Saturday, March 24, 2007

Bristol Bay fishermen to swim upstream

The Bristol Bay sockeye salmon gillnet fisheries, (there are two), have evolved considerably since the 1800s. Sailing ships full of Chinese laborers and supplies used to come to the Bay in the spring in a fleet. The canning companies owned the open sail boats that harvested the fish. Then when Alaska became a state, engines were allowed but the length of the net and the boat were limited.

National Geographic Channel photo; They should have named the new reality show, "Fishery gone Wild."

Then in the early '70s the number of permits to fish were limited and the imperative a cannery had to own a fleet of fishing boats vanished. The fishermen were now the owners of the fish, at least for a couple of hours. That's made the processing/marketing companies nervous ever since. And don't forget to watch the new National Geographic reality show, "Cowboys of the Sea," starting April 16th at 7 pm in Alaska (Thanks to Shawn Dochtermann for the heads-up).

Somehow the number of permits has crept up considerably to where most people think there are way too many. But I don't know of anyone who thinks that "I'm in the "too many."" Some people think that "permit stacking" causes fishermen to eat each other up. And that the processors fuel this by only offering production bonuses as they sell the pack, when they really need to be offering quality bonuses to improve the product.

That would in turn give fishermen that try hard to deliver a top QUALITY fish, and build for the future, the extra money to make selling out not necessary. These processing companies wield the power on the Board of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. So with this structure, the State of Alaska is basically saying quality doesn't matter. Why is it that the breakthrough in air freighting salmon couldn't have come from the State's Fisheries Industrial Technology Center? Unless the state bureaucracy(ASMI) and the co-joined major processors don't really care what fishermen get for their catch. (Why is it that the Executive Director of ASMI, a retired Coast Guardsman and golfing partner of the husband of the former Ex. Director, needs to be on the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board? It has been a conduit for tens of millions of dollars of federal money to flow directly to the processing companies that control the Board of ASMI.)

Now to top it all off, a House Bill seems intent on allowing all kinds of machinations that would cause many more Bristol Bay boats to stay tied up. I haven't worked in that fishery since 1970 when the canneries started paying by the pound instead of the fish. But I know that if you reduce the heck out of the fleet, that region that is hard pressed as it is, won't be more than ghost towns on the edge of the tundra. Except for the mega-processing plants with their flown-in labor force.

All these attempts to engineer a perfect fishery miss some basic points; they don't take into account how the people in the region would like to live, and what kind of organization fishermen really need to be profitable to assist in that endeavor. Up to now, nobody has complained much that the canneries in Bristol Bay ran everyone's lives. A fishermen out there didn't have to invest a cent until the '70s.

The Limited Entry Act changed the dynamic forever. Aggressive young fishermen from all over the place got easy credit from the State and purchased permits for hundreds of thousands of dollars from people that got them free. But the Japanese market was heating up and it penciled out. Now the Japanese market is cool and fishermen want to increase their production, since they can't see an expedient way to get any more money for a pound of fish.

In this climate, the aggressive and well financed fishermen will continue to seek less competition and more production for themselves. The fishery managers and cannery managers will have fewer fishermen to deal with, which lowers their costs. Everyone is happy, right? Not quite. There's nothing to stop the next round of consolidation when the processors drop the price to pay for another Chilean fish farm, or the price of fuel goes to $5 a gallon.

Those that know me, know I'm leading this little dissertation toward the need for a good Regional Seafood Development Association. Under enabling legislation, an RSDA did come together in Bristol Bay, for the drift gillnetters, not the set gillnetters. Of course the drift-netters catch the lions share of the fish.

It's the ultimate solution, and here's what you do when your RSDA doesn't perform the way it should. There may be an RSDA in the Bristol Bay now, but to send it down the runway with enough speed to take off is another matter. Holding it back are the processors, of course, who see fishermen as strong like a circus bear, but tragi-comic in their captivity. Then you have the labyrinth of economic development organizations who love the attention, but never solve the problem.

Keeping in mind that fishermen hardly ever agree on anything, which is why Florida orange growers got their "association" going in the 1930s and Alaskan fishermen still haven't pulled it off. The cranberry growers in the above hyperlinked article got it together and created Ocean Spray and have a plan for the low prices they get at present.

I'm also reminded of when I was put in charge of a "Fisheries Discovery Task Force" of loan officers at a fisheries bank. There had never been a forum for them, so immediately an incredible number of issues surfaced. I have a feeling a lot more issues are going to surface in the Bay, and all over Alaska, before this is over. Hopefully the B.B. RSDA can take over this discussion at some point and become the change agent that most people would like it to be. The current is against them, but hopefully they'll remember that only dead fish swim with the current.