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Business/Economy

Sharp budget cuts to Coast Guard, NOAA worry fisheries supporters

  • Author: Laine Welch
  • Updated: March 12
  • Published March 11

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget puts agencies in charge of fisheries research and management, weather forecasting and the U.S. Coast Guard on the chopping block. (Bill O’Lear / The  Washington Post)

Massive cuts could be in store for agencies and people who provide the science and research connected to fisheries.

The budget proposed by President Donald Trump that starts in October puts agencies and staff in charge of fisheries research and management, weather forecasting, satellite data tracking and the U.S. Coast Guard on the chopping block.

Trump called the cuts a trade-off to "prioritize rebuilding the military" and to help fund the border wall with Mexico.

The Washington Post broke down a White House memo to the Office of Management and Budget last week that showed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would lose 26 percent of its budget.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Weather Service each would face a 5 percent cut.

The biggest budget hit goes to the Coast Guard, which stands to lose $1.3 billion. Trump's plan also eliminates the Sea Grant program, a network of 33 training and research programs nationwide — including Alaska.

"Why would you cut a program that has a major return on investment when you're trying to grow the economy?" asked Carol Kaynor, Sea Grant communications specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "It just doesn't make sense."

The Sea Grant program has operated in Alaska for nearly 50 years. Director Paula Cullenberg also was shocked to learn about the funding cut.

"Maybe this was an easy mark and something on a spreadsheet that looked available," Cullenberg told Alaska's Energy Desk in Juneau. "As far as I know there wasn't any in-depth analysis around that."

Slow down and take a deep breath, advised U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who chairs the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard.

"The president's budget request is simply that — a request. Congress holds the power of the purse, and will ultimately fund the federal government," Sullivan said in an email.

"I have spoken with both OMB Director (Mick) Mulvaney and Secretary of Commerce (Wilbur) Ross about the importance of Alaska's fishing industry and the necessary federal research and investment that goes into making our fisheries and coastal communities thrive," he added.

Sullivan said he will continue to prioritize funding for NOAA and the Coast Guard, "two agencies that are disproportionately important for Alaska."  He said the Sea Grant program "also is critical to coastal states."

Sullivan said he took the lead on a letter to Mulvaney, stating "the reported proposed cuts to the USCG would contradict the stated goals of the president and undermine the ability of the USCG to perform vital missions."

Pollock for schoolchildren

Fish sticks made from Alaska pollock coated with whole grain crusts are set to hit school lunch trays this spring.

The new product offering comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has purchased pollock in frozen, 50-pound blocks of fillets since 2009. School cafeterias can use the fish in many ways, a system that works well for states or large districts able to buy half or whole truckloads.

The ready-made fish sticks open the door for purchases by smaller schools or districts with fewer resources.

"This gives more schools the opportunity to serve Alaska pollock," said Pat Shanahan, program director for the trade group Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers.

That organization and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute have worked for years to add fish sticks to USDA food list, which happened in January.

They also are doing outreach to inform schools that U.S. dietary guidelines recommend eating seafood twice a week, something only 20 percent of Americans accomplish.

Dietitians are starting to think beyond fish sticks in dipping sauces.

"We've come up with a number of recipes that put them in wraps, salads and slider sandwiches. Kids are eating foods they see in restaurants and they are very sophisticated eaters," she added.

For many kids, school might be the only place where they get to eat fish so it better be good, Shanahan said. Ultimately, the goal is to make America's kids become lifelong fish eaters.

"This opens up long-term potential to sell more Alaska pollock on a consistent basis to schools," she added. "With 30 million school lunches served every day, if even a small portion are Alaska pollock, it's a big win for the industry."

"It's fantastic," said Bruce Schactler of Kodiak, ASMI's global food aid director who helped broker the total January buy of 554 million pounds of pollock. At $1.13-$1.16 a pound, the value topped $640 million.

"Our focus now is on getting more people to eat more Alaska pollock in more product forms more often," Schactler said.

Bristol Bay boosters

A three-month project that promoted Bristol Bay sockeye salmon in Boulder, Colorado, boosted sales and is already expanding.

The $700,000 Wild Taste, Amazing Place campaign was started last September by the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, funded by 1,800 driftnet fishermen who pay a 1 percent tax on their catches.

"We developed a brand and a new look for Bristol Bay sockeye salmon," said Becky Martello, executive director of the association. "Then we developed partnerships with retailers, processors and distributors to make sure everyone was on board."

In partnership with Rising Tide Communications of Anchorage, the group collaborated with food stylists and photographers to create snazzy point-of-sale items, posters, recipe cards and social media support, down to wrapping paper and stickers adorned with the Bristol Bay label.

A big part of the program, Martello said, was training people behind the seafood counters at three retailers to be champions of the brand.

"That went really well," she said. "We educated them about Bristol Bay and the sheer size of the sockeye run, the unique habitat, and that by selecting Bristol Bay salmon, consumers are supporting individual, small family businesses. That message really resonated with our primary market of millennials … who have that connection to their food."

The project hosted workshops and dinners for 40 chefs; 17 Boulder restaurants featured sockeye salmon for a week.

The results were positive.

"Sales increased 8 to 14 percent during the promotion period, looking at year-over-year sales. The retailers were really pleased, and we're taking that to the bank," Martello said.

"The feedback that we've been getting from processors has been really positive, and the fleet seems really happy. Ultimately, that is who we are working to help. If they're happy, I'm happy," Martello added.

Sockeye marketing materials are now available to fishermen, retailers and others. Order them at www.bristolbaysockeye.org

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

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