Board of Fisheries rejects permit stacking for Bristol Bay

One permit, one person will still be the norm for Bristol Bay.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries voted against a fistful of proposals that would have allowed a single person to hold multiple Bristol Bay permits. Taking care of the coastal communities, the board said, trumps the business sense of reinvestment and increased efficiency.

“There’ll be fewer people able to participate,” said board member Fritz Johnson, a Dillingham resident and commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay. “It’s a rational business decision, but I think the board needs to take a view of this...based on what’s best for coastal communities and what’s best for the resource.”

Half a dozen proposals submitted by the public offered variations of permit stacking options for driftnet and setnet operations, under which fishermen could hold and fish two permits under the same name and/or the same vessel in the case of drift permits. The board voted unanimously against each.

Bristol Bay fishermen in attendance were evenly divided on permit stacking, which the board allowed in the area in 2009 but with a sunset clause for 2012.

Opponents said permit stacking would consolidate the fishery into fewer hands, echoing concerns over crab fishery rationalization a decade prior. Bristol Bay set and drift net permits cost $38,600 and $150,500 in June 2015, respectively. Those without the capital to buy a second permit will be pushed out of the fishery by bigger bankrolls. Permit values would rise, opponents said.

“This is just going to make the rich richer and the poor poorer,” said Robin Samuelson, Dillingham resident and former chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., or BBEDC.

According to Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission data, the value of a Bristol Bay driftnet permit dropped from an average $89,800 in 2008 to $78,300 in 2009.

Between 2009-2012, the value peaked at $160,600 in August 2011. This price was matched or exceeded in the winter months of 2014 up until May 2015, with a high of $169,900 in March 2015.

For a Bristol Bay setnet permit, the price peaked in dual permit allowance years at $42,500 in September 2012. The next highest price afterward was $41,800 in April 2015.

Fishing is the Bristol Bay watershed’s primary source of employment, but many Bristol Bay permits are owned by Alaskans from other areas or Outsiders who come into the Bay only to fish in summer.

Norm Van Vactor, who replaced Samuelson as BBEDC CEO in 2012, said permit stacking would drain permits away from his organization’s 30 villages, 17 of which filed similarly worded letters of opposition to permit stacking proposals.

“One of the single largest issues we have is the continued loss of permits by watershed residents,” said Van Vactor. “Permit stacking was an experiment that exacerbated this issue.”

Proponents viewed the practice as a wise investment for savvy fishermen, and a necessary one. Bristol Bay fishermen received half their usual price per pound in 2015, a market situation that will be slow to change due to a complicated array of international and domestic factors. Fishing several permits’ worth of sockeye could cut into the losses.

“We’re all looking at an economic crisis,” said Abe Williams, president of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. “We have a condition of market that is going to require us to do some innovative thinking. Let’s cut through the rhetoric of the haves and the have-nots, of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. That’s nothing but emotional rhetoric.”

In the end, the board agreed with Samuelson and Van Vactor. Members recalled consolidating the crab fishery when it was first put on a quota system, and feared a similar result in Bristol Bay. Permit stacking doesn’t “align with original legislation” that emphasizes equal access to resources for Alaskans.

Members said they agree that permit stacking is indeed a wise business practice, but in the board’s eyes its main concern is protecting communities.

“I understand the business aspect,” said member Reed Morisky. “It would make some businesses more viable. But it would also make other businesses more marginal.”

“I do think permit stacking is not a tool we should use at this time. With this particular proposal, it allows the 977 permits to be in the hands of 488 people,” said member Sue Jeffrey. “ Our job is to allow fair access to all people, not just in the watershed. Reducing the number of permits by half is not good public policy.”

Currently, dual permit use is allowed in Upper Cook Inlet. Driftnetters may have two permits fished by their respective users from the same vessel and setnetters are allowed to hold two permits. At the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting, Tom Kluberton, now the board’s chair, said the board has no business going back and forth on fishing regulations from year to year.

“I think it’s just wrong for this board to tumble these business plans over every three years,” he said. “We walk in, we put a regulation in place, come back three years later and tip it upside down…I just find that I can’t buy into that. I can’t put an individual, a family, any group through that much instability in their business for some benefit that’s perceived by some.”

12/09/2015 - 4:22pm