Costs rise while values fall; season starts uncertain during shutdown

  • A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew from Air Station Sitka, Alaska, lands on a beach near the grounded 50-foot fishing vessel Mirage on April 21, 2014. Coast Guard service members are among those who will work without pay during the government shutdown because they are part of the Department of Homeland Security that had its funding run out on Dec. 21. (Photo via US Coast Guard/Don Kluting/Sitka Mountain Rescue)

Fishermen in Alaska who own catch shares of halibut, sablefish and Bering Sea crab will pay more to the federal government to cover 2018 management and enforcement costs for those fisheries.

For halibut and sablefish, also known as black cod, the annual fee, which is capped at 3 percent, is based on dock prices from the March start of the fisheries through September and averaged across the state.

For this year, bills went out to 1,834 holders of halibut and sablefish shares, down by 60 from last year. Their tab ticked up from 2.2 percent to 2.8 percent to cover additional costs to maintain information systems, and yielded $4.6 million, said Carl Greene, cost recovery coordinator for NOAA Fisheries in Juneau.

The combined value to fishermen of the halibut and sablefish fisheries for 2018 was $161 million, Greene said, a 22 percent decrease from last year’s payout of $208 million.

“The value of the halibut fishery was down 24 percent year over year, while sablefish was down 21 percent,” Greene said, adding that the decreases stemmed primarily from lower dock prices.

The average halibut price of $5.35 per pound was down from $6.32; sablefish at $3.68 per pound was down from $4.84 in 2017.

Federal fish managers don’t track dock prices for the various Bering Sea crab catches, only the total value of the combined fishery, which continues its year-over-year declines.

The total value of crab to fishermen for the 2017-18 season was $164 million, down $24 million, or 13 percent, from the previous year.

The coverage fee for the crab fisheries, paid by just 18 permit holders, increased slightly to 1.8 percent and yielded $3 million for enforcement costs, Green added.

Another group of about 18 boats that in 2016 began paying for coverage costs of their fisheries includes Bering Sea trawlers, mostly Seattle-based, that fish for flounders, pollock and other whitefish, including vessels owned by Alaska Community Development Quota groups.

“The fee for these programs was less than 1 percent and were used to cover about $2 million in enforcement costs,” Greene said.

Fish shutdown shaft

Hundreds of boats that are gearing up for the January start of some of Alaska’s largest fisheries could be stuck at the docks due to the government shutdown battle between President Donald Trump and Senate Democrats.

Nine of the government’s 15 federal departments and several agencies were shuttered at midnight on Dec. 21 when U.S. senators reached a stalemate over Trump’s demand that $5.7 billion be included for a wall of “artistically designed steel slats” at the Mexican border.

The inaction by lawmakers meant funding expired for the Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, State, Transportation and Treasury Departments. The shutdown sent home 380,000 workers, while more than 420,000 employees deemed “essential” will continue to work without pay.

Hardest hit will be the Department of Homeland Security, said the New York Times.

“Nearly 54,000 Customs and Border Protection agents and 42,000 Coast Guard employees are projected to work without pay and, as travelers flood the nation’s airports and train stations, 53,000 T.S.A. agents will keep working, as will air traffic controllers and aviation and railroad safety inspectors,” the Times reported.

Also included in the work without pay list are correctional officers, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and Weather Service forecasters.

Alaska’s federally managed fisheries from three to 200 miles offshore fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Commerce Department, which has furloughed 87 percent of its 47,896 workers.

That likely includes some or all of Alaska’s fishery managers, license and permit issuers, fishery trackers, onboard observers, researchers and enforcement agents, but details are vague at best.

In an untimely and unusual first, no one at NOAA in Juneau could speak about the impacts a government shutdown might have on the upcoming fisheries. All questions were referred “to the White House.” Calls and email messages to those headquarters were not returned.

At NOAA Fisheries in Alaska, about 105 fishery regulators are located in Juneau, 15 in Anchorage, one in Kodiak and two in Dutch Harbor. Another 100 or so are employed in fishery research labs in Seattle, Kodiak and Juneau.

Alaska’s cod fishery is set to open in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea on Jan. 1 followed on Jan. 20 by pollock, flatfish and other whitefish fisheries. The snow crab fishery, also federally managed, gets underway in mid-January.

Meanwhile, no one is predicting how long the Trump shutdown will continue. On Dec. 22, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adjourned the Senate until Dec. 27.

Holiday seafood traditions

For centuries seafood has taken a special spot on holiday tables all over the world and is served up with traditional meaning.

One of the oldest stemming back to Roman times is the Feast of Seven Fishes, an Italian Christmas Eve celebration by Catholics to honor the birth of Jesus. The number seven is considered the perfect number and is repeated 700 times in the Bible, making the Feast of Seven Fishes a symbolic Christmas celebration.

Dining tables can include seven or up to 13 different seafood dishes as a way to refrain from eating meat or milk on holy days, a long ago dietary taboo. One of the most famous dishes is baccalào or salted codfish; celebrants also feast on fried fish such as smelt and calamari.

In other countries around the world:

Eating lutefisk is a Christmas tradition in Norway and Sweden. It is made from dried whitefish, usually cod, that is prepared with lye in a long series of water treatments until the fish becomes jelly-like. Lutefisk dates back to the days of the Vikings.

In Japan, consuming prawns on New Year’s Eve is to ensure long life, and eating herring roe is to boost fertility.

Feasting on pickled herring at midnight in Germany, Poland, and parts of Scandinavia is done in hopes of bringing in a bountiful catch.

In China a fish is served whole, symbolizing a good beginning and end in the coming year.

One seafood that isn’t popular in holiday celebrations in many parts of the world is lobster — because it swims backwards.

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Updated: 
12/28/2018 - 12:22pm

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