Fish Factor: Commercial fisheries aid subsistence, personal use harvesters

Fishing vessels docked in Cordova Harbor. (Jan. 2, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith
Fishing vessels docked in Cordova Harbor. (Jan. 2, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith

Alaska gets a good return on investment from its commercial fisheries.

And surprise! Commercial fisheries expertise also sustains Alaska’s subsistence and most of the personal use fisheries.

“This is probably not well-known,” said Sam Rabung, director of the commercial fisheries division for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, at a recent presentation to the House Fisheries Committee.

“Data collected by our division is shared across all divisions within the department as much as possible,” he explained to lawmakers. “We also share the cost of projects and facilities with other divisions. We work as a team. So that investment also carries over to other user groups.”

Rabung pointed out that the commercial fishing industry is the largest private sector employer in Alaska, putting almost 60,000 people to work annually.

“It contributes about $172 million directly in taxes, fees and self-assessments to state, local and federal governments, and contributes an annual average of about $5.6 billion in economic output to the Alaska economy,” he added.

Of the $172 million in taxes, 43 percent ($73 million) goes to state coffers, 30 percent ($51 million) to local governments; 23 percent ($40 million) funds salmon hatchery management, and 5 percent ($8 million) goes to the federal government.

Rabung pointed out that the division’s main charge is sustaining the revenue-generating fisheries long into the future – and that takes good science.

“Most of our budget is used on research, which is another word for assessment tools,” he told the committee. “We assess the stocks to see if there is a harvestable surplus. If we can’t do that work, we can’t open a fishery and say we’re managing sustainably, and we revert to being more conservative. We may have less openings or lower guideline harvest levels or in some cases, we might just close the fisheries altogether. We set the bar very high as far as sustainability.”

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, fisheries committee chair, stressed that few state investments return as much to the state operating budget.

“When the budget for ADF&G is cut, that directly affects the resulting revenue to the state by affecting the ability to fully prosecute the fisheries that might be involved in the budget reductions,” Stutes said. “My goal in this hearing was to make it clear that Alaska’s commercial fisheries do indeed pay their own way. Investments in our commercial fisheries lead directly to fishing opportunities for Alaskans, great returns to the general fund, and produce benefits in spades for our state economy. We should be looking at targeted increases to the department’s budget.”

Targeted reductions

The commercial fisheries division operates on a nearly $67 million budget, of which $36 million comes from state general funds. Governor Dunleavy’s proposed budget for FY2021 calls for a nearly $1 million reduction.

Here are targeted programs across the state at this early stage in the budget process, provided by United Fishermen of Alaska.

Crab lovers in Southeast Alaska could go without if funding (-$315,600) is eliminated for tracking the region’s red king crab population.

“A lot of people don’t recognize that those stock assessments help evaluate if the personal use fishery can open. So, without that assessment, there will be no personal use fisheries for red king crab in Southeast Alaska,” said Frances Leach, UFA executive director.

Leach said nearly 3,700 red king crab personal use permits are issued in Southeast every year. Only two commercial king crab fisheries have occurred in 10 years.

“The commercial fisheries division pays for a lot more than commercial fisheries,” Leach said. “We pay for research for personal use and sports. And it’s something to be noted for sure.”

Cuts also are on deck for stock assessments for Southeast urchin and sea cucumber fisheries (-$19,900) which will likely reduce fishing time.

“Currently dive fishermen are paying a good percentage of that assessment. And now Fish and Game is cutting their portion and looking elsewhere for the funding,” Leach said.

The Wrangell ADF&G office will be closed, and one position will be relocated to Petersburg; the other will be eliminated (-$66,200).

In the central region, suppression projects for pike that are eating tiny salmon in the Susitna and Yenta Rivers also are set for elimination. (-$47,200)

“The Division of Commercial Fisheries is attempting to get Sport Fisheries to take over this project,” the UFA breakdown said.

At Kodiak, management of the Frazer Lake fish pass for sockeye salmon would be reduced. (-$23,200)

Research on Bering Sea salmon would be cut (-$299,600) and funding would instead rely on grants or the federal government.

Aquaculture planning and permitting projects would be reduced and a full-time biologist position lost in Juneau ($159,000) This comes at a time when mariculture of seaweeds and shellfish in Alaska is taking off and new growers are waiting up to two years to get permits in hand.

Fishing for science

Halibut boats are wanted to help with the annual stock surveys from Oregon to the far reaches of the Bering Sea. The International Pacific Halibut Commission charters between 10 and 14 longline vessels each year to take aboard up to 30 scientists from late May through August.

“The whole coast is broken up into 28 charter regions and vessels can bid on any number of those regions that they’d like to fish for us,” said Steve Keith, IPHC assistant director.

“We supply the bait and the ice, they supply the vessel and crew, and we usually send out two to four of our own set line survey specialists to do the fish sampling and accounting and all the record keeping for our purposes,” adding that many of the boats and biologists participate year after year.

“They love it,” Keith said. “Sometimes they’ll be in Canada, sometimes in Southeast or way out in the Aleutians. They get to see a lot of the North Pacific.”

The charter is just like a regular four to five-day fishing trip, Keith said, but the boats use standard

“Our survey is one of the most extensive in the world, actually,” Keith said. “We have a time series now that goes back more than 20 years and it’s the primary index of abundance that we use as we’re doing our stock assessment each year.”

“We appreciate the experience of the skippers and crews that come to us,” Keith added. “It’s, you know, the fishing community contributing to the science directly and to the management of the halibut resource.”

Bids must be emailed (pdf) to the IPHC Secretariat at [email protected] by Feb. 15. Questions? Call 206-634-1838.

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