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Chignik co-op fishermen say they're better off

Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Commercial salmon fishermen participating in the Chignik co-op report that they are better off financially, according to a University of Alaska Anchorage research report.

The Chignik fishery last season switched to a system in which most of the 100 seiners stopped competing against one another and agreed to fish cooperatively.

The new system allowed many of the Chignik fishermen to mothball most of their boats and deliver fresher fish to the docks for higher prices with less expense.

Fishermen who stayed home but were paid anyway overwhelmingly said they were better off financially for having not fished, the report found. But fishermen who remained independent overwhelmingly said they were worse off, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

In a survey the ISER researchers did after last season, most of the 77 Chignik fishery permit holders who joined the co-op said they were better off financially, while nearly all the 23 seiners who chose to continue fishing independently said they were worse off.

Under the co-op system, the available fish are prorated between the two fleets, with about 70 percent reserved exclusively for the co-op and the independent boats competing against one another for the rest.

Last season, co-op members who stayed home and never caught a single fish received $28,000 apiece. The boats that fished on behalf of the co-op got $50,000 more for their trouble plus fuel and insurance costs.

Jamie Ross, who helped organize the Chignik co-op, said members are on track to earn a like amount this season despite an unexpectedly poor sockeye return to the area this year.

The co-op also has created a brand label, Castle Cape Reds, to market its sockeye along with Seattle-based NorQuest Seafoods Inc., which runs one of the two packing plants at Chignik.

Chignik is the ''first significant experiment'' in restructuring Alaska's salmon fisheries, says the report by Gunnar Knapp and Alexandra Hill of UAA's Institute of Social and Economic Research.

Alaska's salmon fisheries, with their legions of boats and fishermen all fighting for a share of the catch, generally are regarded as too laden with inefficiency and high operating costs to compete well against fast-rising foreign fish farms.

Last year's statewide salmon catch was worth $141 million at the docks, less than a third of the $481 million average value during the first half of the 1990s, the report says. The drop was due not only to competition from farmed fish but other factors including smaller sockeye salmon harvests, changing consumer demand and a global economic slowdown.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries last year authorized the Chignik cooperative. Fishermen are now engaged in their second season of the new system, which is unique in Alaska.

''The first year of the co-op suggests that it is possible to restructure Alaska salmon fisheries to reduce costs, improve quality and make most permit holders better off financially,'' the ISER report says.

However, it also notes that the co-op is controversial and that such restructuring changes if applied elsewhere around the state will ''not come easily.''



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