Budget items in D.C. affect Alaska fisheries

Laine Welch

Fisheries are on the receiving end of federal dollars, instead of the other way around. As congressional lawmakers slash budgets in D.C., money for all-important fishery stock assessments was actually increased from $51 million to $67 million for the next fiscal year, the amount requested by President Barack Obama.

The money was included as part of a Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee appropriations bill that passed in a bipartisan vote late last week. Despite the fisheries increase, the bill is $600 million below the amount in fiscal year 2011 and $5 billion below the president's request, said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a CJS subcommittee member.

"The overall appropriations account is dramatically reduced, so the fact that we were able to increase our fisheries dollars is really quite significant. I was very pleased," Murkowski said in a phone interview from her Senate office.

One big NOAA budget item that was zeroed out drew sighs of relief from Alaska's two senators -- ocean zoning, or "marine spatial planning." The plan, which would affect all users and uses on and beneath the oceans, was a priority in the president's national ocean policy, with a price tag of $60 million.

"It made no sense to me for this administration to request funding to move forward with this. The concept was a bad idea from the get-go and unwanted by Alaskans," said Murkowski, who insisted that the federal funding be removed.

Both she and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, also were concerned that the new program would siphon dollars away from fishery research and assessments. Begich said as chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries and Coast Guard that ocean zoning is an issue that has given him "the biggest earful."

"We don't need to do it right now and that's the bottom line," Begich said.

"NOAA does not need another big project and expenditure when they have so many other things they need to keep on track with."

Murkowski cautioned that while ocean zoning might appear to be deep-sixed, it might resurface.

"In the CJS appropriations budget there is funding for what they call Regional Ocean Partnership Grants, and some may be able to argue that these are a backdoor approach to continue implementing coastal and marine spatial planning," she said. "It is something I will be watching very closely."

Begich was jubilant that $920 million was allocated for the NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System, since it was not funded in the FY 2011 cycle.

"The need for Alaska is huge, not only in our fishing industry but for aviation and the Coast Guard. Without these satellites, accuracy of weather forecasts would go back to the 1980s," said Begich, who spearheaded the push for the funding in the Senate. "And that satellite will be critical for us as we do additional work in the Arctic, and in 2016 it's anticipated there will be a lot of activity up there from a variety of industries, as well as research."

Begich added that he hopes to introduce a Coast Guard reauthorization bill "hopefully in the next three weeks."

Both senators were optimistic that progress will be made in Congress this year on ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty. Alaska and the U.S. can't lay any claim to the Arctic unless the United States signs the treaty. All other Arctic nations already support it as the legal framework for Arctic governance.

The Law of the Sea Treaty was originated in 1982 by the U.N. as a way to govern activities on, over and beneath the oceans. But some sovereignty provisions were strongly opposed by then-President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. has never signed on. Meanwhile, Russia has planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole and is building the first offshore oil rig to withstand extreme cold and pack ice. Norway has staked claims to vast oil and gas deposits and Canada has plans for an Arctic military training base. The U.S. remains sidelined.

"As an Arctic nation, we have an opportunity to extend our territory on the outer continental shelf to an area nearly the size of California. That would be available to us for resource exploration and development," Murkowski has lamented for years.

Both Alaska senators said they get a sense that there is more understanding of why ratifying LOST is so important. Murkowski added that she believes there will be "a level of stepped-up activity toward the end of the year."

Both also are optimistic about a new 15-member bipartisan Oceans Caucus, which Murkowski will co-chair.

"In the Senate and House, there are more caucuses than you can shake a stick at, But this one is different," Murkowski said. "It will be a working caucus where we will connect with outside groups to shine the light on the health of our oceans. We will really key in on policy issues beyond just legislation. Our biggest challenge is to get people to understand how little we know about our oceans."

Both senators continue to push legislation that will pull the plug on any funding to advance genetically modified salmon, dubbed Frankenfish. Begich said it is promising that the Food and Drug Administration has done nothing to allow such fish since complaints against it were filed a year ago.

" So that's a good sign and we are working aggressively to see if we can get an amendment that really prohibits this type of production of fake fish," Begich said.

Finally, Murkowski said she may announce a new fisheries adviser within a couple of weeks.


Shrimp, canned tuna and salmon remained America's seafood favorites last year but there were interesting shifts in fish eating patterns. The annual list by the National Fisheries Institute showed that Americans ate more canned tuna, cod and farmed favorites: tilapia and Pangasius (also called basa). The cheaper choices were likely driven by the recession.

An Intrafish analysis shows tilapia gained the most, with consumption up 20 percent, bumping Alaska pollock from fourth to fifth place on the list. Rounding out the top 10 were catfish, crab, cod (up 11 percent), Pangasius and clams.

In all, Americans ate 15.8 pounds per person of seafood last year, down from 16 pounds in 2009. To see the power that prices had at the grocery store, note that in every case where prices increased, consumption dropped. Along with seafood, that included the biggest competing proteins: beef and pork.

A breakdown by Seafood Trend's Ken Talley shows that pork saw the biggest drop in per capita consumption to just under 45 pounds, down 5 percent. Beef was derailed last year as America's most popular protein. As with pork, the supply of beef was constrained by high production costs, which translated into higher retail prices. Beef consumption fell 2.6 percent to just under 57 pounds per person, the lowest in 10 years. Less-expensive chicken was the big choice by cash-strapped Americans last year at nearly 59 pounds per capita, a 3.3 percent increase.

For those dining out, seafood topped the list of favorites. The annual Zagat survey of 103 U.S. restaurant chains and more than 6,000 diners showed the Bonefish Grill at No. 1 for food, facilities and service as well as best seafood.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. Her column appears Sundays in the Daily News. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting or placing on your website or newsletter, contact msfish@alaska.com.

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