Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A New Direction For The Fisheries

Democracy worked recently in the latest Gubernatorial race in Alaska in my opinion. Special interests lost and that's the way Alaskans wanted it. Since my interest and experience is in the fishing industry, and Regional Seafood Development Associations in particular, I'm referring to the need for the State of Alaska to be a lot more pro-active in RSDA development in Alaska. Because they work.

This piece is about democracy in the fisheries. The point is that the fish business has been not significantly different in result than when Stalin ordered increased production on the Amur River every year until there was practically nothing left. You know, that river in Siberia that Captain Cook tried to sail up and said he was "stopped by a shoale of salmon." I use this as a reference point as to how many salmon the North Pacific supported at one time. Now I hear that 2013 was the first year on record that there wasn't even an opening for salmon seiners to fish for real wild salmon in Southeast Alaska, and there was no commercial harvest of king salmon allowed on the mighty Yukon River. You might say, "but there are huge harvests of salmon by seiners in S.E. Alaska" Yes, but those are 'ocean ranched' salmon. Are we facing extinction in the many hundreds of salmon streams? Are we satisfied with a remnant few genetically strong salmon in the creeks? Since the National Marine Fisheries Service is ultimately responsible, is this federal underreach?

I don't think fishermen are satisfied with the situation. I talk to fishermen all the time, I had my own boat once and worked on many other boats and in the plants, in fish banking, government, and in marine equipment design and construction. The small boat fishermen that built the coastal communities in Alaska are bailing out all the time. Power plays in Juneau and at the NPFMC have decimated the fleet. This does not work. Is there a better way; to involve the small boat fishermen themselves on a continuous basis, and to guide the communities who depend on healthy fleets?

RSDAs were proposed in 1991 and it was finally put into a program fourteen years later. The RSDA program has it's own location on the State of Alaska web site. You can read all about it there. It's just that the State of Alaska hasn't been good at effecting it. To this day the folks in Kodiak don't know anything about it, and that small group of folks who like to keep their thumbs on things there like it just fine that way. In fact there are some there that want to co-opt an idea for community shares of the catch in the name of democracy, to form a fiefdom. It just gets stranger and more disruptive under the status quo.

But several regions of Alaska have gotten together and formed up RSDAs through the State program and are making real progress. The classic example is in Bristol Bay where their efforts put three million dollars in the back pockets of fishermen in their first year. They have also been pro-active in protecting themselves from threats to the habitat in the watershed itself. Prince William Sound is following suit.

This is a State government program that was effected to allow fishermen to help themselves in a democratic way. But you wouldn't believe how many people don't want to see democracy in the fisheries. This issue is why Alaskans got together and pushed for statehood in the first place. Seattle and San Francisco canning companies controlled the harvesting, processing and marketing, with the help of their lobbyists in Washington D.C. The theory that Alaskans couldn't manage their own affairs was disproved then and again when the Japanese said Americans could never make surimi from all our own bottomfish.

The existing RSDAs in Alaska are proving that fishermen can improve their own lot and the lot of the communities they live in. The State's only role is to collect a very small percentage of the catch, pool it by region, and give it back in a yearly lump sum to pay for things that benefit the gear groups that voted to join up in a region. Not all gear groups in a region need join the merry band. 

 If you are talking hope for the future, what hope do you see right now with salmon and halibut stocks failing? Compare that to the hope production associations offer. Ask the Florida orange growers, or the almond growers how it helped them. Or the Land-O-Lakes milk producers. Lots of intertwined issues only real fishermen understand. I've stated this all before, but now seems to be a good time to remind folks. The Governor Elect of Alaska wants to go in new directions to sort out various messes: well here's one idea that already has traction. No need to re-invent the wheel with lots of ideas that benefit just that many people. Just get the word out on how it works and work with some point fishermen a little closer.

Oh, and when you have a fishermen's meeting, for one gear group at a time, make it permit-holder only to keep the nay-sayers and shills out. That's been eating Alaska's fish and chips lunch to date. When it comes to regions of Alaska that don't have RSDAs, the old saying applies, "The curse causeless does not come."

There are no downside risks in forming a RSDA for the economy of a region. The upside is higher fish prices for all fishermen in the area, beating back external threats like Marine Protected Areas and other resource extraction industries that harm the fisheries, such as mining, inappropriate or weak marketing of the seafood harvest, the State of Alaska saves a lot of money in many aspects of prosecuting the fisheries, and the communities get a good take on what is really going on so as to guide their decision making. The State should do what it does best, offer scientific advice, organizational help, and introduce new technology.

Remember, the basis for all the privatization of the fish stocks is that the fishermen/owners have a vested interest in healthy stocks and the best ways to make money from those stocks. There's no going back on that now, so the way forward needs to be in sync with that philosophy. It's worked in countless other industries, just not in the fisheries, yet. Alaska can't afford to get it wrong, there is nowhere for these coastal communities to run, unlike in the Lower 48. Alaska just had a top-down Governor with all kinds of special interests, even in the fisheries, and we all saw how well that worked out. Not that he was the only governor to go down that path. I've been looking at this association concept since I was a loan officer at the Alaska Commercial Fishing and Agriculture Bank in the '80s and I think this new Administration would be encouraged in this if they took a hard, unbiased look at it.