The fish wars are about to start in Alaska. Just to be clear, I’m talking about the 2011 battle, not the skirmishes of 2010, nor the fierce conflicts that raged in ’09, ’99 and ’89. And if you listen closely, that sound of thunder from beyond the horizon is the rumbling precursor to the campaign of 2012.
Fish are integral to life here, and access to them is a continuing source of strife.
Citing license and guide fees and angler dollars spent on dining and accommodations, sport-fishing advocates will tell you that a sport-caught fish contributes more dollars to the economy, pound for pound, than one caught by a commercial operation. Commercial fishermen will tout the crews they hire, their own licenses the taxes, the canneries they support and the general large-scale impact that their industry has on Alaska’s many coastal communities.
Then there are the personal-use fishers who are relative newcomers to the fight. They quote Alaska’s constitution and describe an impact similar to that of sport-fishermen when claiming their share of the salmon runs that return each summer.
Subsistence users, mostly Alaska Natives, have been harvesting food from our waters for thousands of years, yet their rights were largely ignored until recent years.
Oh, and I almost forgot the imperative to maintain adequate food sources for vulnerable sea mammals like the Cook Inlet beluga, which has been designated as endangered by the federal government.
At various times the user groups align with each other in an uneasy truce, usually to combine forces and put down another that might be gaining an upper hand.
It’s a tiring battle, and it has gone on since long before statehood when Seattle-based canneries controlled virtually all of Alaska’s fish harvest and processing, and thus the fisheries themselves.
In spite of the strife, Alaska’s fisheries remain healthy and wild, and the envy of the world. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game does a good job of balancing the needs of the fishing groups while maintaining the long-term health of Alaska’s aquatic resources.
Counter to the rhetoric, sport anglers have an embarrassment of riches during the short Alaska summer.
Commercial fishermen in Alaska have enjoyed uncommonly stable shell and finfish populations when compared with the catastrophic condition of many fisheries around the world.
I have yet to see or even hear of an Alaskan taking part in one of the personal-use fisheries who didn’t meet with some success or the charity of fellow fishermen.
Subsistence users have fought an uphill battle for their share and seem to be making gains with the support of the federal government.
And so, while the war rages on, the true deciding factor, Mother Nature, continues to bless Alaska with uncommonly rich seafood resources. Wouldn’t it be nice if the various factions in this unending fish fight would pause and give thanks that we still have a resource worth fighting about?