As lawmakers convene this week in Juneau, Alaska’s fishing industry sees a glimmer of hope that its budget won’t be gutted again.
Under Gov. Bill Walker’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, the commercial fisheries division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reflects a 0.3 percent increase to $70.7 million. It’s a big relief for an industry whose oversight budget has been slashed by more than 30 percent over two years.
“All regions show slight increases,” said Tom Gemmell, a numbers guru and executive director of the Halibut Coalition in Juneau. “It was a nice surprise this year to get a little bit of a plus up.”
Fishery management offices in the Central, Westward and Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim regions show budget increases of less than 1 percent and Southeast’s proposed budget boost is 1.7 percent. One component of the fish budget that could take a 0.7 percent hit is at statewide management headquarters in Juneau.
“The budget over the years has gone back and forth between what’s run out of the central office in Juneau and by the regional supervisors. Most recently, they’ve tried to identify projects in the specific regions. However, there still are statewide things like the genetics laboratory that have to be funded,” Gemmell said.
The governor’s budget also proposes to cut back on so-called test fishing in which a portion of fishermen’s catches are used to fund critical management tools such as salmon counting towers and weirs. Those receipts totaled nearly $3 million in fiscal year 2016.
The state’s lone marketing arm, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, appears poised to receive a paltry $1 million from the general fund. ASMI, which promotes Alaska seafood in the U.S. and more than 120 countries, is funded primarily by the seafood industry and lawmakers already have put the group on notice that state support will be zeroed out by 2019. (Compare that to Norway’s Seafood Council, which is funded by a tax on all seafood exports and had a budget last year of $55 million.)
While the early budget news is encouraging, there’s still a long way to go before it gets the nod from Alaska lawmakers. Gemmell believes it will be tough to cut an already barebones budget.
“I think we’re at a point where if there is no management, there is no science. Fishery managers have to be conservative, and that means reduced fishing time and harvests with the net result being job losses for the harvesters, processors and communities,” he said. “They’ve cut all of the fat already and we’re down to bone. It would be very hard to cut the budget further without having dramatic impacts on fishermen.”
Kodiak backs fish bucks
Kodiak already has mustered strong backing for a sustained fisheries budget by rallying the Alaska Municipal League to unanimously support a resolution calling for no more cuts. The AML comprises 164 cities, boroughs and municipalities that “represent a unified voice for over 97 percent of the state’s residents.” The resolution also has the strong support of the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference.
“If the Division of Commercial Fisheries doesn’t have adequate money to monitor and assess the fish stocks, they will close a fishery or they won’t open it, or it will be opened at a lesser level to maintain a safety buffer. All of those things reduce fishing opportunity and that hurts our small fishing businesses, communities, municipalities and the state,” said Rebecca Skinner, a Kodiak Island Borough Assembly member and co-author of the resolution.
As a prime example, Skinner pointed to Alaska’s largest herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay.
“The allowable catch for that fishery was reduced for this year because the surveys to assess how many herring were available couldn’t be done,” she said.
Kodiak officials also are pushing for a plan that would have new fish taxes or fees go to support commercial fishing, as is done with licensing and other fees in the sportfish and wildlife management divisions.
The Alaska Legislature’s fisheries committee had to turn away interested legislators this session because the seven member seats filled so fast.
“We are going to be busy this year,” said Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, chair of the fisheries committee. “We intend to educate not only legislators, but also the residents of Alaska that there is not one community in this state that is not impacted by fisheries in a positive way.”
Stutes, who also represents Cordova and several communities in Cook Inlet, is majority whip in a new bipartisan coalition that will lead the Alaska House when lawmakers convene on Jan. 17. The new group takes House leadership away from Republicans for the first time in more than two decades.
Protecting commercial fisheries from further budget cuts also will be a priority. Stutes said some dollars may be shuffled to make sure they are targeted to maintaining ongoing fisheries.
“Such as stock assessments and weir counters — we need them to maintain a sustainable salmon fishery. There’s just no question about that,” she said.
Work will continue on reorganizing the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, as well as tweaking the formula that sets fees for permits in open access fisheries, such as whitefish. That system has not been updated for more than 20 years.
“Right now, if you have a 58-footer that can hold 200,000 pounds, and you have a 125-footer fishing the same resource in the same area that can only carry 100,000 pounds, the 125-footer is going to pay a much higher permit fee than the 58-footer that can outfish them. It is not a fair and equitable situation,” Stutes said, adding that the issue will include lots of public input.
Stutes, who is in her second term, believes Alaska’s seafood industry is gaining more recognition for its contributions to the state, especially since for several years one king salmon from Southeast has been worth more than a barrel of crude oil. (currently $108 versus less than $53).
“In my opinion it is no less important than oil. We must look at it and treat it as such. The difference is, if we treat our fisheries appropriately, they are renewable; oil is not.”
The seafood industry is second to oil in the revenues it puts into state coffers, more than $250 million in taxes and fees last fiscal year. Stutes said many don’t understand that half of those fish bucks go into the state general fund and are distributed at the whim of lawmakers.
“Particularly coastal communities or places where fish are landed. They are paying a 50 percent raw fish tax that goes directly into those communities. Those are dollars that the state is not putting in. Those dollars are supplied by the resource and the fishermen and the stakeholders. And for that not to be acknowledged is criminal.”
Laine Welch has been writing Fish Factor since 1991. The syndicated column runs in nearly 20 Alaska newspapers and websites, and in the U.K. Her daily “Fish Radio” program airs on 30 stations across Alaska and beyond. Laine lives in Kodiak. Visit her website at www.alaskafishradio.com.