FISH FACTOR: Fisheries battle budget cuts and new taxes in Legislature
A single chinook salmon is worth more than a barrel of oil.
The winter kings being caught by Southeast Alaska trollers are averaging 10 pounds each with a dock price of $7.34 a pound, according to state fish tickets. That adds up to $73.40 per fish, compared to $26 per barrel of oil.
Those who depend on fishing for their livelihoods want to make sure that budget cuts combined with any new fishery taxes don’t cut core services that result in missed fishing opportunities.
“Not all cuts are equal, and if there are cuts that interfere with the science needed for responsible and sustainable fish harvesting, many times in the absence of information, it will throttle down fisheries and reduce opportunity,” said Mark Vinsel, Executive Administrator for United Fishermen of Alaska. UFA is the nation’s largest commercial fishing trade organization, with 35 member groups.
“When we are able to count fish and make sure enough get up stream, then people can harvest them, get them to market and bring the revenue back to their communities and to the state general fund through taxes. So we have to be careful that we don’t put a tax on something or increase taxes while the overall opportunity goes down. That can be a net decrease,” Vinsel added.
“We are willing to listen to any proposal,” said Jerry McCune, UFA president. “If there is going to be raises in the taxes we would like to see it across the board to be fair for everybody.”
Gov. Bill Walker has proposed a 1 percent surtax on both the Fisheries Business Tax and the Fisheries Landing Tax, which would raise an estimated $20 million.
A resolution provided to each legislator states: “Budget cuts, though equal in value, are not equal in impact to industry or represent the same overall loss to the State of Alaska in terms of lost revenue and benefit. Emphasis should be given to find efficiencies without reducing economic opportunities for industry.”
A second UFA resolution urges that the state “should not further reduce the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s budget in a manner that negatively impacts the department’s delivery of core/essential services.”
The ADFG now has an operating budget of $200 million; the Commercial Fisheries Division gets the largest chunk at $73.3 million.
Another UFA resolution supports the existing Division of Investments’ Commercial Fisheries Revolving Loan Funds and continuation of other financing programs that “bring benefits to Alaskans and the economy of the State of Alaska in perpetuity.”
UFA also sent a letter to Walker saying it “supports the recommendation of the legislative audit that CFEC remain as an independent agency, separate and distinct from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.”
McCune said UFA is working closely with Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins regarding a bill he plans to introduce that would create permit banks to help reverse the trend of salmon permits migrating out of the state. The bank would buy nonresident permits and lease them to young fishermen who otherwise could not afford them. A permit bank would not cost the state any money, according to Kreiss-Tomkins, because it would fall to local communities to raise the money.
“I think it’s a noble idea, but we have some fears,” McCune said. “There are concerns with an entity holding a permit and giving loans and being able to take them back, and there are IRS and constitutional considerations. We will continue to work with the bill sponsor to make sure our concerns are considered and that we are within legal rights of the Limited Entry Act.”
Regarding the bill that would allow “fisheries enhancement permits” for groups and individuals (HB 220), McCune said UFA has been assured by ADFG that “safeguards are in place.”
“You can’t move one stock to another area, and you must go through all the things that a normal hatchery operator or anyone who wants to do fishery enhancements is required to do,” McCune said. “You can’t just willy-nilly run out and start a hatchery and not have any consideration for wild stocks where it’s going to located and things like that. I don’t think it will move until some things are fleshed out.”
Other fish issues and bills will surface as the Alaska legislature gets into full swing.
“It’s a bit agonizing for everyone waiting to see what will happen,” McCune said. “But you’ve got to work the process. It’s not going to be up to just UFA, but different groups and individuals are going to have to weigh in on different issues. My message to all the fishermen in the state is pay attention to what’s going on and make sure you have your say.”
A new fishery management plan will reduce halibut bycatch by 21 percent in Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands trawl and longline groundfish fisheries to 3,515 metric tons (7.73 million pounds). The plan was approved by federal managers prior to the season opener for trawlers on Jan. 20.
Managers now are moving towards similar measures for chinook and chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery, and they want input from the public.
The pollock fishery now has separate programs to account for takes of the two salmon species.
“We want to improve the functioning of these programs so they are integrated,” said Gretchen Harrington, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Alaska Region and leader for the salmon bycatch project.
The goal, she said, is to enable the fleets to operate under one incentive agreement.
“The incentive plan agreement is a document created by the pollock fishermen that explains exactly how they are going to provide incentives for each vessel to avoid chinook and chum salmon bycatch through the tools they already are using,” Harrington explained. “There also is a provision in the proposed rule that adjusts the allocation of pollock between the A season (winter) and the B season (summer) to provide five percent more pollock in the A season, so it can be harvested when there is less chance for bycatch.
A new key piece of the agreement includes adjusting chinook bycatch limits downwards whenever the state forecasts low abundances for a following year.
Currently, a 60,000 bycatch limit is in place for chinook salmon; the bycatch last year was 18,330. For chum, the bycatch take was 237,795 fish.
After going through the rule making process, Harrington said the new pollock program should be in place by next year.
Public comments on the salmon bycatch reduction plan are accepted through March 8.
The number of salmon fishing permits held by non-locals or nonresidents at Bristol Bay is 38.3 percent, not 81.1 percent. A total of 61.7 percent of all permits are held by local residents near the fishery.