by Laine Welch
–What are the biggest opportunities and challenges facing Alaska’s seafood industry? Jobs, adding value and high-energy costs were common themes given by five major candidates for governor during the famed fisheries debate at Kodiak.
Here’s a sampler of the candidates’ responses:
“We need to put more jobs in the hands of more Alaskans. That is the biggest opportunity,” said Senator Hollis French. “That should be our objective; to make sure our children and the Alaskans who want to get jobs can get them on the boats, with the processors, on the beaches, wherever the jobs are.”
“The biggest hurdle is to prevent our fish from being caught and processed by individuals who don’t have a stake in our state, who don’t have an economic interest in our communities,” French added. “What you want is a strong waterfront community where individuals who want to live and work here have that opportunity. So the opportunity is to provide jobs for Alaskans, and the hurdle is outside ownership.” For Ralph Samuels, the biggest opportunity is to manage the fishery resource so it continues to grow.
“We can’t start fighting over how we allocate between gear types, between communities and user groups. We have one of the best managed fisheries on the planet, and we need to make sure we keep basing decisions on science and not on politics,” Samuels said.
The high costs of energy and transportation are the biggest hurdles to the industry, Samuels said.
“When you get out to Kodiak and along the Peninsula and down the Aleutian chain, you have all these associated costs to ship fish and personnel that some of your competition around the world don’t have,” Samuels added. “Those are the hurdles we have to address through policy in deciding what the role of government should be.”
Adding more value to fishery products “in every way we can” is Bill Walker’s vision for the seafood industry.
“In Alaska, because of the cost of energy, we send out fish that is partially processed and other countries finish the processing of our resource. That’s wrong,” Walker said. “An economy is when you have value added in your state. A colony is when you send out the resource and have someone else add value to it. Adding value also could create jobs in rural Alaska.”
Walker agreed the biggest obstacle for the seafood industry is the cost of energy.
“Twenty percent of the cost for fish processors is the cost of energy,” he said. “We have to get the cost of energy down.”
Gov. Sean Parnell said the No. 1 priority is maintaining a sustainable resource, and he agreed that “value-added” provides the greatest opportunity for the industry.
“When it comes to the greatest threat, I have to say it is the federal government,” Parnell said. “If the new administration is going to overlay marine spatial planning, if they are going to come out with a biological opinion on Steller sea lions that is adverse to our interests, that is where we are going to have to put up our hands as Alaskans and say no more. But until we have the willingness to step up against the feds when they step over the line, that is our greatest threat.”
For candidate Ethan Berkowitz, his vision for the fishing industry is one “where you have more Alaskans on the decks of their own boats, where we are processing more fish and adding more value in state, and we are more in charge of our fisheries future.”
“We see some significant challenges with how catch shares are implemented and how we allocate fish,” Berkowitz said. “We need to make sure our fishing communities are sustainable, and that crews have an opportunity to work their way up in the industry. Fisheries are ultimately about fish and about people.”
Fish quality report cards
Bristol Bay salmon fishermen will get report cards this summer that grade them on the quality of the fish they deliver to processors. The project is an expansion of a trial undertaken last year in Egegik by Mark Buckley of Kodiak, a former Bay fisherman and owner/operator of Digital Observer, Inc.
“Every time a fisherman delivers in his district, 20 of his fish are pulled off at random and tagged and put into the fish-hold,” Buckley explained to fishermen at a meeting in Naknek. “They go down the line and get graded by people in the plant. If they see a tagged fish go by, they grab the tag and put it in a coffee can. For the number 2 and 3 lines, they do the same thing.”
All of the tags are then tallied according to each fishing boat and the information is entered into a spreadsheet. The objective is to develop a profile of each fisherman’s percentage of No. 1 fish delivered throughout the season.
The results of the quality grading system with 15 Egegik boats last year was a real eye opener, Buckley said.
“Forty-one percent of the fish the fleet delivered were No. 1, 52 percent were No. 2 and 17 percent were No. 3. That means that six out of every 10 fish were less than No. 1 quality by the time they got to the plant,” he told KDLG.
At the end of the season, Egegik participants got their fish quality report cards that also showed an average monetary value of the fish from each boat’s deliveries. At wholesale, the price difference between a No. 1 and a No.3 fish can be more than $1 per pound. Despite the variability in fish quality, the project revealed at the end of the season, all boats were paid the same price per pound and all got the same bonuses for chilling their fish. That has led Buckley to propose a change in the way fishermen are compensated.
“Everybody would get the same grounds price at the end of the season. Then in the spring, after the company has sold the fish and knows how much it is going to split up among everybody for post-season adjustments, some guys would be paid a little bit more than others,” Buckley explained. “It doesn’t cost the company any more, but they will start to compensate for quality. Everybody gets a bonus, but some guys get more because of the quality of their fish.”
Buckley said the continuous quality improvement will result in a better bottom line for Bristol Bay fishermen, and attract more processors to the region.
“Fishermen are realizing they are getting paid for fish poundage, not quality,” Buckley said. “I want to see quality rewarded and bring this fishery back to those nice healthy profit margins we saw in the 1980s.”
This summer, salmon boats in all major Bristol Bay fishing districts, except Togiak, will use the fish quality report cards. The project is funded by the fishermen-operated Regional Seafood Development Association, the state university and federal funds.
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