West Alaska villages lose lucrative permits to outsiders

This story was reported as part of a collaboration between the Anchorage Daily News and the Seattle Times, with support from the Pulitzer Center’s Connected coastlines reporting initiative.

In 1975, a bitterly contested and long-litigated state law in Alaska brought about profound change in the Bristol Bay fishery.

It capped the number of people who could fish there and gave them licenses that could be used each year or sold to the highest bidder.

The state legislature made the big change two years earlier at a time when many in the seafood industry worried about oversized fleets chasing then-depressed salmon stocks.

This has had far-reaching consequences for local communities in the bay, where many licenses once held by local residents have been transferred over the decades to fishermen living in urban areas of Alaska or Washington and other states.

In 2020, Alaskans held 44% of the 1,862 driftnet fleet licenses and 64% of the 964 licenses to fish from beaches with set nets.

[Related: The salmon mystery of Bristol Bay: Alaska’s biggest salmon run is booming despite warming water, and scientists are trying to understand why.]

Washington residents have the second-highest interest in harvesting, with a 34% share of driftnet fleet licenses and a 14% share of beach-based harvesting, according to statistics compiled by the Commission of Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry.

Among drift fishermen, there are large differences in annual earnings.

Bristol Bay, Twin Tuition, airy, salmon

In 2021, the top 10% of boat fishermen in Bristol Bay were paid an average of $456,628 for their salmon. That was more than double the fleet average of $184,047.

That year, Alaskans claimed $118.78 million of the money paid to anglers, while out-of-state license holders earned $165.65 million.

Fishermen who choose to sell their licenses have been able to earn a lot of money from the huge harvests of recent years. In 2021, the average sale price was $195,400.

License sales are tracked by the state’s Commercial Fishing Entry Board, and over the decades they document a steep loss of licenses held by residents of the Bristol Bay area:

Residents of Bristol Bay communities received 712 driftnet licenses in 1975. In 2021, they held 308 of these licenses.

Residents of Bristol Bay communities received 660 beach-based fixed net permits in 1975. In 2021, they held 313.

A few of these permits have been confiscated by residents who have not paid the required annual fees. Most permits left the area when the holders moved or chose to sell to someone who lived elsewhere.

[Related: ‘A life on the mud’ for setnetter who fishes from Bristol Bay beach]

The small village of Egegik offers an extreme example of this change. It is close to a fishing district in Bristol Bay which this summer produced some of the biggest sockeye salmon fillets.

In 1980, when Egegik had 75 inhabitants, 49 inhabitants held either boat fishing permits or beach fishing permits. As of 2020, the community was down to just 25 people, and only three of them had salmon licenses, according to Commercial Fisheries Entry Board records.

Some have sold their permits to raise money to help feed their families during times of low harvests. Many moved to larger communities, often outside the Bristol Bay area, when the price of salmon plummeted in the mid-1990s, according to Hazel Nelson, a former Egegik resident who now lives in Anchorage.

“You can’t compete with bigger, faster boats,” Nelson said. “The permit system didn’t work for us. We are fighting for our survival.

Bristol Bay, Dillingham, salmon

“I used to fish there when things were happening. It’s becoming a ghost town,” said Robin Samuelson, a 72-year-old fisherman based in Dillingham.

Samuelson is president of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., one of six western Alaska groups that receive — under congressional legislation — annual harvest allocations of pollock, halibut, crab and other fisheries off the North Pacific.

Samuelson said a portion of the company’s revenue is used to help residents obtain salmon fishing licenses, buy boats and fund fishing gear.

In 2020, the company helped 23 people acquire permits, according to an annual report. So far, these efforts have not been sufficient to reverse the exodus of salmon licenses from the region.

In other parts of rural Alaska, Bristol Bay permits are also rare. In the Yukon-Koyukuk census area, which covers a wide swath across central Alaska, residents hold just five Bristol Bay salmon licenses.

Bristol Bay, Twin Tuition, salmon

Rachel Donkersloot, an anthropologist who grew up in Naknek, wrote a 2021 report for The Nature Conservancy on Bristol Bay’s permit changes. She said local fishermen, on average, earn less than those in urban areas, but often depend much more on that income to support their families.

To try to stem the outflow of permits from rural Alaska, Donkersloot said new approaches are needed.

One option would be apprenticeship programs that allow young people to catch small amounts of fish without a licence.

She also proposed that the state could buy licenses from aging anglers, then keep them and use them to expand the range of participants.

“Once the right to fish no longer exists, there is no knowledge. Therein lies the skill. There are social networks and relationships that allow young people to train and have the opportunity to get into fishing,” Donkersloot said.

Bristol Bay, Derek Fluke, Twin Tuition, salmon

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