Something stinks in Southwest Alaska.
By now you've probably heard about the weak king salmon runs around the state causing widespread closures to subsistence, sport and commercial fishermen.
You also may have heard about the "Kuskokwim Rebellion" on June 20 when fishermen took to the waters in defiance of an extended subsistence closure by setting their nets at the end of the original seven-day period agreed upon in the preseason.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game enforcement seized 1,800 pounds of fish and 21 nets, and when it did allow fishing it required six-inch mesh gear that isn't widely possessed in the region.
Into this desperate need stepped Coastal Villages Region Fund, the Community Development Quota group for the Kuskokwim region. CDQ groups are six tax-exempt organizations in Western Alaska representing 65 villages that receive 10 percent of the Bering Sea fishing quotas annually, including pollock, crab and halibut.
Coastal Villages handed out 100 legal nets a week after the Rebellion at the request of the Association of Village Council Presidents, which includes all 20 CVRF communities and the 56 federally recognized tribes in the Kuskokwim region.
But the nets were far from free.
In order to receive a net from CVRF, fishermen had to sign an "acceptance statement" acknowledging the nets were being provided at the request of AVCP and paid for by revenue from the pollock fishery where bycatch of king and chum salmon has caused controversy for decades.
The one-page statement included two paragraphs on salmon bycatch in the pollock fishery, including the claim that "the best available science shows that the pollock fishery is not a significant contributor to our salmon problems."
This statement authored by CVRF Chief Operations Officer and former pollock industry lobbyist Trevor McCabe is at best misleading, and forcing fishermen to sign it amid a disastrously weak king salmon run with their lives on the line is contemptible.
We know the outrage would be off the charts if the Department of Fish and Game required anyone who wanted a king salmon stamp to sign a piece of paper saying that bycatch has nothing to do with poor returns around the state.
What Coastal Villages is doing is no different, and the anger should be no less at the coercive action it has taken to extract supportive statements of the pollock fishery from the people it is supposed to be serving who are seeking to fulfill the most basic human right of subsistence.
One thing is certain: the residents of Coastal Villages communities already own those nets, and they shouldn't have to prove anything other than where they live to receive one.
Neil Rodriguez of CVRF, who didn't want his interview with Bethel radio KYUK to be recorded, told the station the claims about bycatch not being a significant contributor to salmon issues was based on an environmental impact statement, presumably the one prepared for the 2009 federal action to cap king salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea at 60,000.
In fact, that EIS contains no such claim, and actually states that salmon bycatch "may be a contributing factor to the decline of chinook salmon" in Western Alaska but that the science is incomplete and prevents any definitive conclusions.
While recognizing that cutting bycatch would not rebuild salmon runs, the EIS stated that every additional fish in-river would still benefit all users and aid managers in hitting escapement goals as well as meeting our treaty obligations on the Yukon with Canada.
That same EIS also states that half or more of the Bering Sea king salmon bycatch is of Alaska origin, and genetic stock composition analysis released this past January based on 2010 sampling suggests it could be even higher.
We caution that the 2010 sampling cannot be extrapolated to the entire bycatch. However, 94 percent of the 702 king salmon tested from the winter "A" season were of Alaska origin. Coastal western Alaska stocks represented 41 percent, and middle and upper Yukon stocks another 36 percent. For all 2010 samples, 87 percent were of Alaska origin.
As of 2011, there is 100-percent observer coverage and full retention in the Bering Sea allowing for a rigorous sampling protocol that will more definitively establish origins for salmon bycatch. But until then, the stock composition released in January is the "best available science," and it shows Western Alaska salmon are a significant portion of the bycatch, if not the majority of it.
The CVRF "acceptance statement" then goes from misleading to flat-out dishonesty. It states that CVRF caught only 320 kings in the pollock fishery in 2011 and that "many were not from Western Alaska."
As we just discussed, nobody yet knows the composition of 2011 bycatch, so that CVRF claim holds less water than the nets it is distributing.
Further, CVRF did not count the king salmon bycatch from five pollock trawlers it acquired along with the Norton Sound CDQ group in February 2011.
According to 2011 cooperative reports, the CVRF 341-foot catcher processor Northern Hawk and the five other trawlers took 599 king salmon in addition to 13,121 chum salmon.
The six CVRF vessels also spent a total of 19 weeks on the "dirty 20" list in 2011 for posting the highest rates of chum salmon bycatch.
By volume, the Bering Sea pollock fishery is one of the cleanest on the planet, but that does not change the fact that Alaskans will never value pollock more than they do salmon.
What is also indisputable is that the CVRF position on salmon bycatch that it required its residents to sign in exchange for a fishing net is in direct opposition to that held by the Alaska Federation of Natives, AVCP, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of State, the Alaska Board of Fisheries, the Tanana Chiefs Conference, the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, the Yukon River Panel and the Federal Subsistence Board.
The CVRF statement also contradicts Calista Corp., the Alaska Native regional corporation for the Kuskokwim region.
In a commentary published July 9 in the Tundra Drums, Calista President and CEO Andrew Guy wrote, "Perhaps the largest concern we share with the region is the bycatch from commercial fishing. The tremendous scale of bycatch is a major issue for the region, and our people feel that more attention and scrutiny is warranted."
CVRF, in the acceptance statement, reiterated its official slogan that "Pollock provides."
Pollock provides all right. It provided for CVRF President and CEO Morgen Crow to receive a salary of $832,000 in 2010 and to buy a 3,476-square foot, five-bedroom house in Anchorage worth about $1 million in 2009.
Between Crow, McCabe ($504,000) and Chief Financial Officer Richard Monroe ($477,000), the top three employees of CVRF in Anchorage made a combined $1.8 million in 2010.
These salaries paid to executives at a tax-exempt organization with a humanitarian mission are outlandish on their face, and become even more so when put in the context of the CVRF statements that pollock revenue subsidizes its crab, salmon and halibut operations.
We have a hard time seeing how Crow, McCabe and Monroe can justify their lavish salaries based on the fact only one segment of their business manages to turn a profit.
We also aren't buying the claim that the acceptance statements are for education purposes. If the effort were purely educational, CVRF can hand out the information on bycatch or mail it to every resident in the region. By trading the net for a signature, CVRF gives every indication it is up to something else.
A 10-year review of the CDQ program by the State of Alaska is under way right now. Whether CVRF is meeting its obligations or abusing its power is a question the review must answer.
This article appears in the July Issue 3 2012 issue of Alaska Journal of Commerce. Used with permission.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.