When the halibut fishing season is closed, Wade Bassi is still busy with his hook-and-line fishing boat, Polaris, at Fisherman's Terminal in Seattle.

Fish Sticks, Exports Concede: Halibut Fishing to Continue in Bering Sea

Halibut fishing will forge ahead in the Bering Sea this year, despite warnings of a closure that could have choked off much of the year-round supply of the fish to consumers and restaurants and put hundreds of fishermen out of work. The Bering Sea accounts for one-sixth of the halibut caught in the United States. The catch includes most of the frozen supply that sustains restaurants, food-service companies and retail stores nationwide, such as Costco and Whole Foods. The crisis affecting the fish stems from a clash between hook-and-line fishers, who reel in the popular halibut, and two classes of trawl boats whose nets inadvertently kill the fish. Sixteen Bering Sea trawlers – controlled by five Washington-based companies that scoop up mostly exported sole, flounder and cod in nets – inadvertently kill halibut.

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.

Read in High Country News (subscription req’d) »

 

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.

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.

Who gets rich when halibut goes from $3.99 to $28 a pound in two decades?

Two decades ago a pound of halibut sold in frozen bricks for less than $4. Then the government privatized the industry, putting in place a first-in-the-nation system called catch shares that stabilized the fishery and sent prices soaring. But it was a move that created basic inequities in a system that has yet to right itself. 

This week in Seattle Weekly, Lee van der Voo has the story for InvestigateWest.

Guys like Jared Bright vie for control of the industry’s lower rungs, the only rungs that seem to be left. Simply put, they’re renters. They don’t own the halibut, not even when it lands in their boats. The fish are instead the property of a generation of wealthy owners, most of whom did nothing more than fish in the right place at the right time to get a stake.

Their ownership rights came courtesy of the federal government. At the time, it was a good idea. In ways, it still is. But it’s created what amounts to a feudal system over a natural resource.

As Alaska’s deadliest catches become more regulated, “Slipper Skippers” exploit those who actually fish

Halibut fishing is cold, hard work, but lacks the TV-ready sex appeal of Alaskan crab.
Courtesy of Lee van der Voo.

Before you feel sorry for anybody in this story, meet Jared Bright. And remember your first impression, because he’s eventully going to call himself a serf. For the moment, he’s just a guy you’re about to get jealous of. That’s because he’s 38 years old, and industry sources say he’s worth about $2 million.

Between his ordinary upbringing in Ketchikan, Alaska, and the day Bright invested in his fishing boat, there was no winning lottery ticket, no trust fund. He’s just a fisherman; been one for 21 years. And lucky for him, he happens to be good at it. If he can keep the bearded men in the embroidered shirts out of his game, he’s going to be even better.

But before we get into the bearded men, get rid of the image of the Gorton’s fisherman. Forget the fish sticks, the wooden captain’s wheel, and that wholesome picture of the guy on the yellow box. Instead, put yourself on one side of the Whole Foods fish counter, a chunk of halibut in the middle—price tag: $28 a pound—and think of Bright as the guy on the other side, the guy who’s going to get it to you. Think six feet two inches of lean muscle, pierced ears, and an auburn mug and sideburns, dressed in black North Face and talking like 10 cups of coffee while texting on a smartphone.

This is your fisherman. You are as likely to see him driving around West Seattle in his Smart Car as out on the open ocean. And if you thought The Deadliest Catch was wild, the game he plays to bring you this latest item in white-tablecloth seafood is even weirder.