We've got a major meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries on tap starting Tuesday through Dec. 8 at the Hilton hotel in downtown Anchorage.
The topic is Bristol Bay finfish.
Quite a few controversial proposals are on the table, including one that would allow the use of salmon boats longer than the current limit of 32 feet.
Other proposals would allow a person to own and fish more than one gillnet permit.
These proposals have come up before, but I'm sensing a little more buzz around them this time.
A reader kindly sent me the following opinion column, which I'm happy to share with you now. The author, Fritz Johnson, fishes the bay aboard the F/V Jazz. He also works for the Dillingham-based Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp.
Please note the views in the column belong to the author, not Deckboss, who tries to keep his head down and stay neutral on these fish fights!
Bristol Bay: Riches To Rags? Alaska Policy Decisions
By Fritz Johnson
Readers who follow the Alaska Board of Fisheries may be reminded this week of Yogi Berra's comment about deja vu all over again.
Proposals before the board, mostly from out-of-state fishermen, would allow bigger boats and multiple fishing permits to be used in the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, changes that Bristol Bay residents remain convinced will hurt their income and the region's economy.
Three years ago the board took no action on these so-called
"restructuring" proposals other than to table the proposals for further study. Further study is what the board's guidelines call for if regulation changes are expected to have "substantial economic, social or biological impacts."
If board members have actually studied how bigger boats and multiple fishing permits will affect Bristol Bay's watershed residents, they've kept the findings to themselves. Except for the pro and con views of others, the board hasn't published anything, and five of the seven board members have been replaced since the proposals were tabled back in 2006.
The Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. took that initiative. BBEDC is the region's Community Development Quota organization that invests in economic development and education projects in the Bristol Bay region. Its research ought to be of interest to every public policymaker, from the Board of Fisheries to Alaska legislators and the Office of the Governor, because the picture it paints is of a fishery that's gradually slipping away from the Alaskans who are most dependent on it for their survival.
According to U.S. census data, in 1980 per capita income of residents of the Bristol Bay Borough was among the highest in the United States. Today it is below that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation.
Alaska salmon fishing rights, which provided that enviable per capita income 30 years ago, have been disappearing as nonresidents buy up resident-owned salmon fishing permits. When the state's limited entry system was adopted in 1976, Bristol Bay watershed residents owned nearly 50 percent of the drift gillnet fishing permits. Today they own barely 20 percent and the money they earn from salmon fishing is 30 percent less than what non-Alaskans earn.
That gap will widen if changes in Bristol Bay fishing regulations give advantages to people with access to capital. That's the conclusion of Gunnar Knapp, economist with the University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research. Not only do watershed residents earn less money from fishing, their living costs are more than twice that of the Lower 48, and except for commercial salmon fishing in the summer, other job opportunities are extremely limited.
For the most part, people who live in the Bristol Bay watershed will not be able to afford the cost of bigger fishing boats and second $80,000 fishing licenses.
Others will, however, largely nonresident fishers, and with bigger boats fishing multiple permits their share of Bristol Bay's salmon harvest will grow at the expense of Alaskans with smaller boats and single fishing permits.
Calls to restructure Alaska's salmon industry came following several years of poor returns and low prices that were felt most strongly beginning in 1997. Since that time, fish runs and prices have rebounded, and Alaska's wild salmon are increasingly valued on world markets.
Natural cycles in salmon abundance are to be expected, however, which explains why some are driven to consolidate competitive fishing advantages by regulation. But Alaska policymakers need to ask if improving our salmon fishery should be guided by those who would, in the name of maximizing economic efficiency, give a larger share of the resource to fewer people.
Is such a course in the best interest of the state of Alaska? Or should state fisheries policy be guided by concern for sustaining coastal communities where Alaska livelihoods depend on access to nearby fishery resources?
Fifty years ago with statehood came Alaska's ban on fish traps, symbolic of the exploitation of Alaska's resources by West Coast canners. It would be a sad comment on our failure as Alaskans if 50 years from now Alaskans are sitting on shore while nonresidents do all the fishing.