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CDQs bring millions in fishing profits -- and jobs -- to poor western Alaska villages

Molly Dischner
Phillip Lestenkof's halibut fishing operation in St. Paul: From left, David Merculieff, Vivian Lestenkof, Dino Zacharoff and Fanya Rukovishnikoff. August 1, 2012 Courtesy Phillip Lestenkof

Fishing is life in much of Alaska.

Congress tried to honor that connection when it created the Community Development Quota, or CDQ, program, in 1992.

Before CDQs, commercial fishing was dominated by outside interests, most notably from foreign countries and other states, said Clem Tillion, who helped create the program as then-Gov. Wally Hickel’s fisheries guru.

The program gave six groups, meant to represent a total of 65 communities along a 50-mile stretch of the Bering Sea coast, an allocation in certain Bering Sea fisheries managed by the federal government.

The groups are nonprofit corporations that represent a total 27,000 Alaska residents. Each has a set geographic range in Western Alaska, from Atka to Diomede.

Essentially, they are fishing companies with local ties. The six CDQ groups are charged with using their fishing rights to benefit their coastal communities. Coastal Villages Region Fund, or CVRF, and the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., or NSEDC, are the largest of the CDQ groups, each representing about a third of the total CDQ population.

The remaining third is split between the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association.

The federal government is in charge of managing the fisheries from three miles off Alaska’s shore to 200 miles out. Many of the decisions are made by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which signed off on the CDQ program before it went to Congress.

A desire to get Alaskans into the fisheries just off its shore was at the heart of the CDQ program when it was developed. Twenty years later, the CDQ groups have accomplished that to varying degrees. Last year, the program brought $178 million in fishing revenue to the Alaska entities.

Still, the program has been controversial from the start, requiring those community entities to balance commercial and cultural interests that are sometimes at odds.

With cash came questions

Pollock – and its salmon bycatch – is one of the most controversial parts of that program. Bycatch is the act of accidently catching one fish while targeting another.

In 2011, Bering Sea pollock trawlers, including those fishing CDQ allotments, caught 25,500 king salmon as bycatch. The same year, the federal government declared fisheries disasters for the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers due to poor king runs and shut down the ability of the people along the river to fish for salmon that not only provide for survival -- food for families over the long winter in communities where the price of goods, services and groceries are astronomical -- but also keep alive their collective cultural identity, knowledge, and practices, key elements to creating healthy, thriving communities. Although the bycatch salmon are not wasted -- they are processed by SeaShare and distributed to charitable outlets -- they never make it to the rivers where they spawn. That causes federal and state regulators to take out the shortfall on the Native peoples along the rivers by closing their subsistence fishery instead of the commercial industry in the ocean. The results are law- enforcement issues and food shortages for the people living along the river.

Escapement goals (the number of fish needed to return from the ocean to the river and upstream spawning grounds) were not met. Neither were the amounts needed for subsistence, as designated by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The six CDQ groups are part of that trawl sector. But they also represent, and were created to benefit, many of the communities that did not catch kings that summer.

Coastal Villages Region Fund, one of the six, owns and operates its own pollock boats, some in conjunction with Norton Sound Economic Development Corp.

The Coastal Villages Region Fund has 20 member communities, from Platinum to Scammon Bay. Because of that community tie, the groups make efforts to limit its bycatch.

On the groups’ boat Northern Hawk, bycatch rates are lower than the industry average.

“We’re very concerned about bycatch,” said Dawson Hoover (Yup’ik), Coastal Village’s communications coordinator. He was born in Kasigluk, and grew up in the region.

Hoover said that as Coastal  boats fish, captains look at each haul to see what it contains, so they can move to avoid king hotspots if necessary.

Other CDQs work to minimize bycatch. For example, in a 2012 report to the state of Alaska, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. reported that it had caught nearly 100 percent of its fishery allocations over the past decade, but fewer than 50 percent of its prohibited-species catch limit. The prohibited-species catch limit is the maximum amount of certain species that can be caught incidentally, including kings caught by pollock trawlers.

But Myron Naneng, president of the Alaska Association of Village Council Presidents, said his organization would like to see CDQ groups do more to curb their bycatch.

He also noted that while the CDQ groups do a lot for their region, most of the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions aren’t included in a CDQ area, because they’re not along the coast. So they don’t receive the benefits, even though they’re dependent on many of the same fish, Naneng said.

In the past, some of the CDQ groups testified to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, asking for a higher cap than subsistence users thought was fair.

Naneng said he realizes the CDQ groups aren’t the only ones taking king salmon, but every take makes a difference, and the recent low returns don’t leave any room for excess catch, he said.

“They need to be more supportive of subsistence efforts,” Naneng said.

Sharing knowledge

In striking a balance between commercial operations and subsistence culture, fish camp is one way CDQ groups use their profits to support local fish culture.

Students from the Bristol Bay region can attend Salmon Camp at Lake Aleknagik, which is organized by Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., in partnership with other organizations. That camp, which targets students in grades six to 12, teaches salmon biology, stream ecology and fisheries management.

Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. provides financial support for community-developed programs that offer an opportunity for youth to learn from elders, and an opportunity for new teachers in Nome and other Bering Strait communities to learn the tradition and importance of subsistence activities to the regional culture, according to Norton Sound’s Tyler Rhodes.

Norton Sound also hires a host of summer employees, many of them young adults from within the Norton Sound region, who do fisheries biology and management work throughout the area.

This summer’s projects include counting fish, rehabilitating runs, gathering data to develop fisheries, tagging crab, monitoring stocks and cleaning beaches.

Those jobs aren’t so different from fish camp, Rhodes said.

In fact, for some of young adults that Norton Sound hires, the work is an education in the some of the same skills needed for subsistence fishing: operating boats, handling fish, living in remote camps for periods of time.

The staff will largely come from the region.

While other regions receive an influx of biologists from elsewhere each summer, the Norton Sound projects rely largely on area residents, particularly young adults.

Rhodes said that hiring from within the region has always been a focus at Norton Sound. It’s part of maintaining the regional fishing culture, he said.

“We recognize that fishing plays a central role in the well being of our communities,” Rhodes said.

One of Norton Sound’s focuses is to collect eggs, fertilize them, and replant them in the same river system, but in a location that might have better habitat for fish rearing. It also supports fish weirs and counting towers.

Economic successes

Despite the controversies, the economics have worked out to benefit the region.

The groups earn money from catching the species they’re allocated, or leasing the quota to someone else to catch, and that money is used to fund each group’s operations.

Most are overseen by boards of directors, who decide how to spend the money.

Hoover said that Coastal Villages spent $24.8 million on community programs last year, including helping buy heating oil in some communities.

Naneng agreed that the money does good in coastal communities. AVCP knows that villages in the CDQ region get community benefits and scholarships from money the groups earn, he said.

Last summer, Coastal Villages sent nets to subsistence fishermen after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said they could fish only with a different mesh than they usually use.

Norton Sound also provides financial support for community groups trying to do their own work in the region – either on the rivers or just supporting community groups’ causes.

The entity also provides technical assistance and funding for groups that want to testify to fisheries managers at meetings throughout the state.

Creating jobs

The benefits of commercial fishing aren’t limited to funding community programs.

While CDQ groups are only allocated a piece of federal fisheries, those operations support smaller-scale fisheries in each region by buying fish and operating processing plants, as well as by helping provide gear.

Those activities, in turn, create local jobs.

Coastal Villages Region Fund is the largest Alaska-owned fishing company in the state -- and the largest in the state’s history, Hoover said.

The fund has staff in each of its 20 member communities, including people working in its processing plant, community service centers, as welders, and on the fishing boats it owns and operates. Hoover said that the organization is a major employer in the region.

In some cases, CDQ groups are also helping residents access the fisheries.

For most CDQ groups, area residents are able to use the group’s allocations to fish halibut. Those allocations are part of the way the program is created, although the exact catch level is determined each year by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, based largely on the stock status.

Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. also helps residents access permits for area salmon fisheries.

The groups are involved in the processing side of the business, too.

Coastal Villages and Norton Sound are the primary regional buyers for their regions. Other CDQs are also involved in that aspect of the fishery.

The presence of processors in a community makes a difference, Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association spokesman Larry Cotter told the North Pacific Fishery Management Council this spring.

“If you look at Aleutian Pribilof Island region, every community in that region that has a year-round processing facility is at least stable,” Cotter said. “And every community that does not is in a varying level of decay or decline.”

Coastal Villages has six halibut plants fishermen can deliver to, and processed herring for the first time this summer, too. That’s the first herring-processing activity in the region since 2006.

Coastal Villages takes a loss on processing some fish, including herring and salmon, because it thinks it’s important to maintain regional fisheries, Hoover said. It’s earnings from pollock and other Bering Sea fisheries offset those losses.

In addition to buying fish, Coastal Villages has programs that help fishermen buy boats, motors and other gear at a subsidized cost.

While that’s partially for commercial fishing, it also supports subsistence activity, because often the same gear is used regardless of what the fish will be used for in the end, Hoover said.

For the Norton Sound region, Rhodes described a similar overlap between subsistence and commercial activity.

Fishermen might do both while out on one trip. And money earned from the commercial catch often pays for gas and gear needed for subsistence activity.

Norton Sound also paid for a different species this winter. Tom cod were caught in a smaller fishery that some families pursued.

That’s often a subsistence fishery, but the commercial opportunity encouraged people to get out and fish.

“It was great this winter to drive by the harbor and see families out there,” Rhodes said.

Coastal Villages is trying to get residents onto those boats, so that they’re the ones benefiting from the jobs.

This year, 12 community members — from Hooper Bay, Kipnuk, Kongiganak, Mekoryuk, Newtok, Scammon Bay, Toksook Bay and Tuntutuliak — are on Coastal Villages’ four crab boats.

“We want to make captains out of our own residents,” he said.

Molly Dischner is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. Her story first appeared in First Alaskans magazine and is used with permission.