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Business/Economy

Dunleavy didn’t grab all local fishery tax revenue for the state this year

One fisheries item that appears to have escaped Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto pen so far is his desire to divert local fish taxes from coastal communities into state coffers.

Dunleavy’s initial budget in February aimed to repeal the sharing of fisheries business and landing taxes that towns and boroughs split 50/50 with the state. Instead, all of the tax revenues would go to the state’s general fund – a loss of $28 million in FY 2020 to fishing communities.

“There is a recognition that these are viewed as shared resources, and they should be shared by Alaskans,” press secretary Matt Shuckerow said at the time. “So that’s kind of what this proposal does. It takes shared resources and shares them with all Alaskans, not just some select communities.”

Fishing boats are docked at Kodiak's St. Paul Harbor on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The tax split remains in place and the dollars are still destined for fishing towns, said Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who also represents Cordova, Yakutat and several smaller towns.

“It’s general fund revenue and that has been appropriated to the appropriate communities,” Stutes said in a phone interview. “What we can tell right now is it slipped by unscathed because it appears he did not veto that revenue to the communities that generate the dollars. So, it looks like we’re good to go there.”

What’s not so good is the nearly $1 million cut to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s commercial fisheries budget.

Stutes and Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, worry that the shortfall could result in lost harvests.

“It’s always shortsighted when you cut Fish and Game. It’s just really crucial that we have the personnel we need to manage our resources and to make sure they continue to be there when we need them,” Stevens told KMXT in Kodiak.

Stutes, who chairs the House fisheries committee, said it does not make sense to cut state moneymakers.

“In the long run, that creates revenue for the state because it allows all these different fisheries to stay open longer,” she said, adding that lost oversight due to budget cuts will result in more conservative management.

“If they do not have the personnel to do the appropriate salmon counts, they’re going to manage very conservatively. And that means less openings or they’ll close the season earlier,” Stutes said. “Those are dollars that the state’s not going to get by the governor vetoing those funds to Fish and Game. It just doesn’t make sense to me under any conditions.”

All the amendments that the Alaska Legislature added back into the original Fish and Game budget were vetoed, including a $280,000 cut to special areas management, which include 12 game refuges, 17 critical habitat areas and three wildlife sanctuaries. Two director-level positions and associated funding from the habitat and subsistence research divisions will be moved to the Office of Management and Budget and no longer associated with Fish and Game-related duties.

Impacts of the budget cuts were not readily available and all questions are referred to a new gov.pressoffice@alaska.gov address. The questions may be directed back to appropriate staff, but “they want everything to be through that address,” said one Fish and Game employee.

“Welcome to our world,” said Stutes. “As a Legislature, we can’t get answers. We can’t speak to department heads. We get no response. We are required to go through the legislative liaison. I have never seen such a lack of communication between any department or between the Legislature and the executive branch.”

Robots cut crab - Radio Canada reports that robotic machines that cut and shuck crab have nabbed a U.S. patent that is being hailed as a breakthrough in fish processing technology worldwide.

The system, developed by the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation in Newfoundland, operates at lightning speed on crab at fish plants in eastern Canada.

In a shipping container-sized chamber, crabs go down a conveyor belt and each is analyzed by cameras. Then, “pick and place” robots saw off the legs, sort and package them and off they go. Along another belt, robots shuck the meat from the crabs, a job that would instead be done in China.

“Instead of sending all our crab out as sections with the meat in the shell we thought we could attract a higher price if we sold the meat instead,” said Bob Verge, the brains behind the crab robots and managing director at CCFI.

While the crab-cutting robots are designed for snow crab (eastern Canada is the world’s largest producer), Verge said the system is adaptable to other crab species and potentially other shellfish. He added that interest is high, including from international markets interested in developing robotic solutions to other fish production problems.

CCFI has applied for patents in 10 other countries and those are expected to be issued soon.

The robot makers are hoping the system will help solve workforce problems in fish plants that often are located in remote regions where it’s tough to recruit enough workers. In this case, Verge said, humans will work on more highly skilled machines and computers, and not on the slime line cutting up crab.

“If we are going to attract the young people we need, we need better jobs, not more jobs. We have to offer them a better deal,” he said. “In demonstrating this technology to young people, they are very impressed with it.”

Land ahoy! Since the 1990s, Alaska’s salmon industry has faced tough competition from farmed fish. Now salmon growers are coming ashore in the U.S. in a big way. The latest trend is raising Atlantic salmon in massive tanks on land, called recirculating aquaculture systems.

“It really could be considered salmon aquaculture 2.0,” said Garrett Evridge, an economist with the McDowell Group. “The current model is the near-shore farms, and land-based technology has really improved upon that. Obviously, there is no worry about interaction with wild stocks.”

The closed-loop systems, some holding 2 million gallons of water, also use no antibiotics, additives or pesticides, removing big negatives from fish that are farmed in crowded ocean net pens. The tank water, gotten mostly from deep wells, is filtered as in an aquarium and can be constantly reused. A nonstop current also provides exercise to enhance fish health and meat quality.

Maine already has attracted two growers. Last month Nordic Aquafarms of Norway announced plans to build a recirculating farm in Belfast that will eventually produce 70 million pounds of salmon each year. U.K. company Aquabanq also announced it will begin building a massive facility in Millinocket next spring.

Another Norwegian company, Atlantic Sapphire, is doubling its land purchase in Homestead, Florida, to 160 acres for a facility that aims to grow 500 million pounds of salmon annually by 2030.

An artist's rendering of Atlantic Sapphire's salmon-raising plant under construction in Homestead, Florida. (YouTube/Atlantic Sapphire)

Since 2017 a Wisconsin company called Superior Fresh has advanced the land-based fish tank model on its 720 acres by attaching it to a greenhouse. Its motto is “Great food from the best fish.”

Alaska needs to pay attention, Evridge advises.

“In sum, these proposed facilities would have production that in some years is equal to current Alaska salmon production. It’s certainly something to pay attention to and it looks like there’s momentum around the industry.”

Video deadline – Aug. 2 is the deadline to submit short videos that highlight contributions of women in all segments of the seafood industry - fishing, fish farming, processing, selling, managing, teaching, etc. It’s the second round for the contest that was launched last year by the Paris-based group Women in the Seafood Industry.

Last year’s winner showcased women who mend nets for a living in Spain. Second place went to a film about California women who formed a clam farming cooperative. Tied for third place were films about female fishing mentors in Newfoundland and women in India who started food trucks to sell their husbands’ catches. The top winner receives 1,000 euros along with two 500-euro prizes. Enter at www.womeninseafood.com/ .

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