An early watchdog of the trawl fleets, Harold Sparck helped change the structure of the Bering Sea fishing industry to include six nonprofits that use pollock earnings to finance economic development in 65 Alaska communities.
When the summer pollock season is over, the Northern Hawk heads south from Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain to tie up at a Seattle pier.
Yet the stern of the factory trawler proclaims the homeport to be Chevak, a Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta community with an eroding beach waterfront that lacks even a dock. This is a tribute to Harold Sparck, a Baltimore-born man who married a woman from that village, and is buried there.
Sparck, who died in April 1995 at the age of 51, was fiercely persistent and improbably successful in a campaign to change the economic structure of the Bering Sea fishing industry by reserving some pollock harvest rights — once largely claimed by Seattle-based companies — for Western Alaska villages.
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“Harold said, ‘What about us? Why shouldn’t we be part of this play,'” recalls Don Mitchell, an Anchorage attorney who was Sparck’s longtime friend and ally in legal battles.
More than 30 years ago, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council backed this plan in a vote that enabled six “community development quota” nonprofits, eventually representing 65 Western Alaska villages, to gain pollock harvest rights. Today, one of those groups — Coastal Villages Region Fund — owns the Northern Hawk, which in 2023 caught more than 105 million pounds of pollock.
These nonprofits later benefited from congressional legislation that expanded their Bering Sea harvest rights and provided federal loans, which has enabled the six groups to greatly increase investments in Seattle-based pollock, crab and other Bering Sea fishing vessels.
Sparck hoped profits earned from Bering Sea pollock could be used to sustain local fisheries in Western Alaska communities. Though this dream remains elusive in many villages, his efforts did help imbue the region with new economic opportunities.
He told friends and family that the first priority was to protect fish, land and other natural resources, and he always insisted on the need for good science to guide decision-making.
Sparck was an early watchdog of the Bering Sea fleet. He called attention to the trawl fleet’s bycatch of salmon. He scolded vessel owners who tried to skimp on oversight from federally contracted observers. He sought to protect herring — important to subsistence — from overfishing.
“We want conservation — not exploitation — by forcing the industry to prove that its fishery will not harm the resource,” he declared in 1978 testimony to the federal fishery council.
Through the decades, Sparck worked closely with Alaska village councils. But his lifetime of advocacy also set the stage for a new and less unified era in Western Alaska.
The six Alaska nonprofits he helped found are now deeply vested in pollock and other large-scale Bering Sea fisheries. They have been at odds with tribal organizations, many in their own regions, concerned about the impacts of the trawl fleets. Tribal leaders called for new restrictions during recent testimony to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and in a lawsuit filed this year in federal court.
“We often hear concerns about why we can’t somehow return fisheries to local control. This does that” said Keith Criddle, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor based in Juneau who teaches marine policy through an endowment funded by the pollock industries. “But it’s not going to all be rainbows and unicorns. It’s going to be people acting on what they see as their own interests.”
A young man moves to Bethel
Sparck came to Alaska in 1968 at the age of 24 to teach in Bethel public schools.
He was Jewish, raised by parents who owned a Baltimore grocery shop, and steeped in the political activism of the ‘60s. He briefly joined the Freedom Riders to help organize African American voters in Alabama. He protested the Vietnam War, and in 1963 as a college student at George Washington University was drawn to Alaska U.S. Sen. Ernest Gruening, an early opponent of that conflict. Sparck spoke about his love for the swampy estuaries of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, and Gruening counseled him to check out the river deltas of Alaska.
Sparck took Gruening’s advice. He had only a brief tenure in the Bethel public schools, leaving after a dispute over policies he felt discriminated against Yup’ik students.
Sparck might have ended up as another Alaska short-timer. But at a Bethel dance that featured pop tunes and the fiddle, a bearded, long-haired Sparck met Lucy Jones, a young Cup’ik teacher from Chevak who would become his wife.
Sparck complained about a system turned against her people, and she challenged him to do something about it.
“He was smart. He was focused,” recalls Lucy Sparck, who now lives in Anchorage. “He noticed things that shouldn’t be – injustice.”
The couple were married in 1969, and raised their family — two boys and triplet girls — in Bethel. Sparck remained an observant Jew and also embraced Indigenous culture, joining a dance troupe and learning some of the Yup’ik language, according to his widow.
Sparck’s early Alaska activism focused on gaining greater recognition of subsistence rights, and challenging oil or other development that could put these resources at risk.
He served as director of Nunam Kitlutsisti, a nonprofit aligned with the Association of Village Council Presidents.
“We see no valid economic, social or political reason in this century for weakening or ending the traditional hunter-gatherer society we represent,” declared a policy statement from Nunam Kitlutsisti’s board of directors.
Sparck dived into state, federal and international fisheries policy as he worked to curtail the interception of Alaska-bound salmon by foreign fleets.
Sparck could be relentless once focused on something he thought needed to be done.
Don Mitchell arrived in Bethel in 1974 to work for Alaska Legal Services, and Sparck, clad in a sailor cap, soon paid a visit to his office.
“In walks this over-animated crazy person. And I had no idea what he’s talking about. I thought he was unhinged. And not someone I wanted to deal with,” Mitchell recalled. “But by the end of our relationship, I did everything Harold ever told me, even if I didn’t understand it at the time. I had total complete faith.”
Sparck was adept at political organizing and helped to corral Western Alaska votes for Gov. Bill Sheffield, a Democrat who in 1982 narrowly won election.
Sheffield would then be key to Western Alaska gaining influence on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which was charged by the 1976 Magnuson Act with developing harvest rules and harvest allocations as American fleets pushed out foreign fleets within the 200-mile U.S. zone off Alaska.
In 1984, Sheffield recommended that the Commerce Department appoint a key ally of Sparck, Henry Mitchell (no relationship to Don Mitchell), to the council.
This was a momentous time in the history of the council, which included industry officials with huge stakes in the outcome of the rules developed in marathon meetings that would stretch on for days.
A big council battle, rife with conflicts of interest, emerged over the division of pollock allocations between offshore fleets and those delivering to shoreside plants. Amid all the maneuvering, Henry Mitchell was able to gain support for a Western Alaska pollock allocation from Wally Pereyra, a council member who operated factory trawlers.
The plan approved by the council in a June 1991 meeting vested Western Alaska with harvest rights to 7.5 percent of the pollock and tilted toward onshore processors. It still needed to be reviewed by the federal Commerce Department. And some factory trawler officials, including Pereyra, thought the Western Alaska provision might not pass muster and implode the entire allocation scheme.
Until then, the public fishery resource within the federal zone off Alaska had essentially been given away to fishermen, unlike federal oil and natural gas reserves auctioned to the highest bidder. The council action gave the Western Alaska nonprofits the ability to lease their annual harvest rights, or invest in boats and catch the pollock.
“I had my questions, let’s put it that way,” Pereyra said in a recent interview from Washington state. “This was quite a radical departure from the way things had been done in the past.”
Mitchell says that he and Sparck had gained a behind-the-scenes pledge from then-Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. If the council backed vesting Western Alaska with pollock shares, Stevens told Mitchell and Sparck, he would make sure that the federal government did not strike it down.
“He promised that to our face,” Mitchell recalled. “He said, ‘You get that attached to a fishery plan, and the secretary of Commerce will approve it.'”
Thirty-three years later, a Western Alaska nonprofit — Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. — is the largest investor in the factory trawler company that Pereyra chairs, the Arctic Storm.
“When you look at it today, I think it was one of the most creative things that has been done,” Pereyra said. “The fisheries up there were distributed in a much more egalitarian way.”
A cemetery on a hill
During the final years of his life, Sparck helped launch Coastal Villages Fishing Cooperative, the first community development quota group representing the Kuskokwim region.
Things did not go well.
In 1992, the group entered into a partnership with Golden Age Fisheries, the owners of the Brown’s Point factory trawler. But the five-year joint venture lost money, and an oversight investigation by the state of Alaska found the cooperative was not getting all the royalties it was due. The state recommended that the group be dissolved and the pollock allocation be terminated.
The cooperative went out of business. A new group, Coastal Villages Region Fund, formed, gained the pollock allocation and today is prospering with more than $80 million in annual revenue in 2022.
Sparck did not live to see the successful relaunch.
His 1995 death from lung cancer came as the cooperative was still mired in the Brown’s Point deal.
In his final weeks in the hospital, he received lots of visitors — Western Alaskans, politicians, allies as well as those who had fought against the Western Alaska quota program.
Sparck was buried in a cemetery on a ridge that overlooks Chevak. Among the many Christian crosses, his grave is marked by a Jewish star hewn of wood.
In 1996, Stevens and then-Rep. Don Young sponsored legislation that made the Western Alaska quotas part of federal law. The amendments were called the “Harold Sparck Bering Sea Community Development Quota Program.”
Lucy Sparck said he sought to help the people of Western Alaska, not to promote himself, and would have been uncomfortable with the honor.
“I objected, in his name.” she said. “His whole belief system was not like that.”