PUBLISHED: 3:27 PM on Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Alaska's commercial fisheries division hopes for budget boost

Alaska's commercial fisheries division is hoping for another budget boost in FY 07.

Comfish is asking for a $3.7 million dollar increase from the state's general fund, putting the division's overall operating costs at about $61 million. That increase, coupled with the general fund boost of nearly $2.5 million approved by the legislature for FY 06, are the most significant increases the division has seen since 1985.

Much of the budget increase is earmarked to cover salary increases and retirement. The Comfish division employs more than 300 full time and 500 seasonal workers.

In the annual overview report under "key accomplishments", Director Denby Lloyd said the dockside value of Alaska's seafood landings rose for the third consecutive year in 2005 to nearly $1.3 billion - the highest value since 1999, and the second highest in the past ten years.

For Alaska salmon, large harvests and a modest increase in prices boosted the value by 85 percent last year from the low point in 2002.

But salmon prices are totally out of step with inflation - Lloyd points out that the average statewide salmon price in 1984 was 77 cents a pound; in 2004, it was 60 cents.

At the same time, the consumer price index increased 78 percent, making the real price per pound for Alaska sockeye salmon in 2004 just 13 cents in constant dollars.

That makes the health of the salmon industry very dependent on continued high production, the budget report says.

The Comfish division is having difficulties attracting new staff and retaining existing ones. Director Lloyd is requesting $300,000 towards an ongoing program to recruit young Alaskans to careers in the commercial fisheries division.

Other notable items in the Comfish overview: The dockside value of Alaska salmon in 2005 was $302.7 million, up from $272 in 2004.

Groundfish landings rang in at $660 million in 2005, up from $564.7.

Shellfish was worth $147.8 million at the Alaska docks in 2005, down from $169.59 in 2004.

Employment stats showed fewer vessel licenses at 9,969 in '05 compared to 13,618 in 2004. Crewmember licenses dropped slightly to 18,136 from 18,648 in 2004.

Young Fishermen's' Summit

Fishermen who are under 40 or who have been in the fishing business for less than five years will want to participate in a Young Fishermen's Summit next month in Anchorage.

"Young fishermen face many obstacles not encountered by their predecessors. It's a lot more complicated now," said Sunny Rice, a Sea Grant Marine Advisory Agent at Petersburg, and an organizer of the event. "One thing is the incredible debt they have to look at as they start buying a permit and vessel. That's something the other generation didn't have to deal with."

The Summit comes at a time when many Alaskans are striving to keep more fishing permits in coastal communities near the fishing grounds.

A primary goal will be to provide young fishermen with the tools that can help them run their fishing operations from a business perspective.

The summit will also focus on the role Alaska seafood plays in a greatly expanded global marketplace.

Rice says if fishermen plan to be in the business for the long haul, it's important for them to understand and be involved in the regulatory process.

"They need to get a basic understanding of what the state and federal regulatory processes are and how they can get involved, and the best ways to present themselves and their issues when dealing with these various boards and commissions," Rice said.

Many Alaska communities and fishing groups are sponsoring young fishermen to attend the Young Fishermen's Summit, Jan. 25 and 26 at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage. Get more information at Participation is limited.

Late list

The top ten list of American's favorite seafoods won't be announced until early next year. The popular list is usually released in November by the federal government, along with per capita seafood consumption figures for the previous year.

According to John Boreman of NOAA Fisheries Office of Science and Technology, the problem stems from data collection glitches in the northeast where electronic reporting systems are being upgraded. Boreman told Intrafish the seafood stats for 2005 won't be available until early next year.

The latest per capita figures from 2004 showed that each American ate 16.6 pounds of seafood with the favorites remaining shrimp, canned tuna, salmon and pollock.

Salmon is one of America's most popular seafoods, but that appetite is still being fed mostly by imported farmed fish. Federal reports show imports of farmed salmon to the U.S. topped $1.2 billion in the first ten months of 2006, an increase of 33 percent. Chile is by far the largest supplier of farmed salmon to the U.S., followed by Norway.

Welch, who lives in Kodiak, has written about Alaska's seafood industry since 1988.