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Alaska Fish Factor: budget struggle threatens salmon jobs

Salmon managers are hoping for the best and planning for the worst as lawmakers extend into a third special session to try and agree on a state budget. It is the third year in a row they have not finished their legislative session on time due to budget differences.

The haggling, which could last up to 30 days, means pink slips could go out to all state workers in less than two weeks in advance of job layoffs.

“It’s similar to what happened last year. Pink slips go out on June 1 and then we have to start getting people out because they cannot be on salary effective July 1,” said Scott Kelley, director of the commercial fisheries division at Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game headquarters in Juneau.

“At this point, we are acting under the assumption that we are going to have a budget,” he added.

Kelley admits he’s closely watching the calendar as salmon fisheries get underway. Fish and Game differs from most state departments because so many workers must be flown or boated to remote salmon counting sites across the state. Orderly field camp set ups and shut downs take several weeks of advance planning.

“Day by day we are already increasing our field presence. The Chignik and Karluk weirs are supposed to go in this week, the Miles River sonar at the Copper River and other things across the state. We will be scrambling,” Kelley said, adding that about 670 fishery workers are on the job each summer.

The budget impasse also would stall other summer fisheries, and derail stock assessment surveys for Tanner crab in Prince William Sound, red king crab in Southeast and black cod at Chatham Strait, to name a few.

The governor’s operating budget for the commercial fisheries division for the next fiscal year is just over $70.7 million, which reflects a net gain of $670,000 to cover contracts and inflation costs.

Kelley said the extra money was spread to projects across the state that “are most closely linked to opportunities for fishing,” such as aerial surveys for Southeast salmon, the Coghill Lake project at Prince William Sound and Igushik salmon counting towers at Togiak.

But not having the money to manage the salmon season is the biggest concern caused by the legislative lollygagging.

Alaska’s salmon fisheries are tracked on a daily basis during the season to make sure enough fish can make it upriver to sustain future stocks. If that can’t happen, the result would be lost harvests from Ketchikan to Kotzebue.

“The economy of the state would take an enormous hit if we had to pull stock assessment projects, and that is obvious to everyone who lives here,” Kelley said. “That’s why I’m optimistic because it is just too big to ignore. And the legislators know that.”

Copper River haul

Fishermen fetched high prices for the first salmon catches from Copper River. Grounds prices were reported at $7 to $8 per pound for sockeyes and $10 to $10.50 a pound for kings.

That compares to starting prices last summer of $6.50 and $9.50, respectively. The prices will drop when more Alaska salmon fisheries come on line.

Roughly 77,000 pounds of sockeye and king salmon were flown by five Alaska Airlines cargo flights from Cordova to Seattle on Friday morning after a 12-hour opener on May 18.

Every year the airline partners with Ocean Beauty, Trident and Copper River Seafoods to bring the season’s “first fish” to eager retailers and restauranteurs in Anchorage and the Lower 48.

Ocean Beauty donated the first fish of the season, a 45-pound king salmon, to the eighth annual Copper Chef Cook-Off held on the tarmac at Sea-Tac airport. During the competition, three chefs from Seattle have 30 minutes to prepare and serve three salmon dishes to an audience of Alaska Airlines customers and guests.

Image courtesy of KOMO News, Seattle. 

Rob Fletcher

Rob Fletcher

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