Researchers study economics of permit ownership, loss

May 25, 2016

An economics research project is looking at what happened to the Bristol Bay salmon fishing permits initially issued to watershed residents.

Credit Courtesy Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association

When the Bristol Bay salmon fishery was limited, about half the permits were issued to watershed residents. In the decades since, some have stayed in with residents, and others have left. 

University of Washington Researcher Jennifer Meredith came to Bristol Bay this spring to study permits in the salmon fishery. After seeing ten communities and talking to hundreds of residents, she wishes they could visit more.

“Every place we go, I just end up being like, I want to go to more," Meredith said. "Because the stories are so different everywhere. I do think the thing that all the places have in common is people are really committed to the salmon fishery. And there’s a lot of really tragic stories of the way that the permit system affected people out here, but there’s a lot of really empowering stories, families that have been fishing for 12 generations now, that rely on the resource and intend to bequeath the permit to their descendants who can continue to rely on the resource.”

Meredith and her team of research assistants have visited Aleknagik, Newhalen, Iliamna, Togiak, Nakenek, King Salmon, South Naknek, Koliganek, Manokotak.

In each town, Meredith and her colleagues set out to find out what happened to randomly selected permit holders. Different strategies worked best in different communities. They hired locals to help understand the community and family trees, and offered Subway sandwiches, coffee gift cards, a fuel raffle to get respondents to show up. And then, they interviewed permit holders, or people who knew permit holders, and heard many, many stories.

“We loved just hearing the stories," Meredith said. "That’s really the way we start every survey. Where are you from, where was your family from. What brought them here. So we got to hear lots of great stories about people moving from volcanic eruptions and flu epidemics. We’re going way, way back with some of these original permit holders and hearing about the original founders and pioneers and then, a lot of the history of the native peoples and where they located and what brought them into settlements and that kind of thing. I think the nature of the project was surprising to me, how many stories it brought out of people.”

In places where permits have been sold, they found a long list of factors that play into the decision to fish a permit or sell it: markets and processors and price, access to other support resources like CDQ programs, even whether they had family to pass it on to.

“There are people that sold permits and invested the money into a different type of enterprise, and there are people that sold permits because they really felt like they had to, to pay their bills and they got in a tough spot," she said. "There’s all different reasons. I wouldn’t say there’s one thread, but I’m looking forward to analyzing the data and seeing what we find."

And, they found that some communities have not lost permits.

“Some communities have lost very few permits," she said. "We were up in Koliganek, and very few permits have been sold up there. So it was important to us to have a variety of situations. There’s definitely a misconception on the part of people down here closer to the bay that the people from up in Lake District have sold more permits than them, but in terms of actual numbers, it’s pretty equivalent.”

They also asked people for ideas about helpful policies, and heard two main responses: higher fish prices would help, and that the business side of commercial fishing is hard, and where people need the most help.

Meredith is an economist. She’s hoping to turn all those stories into a robust picture of why people keep permits, why they sell them, and what happens in either case.

“The perception I’ve come away with is, there’s five sides to every coin. I’m interested to see what comes out of the data as far as what policies might help moving forward, and I’m hopeful that we might get some real rigorous results using all these control groups for what happens when a permit is sold, as far as what are the consequences for the descendants, in terms of where they live, what their occupation is and what their assets look like later on," she said.

The analysis will start with a lot of data entry.

“You can count the number of permits in the direct family tree. We can code sister, brother, etc. So matching all the individual surveys that we did with their relatives in the larger family is how we’ll do that. People out here are great story tellers and they have great narratives of where they lived – that still allows me for every date to assign a location and for every date to assign a reason for being there. Just hearing the narrative of why people move around, you can turn it into data.”

But first, the team is still hoping to track down a few more permit holders. So far they’ve surveyed about 700 of the 1,000 randomly selected permit holders, and are hoping to connect with more in Dillingham. 

“As a regional hub it’s really interesting," Meredith said. "And because we did do Naknek /King Salmon we wanted to make sure to include Dillingham. Semi-equivalent areas, with differences in fish runs, where the processors are located, and that kind of thing. From Dillingham, we’re hoping to get a sense of how does all the outside options for employment and kinda the stronger ties that Dillingham has to urban communities affect the way that permits move around here differently than in the more rural communities.”

The researchers will be here through May 31, and are looking to talk to about 150 permit holders. To get in touch with the team, call Neil Liotta at 843-2705.