We Alaskans

Reading the North: Fish wars

Rough Waters: Our North Pacific Small Fishermen's Battle

By Nancy Danielson Mendenhall; Far Eastern Press; $22.95.

What it's about: A commercial fisherman looks at the threats facing West Coast small-boat fishermen, including ecological changes, weak management, and pushback from industrial fishing. As a result, some fishing families and towns — and businesses that rely on them — struggle to stay afloat.

Mendenhall delves into the root causes and effects of the industry's problems through stories, photos, interviews with those most affected, and analysis from biologists and social researchers.

The book presents the issue in two parts. The first analyzes state-managed West Coast fisheries vs. federally managed fisheries. Mendenhall goes on to compare the industry in the United States with other parts of the world, examining the destruction she contends is wrought by the strategy of "catch-share" management.

As more national environmental groups take interest in the plight of small-boat fishermen, the author sees hope that the industry can be saved. But as "Rough Waters" shows, the battle is far from over

Excerpt: Each summer the Anchorage daily paper prints a photo that makes me cringe. It shows scores of sport fishermen crammed elbow to elbow, casting for salmon on one of the Alaskan rivers one can reach by the road system out of Anchorage. Behind the anglers we see their army of RVs, many of them from outside Alaska. Sometimes right among them are scavenging bears. Out on the river are the schools of powered skiffs, each trying for a big fish.


Sport fishing attracts people with a wide range of attitudes about fish stewardship and nature. One image we have is a Norman Rockwell painting of grandpa helping a small boy bait a hook on the bank of a stream. Another is a party boat full of weaving rowdies with fancy poles, tossing beer cans in the water, chasing trophies. Another is the quiet fly fisherman stalking steelhead on a remote, clear stream. And another I have is that herd of RVs lined up along the Kenai River and the dozens of chartered boats roaring up and down to find a spot with room to cast, their wake sometimes washing away spawning areas.

A source of worry for commercial and subsistence fishermen in Alaska and everywhere is the growing economic and political strength of the recreational fishing industry. It can't overcome the subsistence priority, but it can target commercial fishermen as competitors to demolish. Today it especially focuses on gillnetters, accusing them of bad conservation practices, taking more than their fair share, and holding up the rebuilding of prize sport fish runs. Whenever a salmon or other coveted run is lower than average, angry debates before the Board of Fish or other governmental groups are guaranteed, with ENGOs (environmental non-governmental organizations) jumping into the fray as well. If the recreational fishing associations don't win there, the next step will be the legislatures or the courts.

In past decades, the identified enemies of our salmon were the foreign fleets, big canners, big irrigators, timber companies and pulp mills, ladderless dams, creek robbers, and the intercepting commercial fleets. Today some of the noisiest fish battles in the West are waged between gillnetters and sport fishing associations on the Lower Columbia and on the rivers on the road system near Anchorage. This kind of competition will not be a problem for my region unless they build a connecting road from the state highway system into Nome. But elsewhere, the battles drain energy of fishermen and managers from more basic problems: Where went the missing Chinook salmon? They didn't all go into the totes of gillnetters. How will we get the funds appropriated to rebuild habitat wrecked by mines and logging? What about growing acidification in the ocean? Instead the Board is besieged by people angry over gillnetting. It's an easy target.

Competitive pressure on western stocks of salmon, halibut, crab and cod increases as the share of recreational fishing in the economy increases. The pressure is noticeable in areas around cities, but also in rural towns where the commercial fleet has disappeared and that now depend on tourist fishing. Among the charter fleets everywhere, not just in Homer, commercial fishermen have turned to skippering charter boats to survive. The recreational fishing sector's share in the national economy was about $50 billion annually, involving at least 320,000 jobs in 2012. That may not count the jobs with fishing suppliers. States receive significant support for their fish and wildlife programs from sport licenses, a big share of that from non-residents. With the growing number of sport-fishing constituents and the revenue from sports licenses greater than from commercial licenses in certain districts, the Northwest states and British Columbia have made sport fishing a higher priority than commercial when it comes to doling out the fishing quota. But often the reason for recreational industry's lobbying success is that it is more sophisticated politically and has serious money committed to its battles.