Agencies aim to compile labor data on Alaska fishermen
A project aimed at compiling labor data on Alaska’s fishing crews was gaining traction as a mix of state and federal agencies got down to business last week.
It’s estimated that about 20,000 crewmembers work on Alaska’s fishing grounds throughout each year, but as self-employed workers, no wage reports are collected by the state. The lack of job data means deckhands have fallen through the cracks in terms of recognizing their economic importance to the fishing industry.
"All we know is that someone buys a crew license. We don’t know if they fish, what they fish for, how many fisheries they participate in, for how long - any of that kind of stuff," said Geron Bruce, deputy director of the state Division of Commercial Fisheries. "You can’t really estimate the total economic impact of commercial fishing unless you know something about the earnings and employment patterns for the crewmembers, who are such an important part of the work force."
The lack of data makes it difficult for both harvesters and communities to apply for economic assistance or benefit from other state and federal programs, said Mike Catsi, director of the Southwest Alaska Municipal League.
SWAMC has championed the crew-counting effort and helped get a $150,000 appropriation from the Legislature last year to jumpstart the project. The federal government, which co-manages several of Alaska’s largest fisheries, is also providing funding.
The lack of deckhand data results in an incomplete picture of how commercial fishing compares to other industries. It also means fishermen have been on the losing end of new management plans that dole out shares of the catch.
"Individual crewmembers want to be able to document their participation in certain fisheries so that if future rationalization programs come along, they have a better basis to make their case," Bruce said. "They will be able to show that they are also dependent on these fisheries and should get some share of the quota, that their interests need to be considered more than they have been in the past."
"I think it’s a great idea. This is a legitimate job," said Tyler O’Brien, a Kodiak fisherman. "But a lot of guys won’t want to provide any information because they don’t want a paper trail for the IRS."
Deckhand Isaac Milligan agreed. "All the fish passes through our hands. We need to be given credit for our contributions, even if some fishermen don’t want to be counted."
The crew data could be collected via fish tickets or electronic landing reports already in place. Bruce said the next step is to form an advisory committee of up to 15 industry stakeholders that represents a good cross section of Alaska fisheries, from small skiffs on the Yukon to big Bering Sea crab boats.
"And we really need to broaden the discussion to include more regions," said Bruce. "Basically, it has been focused in Kodiak and the Aleutians areas, but for many other regions, it’s not even on their radar screen. But it’s going to be a statewide program and will affect everyone. That’s why we want to have a lot of involvement in the process, so we can start building a basis of support and understanding from the very beginning."
Jan Conitz of Juneau has been named project leader. The multi-agency committee at its Jan. 21 meeting was to begin developing a framework on data collection options to present to the stakeholders group this spring.
Fewer halibut, later start
Alaska’s halibut fishery will get off to a later start and fishermen will haul in fewer fish this year. The catch limits for waters ranging from the West Coast and British Columbia to the Bering Sea were announced earlier this month by the International Pacific Halibut Commission in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The total halibut catch for Alaska was set at 45.5 million pounds, down from 50 million in 2008. Longliners in Southeast Alaska, who were bracing for another 30 percent cut to their halibut catches to just 4 million pounds, got a bit of a break at 5.02 million pounds.
Alaska’s biggest halibut hole - Area 3A, the Central Gulf - took a bigger hit than expected to 21.7 million pounds, down about 1 million. The catch at Area 3B in the Western Gulf remains the same at 10.9 million pounds.
A larger bite than expected also came out of Area 4A, the Aleutians region, at 2.55 million pounds. Area 4B of the Bering Sea got a small increase to nearly 1.9 million pounds. Farther west in Areas 4CDE, the catch was boosted slightly to 7.63 million pounds of halibut.
The mood at the IPHC annual meeting was somber, said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.
"Both the IPHC and the industry are concerned that there seems to be an ongoing decline in the overall halibut biomass. And there was general acceptance of the new coast-wide assessment model, but still quite a bit of concern and questions about how they apportion the fish," he said in a phone call from the Vancouver meeting.
The halibut fishery is set to open on March 21, a few weeks later than usual.
"The processors argued for a later opening so they could get rid of some frozen inventory," Bowen said. "Most of the fishermen wanted an earlier opening date so they could get more fresh fish to market, but it was a compromise."
Oil spill commemorative
March 24 marks the 20th anniversary of North America’s largest oil spill - when the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of Alaska crude into Prince William Sound. Communities down stream were also shattered by the spill - notably, Kodiak.
"Kodiak was sort of forgotten by the media and by anyone not in Kodiak. A lot of people didn’t even know we had an oil spill here, but it was a huge event," said Toby Sullivan, director of the Kodiak Maritime Museum and its oil spill commemorative project.
Exxon denied that the oil would ever reach Kodiak, but by May fishermen were seeing differently.
"Some of us were out herring fishing on the west side and we started seeing oil, and it also started showing up at Shuyak in pretty heavy amounts. So people in Kodiak were pretty upset about it and they wanted a clean up," Sullivan said.
Frustrated by the brush off, local setnetters organized a protest march to get Exxon’s attention. A manifesto was read at the oil spill briefing in the high school auditorium that was attended by hundreds each day.
"It was very powerful and the whole audience went crazy and the Exxon guy was stunned - he was like a deer in the headlights. He put down the microphone and walked out of the room. Exxon evacuated Kodiak for two days because they were afraid of violence due to the high emotional level," Sullivan said.
Within 48 hours businesses closed their doors and more than 1,000 islanders marched in the pouring rain.
"That got Exxon’s attention for sure," Sullivan said, "And that’s how they started a clean up around Kodiak."
Sullivan is compiling a riveting display of images from Kodiak, many from 70 videotapes found stashed away for 20 years. Anyone with pictures are encouraged to submit them for possible inclusion in the display and the Maritime Museum archives.