Along the Alaska coast, the federal government is preparing to put hundreds of mom-and-pop fishing companies out of business in 2011, and the state of Alaska remains strangely silent.
Odd, given Gov. Sean Parnell thundering away in his State of the State speech about the wrongs imposed upon the 49th state by the federal government. Here's part of what Parnell had to say in case you missed it: "With statehood, the strong assumption prevailed that, as a fledgling state, we would be allowed to develop our own resources without constant federal interference. Today, however, the federal government's actions often seem at war with Alaskan interests."
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Alaska halibut fishing business, where the federal government oversees an operation wherein small, charter-fishing operations in communities like Homer, Ninilchik, Seward and Sitka are relegated to a thin slice of the fishing action while commercial interests dominated by big businesses in Seattle haul in most of the fish. It was merely bad when a paltry 10 percent or so of the halibut went to the charters with the 'commies' pocketing large amounts of cash for the other 90 percent. It is about to get a whole lot worse.
New regulations proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would cut the halibut charter business by an estimated 30 to 40 percent in 2011. The Alaska Charter Association estimates about 150 businesses in Southcentral and another 100 more in Southeast could be forced under by NOAA's new limits on who can fish.
"The state could do something," Homer charter operator Bob Howard said Monday, "but it won't."
No, the state under half-term former Gov. Sarah Palin stood by and watched the charter business marching toward the gallows. And now the state under replacement Gov. Parnell appears willing to remain silent on the issue of halibut as the already struggling charter industry is hung. This despite the new governor's blustering about those evil, Alaska-abusing feds.
"We haven't heard anything from the governor," Howard said. He's not sure why. Palin, Howard added, at least had an excuse for ignoring the issue. "She's a commercial fisherman," he said, which, in Alaska fishing terms, puts her among the ruling elite. Alaska commercial fishermen stick together even tighter than rich Massachusetts Democrats.
No one connected to the commercial fishing business in Alaska is going to complain about federal 'crats dancing to the tune of the commercial-fishing interests that dominate the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC). And the commercial fishing interests behind the council don't just want to limit the sport fishing charter business to its current, tiny percentage of what is supposed to be a publicly owned resource.
That would be bad enough, but what the commies want to do now is devastate what they consider 'the enemy'. They try to rationalize this by portraying the angling crowd as guilty of overfishing, an idea some ignorant Alaska journalists (of which there are plenty) have bought into.
Yes, those little charter bastards should be happy with their paltry share of the catch instead of trying to spread the bounty of "the industry's halibut" among the common folk. How dare these little bastards help a man from Houston, Alaska or a woman from Houston, Texas, enjoy an Alaska fishing trip and take home a couple flatfish when those people should be made to pay $20 per pound for halibut in the supermarket.
Sharing Alaska's fishery wealth like this? Why, that's what half-term, ex-Gov. Palin might call "socialism."
The NPFMC puppets, obedient to the strings of their big-business puppet masters, know full well the halibut don't belong to the people. The halibut belong to the commercial fishing business. The halibut belong in the supermarket aisle, not the cooler of some common Joe the Fisherman. And to put as much halibut as possible in the market, so it can put big bucks in the pockets of big business, the NPFMC is happy to shrink the one segment of the Alaska fishing economy that could provide for future economic growth and future jobs in Alaska.
The basics of job creation here are simple. Commercial fishing is a very efficient business; few people are required to make it work. Charter fishing is a very inefficient business; many people are required to make it work.
Thus every time you take fish out of the commercial sector and allow them to be caught in the charter sector, you create more jobs. But the job creation associated with this shift in fishing doesn't end on the boats. Charters survive by selling a fishing opportunity -- not a fish. To take advantage of the opportunity, people must journey north. In the process of getting here and staying here, those people generate business for airlines, bars, hotels, restaurants, shopping centers, and, of course, fishing lodges and more bars.
Were Alaska to follow the track taken by other states, which provide a close to equal split of allowable halibut catches between commercial and sport/charter interests, we could be growing jobs in the Alaska charter business for decades. This is one way we could, as half-term former Gov. Palin liked to say, "progress Alaska."
Only, the powers that be haven't shown much interesting in progressing in Alaska. They seem happy to turn this issue over to a cabal of Outside interests which would rather regress the state. They'd like to take the fishing industry back to where it was 50 years ago when it ran Alaska.
"We're still a colony," Howard said. "It is interesting in that regard. I didn't really understand until I got involved in fish politics."
Howard is no dummy. He is a 65-year-old former civil engineer who made the simple mistake of believing that in Alaska, as in America, government is supposed to try to benefit the people, not just big business and ever bigger government.
"I got into the fish politics in late November of '06," Howard said. "I was naïve and thought you could make a difference. It's all about who's funding whose [political] campaigns and whose [government] programs."
The NPFMC, Howard came to understand, doesn't work for the people of Alaska; it works for the commercial fishing industry. It could care less about how the prosecution of Alaska fisheries benefit or harm the state. It exists to ensure the fish, the big business of commercial fishing, and the 'crats and politicians in the pockets of the big business of commercial fishing are protected, and it is sometimes hard to tell which of those interests come first.
If someone wants to have an Alaska "Tea Party," here's the place. Maybe we could all march down to the NPFMC headquarters, grab a few NPFMC staff, and dump them in Turnagain Arm to make a point in the grand tradition of the founders of this country.
Yes, I know; that would be wrong. Taking a 'crat, or better yet one of his or her political bosses, for a swim is illegal. Letting the 'crats and their political bosses choke the life out of Alaska small businesses, though, is apparently just fine. Or at least the sound of nothing coming from the government of the state of Alaska would make one think so.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. A big part of the push behind statehood 50 years ago was aimed at getting Alaska out from under the thumb of Seattle-based commercial fishing interests. And now lookie -- thanks to the feds -- Alaska is back under the thumb of Seattle-based commercial fishing interests.
If Alaska's new governor really wants to do something about federal intervention in Alaska issues, other than just beating on the dead cow of Endangered Species Act abuses, here's a place he might really make a difference. The question is, does he really want to do anything? Talk is cheap, and we are headed into an election year. The politicians are sure to promise Alaskans everything they love; in fact, they already are busy doing that.
The "D's" are offering a constitutional amendment to guarantee that annual Permanent Fund Dividend check, because what true Alaskan could be against that? And the "R's" are promising to get the feds off our backs, because what true Alaskan could be against that?
And the tough stuff, like taking on the powerful, monied interests that control big chunks of Alaska's fishing business, well, who wants to do that? That would take some political courage, and there doesn't seem to be much of that in Alaska these days.
Contact Craig Medred at craig_alaskadispatch.com