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Alaska fishing: the merits and costs of a tamed frontier

The Bering Sea is no longer ‘wild and free.’ Who’s left out?

By Yereth RosenCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 18, 2008

Ripples in a community: New fishing quotas have cut the fishing fleet – and jobs – on Kodiak Island in Alaska.

Nathaniel Wilder

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Kodiak, Alaska

Gobble a fast-food fish sandwich, snack on fish sticks, or savor a fancy white-tablecloth seafood dinner and chances are you’re sampling the fruits of what experts say are the nation’s best-managed commercial fishing grounds. While fisheries are collapsing around the world, stocks are strong in the waters off Alaska, source of half the seafood commercially harvested in the nation. Pollock, halibut, Pacific cod, and sablefish taken from these northern waters bear the Marine Stewardship Council’s seal of approval lauding the cautious oversight of federal fisheries managers. So do the harvests of Alaska’s five species of salmon, which are caught in state waters and managed under a separate state system; they were the first to be classified by the international watchdog group as “sustainable.”

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Those who manage fisheries in Alaska’s federal waters – the Anchorage-based North Pacific Fishery Management Council and associated federal agencies – are generally credited by outsiders for doing a good job. “We have a lot of respect for them,” says George Geiger, chairman of the Florida-based South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, who was visiting his Alaska counterparts at work at a week-long meeting in Kodiak earlier this month.

Fishery management in the federal waters off Alaska is considered the standard for the rest of the nation; federal legislation enacted in 2007 requires managers in other regions to adopt some of the resource-protection practices long used here. It may also hold lessons for fisheries worldwide.

But to hear some tell it, Alaska’s legendary fisheries are on the brink of disaster – a socioeconomic crisis if not a biological collapse. The spread of “rationalization” in the federally run fisheries – marketable harvest quotas for finite amounts of fish – has made the business more efficient, predictable, orderly, and manageable. It may even help lift impoverished Native communities. But it has also created instant fortunes for some and left many longtime and would-be fishermen on the docks.

Since the mid-1990s, managers have imposed various transferable quota systems on those who fish commercially in federal waters, replacing the old open-access “anyone can fish” system with one that inevitably limits participation to professional and corporate interests flush with capital.

That is not an overly dramatic shift for the Bering Sea, source of most of the seafood harvested in Alaska, because commercial fisheries are relatively new there and have been industrial and corporate-dominated from the start.

But the gradual fencing, in effect, of the Alaska high-seas frontier is a bitter pill in a hard-core fishing town like Kodiak, where the locals are old-school, independent mariners who take relatively small volumes of various species to patch together year-round employment.

In Kodiak, fishing and fish permeate life, fueling both the human economy and the legendary brown bears that roam the lush, mountainous island. The names of boats docked at the sprawling harbor – Hail Mary, Dues Payer II, Spicy Lady – hint at an on-the-edge lifestyle. Even the clergy from the local Russian Orthodox seminary sport fishing boots under their flowing black robes. And “ratz,” as ration­alization is known here, has become a dirty word among those who say Kodiak is losing out as quota systems spread.

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