Private fishing rights have ‘unintended consequences’ in rural Alaska

Kake mayor Henrich Kadake
Credit: Lee van der Voo/InvestigateWest

The third installment in our trilogy of fish stories by Lee van der Voo appears in the Dec. 9 issue of High Country News.

“KAKE, ALASKA — Henrich Kadake remembers when halibut was king in this mostly native outpost on the remote coast of Kupreanof Island, a hundred miles south of Juneau.”

So begins Lee van der Voo’s newest reporting on federal policies that created private fishing rights for the fisheries in the northern Pacific Ocean two decades ago. Those fishing rights, or quota, have restored the health of the fisheries and created an economic boon for the industry as a whole. Between 1994 and 2008, the last time it was assessed, the value of the halibut catch along Alaska’s coast increased from $150 million to $245 million.

But there have been ‘unintended consequences,’ to use the words of the Pew Environment Group, a supporter of the quota system.

The fishing rights were supposed to stay in villages like Kake, a rural Alaskan outpost built on fishing. Instead, economic hardship and a spike in fuel prices has seen nearly 80 percent of Kake rights-holders sell to fishermen in larger towns and a dwindling local catch. Last year, Kake’s share of the halibut catch dwindled to 64,053 pounds, from 277,256 pounds when the program began.

Now that private fishing rights — “catch-share” — have been established in 14 other U.S. fisheries, reformers are trying to blaze a trail of reform by creating nonprofits and setting up investment funds for rural communities. And in Kake, Mayor Kadake is trying to bring the fish back to town.

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Editor’s note: Special thanks to the Fund for Investigative Journalism for underwriting the reporting costs for this story.

Fishing reform drives inequality in Alaska’s coastal communities

 

The third installment in our trilogy of fish stories by Lee van der Voo appears in the Dec. 9 issue of High Country News.

KAKE, ALASKA — Henrich Kadake remembers when halibut was king in this mostly Native outpost on the remote coast of Kupreanof Island, a hundred miles south of Juneau. As he pilots his truck through the cluster of old wooden buildings on a rainy spring day, he points out the fish hatchery and the Kake Cannery complex, constructed from 1912 to 1940, now a national historic landmark. One of the world’s most famous totem poles – taller than a 10-story building – stands on a bluff; it was carved in 1967 for the Alaska Purchase Centennial, then installed here after being displayed at the 1970 World’s Fair in Japan.

The natural features that made this a good place for the Kake Tribe of Tlingit Indians to begin settling here in 1891 – including six salmon-bearing streams and marine habitat for halibut, clams and crab – are still present. But as Kadake knows all too well, in recent years, Kake has become a place that people leave.

Fishing has historically been the chief employer, but a federal program that was supposed to help preserve and enhance the local fishing economy has instead helped cause a severe decline. Over the last five years, the village’s population has dropped by half, to 500, as people leave to seek work elsewhere. School enrollment slid from 210 to 97. The exodus has included six of Kadake’s sisters, several of his children, his grandchildren and friends.

“That’s the hardest time I ever had in my life – watching my own family move out of town,” says Kadake, who was born here in 1944 and is now the hoodie-clad mayor as well as a board member of the tribal corporation, which is separate from the town’s government.