More than 50 years ago, Alaska became a state and broke the domination Outside interests had long held over the salmon of the Alaska Territory. The desire to rid the north of salmon-catching fish traps largely controlled by Washington-state-based fish processors was one of the motivating forces behind statehood. Later, the young state strongly backed federal efforts to drive Japanese fishing boats out of a federal Fisheries Conservation Zone stretching 200 miles out to sea from the Alaska coast.
The political battles then were easy. All Alaskans were united against the foreigners. Things are different now. These days the battles are fought between powerful commercial fishing interests and the masses, though many of the latter have yet to catch on. When the National Marine Fisheries Service went to Homer in August to explain to charter boat skippers and the public that new fishing rules drafted by commercial fishing interests will likely mean a one-fish limit for charter anglers next year, there appeared to be only one member of the general public there -- a halibut angler from Outside.
He did make his opinion known. If the Alaska halibut limit dropped from two fish to one next year, he said, he wouldn't be back. It isn't worth it. Those words were music to the ears of a couple commercial halibut fishermen in the room, the main goal of whom is to increase their percentage of the halibut catch. It now stands at about 80 percent in Cook Inlet. They'd be happier with 85 or, better yet, 90 or 100 percent.
These commercial fishermen have significant support from Outside in pursuing their agenda. When the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act -- named for the late Sens. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska -- seized control of the waters off all the states in 1976 and established the framework for the future management of fisheries in coastal waters stretching far to sea, it invited Outside influence back into Alaska.
The act created the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, one of seven such councils stretching from the Caribbean to the Arctic. The states of Washington and Oregon were both given voting seats in the council. So, too, Washington-state based fishing interests. Alaska was granted a majority of the 11 seats at the table of the council family, but those quickly came to be dominated by commercial fishing interests that have at times over the years appeared to treat the federal fisheries service as their personal government agency.
Some biologists in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and particularly some retired Fish and Game biologists, use the word "cowardly" when describing the unwillingness of federal bureaucrats to stand up to commercial fishing interests when they push agendas clearly counter to the state's or the public's best interests. Fish and Game once had a rich tradition, and still has some tradition, of biologists speaking out when they thought resources were being abused or the politics of fisheries allocation had become unfair to the point of illegality.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has no such tradition.
NMFS staff have done nothing as the council family has moved toward a one-fish limit for charter halibut fisheries expected to put any number of them out of business while at the same time imposing a new form of economic discrimination on individual halibut anglers. Those wealthy enough to afford their own ocean-worthy fishing boats will still be allowed to catch two halibut per day. But anglers who can barely scrimp together the cost of a charter -- an expense less than the cost of one monthly payment on even a smallish Cook Inlet-capable watercraft -- will be allowed only one fish.
Despite this, Ed Dersham, the lone representative for anglers and charter operators on the council, defends the NMFS staff marching the charter businesses toward ruin. "I'm not going to say anything bad about those guys at NMFS," he said. "I have to work with them everyday."
Dersham, instead, points a finger of blame at the state, which has been strangely silent on the issue of halibut allocation since 2008 when, in Dersham's words, "the state argued for a slightly better outcome." Then-Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Denby Lloyd proposed a higher cap on the amount of halibut going to the charter businesses. The state's motion was opposed by council family member Gerry Merrigan from Petersburg.
NPFMC family conflicts of interests
An appointee of former Gov. Frank Murkowski, Merrigan was on the council to represent the interests of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association and the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association -- two politically powerful organizations whose members catch about 90 percent of the directed Alaska halibut harvest.
Merrigan authored the proposal now threatening to wreak havoc on the charter business. When Merrigan left the NPFMC in 2009, "News & Notes," the NPFMC newsletter, wished him well and took note of how "many members of the council family showed up for a roast" to see him off. Merrigan was replaced on the council by Dan Hull, a friendly and well-spoken longliner who splits his time between Anchorage and Cordova. Hull said the "timing" on Merrigan's halibut charter proposal turned out to be the big problem. Had the biomass of halibut in waters off Alaska gone up as the International Pacific Halibut Commission was projecting, Hull said the charter business would probably still be looking at a two-fish limit next year.
Biomass is, however, down because halibut are growing more slowly for reasons unknown and because recruitment of adult fish into the population has slowed. In simple language, there aren't enough small fish growing up to be adult fish fast enough. Some in the Homer charter business have questioned whether this could be due to over-fishing -- reported or unreported -- in the commercial fisheries. It would be the ultimate irony, they said, if NMFS took fish away from the charter fishery to give to the commercial fishery which had reduced the biomass and caused a problem for everyone.
The council family doesn't seem worried. Hull couldn't see any reason to revisit the allocation issue at this time. He'd frankly be a fool to let potential problems for charter businesses trump his personal financial interests in halibut quota now worth close to $1 million. Hull holds a big volume of what is called "individual fishing quota." IFQs give commercial fishermen the right to take a certain percentage of the allowable halibut catch forever, or until they sell that right to another fishermen for big bucks.
Hull is not the only member of the council family to hold IFQ. Some other council family members are in similar or related positions. Board member Sam Cotten of Eagle River notes in his conflict-of-interest forms that his father holds IFQ halibut shares. Current board chair Eric Olson from Anchorage is the quota share manager for the Yukon Fisheries Development Association, which has interests in longlining for both halibut and sablefish.
Up the political food chain
Board member Cora Campbell, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is not required to file a conflict of interest form, but it is well known her father -- Gary Slaven of Petersurg -- holds IFQ shares and personally contributed $5,000 to a legal fund aimed at reducing the Southeast catch of halibut by charters. Campbell has talked about her father as her guiding inspiration, and she herself once worked for the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association with which her father, Merrigan and Arne Fuglvog have all been involved.
Fuglvog is another former council member and commercial longliner who held IFQs. He left the council to become a powerful aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the daughter of Frank. Fuglvog almost rose from that position to the leadership of the NMFS itself, but somewhere along the way the political heat was put on NMFS to fully vet him. It was then discovered that Fuglvog had been engaged in some serious illegal fishing. He withdrew from consideration for the job as the nation's fish czar.
The U.S. Attorney's office subsequently pressed charges, and Fuglvog this month agreed to a plea bargain that saw him accepting 10 months in jail and $150,000 in fines in exchange for pleading guilty to one count of illegal fishing. The full extent of his illegal activities remains unclear. He resigned from his job with Lisa Murkowski, who claims she had no idea what was going on.
The NMFS, according to Murkowski, never warned her that she had a fish pirate on her staff helping to set national fisheries policy.
Selling snake oil to scientists
Fuglvog was a preacher of what has become Alaska's "good fisherman" myth. Giving Alaska fishermen IFQs for bottomfish and limited entry permits for salmon, he argued, gave them an ownership interest in the fishery and thus a reason to preserve and protect it. The argument has become widespread in the state and attempts to equate fisheries with the family farm, but there is a problem in the analogy. The farmer who screws up the family farming business loses the farm. The fisherman who pirates fish in Alaska is protected by the collective. His illegal harvests might, at worst, cause reductions in the allowable harvest for all fishermen, but they cost any one individual fishermen little.
Fuglvog is the perfect illustration of how the system fails to further the good and responsible stewardship he claimed as the key reason to give individual fishermen ownership of a public resource.
As one fisherman noted, if you've got a boat payment due next week and you're short on cash, the costs of missing the boat payment far outweigh the risks of getting caught fishing illegally, particularly given that the fishing rules that made IFQ fisheries safer also made them harder to police. Instead of short, easily monitored commercial halibut seasons, there are now long seasons during which boats disappear into the vast seas surrounding Alaska. Some express amazement that Fuglvog even got caught. Based on what federal officials have said, he did get away with illegal fishing for a long time, doing it from at least 2000 to 2005.
Dersham said he feels sorry for Fuglvog, noting that the Petersburg fisherman seemed to be among the more reasonable and sensible members of a council family in which many are tied to powerful interests in the commercial fishing industry. Council co-chair Dave Benson of Kingston, Wash., these days lists his business as "Apple Tree Cove Consulting" on his disclosure forms, but does not identify whether the company's clients include Trident Seafoods -- the $1 billion, Seattle-based seafood giant -- of which Benson was secretary-treasurer up until at least 2009.
Benson was working for Trident when the latest plan was developed to control the charter halibut business. Trident kills a significant volume of halibut as so-called "bycatch" -- an accidental harvest -- in its trawling operations.
The company representative couldn't afford to support the halibut charters if he wanted to because that would anger the longliners, and that would not be good. Every interest in the council family -- with the exception of the trawlers -- is opposed to bycatch. No matter what Benson might have believed to be fair, he was clearly in a position of needing to go along to get along. And the same could be said for council family member John Henderschedt, who was at the table in 2008 to protect the interests of the Phoenix Processor Limited Partnership out of Seattle, which operates two catcher-processor motherships off Alaska.
Collectively, commercial fishing interests like these represented by Benson and Henderschedt occupy six of the 11-voting seats in the council family. Council family chairman Olson, vice-chairman Benson, Henderschedt, Hull, Cotten and Duncan Fields of Kodiak, the fisheries development director for an Alaska Native corporation and a fisheries consultant, all have personal reasons or direct financial incentives to favor commercial fisheries over the charter business and recreational anglers.
Then there is Campbell with her family ties to commercial fishing, and council family member Jim Balsiger, the Alaska region administrator for the NMFS. Balsigner's incestuous connections to the commercial fishing business are such that they even caught the attention of the council family earlier this year after he voted to increase the bycatch of prized Alaska chinook salmon in pollock trawl fisheries.
The Alaska Journal of Commerce was in Nome when the council family held a rare meeting in that remote community to talk about chinook bycatch. Reporter Andrew Jensen noted that Balsiger's support for a 25,000 chinook cap "raised a few eyebrows in the room because Balsiger's wife, Heather McCarty, has repeatedly lobbied the council on behalf of Kodiak processor Pacific Seafoods for the least restrictive cap possible.
"Neither McCarty nor Balsiger, who have been married for about a year, disclosed the fact in their comments at the meeting or in prior ones. Balsiger said after the meeting he did not feel it was necessary and that the issue was 'clearly' not specific enough to McCarty's client that he should recuse himself."
As to a question about the appearance of conflict, Jensen wrote, "Balsiger responded rather sarcastically," asking if his behavior was expected to be "sort of like Trident council members saying when they've voting on Trident issues ... 'Have you ever seen them do that?'"
The council family has its rules. Everyone in the family knows how the rules work. Family members might squabble now and then, but in the end, especially in public, they are expected to work together to protect the council family and the family's friend -- the commercial fishery. When charter interests and recreational fishermen went to the Secretary of Commerce in 2007, for instance, to protest the one-sidedness of the council family and demand better representation, the family turned to then-Gov. Sarah Palin for help.
The Alaska governor gets to name six appointees to the council. Washington state appoints three; Oregon one.
Palin was not a member of the council family per se, but she was a cousin. Palin and her husband, Todd, are commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay. They are linked to the longliners and other halibut interests through the United Fishermen of Alaska, an umbrella group with a lot of pull in Alaska politics. (In the interest of full disclosure, this reporter once edited a newspaper published by the UFA).
After hearing from commercial fishing interests wishing to maintain a stranglehold on the NPFMC, Palin fired off an e-mail to aide Mike Tibbles saying, "Tib -- what front group would be threatening litigation over our NPFMC nominees?" Tibbles, Palin aide Mike Nizich and others quickly rallied a variety of Alaska commercial fishing groups to contact the Secretary of Commerce and assure him there was plenty of representation for non-commercial fishing groups at the table of the council family.
"We have enlisted the support of various Alaska fishing groups, some of which have already sent letters," John Katz, the state's Washington, D.C. representative, emailed Palin staff and others. "I don't think that the Secretary will disapprove either of the Governor's appointments. There is no precedent for this, and one or more members of the NPFMC have a recreational perspective."
Palin picks Fields and Cotten were later approved.
Palin and Tibbles are now gone from the governor's office. But Katz and Nizich remain. The latter was named chief of state for Gov. Sean Parnell, who promoted Palin fisheries aide Campbell to the post of Fish and Game commissioner despite her lack of training in fisheries or wildlife science. Parnell hosted the UFA board at the governor's mansion in February as a way of saying thanks for the UFA endorsement of his bid for office the previous fall. The UFA said then that its "endorsement comes a day after Parnell met with UFA members and reaffirmed his strong commitment to defend Alaska's fisheries against unreasonable federal management policies."
The latter conclusion would appear to depend on the definition of "unreasonable federal management policies." The Parnell administration said nothing when the federal government arbitrarily put about 30 percent of the halibut charters in Alaska out of business with the federal limited entry plan earlier this year, and the state has as yet said nothing about the latest federal plan threatening to sink yet more Alaska charter businesses.
Fish and Game's deafening silence
"At this time, the state has not taken a direct position," Dersham said, admitting to a bit of bafflement. The state, he said, should be the entity pushing economic optimization. Getting the highest value for the fish in Alaska should be the state's goal, and if those fish are caught by a clean-fishery, all the better. The charter halibut fishery catches mainly halibut, particularly in Cook Inlet. The commercial halibut longline fishery, according to the NMFS publication "Fish Watch," catches "seabirds, including short-tailed albatross, blackfooted/Laysan albatross, northern fulmars, and shearwaters ... (And) some groundfish, including overfished stocks like canary and yelloweye rockfish in Washington and Oregon waters as well as healthy stocks of Pacific cod, other rockfish, and flatfish."
FishWatch does note the commercial halibut fishery switched from J-hooks to circle hooks in 1983, lowering the mortality of undersized halibut caught and released by commercial fishermen. There is, however, still significant debate about what becomes of undersized fish. The IPHC has estimated 10 percent or more of those tossed back die, and there has been considerable discussion of "size grading" in the commercial fishery given the premium paid commercial fishermen for fish of a certain size. There are unproven accusations some commercial fishermen keep only the most valuable halibut and throw the rest back, sometimes dead.
The charter fishery also catches fish that are tossed back, but because they are caught on individual hooks and hauled quickly to the surface before release the mortality there is believed to be much lower. A state study estimated the death rate at 2 to 3 percent. The commercial fishery uses hooks identical to those used in the charter fishery, but the longlines to which those hooks are attached contain hundreds. These longlines are "soaked" for a day or days before being pulled up. Significant numbers of fish on the line are already dead when that happens.
Recognizing all of this, some knowledgable fisheries biologists have noted that not only is the NMFS, an entity charged with fisheries conservation, playing Russian roulette with the health of the Alaska charter industry, it is at the same time proposing to take fish away from the cleanest fishery to give them to a dirty fishery that kills other fish and sea birds as bycatch. It is almost unheard of for a charter angler to accidentally hook and kill a seabird.
Dersham admitted some of what is going on could appear a little hard to understand for those outside the council family. He added that he is working behind the scenes on a plan that might help to maintain the two-fish limit. Quotas at present, he noted, are based on poundage and appear to overstate the charter catch which is based on fish. Given that the average-size of fish in the charter catch has been trending downward, he believes NMFS might be over-estimating the charter poundage. A limit of two, 10-pound fish is obviously half the weight of a limit of two, 20-pound fish. Dersham believes that if the charter industry can make a convincing argument poundage is being overestimated they might get more fish and a chance to hang onto the two-fish limit.
This is one of the few hopes Dersham offers the charter business that he believes is facing a one-fish death sentence sure to create repercussions that will ripple through the entire tourism economies of communities like Homer, Seward, Ninilchik, Kodiak, Yakutat and even Kenai. Dersham said this is already happening in Southeast Alaska, where halibut charter businesses are dying because of an already imposed limit of one fish, and one under 37 inches long at that. The limit appears to be pushing the halibut fishery toward other avenues.
A fishing trip to die for
Scott Meyer, a halibut fishery analyst for Fish and Game, said there are indications the charter restriction has shifted the catch toward unguided fisheries where the limit remains two halibut. Tourists interested in Southeast halibut can rent a boat and go out by themselves, or they can reserve accommodations that come with a boat and use it to go fishing by themselves.
With a boat and GPS to identify a good halibut hole, anglers fishing the relatively protected waters of the Inside Passage don't really need a guide. Gease and others said it's not quite the same in the sometimes turbulent waters of Cook Inlet. If the NMFS imposes a standard that pushes anglers toward small, rental skiffs there, he said, someone is going to get killed.
Small-boat fishermen have already died in the Inlet, and it's so senseless, said Dersham, who helped rescue three Arizona fishermen from Cook Inlet after their 17-foot skiff started sinking in 2009. The NMFS wouldn't have to shift a large volume of fish toward the Cook Inlet charter business to maintain a two-fish limit, he said. The volume necessary is so small it would be almost meaningless to the commercial fishery. In fact, Dersham said, with halibut prices continuing to rise the commercial fishermen would probably make as much next year off a handful fewer fish than they made this year. And all of that without making a mess of another industry.
But the council family doesn't see it that way. The council family is dedicated to protecting not just the fish in the ocean, but its fish -- the fish that, as former council member Ed Rasmuson observed -- are the "God-given right'' of commercial fishermen. Rasmuson is of the belief the charter operators might be toast unless they find a way to rally the tens of thousands of their clients about to be disenfranchised, but largely unaware.
Meyer, meanwhile, said he does expect the state to eventually take a position on the halibut issue. He did not know what position or when. Meyer is based in Homer and is the state's halibut authority. But the state position on halibut is being formulated in Juneau. The commissioner, Meyer said, is taking the lead. She is expected to have something to say before Sept. 6, the last day for comments on NMFS's "final rule'' for the charter halibut catch sharing plan.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.
Editor's Note: This is part two of a series looking at how fisheries regulations impact Alaska fishermen, particularly the small businesses that rely on fishing and drive the economies of many small Alaska communities. Part one -- " -- explored the organization of the National Pacific Fishery Management Council -- the family -- and how its decisions impact small mom-and-pop charter businesses, mostly on the Kenai.