever they want for nonresident commercial licenses.

In Washington state, for example, where most of the commercial fishermen who will receive the money from Alaska fishing live, nonresidents are charged anywhere from 42 to 100 percent more than residents. In California, a resident commercial fishing license is $95. A nonresident commercial license is $285.

Nonresidents pay $140 more for permits than do Alaska residents. 

Nelson said there is some good news here for Alaskans. Because of two appeals centering on interest rates, the state was able to save roughly $60 million.

The most recent appeal was worth $44.7 million to the state. Because the state already put that extra money in a trust to pay the litigants, the Department of Law will give that money back to the state.

Contact Amanda Coyne at Amanda@alaskadispatch.com