Fishermen watch, wait, work, while Legislature in limbo

An Alaska government shutdown is a fisheries shutdown.

Commercial, sport, gillnet, dipnetters and subsistence fishing would all be impacted in devastating ways if a fiscal year 2018 budget isn’t approved by the Alaska Legislature by July 1.

United Fishermen of Alaska, which represents 33 Alaska commercial fishing organizations, is taking the stance that people should “work on the season,” said President Jerry McCune.

“As it gets closer to the deadline, we’ll get more worried and put the pressure on the Legislature to fund Fish and Game at least, if they’re not coming up with a budget,” he said.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s 2018 fiscal year budget of $200.16 million was agreed upon by both the House and the Senate in April. Of that, commercial fisheries were allotted $70.77 million.

“The Fish and Game budget is already done. There was no difference between the House and the Senate, so that isn’t in contention,” McCune pointed out. “We’re monitoring the situation and as we get closer, if there’s no budget, we’ll have to mobilize fishermen to put pressure on the Legislature to pass a limited budget.”

A public announcement from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game June 10 “left us very much up in the air,” said Mark Vinsel, the executive administrator at UFA. “Right now there are a whole bunch of question marks.”

As processers gear up for seasonal work, a lot of those questions are coming from Bristol Bay. That fishery provides around 40 percent of the world’s sockeye, said Rebecca Martello, executive director of Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

Negative impacts on funding the management of the resource, or the shutdown of the fishery, “would literally be felt ‘round the world,” she said.

The ADFG announcement June 10, as did similar releases from the rest of the state agencies, summarized what would be impacted should a shutdown occur.

“Alaska’s multi-billion dollar salmon industry is primarily based on fisheries that occur between the months of June and September,” the release stated. “These fisheries provide the sole means of subsistence and livelihood for many Alaskans. A government shutdown would coincide with the peak of the Bristol Bay sockeye season, which regularly occurs around July 4th.

“Not only would current season fisheries be potentially impacted, the department’s ability to forecast future escapement goal analyses and data collection could also be significantly compromised.”

Insufficient sampling could hinder assessment of the state’s performance for Pacific Salmon Treaty obligations, the department’s ability to manage allocations set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and impact the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s stock assessment program, the release said.

The ability to issue subsistence and drawing permits also could be delayed, “interrupted or even not issued.”

The release doesn’t mention fish processors and other service providers that would be shut down.

ADFG hasn’t made a determination on when to pull staff in from far-flung posts on salmon weirs where harvest counts determine catch limits.

“We’re still hopeful the legislature will pass a budget before July 1 and we can continue as normal,” said Forrest Bowers, deputy commissioner for Division of Commercial Fisheries. “We’re not pulling anyone out until then.”

Bowers doesn’t consider the fears expressed in the industry as an exercise in waiting and worrying only to find out the season will proceed as normal.

“It’s a serious matter. We’re all watching, carefully watching, the legislative actions this week,” he said.

Martello said any prospect of a temporary shutdown spells potential disaster at the beginning of salmon season, coinciding with the beginning of fiscal year 2018.

“From the perspective of our fishermen, and certainly other stakeholders, there is a lot at stake. There are more than 1,800 drift permits in the Bay and each boat represents a small business, employing crews of 2-3 deckhands per vessel,” Martello wrote in an email to the Journal. “Processors employ hundreds of workers for their plants, not to mention the impact to related trades and businesses and the impacts to communities around Bristol Bay who rely on the industry for economic support as a tax base in their cities and boroughs. We’re talking about an average of almost 10,000 jobs per month.”

The loss would be to state’s revenue coffers as well: A $1.5 billion dollar annual industry whose shutdown would mean the loss of associated fisheries taxes that are paid to the state and split with the communities where the fish are landed, Martello said.

Friday, June 16, marks the end of the current 30-day special session, after a previous 30-day extension of the regular 90-day session.

All this, with no budget road map for the year ahead, said Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. Friday marks the 151st day – and it’s hard to excuse not having a budget or the plan to pay for it in place by then, he added.

“But the bottom line is — no matter what (legislation) is left this week, we have to pass and fund a budget,” Micciche said. “We simply can’t risk an economic and cultural hostage situation with 740,000 Alaskans because of the Legislature’s lack of ability to determine accurate remuneration.

“We wanted deeper cuts, but we are willing to give up 50 cuts in order to get a budget.”

Micciche represents most of the Kenai Peninsula, which fishermen of all stripes call home.

“I’m worried about all user groups right now,” he said June 12. “Salmon is Alaska’s brand. I’m also thinking of the tourism season getting underway – nearly 2 million visitors are expected and a lot of the reason relates to fishing.”

He expects that by Friday, there will be a balanced budget to hand off to the governor.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, called the concern “a legitimate fear.” He spent the weekend in Cordova where he heard concerns loud and clear.

“I saw it in Kodiak and I saw it in Cordova for three days,” he said. “This is close. It’s of great concern and it should be. But it simply is not going to happen. Think of what is happening in gearing up in Seward, Kodiak, Cordova and Bristol Bay; it would be a big disaster. I’m surprised anyone is thinking it is a possibility.”

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

06/14/2017 - 12:24pm