Abundant returns, sustained yields testify that Alaska Board of Fisheries isn't broken

Starting in 2014, and continuing into 2016, members of United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA), a commercial fishing organization, and two former employees of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who have since became advocates for Cook Inlet commercial fisheries, have claimed the Alaska Board of Fisheries is broken and needs reform. These are serious accusations and should be examined to determine whether there is evidence to support them.

Alaska has a unique approach to the management of its natural resources. The state's constitution mandates that fish resources be managed on the principle of sustained yield for the maximum benefit of its citizens. Alaska statutes provide more comprehensive protection for fish and their habitat than any other state. In 1975, the Legislature created the BOF, which is charged with achieving the constitutional and statutory requirements of conservation and allocation of the states's fishery resources.

As a result of BOF regulations and ADF&G management, Alaska's fisheries have provided robust harvest opportunities for commercial, sport, personal use (dipnetters) and in many cases, subsistence users. Contrast that to New England and western states that once had huge runs of Atlantic cod and chinook salmon. Books such as "Cod" or "King of Fish" chronicled the diminishment of those species because of mismanagement.

The BOF provides oversight to fisheries that spread over a state almost three times the size of any other with a coastline measured in the thousands of miles -- all of it containing multiple species of fish that people want to catch, sell or eat. Alaska's fishing opportunities exceed that of nearly any other place on the planet. And all of it has been regulated by the BOF. Does this picture look like what might be expected from a broken BOF?

Who is complaining and why? The people who think they are being shortchanged on the number of fish they can harvest, of course. Members of UCIDA have complained about recent BOF decisions. At the last BOF regulatory meeting, which addressed Cook Inlet fishing, the board passed regulations that prevented drift fishing during parts of the season in order to allow for the needed passage of silver and sockeye salmon to Anchorage and the Mat-Su area. Additionally, in response to historic low numbers of king salmon in the Kenai River, set gill netters were limited in the hours they could fish to allow more kings to get in the river. It is primarily these users who are claiming the BOF is broken.

What do others think? Talk to the hundreds of thousands of residents in Anchorage and the Valley who want to put salmon on their dinner table or in their freezer. They might think differently. Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishers accounted for approximately 4 percent of the state's commercial harvest of salmon in 2015. Are the harvesters of the remaining 96 percent complaining that the BOF is broken?

What is the evidence that the process is not broken? Alaska's fisheries management is the envy of the rest of the country and the world. There is no other place where the very people who benefit from the resource have as much influence on how it is managed and divided up. Former BOF chair Nick Szabo, who served from 1975 to 1982, said the board has the most open process in the state in terms of public involvement in setting regulations. "It's probably one of the most democratic processes on the face of the earth," he said.

The BOF mantra has always been "the fish come first." It has never wavered. Ask the people from other states or other countries how less democratic systems worked for them. The Chilean sea bass was managed to near extinction by experts and economists in several countries who, while trying to maximize economic benefit, ignored sustainability. When economic and political influence rule the day, the fish seldom come first.

When the BOF was created in 1975, salmon harvest in Alaska was 26.5 million fish. In 2015 it was 263 million. Since the BOF process began, salmon harvests have increased to the point where in Bristol Bay alone we now catch almost twice as many fish as were caught statewide before the BOF was established.

As a former chairman of the BOF, I can attest that the process is not perfect. The board makes mistakes occasionally. But it has shown it is adaptive, willing to change, and most importantly, willing to put the sustainability of the fish above all other interests.

Conflict between fishery users in the Cook Inlet has been going on for decades. Setting policy for an area that has mixed runs of sockeye, kings, silvers and pinks and that is accessible to hundreds of thousands of Alaskans and visitors, be they sport, dipnetters, or commercial harvesters, is very challenging. In the past commercial users had a huge say in management decisions. It is understandable they are now upset that there are others at the table arguing for their interests, too. But times change and the BOF has adapted to recognize this.

The state's salmon resources are at or near all-time highs, with but few exceptions. Tens of thousands of Alaskans are in one way or another making a living off the resource. Hundreds of thousands more enjoy the sport catch and dipnetting of the resource. Nearly a quarter of a million tourists purchase fishing licenses each year and cast their dollars into the Alaska economy.

This isn't a system that is broken. This is a system that works.

Karl Johnstone is a retired judge and former chairman of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

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@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.