Bristol Bay processors lowballed fishermen with ex-vessel prices of 50 cents on July 17, and the fleet wasn’t happy about it. 

As the season unfolded in early July the fleet began fishing on an “open ticket,” meaning that prices hadn’t yet been announced by major processors. When major processors came out with the announcement of a base price of 50 cents some members in the fleet proposed a friendly protest near Naknek. The protest has been staged for July 20, but the looming question is whether thousands of fishermen could band together with enough solidarity and force processors to nudge up the prices.

“There are too many variables out here,” says Harry Moore, a lifelong drift fisherman who was raised on the beach at Naknek. “The fish came in later this year and didn’t really hit until last week (July 10). “It was slow developing; so there are a lot of guys trying to make it up fishing the run on the back end. Then you’ve got guys who’ve got quite a few fish already, and their attitude is just to grind it out and put in a few more pounds.”

Pessimistic predictions even in May had pegged dockside offers of around 50 cents per pound, and the pricing announcement on July 17 confirmed the fleet’s worst fears.

To those who’ve participated in the fishery for more than a half century, ex-vessel prices echo the cataclysmic offers of the 1980s.

“I fished for 50 cents in 1975, and I was glad to have it,” says Moore who has seen at least three strikes for better prices turn ugly. “We saw 50 cents again in the early ’80s. Again in the ’90s. Most recently around 2003.”

Moore remembers groups who broke the strikes and retaliation that involved burning trucks, ATV’s and other belongings of fishermen deemed scabs by those who stayed tied to the docks. 

Fishermen have always suspected that processors band together in collusion on years when a large volume of fish have been predicted. The issue of price fixing has gone to court twice since the 1980s, but judges in both cases ruled in favor of the processors.

Organizers of this year’s protest hoped to garner the attention of media, and invited captains and crews to join via their Facebook group. The fishermen’s plan is to anchor across the Naknek river on July 20 from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. 
“We are protesting extremely low prices offered by the processors after they have possession of our fish,” says Rhonda Blough, a fisherman whose husband is hosting the protest. “Our goal is to bring political and media attention to our plight. We have suffered lower and lower prices at the same time being asked to make large capital investments to increase our quality." 

To some, protests fall short of a more impactful solution, which would be to cut off supplies of fish.

“This fleet is way overcapitalized,” says Moore. “You think you’re going to pay for a $1.2 million drift boat with 50-cent fish? The only way to send a message is to pull out and go home right now.”

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Charlie Ess is the North Pacific Bureau Chief for National Fisherman.

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