Don't wait for Boldt Building co-management from the ground up: the success of salmon fishermen's groups in western Alaska

Submitted to Crossing Boundaries, the Seventh Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property, Vancouver, British Columbia. June 9-14, 1998.

Dan Senecal-Albrecht, M.A.
Bering Sea Fishermen's Association and Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association

Alaska Native advocates often look to court decisions or Congressional action to deliver them tribal self-management or co-management of natural resources. In their eyes only this formal power will enable them to confront and defeat the outsiders and usher in a management utopia controlled by tribal political entities with elders' wisdom to guide them. Meanwhile the lawsuits drag on, their battles with the State of Alaska continue and their sense of frustration builds. Salmon fishermen's groups in western Alaska, however, have decided to take a more realistic approach to securing a place at the management table. Rather than seeking to defeat the state by arguing the moral superiority of Native management they pushed and prodded the state into publicly admitting key weaknesses in its management approach, liabilities which many state field staff were the first to admit. First, that state management possessed an inadequate number and variety of data-gathering tools to manage the complex fisheries in the vast rivers and coast of western Alaska. Second, that the state's "magic black box" style of management with little public knowledge or involvement only built mistrust and suspicion of all fishery management decisions regardless of their biological rationale. That is, fishermen knew little of which data staff examined, how they interpreted it, and what parameters went into the final decision to open or curtail fishing activity. Third, that unless all user groups within an area worked together and were all involved in crafting management policy suspicions would also live that the state was favoring one group over another. Given these festering problems three groups, the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association and the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association, inserted themselves into the state's management process. They are involved at all levels: data-gathering, in-season harvest decisions and long-term policy making. They have secured their own research funds and now operate numerous fishery projects such as salmon counting towers or test fisheries, solely or in partnership with state and federal agencies. These projects, often subcontracted to individual fishermen, local tribal councils and regional Native organizations, have not only hired numerous local villagers but more importantly are joint fact-finding efforts that enable optimum subsistence and commercial harvests for these same villages. They have organized themselves into groups with broad representation and consensus voting requirements. These groups give them the legitimacy in order to work directly with state fishery managers in the difficult tasks of reviewing data, crafting formal management plan documents and regulations and assuring that escapement goals and subsistence and commercial harvest needs are met. These groups also act as public co-management forums that defuse conflicts between rival fishermen by co-opting or isolating dissenters who refuse to participate in problem-solving for the good of the fishery. This practical, "get down to business" approach puts all the information on the table for everyone to see, brings different perspectives to that data and demystifies the "science" of fishery management. The Alaska Board of Fisheries, through repeated positive interactions with these groups, now looks to them to help solve complex allocation and conservation problems. The actions of these three groups have also led to a fundamental shifting attitudes and actions within the management agencies. Users now are viewed more as valuable partners and participants rather than harvesters that must be controlled. Public involvement in in-season decision making and post-season long term planning is seen as essential. The state's job is made easier because the public better understands management goals and these groups share the burden for decisions. In turn, the state can demand that fishermen bring more than bravado and finger-pointing to the table. The efforts of these groups and the management agency personnel are forging strong working relationships that build co-management from the ground up. The goal of fishery managers and fishermen is harvest optimization while meeting social and biological needs. These competing user groups and state managers and biologists concentrate their efforts on improving the database, resolving conflicts and crafting management plans in a public and collaborative manner. These repeated transactions and exchanges build a foundation upon which co-management becomes sustainable and effective. Attempts to institutionalize co-management by claiming sovereign rights and superior traditional Native knowledge, while perhaps partially morally justifiable, do little to further the everyday well being of village fishermen. Even should a "Boldt-style" decision vault Alaska tribes above the state these tribal councils and Native activists would have little skills to effectively manage complex fisheries and their new found powers could well be used against each other. Native fishermen and managers must be willing to cross their own cultural boundaries and realize that their individual goals can only be met through sharing the various burdens of management. Only through actively participating and accepting responsibility, as in western Alaskan salmon management, can both parties earn their co-management rights.