Imagine if the allocation of North Slope gas and assets were subject to a treaty with Canada and two other states. And imagine that in the process of renegotiating a 10-year renewal, the state of Alaska was caving into a federal regulation threat; one that would result in a 65 percent loss of Alaska revenue compared to previous years.
Alaskans would be outraged. In a sense, this is happening to Southeast salmon trollers as the state renegotiates the 10-year renewal of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Few Alaskans are aware of how severely we have cut our king salmon harvest in the past 20 years to meet the treaty. Nonetheless, shouldn't the "Alaska First" principle apply to any further reductions? One would think so.
In defense of its proposal to accept even larger cuts to Alaska's king salmon harvest, the Alaska Department of Fish of Game cites the risk of federal takeover of the fisheries that are now managed by the state. According to former Pacific Salmon Commissioner Jev Shelton, "This is the same argument they made 10 years ago. It's what we heard 20 years ago. We dealt successfully with the threat then. There is no way in the world the federal government would take over management, particularly with Sen. Murkowski's influence."
Back when the treaty was being negotiated under Gov. Tony Knowles, I was serving as the Fisheries Specialist in the Department of Community and Economic Development. I remember the state standing down the National Marine Fisheries Service threat of revoking an Endangered Species Act permit. The ultimate irony is that back then, when the state stood firm, the president was a Democrat and the senate was controlled by Democrats. Back when politicians actually cared about protecting the environment, Alaska challenged the federal government. Alaska then, as it does now, had formidable strengths in biological expertise and political influence. We had the leadership to use those advantages strategically, with resolve and confidence.
In a May 22 meeting with Southeast trollers in Sitka, Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten defended his agency's proposal to accept the allocation outcomes of the new treaty negotiations. "I don't think we're losers if we find ourselves in a position of deciding to accept an agreement that isn't everything we wanted," he said.
"That's a stunning statement," said former Pacific Salmon Commissioner Shelton. "First, based only on an overused threat, Alaska is willing to accept additional and significant reductions to historic harvest shares of king salmon. Really? That sounds remarkably like successful extortion. Second, Commissioner Cotten intimates that Alaska achieved desired results elsewhere in this negotiation. If so, pray tell us where?"
Individual fisheries also take significant hits from ADFG's proposed changes. Jev Shelton explains: "The Taku gillnet fishery is abused, and there's no obvious advantage to other affected fisheries. It might be good for the Noyes Island seine fleet. If so, show us why that makes sense. This 'agreement' involves some big losses for fishermen. The negotiators and the commissioner may not consider themselves losers. The fleets assuredly are," Shelton concluded.
In my history as executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska and other roles in fish politics, I had a front-row seat to the phenomenal solidarity of commercial fishers. In past treaty negotiations, the fleets were all-for-one and one-for-all. That is no longer true. It's a big difference. As I learn about this shift in fleet solidarity since I last engaged in treaty nuances, I realize it is this shift that allows Deputy Commissioner Charles Swanton (the department lead on treaty negotiations) to settle for a weak outcome. Still, that doesn't make it right to leave about 100 Taku gillnetters and roughly 900 king salmon trollers out to dry. These are small businesses that provide an essential economic foundation for several Southeast communities.
Without getting too "inside baseball" about treaty nuances, there are two more salient points to consider about the sacrificial position that Southeast trollers are asked to accept. First, given the ever-accelerating development and loss of habitat in the Seattle area, the stock that is triggering the Endangered Species Act takeover threat is likely to go extinct anyway. Second, this stock makes up less than 1 percent of the average annual Alaska trolling commercial catch, while mortality on those stocks when hooked and released in Puget Sound and coastal Washington exceeds any effect in Alaska.
In an October 2016 letter to NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Sens. Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young spoke as one, saying, "The net effect (of the treaty) has been unduly disruptive for Alaska's commercial fisheries, which have suffered multiple early closures as a direct result of unbalanced quotas that did not match the stock abundance." With Alaska's congressional delegation already on board with the shortfalls of the treaty, why not be willing to take on a federal threat?
Now we have an aggressive anti-environment administration that has already rolled back 22 regulations. Why are we reluctant to challenge an Endangered Species Act takeover threat on a fish that makes up less than 1 percent of the average annual Alaska commercial trolling catch? Particularly when the numbers and the politics align even better, how can the state and the Department of Fish and Game be more timid about putting Alaska first behind Southeast fishermen? We would be outraged and demand that the state stand and fight if the resource being negotiated away was Alaska's natural gas. We must do the same for Southeast fisheries.