Why Seattle has an Interest in Bristol Bay

Why Seattle has an Interest in Bristol Bay

One of the newer outrages that Rep. Don Young, Congressman for all Alaskans who voted for him, has to face is the U.S. Senator from Washington, Maria Cantwell.  What has she done to incur his infamous wrath?  She has stuck her nose in the business of Alaskan resource management.  You see, one of Senator Cantwell’s main issues is sustainability of salmon populations and the fishing jobs they provide.  Not only has she been working to secure funding for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund – from the Columbia River to Puget Sound, salmon populations are struggling to recover after decades of habitat destruction due to natural resource development and urban pollution – she is working to support all intact, healthy salmon ecosystems in North America.  Why?  Because Seattle fishermen could use more jobs in their area and they own permits for commercial fishing in the Bristol Bay region.  She’s even become directly involved in the EPA’s Bristol Bay watershed assessment, which puts her in Don Young’s cross hairs because he has introduced legislation that would strip the EPA of its authority under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c), to conduct such an assessment.   

Setting aside the political squabbles and power trips, there is a very real tangible connection between Bristol Bay and Seattle that warrants involvement from a U.S. Senator who represents Washington constituents.  When I was out in Bristol Bay last summer, I met three brothers from Seattle who each own their own drift boats and permits.  Like many permit holders, they spend their winters down in Seattle while their boats sit out the winter in Naknek.  When the time comes, they fly up to King Salmon and get their boats ready for another season of sockeye salmon fishing.  And then, sometime in mid-to-late July, depending on how good their season was, they catch a Pen Air or Alaska Airlines flight back to Anchorage and continue on home to Seattle.  According to the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, there are currently 742 drift gillnet permit holders (out of a total of 2154) for Bristol Bay sockeye salmon who reside in the Washington state.  That’s 34% of all Bristol Bay sockeye salmon drift gillnet commercial permits held by residents of Washington.  (Life is too short for me to look on a map and determine all of the towns and cities that are in the greater Seattle area and compare those names with permit addresses to give you a more accurate picture of how many permits are held specifically by Seattle-area residents.)   

And Seattle doesn’t provide just residency for permit holders, it also provides a vibrant consumer market ready to purchase and enjoy all manner of Alaskan seafood.  When I took an early morning stroll down downtown Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market, I saw a lot of fresh seafood – it’s truly one of the wonders of the place, along with the amazing selections of fresh flowers.  But I was looking at the seafood, because I wanted to see how important Alaskan seafood was to this market.  After passing up and down the full length of the market, I could guess that about half of all the seafood came from Alaska.  You could see large banners celebrating the coming Copper River sockeye salmon opener, other signs touting the clear, clean and fresh waters of Alaska and the associated quality of seafood that comes from it. When speaking to Kevin Davis, head chef and owner of the Steelhead Diner and Blueacre Seafood restaurants, he said that people come all over from the country to Seattle for its selection of Alaskan seafood.  A once-bustling seafood generator itself, the Puget Sound commercial fishing markets had collapsed over decades due to resource development and urban pollution.  No longer able to fish their own waters as much, Seattle fishermen had reached up into Alaskan waters and found a way to satisfy the strong demand for fresh seafood in Seattle.    And visitors responded, answering the call to experience seafood from the most pure waters remaining in the United States for sustainable commercial fishing.  

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