Spoils of the sea elude many in an Alaska antipoverty plan

“You eat from one bowl,” said Ivan M. Ivan, 67, a tribal leader in Akiak, quoting the Yup’ik Eskimo cultural adage about sharing resources, in good times and bad. “That didn’t happen.”
Credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

AKIAK, Alaska — The humble pollock, great cash fish of the north, conquered the world through the flaky bland hegemony of a fish stick. At more than $1 billion a year, there is no bigger fishery for human consumption on the planet.

But pollock was also meant to be a savior, part of a Washington-backed antipoverty plan aimed at residents here on Alaska’s mostly undeveloped west coast. A generation ago, organizers envisioned federally guaranteed shares of the pollock catch that would create a rising tide of funds to lift up poor, isolated villages where jobs and hope are scarce.

Pollock did succeed, wildly. The dollars that flowed into the Community Development Quota Program, as the catch-share system was called, created a hydra-headed nonprofit money machine. Six nonprofit groups arose on the Bering Sea shore, and they have invested mightily in ships, real estate and processing plants. Over two decades, the groups amassed a combined net worth of $785 million.

But the results on the ground, in rural community and economic development, have been deeply uneven, and nonexistent for many people who still gaze out to the blinking lights of the factory ships and wonder what happened.

“You eat from one bowl,” said Ivan M. Ivan, 67, chief of the native community here in Akiak, quoting the Yup’ik Eskimo cultural adage about shared resources. “That didn’t happen.”

Collectively, the groups created tens of thousands of jobs and scholarships in one of the poorest regions of the nation. But critics say that community development, over time, got lost in a push toward institutional sustainability — and in some cases lavish salaries for leaders. Deregulation became self-regulation with a board of overseers appointed by the groups themselves the only real watchdog in recent years.