Salmon spawn fight for power, control

History of resource use shows constant change

Posted: Sunday, July 08, 2001

For as long as anyone can remember, the story of Cook Inlet salmon has been about power and control.

In the beginning, of course, Natives controlled the resource.

Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor Alan Boraas has found evidence that, beginning about 1000 B.C., a culture used spruce root gillnets to catch sockeye salmon from the Kenai River. No one knows why, but about 1000 A.D., those people were replaced by the Dena'ina, who used dams or weirs to trap kings and silvers from the Kenai's tributaries.

Russian fur traders came in the late 1700s. But it was the U.S. purchase of Russia's Alaska interests in 1867 that challenged Native control of Alaska fisheries.

In 1878, Alaska Commercial Co. opened a salmon saltry at the mouth of the Kenai River, said Boraas. It was the beginning of an export economy. In 1879, a saltry opened at the mouth of the Kasilof River.

The saltries could handle only limited volumes, but canning solved that.


A successful dipnetter carries a red salmon to shore at the mouth of the Kenai River in 1994.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

"It was an outgrowth of the industrial revolution, using steam power to can, mechanized with heavy doses of low-paid labor," said Boraas. Canners "shipped labor and materials north in the spring and left in the fall. The product was marketed worldwide, to the West Coast, Asia and Europe."

Alaska Packing Co. of San Francisco opened a cannery in 1882 at the mouth of the Kasilof River, Boraas said. In 1888, Northern Packing Co. opened one at the mouth of the Kenai.

Early fishers set gillnets from boats. But fish traps -- long fences built from pilings and wire mesh -- soon replaced the boats. Canners consolidated control in the 1880s with a successful campaign to license the traps, Boraas said. There was a limited number of licenses, and most went to the canneries.

The cannery stores sold goods on credit, repaid with labor when the fish came in. That quickly ended the corporate clan system by which the Dena'ina gathered and distributed food, he said.

"With debt peonage, your labor obligation quickly shifted from the clan to paying off debt," he said.

It was a shift to the cash economy.


Setnet fishers pick a net off the Nikiski shoreline in 1990. Upper inlet sockeye price averaged $1.55 per pound that year.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

"A new power structure emerged based on the cannery superintendent and the Alaska Commercial Co. store manager. They had the power to hire and fire, to grant or deny credit. They were the controlling power in Cook Inlet until the 1930s," Boraas said.

The traps always could take more than the canneries could process; they also supplied local families.

"My understanding is that it was common to go to the tender and take the fish you need," he said.

Later, when gillnets dominated, there was a thin line between subsistence and commercial fishing.

"Before we'd ever make a delivery, we'd put up our winter fish," said Allan Baldwin of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, who grew up commercial fishing.

Jim Fall, regional supervisor for the state Division of Subsistence, said peninsula residents probably have set nets to fill their larders since commercial setnetting began in the late 1800s. Commercial fishers set their nets before the commercial sockeye season to take king salmon for their families and after the commercial season to take cohos. Homesteaders in the 1940s netted salmon for sale and for what federal regulations called "personal use," Fall said. After 1959, the state changed the term to "subsistence."

The state allowed subsistence setnets throughout the upper inlet until 1980. A 1978 state law gave subsistence a priority over sport and commercial use. But in 1981, new rules ended the inlet-wide subsistence fishery. What followed was a changing array of personal use dipnet and limited gillnet fisheries -- which had no priority -- plus complicated litigation, changing rules and a federal takeover of subsistence management on federal lands and adjoining waters.

Meanwhile, World War II brought challenges to cannery control of commercial fisheries.

Clem Tillion said there was no driftnet fishery when he arrived in Kachemak Bay shortly after the war, because the canneries had an agreement not to buy from driftnetters in the upper inlet.

"Squeaky Anderson broke that," he said.

Returning soldiers started the modern driftnet fishery, he said. Anderson opened a cannery and bought their fish.

"By 1950, there were 800 boats fishing Cook Inlet," he said. "... In the end, everyone bought from them, because Squeaky broke the dam."

The early boats were poorly suited to Cook Inlet, Tillion said. By 1950, the canneries were importing fleets of better ones. What developed was a transient fleet of nonresident fishers, he said. As the boats poured in, federal managers shortened seasons.

"The traps weren't getting enough fish. (The canneries) had no choice but to buy from the drifters," Tillion said.

The booming fleet nearly destroyed the sockeye (red) and king fisheries, he said.

"... By 1959, they'd wiped the fish out to where the pink salmon were taking the place of the reds," Tillion said. "When the state took over, (salmon runs) came back pretty fast. They closed king salmon fishing in Cook Inlet for seven years."

Alaskans' demands for local control and access figured high in the drive for statehood. In 1959, the new state banned fish traps, but canneries still owned the boats. That made it difficult for fishers to strike, said driftnetter Drew Sparlin, who came in 1966.

The push for limited entry arose to control the growing fleet. But the program that passed in 1973 also struck at cannery control. Now, state law says salmon fishing permits can be owned only by people, not businesses, and no person can own more than one permit for a given fishery.

"It was a reaction to the canneries owning all the boats," said Mary McDowell, of the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.

Sparlin said the canneries soon sold the boats to their fishers, often on payment plans that guaranteed fishers' loyalty.

Boraas said few people made a year-round living from commercial fishing before limited entry.

"The effect of limited entry was to drive the price up so that people could make a living," he said.

The price processors paid for Cook Inlet sockeyes rose with the passage of limited entry -- from 34 cents in 1972 to 91 cents in 1975.

Soon, though, there was a new kind of competition for the fish.

The discovery of oil at Swanson River in 1957 and at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 brought oil workers, teachers and professionals who had time to fish, Boraas said. While there had long been sport interest in Kenai River rainbow trout, fishing guide Spence DeVito arrived in 1970 and pioneered the king salmon fishery.

"Other people caught them from the bank, but he started drifting," said Dave Nelson, a retired state sport fish biologist.

A 1973 photograph of DeVito holding an 80-pound king appeared in Alaska magazine, the Milepost, on Western Airlines posters and on billboards in Seattle. The river's reputation among sport anglers grew again in 1985, when Les Anderson caught his world-record 97 1/4-pound king.

By the late 1980s, the growing guided fishery was controversial.

"It was residents versus guides, because the guides were taking over a bigger percentage," said Jeff Fox, area biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries. "At first it was mostly for late kings. Then they went to early kings. In 1994 or 1995, it peaked in cohos. We had to have a Board of Fisheries meeting to rein in the coho fishery."

In 1992, Alaska State Parks considered limited entry for Kenai River guides, but state attorneys found Parks' proposal unconstitutional. In 1997, when the state held hearings to revise its Kenai River plan, "the No. 1 complaint people voiced was that there were too many guides on the Kenai River," said Ted Wellman, chair of the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board.

In the 1990s, a booming saltwater king salmon fishery developed from Anchor Point to Ninilchik.

Meanwhile, Cook Inlet sockeye runs grew from a million or two fish per year in the 1970s to more than 11 million in 1987, piquing recreational interest. In 1981, when personal-use fishing replaced the inletwide subsistence gillnet fishery, dipnetters bagged 10,300 salmon from the mouth of the Kasilof River.

During the record sockeye run of 1987, an oil spill from the tanker Glacier Bay in Cook Inlet restricted commercial fishing. Nearly 1.6 million sockeyes entered the Kenai River -- more than three times the spawning escapement goal. Swarms of anglers discovered they could be caught by hook and line. Sport fishers took 281,000 sockeyes and dipnetters took 24,000 salmon from the mouth of the Kenai River -- the first significant dipnet catch there.

Huge escapements in 1988 and 1989, when the Exxon spill stalled commercial fishing, solidified recreational interest. Soon, recreational fishers demanded a bigger share of the sockeye pie. In 1996, the state replaced personal-use gillnet fisheries through most of the upper inlet with expanded dipnet fisheries in the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. It doubled the sockeye bag limit on the Kenai and changed management goals to put more sockeyes in the river.

Recreational demand remains. In 1999, some 4.5 million sockeyes returned to the upper inlet. Anglers took 267,000 from the Kenai drainage. Dipnetters took 149,500 salmon from the Kenai and 37,000 from the Kasilof.

Commercial fishing also boomed during the bumper runs of the 1980s and early 90s. The value of the upper inlet catch peaked at $122 million in 1988, when commercial fishers sold 6.8 million sockeyes for an average of $2.47 per pound. Fishers paid big money for boats and permits and accumulated big debts.

Then, the bumper runs disappeared, and farmed salmon flooded the market, depressing prices for Alaska sockeyes. Alaska, which outlawed fish farming in 1992, took no part in that boom. The price processors paid for upper inlet sockeye prices fell from $1.55 per pound in 1990 to just 65 cents early this year.

Through the years, commercial fishers have seen growing restrictions for conservation and to satisfy recreational demand. They lost the early season to protect kings and the late season to save cohos. To pass more salmon to the northern inlet, drift fishers increasingly have been confined to a narrow corridor near shore.

Last year commercial fishers took just 1.3 million sockeyes and earned just $8 million. Many say they are near the breaking point. Processors are leaving the inlet, and questionable capacity remains for the next big run.

"In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we could catch 800,000 to 1.2 million fish per day," Fox said.

The bulk of last year's 1.3 million sockeyes came in three days, and processors barely kept up, he said.

"If we'd needed to fish on the fourth day, we couldn't have," he said.

Now, the future is uncertain, even for the inlet's aboriginal fisheries.

While a 1989 court decision brought limited educational fisheries for the Kenaitzes and several other tribes, there are more than 1,000 members of the Kenaitze tribe, said Rosalie Tepp, tribal chair. She said the educational fishery is inadequate.

"We're allowed 8,000 fish," she said. "Divide that into 1,000. That's eight fish per person. That's ridiculous."

The fight for subsistence continues.

On Monday: The basics of salmon biology.

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