July 28, 2016; Alaska Dispatch News
Coastal Villages Region Fund (CVRF) in Southwest Alaska is at odds with the villages it was created to serve after shutting down its commercial salmon operation.
CVRF is one of six coastal development quota groups (CDQs) created by the federal government back in the Nineties to boost the Western Alaskan economy. The idea was that the CDQs would use earnings from federal fisheries, royalties, and investments to invest in the local economy by creating employment opportunities and growth, particularly surrounding small-scale commercial fisheries. They achieve this in part by offering subsidies for commercial fisheries, loans for residents to purchase boats and outboards, building or improving fish processing facilities, and improving fish handling infrastructure. Aside from commercial fishing, CDQs also create internships with business partners, offer training, and create jobs with government agencies.
The CVRF board felt that one village, Quinhagak, received an unfair advantage in its subsidies for its salmon operation. They shut down the operation but still continue to offer other benefits. What the CVRF board did not anticipate was that closing this operation would have downstream effects not only on Quinhagak, but also the surrounding villages.
Coastal Villages Region Fund this year suspended all of its Kuskokwim-area fish processing and buying, saying the operation was losing more than $6 million a year. It mothballed its salmon processing plant in the village of Platinum, closed down its Quinhagak fish station and has refused to lease dockside equipment such as icemakers and deck cranes to a Seattle buyer. Earlier, it closed its halibut processing plants in the region.
“They left us with nothing,” said Frank Hill, 44, who had worked as dock supervisor for Coastal Villages. “It’s hard when you have five kids to take care of.”
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Commercial fishing has always been the mainstay of the local economy for this community located in one of the poorest regions in the United States. Eighty of the 700 villagers of Quinhagak alone are licensed commercial fishermen, and fishermen from other villages also participate in the commercial salmon operation. Without the ability to fish and sell product, the families are facing incredible financial hardship. This is particularly true for villagers who took advantage of CVRF’s People Propel program, which provides 40 percent of the cost of equipment. Without work, some residents in this program are now having trouble paying the remaining fees on their equipment.
CVRF is saying that this shutdown will persist into next year and is potentially indefinite. Embittered fishermen and village leaders say that at best, this situation exemplifies poor management decisions of their regional community development nonprofit. At worst, some are calling this a tactic for the nonprofit executives and managers to line their own pockets. IRS reports accessed through GuideStar show that in 2014, CVRF’s executive director Morgen Crow’s salary was $475,000 and went as high as $800,000 in some years when a bonus was included. Meanwhile, the fishermen make anywhere between $10,000 and $40,000 annually.
One villager commented, “I don’t think it’s fair for the people out here, while they are making a big salary, having a good time flying around with their charters. They should be putting more effort into trying to help us out here.”
To make matters worse, CVRF refused an offer from Northwest Seafood Exchange to lease the equipment and buy fish directly from the small-scale fisheries operated by the villagers, which would have been a huge help for the fishermen and their families. Regarding this issue, Crow said, “Coastal Villages won’t lease equipment to an unfamiliar player. The organization may want to use it again, or sell it. For those two reasons, I don’t want them to touch our equipment. I’m going to want that equipment to be in tip-top shape.”
CVRF was created in order to help the villages in these coastal regions and as such has enormous control over the infrastructure in the region, which is in existence to meet the needs of the villagers. If CVRF had to shut down an operation, sufficient alternatives could have been put in place so that the economy was not harmed so severely. As a nonprofit organization in an underdeveloped region charged to create opportunity, CVRF is facing a crisis that village leaders claim could have been avoided and needs to be rectified.—Sheela Nimishakavi