The crew on the Juneau, Alaska registered fishing vessel Icy Bay work to remove sockeye salmon from their net in the Egegik district of the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery on July 15. Left to right are Chris Miller, Aaron Opp, and Jason Kolhase. The sockeye salmon fishery is winding down in all the bay districts but final numbers won't be tallied for weeks. The sockeye harvest run is over 48 million so far, a number that came faster and earlier than fishermen and biologists expected.
Story last updated at 7/22/2009 - 12:13 pm
Salmon fishermen in Southeast Alaska again voted "no" to bankrolling their own Regional Seafood Development Association, already widely known as Rainforest Wild.
RSDA's - a unique concept okayed by the state in 2004 - lets fishermen in 12 Alaska regions band together and tax themselves based on the value of their catches. The tax is collected by the Dept. of Revenue and the money is disbursed back to the RSDA each year. It can be used for marketing, infrastructure, ice barges, new products - whatever the fishermen want. RSDAs also give fishermen more access to federal and state grants and programs.
Ballots were sent in May to 475 Southeast drift gillnet permit holders asking if they approved a one percent self-tax to fund the association. The state released the results last week - of 212 votes, 60 percent voted no (132/80). Two years ago, a similar RSDA effort lost by two votes.
"I guess the majority just don't want it. I'm surprised it lost by such a wide margin," said a disappointed John Jensen of Petersburg, an interim RSDA board member working to get the RSDA off the ground.
"It is too bad that these guys don't realize they need to think beyond Southeast Alaska, and that they are competing with a much wider market," said Richard Mullins, marketing manager at Orca Bay Seafoods. "They used to think they were competing with other areas of Alaska, now they are competing town by town. Their competition is more than Alaska, and even more than Atlantic salmon - it is center of the plate proteins!"
Part of the difficulty stems from the vastness of the fishing region, said interim program director Elizabeth Dubovsky.
"The geographic expanse of Southeast Alaska is one of the things that make it such a unique region. It's a blessing in some ways, and in other ways it's a challenge," she said. "Especially when you're trying to bring all these fishermen together under one group, and then you bring money into the picture, and that makes it even more challenging."
John Jensen agreed.
"I know from talking with people that there's a lot of apprehension that one community would get more of the money than others, and wouldn't be treated fairly. For example, Petersburg has the largest gillnet fleet, and I think people were worried about that," he explained.
The tax would only amount to a few hundred dollars each year, pointed out board member Keith Anundi, a Wrangell fisherman who initially opposed the RSDA.
"I now believe it would substantially increase profitability for gillnet fishermen in Southeast Alaska," Anundi said, adding that fishermen would elect a board with representation from all districts.
Is a third time the charm for Rainforest Wild?
Right now, everyone is focusing on fishing, Dubovsky said. "We will reconvene in the fall and decide how to proceed. Our enthusiasm has not waned."
Southeast crabbers and shrimpers also are interesting in snapping up the RSDA opportunity, she said. Alaska fishermen have funded RSDAs in two regions so far - Copper River/Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay (where a 1 percent RSDA tax yields more than $1 million each year).
The average price paid to Alaska salmon fishermen in 2008 was 58 cents a pound, an increase of 32 perecent and the highest dockside value in recent memory.
Salmon fishermen got higher prices last year for every species, except sockeye. Average Chinook prices went from a $3.07/lb. in 2007 to $4.28/lb.
Cohos increased from $.96/lb. to $1.21. Chums went from $.34/lb. to $.53/lb. Pinks went up a dime, to average $.29/lb.
Sockeye salmon fell from $.80/lb. in 2007 to $.78/lb in 2008. (Word on the docks says the base sockeye price at Bristol Bay has notched up to 70 cents this year.)
Thoughts on Arctic fishing? A plan by Alaska fishery overseers puts the brakes on commercial fishing in the Arctic until more is known about the stocks and dmarine environment. For Alaska, the Arctic waters straddle the North Slope, with the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The public has until July 27 to comment on the Arctic fishery plan at http://www.regulations.gov. See the plan at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/arctic/.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988.
Editor's note: You can read an extended version of this article at www.capitalcityweekly.com.