By Laine Welch
It’s tough to track a workforce when you don’t know where it is. But that will remain the case for more than 20,000 Alaska deckhands — at least for the immediate future.
Crews aboard fishing boats are one of the only groups of laborers in Alaska not counted by the state. A project to collect labor data on deckhands in every fishery has been under development for two years, and it seemed to be on its way for legislative approval this year.
Concerns by the United Fishermen of Alaska, however, were enough to stall the program from being introduced this session. At issue: skippers would be tasked with all the paperwork.
“We support the project, but feel the burden should be on the crew,” said UFA executive director Mark Vinsel. “Skippers can verify the information. But this shouldn’t be a big hurdle to the program.”
Member salmon fishermen who make multiple deliveries a day were very concerned about the data collection and reporting, said UFA president-elect Arni Thomson.
“Some setnetters work four or five sites,” she explained. “They’d likely have to hire a bookkeeper to keep track of all the data.”
From the outset, multi-agency and industry stakeholder advisory teams expected that deckhands could provide their own work data using existing fish tickets and electronic landing systems.
“Crews are so transitory, and modifying the simple swipe card system already in place is the best idea,” said Shawn Dochtermann of the Kodiak-based Crewmen’s Association and a stakeholder committee member. “We were really surprised to see that option not included in the final analysis. We all are willing to be very flexible, but without a crew swipe card, the program is being set up to fail.”
The crew doing their own reporting was in the lineup originally, but longer analyses showed it was not feasible for collecting the kinds and quality of data needed, said Jan Conitz, project director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“The real problem is that we don’t actually know who is fishing as crew members.” Conitz said. “We have a database showing persons who purchased licenses, but we don’t know where they fished or how long — or if they even fished at all. Others use a limited-entry permit to qualify for crew license. So we don’t even know who those people are.”
And since we don’t collect any other crew data, there is nothing we can use to check the accuracy of their reports. In the case of skippers, we have their landing reports and a record of their activities, so it is easier to follow up if we have missing or inaccurate data.”
Meanwhile, all agree that giving the program a trial run is a worthwhile idea. Conitz is working with fishermen in Kodiak fleet to have both crew and skippers voluntarily collect and report work data in log books for an upcoming cod fishery. She is hopeful it will show the task is not a big deal.
“The actual reporting is not a big effort by anyone, but it’s been blown up to be bigger than it is,” Conitz said. “It comes on the back of all kinds of other regulations and reporting requirements that people don’t like, so it might just be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Dochtermann said fishing interests are “getting our ducks in a row for next year,” and Conitz remains convinced that Alaska deckhands will soon be counted and credited for their work.
“It’s ridiculous that in this day and age we can’t characterize this workforce completely; that we have this data gap,” she said.
Conitz added that the biggest beneficiary of the labor data will be coastal communities.
“If we can demonstrate the entire economic impact of the workforce — where they live and to some extent what they earn and what they are spending, that bolsters the industry as a whole,” Conitz said. “It’s not just about the deckhands.”
Processors can take it
Bristol Bay processors again say they can handle this summer’s run at the world’s biggest sockeye salmon fishery. That’s according to the annual processor survey by ADF&G which aims to give a snapshot of anticipated processing capacity for the Bay.
The 2010 forecast calls for a catch of 30.5 million sockeye salmon — down just slightly from last year. Thirteen companies said they will be buying and processing fish at Bristol Bay this summer, and they can handle 1.8 million salmon per day. That’s identical to last year. Processors expect a 6-percent decrease in tendering capacity throughout Bristol Bay this summer, but an increase in air transport.
Fishermen are skeptical, though, about the processors’ claims they can handle all the salmon. For the past two summers, huge pulses of salmon plugged processing plants for several days, and fishermen were put on limits or beached at the peak of the season. A study by the Juneau-based McDowell Group found that 37 million fish worth $131 million to Bristol Bay fishermen swam by their nets from 2003 to 2008.
The Bristol Bay salmon fishery accounts for 26 percent of all seafood harvesting jobs in Alaska, and 33 percent of all wages paid in the Bristol Bay region.
AK’s biggest crops drop
Don’t ever refer to it as farming — call it “ocean farming” instead. Home-grown fish are now Alaska’s largest agricultural crop.
Whereas farmed fish are grown in closed pens or cages until they’re ready for market, Alaska fish — mostly salmon — are started in hatcheries and released as fingerlings to the sea. When the fish return home, they make up a huge part of Alaska’s total salmon catch.
The State oversees 36 hatcheries in Alaska, mostly privately run nonprofits, with a few owned by the state or the feds. The hatcheries raise a mix of five salmon species for commercial and sport catches.
Fish crops took a nosedive last year. The state’s 2009 salmon enhancement report shows that 45 million fish returned to home hatcheries; 15 million fewer than the previous year.
Hatchery salmon made up 19 percent (28 million) of the statewide commercial catch of 162 million fish in 2009, and 18 percent ($62 million) of the value, down by nearly half from the previous year. By far, chums made up Alaska’s biggest hatchery crop at 59 percent. It’s 21 percent for pinks, 16 for coho salmon, 19 for kings and just 3 percent of Alaska’s red salmon got their start in hatcheries.
In some regions, ranched fish by far make up most of the salmon catches — 84 percent at Prince William Sound, worth 62 percent of the value; and 15 percent of the catch at Southeast, worth 34 percent of the value. Kodiak was the only region last year that showed solid increases for its hatchery returns. Twenty-five of Kodiak’s salmon catch came from local hatcheries, worth 21 percent of the harvest value.
This year, more than 51 million fish are expected to return to Alaska hatcheries.
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