Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute
This piece is the second in a two-part series from Corby's tour of Alaska's salmon industry. To read part one, click here.
"Salmon politics," Marion Nestle calls the lobbying and jockeying for who gets to catch how many fish. It's pretty heated in Alaska. As with any contested resource—and as with any small town, which in essence Alaska is—one region and one interest group is constantly fighting with the other. Who gets to set the numbers and to draw the boundaries? The main authority is the Board of Fisheries, which holds hearings and meetings a full third of the year—much longer than fishery seasons—and comes out with new sets of rules every three years. Fishermen don't get much of a say in determining the allowable catch figures: that's a matter of long-term conservation. But they do get to fight over the actual allocation process once the figures are set. Those fights can be very noisy.
The fighting extends to every economically important fish—in Alaska, the principal ones are salmon, halibut, crab, and "groundfish" including cod, herring, and whitefish. Because of their spawning and migration patterns, salmon are a special case. Each salmon "run"—the annual return to their birthplace to spawn—in each river must be studied and managed separately. Because fish are caught after they've fattened themselves foraging in open seas and before their re-enter fresh water to spawn, the question of where they're from and where they're headed (the same thing, obviously) is particularly important.
Bristol Bay salmon "doesn't compare," he said: its flavor is "tainted by a taste of the fresh water where they're headed."
Fish & Game area management biologists like Aaron Poetter, whom we met in Sand Point, keep daily "escapement" tallies, to be sure that a sufficient number of fish are "escaping" fishermen's nets and freely swimming to their spawning grounds. The very poignancy of the term "escapement" makes me root for the fish, though license holders don't see it that way. They contest Fish & Game's placement of weirs, the vertical walls of nets laid to measure escapement and determine openers. And they're unlikely to welcome the results of the department's efforts to determine genetically which fish are headed to which rivers—results that could change allowable catch figures. The department has collected 200,000 DNA samples, or SNPs, in what John Hilsinger, director of commercial fisheries for Fish & Game, told us in perhaps Alaskan-sized terms is "the largest genetic experiment ever." The department won't use any results to change any limits until at least 2013, Hilsinger told me in an email, because in analyzing any salmon run it waits until it can average three years of data.
The implications could be dramatic. Bristol Bay, which already has the world's largest catch of sockeye—"the money fish," Poetter calls it—disputes the right of Aleutian Island fishermen to catch any sockeye at all, saying they're not native to the area; Bristol Bay accounts for a third of the value of all fish taken in the state. But if the SNP results point to Russian or northern Asian origins for the salmon caught around Sand Point and in Bristol Bay, no Alaskans will be happy. (This isn't even to mention a current controversy over the building of an open-pit mine covering a vast area that could, salmon advocates say, threaten all the salmon in Bristol Bay.)
Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute
Locals I talked to in Sand Point didn't miss a chance to beat up on Bristol Bay salmon. "I've tendered all over," Bob Barnett, a fisherman who came with us on a day in the water, told me when we rode in a tender, a boat that meets up with fishing boats and transfers their catch to refrigerated sea water and then delivers them to a processing plant. "These cape fish are pristine." Bristol Bay salmon "doesn't compare," he said: its flavor is "tainted by a taste of the fresh water where they're headed." It's true that as salmon return to fresh water, using its saved stores of fat its color changes from a bright to a dull silver and then to green; the flesh goes a dull grayish pink and eventually starts to decompose (salmon die after they spawn). The warmer waters of Bristol Bay—in the 60s, one fisherman who works both areas told me, whereas water in the Aleutians seldom gets above 50 F—make for "muddy" fish, he said.
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