As hard as it is to believe now, the finfish farming ban was not always a universally popular idea in the state. In 1988, salmon prices soared to levels not seen again until the last few years, triggering a flood of industrial salmon farming outside of the US. The pressure was enormous to give Native corporations and other businesses the opportunity to compete in the emerging farmed salmon market.

Eliason wanted salmon farming banned completely in Alaska, to protect wild stocks and the people who earned a living off of them. By 1990, Eliason was president of the senate, and chair of a number of key committees. In a 2006 interview, Eliason said that he had accumulated the leverage to move forward on the farming ban.

 “We had opposition from a senator from Fairbanks. She had a constituent up there who was raising salmon in his garage, and she wanted to make an exemption for him. I said, Wait a minute, we can’t do that because we’ll have nothing but exemptions throughout the state. It destroys the total concept of this idea. So we hassled back and forth, and she had the bill in her committee, and she wasn’t about to let it go. So I introduced a $40-million bill to fund a coal plant up in her area, and got it to my committee. And I said, Look, you’re not going to get the $40-million if you don’t let that bill go. And she hemmed and hawed, and her representatives from that district came down and beat on her desk every day, We’ve got to do something, we’ve got to do something, because he’s not going to let it go! So one morning she said, Well, it’s a lot easier to eat crow if you eat it in small pieces, so she turned the bill loose, and of course we had pretty clear sailing from then on.”

The finfish farming ban was one of two critical pieces of legislation that Eliason crafted to protect fishing. Long-time Sitka salmon troller Eric Jordan says the other, known as the “Wild Stock Priority,” was no less important for maintaining healthy stocks.

“He also made salmon a priority for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Right in statute. Managing our fisheries to sustain and preserve wild salmon runs is the priority of Alaska fish and game management.”

Eliason’s legislation directly linked wild fish stocks to the mandate for sustained yield in the Alaska constitution. In other words, whenever a choice is to be made between ensuring the sustained yield of a wild salmon run or a hatchery stock, managers must put their priority on wild.

With record-high abundance in some species in recent years, plus record prices, Eliason looks like he was pretty far sighted when he pushed the farming ban through the legislature. Instead, Eliason says he was working to protect a way of life, and had the wherewithal to get the job done.

“I fished all my life. We didn’t want to see it go down the tube. We were very close to losing it a couple of times. But the seniority system in the senate – you’re there for a period of years and you build up support, and then you have control over what’s happening in the committees and on the floor of the senate. Once you reach that point, you can pretty well call your shots.”

Services for Sen. Richard “Dick” Eliason are scheduled in Sitka this Friday, April 8, 2011. Details to be announced.
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