Fishing crew on a boat in Alaska's Bristol Bay
Sustainable Harvest Alaska’s sustainable fisheries management has meant good harvests yet it has also distanced local communities in Bristol Bay from a longstanding link to economic opportunity. © Brian Adams

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A Bristol Bay Fisheries Policy Retrospective

New Report Examines History of Limited Entry in Alaska’s Top Salmon Fishery

Alaska’s Bristol Bay is home to the largest and most valuable wild salmon fishery on the planet, with a history of strong returns and a vibrant commercial fishing economy currently valued at $2.2 billion annually.

A new report offers a detailed look at the role of fisheries conservation policy in shaping the long-term sustainability of Bristol Bay salmon and its contributions to local communities and Alaska’s economy overall.

Titled “Righting the Ship: Restoring Local Fishing Access and Opportunity in Bristol Bay Salmon Fisheries,” (pdf) the report examines how state fisheries policy dating back nearly 50 years has gradually distanced local communities from a longstanding link to economic opportunity.

“In Bristol Bay communities, there’s been a sharp and costly decline in the number of people who are able to take part in the world’s most valuable salmon fishery. For the State of Alaska, this has led to a staggering loss of livelihood opportunity and personal income in a region often celebrated for its fishery abundance and wealth. The fact that much of this loss has occurred among Alaska Native fishing families and villages is especially concerning,” says Rachel Donkersloot, PhD, who authored the report for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska. 

Commercial salmon fishing
Commercial salmon fishing Commercial salmon fishing in Nushagak Bay © Clark James Mishler

Download the Report!

“Righting the Ship: Restoring Local Fishing Access and Opportunity in Bristol Bay Salmon Fisheries" (pdf) examines how state fisheries policy dating back nearly 50 years has affected local communities in Bristol Bay.

As a fisheries conservation measure, Alaska’s limited entry system has been a key element of the state’s sustainable fisheries management framework. Yet number of local people owning Bristol Bay fishing rights has declined since Alaska introduced its limited entry permit system in 1975. Residents in Bristol Bay’s 30-plus communities now own 50% fewer commercial fishing permits.

Limiting entry into Alaska fisheries was spurred by a mounting crisis in the 1960s brought on by poor salmon returns, declining fishing incomes, and a rising number of nonresident fishermen. A key objective of Alaska’s Limited Entry Act was to keep fishing rights in the hands of Alaskans dependent on fisheries, especially rural residents with limited economic opportunity.

The report presents policy options for sustaining rural fishery participation and strengthening Alaska rural economies that have been disenfranchised under the current limited entry system. Specifically, the report summarizes and explains: 1) why and how Alaska’s Limited Entry Program disproportionately negatively impacts rural and Alaska Native fishing communities; 2) why previous efforts to address this issue have been insufficient; and 3) the rationale, legal contexts, and potential framework for solutions to move forward. 

“This research is already generating important conversations about the success of nearly 50 years of Alaska’s Limited Entry System. It’s also prompting people to ask how changes to policy could help shape the future of fisheries in Bristol Bay’s rural communities,” says Steve Cohn, Director of The Nature Conservancy in Alaska. 

Solutions to the policy shortcomings are complex but they do exist, and the report presents a suite of working examples from a variety of coastal communities. 

The 40-page report presents a range of data and infographics that document trends in commercial fishing permit ownership in Bristol Bay and across the state. The report builds on an extensive body of existing research and legal history to clarify the potential for Alaska fisheries policy and improve current shortcomings. 

The Nature Conservancy works in partnership with Indigenous Peoples and local communities to support their visions, learn from their stewardship experiences, and amplify their leadership in conserving lands, waters, and ways of life. The commitment of The Nature Conservancy directly aligns with the Bristol Bay Vision Statement: “We welcome sustainable economic development that advances the values of Bristol Bay people. Our future includes diverse economic opportunities in businesses and industries based largely on renewable resources.” To advance this vision, TNC prioritizes collaboration and science to protect the Bristol Bay watershed and build a resilient, sustainable, diverse economy based on equitable access to commercial fishing opportunities and conservation of Bristol Bay’s critical ecosystem. 

DOWNLOAD THE FULL REPORT (PDF), "RIGHTING THE SHIP: RESTORING LOCAL FISHING ACCESS AND OPPORTUNITY IN BRISTOL BAY SALMON FISHERIES."

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.