Bristol Bay fishermen consider asking for state's help on salmon prices

Nov 10, 2015

A rapidly circulating petition online has some fishermen calling for the state's help with sockeye salmon prices.

Setnetters head to shore in Naknek on July 9, 2015.
Credit Molly Dischner/KDLG

Listen to our conversation from Bristol Bay and Beyond about a petition asking for state intervention in the dispute over Bristol Bay prices here:

The summer’s discontent has translated into a fall call to action for some Bristol Bay fishermen.

An online petition that went live Nov. 3 had more than 821 signatures from fishermen and other supporters as of Nov. 10, asking the State of Alaska to intervene regarding sockeye salmon prices.

Erick Sabo started the petition. He wrote it up this summer, but waited to open it up for signatures until fall had come, and nothing had changed about the summer’s low prices.

“I hate to see fifty cents, I can’t believe it,” he said. “I’ve been in a state of shock and depression since I put the boat up. And even though we’re at this terrible level, I think it is bringing people together.”

Major processors paid out about 50 cents per pound this summer, and while some fishermen received icing or chilling and bleeding bonuses, no one reported receiving adjustments to that base price by early November.

The petition asks the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to facilitate mediation between fishermen and processors.

But until the petition is submitted, Fish and Game has said it is too speculative to comment on it.

The state statute the petition refers to says that if there’s a price dispute between at least one-third of the registered commercial fishermen and fish processors, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development will mediate upon the request of either party.

According to Fish and Game, that has never been invoked in a salmon fishery in Alaska. But there is a long history of fishermen frustrated by fish prices, and Sabo is familiar with much of it.

“I fished as crew through the early ‘80s when we had strikes every other year, and then I fished in ’91, the last big strike,” Sabo said. “So I’ve seen the frustrations, I’ve lived with the frustrations as a crew member, and I’ve had my own boat now for, this is my fifteenth year.”

The state has gotten involved in price disputes in the past. In 1991, Sabo said the governor shut down the fishery because of concerns about violence. He doesn’t want that to happen again.

“That’s why we’re doing this now,” he said. “We don’t want a strike. We don’t want to go to the eleventh hour and have it jeopardize everybody’s livelihood. We want a long-term solution, and I think the consensus is that now’s a great time to look at long-term solutions,” he said.

Beyond the mediation, Sabo said he’d like to see a regulatory or legislative solution that provides some consistency in prices, or at least a little more transparency, so fishermen have a better sense of where prices are coming from. Mediation could at least help provide fishermen with more information, he said.

Experts have said that it’s probably too early to tell whether or not the 2015 price was actually lower than the value.

Although fishermen received the lowest price in several decades, the first wholesale price was also lower in 2015 than in years past. The Alaska Fishermen’s Independent Marketing Association reported a Bristol Bay specific price of $2.15 for frozen headed and gutted fish for 2015. Fish and Game data said the statewide average price for frozen headed and gutted fish from May to August 2015 was $2.23, down from $3.14 for the same period in 2014.

Sabo said if fishermen could see some books, and have a better understanding of what was happening, it might help with the current dissatisfaction.

Although Fish and Game has said it’s too early to comment on the petition, interpreting the relevant state statute and addressing the petition could be tricky.
The state statute sets a threshold of one-third of the fishermen in an area to call for a mediator. The department will have to determine how many of the signatures came from permit holders, and may look to the state Department of Law to sort out whether the electronic signatures count and can be verified.

Sabo said he wants to collect more than 1,000 signatures to ensure they meet the one-third threshold. In addition to the online petition, he and others will be collecting signatures at Fish Expo in Seattle.

He’s also asking fishermen who sign to include their permit number or vessel number to make it easier for Fish and Game to count the signatures later.