On the Beauty of ‘Inefficient’ Fisheries

Guest contribution by Marc Carrel.

It was only five weeks ago that we celebrated summer solstice here in Cordova, Alaska.  That day the sun only dipped behind the horizon for a few hours and the sky never turned dark. Now the nights are already dark and cold. The last push of pink salmon is entering Prince William Sound to spawn along the intertidal beaches and the first Coho Salmon are appearing in the streams on the Copper River Delta. They will be the last in the annual procession of the five species of pacific salmon to return to our coast.  As the foliage begins to turn, the bears are feasting on salmon and berries, in anticipation of the long winter’s sleep that lies ahead of them.  Fall is my favorite time of year in Alaska.

Cordova at sunset


As a commercial fisherman, my activity- and my stress level- closely follow the natural cycle of the land. Spring time is a frantic awakening to the realities of boat maintenance that was put off or not anticipated. What worked in the fall now might be corroded and completely seized, when we have only a few weeks before the season. And then, just like the sea lions and orca whales, we spend late May and all of June and July trying to catch as much salmon as we can, working days that literally never end under the bright summer sun.  In August, finally, everyone gets to take a breath. The season begins to wind down and slowly but surely we get to look forward to the rest of winter.

I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the Copper River/Prince William Sound salmon drift gillnet fishery.  I get to own and operate a small (26ft) “bowpicker”, fishing boat and drive it out into some of the most rugged and beautiful coastline to catch wild and healthy Chinook, Sockeye, Chum, Pink and Coho Salmon.  This provides me with constant awe and wonder while at work. Like the other 500 permit holders in my fishery, I am my own boss and own all my own equipment. This not only makes my job enjoyable, but also secure and financially sustainable.  And furthermore, it is what allows small coastal towns in Alaska, such as Cordova, to thrive, as most of the fishing permit holders make their home here for at least part of, if not all of the year.

But it’s unlikely that I would get to work this job if it wasn’t for the long and hard struggle of the small boat fishermen in Alaska for laws supporting our way of life. When commercial fishing first began in Alaska at the beginning of the twentieth century, the industry was almost entirely controlled by powerful corporations and syndicates based outside of Alaska, such as the Alaska Packers, a San Francisco based corporation that held 72% of the Alaska Salmon marked into the middle of the twentieth century.  The corporation owned all the boats and nets, operated the canneries and shipped the fish out of state to market. Local fishermen were hired at low wages to operate the fishing boats, while Chinese immigrants were shipped in to work in the canneries under exploitative conditions.

Marc Carrel reeling one in.

Marc Carrel reeling one in.

Furthermore, the corporations built fish traps all throughout the state that took advantage of the salmon’s strong instinct to return to their native stream.Built in the right place, a fish trap could catch all of the salmon returning to a stream with minimal overhead and labor costs for the company that owned it.  When the fishermen went on strike against the Alaska Packers in 1912 to demand higher prices for their fish, the corporation responded by building more fish traps. These practices eventually lead to wide scale overfishing and the depletion of salmon stocks.

For 50 years, Alaska fishermen fought the fish traps and the corporations that owned them, and their struggle was a large part of the push for Alaska’s statehood. When Alaska finally became a state in 1959, the fish traps were immediately banned, allowing the number of fishermen to increase by 55%, the catch per boat to increase by 12% and the overall earnings of the fishermen to increase by 20%. In the 1970s, as more and more fishermen were buying their own boats and getting into the states fisheries, Alaska instituted a “limited entry” permit that fixed the number of fishermen that an area could support. Corporations are prohibited from owning permits and an individual may only own one permit for a particular fishery. Leasing is only permitted for up to three years if the permit owner is medically unfit to fish. This made it impossible for the fish processors or for business investors to own fishing rights and therefore cemented the newly gained independence of the small boat fishermen in Alaska.

The end of a long day

The end of a long day

There are 500 permit holders in my fishery and I often reflect on how economically inefficient it is to have that many people with that many small boats harvest fish that all are going up a handful of streams and rivers. Our fishery is a great example of how economic efficiency cannot be the sole guiding principle of our activities. The fish traps were a lot more economically efficient, and I’m sure so was having the fishery dominated by a few corporations.  It is the legally mandated inefficiency that allows our fishery to support that many meaningful jobs.  And in the end, that’s what matters most: That individuals living in small coastal towns all over the state can make a living catching salmon, and love it.

Marc Carrel is a commercial fisherman in Cordova, Alaska. He worked at the Ecology Action Centre with the Marine Issues Committee in 2007 and 2008.


5 thoughts on “On the Beauty of ‘Inefficient’ Fisheries

  1. Excellent post. If only BC and Canada had such foresight in fisheries planning. Our small fleet is almost all gone….and whats left is struggling to survive. Small communities such as my own, with small processing plants, cant compete with the overcapitalized big company boats and locked up supply chains.

  2. You said it very well. I am a subsistence set-netter near Nome; used to commercial troll in SE. I am about done with a book on this very subject, first half is on salmon fishermen, second half is on the federally managed fisheries that have gone catch share and the loss to many small Alaskan fishermen and their communities. It’s great to know a lot more is being said [done?] on this topic of small-scale v. industrial fishing worldwide.

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