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Fish flap at False Pass.

Two groups of Native fishermen fight over fish going through False Pass

Alvin Osterback, captain of the fishing vessel Evening Star, points to his 23-year-old son and says, "I'm teaching him the fishing business. I don't know why. There's not much left of it."

With the exception of a 10-year period working for the federal government, Osterback has spent his whole life fishing. "Up until about four years ago I drift gill-netted. My father wanted to retire so I took over his seining operation. Last year I bought my boat. The bank owns the boat."

Osterback fishes from Sand Point in the Shumagin Islands off the Aleutian Peninsula, seining for salmon, cod and halibut, depending on the season. Fishing is the mainstay of the economy for the Aleutians East Borough, and the annual June False Pass fishery brings the most revenue into the community. But the fishery (actually two fisheries conducted in June in the South Unimak and Shumagin islands) has been targeted for elimination since the early 1980s by Native groups of Western Alaska.

The Arguments

Western Alaska subsistence fishermen sought a preliminary injunction to limit the incidental chum catch at False Pass, calling it a "renegade fishery." Norton Sound subsistence fishers say chum salmon intercepted some 700 miles south eventually would have returned to Norton Sound to spawn, and that low chum stocks have forced the closing of Norton Sound's subsistence and commercial salmon seasons in the past four years.

Norton Sound Native groups contend that False Pass fishery should be closed because the Aleutian commercial fishermen are taking salmon away from Yukon-Kuskokwim area subsistence fishermen.

The False Pass fishermen reply that no evidence exists that salmon passing through the Aleutian fishery are bound for Norton Sound. And, they say, fishing is more than a business in the Aleutians, and closing down False Pass would be the end of a way of life.

Osterback believes Norton Sound fishermen's problems result from over-fishing in Western Alaska, not the Aleutians. "There were few permits on the Yukon River until 18 years ago. There are more than 800 permits now. Eighteen years ago there were 70 or 80 permits. There has been a 10-fold increase, and now they have all this nice commercial equipment to increase the amount of fish they catch, too. When you do that to a fishery in a river system, there's only so much fish to catch," he explains.

Osterback points out that a 1987 Alaska Department of Fish & Game study found that no more than 5 percent of Norton Sound chum salmon came through False Pass. "The study showed that chum catches are Asian stock. There was only one tagged fish seen in the Yukon, and statistics say that only a minute amount of their fish come through our area.

"If they could take the biological information and listen, we wouldn't have this problem," adds Osterback. "The biologists say that shutting down False Pass would have little or no effect. I think you could shut down all the fisheries and West Alaska would still be in trouble."

The Decision

The state superior court in Nome eventually put a cap of 700,000 chum on Aleutian fishermen. The court, which ruled not to close the fishery just days before the scheduled opening, noted that fishing issues are complicated and that the Norton Sound lawyers had not presented enough evidence for the court to second guess the fisheries board.

The False Pass fishery has been kept open, but is subject to increasingly heavy regulation. In addition to the cap on incidental chum bycatch, the fishing season has been shortened, weekly periods and quotas have been instituted and restrictions have been placed on the depths at which fishing gear may be used. Borough officials estimate that restrictions have cost local fishermen $30 million in lost revenues since 1986.

Osterback is relieved that the courts kept the fishery open in 1992, but fears that similar suits in the future. He says if the June False Pass fishery is ever closed down, "That would be it for me. A fair percentage of the people here would go under." He explains fishing is a gamble, and an expensive one at that: His boat and insurance payments alone cost $56,000 a year. Osterback says some years he just breaks even, and the family depends on his wife's salary as city clerk to get by.

"We didn't make much of anything last year," he notes. "We don't know what we're going to make this year. We're fishing off the cuff."

The Future Controversy

Osterback feels that the False Pass controversy has been unfairly framed as a subsistence fishermen versus commercial fishermen issue. "I also do subsistence fishing. I was brought up fishing. So instead of being commercial fishermen versus commercial fishermen, they threw subsistence on it. The best way to get public sentiment is to use subsistence."

The False Pass fishery controversy has little to do with fish and a lot to do with politics, according to Osterback. "I thought the whole thing should have been in front of a judge years ago. There are always people on the board of fisheries who are obligated to Bristol Bay in some way. The decision needed to be made someplace impartial. The whole thing is a political football. Almost everybody has some kind of conflict of interest. For a guy on the fisheries board from Western Alaska, there's only one way he can vote and go home."

Forty-year fishing veteran and borough mayor Dick Jacobsen agrees that shutting down the fishery would be economically devastating to the community. "We've been sitting on pins and needles about the court decision. The borough exists on the 2 percent fishing tax. It brings in $2 million a year. If the fishery were closed, 30 percent to 40 percent of our funds would be lost," he says.

These losses would affect a lot of capital projects, Jacobsen explains. The school budget would be cut, and so would work at the Sand Point airport and docks because the borough wouldn't be able to pay off its bonds.

Jacobsen feels that half the problem is the state of Alaska doesn't know that much about the False Pass fishery. "I'm hoping we can educate the state so that people realize we're local residents," he says. "I think there's so much outside influence that people are totally misled. I hope we can co-exist."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
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Title Annotation:clamor to close down fishery in Western Alaska
Author:Gerhart, Clifford
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Previous Article:The Aleutians.
Next Article:Tracking Alaska's timber: Seward sawmill may be key to new timber industry growth.

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