In 1974, as discussed in last month’s column, Alaska began limiting the number of salmon fishermen in 19 salmon fisheries, from Southeast to Norton Sound. The Limited Entry program was created to address rising numbers of fishermen and dismal salmon runs, which were making it increasingly hard for fishermen to make a living, especially in rural communities with few other jobs.
A point system awarded permits favoring fishermen with a record of past participation, military service, and economic dependence on salmon, so a rural fisherman who’d fought in Vietnam got more points than a schoolteacher from Anchorage who fished part time. The hope was that having fewer urban Alaskan and Outside fishermen would make it easier for rural fishermen to catch more fish and enhance Alaska’s rural economy.
Forty-five years on, with a finite number of fishermen and the recovery of Alaska’s salmon runs, Alaska’s salmon fishermen are doing better than ever, spectacularly so in places like Bristol Bay. Despite Limited Entry’s intent however, that prosperity has not translated to rural villages.
Until 1974, the value of Alaska’s commercial salmon fishery lay solely in the act of catching and selling salmon. Boats, gear, fishermen, and of course fish, were the only things necessary to do that. But requiring possession of a permit, limiting the number of them, and allowing them to be bought and sold, made permits capital assets themselves.
Instantly there was a permit market, and people began measuring the value of the salmon they might catch in future years against the cash value of the permits they held now. Some people held their permits and kept fishing. Others sold them as soon as they got them. (The value of Kodiak salmon seine permits has varied according to ex-vessel prices and run predictions, from $30,000 in the 1970s to $150,000 in 1988, and back to $30,000 this winter.)
Every salmon permit transfer has its own human story. Some rural fishermen sold their permits and boats and took jobs in town with steadier paychecks. Many people, and not just rural people, believed the program would be found illegal by the courts and sold their permits, assuming they would eventually go fishing again with an annual $175 license. Before Limited Entry many fishermen had fished cannery-owned boats, but when the program prohibited corporations from possessing permits, the canneries sold their fleets. Some of these now boat-less fishermen sold their permits and bailed out rather than buying a boat. And in any permit sale, given that cash and credit were often harder to acquire for rural residents, urban buyers had a systemic advantage over rural buyers. The result has been a relentless trickle of permits out of rural Alaska.
The numbers tell the story. Of 500 Kodiak seine permits issued in 1975, 103 went to people living off the Kodiak road system. By 2019, with 437 total permits extent, only 22 seine permits were held by Kodiak off-road residents.
Old Harbor had 39 seine permits in 1975 and now has 10. Larsen Bay had 10 permits and now has five. Ouzinkie had 22 permits and now has five. Karluk had 11 seine permits in 1975 and now has none. Port Lions had 13 permits and now has none. Akhiok gained a permit and now has two, but Port Bailey, Terror Bay, and Alitak lost eight permits and now have none.
The trend in Kodiak’s set gillnet salmon fishery is similar. Of 259 setnet permits issued in 1975, 66 were to Kodiak Island off-road residents. By 2019, only 22 of 277 total setnet permits were held by off-road island residents.
With an average Kodiak seine catch value in 2019 of $227,500, those missing 81 seine permits might have generated $22.5 million this year alone. The 44 missing gillnet permits could have earned another $1.7 million, from a $38,700 permit average.
One can argue that many Kodiak seine and gillnet permits do not fish every year, given varied salmon runs and prices, but still, add up all the larger and smaller Kodiak salmon harvests since 1975, and the effect of those missing permits on Kodiak’s villages has been profound. That lost wealth, and even the harder to measure loss of fishing and fishermen in a community, have eroded economic and cultural life in villages all over coastal Alaska.
It would be a mistake however, to blame all the problems in coastal villages on Limited Entry or to assume it has brought nothing but harm. The last two centuries have not always been kind to the people in Alaska’s villages and many rural communities were shrinking long before Limited Entry. And many rural fishermen kept their permits and prospered with Limited Entry, but moved to larger towns, lured by better schools, closer hospitals, a wider social life. Life is complicated and things change. People adapt.
But there is this too. Until a few generations ago, the people on Kodiak Island believed that man was not alone in his sentience, and that animals, plants, the sea, even the wind, had an awareness not unlike our own. In that understanding salmon had agency, and were not simply finned bundles of muscle, swimming on thoughtless “instinct,” to rivers to reproduce. Salmon made conscious choices, including sometimes giving themselves to humans, so humans could live too. In return, salmon asked for acknowledgment and respect before they allowed themselves to die in men’s hands. For a long time on Kodiak salmon were not merely food, or a trade item, but were conscious participants in the world, along with all the other animals and plants on earth, and us.
We do not think of salmon that way anymore of course, and it’s been a long time since we considered their opinion before harvesting them or dividing them amongst ourselves. One wonders though, how the Limited Entry program might be different, or whether it would have happened at all, if we had taken the salmon’s views into account.
Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission database
Enclosing the Fisheries, Courtney Carothers and Marie Lowe, 2008
Turning the Tide; Cullenburg, Donkersloot, Carothers, Coleman & Ringer; 2017
Interview with Courtney Carothers, November 2019