Fishing crew data program stalls

Laine Welch

KODIAK -- 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 to 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 Mark Vinsel, UFA executive director. "Skippers can verify the information."

UFA president-elect Arni Thomson said: "Some setnetters work four or five sites. They'd likely have to hire a bookkeeper to keep track of all the data."

Having the crew do their own reporting was the originally idea, but analyses showed it was not feasible for collecting the kinds and quality of data needed, said Jan Conitz, project director for the state Department of Fish & Game.

"The real problem is that we don't actually know who is fishing as crew members. 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 (for commercial salmon fishing) to qualify for crew license. So we don't even know who those people are," Conitz said.

"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 would be worthwhile. Conitz is working with fishermen in the Kodiak fleet to have both crew and skippers voluntarily collect and report work data in log books for an upcoming cod fishery. She hopes it will show the task is not a big deal.

"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," she said. "It's not just about the deckhands."

Processors vow they can handle Bristol Bay catch

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 the Fish & Game Department.

The 2010 forecast calls for a catch of 30.5 million sockeye salmon, down slightly from last year. Thirteen companies said they will be buying and processing fish there this summer, and they can handle 1.8 million salmon per day, 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. 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.

Alaska's biggest crop

Don't ever refer to it as farming -- but home-grown fish are Alaska's largest agricultural crop. Call it instead "ocean ranching."

While farmed fish are grown in pens or cages until they're ready for market, much of Alaska's fish, particularly salmon, is 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, mostly privately run nonprofits with a few owned by the state or the federal government. The hatcheries raise a mix of five salmon species for commercial and sport catches.

The fish crops took a nosedive last year. A state report shows that 45 million fish returned to home hatcheries last year, 15 million fewer than the previous year.

Hatchery salmon made up 19 percent (28 million) of the statewide commercial catch of 162 million fish last year, and 18 percent ($62 million) of the value, down by nearly half from the previous year.

Fifty-nine percent of chums got their start in hatcheries, as well as 21 percent of pinks, 16 percent of coho, 19 percent of kings and 3 percent of Alaska's red salmon.

Ranched fish compose 84 percent of the Prince William Sound salmon catch, and 15 percent of the Southeast catch.

This year more than 51 million fish are expected to return to Alaska hatcheries.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. Her information column appears every other Sunday. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting or placing on your Web site or newsletter, contact