Fish Factor: Commercial fisheries get a breather in proposed FY2022 budget

As Alaska faces its toughest budget squeeze ever, the state’s commercial fisheries are set to get a bit of a breather. But it is due more to fund swapping than lawmakers’ largess.

For the commercial fisheries division, the largest within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the preliminary FY2022 budget released by Gov. Mike Dunleavy reflects a slight increase to $72.8 million, compared to nearly $68 million last year.

“I think we did really well this year,” said Sam Rabung, commercial fisheries division director, in late December at a United Fishermen of Alaska webinar. “Where we’re at right now, the Legislature actually restored many of the cuts that we sustained in FY20 and the governor didn’t veto all of them, so we got some funds back in FY21.”

“In a nutshell, we are being reduced $783,500 in general funds, but to offset that, we are being granted $855,000 in increased authority for using what we call GFP, our general fund program receipts from commercial crew licenses,” he added. “We’ve been collecting more revenue from crew licenses every year than we have authority to use. It’s kind of like creating a piggy bank and it keeps building and that money rolls forward. We’re going to be able to utilize those funds now in lieu of general funds. So, it’s pretty much a wash.”

Rabung agreed with Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, that the commercial fish budget still includes big reductions that were made in prior years.

“We’ve reduced our budget by around 45 percent of operational funding in the last six years or so. We were cut pretty harshly for several years, and now it’s kind of flattened out,” Rabung said. “I think what’s apparent is there’s not much left that has zero impact on commercial fisheries. So, when you talk about cutting the budget to the bone, we’re at the bone and our hope now is that we’ll be able to stay status quo and tread water and keep things where we can continue to manage for sustained yield.”


There appears to be a shift over the last two years, Rabung said, and the Dunleavy administration now recognizes that “commercial fishing more than pays its own way.”

“The revenue that comes into the general fund from commercial fishing activity is considerably more than the commercial fisheries division draws back out to fund our operations,” he said. “That was not apparent to this administration and many others in the past when they came in, but they get it now.”

“I think the next layer of that message is that not only does commercial fishing pay for its own self. It also pays for management of subsistence fisheries although we generate no revenue from those fisheries,” Rabung explained. “We also manage personal use fisheries in the state. Ironically, in order to participate in a personal use fishery, you have to buy a sport fishing license. So, the sport fish division gets the revenue from that, although commercial fishing does the assessment and management for it. Commercial fishing as an industry supports an awful lot of other activities and may not get the credit they deserve for it. And for some reason, the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission is also parked under our budget even though we have no involvement and we’re totally separate. In my opinion, they should be a whole separate entity.”

(The CFEC issues permits and vessel licenses in both limited and unlimited fisheries and provides due process hearings and appeals.)

The commfish division, which employs about 650 people across the state, also permits and oversees Alaska’s non-profit salmon hatcheries, the aquatic shellfish and seaweed farming programs and operates three laboratories that track fish genetics, pathology and ages of fish species.

The division manages some fisheries in federal waters under authority delegated by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. And because fish are migratory and cross jurisdictional boundaries, staff also are involved in the research and policy making activities of the Pacific Salmon Commission, the Joint Canadian/US Yukon River Panel and several other interstate and international fisheries bodies.

Holiday fish boosts

Along with the passage of the Young Fishermen’s Development Act in December, a $900 billion COVID relief package also was passed by lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and if/when it is signed by President Donald Trump, $300 million is earmarked to assist the fishing industry. Seafood also was finally declared as an eligible use for USDA food purchases for its many feeding programs; additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) also was included.

The Save our Seas Act 2.0 was passed which builds on actions signed into law in 2018 to address marine debris problems. The bipartisan law, spearheaded by Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, is regarded as the most comprehensive ocean cleanup legislation ever to pass Congress, and calls for global engagement to prevent plastic pollution.

Save Our Seas will strengthen the U.S. response with a Marine Debris Foundation and a “genius prize” for innovation and new research. It also aims to enhance global engagement by formalizing U.S. policy on international cooperation and improving U.S. infrastructure to prevent marine debris through new studies of waste management and mitigation.

The bill also proposes many efforts to improve U.S. waste management systems, particularly recycling infrastructure. For example, it creates a loan program for states to support trash wheel and litter trap technologies.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a statement that he already is looking to a third bill that would focus on how China processes U.S. recyclables.

Finally, Democrats in Congress provided a first peek at the Magnuson-Stevens Act legislation they plan to introduce early next year. The MSA provides the ‘rules of the road’ for U.S. fishery management and conservation.

The reauthorized bill would maintain the eight regional fishery councils but require members to receive training on climate change and consider climate science in deliberations.

Undercurrent News reports the bill also seeks to improve disaster relief programs, create a working waterfront grant program and increase support for seafood marketing, including re-establishing the National Seafood Council. It also would direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NOAA to work together to increase seafood industry participation in the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Fish bone broth is a superfood

Fish byproducts are rapidly growing in popularity and broths made from bones and other fish parts are becoming a rage among health enthusiasts all over the world.

Bone broths are loaded with vital nutrients like calcium, iodine, and minerals and have been found to help support thyroid health. Its natural electrolytes boost muscle repair after workouts, but a top benefit is the benefits derived from collagen.

“Collagen is good for your skin, your hair and bones. Some people claim that it restores gut health. Broth is a nutrient dense food that isn’t common in the standard American diet anymore,” said Randy Hartnell, founder and president of Vital Choice, a web-based seafood company.

He said fish broth was common in our ancestral diet and is coming back due to trends favoring more healthy eating.

“It’s sort of following the Paleo nutrition rage which has really been growing in recent years. We have seen many bone broth companies, but fish broths are not common yet so we are pleased to be able to offer it our customers,” Hartnell said.

A handful of Alaska companies also are on the fish broth bandwagon. Rich Clarke, owner of Alaska Black Cod, makes his stock out of leftover sablefish carcasses. Ed’s Kasilof Seafoods features a halibut bone broth that was a winner at an Alaska Symphony of Seafoods competition. And Alaska Broth Company founder David Chessik hopes that one day his blend will be known as “Alaska’s Coffee.”

Randy Hartnell pointed out another benefit to the growing popularity of fish broth — the reduction of fish waste.

“The bones, carcasses and skins have always just been discarded,” he said. “This is a way to use some of those byproducts in a way that creates something that is so unique and healthy from sustainable fish from Alaska. It is another valuable aspect of this wonderful product.”