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Feds delay release of $56M in disaster funds stemming from bleak 2016 pink salmon run

Alaska fishermen are still awaiting disaster relief funds for the 2016 pink salmon run failure, which was the worst in 40 years.

Congress approved $56 million that year for Alaska fishermen, processors and communities hurt by the fishery flop at three Alaska regions: Kodiak, Prince William Sound and Lower Cook Inlet. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and NOAA Fisheries finalized plans and procedures for payouts last August. Since then, the paper push has stalled on various federal agency desks.

NOAA Fisheries missed a promised June 1 sign-off deadline and now says the funds will be released on the first of July, according to Kodiak state Rep. Louise Stutes, who has been tracking the progress.

“It affects all the cannery workers all the processors, all the businesses in the community,” she said. “This has a big trickle-down effect.”

The draft spending plan awaiting approval provides for funds in four categories. Coastal communities that would have gotten 1.5% of the landed value of the foregone pink catch would receive $2.43 million. Just over $4 million was set aside for pink salmon research, and processors would get $17.7 million for lost wages as a result of the humpy bust.

Alaska fishermen would get the biggest chunk at $32 million. The funds would be distributed using a calculation to restore lost dockside value equal to 82.5 percent of their five even year averages.

As for the July 1 promise, Stutes said she “is not holding her breath because of the fed’s current track record in adhering to its own timelines.”

“They know I’m a squeaky wheel and my job is to keep this moving in a forward direction,” she said.

Season of uncertainty

Fisheries are always fraught with uncertainties, but there is an added element this year: trade tariffs on Alaska’s largest export, seafood.

"The industry is accustomed to dealing with uncertainty about harvest levels, prices and currency rates. The trade disputes just add another layer to that,” said Garrett Evridge, an economist with the McDowell Group.

Tariffs of up to 25% on U.S. seafood products going to China went into effect last July and more are being threatened now by the Trump administration. China is Alaska’s biggest seafood buyer, purchasing 54% of Alaska seafood exports in 2017 valued at $1.3 billion.

“It’s important to remember that a tariff is simply a tax and it increases the prices of our products,” Evridge explained. “As Alaskans we are sensitive to any increase in the price of our seafood because we are competing on a global stage. And right now we have tariffs imposed on seafood from the Chinese side and the U.S. side.”

In terms of Alaska salmon, the new taxes could hit buyers of pinks and chums especially hard. Managers expect huge runs of both this summer and much of the pack will be processed into various products in China and then returned to the U.S.

"There is uncertainty as to whether or not those products will be tariffed and the Trump administration has indicated they want to tariff all products from China,” Evridge said.

For salmon, in a typical year Alaska contributes 30-50% of the world’s wild-caught harvest. But when you include farmed salmon, Evridge said, Alaska’s contribution is closer to 15% of the global salmon supply.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is predicting a total catch of 213.2 million salmon this year, more than 80% higher than in 2018.

The harvest breakdown this year is pegged at about 42 million for sockeye salmon, 9 million fewer than last year.

For pinks, a haul of nearly 138 million would be an increase of 97 million fish over last summer. A coho salmon harvest of 4.6 million would be up 900,000 silvers over 2018.

Chum catches are projected to be at an all-time high with a catch of 29 million, topping the 25 million record set in 2017.

The harvest for Chinook salmon is 112,000 fish at areas outside of Southeast Alaska, where catches are determined by a treaty with Canada. The all gear limit in Southeast this year is 137,500 kings.

You can track Alaska’s salmon catches via weekly emails that Evridge compiles for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

“It gives folks a sense of what the various Alaska areas are producing versus prior years. The goal is to provide a quick snapshot of 2019 versus 2018 as well as the five year average,” he said. Sign on at garrette@mcdowellgroup.net.

Big boat buy

The Bristol Bay Native Corp. is in talks to buy the two largest U.S. Pacific cod longline fishing companies, according to Undercurrent News. The companies — Clipper and Blue North — have 20% and 17.5%, respectively, of the longline portion of the Pacific cod catch. Clipper has a fleet of six vessels while Blue North has five larger longliners.

Buying the fishing companies would be the first move into seafood for BBNC, which reported revenue of over $1.6 billion in 2018. Undercurrent said the corporation “generates around half its revenue from providing services to the oil and gas industry. The company’s next biggest business units are firstly construction and then providing engineering and technical services primarily for the U.S. government.”

New fish hire

Scott Kelley has joined United Fishermen of Alaska as its new executive administrator. Kelley was former director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries division from 2015 until his retirement last year. He worked with Fish and Game since 1990, starting as a port sampler at Excursion Inlet near Juneau.

Kelley replaces Mark Vinsel, who has worked at UFA for 18 years, including as executive director.

“Scott’s immense knowledge of commercial fisheries in Alaska is well-respected and his relationship with commercial fishermen is extremely valuable. We are very lucky to have him join our organization,” said UFA Executive Director Frances Leach.

UFA is the nation’s largest commercial fishing trade group, representing 35 member organizations.

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