Top officials from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game held a town-hall style meeting in Sitka this week (5-21-18) to discuss the rationale behind ongoing deep restrictions in the commercial king salmon harvest.
However, few of the 160 or more commercial trollers or processors in the room appeared satisfied with the politics. They had reservations over the state’s strategy for renegotiating the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada — which expires this year — and strong criticism for the man leading Alaska’s treaty team.
Watch and listen to the entire Chinook Symposium.
This meeting might go down as the one where Deputy Commissioner of Fish & Game Charlie Swanton brought the recipe…
“Plantation molasses, only Oregon ketchup, Aloha soy sauce, and four tablespoons — or a heavy dose of — organic Montreal steak rub,” was Swanton’s suggestion for the post-meeting salmon bake.
…and Sitka trollers brought the grill. This was the scene outside of Harrigan Centennial Hall just a few minutes before the symposium opened.
Rally outside Harrigan Centennial Hall.
Caven Pfeiffer — Governor Walker, stand up and fight!
Chant — Stand up and fight!
Pfeiffer: We are sick and tired of our fish being traded among a bunch of suits, behind closed doors. We need these fish. Why is it that the people who need them the most are the people who don’t have a say? Give our king salmon to Canada? No way!
Chant — No way!
Pfeiffer — Give our king salmon to Canada?
Chant — No way!
About 50 commercial salmon trollers and friends voiced their objections during the rally. Their main concerns were over possible cuts to the Alaska chinook fishery to conserve king salmon runs in Puget Sound that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The final extent of the cuts won’t be known until the new terms of Pacific Salmon Treaty are released (expected to be a reduction between 5-10 percent for each of the next 10 years, depending on abundance).
Deb Lyons, a former member of Alaska’s Board of Fisheries and a former member of Alaska’s Pacific Salmon Commission team, was calling foul.
Lyons — Yeah! Canada’s giving fish to help Puget Sound, so now we have to give fish to Canada, even though we don’t catch the Puget Sound fish. We don’t have an impact on the ESA-listed stocks, but we’re being blackmailed by the National Marine Fisheries Service. They’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. And we’re Peter.
Inside, at the meeting that followed, the tone was somewhat more subdued, but most of those who spoke could barely contain their frustration over the perfect storm of low abundance and closed-door politics that has pushed many in the fleet to the brink of economic survival.
Fisherman Jim Moore didn’t question the integrity of Alaska’s treaty team, led by Deputy Commissioner Swanton, but he wondered — as did many — whether Swanton really had their backs at the treaty table.
“And I think we all realize that the best deal possible under the circumstances is not any good for this industry. It’s killing us,” said Moore.
Moore noted that Alaskan fishermen have taken a cut every time the Pacific Salmon Treaty has been renegotiated since the 1970s. He asked, “Why can’t we win?”
Charlie Swanton has been under constant fire by the Southeast troll fleet since his decision last summer to close all chinook fishing — both sport and commercial — when trollers still had 30,000 kings remaining in their allocation. At around $12 a pound, it amounted to about $1.8 million in lost revenue to the fleet (according to Seafood Producer’s Cooperative general manager Craig Shoemaker).
“I think it’s a big mistake, Commissioner Swanton, to arbitrarily take 10 percent — and you haven’t shared the plan,” said Jordan. “I think this is an example of where our treaty team is making decisions that cost us, but aren’t borne out by facts. So what has happened, Charlie, because of — quite frankly your decisions — is the trust has been broken.” — Sitka troller Eric Jordan
Trollers immediately questioned the timing of the closure — August — and its rationale to conserve record-low returns to three major river systems in Southeast. They argued that it was costly and pointless, since most Southeast kings have already made back to the rivers by August anyway.
For just this year, the Department is cutting back the all-gear harvest limit another 10 percent, to protect the same stocks, plus two more in Northern British Columbia.
Troller Eric Jordan, also a former member of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, thought the action was haphazard, and damaging to the relationship between the fleet and state managers.
“I think it’s a big mistake, Commissioner Swanton, to arbitrarily take 10 percent — and you haven’t shared the plan,” said Jordan. “I think this is an example of where our treaty team is making decisions that cost us, but aren’t borne out by facts. So what has happened, Charlie, because of — quite frankly your decisions — is the trust has been broken.”
Jordan argued that fishing locations and timing could be shifted to spare kings headed toward these rivers, and to target those from healthy systems.
Swanton, however, disagreed. He said that the department was trying to create a harvest strategy consistent with Alaska’s Sustainable Salmon Fisheries policy. He also suggested that the landscape of treaty negotiations was more dynamic than people realized, with parties at the table representing Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Canada, and a number of Tribal governments. His position at the beginning of treaty negotiations was: Alaska is not giving up any fish. But it didn’t play out that way.
“You have to look at it in terms of: Whose fish are we harvesting? And how much do we harvest of them? And what are the concerns and challenges with some of those stocks? And they’re pretty substantial,” Swanton said. “And I’m not saying that the reductions that we took are going to solve this, but that’s the landscape now.”
“You’re looking at king salmon stocks up and down the coast right now that are in the toilet. We’re trying to negotiate at the same time. How do you ask for an increase when everything’s going south?” — Tom Fisher, a fisherman for four decades, and alternate member of the Northern Panel of the Pacific Salmon Commission
Swanton said it was impossible to walk away from the obligations imposed by the Endangered Species Act. “Once that genie’s out of the bottle,” he said, “You can’t put it back in.” He suggested that enacting strict conservation measures under the treaty was preferable to management by the federal government under the ESA. Keeping Alaska involved in treaty management meant “at least we have an exit.”
Swanton was composed during the symposium, but his remarks didn’t appear to placate Sitka’s trollers. Nevertheless, the room was not universally opposed to him. Tom Fisher, a troller for over 40 years, is an alternate on the Northern Panel — one of the subcommittees of the Pacific Salmon Commission. Fisher argued that Swanton was doing good work under extraordinary circumstances. He said he would give up his seat to anyone who thought they could do better.
“You’re looking at king salmon stocks up and down the coast right now that are in the toilet. We’re trying to negotiate at the same time. How do you ask for an increase when everything’s going south?” Fisher asked.
Swanton also had the support of his boss, Fish & Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, who sat alongside him throughout the meeting. Cotten was concerned about the risk of a federal takeover of the fisheries if Alaska alienated itself from the treaty process.
“I don’t think we’re losers if we find ourselves in a position of deciding to accept an agreement that isn’t everything we wanted,” he said.
Back at rally…
Cotten was also conspicuously on the curb outside Harrigan Centennial Hall during the rally prior to the meeting. While he didn’t chant, once back inside he told the crowd that he appreciated their “show of strength.”