Fishing for Free
Bristol Bay fishermen are upset. One, in particular, made his displeasure known with a phone call to us late last month. His name is John MacDonald, and he started fishing in 1975 when he was 19. He fishes in Washington and Alaska, and hangs nets as well.
His business is an odd one. He and his colleagues in the fleet buy fuel, get their boats ready, hire crew and go fishing. No matter how much or how little they catch, they have no idea how much, if any, profit their harvest will bring. The Bristol Bay fishermen deliver their catch to the processors and wait to find out how much they’ll be paid.
MacDonald says it’s absurd to expect someone to run a business this way. “In what other business, anywhere, do they take your work product and then tell you how much they’re going to pay you?”
MacDonald says it’s time for the fishermen to have representation. “Crabbers got a good deal,” he says. “They have an arbitrator.”
Last year he was paid 50 cents a pound for his Bristol Bay fish, plus a 15-cent bonus for ice. This year he’s not optimistic. “If I have to do it for free, I guess I will, but if I gotta pay to do it I’m not doing it anymore,” he says.
MacDonald says last year’s price was pretty low, but the uncertainty is worse. The processors and canneries want a quality product. That requires capital investment, which is hard for any businessman if he doesn’t know how much he’s going to earn.
“Trident wants all refrigerated or iced fish by 2017,” he says. “Say a guy wants to upgrade his boat – maybe put in an RSW system” MacDonald says. “The banker in Ballard that’s loaning him the money wants to see a business plan. How do you write a business plan if you don’t know how much you’re going to get for your fish?”
MacDonald says the cannery borrows from the same bank.
“The canneries have a business plan,” he says. “The cannery has to borrow money to pay for the fish he’s going to buy from me, so the banker in Ballard knows how much I’m going to get paid this year. The banker knows more than the fisherman who’s catching the fish.”
MacDonald wonders why there isn’t more input from the local governments. “The boroughs, the cities, the mayors – they all want to be leaders – where’s the leadership?”
He notes that the fishermen bring a lot of money to the communities. A 2013 University of Anchorage study shows the annual estimated income to the state from the Bristol Bay salmon fishery to be $112 million. And yet, as MacDonald notes, the harvesters are kept in the dark while they’re out on the grounds producing this income for the communities.
“Where’s all the leadership?” MacDonald wonders again. “The local guys say ’get everyone out there – we’ll tell you the price later,’ and meanwhile we’re doing this for nothing.”
He says even the workers in the canneries are better informed. “Some guy flyin’ in from overseas, never seen a salmon in his life, he gets free housing, 3 squares, overtime and benefits. He knows how much he’s getting paid.”
The Bristol Bay Regional seafood Development Association (BBRSDA) was developed to advance the success of Bristol Bay salmon, and “ensure long-term success of the world’s largest and most valuable salmon fishery,” but MacDonald says the BBRSDA isn’t helping the fishermen with their efforts to get a solid price from the processors.
“We don’t need people studying the markets to tell us how bad we’re going to get screwed,” he says. “We don’t need cheerleaders with pom poms. We need guys who will play in the game. We need an arbitrator.”