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Money talks: High court decides commercial interests own Alaska's fish

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published January 5, 2016

With the stroke of a pen, the Alaska Supreme Court has confirmed the worst fears of critics of the Alaska Limited Entry Act approved by voters more than four decades back.

Their worry back in 1973 was that limited entry would give the state's commercial fishermen ownership of Alaska salmon despite assurances from politicians that was never going to happen.

Well, it has happened. Mark New Year's Eve of 2015 as the date and time that the Supreme Court decided the salmon resources belong not to the people of the 49th state, but to commercial fishermen who work in the 49th state -- a significant number of whom don't even live here.

Skeptical as to this conclusion? Read the words the Supreme Court used to kill a citizens initiative to end set gillnetting in Cook Inlet:

Under the Limited Entry Act and its implementing regulations, commercial set netters must obtain gear-specific set net permits, which are limited in number, hold significant value, and may be bought and sold. And unlike noncommercial hunting and fishing licenses, these set net permits carry over from year to year. This makes commercial set netters a far more cohesive, recognizable, and permanent group than individuals who hunt wolves using same-day aerial techniques or snares, or who hunt bears using baiting or feeding methods. The latter individuals must generally apply for permits and licenses annually, and those who wish to participate in more heavily regulated hunts have no guarantee that they will be permitted to do so in any given year.

The opinion couldn't be much more black and white. Average Alaskan hunters and fishers have no guaranteed access to the resource, but limited entry permit holders are "cohesive, recognizable and permanent group" that warrant special treatment.

In this case, the court decided that group's right to fish even rises above protection of suffering Kenai River chinook salmon stocks, the protection of which was the goal of the initiative, and the tens of thousands of pounds (or more) of starry flounder and other bycatch Cook Inlet setnetters waste every summer.

If you are a non-commercial fisherman of any sort, you should be deeply, deeply troubled by what the ruling tells the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in a decision more political than legal. Before this decision, the state did nothing to stop the bycatch waste of flounder by commercial netters, although it put a flounder catch limit on Kenai River dipnetters. And the agency took only marginal steps to try to minimize the bycatch of Kenai kings in the Cook Inlet commercial fishery even as king populations crashed.

The agency wanted to protect the interests of east-side setnetters. That would appear to be a good thing in the eyes of the state's high court. The setnetters are, as the Supreme Court sees it, a "cohesive, recognizable, and permanent group" deserving different treatment than the rest of us.

One could read the opinion to suggest that if the sockeye run comes back weak this summer and Fish and Game has to make a choice between severe restrictions on the east-side commercial fishery or closing the personal-use dipnet fishery, it should do the latter.

Dipnetters, like anglers and hunters, clearly fit in that class the Supreme Court says has "no guarantee that they will be permitted to do so in any given year" while commercial fishermen are in the special class with those "permits (that) carry over from year to year" and thus warrant special treatment.

Maybe Yukon River commercial gillnet fishermen reading this decision will sue to get their rights back. Their gillnets -- nets just like those used by the east-side setnetters -- were taken away from them and replaced with inefficient dipnets to stop the indiscriminate killing of Yukon kings.

No one raised an eyebrow at that unilateral decision by Fish and Game with the approval of the Board of Fisheries to eliminate a dirty but "cohesive, recognizable and permanent" fishery to replace it with a much cleaner fishery.

But then, the commercial net fishermen on the Yukon, or the Kuskokwim River for that matter, are obviously different from the setnetters of Cook Inlet. The Yukon and Kusko river netters are poor.

The Cook Inlet fishermen have money, and it would appear that in the Alaska legal system, as well as in the Alaska political system, money talks.

Money explains why commercial salmon fishermen in this state get 98 percent of the fish while all other Alaskans fight over the 2 percent scraps. And money explains why even an attempt to get rid of a dirty net fishery that snags anything going by in hopes of replacing it with a clean fishery is doomed in this state.

If you've ever wondered about who owns Alaska, the state's high court just gave you the answer.

Craig Medred is a former Alaska Dispatch News columnist and reporter and a longtime Alaska outdoorsman and journalist.

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