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John Enge

The day the music died: MSA reauthorized - A novel

September 11th, 2006

I saw it on the news on my web host this bright spring morning at 5:30. The Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Management and Conservation Act had just been reauthorized, in the form it was back in September of 2006. Sen. Ted Stevens was gushing about how great a day it was for American fishermen and the survival of multitudes of fish species; the usual camouflage. Enge

Trollers, especially, like to just drag these places in peace and leave the politics to others, much to their detriment.

To quote a recently-made-famous New Zelander who hauled in a 700 + pound blue fin tuna, "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry really. I walked round like a stunned mullet for a while then had a beer. I was knackered."

But this wasn't a good kind of tired, it was a sudden and utter hopelessness and fear for the future that comes with a cancer diagnosis. Or the news that Tutsi rebels were on the outskirts of your village. You knew that people didn't know enough about the arcane business practices and mafiaesque way the reauthorization process had yielded up it's bounty of special privileges for a small group of rich fish mongers. There had been no militia strong enough to resist the well armed band of lobbyists and third-world style generals.

My son was still in Iraq, daily risking his life for these people, with the hopes of returning to Alaska to raise a sixth generation of Alaska fishermen. I could picture him coming into a R&R center from a couple of months in the desert sleeping on the hood of his Humvee to keep the scorpions at bay. Then finding out that the possibility of a fishing career had been dashed in the pleased look on the face of the Senator from Alaska on the television screen. There would be no security in the fisheries anywhere in the country from now on. A bank wouldn't lend you money for a boat or fishing gear because nobody would know when the slightest whim of the processors' association would eliminate another group of fishermen.

Large blocks of the fleet had already disappeared; the Bering Sea crab fishermen, many hundreds of salmon seiners, gillnetters of all stripes, and fleets that weren't, but could have been. Bureaucrats didn't want to incur the wrath of the powerful Alaskan Congressional delegation and the immense Japanese and Seattle-based seafood conglomerates. Fishermen had been cowering speechless in fear of reprisal from their "business partner," the local fish processor.

Whole communities had slid into the numbness and apathy of knowing that they were putty in the hands of this cabal, and community leaders readily catered to their every whim, or were conspicuously silent. And of course, the former Governor had sold out to them long ago and had helped their cause by making dozens of appointments to key positions that aided and abetted them.

Most of us who were sensitive to these issues, and had studied them, had left Alaska. We had been troubled by the steady march of privatization starting in the '70s and for awhile excused the heavy handedness of the big fish buyers as "some ruthless, good businessmen."

But when the politicians in Washington D.C. and Juneau, and now Oregon, ganged up on us, that was just too much. Already 200 salmon seiners had been given their pink slips by the processors in Southeast Alaska, and another equal number in Prince William Sound. And not a peep from the press. I had seen one article about guys dropping off the key to their boat and house with the bank and catching the ferry south. Reminded me of the mid-eighties in Anchorage in the real estate crash. People were streaming across the U.S.-Canada border by the thousands and thousands, and the economist for Key Bank kept saying everything was fine. Finally the Anchorage paper pulled his column after the fall of a half dozen Alaskan banks. He had spun the facts well and hidden the problem for maybe a year or more, so he was rewarded with the job of running the economic development corporation for Anchorage.

I was serving as a fisheries bank economist at the time, and did I get an education on what economists do to make a living. And now, the economist from Pullman, Washington, whose college recieved many hundreds of thousands of dollars from large fish mongers, and who just happened to write a tome to try justify giving the fish resources in Alaska to the processors. And of course the governing bodies in Alaska readily plugged his papers into their well greased machine to further exclude fishermen and communities from the bounty of Alaska's marine resources.

My son is really going to be pissed. It's hard over there. I had to talk to him for an hour and a half to calm him down when he hit the R&R center in Kuwait on his first tour of duty in Iraq a couple of years ago. I don't want to hear what he is saying watching the face of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens right now. I'm sure a terrorist never got such a tongue lashing from him as Stevens is now getting.. He knows the ramifications of those not-so-well-hidden passages in the new MSA, from hearing me preach to him over the years.

Now a sergeant, I can visualize him whipping up his platoon into a frenzy of animosity toward this lone U.S. Senator. Would that more political peers of the Alaskan politicians had the backbone my son has. They wouldn't have qualified for one of the three kick-ass platoons that went over the Tigris River with the Special Forces boys to get Saddam Hussein, but they could have raised their hand in protest to this slap in the face of freedom of the marketplace.

These young guys are forming ideas about which political parties are good for the country too. Right now Sen. Stevens is giving the Republican Party the biggest black eye it may have ever gotten. What with single-handedly standing in the way of the Bill to make Government spending (earmarks in his Appropriations Committee included) transparent, and trying to squash Internet neutrality. He is bucking the main stream of American thought and Washington is letting him get away with it. He is affecting everyone, not just robbing the Alaskan resident fishermen, who aren't that organized or knowledgeable anyway. He figures, from past successes, he can get away with anything now. Just like some run-amok general of a renegade African nation, you don't know who he's going to go after next.

My thoughts finally turn to the e-mails that are starting to flood my in-box, with tales of woe from fishermen all over. The first one is from Glochester, thanking his lucky stars that the good Congress had met so late in the night as to evade a demonstration. Passing something that still gave the New England fishermen the right to over-rule the maschinations of their fisheries management council, in regards anything but the science part of management, would keep fishermen in the game. He offered his condolences.

"It just doesn't seem like freedom anymore, he said." "Isn't there an Equality Clause in the Constitution that makes all citizens of the U.S. equal under the law?" "So, why can't 2/3 of the fishermen in the other regions of the country say "nuts" to getting a pink slip like we can," he wrote. "You know good and well that a 2/3 vote by the fishermen is the only thing that will protect you guys over there from being forced out." "Company boats are next, like before limited entry in the salmon fisheries."

My mind went back over thirty years to a brief discussion about limited entry on the main street of Petersburg. I knew why Floyd was passionate about the evils of the pending Limited Entry Law before the Alaska Legislature. His father had been a gillnetter on the Stikine River for so many decades that we called the middle arm of the river Strand Slough. And now his father wasn't going to get a permit under the new law because he hadn't fished enough in the qualifying years.

I had spent some time in my formative years playing in Floyd's dad's warehouse on the beach in front of their house, marveling at the antiquity of the old retired outboards and hiding in the gillnets with their wooden floats hanging from the rafters. He started going out on his dad's boat before I went out on my grandfather's. But not by too much, but certainly before statehood. We had remained chums all through school in Petersburg and now he was interning at the hospital for the summer. He was a lone voice of dissent that summer after graduating from high school, not that I would have argued, since I was on a path to become a fish monger.

It wasn't until much later, after becoming a bank economist, a project manager for a state capital project in fisheries, and now a fisheries writer, that I saw how flawed privatization of a resource held in common really was. And I remembered the vitality of the ports and fleets before the privatization mentality became so pervasive. And now like the proverbial frog in the kettle of boiling water, privatization of fish resources had spread to the shore plant owners as well.

"Who would be the next bully to come along and take the harvesting rights to the resources away from them," I thought. "Maybe the RAM Division?" Certainly in 1970 nobody would ever have imagined a processing plant owner having harvesting rights. "I'm sure the intermediate step will be to hire recent immigrants to man their boats at rock bottom wages," I thought as I looked at dark scenarios looming like icebergs in the night.

"A beer really would be good," I thought. "I've never drank a beer so early in the morning." "If I can just hold out until noon." "Well, it's a good thing I'm in a town that doesn't rely on commercial fishing." "These guys that invented the Planer for holding a bait or lure in moving water are asking for help, so maybe that's it for my advocating for a better commercial fishing environment."

The sound of my cell phone jars me from the increasing RPMs of the gears in my head. "John, did you hear the news?" "I'm sure you saw it right off, but did you see in the Seattle Times where the Council met at Trident's offices yesterday to decide who is going fishing?" "You can bet I'm not going to be on the list." "I was speaking at meetings this winter to help the RSDA folks."

"Look, Rick," I said, "hang onto that assistant harbormaster job.I don't know what is going to happen, but it looks like it's over the edge now. You could moonlight as a caretaker for the guys' boats while they start taking some of those mining jobs over in Bristol Bay. Those jobs will keep them away from home for six months at a time a least."

"Maybe you can even get in on brokering some of the boats to the Russian Far East or Barents Sea crab fisheries. The big boys will give a few small boats some of the cod to make it look like they want to keep the towns alive, but not enough to make a living at. Your bigger boats won't be needed by them. They just need a few to bottom drag the whole place for all the species at once. Just like the foreigners did in the '60s in the Gulf of Alaska. Look at the by-catch allocations wording in the MSA. You can bet that's just the start. Just one big hole in the deck and down it all goes, fins, feathers and all. Except this time they will be smart and sort it all out and process it by specie in many forms to make the most from it, something they couldn't do until they starved out the fleet."

"They don't have to pay anyone any landing fees for the stuff, and they got all of you kicked out. Now they just have to worry about that new Governor. She may be new to Juneau, but not new to politics. And like they say, it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog."

To be continued:

Could you repost my piece. Too many people thought it was just too real. Like when Orson Wells read War of the Worlds on the radio in New York on halloween 1940. Tens of thousands of people were streaming out of NY and jammed the highways. Well this time they just jammed the airwaves. People are just too serious about this subject to make light of it I guess, at least on AlaskaReport. I hope it is recognized as fiction now, albiet, based on fact.


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John lived in Alaska for 50 years and has run commercial boats and processing plants. John also served as a loan officer and economist for a "fishing bank" and served as the only Fisheries Infrastructure Development Specialist the state has had. He has owned a marine design and fabrication business and created the best-selling "Passport Alaska." All photos on his blog are his own, unless so noted.

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