"We're seeing a 69% increase in fuel costs in Cordova from June of last year," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in a phone interview after she traveled to several fishing communities. "In Dillingham the increase is 54%. In Kodiak, it's 58% over last year. Fishing families can't sustain this."
Murkowski said she is deeply troubled by the number of fishermen who tell her that high fuel costs are forcing them out of business.
"When you have 1,700 fishermen say we need your help in Washington to do something so we can be out working, we figured we had to find someway to provide relief," Murkowski said, referring to a statewide petition signed by Alaska fishermen and delivered to her senate office.
Senators Murkowski and Stevens are pushing a bill that would give fishermen an extra fuel tax deduction for the next two years. The deduction would be based on the difference between fuel prices paid on Labor Day 2004, adjusted for inflation, and prices paid this year. The deductions would apply to fishermen across the U.S.
"It does mean that you're going to have to put cash up front and absorb those costs at the fuel dock. But it gives some hope that when tax time comes around you'll be able offset some of what you have paid," Murkowski said. "It's one small effort but we believe it will be a help to our nation's fishing families."
Alaska fishermen will take any break they can get, especially in the face of lower than expected salmon catches in most regions.
"Cordova is like a ghost town," said Rochelle van den Broek, director of Cordova District Fishermen United. "It feels like the middle of winter as very few can afford to pay fuel costs to return home between openers, and are docking at Whittier or staying out in the Sound on their boats. The loss to local businesses is yet to be fully realized. It is an industry crushing problem."
"We're doing a good job of sustaining the fish, but we also need to sustain fishing businesses," said Mark Vinsel, director of United Fishermen of Alaska.
"To get any help in Congress we need support from other states. All fishermen need to educate and enlist their delegations to get on board with this."
Some in Congress will object to giving temporary fuel tax breaks to fishermen, since all industry sectors are suffering. But Senator Murkowski said the fishing industry is unique.
"Fishermen can't pass on cost increases to customers, turn to alternative modes of transportation, or sell their product for a higher price," she said.
Can oiled fishermen catch a tax break?
Also coming before Congress: the tax bill designed to give fishermen a break from paying taxes right off the top of Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS) awards. The measure would provide one time tax relief for the awards, by allowing income averaging and increased retirement contributions.
The EVOS Tax Treatment is likely to be included in the Tax Extenders bill that the House Ways and Means Committee will take up this week. The Oiled Fishermen group is lobbying hard for passage, and urges support by contacting lawmakers.
The message is simple message: "I support the provision in the Tax Extenders Bill that would give Exxon claimants tax relief."
Questions? Contact UFA at (907) 586-2820 or United Cook Inlet Drift Association at (907) 260-9436.
No nose for good news
It is a good fish story that was woefully overlooked by the mainstream media - the status of our nation's fish stocks got high marks from federal managers.
NOAA Fisheries tracks population levels and harvest rates for fish caught in federal waters, meaning from three to 200 miles offshore. Its annual report to Congress last week revealed that seven stocks were removed from the overfishing list in 2007, and none were added. No fisheries in Alaska waters were on the list.
The agency admits there is still work to be done: of the 244 stocks reviewed, 203 (83 percent) were not subject to overfishing, while 41 (17 percent) are. Federal managers aim to end all overfishing by 2010, as required by the nation's top fish law - the Magnuson Stevens Act.
At least Oprah noticed! An article in the June Oprah! Magazine noted: "Alaska has the best managed fisheries in the world with healthy populations, in every sense of the word."