FISH FACTOR: Managers deploy across state amid budget impasse
Alaska salmon managers are hoping for the best and planning for the worst as lawmakers extend into a special session to try and agree on a state budget. It is the third year in a row they have not finished their legislative session on time due to budget differences.
The haggling, which could last up to 30 days, means pink slips could go out to all state workers in less than two weeks in advance of job layoffs.
“It’s similar to what happened last year. Pink slips go out on June 1 and then we have to start getting people out because they cannot be on salary effective July 1,” said Scott Kelley, director of the commercial fisheries division at Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game headquarters in Juneau.
“At this point, we are acting under the assumption that we are going to have a budget,” he added.
Kelley admits he’s closely watching the calendar as salmon fisheries get underway. Fish and Game differs from most state departments because so many workers must be flown or boated to remote salmon counting sites across the state. Orderly field camp setups and shutdowns take several weeks of advance planning.
“Day by day we are already increasing our field presence. The Chignik and Karluk weirs are supposed to go in this week, the Miles River sonar at the Copper River and other things across the state. We will be scrambling,” Kelley said, adding that about 670 fishery workers are on the job each summer.
The budget impasse also would stall other summer fisheries, and derail stock assessment surveys for Tanner crab in Prince William Sound, red king crab in Southeast and black cod at Chatham Strait, to name a few.
The governor’s operating budget for the commercial fisheries division for the next fiscal year is just more than $70.7 million, which reflects a net gain of $670,000 to cover contracts and inflation costs.
Kelley said the extra money was spread to projects across the state that “are most closely linked to opportunities for fishing,” such as aerial surveys for Southeast salmon, the Coghill Lake project at Prince William Sound and Igushik salmon counting towers at Togiak.
But not having the money to manage the salmon season is the biggest concern caused by the legislative lollygagging.
Alaska’s salmon fisheries are tracked on a daily basis during the season to make sure enough fish can make it upriver to sustain future stocks. If that can’t happen, the result would be lost harvests from Ketchikan to Kotzebue.
“The economy of the state would take an enormous hit if we had to pull stock assessment projects, and that is obvious to everyone who lives here,” Kelley said. “That’s why I’m optimistic because it is just too big to ignore. And the legislators know that.”
Fish Expo for a good cause
The first annual Bristol Bay Fish Expo that will occur next month at Naknek has a dual purpose.
The event is summed up by its theme of “Bridging the Bay: Connecting the Community and the Industry.”
“So many people come into our community each summer but they never get to be a part of it, and they really want to be,” said Katie Copps-Wilson, an Expo organizer.
The town of Naknek swells from a population of about 400 to 12,000 when the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery at Bristol Bay gears up and gets underway each summer. But there is little contact between local fishermen, residents and those who come to work in the Bay.
Copps-Wilson, who is a physician’s assistant at the local Camai Community Health Center and a clinic liaison with the processing companies, said she discovered the disconnect a few summers ago. At a “meet and greet” dinner last year with local processors, she said it was clear more people wanted to bridge the divide.
“Every year people come here who are yoga instructors and swim teachers and artists and carpenters. Some people spend every summer here their whole lives. We have a vast collection of talent sitting around our community. How can we capture that and make it a part of our summer?” Copps-Wilson said.
The idea for a local Fish Expo evolved over the winter and really picked up steam when it added another purpose: raising money for the Little Angels Child Care Academy.
“The lack of child care in our community is causing families to leave,” Copps-Wilson explained. “Every day you see listings on our local Bristol Bay Exchange by people who are desperately seeking child care. These are young families with young kids that just want to support their families. And right now they can get work, but there is nothing available or very limited as to what they can do for child care.”
Last fall the grass roots effort received an $80,000 start-up grant from the Bristol Bay Borough to secure a building and furnishings. But the money cannot be used to cover payroll for a small staff.
“The school room is ready. We need to raise $13,000 to open the doors,” Copps-Wilson said.
The Fish Expo is likely to make that happen. Already more than 30 vendors, agencies, associations and “Made in the Bay” businesses have signed up for exhibitor booths and the list grows daily. The Expo also will feature local artists, movies, foods, a fashion show, raffles, swag bags and a job fair.
“It’s a time to talk fish, advertise, recruit, sell products, celebrate salmon and simply get to know each other,” the Expo announcement exclaims.
Copps-Wilson said one of the best things “is to see how excited people are,” and donations (tax deductible) are arriving daily from near and far.
“A fish company in New Mexico did a salmon taco feed and donated over $700 to us. It’s really humbling to see how businesses that aren’t here year round love our community and want to give back,” she said.
“This will mean so much to everyone,” Copps-Wilson added. “Our hope is to really connect the community and the industry. The bottom line is that we all need each other.”
The Bristol Bay Fish Expo is set for June 9 and 10 at the Borough school in Naknek. Find more information on Facebook and sign up to participate or donate to Little Angels Academy at email@example.com.
Copper River haul
Fishermen fetched high prices for the first salmon catches from Copper River. Grounds prices were reported at $7 to $8 per pound for sockeyes and $10 to $10.50 a pound for kings.
That compares to starting prices last summer of $6.50 and $9.50, respectively. The prices will drop when more Alaska salmon fisheries come on line.
Roughly 77,000 pounds of sockeye and king salmon were flown by five Alaska Airlines cargo flights from Cordova to Seattle on May 19 after a 12-hour opener on May 18.
Every year the airline partners with Ocean Beauty, Trident and Copper River Seafoods to bring the season’s “first fish” to eager retailers and restaurateurs in Anchorage and the Lower 48.
Ocean Beauty donated the first fish of the season — a 45-pound king salmon —to the eighth annual Copper Chef Cook-Off held on the tarmac at Sea-Tac airport. During the competition, three chefs from Seattle have 30 minutes to prepare and serve three salmon dishes to an audience of Alaska Airlines customers and guests.