It’s a question almost as old as Alaska’s commercial fishing industry. Whenever the harvest of salmon must be limited (and that’s always), who gets to make the last catch — the commercial fisherman or the individuals feeding themselves?
The answer isn’t always clear, because different fisheries have different histories with different communities built upon them. Nevertheless, the state regulatory system should strive to give individual Alaskans a decent chance to eat fish not taken from a grocery store.
This question is at the center of the debate about the status of the dip net fishery for Copper River red salmon near Chitina. Many Fairbanks residents get a winter’s supply of fish from the river, despite the 700-mile round-trip drive required to do so. Should they have a priority over the commercial salmon fleet operating in Prince William Sound?
Chitina dip-netters say “yes,” and they are making their case before both the Alaska Supreme Court and the state Board of Fisheries next month. The dip-netters hope to use a tool that could give their claim good legal standing — the state’s subsistence law.
The law says subsistence hunting and fishing takes priority in Alaska, ahead of commercial, sport and an in-between category applied to some fisheries called “personal use.” Unlike the federal law, there is no “rural” residency requirement for subsistence fishermen under state law.
The board has declared the Chitina dip net fishery to be personal use. Dip-netters want it to be considered subsistence, figuring that will strengthen their claim to a share of the Copper River red salmon. Commercial fishermen in Prince William Sound, who catch the vast majority of reds before they enter the river, fear a subsistence designation for dip-netters could force the board to reduce the commercial allocation.
The law and legal arguments upon which the debate proceeds are complicated. But one thing can be said without delving into those complexities: State officials who must resolve these issues should strive to ensure that the individual non-commercial user of fish does not end up surrendering to the economic demands of the commercial user.
This principle isn’t even questioned when people talk of game, rather than fish. No one would stand up at a Board of Game meeting and advocate that market hunters should be allocated no less than 90 percent of the annual moose kill on the Tanana Flats. Why then do we get all conflicted about the relative status of market fishermen?
Judgments about the proper balance between commercial and non-commercial catches on the Copper River are complicated, in part, because about 20 percent of reds caught by Chitina dip netters are hatchery fish returning to release points in the Gulkana River drainage. Don’t those fish rightfully belong to the commercial fishermen, who pay for the hatchery? However, conversely, one could ask why commercial fishermen should be allowed to undermine the claims of non-commercial fishermen simply by adding hatchery fish to a drainage. Shouldn’t the commercial fleet’s moral claim to the fish be limited to that portion of the run attributable to hatcheries?
Alaskans also often are conflicted about who gets priority because commercial fishing contributes a great deal to Alaska’s economy. But that economic argument should not veto the interests of individual Alaskans. The state’s Constitution allows the Board of Fisheries to allocate resources such as salmon between “beneficial uses,” and the most beneficial use of fish often is personal — whether it be for subsistence, sport or something in between.
There are few activities more fulfilling for Alaskans than harvesting their own food. Some will spend a lot of money per fish to do so. Some spend as little as possible. Regardless, they often get at least as much value per pound of fish as a commercial fisherman who sells it.