Over 200 fishermen and supporters gathered at Eliason Harbor on Sunday with signs and voice raised. They made a direct appeal to President Donald Trump to get involved with Pacific Salmon Treaty negotiations. Alaskan fishermen fear the state will agree to another cut to their king salmon allocation with Canada.
Fishermen don’t tend to seek the limelight. But troller Caven Pfeiffer was advised that if he wanted attention on Pacific Salmon Treaty negotiations beyond the fleet, he should consider lighting something on fire.
He lit a flare, a common signal of distress, while standing on the bow of his boat before a crowd. He holds the red flame to a stack of paper. “This is my boat payment,” he said with relish while lighting the edges. The crowd laughed with grim recognition of the financial hardship they’ve experienced in the last few years.
King salmon runs are abysmal, and changing ocean conditions may have something to do with it. With state conservation measures leading to early closures and more restrictions, fishermen – and trollers especially – are being squeezed financially from all sides.
David Richey, who fishes off the Albee Rose, says it’s more than just their livelihoods at stake. “Hoonah, Juneau, Ketchikan, Craig…I mean all the coastal communities that have trollers that live within their ranks, all of those people…we actually live here. I believe it’s 88% of commercial trollers live in the communities of Alaska, so we’re your neighbors and we’re your friends. And if we’re driven out of business, it hurts us obviously, but it’s going to hurt communities too,” Richey said. The Alaska Trollers Association puts the resident count at 85%.
Organizers of the rally called for a federal review of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Since the treaty was formed in 1985, Alaska’s share has been cut over 60%.
Taking the microphone, Deborah Lyons of the Chinook Futures Coalition recapped the history of these cuts and said the treaty process was broken. “If this is our future, every time we go the treaty, we give up fish, we’re dead. Our industry is history,” Lyons said.
At a state-led Chinook Symposium in Sitka last month, Alaskan fishermen were told they may be cut again – between 5 and 10% for the next decade (depending on abundance). Lyons called on elected officials at every level to get involved.
“We’re asking for a coordinated effort between congressional delegation and the governor. And we’re doing it for you, the hardest working people in the world,” Lyons said with emotion in her voice. “And my family. You’re my family,” she added.
Pfeiffer, taking the mic back, wasn’t shy about appealing directly to the top. “Mr. President. We need your help. On Easter Sunday, my deckhand Sean Poffenbarger was lost at sea,” Pfeiffer said.
Poffenbarger, age 45, and Sean Elliot of Elfin Cove, age 49, went missing on April 1st near Peril Strait while attempting to salvage the grounded fishing vessel EH. Poffenbarger’s skiff was later found, along with Elliot’s body. Poffenbarger was never found.
Pfeiffer told the crowd that, in a different year, he and Poffenbarger would have been fishing winter kings through April 30th instead. The state closed that fishery early in mid-March of this year out of a concern for salmon stocks.
Pfeiffer’s point is that decision left fishermen like Poffenbarger without a job to do. “There’s no Walmart around here. There’s no Sam’s Club to work at. We’re Alaskans and we feed ourselves. All I got to say is, ‘You take our fish, you take our lives,” Pfeiffer shouted. The crowd echoed his words. “You take our fish, you take our lives!” The rallying cry spoke not only to the financial stress fishermen have endured, but the emotional toll too.
The crowd then fanned out, marching down Katlian Street with signs. Jackie Foss pushed her kids – ages three and five – in a wheelbarrow. Her worst fear is that her family will have to quit fishing, depending on the outcome of treaty negotiations. Her biggest hope is that the treaty delegation shares more with the public of what’s being discussed behind closed doors.
“We’re a young fishing family. The thought of taking on more debt to get a smaller and smaller piece of the pie…it’s frightening. I can’t settle myself with that. I can’t put my kids future in jeopardy for something that might be there,” Foss said.
This is the second rally Sitka has seen this week condemning the treaty process, which is still underway. Alaska’s negotiator, ADF&G Deputy Commissioner Charles Swanton, lives in Juneau and was not present at the rally to offer comment.