With this year's plunge in oil prices, a single chinook salmon is now worth more than a barrel of oil.

The winter kings being caught by Southeast trollers are averaging 10 pounds each with a dock price of $7.34 a pound, according to state fish tickets. That adds up to $73 per fish, compared to about $30 for a barrel of oil.

And with more sharp cuts in state spending coming due to the dwindling price of that oil, commercial fishermen want to ensure that the coming state budget cuts don't reduce core services, resulting in missed fishing opportunities.

"Not all cuts are equal, and if there are cuts that interfere with the science needed for responsible and sustainable fish harvesting ... Many times in the absence of information, (government) will throttle down fisheries and reduce opportunity," said Mark Vinsel, executive administrator for United Fishermen of Alaska. The nation's largest commercial fishing trade organization includes 35 member groups.

"When we are able to count fish and make sure enough get upstream, then people can harvest them, get them to market and bring the revenue back to their communities and to the state general fund through taxes. So we have to be careful that we don't put a tax on something or increase taxes while the overall opportunity goes down. That can be a net decrease," Vinsel said.

"We are willing to listen to any proposal," said Jerry McCune of Cordova, president of United Fishermen Alaska. "If there is going to be raises in the taxes, we would like to see it across the board to be fair for everybody."

Gov. Bill Walker has proposed a 1 percent surtax on both the Fisheries Business Tax and the Fisheries Landing Tax, which would raise an estimated $20 million.

A resolution provided to each legislator states: "Budget cuts, though equal in value, are not equal in impact to industry or represent the same overall loss to the state of Alaska in terms of lost revenue and benefit. Emphasis should be given to finding efficiencies without reducing economic opportunities for industry."

A second United Fishermen resolution warned against cuts to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's budget that would reduce services.

Fish and Game has an operating budget of $200 million; the Commercial Fisheries Division gets the largest chunk at $73.3 million.

McCune said United Fishermen is working closely with Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, on a bill he plans to introduce that would create permit banks to help reverse the trend of salmon permits migrating out of the state. The bank would buy nonresident permits and lease them to young fishermen who otherwise could not afford them. A permit bank would not cost the state any money, according to Kreiss-Tomkins, because it would fall to local communities to raise the money.

"I think it's a noble idea but we have some fears," McCune said. "There are concerns with an entity holding a permit and giving loans and being able to take them back, and there are IRS and constitutional considerations."

Limiting bycatch

A new fishery management plan will reduce halibut bycatch by 21 percent in Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands trawl and long-line groundfish fisheries to 7.7 million pounds. The plan was approved by federal managers prior to the season opener for trawlers Jan. 20.

Managers now are moving toward similar measures for king and chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery, and they want public input.

The pollock fishery now has separate programs to account for takes of the two salmon species.

"We want to improve the functioning of these programs so they are integrated," said Gretchen Harrington, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator for NOAA/Alaska Region and leader of the salmon bycatch project.

The goal, she said, is to enable the fleets to operate under one incentive agreement.

The incentive plan agreement is a document created by the pollock fishermen that explains how they are going to provide incentives for each vessel to avoid king and chum salmon bycatch through the tools they already are using, Harrington explained. "There also is a provision in the proposed rule that adjusts the allocation of pollock between winter and summer seasons to provide 5 percent more pollock in winter, so it can be harvested when there is less chance for bycatch."

A new piece of the agreement includes adjusting king bycatch limits downward when the state forecasts low abundances for a following year.

Currently, a 60,000-fish bycatch limit is in place for king salmon; the bycatch last year was 18,330. For chum, the bycatch take was 237,795 fish.

After going through the rule making process, Harrington said the new pollock program should be in place by next year.

Public comments on the salmon bycatch reduction plan will be accepted through March 8.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.