The early 1970s were not good years for the salmon industry in Bristol Bay. The largest catch in the first five years of the decade came in 1970, a paltry 10 million fish. Compared to today’s numbers, a catch that small would be called a disaster.
When 1973 yielded 2 million fish, the state of Alaska, knowing something needed to change, instituted a limited-entry program.
The theory was there were too many fishermen targeting too few fish. In reality, most of the poor runs were associated with poor fisheries management.
It wasn't intentional. Fisheries personnel were doing the best they could with no tools to work with. Today, fisheries managers can tell you which creek on what river system a given sockeye salmon came from within a day or two of catch. Timed fishery openings are orchestrated to let salmon escape to the many varied systems in optimum numbers.
In 2018 a few river systems over-escaped and some ill-informed squawkers harped about it to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Having spent 50-plus years in the commercial fishery, 40-some of that in Bristol Bay, I can say, with a good degree of credence, there will never be a way to stop every excess fish.
No one can predict the net size necessary to catch every fish. There are no processors who can tell you exactly how many salmon their delivering fishermen will catch relative to their processing capacity. The weather is not predictable. The list goes on. Five million extra fish up the creek is not a disaster.
The 2018 sockeye run was the largest on record. That was a good thing for the entry-permit holders. Entry permits work in much the same manner of a city liquor license. Only a specified number of licenses are issued. If a newcomer wants in he “pays his money and takes his chances.” Grab a 1980 outboard and a boat with a hole in it and see if you can make back the $150,000 it takes to get into a decent setnet operation.
Drift gillnetting is more expensive yet. The permits are edging up near the 175,000 mark. A 32-foot drift boat that can contend with competition and hold enough fish and crew to work the short openings can set you back $100,000 to $200,000 or more. And, you had better be a mechanic, or have a good crewman on board who is.
Some say that it is time for limited entry to go away or be modified. I disagree. The system has been a stabilizing factor in the fishery.
Quality is the one item that is often overlooked by those who wish to get rid of the limited-entry system. Much of the success and improved quality in Bristol Bay fishing is due almost entirely to the knowledge of experienced fishermen and their understanding of what’s necessary to produce quality fish.
Another argument used to naysay the entry program is that our local permits are going south. Let’s take a little closer look at that.
In 1900 there were no local fishermen. None. The canneries brought all of their people from Seattle and beyond. Fishermen, processing crews and all. Local guys got some employment in grunt jobs, but they did not run the fishery.
Things gradually changed over the decades, sometimes not for the better. The Japanese had a dozen or more factory trawlers in the Bay in 1937. In 1975, when limited-entry permits came on the scene, 84 percent of setnet permits and 60 percent of the drift gear was held by resident Alaskans, many of whom resided in the Bristol Bay watershed.
The numbers published in 2011 by Fish and Game showed drift gear to be 55 percent nonresident. Set permit ownership had dropped to 67 percent for Alaska residents. However, not all of this change is due to permit sales. The median age of permit holders has risen. Some of these older residents migrated south for the off season. Others died. Of the 140 Alaskans who had received a nontransferable permit, 50 are left.
Yes, one might like see an all-Alaskan fishery. Which of you who read this was born in Alaska? Which of you who came from another state is now employed in Alaska? We need you. Without you, your capital and your family, this state would be nowhere.
Cannery workers? A lot of them come from Mexico and the Philippines. Why? Try hiring a college kid from California. You will end up like my friend: When asked how many folks he had working for him, he replied, “About half.”
Yes, these folks from Outside take much of their money home. A goodly amount stays in local towns. Five bucks for margarine. Seven dollars for a loaf of bread. Two thousand for a water pump for a Volvo diesel (not installed). Naknek ain't cheap.
Limited entry is not perfect. It can be tweaked and maybe should undergo minor changes to help protect local permits, especially watershed permits. A private entity, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., is working on just that, with a permit loan program just for those residents.
Meanwhile, we can thank the forethought of the state of Alaska for the development of a plan that has made Bristol Bay sockeye the flagship salmon fishery in Alaska and the world.