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Alaska CDQ fish fight: Alaskans vs. Alaskans this time

Clem Tillion

There’s nothing like a good fish fight to bring out the Alaskan riff raff. My name’s Clem Tillion. It’s been decades since I was "fish czar” for Governor Hickel, but I haven’t learned a thing, so I’ll open my mouth and take the bait.

There’s nothing particularly special about this fish fight. The people on one side want fish from the people on the other. Only difference is that it’s Alaskans versus Alaskans this time, a critical distinction if you’re the Alaska congressional delegation and obligated to pick the winners and losers.

When we created the Western Alaska Community Development Quota (CDQ) Program in 1991, we took fish from Seattle and Japan and gave it to Alaska villages within 50 miles of the Bering Sea coast, a little easier than Alaskans versus Alaskans. Governor Hickel wasn’t long on detail, he just told me to make sure there was fresh fish year-round at the Captain Cook Hotel and that it was unconscionable to have the people of the Bering Sea standing on the beach while somebody else caught the fish. It was great progress just to get our villages a sliver, and not a bad trade for the Seattle and Japanese companies who ultimately got the other 90 percent of the Bering Sea fish.

Fast-forward 20 years, now some of the 65 Alaska CDQ villages want to adjust who gets the CDQ fish. Specifically, 20 Kuskokwim villages representing 9,000 Alaskans want the CDQ fish to be based on population, which would increase the fish they and 9,000 Alaskans along Norton Sound receive, at the expense of 9,000 Alaskans along the Yukon, Bristol Bay, Aleutians and Pribilof coasts who currently receive the most CDQ fish per person. The Kuskokwim villages -- represented by Coastal Villages Region Fund or CVRF -- also say they have the greatest need in terms of poverty, unemployment and economic challenges.

Neither population nor need were driving forces when we created the CDQ Program in 1991. We wanted to give the fish to the Alaskans most likely to take control and put Alaskans to work in the Bering Sea. We’d had enough of being Seattle’s fish colony, enough of the good jobs and fish money leaving Alaska. Alaska had been ahead of its time on some things. Back in 1913, for instance, House Bill 1 of the Alaska Territorial Legislature gave women the right to vote well ahead of women’s suffrage nationally. Seattle’s control of our salmon fisheries drove the push for Alaska Statehood in the 1950s. But even today, a hundred years after Alaskan women can vote and half a century after Alaska Statehood, if you want a professional career in the Alaska seafood industry, you’ll still have to move to Seattle.

The thing I like about the Kuskokwim CDQ group is they’ve taken full, 100-percent ownership and control of their large vessels in the Bering Sea. With control they can, and are, putting Alaskans to work. About a third of the crew on CVRF’s crab fleet comes from their own region, and they’re hiring for their recently acquired pollock and cod boats too. At CVRF’s headquarters in Anchorage, right next to the Conoco building, there are 40 professional seafood jobs that used to be in Seattle, many now held by Western Alaskans. Over the past 10 years, the CVRF group has become the largest employer in the Kuskokwim region.

Do I work for CVRF? No. I’m too busy driving a tug boat in Halibut Cove and trying to help Adak develop a local, small-boat fishing economy. CVRF got my attention last year when they announced plans to move the fleet they’ve just purchased from Seattle up to Alaska. Apparently Seattle can’t believe these petulant Alaskans want to move the Alaska fishing fleet to Alaska. CVRF got pummeled in the Seattle press. I’m proud to have helped CVRF be in a position to make that decision through the CDQ Program. Won’t be easy, but Seattle will adapt. It’s time to move the Alaska fleet home for the first time.

I don’t know why the other five CDQ companies aren’t doing the same. Until they take control and move management of the big boats to Alaska, we will not have fulfilled the CDQ dream held by Governor Hickel and others. Control the boats, control the jobs. Some of the CDQ groups say their tax exempt status prevents them from owning more than 50 percent or from managing and operating the vessels themselves. I applaud CVRF for not using this as an excuse. The CDQ tax exemption issue is already giving Alaska a black eye. It’s the only legitimate grievance of the Seattle companies and other Alaska companies about a fair playing field with CDQ companies. I encourage the other CDQ groups to stop clipping coupons, to start doing some work, and to start bringing the big boats home to Alaska. No excuses, and no free ride on taxes.

The Alaska Congressional Delegation can decide for itself whether population and votes matter now, as suggested by CVRF. But if we applied the original CDQ criteria -- jobs for Alaskans -- CVRF would do very well. They’ve taken control, they’re providing the jobs, they’re moving the management and boats to Alaska, they’re “walking the walk.”

It’ll be a rough CDQ battle ahead. Nobody gives up fish without a fight. The only thing for sure is that it will get nasty before it gets resolved. By contrast with the real bullets I saw seven decades ago at Guadalcanal, though, this and all the other fish battles are a pleasure. A tough chore for the Alaska Congressional delegation, no doubt, but exactly what they’ve been elected to sort out. The CDQ Program now brings in hundreds of millions of dollars each year. It’s a pie worth fighting over, and a success for Alaska no matter how you slice it.

Clem Tillion is a retired commercial fisherman and a nine-term former Alaska state legislator. He is a charter member and past chairman of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and has served on numerous government fisheries regulation councils and committees. He lives in Halibut Cove, near Homer, Alaska.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.