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Setnetters question how the BBRDSA can advocate for fishers ahead of vote

Set netters in Naknek. July 11, 2019.
Sage Smiley
Set netters in Naknek. July 11, 2019.

On September 7, the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRDSA) held a question and answer session for the upcoming vote where setnetters asked what the association could do to advocate for fishers. The meeting came as processors set the lowest price for Bristol Bay sockeye in decades – just 50 cents per pound – sparking protest.

Peter Andrew, a long-time driftnet fisherman from Dillingham and a BBRSDA board member said the set and drift fleets need to work together, and that if the fishery doesn’t advocate for itself, Bristol Bay will lose its place in the market.

“Each and every one of us are small business owners. Each and every one of us has to work together. If we do not, our sustainability is not going to exist,” he said.

At least 30% of the 960 permit-holding setnetters need to vote in the election for a valid result. A ‘yes’ vote means all set net permit holders would join the association. Setnetters would receive two out of nine seats on the organization’s board, representation on each of its program committees, and a separate set net board. They would get a minimum of 25% of the set net assessment to fund projects. But, they would pay a 1% tax on their harvest value.

The association’s primary goal is to maximize the fishery’s value for its members through marketing, outreach, and efforts to improve the fishery’s sustainability and quality. They are funded through their members, currently the drift net fleet.

During the information session, Frances Bursch, the association’s program director, spoke about past projects, such as contributing to the purchase of the Pedro Bay easement to block the transportation route to the long-opposed Pebble Mine's site, helping fund the Port Moller Test Fishery and helping support ice barges for fishers.

But some setnetters questioned whether the seafood association could actually give fishers more control of their product price. David Nicol, a setnetter from Washington, said that although the fishery’s value has grown, the BBRSDA’s marketing efforts don’t necessarily translate to more profit for fishers.

“It strikes me that what the BBRDSA is proposing to do is to take money from the setnetters and then spend it to bolster marketing efforts that will help the processors sell for more money,” Nicol said. “But then we're presuming that the processors will then sell for more money and reward the setnetters and drifters by paying us more per pound. But I don't think that I can remember a time in history where they have done better so they've paid us more.”

Samuel Steen, a set net fisher, said that while he supported setnetters joining the organization, he wanted to hear how the association would be proactive in advocating for fishers going forward.

“I think that is maybe the missing piece that it would take to get a lot of setnetters that are maybe on the fence or maybe are a ‘hell no’ right now to get on board with this,” he said.

Currently in Bristol Bay, processors can set any price for the harvested sockeye. It’s kind of a free-for-all all – there are no minimums, nor dates by which processors need to announce a price. Salmon fishers on the other hand have to catch fish during a short window in the summer and don’t always know how much they’re getting paid until much later. In 2021 and 2022, Peter Pan departed from tradition when they announced a base price before the start of the season.

Former board president Michael Jackson says that while the BBRDSA doesn’t own the product, it can support members who want a higher price.

“So what we can do is support fishermen that want to reach out. An example of that is, if you get five or six of your compatriots and go to your market and direct how you'd like to see change, we can help with the infrastructure,” he said.

During the meeting, Jackson also said that the low prices were not just a Bristol Bay problem and that the association's ability to work with larger entities gives fishers an opportunity for structural change.

“Instead of the BBRDSA going about this à la carte, all by ourselves, when we approach the legislators, when we approach other markets and things, we are part of the United Fishermen of Alaska and part of a coalition [of] 37 different fishing businesses,” he said. “And we are working together on an approach, as well as individual approaches, for the ‘RDSA.”

The BBRSDA started a petition calling for price mediation last month. The petition webpage says that price transparency is a problem in the fishery, and that a 1970 statute allows the state to get involved in price negotiation if at least one-third of the fleet disagrees with processors' set price. The BBRDSA says that any negotiation mediated through the state does not guarantee the price will change.

The BBRDSA sent ballots earlier this month and a second, backup ballet is slated to be sent later in September. Ballets must be postmarked by October 9. If the set net fleet votes to join the association, membership will begin June 1, 2024.

Get in touch with the author at or 907-842-2200.

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