Getting less attention is the drifting away of fishery scientists and managers due to retirement - and Alaska is having a heck of a time filling those ranks.
Nearly half of the state's area biologists will retire soon, said John Hilsinger, director of the commercial fisheries division.
"It's even higher for our division leadership group, which is all the regional supervisors, chief fishery scientists and directors. Eighty percent of those could retire now, or they will be eligible within five years," he said.
The commercial fisheries division now has 300 permanent full time staff and 14 vacancies. "Some of these jobs will be filled, but that's a pretty high vacancy rate," he said, adding that the toughest jobs to fill are the more technical positions, such as biometricians and analyst programmers.
"We are still able to hire good people but it's definitely becoming more difficult. We have to recruit longer for fewer applicants. Sometimes we give up trying to fill a position after a year or two," Hilsinger said.
"If we don't have sufficient expertise, the natural tendency would be to be more conservative in management of the fisheries," ADF&G Commissioner Denby Lloyd said at a town meeting in Kodiak.
The workforce challenge is not unique to Fish and Game, points out Debbie Hart, coordinator of the Fish and Wildlife Careers for Alaskans program.
"It's a national issue. We have an aging work force throughout America so all the state and federal agencies are experiencing workforce challenges, and a smaller pool of applicants coming up behind," she said.
Alaska faces an added recruitment challenge from the huge salary gap between competing state and federal jobs. The state used to pay much more for fisheries biologists and managers, but over the past seven years the disparity has grown. The average paycheck for federal biologists is up to 35 percent higher, and 60 percent to 80 percent higher for regional supervisors, Hilsinger said.
Fishery Recruits R' Us
The University of Alaska is offering a new Bachelor of Arts in fisheries program this fall, the fourth in its line up of fisheries degrees.
"We added it because we felt there are a lot of job opportunities in the industry that could be met with this new degree," said Denis Wiesenburg, dean at the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (SFOS) at Fairbanks.
The university was able to quickly get moving thanks to a $5 million grant from the Rasmuson Foundation, specific to creating a top notch fisheries degree program for undergraduates.
"They will be able to take more multi-disciplinary classes like seafood business, the Alaska fishing industry, and do internships to get more experience while they are getting their education," Wiesenburg said.
The university's ultimate goal is to "educate Alaskans in Alaska to study and manage Alaska's fisheries," Wiesenburg added.
It already has a good track record: 37 percent of SFOS graduate students to work for Fish and Game or federal agencies in Alaska.
"And they're going to need lots of new trained employees," Wiesenburg said. "The university wants to make sure we're training Alaskans to fill those positions that will come up due to retirements over the next five years."
Wiesenburg said there has been "heartwarming" support from the fishing industry and the Alaska legislature for the new program. The Bachelor of Arts in fisheries program is scheduled to begin this fall. Get more information at http://www.sfos.uaf.edu/fisheries
Halibut prices dip
Halibut prices took a dip from the record prices Alaska longliners enjoyed at the docks last year. Still, there's no cause for complaint.
Since the March 8 start of the halibut fishery about 2.5 million pounds has crossed the Alaska docks. Unlike last year, when the first fresh fish of the year fetched $5.50 per pound or more at major ports, starting prices this year were down about a dollar.
Halibut prices paid to fishermen are broken out in three weight classes: 10-20 pounds, 20-40s and '40 ups.' A canvas of major buyers showed that the first landings at Homer fetched $4.90/lb, then quickly dropped to $3.70, $4.05 and $4.40. At Kodiak prices ranged from $3.74 -$4.20 a pound. Southeast Alaska halibut prices rang in at $3.80, $4.00 and $4.30 per pound.
Some of the downward press on prices stems from supplies of frozen fish still in the nation's freezers. The economic recession also has many Americans tightening their belts and resisting high priced seafood items. Still, halibut remains hugely popular among high end restaurants and retailers.
"Halibut has reached an elite level. Everyone is turned on to it now," said a major Southeast buyer.
The fact that nearly 70 percent of the halibut offloaded at Homer was small fish (10/20s) was causing some buzz among buyers, who prefer mid-sized fish, and biologists, who prefer a nice mix. Homer is the nation's #1 port for halibut landings primarily from the Central Gulf, which produces nearly half of Alaska's 50 million pound harvest.
"The fish are still abundant, but they are in a natural downturn as two strong year classes from the late 1990s leave the fishery," said Bruce Leaman, director of the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
The first fresh of the year was flying off the counters at 10th and M Seafoods in Anchorage at $13.95 a pound for fillets. (Food writer TC Mitchell said that was trumped by troll caught winter kings from Southeast Alaska. Those beauties were selling at $19.95 a pound for the whole fish.)