Alaska Fish Factor: Salmon Fishery Braces Itself for Possible Lay-Offs

31 May 2016, at 1:00am

US - The budget impasse with Alaska legislators is wreaking havoc on salmon fisheries across the state, and the industry is bracing for the possibility of a complete shutdown in some regions.

If lawmakers can’t agree on a budget by June 1, all state workers will be on notice for layoffs starting July 1. That includes 750 full-time and seasonal workers in the commercial fisheries division, many of whom are the boots on the ground for salmon management.

“The word that comes to my mind is catastrophic,” said Scott Kelley, director of the state commercial fisheries division.

It is budget delay déjà vu for state workers and the salmon industry, but unlike last year, no remaining dollars are in the fishing till.

“Last year we had some partial funding remaining. This year there is no funding at all. We have to think about a hard shutdown on July 1,” said Kevin Brooks, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Right now, instead of managing and planning for fisheries, Brooks said staff is preparing to pull salmon counting weirs, towers, sonars and other assets.

“Where Fish and Game differs from most departments is we have staff in remote locations around the state not connected by road, and we get them out there by boat or airplane. For us to have an orderly shutdown on June 30, we’ll have to start a couple weeks prior pulling weirs out of the water and closing cabins and field camps where we have our staff stationed for three to four months every summer. We’ll have to get those things buttoned up and pulling them back to a duty station so we can give them a lay off and close the doors on the first of July. Likewise, getting our five research vessels back to port for tie up,” he explained.

Brooks said it will be “business as usual while they can,” but as salmon fisheries get underway across the state, managers are closely watching the calendar.

“There’s going to be point of no return for us as far as getting things pulled out of the water. And in many cases they will have just been put in a few weeks prior. It’s kind of mind boggling,” he added.
Brooks agreed that if Alaska lawmakers can’t resolve the state budget in time, it could cancel salmon season.

“Where you’re actively managing in-season and looking at daily catch statistics and things like that,” he said, “I think there’d be foregone harvest for sure.”

Of course, other state managed fisheries besides salmon will be affected, including summer crab fisheries from Southeast to Norton Sound, cod, pollock and other groundfish.

Are Alaska lawmakers aware of the havoc their budget deadlock is having on the state’s seafood industry?

“Fisheries are so complicated it’s not apparent to all of them. Some are more aware than others, such as Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham), Paul Seaton (R-Homer) and Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak), but I think generally they know the disruption is not good,” Brooks responded.

“We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” Brooks and Kelley said.

The total commercial fisheries budget for FY 2017 from all state and federal funding sources is about $64 million, a drop of $10 million over two years.

Permit impacts - Alaska began issuing limited entry permits for salmon fishing in 1975. Originally 1,372 permits (out of 2,758) were issued to residents of Bristol Bay; by 2007, only 735 permits remained under local ownership. An ambitious project is underway to find out how the system has played out over 40 years for the people of Bristol Bay.

“I think there is a sense that the permit system was in some ways a necessary evil and it protected the resource. Some people feel misled about the way it was implemented, and felt like they didn’t understand the way permits were being allocated. Those feelings still come out to this day,” said Jennifer Meredith of Eagle River, now a development economist at the University of Washington.

Meredith, with assists from tribal councils and locals, has been doing random surveys since March,with people throughout the Bristol Bay region.

“We started in Aleknagik, Iliamna, Togiak, Naknek, King Salmon, South Naknek, Kaliganik, Manoktotak and we’re finishing off now in Dillingham,” Meredith said enthusiastically.

The survey targets original permit holders from 1975, those who have fished more recently, and those who have never held fishing permits.

“We’re really trying to measure where do you live now, where do your descendants live, what occupation do you have now if there is not a permit in the family. We also talk about ties to subsistence fishing, their social networks and we do household assets,” Meredith explained.
The response so far, she said, has been “incredible” – an 80 percent success rate with nearly 700 participants before doing Dillingham.

“I think part of the reason people have been so willing to cooperate is we really are there in the community to hear their stories, and to allow them to give voice to the way their permits affected them,” Meredith said, adding that there is a great deal of optimism throughout the Bristol Bay region.

“They are scrappy and they are going to find a way to make it work,” she said. “They are committed to their traditional way of life, to subsistence and they are definitely committed to the commercial salmon fishery in a big way. There is definitely a sense that programs are needed that allow locals to get back into fishing and that the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation is trying to do that.”

As she headed out for another survey, Meredith said, “I’m here for your voice to be heard. My intention is to have some evidence of how this system has affected you and your family, for good and for bad.”

Meredith hopes to finish her report within a year and has promised to reveal the results in Dillingham. Her project is funded by the Marine Resource Economic Scholarship through WA Sea Grant and NOAA.

Fish board update – The Alaska Board of Fisheries proposal process will remain as is, for now.
During a May 24 teleconference meeting, the board considered streamlining the way it reviews proposals seeking management changes to commercial, sport, personal use and subsistence fisheries. The board reviews 400-500 proposals during its annual meeting cycles. The meeting was live streamed via the internet.

The Board was considering moving to a consent agenda format for technical proposals, whereby they could be approved all at once. But written comments from fishermen and organizations swayed them otherwise.

Kelly Stier, a Bristol Bay driftnet fisherman, summed it up best: “I understand the drive for making the Board of Fish process of reviewing proposals more streamlined as I sat through the painful hours of public testimony in December,” he wrote. “However, I do not agree with changing to a ‘consent-agenda concept.’ One of the things that became apparent while attending the BOF meeting was that seemingly small issues can often greatly affect large numbers of participants. It is clear that those issues are best understood by the end user.”

Board member Fritz Johnson of Dillingham called the current process “robust, and said he didn’t want to change it right now. Sue Jeffrey agreed, saying “I wouldn’t be comfortable right now putting this in place.”