Hawaii & Alaska
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Alaska: Salmon passions

Seldom if ever has a more than two-year-old op-ed in an Alaska newspaper attracted the kind of attention the Alaska House Resources Committee on Monday night devoted to the jottings of retired Anchorage Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone.

It had nothing to with the law. Neither did it have anything to do with the observation by the former state Board of Fisheries (BOF) chairman that a six-fold increase in non-resident anglers between 1976 and 2017 warranted reconsideration of how salmon are managed in Alaska.

Today’s fishing regulations are generally weighted to benefit commercial fishermen although tourism, a considerable part of it tied to sport fishing, has become the state’s largest growth industry.

The United Fishermen of Alaska, a commercial fishing group that is one of the states’ biggest political powers, is trying to block the efforts of Gov. Mike Dunleavy to reappoint Johnstone to the BOF because of fears he might shift that status quo.

Thus the hearing came to focus on a couple of paragraphs deep in an old newspaper column.

“Alaska salmon are today small players in a global market where salmon farms, like it or not, dictate price,” Johnstone wrote there. “The Norwegians produced a record 1.3 million tons of farmed salmon in 2015. Canadians, 1.2  million tons.

“The Chileans, with help from Mitsubishi, are continuing to grow their production and, so too are the Scots. And these farms aren’t producing pink salmon for cans. They’re producing Atlantic salmon for fillets that compete directly with upper Cook Inlet salmon in the market place.”

Committee chairwoman Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, made a point of reading the words into the record before declaring that “Mr. Johnstone has proven himself to be extremely biased against commercial fisheries…..Aquaculture is not the way of the future.”

She appeared to have forgotten that Alaska is, by far, the U.S. leader in salmon aquaculture and is the reason the country is the biggest player in salmon aquaculture in the Pacific Ocean. The North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission last year reported the U.S. had topped Japan as number one in pen-free salmon farming, or what Alaskans prefer to call salmon ranching.

Of the 1.9 billion immature salmon the U.S. turned loose in the Pacific in 2017, 1.6 billion or just over 84 percent came from Alaska hatcheries, the Commission reported.

Stutes’ Monday view on aquaculture seemed strangely out of sync with her own observation following  a hatchery hearing only a month ago when she seemed all in on aquaculture as the way of the future.

“Let’s open more hatcheries and balance the budget,” she said after listening to testimony arguing that hatcheries had become profit centers for the state’s commercial fishermen.

Aquaculture versus aquaculture

Stutes’ real issue seemed to be not with aquaculture per se, but with Johnstone’s observation that farmed fish now dominate the global salmon market.

Many of the dozens of commercial fishermen testifying before the committee in a hearing that ran late into the night also thought Johnstone’s observations made him some sort of advocate for net-pen fish farming, a practice long banned in Alaska.

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