Chignik fishing cooperative wraps up its first season

Posted: Friday, September 06, 2002

ANCHORAGE -- More than 50 commercial salmon fishermen made $20,000 each this summer in a remote Western Alaska salmon fishery without ever getting their nets wet.

The state's first fishing cooperative wrapped up its first season, paying more than 50 fishermen who never fished.

Traditionally, commercial fishing permit holders have competed for fish. But the cooperative was formed as a way for commercial salmon fishermen to pool their resources to survive in a market glutted with farmed salmon.

The co-op hired 19 of its 77 members to catch the salmon, with the remaining purse seine boats bowing out to save expenses. Members shared costs and profits. At season's end, each has netted at least $20,000, including those who stayed home. The 19 working boats also each received up to $40,000 extra for their trouble.

The new fishing style is controversial, especially among 23 independent fishermen who complained that the state reserved most of the fish for the co-op. Some independents have sued to break up the co-op and plan to challenge it this fall at meetings of the state Board of Fisheries.

But organizers say the co-op's maiden voyage was a success, resulting in better profits for fishermen in an industry reeling in recent years from low dock prices.

Jamie Ross, a fisherman and co-op officer, said the only downer was a weak sockeye run.

''We're all disappointed with Mother Nature's performance, but we're pretty happy with the co-op's performance,'' he said.

Alaska, whose wild sockeye once dominated world markets, is now a niche player behind the huge output of foreign salmon farms. Chignik, like many other salmon fisheries around the Alaska coast, is plagued by too many boats trying to survive on fish now worth much less.

Last winter, the Fish Board took the unprecedented step of reserving part of the Chignik run for fishermen in a co-op. With their fish safe from competitors, the co-op fishermen could park some of their boats and harvest their fish with less expense and no worry of someone else grabbing them. They would split costs and profits evenly among themselves.

The $20,000 each permit holder will receive is a modest sum compared with past hauls at Chignik, historically one of Alaska's most lucrative salmon fisheries. As recently as 1999, Chignik fishermen netted more than $200,000 each. But that was a year in which a historic 3.1 million fish were caught.

By cooperating, fishermen fared better this season than had they raced for fish as in the past, Ross said. On average, each competing boat would have had profits of less than $10,000.

One key co-op benefit was that seiners could work slower and take more care in delivering fresher salmon, for which processors paid a few extra pennies per pound.

Co-op member Roger Rowland said it felt odd after 17 seasons at Chignik not to spend his summer chasing sockeye.

''We miss fishing,'' he said. ''My children miss fishing. They ask me, 'Are we ever going back to Chignik?' And I say: 'I don't know. Things change.' ''

Rowland, who lives and runs a machine shop in Unalaska, plans to use his $20,000 to pay down debt of about $130,000 on his permit and 42-foot boat the Commitment.

He has heard the critics who say it isn't right for a fisherman not to catch fish and still make money. But he notes that Chignik fishermen either earned a permit through longevity when the state first issued them in the 1970s, or bought a permit.

''We're not being paid not to fish,'' Rowland said. ''We are choosing to fish in a more economic manner.''

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