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Alaska Fish Factor: Alaska Salmon Fisheries Await Hearing Outcomes

10 August 2015
 Alaska Fish Factor: Laine Welch Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry for print and broadcast since 1988. She also has worked ‘behind the counter’ in wholesale and retail seafood businesses in Alaska and Cape Cod, MA. Laine lives in Kodiak, Alaska.

US - Two hearings this month could change the face of Alaska’s salmon fisheries forever.

On August 21, the Department of Natural Resources will hear both sides on competing claims to water rights for salmon streams at Upper Cook Inlet’s Chuitna River or to a proposed coal mine. If DNR opts for the mine, the decision would set a state precedent.

“It would be the first time in Alaska’s state history that we would allow an Outside corporation to mine completely through a salmon stream,” said Bob Shavelson, a director at Cook Inlet Keeper.

“And the sole purpose is to ship coal to China. It is really a very dangerous precedent, because if they can do it here in Cook Inlet they will be able to do it anywhere in the state.”

Cook Inlet Keeper, along with the Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Alaska Center for the Environment, requested the hearing. They want to protect spawning tributaries of the salmon-rich Chuitna; PacRim Coal of Delaware and Texas wants to dewater the streams and dig Alaska’s largest coal mine.

DNR Water Resources Chief Dave Schade agreed that the decision is precedent setting, and it comes down to “saying yes to one applicant, and no to the other.”

The hearing is scheduled for August 21 at the US Federal Building Annex in Anchorage. Testimony is limited to participants in the case and no public comments are scheduled to be taken. A decision by DNR is expected on or before October 9.

Following the water rights hearing will be oral arguments before the Alaska Supreme Court on August 26 on the setnet ban proposed for Cook Inlet and five other “urban, non-subsistence” Alaska regions.

At issue is whether removing setnetters is a resource allocation measure which is prohibited under the state constitution. The court decision will determine if the question can be put before Alaska voters in the primary election next August.

The ban is being pushed and bankrolled by the Kenai-based sports fishing group Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance (AFCA), which claims the issue is not allocative and targets a single gear group. AFCA insists salmon setnets indiscriminately kill other species that come in contact with the gear.

“I believe now more than ever that Alaskans want to end the devastating and outdated mode of commercial fishing called setnetting,” AFCA president Joe Connors said at a June press conference.“It is time for setnets in urban Alaska to go away. It’s time for fish to come first.

The state of Alaska disagrees, and the data don’t back up AFCA’s claims that setnets destroy other species.

“Looking over the last 10 years, the setnet harvest is comprised of 99.996% salmon. It’s a very, very low number of other species caught. It’s almost not measurable,” said Jeff Regnart, Director of the state’s Commercial Fisheries Division. Regnart called bringing fish allocation issues to the ballot box “bad public policy.”

There are over 2,200 setnet operations in Alaska; 735 are located in Cook Inlet.

Last week the state Division of Elections certified enough voter signatures collected via an AFCA petition to proceed with a ballot initiative. Pending the Court ruling, the setnet ban could be put before voters next August.

Fish relief - Companies getting clobbered by low cost imports can get some relief from federal trade adjustment assistance programs.

“Basically, if it’s a product that competes with imports and the domestic firm is losing ground and the imports are rising, the assistance can be available to a company,” said David Holbert, executive director of the Seattle-based Northwest Trade Adjustment Assistance Center (NWTAAC).

The assistance is part of a nationwide program started over 30 years ago by the US Commerce Department, as a way to help US manufacturers facing competitive disadvantages often caused by global trade deals. The TAAC programs now include small and medium sized businesses in other sectors, like agriculture and fishing.

“These companies are going to have to do something different. They are not going to win by just trying harder, they need outside expertise. And that is the key as to why this program is so successful,” Holbert said.

Eligible businesses need to show a drop in employment and in sales or production and other trade criteria. The program requires some matching costs - smaller companies with less than $1 million dollars in sales can receive up to 75 percent in matching funds for up to $30,000.

“So a company would pay $7,500 for projects that would otherwise cost $30, 000,” Holbert explained. The limit for larger companies is $150,000 for which the Center matches half.

An eligible company works with the Center to create a strategic plan; then NWTAAC contracts with experts to put the plans into action. Holbert said creating marketing tools such as brochures and labels, brands and logos, and especially website development are top choices.

“It’s all customized, they are not off the shelf programs,” Holbert said. “We talk to the company and see what their ideas are, what they need and want, and work with management to do the things that matter most.

Holbert believes many Alaska salmon businesses and organizations are likely good candidates for the funds.

“One would expect with this extreme swing in prices this year, some fishermen would choose not to fish and that would bring down domestic production,” he said. “One also has to suspect that this is due to the availability of cheaper imports. Alaska’s salmon fishery is known as a sustainable fishery, and there are tremendous values other than the pure price that can be brought into play.”

Holbert stressed that the trade assistance program is completely confidential.

Fish feedback – A portion of Alaska fishermen’s harvest is used to support the marketing operations of the state’s lone marketing arm –the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. The fee is paid by the processors based on a half a percent (.5%) of ex-vessel (dockside) values.

A new survey by the McDowell Group is asking for feedback from fishermen about how well ASMI is doing.

“Your answers to the following questions are greatly appreciated, and will help ASMI meet its mission of increasing the economic value of Alaska seafood. Answers provided on this survey will be reported collectively and will not be attributed to you,” the survey announcement said. Find the ASMI industry report card here.

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