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Bristol Bay.


IT IS ALMOST A ROMANTIC name, completely, synonymous with an unequaled world-class harvest of sockeye salmon. It conjures images of fishery splendor, fabulous fortunes and the brief summer frenzy of man meeting nature. In broad economic terms, there isn't much else to say about the bay. That is simplistic, of course, but close enough to the truth to effectively underscore the overwhelming significance of the sockeye fishery as the foundation of the region's economy.

On the other hand, fisheries management decisions, economic trends and political forces originating far outside the region's boundaries have brought changes to the fishery, made it more intense, more competitive, more complex. The result, among other things, is a push for more localized political autonomy and greater economic diversity, including greater diversity in fisheries.

A long-standing concern is the flow of capital from the region due to the competitive strength and stance of outside economic interests. High per-capita earnings statistics for the region, largely attributable to the fishery, fail to account for the capital-loss factor and the high costs of fishing. Notes Neal Fried, state labor economist: "A lot of the economic benefits of the region do not accrue to the people of the region."

The Bristol Bay region is the area generally corresponding to boundaries of Bristol Bay Native Corp., the Native regional corporation for the area. More precisely from a geographic standpoint, the region consists of the 23 communities fronting the lakes and streams that drain into the Bristol Bay itself. It also includes five communities--Chignik Lake, Chignik Lagoon, Chignik Bay, Ivanoff Bay and Perryville--that perch on the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula's westward thrust.

Bristol Bay communities range from small towns with less than 100 people, such as Pedro Bay and Igiugig, to large centers like Togiak, popluation 654; New Stuyahok, 364; and Dillingham, 2,232. The small, long-stnading Bristol Bay Borough encompasses Naknek, South Naknek and the U.S. Air Force and recreational enclave at King Salmon.

Subsistence is important to the region's economy. Debbie Tennyson of the Department of Community and Regional Affairs in Dillingham points out, "It contributes so much to the personal economy of families."

Despite a far-flung geography and ethnic diversity that includes Yupik, Aleut and Athabascan traditions, the region's economy, both subsistence and commercial, runs in close synchronization with the sockeye's seasonal clock. "Certainly the distinctive feature is the fishing industry, which drives our economy. This is where the big bucks are," says Judy Nelson, president of Choggiung, Ltd., the village corporation for Dillingham.

Henry Mitchell, executive director of the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association and a member of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, estimates the salmon fishery constitutes about 75 percent of the area's income. "It's of enormous impact," he adds.

Formerly an official of United Bank Alaska, Nelson has watched the fishery closely for more than 20 years. She says dramatic changes in the fishery itself are being felt throughout the economy. Among the changes have been the arrival of limited entry, the shift in production emphasis from canning to freezing fish and the switch from paying by the fish to paying by the pound.

"That has just radically changed the whole picture of fishing. It has become a much more aggressive type of activity. You're talking about a half a million dollars for a boat. It takes a lot to support that type of investment," Nelson says.

These changes have made entry into the salmon fishery extremely difficult for young residents, resulting in a growing pressure for a broader regional economic vision and a number of new initiatives. Among recent developments:

* The Lakes and Peninsula Borough was formed to counter what people in its 17 communities viewed as steps by the Kodiak and Aleutians East boroughs to make bids for locally generated fish tax money by annexation or other jurisdictional incursions.

* A new economic planner at Bristol Bay Native Association has a broad mandate to help local communities throughout the region plan and expedite sustainable economic development efforts.

* Despite Canadian concerns that they were fishing in a critical nursery area, a number of Bristol Bay boats have been conducting a test fishery for halibut near Cape Newenham in hopes of mitigating the long-standing dependence on sockeyes.

* An issue of growing concern is whether the viability of the lucrative Togiak herring fishery may be in jeopardy.

* Although there is keen interest on the part of Bristol Bay fishermen to participate in the trawl fishery for yellowfin sole, there also are ironic, related concerns about a destructive incidental catch of halibut by the large yellowfin trawlers from Seattle and worries that if a limited-entry system is imposed for yellowfin, local fishermen will be shut out before they can gear up.

* Many Bristol Bay communities are locked in an agonizing debate over pushing for increased tourism to the area. There is a strong desire for additional sources of revenue and grave concern among many about opening up local subsistence resources to increased harvest pressure. Other potential problems include lack of tourist infrastructure and trespass on Native lands.

* Several years ago, over the strident objections of Bristol Bay residents who fear that fishing could be seriously jeopardized, the federal government leased offshore lands for oil and gas exploration. Although Congress has since placed a temporary moratorium on exploration, the battle seems far from over.

Hooked on Fish. No one expects any new initiatives to seriously challenge the pre-eminence of the sockeye fishery. Mitchell estimates its value to the region is in the neighborhood of $200 million per year. That contrasts with an estimated $15 million to $20 million annual value for the hearing fishery.

The problem, Mitchell says, is there are more people wanting to enter the fishery than are able. Although permits can be passed down to family members, it's a real challenge for families with two or more offspring to decide who gets to fish, as something other than a deckhand, that is.

At times, the price of permits on the open market has approached $300,000. Add the cost of the boat, the insurance, the crew shares, fuel and gear and you have a pricey proposition.

"We see a real exodus of permits from the region and that's a real concern to us. When permits leave the bay, that's a loss of stable income for this area," says Choggiung's Nelson. "Not everybody can go fish anymore."

This development has created an interesting social impact. Nelson remembers two decades ago, nobody in Dillingham had time, due to the intensity of the summer fishing effort, to tend to mundane tasks around the house.

"Today we all have green grass and yards," Nelson laughs. "There's been good and bad in all of it. Individually, in the last 15 years, good fishermen have prospered to a much larger extent than in the past."

The key to future fisheries prosperity for the region, according to Rep. George Jacko of Pedro Bay is to continue to try increasing the industry's economic multiplier effect by encouraging local entry into new fisheries and halting the loss of salmon permits to outside fishermen. "It's a real concern to me. We'll be serfs in our own land," he says.

Jacko is hoping local village corporations will pursue one initiative discussed--helping to finance local purchase of permits on the open market.

Terry Hoefferle, executive director of Bristol Bay Native Association, a Dillingham-based non-profit service organization funded by state and federal monies, feels that long-term prosperity from the existing salmon and herring fisheries requires some long-range thinking. He urges ending traditional dependence on the Japanese who buy 70-90 percent of Bristol Bay reds.

"The fastest growing fish market is in the U.S. It's incumbent upon us to diversify our market for sockeyes, we've got to learn to compete in the U.S. market. We're kind of locked into those guys (the Japanese)," Hoefferle says.

His concern about herring is the pressure to continue harvesting without sufficient scientific data to indicate when enough is enough. "According to the biologists the age class we've been fishing appears to be geriatric. Since 1979 we've been fishing the same age class, there's been very little recruitment from other age classes. Our knowledge about them is not much older than 1979. We have to take a look at the long-term viability of the fishery," Hoefferle explains.

Henry Mitchell is optimistic about Bristol Bay fisheries. With his finger on the pulse of national and international fish politics and treaty making, he senses a healthy future for stocks over the next decade or so as global conservation efforts begin to take hold. Such developments bode well not only for the sockeyes, but Mitchell even sees hope for restoration of Bristol Bay king and coho stocks depleted by high-seas intervention. "We're really starting to make some progress," he notes.

Laying New Tracks. Progress is much slower in other sectors of the economy. Government continues to be the most stable year round employer, though ongoing budget restrictions are a cause for concern.

The newest government entity in the region, the Lakes and Peninsula Borough, only has a staff of one. Manager Chow Taylor is stationed in King Salmon. One of her priorities is to look at the tourism potential.

She says, "In the northern part of our area, Lake Clark and Iliamna, tourism is already well established. Most of that money doesn't contribute much to the local economy. Everybody's scrambling to figure how to tap into that revenue. Everybody recognizes that it's a tremendous amount of revenue that leaves."

Taylor's efforts are hampered by having a political mandate without the fiscal means to carry it out. Her constituents, not really champions of government except in self-defense against the political encroachments of Kodiak and Eastern Aleutians communities, have so far voted against taxes.

Looking to the future and the prospects for surviving as a borough and nurturing tourism and other economic development, Taylor conveys guarded optimism: "It's still too soon to tell. It's going to depend--if we can get a local tax on the books, we can do it. There are so many unknowns right now, it's very frightening to people."

Now a tourism booster, Jacko explains his thoughts on the subject changed. "Some people don't like the tracks tourists make. It took me a long time to come to the threshold that we should make money on tourism. A lot of the communities are really having the moral dilemma of opening up the land to outsiders."

Local residents tend to be private about their personal lives and protective of critical subsistence resources. Jacko notes living off the land plays an integral role in the region's economy. "It's like if you had a plate of food and somebody came up to you and stuck their finger in it and stirred it around, and did that for fun. That would be real repulsive to you," he says.

The Department of Community and Regional Affairs Tennyson says, "There's a real ambivalence in the villages about how much they want to encourage or become involved in that industry. It's a question in people's hearts and minds about whether it's worth the trade-off (of privacy for tourism revenue)."

Ultimately, Jacko became a tourism advocate when he decided the visitors were coming anyway. There is a strong consensus that fishing and hunting lodges and operations have proliferated dramatically in the last 5-10 years, owned almost exclusively by non-residents. One informed source conservatively pegs the revenue drain at about $40 million.

According to Jacko, tourism and commercial fishing are very compatible industries. "The two go hand in hand, and I like to advocate it that way. It's just a matter of marketing and building the infrastructure out here. People are coming anyway, let's take them by the hand and lead them where we want them. Bring people out here to look at the country and derive some economic benefit from it," he says.

The key to tourism growth in Bristol Bay may be closely linked with another resource cited by those who know Bristol Bay well--people. According to Tennyson and Nelson, there's a strong entrepreneurial spirit afoot in the region.

Tennyson explains, "I think that's really just developing. This is exciting from a village point of view because they (small businesses run by individual community members) create jobs and keep cash in the community and coexist with the subsistence and commercial fishing."

Nelson sees village entrepreneurs going after a largely untapped tourism market, for sightseeing, flightseeing and river floating. "Scenically, Bristol Bay is probably the choice area of Alaska. My impression of tourism is that each entrepreneur picks up a little piece of that action," she says.

There are possibilities for other little economic pieces of action in the region. At Bristol Bay Native Association, the new economic planner will be looking at a wide range of possible initiatives to enhance or protect the economic base, including reindeer herding and preparing for the next round of battle on offshore drilling.

Because of the magnitude and complexity of recent changes in Bristol Bay, residents share a sense of looking for coherent direction, of taking fresh economic bearings. There is a determination, despite differences on some issues, to wrest control of the region's economic future from Outside interests.

Notes Jacko, "People work together pretty well in this district. I don't see a whole lot of rivalries. This is really an incredible district. It's the economic storehouse of Alaska in terms of renewable resources."
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Author:Richardson, Jeffrey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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