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Low salmon prices push Bristol Bay fishermen to seek state mediator

Bristol Bay salmon fishermen, smarting from the low prices they received for sockeye this summer, want more transparency from the companies that buy their fish.

But convincing the processors operating in the bay to open their books and share private financial data on inventories, sales and profits will not be easy. A group of fishermen hopes the involvement of a state mediator is the first step toward getting that information.

"It's the only vehicle we have. There's no negotiating body, no union," said fisherman Erick Sabo.

Sabo is the driving force behind a petition that, if accepted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, would trigger the appointment of a mediator from the state Department of Labor to handle any price disputes between fishermen and processors.

Through word of mouth and Facebook, the petition on change.org has attracted more than 910 signatures, not all of which are from fishermen with area permits, Sabo said. According to state law, the petition needs one-third of all registered commercial fishermen in an area to sign for a mediator to be appointed. Sabo estimates he'll need about 900 permit holders to sign.

Sabo said the attempt to involve a state mediator is part of an effort to unify the notoriously fractious fishermen of the bay. He'd like to avoid a repeat of the early 1990s, when a strike over low prices caused such strong disagreement among fishermen that the state closed the fishery to avert property damage and violence.

Those low prices later led to a bitter lawsuit brought by Bristol Bay salmon fishermen against all major Bristol Bay salmon processors and Japanese importers. The fishermen alleged that the defendants had conspired to fix salmon prices, but were unsuccessful in court.

"So many people are still in shock and depression from those experiences. I would say nobody really wants that," Sabo said. "I think the momentum and excitement of having the state come in and mediate is a new approach and something I hope is worthwhile."

No one at Fish and Game or the Labor Department could recall a time when the obscure statute allowing for a price mediator was invoked in any Alaska fishery.

"There is no one designated to mediate at this point," said Heather Beaty, a spokeswoman for the labor department.

A mediator and a united group of fishermen are no guarantee processors will improve upon the historic low of 50 cents per pound they paid for Bristol Bay reds earlier this summer. It's possible that the processors, faced with a glut of wild and farmed salmon on the market and a strong U.S. dollar, may not be able to increase the price, said Gunnar Knapp, director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"There is no question that the price is extremely low today in Bristol Bay and no question that it imposes extreme hardship on fishermen, but that doesn't necessarily mean the price is unreasonable given the actual market conditions," said Knapp, an expert on fisheries economics.

But, he said, it's hard for fishermen to trust that the processors are paying them fairly if they don't have the financial information to see for themselves. He said the important numbers to understand are wholesale prices and the financial health and costs of each processor.

"The latter two are not easy to obtain, but there are plenty of consultants around who know the industry and can make pretty reasonable guesses about how fish size, run times, labor and other factors affects costs," he said. "In any negotiation, you need a sense of what you're going to be able to get."

Depending on how sales perform in the next several months, fishermen could receive additional payments that would effectively increase what they receive from processors this year.

"We've always gotten those adjustments, but from what I hear from other fishermen, we're not going to get it," Sabo said. "If they want to justify 50 cents per pound -- show us their sales, inventories and profits. We just don't know what sets our price."

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