FISH FACTOR: Cuts force ADFG to make unpopular move to contract fishing
In the face of Alaska’s multi-billion dollar budget shortfalls, state policy makers are putting the onus on fishermen to cover the costs of going fishing.
“One of the sources we have to offset general fund decreases is increased test fishing. We don’t like to catch fish or crab or anything just to raise money, but in this climate we’re having to look at that long and hard,” said Scott Kelley, director of the Commercial Fisheries for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Test fishing is typically done by department-chartered vessels to assess stocks, run strength and other projects. Now in many regions costs for those management necessities are being shunted to fishermen and processors.
“I’m not 100 percent sure when we first started fishing specifically for money, but I do know we did so in Southeast for herring in 2003,” Kelley said. “We’ve also done some test fishing for revenue in Upper Cook Inlet. Such fisheries are not popular with anyone and in times of greater budget prosperity, the Legislature has provided general fund increments to allow us to not do such projects.”
Nowhere is the practice more unpopular than at Bristol Bay.
“The Legislature cuts the budget and says Bristol Bay can catch fish with a private contract with a processor, and use that money to pay for operating expenses like in-river test fish projects or counting towers or the Port Moller test boat,” fumed Tim Sands, area manager at Dillingham, adding that the price paid for the fish is a fraction of its true value.
Last year’s contract for $100,000 paid out at 30 cents a pound shared by fishermen, processors and the state. That compared to a base sockeye price of 50 cents a pound for non-contract fish.
“So you have to catch at least three times as many fish to pay the bills as you would if they had a regular flat tax,” Sands said. “It drives me nuts because it is so inefficient. They could have had a 25 percent tax in Bristol Bay and raised all the money we needed last year. Nobody likes taxes. But taking fish away from the fishermen before they catch them is just as much of a tax as taking money out of their pockets after they catch the fish. At least they can write that tax off.”
This year’s $250,000 test fishing contract was covered by the fishermen-funded Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, a group funded by a one percent tax on their catches.
Fishermen would have to catch up to 1.8 million pounds of sockeye this summer to cover the test fishing contract costs. Sands said the contract next year could reach $400,000.
“That’s sockeye that would’ve been caught by industry and instead goes into department contract vessels and things like that. That doesn’t go over very well for reasons I totally understand,” Kelley said.
Other sources also have stepped up to fund local fishing needs.
The Bristol Bay Salmon Research Initiative provided $60,000 to keep the salmon counting tower at Togiak operating.
“Our tower escapement projects are the basic backbone of our management,” Sands said. “To not have them means we can’t forecast for the system. We don’t have information to adjust escapement goals, or fish counts with the accompanying age compositions we get from the sampling tower. I figure we would lose 8-15 percent of our annual harvest because we would not be able to extend fishing periods at Togiak if we didn’t have that tower in.”
Elsewhere, costs to save the Coghill River lake weir at Prince William Sound were covered for this year by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation. Test fisheries also will be used in several other regions to raise money, including a $200,000 tab for Southeast salmon seiners to cover costs for aerial surveys, Scott Kelley said.
“I’ll bet that won’t be the end of the list when all is said and done,” he added.
Alaska’s salmon season officially kicks off soon with runs of reds and kings at Copper River. State managers have put the 500-plus fleet on notice that the famous fishery will likely open on May 16.
“Oh my gosh, it’s so exciting to see all the boats coming in and out of the harbor. A lot of our seasonal cannery workers are returning and everyone’s got nets strewn out in their front yards getting mended. You can feel the energy pulsating,” said Erica Thompson-Clark, project assistant and social media whiz at the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association, funded by area fishermen.
No region celebrates their salmon better than the media savvy fishery forces from Cordova, highlighted with “familiarity tours” throughout the year with chefs, magazine writers and foodies from the Lower 48.
“You name it, we bring ‘em,” Thompson-Clark said. “We tour them through Cordova and the Copper River area, and we have them meet with fishermen and management officials and other entities invested in the fishery. They learn what it takes to have this sustainable salmon run continue every year.”
The group also features educational campaigns called “Know Your Fisherman” and “Salmon Fishing 101” on Facebook and Instagram.
“We show fish being iced, short videos and interviews with fishermen. We are trying to educate consumers about how these salmon are being harvested by single boats, each salmon being picked out of the net,” Thompson-Clark said. “We talk to them about how every time they buy Copper River salmon, they are supporting a small business owner. We really want to drive that home.”
The Copper River salmon website offers locator tabs to help customers find the famous fish in their regions. Those tabs will be getting clicks like crazy when Cordova again pulls off its most headline making media move: partnering with Alaska Airlines for a First Fish promotion that on opening day whisks salmon to awaiting chefs in Seattle and the Lower 48.
The Copper River harvest this year calls for 1.6 million sockeyes, 21,000 kings and 201,000 coho salmon.
Salmon love letters best describes a new book called Made of Salmon: Alaska Stories from The Salmon Project. It is a compilation of essays from many of Alaska’s more well known writers, along with everyday salmon lovers.
“These aren’t reports or essays about how we should do this or that, they are a reflection of their own lives and the way salmon fits into them,” said Erin Harrington, Salmon Project director. “Some of the most imaginative, insightful and creative authors living in Alaska have contributed to this book, and to make it so personal with their beautiful words is really out of this world.”
A sampler from “Let nothing be wasted” by Leslie Leyland Fields of Kodiak: “When I walk a salmon in each hand up to my house to the kitchen, I will carve every bit of flesh from its bones…Every bite will taste of ocean and care; and look how filled we are. Let nothing be wasted, not this ocean, not any lake or sea, not a single fish.”
Find the Made of Salmon book at The Salmon Project website. The book is also available at local bookstores and online at University of Alaska Press.