Buy-out of commercial fishers is option that deserves study

Letters to the Editor

Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Editor's Note: The following letter was written to Alaska legislators and submitted for publication.

I am writing to you to seek economic assistance for myself and other Alaskans involved in the Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery.

I began commercial fishing almost 30 years ago in 1973. After working in the fisheries part time for several years, I gave up my job in the oil industry to begin working in the commercial fisheries full time. At the peak of my involvement, I, along with my family, ran a large salmon set gill-net operation in Cook Inlet, a 58-foot salmon seine boat in Prince William Sound, and a 90-foot crabber-tender-longliner.

In the late 1980s, my wife and I began to downsize our commercial fishing operation. We sold both our 58-foot boat and our 90-foot boat, as well as our setnet operation, and invested the proceeds from those sales into buying a more productive, efficient and easier to operate setnet operation (also in Cook Inlet) that would allow us to continue to support ourselves as we aged and allow our children and grandchildren to continue the tradition of working in the commercial fishing industry.

This ability has, however, been severely eroded.

At the time, 1996, when we purchased our current setnet operation, the fishing season opened at the beginning of July and lasted until mid-August of each year. We had at least two 12-hour openings a week, with additional openings as the salmon run peaked. Beginning in 1999, however, our fishing time began to be reduced significantly. In 2000, we were only allowed to fish four days, and in 2001, we only had five days on which we were allowed to fish. Our average catch reflects this significant reduction.

The reduction of time given to commercial salmon fishing in Cook Inlet is, in significant part, a result of the increased pressure by sport fishermen and the guided fisheries. The fishery has, in essence, been reallocated from commercial fishing to sport and guide fishing.

This reallocation has not only wreaked havoc on the Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery and the local economy, it also is doing irreparable harm to the Kenai River ecosystem. This harm includes bank erosion caused by too much motorized boat activity, as well as too much foot traffic on the river banks, and an increase in escapement goals beyond the carrying capacity of the ecosystem which will, in turn, have grave impacts on future generations of salmon.

The impact on the commercial fishing industry of this reallocation and irreparable harm to the river has had a disastrous effect on the community, with the senior citizens being the hardest hit. Because of our age, we are unable to seek other employment opportunities. We have invested our entire nest-egg into our commercial fishing operation as a way to support ourselves well into our retirement and, as a result, are now barely able to make ends meet.

The allocation of the salmon resource to sport and guided fisheries is likely to continue to increase. This increased allocation will result in lower allocation to the commercial fishery. The commercial fishery, either by design or default, is slowly but surely being starved out of existence. This situation needs to be remedied.

An option that has been discussed, both by the sport-guide industry and the commercial fishing industry, is a buy-out by the state of Alaska of a majority of the Cook Inlet salmon gill-net permits. Such a buy-out would solve many of the resource allocation problems currently faced in Cook Inlet, while leaving in place an essential fisheries management tool.

Such a buy-out also has the potential of positively impacting the market for Cook Inlet salmon by ensuring a higher quality fish product.

Although not all commercial salmon fishermen agree that a buy-out is the answer to the current problems faced in Cook Inlet, it is an option that should seriously be considered and that could, in the long run, result in a healthier economy and more harmony between the commercial and sport-guide fisheries.

Richard Musgrove


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