In 2005 the state legislature approved a unique concept that allows fishermen in 12 distinct areas to form Regional Seafood Development Associations, and vote to fund them through a self-tax on their catches. The money is collected as a deduction off the fish tickets during a fishery and goes to the Dept. of Revenue. It is then appropriated back to the RSDA's prior to the next fishing season. Fishermen can use the money for any projects they choose.
Salmon fishermen in two regions have embraced the concept so far - Bristol Bay and Copper River/Prince William Sound. Southeast and Aleutian Islands harvesters have organized an RSDA and are set to vote on a tax assessment over the winter.
Not surprisingly, Copper River/PWS fishermen were the first to form an RSDA as soon as the program was approved. A one percent tax paid by each of the region's 540 member drift gillnet fleet yields up to $350,000 each year. The group has used the money to expand markets beyond the region's summer fisheries, including west and east coast advertising promotions of fall coho salmon.
The RSDA hosted a media tour of the Copper River fishery and Cordova community this summer, said executive director Beth Poole. The group also has developed a 'best practices' quality and handling guide, and aims to get an ice barge to service more fishing regions.
"For a few years we've been working on getting an ice facility in Prince William Sound for some of the lesser known runs," Poole said.
The region's 33 set netters will vote this winter on a self-tax and joining the RSDA, she added. (www.copperrivermarketing.org)
Bristol Bay fishermen comprise the biggest RSDA with its 1,800 member drift gillnet fleet. The group has amassed nearly $2 million from its one percent tax on 2006 and 2007 catches, and projects to add an additional $1.4 million from the 2008 salmon season.
"The primary goal is to improve revenues for Bay fishermen," said RSDA director Bob Waldrop. "The fastest way to get to do that is through improved quality. We won't spend one penny on marketing efforts until we do that."
To boost quality, the RSDA put more than half of its cash into chilling projects throughout Bristol Bay. Waldrop said two million pounds of ice was put into boat holds this summer, enough to chill up to 8 million pounds of fish so far.
"Multiply that by 10 cents per pound as a chilling bonus and you've got a significant amount of money in the checkbooks of the fishermen, which normally wouldn't have been there," Waldrop said.
Waldrop said it is gratifying to see fishermen working together in such a well organized way. The Bristol Bay group is hoping that the region's set netters will also vote to join the RSDA, which would push its membership to 3,000 salmon permit holders.
"The biggest challenge is selecting amongst all the opportunities available to us. There's just so much to do and so many different ways to apply ourselves," Waldrop said. "It's not to say there aren't some disagreements about ideas, but there is a great deal of unanimity about the sense of self empowerment that this represents - that we can make a difference. And we are."
Fishermen in Southeast Alaska are trying again to launch a RSDA after narrowly voting down a self-tax in 2006. The initial effort was designed to include more than 60 fisheries; this time the attempt is being made on a smaller scale by the 486 member salmon driftnet fleet.
"I've come full circle because there are so many more things you can do with an RSDA than we truly understood with the first vote," said Chris Knight of Juneau, an interim board member who voted against the first RSDA.
Knight said a primary focus for many Southeast communities is infrastructure developments.
"In Juneau, for example, fisheries-related infrastructure is almost nil. We've got a couple of knuckle cranes on a dock, and that's about it. There's no loading facilities, no cold storage, there's zero facilities for any fishermen to really do anything on their own," Knight said. "It's important that everyone works in conjunction with our two local processors, but guys need to have some independence so they can market their own stuff or increase the value of their other fisheries. Tons of guys would like to ship fish out of Ketchikan or different places and they don't have the facilities to do that. Things like that could come out of this RSDA."
Knight said a survey indicated that gillnetters would be likely to vote for a one-half percent tax to fund an RSDA, likely called Rainforest Wild. The interim board has scheduled meetings over the next two months to educate fishermen and ready them for a vote.
"I am optimistic that we could actually build some infrastructure that would provide some real benefits for fishermen," he said. We don't have the option now."
Aleutian Islands fishermen are also planning to vote this winter on forming a RSDA, and funding it with a half percent self tax. (www.rainforestwild.org)
About 50 fishermen from Sand Point, King Cove, Cold Bay, Nelson Lagoon, False Pass and Akutan created an "Aleutia" brand five years ago. They adhere to strict quality and handling procedures, and have successfully developed niche markets for Aleutia sockeye and king salmon.
"All the fish are live bled on the boat and put on slush ice. The fishermen are very proud of the product they are producing," said Aleutia operations manager Tiffany Jackson.
Marketing will be Aleutia's main focus, along with overcoming transportation hurdles.
"The Aleutia brand is well known on the East coast and it's in high demand. But the problem right now is how much it costs to get the fish from Alaska to New York," Jackson said.
Getting the fish to Anchorage is the most costly leg of the journey.
"It costs us 80 cents to $1.00 a pound to get it to Anchorage, depending on which airline can get it out of Sand Point. If we're sending frozen product to Seattle, that's a different story - we can barge it," Jackson said. (www.aleutia.org)
Energy tips and loans
Fishermen are being asked to share their stories and energy saving tips in a survey by Alaska Sea Grant and United Fishermen of Alaska. Respond by October 10; results will be posted in mid-October. The survey is easy and anonymous. Find it at http://www.surveymonkey.com/seagrantfuel.
Applications are now being accepted for low interest loans to help fishermen replace or retool their engines to boost energy efficiency. Get more information from the state Commerce Department's Division of Investments or call Geoff Whistler at 800-478-5626.