Chignik salmon co-op 'a courageous step'

Alaska’s salmon industry crossed a threshold Jan. 14 when the state Board of Fisheries authorized Chignik fishermen to form a cooperative, which would allow a few boats to fish and share harvest revenues with co-op members opting not to fish.

The result will be an unusual system where fishermen could collect checks for not fishing.

"Change is difficult, and it’s a courageous step for fishermen and the state fisheries board in trying something to save the endangered salmon fishery," said University of Alaska fisheries economist Gunnar Knapp.

There are possible legal problems, but the fisheries board decided to try the cooperative approach anyway.

The board voted to allow 100 fishermen who hold permits to fish in Chignik to form a cooperative, with a majority, or 51 permit holders, required to join if a co-op is formed.

If the co-op is formed, the fishery would be split into two parts. A percentage of the allowable harvest would be allocated to the cooperative boats and a period set for them to fish.

A portion of the harvest, and a time period to fish, would also be reserved for those who opted not to join the co-op, who would fish in the traditional manner, racing to catch as many salmon as possible in the time allowed for them to fish.

The plan has the advantage of reducing the number of boats in the fishery, cutting costs because only a few boats would operate, Knapp said. For example, six or seven boats might harvest the same number of salmon over a longer period than were caught previously by more than 50 boats in the competitive open fishery.

More salmon are thus caught with lower costs, which addresses a key problem facing Alaska’s salmon industry. Competition from farmed salmon has lowered the prices Alaska fishermen receive. But the costs of fishing in Alaska have remained high partly because of the way the fishery operates, with many small boats competing against each other for fish during short harvest openings.

There are still major policy problems to be addressed by the Board of Fisheries if the Chignik co-op experiment proceeds, Knapp warns.

One is how to limit fishermen who opt not to fish in Chignik from fishing in other areas.

Another is to address the potential of stacking of harvest shares, where one person might buy up allocation shares from others, as has happened with halibut and sablefish individual fishing quotas, he said.

The experiment also raises fundamental social questions and issues.

"It raises questions of self-identity," Knapp said. "There is a lot of pride and self-respect that comes when someone identifies with what they do. When that changes, when someone becomes essentially a coupon-clipper rather than an active fishermen, it’s an important threshold," he said.

"Any change is painful," but changes like this may be needed to save the industry, Knapp said.

Another long-range question is that if groups of fishermen are allowed to receive revenues without fishing, there’s less reason for them to continue living in coastal communities near fishing areas.

While many fishermen today live far from where they fish, in Anchorage or Seattle, the plan could eventually encourage people to move away from coastal communities, Knapp said.

State fisheries managers have said that while the co-op approach may work in Chignik, which is a distinct salmon run with only 100 fishermen, it may not be appropriate for larger salmon fisheries like Bristol Bay, where there are complex, mixed salmon runs and more than 1,000 fishermen.

The co-op concept echoes a somewhat similar plan now in effect in offshore, federally managed waters. The American Fisheries Act, passed by Congress, allowed vessel operators and processors to form cooperatives as a way of reducing capacity in the fishery.

There are important differences between the federal and state actions, however. The federal law allows processors to form cooperatives with fishing vessel owners, where the state action applies only to fishermen.

The federal law also provided for a buy-out of some large catcher-processor vessels, to reduce the fleet. No buy-out is proposed, at least for now, in the salmon fishery.

01/27/2002 - 8:00pm