Alaskan Indigenous community group pushes for better fishing quotas

Freshly fished salmon on a boat off the shores of Kodiak, southern Alaska, in August 2008. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Alaska Congressman Don Young is trying again to renew the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The nation’s fundamental federal fisheries law hasn’t been reauthorized since 2006. Young’s bill would allow more flexibility for regional fisheries management councils, but for villages near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River it is notable for what’s not included.

Since the 1990s, towns and villages along the western Alaska coast, from Norton Sound to the Aleutians, have had a stake in the lucrative Bering Sea fisheries, through the Community Development Quota program. The communities, divided into six CDQ groups, are allocated a portion of the fishing quota, which they can fish themselves or lease to the fishing industry.

By most measures, the program has been a success. In total, the six CDQ groups have amassed more than a billion dollars in cash and assets. The larger groups spend more than $30 million a year to help their regions, with service programs, job training, scholarships and local employment.

One group is not happy

But the largest group, called Coastal Villages Region Fund, says it’s getting a raw deal. The group is known as CVRF and serves the Kuskokwim Delta, including villages from Scammon Bay to Platinum. More than 9,000 people live in that area, amounting to 35 percent of the total CDQ beneficiary population. However, they say they are allocated just 15 percent of the fish in the CDQ program.

Art Severance, corporate counsel for CVRF, said other groups have far fewer people and get the same or even more fish.

“Right now the allocations are set the way Congress locked them in place in 2006, which was a result of political influence in the 1990s,” Severance said.

And, Severance said, the people in the 20 villages of the CVRF area have a higher poverty rate, less infrastructure and fewer opportunities.

“The household size alone in our communities is about twice as high as in the Aleutians,” he said. “There’s no real opportunity to buy houses, and so you have multiple generations living together, not necessarily because they want to, but because they don’t have any other choice.”

Rep. Young not convinced

CVRF has been asking Congress for years to change the Magnuson-Stevens Act to include a CDQ formula based on population.

Congressman Young isn’t persuaded.

“They just want more money,” he said.

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) on the floor of the House on July 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

Young said the CDQ groups themselves agreed what the rules would be, and now one of them, Coastal Villages, is lobbying Congress to change the allocation criteria.

“There’s no way I’m going to be involved in taking fish from one Native group and giving it to another Native group,” he said. “That was their agreement. And until they have a solidified position and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ it’s not going to happen.”

Not population-based, says other group

Larry Cotter is retiring as the CEO of one of the small CDQ groups, Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, or APICDA. He said the Coastal Villages Fund is off-base.

“This program was never based on population,” he said.

APICDA has about 400 people and gets 20 percent of the CDQ allocation.

The means — as the Coastal Villages Fund sees it — APICDA has been able to deliver benefits of $750,000 per person over the past decade, while CVRF, because of its much larger population, has been able to spend less than $40,000 per person.

Cotter said the residents in the APICDA area — from Nelson Lagoon to St. George and Atka — are closer to the fish, and he said that’s significant.

“It belongs to the people who live there,” he said. “And if you look around the world, that same concept comes into play: The folks closest to the resource are the ones that are in a position to benefit most from utilizing that resource.”

And, Cotter said, Coastal Villages is doing quite well. CVRF has more than $270 million in cash, fishing vessels and other assets. Cotter calls it an “economic juggernaut.”

Changing the rules, not the quotas

Young’s fisheries bill doesn’t reallocate the CDQ fish, but it does change the rules for the umbrella association that speaks for the CDQ groups. The panel has been operating by unanimity, and Young said that essentially gives any single group veto power. His bill would allow the panel to make decisions with only five of the six groups in agreement.

Severance, of the Coastal Villages Fund, said that would allow the other CDQ groups to steamroll his.

The House is supposed to vote on Young’s fisheries bill, HR 200, after the July 4 recess.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: From the Arctic to Atlantic, a photographer documents seal hunting in Canada, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Endangered Finnish seal population slowly recovering, Yle News

Norway: Lower Barents Sea cod and haddock quotas, scientists advise, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia’s Arctic nuclear dump could become promising fishing area, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Swedish drones to combat illegal eel fishing, Radio Sweden

United States: Low fish numbers force closure of king salmon fishing in part of Alaska, Alaska Public Media

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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