Tongass salmon factory vital to Southeastern economy

ECONOMY: Fishing, related activities worth near $1 billion yearly.

January 17, 2011 

Salmon is an economic engine that pumps nearly $1 billion into Southeast Alaska's economy, according to a Trout Unlimited Alaska study.

The study released Monday took a comprehensive look at the commercial, sport and personal and subsistence use fisheries, and also the economic contribution of hatcheries to Southeast Alaska.

It found that salmon and trout generated about one in every 10 jobs in the region.

Trout Unlimited says the study highlights the need to change the way resource managers look at the Tongass National Forest and more fully realize its value as a fish factory.

"This study really drives home the point that the Tongass is a huge salmon factory. It's one of the few places left in the world where these fish remain healthy and abundant, and if managed correctly, will continue to thrive for future generations," said Trout Unlimited Alaska spokeswoman Paula Dobbyn.

The 17-million-acre Tongass -- much of which is a temperate rain forest -- encompasses more than 90 percent of Southeast Alaska.

The nation's largest national forest has traditionally been valued for its old-growth timber but the picture is changing. The U.S. Forest Service is setting a new direction, one toward forest restoration and harvesting second-growth trees, the ones that have grown back in the clear-cuts.

The study has value in how it can help forest managers make more balanced decisions on how to use Tongass resources in the future, said study author Thomas Wegge with TCW Economics in Sacramento, Calif.

Dobbyn said it's a pivotal time for the Tongass, one in which former adversaries can come together over how to manage the Tongass.

"With the Forest Service moving away from large-scale logging the Tongass' old growth, we finally have the opportunity, after decades of bruising fights and expensive lawsuits, to put the past behind us and to start managing the Tongass for what it essentially is -- a salmon forest," she said.

The study also underscores the importance of conserving the Tongass' remaining intact watersheds and the need for more funding to restore damaged ones, said Mark Kaelke, TU's Southeast Alaska project director.

"By having better habitat we are supporting this overall economic driver in the region," he said.

The study found that Southeast's commercial, recreational and personal use salmon fisheries were worth an estimated $466 million in 2007.

Once the ripple effect was considered, the total economic impact to the region from the fish and hatcheries was an estimated $986 million, the study says.

Last year, the commercial salmon catch was worth $131 million to fishermen, not counting the economic contribution of hatcheries, processors and transportation companies, according to the state Department of Fish and Game. That was about 25 percent of Alaska's statewide commercial salmon value to fishermen.

The Trout Unlimited study found that the number of jobs directly or indirectly supported by wild salmon and trout and hatchery operations in the region was 7,282, or about 10.8 percent of total employment.

The study says by comparison logging and forestry accounted for an estimated 1.7 percent and mining supports even fewer in regional employment.

State and federal governments were the largest employers, accounting for 21.8 percent of regional jobs.

Bruce Wallace, a 67-year-old purse seiner from Juneau, said one just has to look at the rising demand for pink salmon patties to understand the value of fish to the region.

The patties are so popular that some years fishermen can't catch enough fish to meet demand, he said.

"We can't really supply the world's demand for wild salmon these days," Wallace said.

The Anchorage Daily News/adn.com contributed to this story.

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