This summer’s troubled king salmon runs have spawned a lot of debate about where the blame lies. Some believe ocean conditions are mainly responsible, while others point to fishing out on the high seas.
There’s a sign that one community development quota (CDQ) group, the Coastal Villages Region Fund, may have taken some pre-emptive measures to deflect criticism. When it recently donated about $24,000 in nets to Kuskokwim River fishermen, it required them to sign statements in support of its pollock fishery in order to receive them.
In recent years, pollock fleets in the Bering Sea have come under attack for taking too many king salmon as they haul in their huge nets for pollock.
In 2007, that number spiked to more than 121,000 kings, or chinooks. And while not all of the salmon netted in the pollock fishery would have returned Western Alaska rivers, it’s a significant number when you consider that only about 100,000 king salmon have been counted passing by the Pilot Station sonar on the Yukon River this year, far below average. About 45,000 chinook are needed to reach their spawning grounds in Canada, to satisfy the terms of a treaty between the US and Canada.
Since 2007, caps have been set limiting bycatch, but that hasn’t satisfied many fishermen along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, where king salmon is a mainstay of the subsistence diet.
In June, state fishery managers took drastic measures on the Kuskokwim River to help more kings to reach their spawning grounds, after numbers showed this season’s run to be one of the weakest on record. After closing the fishery for 12 days, they also restricted nets on the river to 6 inch mesh, which allowed fishermen to target smaller species of salmon like sockeyes and chums, now needed to offset the food shortage caused by the disappearance of the kings. The only problem was, many fishermen didn’t have those nets.
That’s when the regional tribal government, the Association of Village Council Presidents, entered the picture. It asked Coastal Villages to donate nets to fishermen, which it did. But the CDQ group went one step further by asking fishermen to sign a statement -- in which they agreed that the CDQ group’s pollock fishery was not to blame for the failed king runs. In signing the statement, the fishermen also agreed to support Coastal Village’s efforts to gain a larger share of the Bering Sea fishery allocations, highly contentious, since an increase of shares would likely mean reduced shares for other CDQ groups.
“To do this in this way is very offensive,” says Andrew Jensen, managing editor of the Alaska Journal of Commerce.
Jensen wrote a blistering editorial in this week’s issue saying the CDQ group’s tactics amounts to “coercion.”
“These people need to subsistence fish, and so asking them to trade their free speech in order to exercise their human right to subsist is a very wrong action.”
Jensen says there’s no more controversial topic in fisheries management than bycatch, and Coastal Villages took unfair advantage of the situation.
“And to put people into that kind of position,” said Jensen, “where they have to make a choice. ‘Do I go subsistence fish, or do I sign a piece of paper that I might not agree with?'”
The head of the Association of Village Council Presidents, the organization which asked for the net donations, is also unhappy. AVCP President Myron Naneng says he wants fishermen to know that AVCP had nothing to do with asking them to sign the Coastal Village statement in exchange for the nets. He calls the CDQ group’s actions “disappointing.”
AVCP has been one of the major advocates for reducing salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea. Naneng says it’s unfair for fishermen on the river to bear the burden of conservation and called on Coastal Villages to do more to prevent bycatch.
The CDQ group’s board of executive directors approved the decision to require fishermen to sign the statements in order to receive the nets.
John O. Mark, president of Coastal Villages, says it’s important that communities in the region understand where the CDQ group gets its money.
“I perceive it as an educational tool, to help people understand what’s going on,” said Mark.
The Coastal VIllages Region Fund is a non-profit that serves 20 communities in Southwest Alaska. It’s main source of income is from its shares in the Bering Sea fisheries, that include crab and cod as well as pollock
CVRF has used those profits to develop salmon and halibut fisheries in some of the communities it serves. It’s also been a source of jobs, scholarships and other opportunities -- as well as a provider of fishing gear and fuel relief. At the CVRF's Anchorage office, many of the workers and interns come from CDQ villages.
“If the bycatch problem shuts down our fishery, it’s gonna directly impact our communities. And that’s the truth,” says CVRF’s executive director, Morgen Crow, who has has also fought against efforts to put caps on salmon bycatch.
Crow says he has heard no complaints from fishermen about having to sign what he calls, “acceptance statements.” He says Coastal Villages has handed out about 230 nets -- and believes that everyone who needed one, got one.
Richard Jung, who is Vice President of Coastal Villages, says, “It was a good gesture we made. People in my village were very grateful to get the nets.”
Jung lives in Napakiak, a community on the Kuskokwim River near Bethel, where a number of villagers had their nets confiscated, because they protested state restrictions on harvesting king salmon by fishing during a closed period.
“I’m glad we were there, that we were able to put the nets out for people, because they need to fish,” said Jung.
But those who question the need for the “acceptance statements,” say it does point to a division in a region -- that now depends on king salmon for survival, but also cash from a fishery that may in part be responsible for their weak returns -- one of many contradictions in this summer of discontent.
(Editor’s note. Here is a link to the Alaska Journal of Commerce Editorial. http://www.alaskajournal.com/Alaska-Journal-of-Commerce/July-Issue-3-2012/Editorial-Coastal-Villages-uses-coercion-to-score-points-for-pollock/ )