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Early management of Alaskan fisheries.

In the pre-Russian period, Alaskans were either Eskimo, Indian, or Aleut, and the individual tribes or villages managed fisheries according to customs, religion, or tribal law. There was some concept of resource ownership, and, in some cases, various individuals were given the right to harvest from specific streams or areas to their own end. Native subsistence harvest during this era has been estimated at over 12 million salmon annually.

Following the initial Russian landings in Alaska in 1741, came a period of exploration and exploitation by traders of various nations, but primarily Russia. Their initial target was fur, with fisheries serving primarily a supportive (subsistence) role, though there was some minor commercialization. The Russian government chartered the Russian American company in 1799. At that time, the only efforts directed at managing the fisheries were those made by certain commercial interests to exploit the resource to the exclusion of others.

When the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, Alaska was made a customs district under the U.S. Treasury Department. Later, the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries carried out studies on the fisheries resources of Alaska but did not take an active management role; only one agent and assistant were provided to enforce the law and monitor the fisheries along Alaska's 33,904 miles of shoreline. Even though the fisheries were nowhere near as widespread or complex as they are today, obviously little attention was being paid to management of individual stocks, let alone areas. The first cannery was erected in southeast Alaska in 1878 and the fishery expanded rapidly from that time.

Until the 1930's, detailed research and investigation of Alaskan fisheries consisted largely of individual forays by investigators looking at fisheries or fish stocks in various specific areas of Alaska without any overall comprehensive program of fisheries management investigation. These early investigations did, however, raise the danger signals that unless something was done many stocks in Alaska could be expected to decline. These concerns resulted in a series of Federal actions to protect the stocks. Very few of these were adapted to the individual needs of the salmon stocks but rather broadly addressed management control by prohibiting stream blockages with weirs or nets and setting of nets within certain distances of spawning streams, specifying general weekly closures, allowing for penalties for violations, and adopting gear efficiency reductions. As early as 1903, Federal regulations had already considered time/area closures and restrictions on types of gear and the manner in which they should be used. Unfortunately, these restrictions were not applied in any specific fashion to critical stocks or areas, nor were they capable of adjustment in response to annually changing conditions of the resource.

There continued to be a fundamental lack of information about the resource itself. The managers were in the dark as to what to do to conserve the salmon. It would have been difficult to intelligently manage many of these runs on a flexible basis during the season without such knowledge. Even if more meaningful regulations could have been imposed, there was no practical way to enforce them, as the fisheries management program lacked sufficient human resources for study and enforcement.

Until 1903, the Alaskan fisheries remained under the jurisdiction of the U. S. Treasury Department. In that year, the Alaska fisheries became the province of the Bureau of Fisheries under the new Department of Commerce. The Bureau managed the fisheries until 1938. This outside control of fisheries regulations, coupled with outside commercial interests, led to a three-cornered struggle over the fisheries resource among the Federal government, the canning companies, and the residents of the Territory of Alaska.

One of the critical reasons given for the decline of the salmon fishery was the lack of limitation on the total amount of the fishing gear. It had been pointed out that as the resource deteriorated, competition for the available fish increased in intensity, which put even more pressure on declining stocks. In the absence of the knowledge to flexibly restrict the harvest and/or limit the amounts of gear, further deterioration was inevitable. Numerous regulations were created to limit the efficiency of certain gears in the hope that the harvest level could be reduced in that fashion. As recently as 1950, for instance, power gear was prohibited in Bristol Bay. Areas where harvesting could occur with greatest efficiency were often closed to commercial fishing. Underlying all was a desire to foster concern for a resource then dominated by an atmosphere of cutthroat competition.

Out of the controversy and the concern for the status of the salmon resource, the White Act of 1924 was adopted. The White Act specifically stated in a phrase, later adapted for the Alaska Constitution but directed at the fish trap fishery controversy, that within Alaskan waters, "No exclusive or individual rights of fisheries shall be granted." This set the tone for the next 50 years by depriving the fisheries managers of the right to limit the amount of gear in the fishery.

The White Act also had several other potentially important sections, such as giving broad authority to the Secretary of Commerce to limit catch, size and character of gear, and seasons. It specified the weekend closure of 6:00 p.m. Saturday to 6:00 a.m. Monday of each week in all areas of Alaska, and for the closing of traps during closed seasons. It authorized stiffer penalties for violations, including the seizure of gear. The White Act also prescribed 50 percent escapement level for streams where there were weirs, gateways, or other means by which the number of the runs might be counted or estimated with substantial accuracy.

Prior to 1924 the regulations had had little effect on conserving the salmon resource because of a lack of knowledge or enforcement and the White Act was hailed as the potential savior of the resource. Unfortunately, the long-term effects of these expanded powers were not enough to offset the decline of the resource. A precipitous decline of the fishery as a whole started in the early 1940's and reached a low level during the 1950's.

Many investigators have pointed out that individual stocks of salmon had been declining, even prior to 1900, and that the cumulative effect of the decline on these individual stocks over time reduced the fishery as a whole. Additionally, Alaska went from a relatively mild climatic period in the 1920's and 1930's to a trend of increasingly severe winters in the 1940's and 1950's, culminating with two of the coldest in the early 1970's. There is no doubt that the climate plays a large role in the overall survival of the salmon, but the cause for the severity and length of decline probably still came back to the lack of the manager's ability to predict or assess years of low natural returns and offer the protection required to those specific runs to preserve the broodstock. This lack of information and a management system that did not allow for inseason flexibility in the regulation of harvest intensified and prolonged the decline.

Following attacks on the regulatory policy, the status of the fishery, and the status of the industry, the Commissioner of Fisheries resigned in 1939, and the Bureau of Fisheries was transferred from the Department of Commerce to the Department of the Interior and merged with the Bureau of Biological Survey to form the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Fish and Wildlife Service, and later the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries of the Service, managed Alaska's fisheries during the period 1939-59.

From 1940 to the mid-1950's, liberal regulations were still in place in the face of a declining resource. Many reasons, other than overfishing, were suggested as causing the decline, including predators, overspawning, and other factors. By 1950, the situation had obviously gotten out of hand. Gear was shifting from area to area, maximizing concentrations during the few good runs that did occur. Poaching and illegal fishing were increasing and the more efficient harvest by fish traps, largely in the hands of companies, had intensified the gear and resident and nonresident conflicts. Runs in the early 1950's were so bad that areas of Alaska were declared disaster areas by presidential decree.

Compared with British Columbia, where salmon runs remained healthy, it was evident that poor management had taken its toll, and by 1954, a large increase in the Bureau of Commerical Fisheries budget for more research and enforcement had been instituted. Emergency regulations were adopted and whole areas were closed in the face of poor runs. Area licensing regulations were first imposed in 1956 whereby fishermen and gear were registered for specific areas and prohibited from moving between areas. These regulations prevented the convergence of mobile fleets upon specific runs of one area after another; however, no limitations were placed on the total amount of gear. At the time of statehood, 1959, the number of fishermen in each salmon registration area had increased to the level which existed prior to the implementation of these regulations.

Concern for the resource and desire for local control led to the formation of the Alaska Fisheries Board and Department in 1949, and the imposition of territorial fish taxes by the Alaska Legislature of the same year. Although this department had no specific authority, it did provide a mechanism for additional scientific research and commentary on Federal regulations and provided the basis for the present Department of Fish and Game.

With Alaska statehood in 1959, fish traps were abolished and other forms of gear rapidly expanded in numbers to fill the gap. In 1960, the management of Alaska's commercial fisheries was turned over to the Alaska Board and Department of Fish and Game, and in particular the Division of Commercial Fisheries. The most dramatic change in the management system from previous eras occurred under Title 16 where the Department of Fish and Game was given the authority to promulgate emergency orders to summarily open or close seasons or change weekly closed periods. This authority enabled flexible inseason management which, coupled with an expanded biological data base built upon the data gathered by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the late 1950's, was perhaps the single most important factor for regulatory rehabilitation of Alaskan salmon fisheries. The Alaska State Legislature passed statutes to regulate licensing and some aspects of allocation of the resource. The Board of Fish and Game became the Joint Boards of Fisheries and Game. The Board of Fisheries holds numerous hearings regarding regulations and policies affecting Alaska's fisheries throughout the state. The board maintains a system of advisory committees to get local input to the making of these regulations.

In April 1973, a bill creating the first comprehensive limited entry program in the United States was enacted by the Alaska State legislature and signed into law. The overall objective of the legislation is to stabilize the number of units of commercial gear in each fishery allowing for effective resource management and an adequate livelihood for Alaska's fishermen.

In the 1960's there was some recovery and leveling off of the salmon fishery production. There was, however, a short term decline again in the early 1970's apparently due to extremely adverse weather conditions, but again by the latter 1970's, the resource and harvest had increased. In the early 1970's, the Department of Fish and Game undertook an enhancement and rehabilitation program. Domestic fisheries for the king and snow (Tanner) crab and shrimp expanded rapidly in the 1960's. By the early 1970's, the Pacific halibut resource off the coast of Alaska was in serious decline partially due to the incidental harvest of juvenile halibut by the foreign fisheries and perhaps partially related to domestic overharvesting of adults.

The Alaskan commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries of the late 1970's and 1980's are a far cry from the challenges facing managers in the 1930's or even at statehood. While our task in the early years seemed just as formidable due to a lack of information, personnel, and program support, the actual magnitude of the management job today is far greater in the number of fisheries and number of species involved. It has grown dramatically with nearly every major finfish and shellfish stock m the stat,-- under harvest pressures capable of taking all of the available surplus and more if the management system does not correctly

The department's research and management program has also grown, although usually at a pace somewhat behind the development of the fisheries themselves. In 1959, when the state was preparing to take over management of its recreational, subsistence, and commercial fisheries, there were 40 professional permanent personnel in the Divisions of Fisheries Biological Research, Sport, and Commercial Fisheries with a budget of less than $1 million. This compares to a budget in 1997 of over $40,OOO,000 for the FRED, Commercial Fisheries, and Sport Fisheries Divisions, with nearly 400 employees.

There is no doubt that the dramatic recovery of the salmon resources in Alaska to a level where the harvest exceeds even those of the 1930's has been in large part due to improved natural survival conditions and reduction of high seas interceptions, but the effective management of these resources is what both sustains this productivity and has allowed for the appropriate utilization of these tremendous surpluses that are occurring beyond escapement needs. Good stock assessment and the ability to apply this information to inseason management has allowed the department to identify the surpluses as they occur, by major stock unit, and direct the harvest onto those stock units. This is a physical and regulatory flexibility that did not exist in the Federal era or even in terms of management ability during early statehood.

The era of the pioneering naturalists is past. We are now in the era of real fisheries science. The people in the department practicing this science are immeasurably better qualified, trained, and equally as well motivated, as those who initiated the process, and deserve the continued support of the fishing public that they serve, and the legislators and administrators who provide them the finding fuel to continue the job of maximizing the benefit from the resources to Alaskans. This article was written by Steven Pennoyer, Special Assistant for International Fisheries Affairs, Alaska Department of Fish & Game, Juneau, and is reprinted from Alaska Fish & Game (20(2):12-13, 29-30, Views or opinions expressed or implied are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA.
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Title Annotation:State Fishery Developments; includes related article on canneries and salmon of Alaska
Publication:Marine Fisheries Review
Date:Sep 22, 1988
Previous Article:Marine Fisheries Review: the fiftieth anniversary.
Next Article:California's early fisheries, research, and records.

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