A rapid response by nearly 800 Alaska fishermen will provide a guideline for giving them a hand up as the coronavirus swamps their operations.
An online survey from April 14 to May 3 by Juneau-based nonprofit SalmonState asked fishermen about their primary concerns both before the COVID-19 outbreak and in the midst of the pandemic in April. It also asked what elected officials at local, state and federal levels can do to help them directly.
Over half of the 817 responses came in over four days, said Tyson Fick, SalmonState communications adviser.
“Clearly, people were interested to have their stories heard and to weigh in. In several ways we feel like we had a very broad swath of regions and gear types and fishermen,” he said.
A total of 779 responses (95%) were accepted, of which 50% were Alaska residents, 28% were from the Lower 48 and 22% did not provide resident information.
Nearly 95% said they participate in a salmon fishery, with the majority fishing for both salmon and a mix of nearly all other species commercially harvested in Alaska.
Prior to COVID-19, the top three concerns among fishermen were fish prices (65%), the Pebble Mine (60%) and climate change (53%).
After COVID-19 hit, concerns shifted to loss of income (75%), preventing the spread in coastal communities (69%) and bad policy decisions being made while fishermen are distracted (58%).
Fishermen are combating the negative impacts by using a combination of strategies while doing more work with less time and resources. Over half said they would look for non-fishing related work, 27% said they would fish a longer season and 26% plan to fish with fewer crew. Nearly one-quarter expect to venture into direct marketing or increase dock sales. Just over 4% said they would sell their fishing businesses.
By far, affected fishermen said giving them direct payments from emergency relief funds would be the biggest help (82.73%). The second and third most popular options were favorable debt consolidation opportunities (33.25%) and debt forgiveness (28.61%).
Fishermen provided thoughtful responses when asked about actions of policy makers that revealed several themes.
At both the congressional and state levels, stopping the Pebble Mine was the most frequent request, at 24% and 18%, respectively; keeping fisheries open also was a top issue.
For Mike Governor Dunleavy and the Alaska Legislature, respondents said they should focus on COVID-19-related health and safety support for fishermen and provide help with marketing.
Fishermen also shared their perceptions of the Dunleavy administration, saying it favors other interests over commercial fishermen, naming mining, oil and gas, sport and personal use fishing.
At the local level, fishermen expressed confusion over unclear guidelines for following local health mandates and suggested that signs at airports and boatyards along with a one-page guidance document would be helpful. They also mentioned that local communities should do all they can to support processors and their workforce.
Fishermen also shared ideas on local taxes and harbor fees, and changing infrastructure to include things like cold storages in recognition of dynamic market patterns.
Less than half of the fishermen respondents are members of a commercial fishing organization or trade association, and the survey brings their voices into the conversation, said Fick.
“These are frontline workers, small business owners who are pretty tight lipped and they don’t have fancy spokespersons or lobbyists speaking on their behalf. So they often just get left out,” he added.
The goal now is to get the goods into the hands of those making the decisions on how COVID-19 relief funds are spent and invested.
“Our commitment was to help get these results to decision makers on behalf of fishermen,” said Lindsey Bloom, SalmonState campaign strategist. “We will do our best to get the information out as far as wide as possible for the fleet.”
The fishermen’s survey is a project of the group’s Salmon Habitat Information Program. Find it at www.alaskasalmonhabitat.org
KELP FARMS SPROUT
Interest continues to grow for startups of shellfish and seaweed farms — and in more remote regions of Alaska.
Eighteen growers put in applications for new or modified farms in the 2020 time slot that runs from January through April, an increase of three from last year.
Fifteen plan to grow kelp only, two aim to grow oysters and one will farm kelp and geoduck clams.
Most of Alaska’s growing operations occur in Southeast, near Homer and at Prince William Sound, but the trend is heading west, said Karen Cougan, Aquatic Farming Program coordinator for the state Dept. of Natural Resources, which leases the farm tidelands.
Kodiak pioneered the first kelp harvests in 2017 and could soon have more than five farms operating around the island, including one by the Afognak Native Corporation.
Sand Point is the first to grow kelp on the Alaska Peninsula, and this year an application came in from Adak.
In all, Alaska has 70 open farm permits, which include eight with nurseries and five hatcheries to provide seed stock to aquatic farmers.
In 2019, Pacific oysters were the biggest crop, making up 95% of sales of $1.5 million, up slightly from the 10-year average.
For sugar and ribbon kelp, a crop of 112,000 pounds — up from about 17,000 pounds two years ago — was valued at $60,000.
The advantage of kelp is the short grow-out time, said Flip Pryor, Aquaculture Section chief for the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, which issues the permits.
“While interest is high, kelp farming production is just starting to come online,” Pryor said. “The growing process is pretty straightforward, but it sometimes takes a couple of tries to work the proverbial bugs out of each farm site. I expect to see that value increase significantly in the next couple of years.”
Alaska’s mariculture task force predicts a $100 million industry by the year 2040.
High school students who feel a special pull for halibut might merit a scholarship to a university or technical college.
Every two years the International Pacific Halibut Commission funds several $4,000 scholarships to U.S. and Canadian students connected to the halibut fishery. The IPHC and its scientists have been stewards of the Pacific stock from British Columbia to the Bering Sea since 1923.
“If I was to highlight some of the candidates who’ve been successful in receiving the scholarship, it’s been those who are dependents of active fishers within the directed Pacific halibut fleets, but we will certainly consider others if they are involved in charter or recreational fishing,” said David Wilson, IPHC executive director. “We look at candidates from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, and somebody who expresses the desire or is more likely to come back to the industry postgraduate.”
The scholarships are renewable annually for the normal four-year period of undergraduate education.
The IPHC also offers other outreach teaching tools for all school ages. An Ocean Literacy Program package is downloadable, including lesson plans. And the colorful “Flat or Fiction” booklet is a keeper for any halibut lover!
For example, did you know that the treaty that formed the IPHC was the first international treaty in the world for the protection of a marine resource?
Back to the halibut scholarships: they will be available for school entrance or continuation this fall. Deadline to apply is June 30.
Find applications at the IPHC website under opportunities. Questions? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-634-1838.
Fish Factor appears weekly in over 20 outlets in Alaska, nationally and in the UK. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com.