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Harriman Expedition Retraced


expedition log



David Policansky

It's Just a Fish: Alaskan Salmon and Halibut Fisheries

Fishing is enormously important in Alaska's economic and political life. It is related to many issues that Harriman's expedition encountered and debated, and many that the Retraced expedition has met as well. I wanted to talk about salmon and halibut because they are among the most important fishes for commercial, subsistence, and recreational fishing. They have fascinating life histories and illustrate so many problems of resource management.

Halibut are enormous flatfish; they can weigh as much as 800 pounds, and 100-pounders are common. They are related to the flounders and soles commonly found in fish markets and restaurants. When they hatch from eggs, about a third of an inch long, they are symmetrical, like other fishes, but soon part of their skull rotates, bringing one eye with it, and the fish changes into a very asymmetrical animal that has both of its eyes on the same side of its head. They are important in the Native American cultures of the west coast, and often are seen in the art of the Haida and Tlingit peoples.


When halibut hatch they are symmetrical, like other fishes, but soon part of their skull rotates, bringing one eye with it, and the fish changes into a very asymmetrical animal that has both of its eyes on the same (right) side of its head.
Click image for a larger view.

The overall fishing effort is managed by an international commission (United States and Canada) that has prevented overfishing; halibut populations are strong. But many people wanted to catch halibut, and as more and more fished for them, the open season for them got shorter and shorter to prevent overfishing. Finally, each "opening" lasted only about 24 hours. The result was a mad race for the fish. If the opening came on a day with bad weather, then the fishermen were in danger. Some died and boats were lost as well.

To solve this problem, a system was put in place that gave each fisherman who had fished for halibut in recent years a quota amounting to a percentage of the total allowable catch, that is, the safe catch determined by the commission. The quotas can be bought and sold (with limits on how many can be accumulated by one person). Nobody without a quota could fish for halibut commercially. The system did prevent the mad race for fish and did make life easier for the fishermen who had quotas. But the quota system is controversial because it appears to give ownership of a public resource to only a few people, even though the quota is legally defined as not being a property right.

Despite the controversy over the system of allocation of access to the fish, management has succeeded in keeping strong halibut populations, largely because of the commitment to scientific management from the beginning. The case of salmon in Alaska has been different. All five species of salmon that live in Alaska have an unusual life history. The eggs hatch in fresh water where the young fish grow; later they undergo complex physiological changes to allow them to go to sea where they live for one to seven years depending on species and other variables. They then return to the stream where they were hatched (a few individuals do stray to other streams). There they spawn to complete the cycle and they die. This life cycle makes for predictable salmon runs and allows communities to establish themselves where these abundant resources appear each summer and fall. It also makes them more vulnerable to fishing because it isn't necessary to go to sea to catch them.

When Harriman's expedition arrived in 1899, exploitation of salmon was just beginning. The first Alaskan canneries had been established in 1878. Yet already expedition scientist George Bird Grinnell wrote of overexploitation and warned that if the fishing went unchecked, the salmon would be sorely depleted. Others had made similar warnings. The problem was that a few large companies in San Francisco and Seattle dominated the fishing and because of the gear used -- fixed fish traps -- the companies had great control of the fishery. They set traps in the best places (usually near river mouths where the salmon returned from the sea to spawn) and were able to exclude small Alaskan operators and Natives from fishing there.

Although there were regulations, they were not based on science or even on traditional knowledge. Because Alaska was not a state and had only a nonvoting delegate in Congress, Alaskan residents were unable to influence regulations in their favor. The powerful fishing interests from down south were able to influence those regulations, and they made sure that the regulations did not interfere too seriously with their ability to catch as many fish as they wanted. By the 1930s, the amount of fish canned reached a maximum of more than 8 million cases. But the resource was already in trouble and the production of fish declined after that; by the time Alaska became a state in 1959, only about 1.5 million cases of salmon were produced.

Alaskans tried for many years, even decades, to get rid of the traps, because those traps allowed the Seattle and San Francisco companies to control fishing and keep the locals out. Alaska's failure to influence regulations, coupled with reduced fish production, was among the major factors leading to statehood in 1959. And as soon as Alaska became a state, the hated fish traps were abolished.

Alaska committed itself to science-based salmon management and over the following decades things improved. By the mid-1990s, salmon production was higher than it had ever been and yet the populations were not being overexploited. But other problems arose. One concerned subsistence, an important aspect of Native culture. This complex subject has a long history and I won't go into it here, but in brief, a conflict arose between a federal law that provided for a rural preference for subsistence, and Alaska's constitution, which guarantees equal access for all Alaskans to subsistence resources. Despite attempts by Alaska's congressional delegation and the federal government, this conflict could not be resolved as of 2001 by amending Alaska's constitution, and as a result, management of subsistence resources on federal lands in Alaska has been taken over by the federal government. It is ironic that after the struggle for statehood, the state has been unable to resolve this problem and thus has had to give up control of salmon management in much of the state to the federal government again. Of course, with a powerful voting delegation in Congress, Alaska has much more power than it did before statehood. So the kind of disregard for local interests and the resource that characterized the per-statehood era is most unlikely.

What does the future hold? Farmed salmon have been competing with wild-caught salmon in restaurants and markets and have depressed prices. In 1999-2001, the salmon runs in Bristol Bay (western Alaska) have been far lower than expected and than recent runs, for reasons not yet understood. Allocation problems have not gone away, and -- as is true with halibut -- recreational fishing continues to grow in importance and its potential for competition for those resources with commercial fishing. The subsistence problem, which is a major political issue in Alaska, has not been solved. Finally, the climate -- as it always has -- continues to change, and along with it, the productivity of the ocean for salmon and other species changes as well. But I am optimistic that the pieces are in place for solutions, and that salmon and halibut management in Alaska will continue to be challenging, interesting, and ultimately a window on the many facets of Alaska that made it so exciting to Harriman's expedition and to ours.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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