One year ago, Alaskans from across the state convened during the Walker/Mallott transition process to put minds and hearts together and begin charting a new and improved course for Alaska. We were honored to serve on the Walker Mallott Fisheries Transition Committee during this process. Past differences were set aside and within this community of fisheries leaders from around the state -- representing traditional and customary, sport, and commercial fisheries -- the level of consensus established was stunning.
Alaska's history as a state is relatively short. For the most part we Alaskans have been on a fast-paced ride of economic growth and development punctuated by a few critical moments when we have taken the time to pause, consider where we've come from, where we are going and what exactly we want to pass on to future generations. Whether it was statehood, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the creation of our Permanent Fund, or the development of state-run fisheries management based on sustained yield, careful forethought and planning has served Alaskans well.
In this light, our fisheries committee put in many hours of work and deliberation to come up with a set of recommendations that ensure our fisheries will provide for future Alaskans as they have for current and past generations. We identified policies that promote the economic contribution of Alaska fisheries to the state at a time when economic contribution and diversity is more important that ever.
As we see it, fisheries play a huge role in Alaska's economic future and, if managed right will continue to do so. Commercial fishing, for example, is Alaska's largest private?sector employer and a major contributor to employment and wages throughout the state. The fishing industry employs tens of thousands of individuals producing billions of pounds of seafood for the U.S. and the world. Commercial fishing permit holders represent small and family?owned businesses, supporting dozens of other service businesses, such as hardware and marine suppliers, fuel, accountants, air and water travel, shipping, boat builders, restaurants, scientists, educators and administrators. In fact, virtually every business in Alaska benefits from commercial fishing dollars.
As all Alaskans know, the foundation of our sustainable fisheries is habitat. Alaska's position as a world leader in fisheries sustainability and top producer of wild seafood is a clear result of the fact that we have the most intact, continuous and unaltered freshwater and marine habitat in the world. However, protecting that habitat demands constant vigilance. If today's leaders and policymakers don't continue the tradition, that leadership position will be lost.
The first recommendation from our committee at the transition team meeting was for the state of Alaska to define and implement a clear "fish first" policy. It is our consensus that such policy would include actions like creating enforcement methods for Alaska's Policy for Sustainable Fisheries Management, enacting legislation that would ensure there is always an adequate amount of water left in streams for fish, and ensuring that resource development projects never block the passage and migration of salmon to their spawning grounds. It also includes protection for salmon and halibut while in the marine environment, ensuring salmon are not intercepted at sea and juvenile halibut survive to support historic fisheries. Our committee put forward common-sense changes and recommendations for fisheries and habitat management that improve the system for Alaskans today and for generations to come. Our full report can be found online at gov.alaska.gov/Walker/transition-2014.html.
We are now one year into the new administration with just weeks before the 2016 legislative session. With the dust from the transition settled and the governor and legislators promising to set politics aside to work to together for Alaska, timing is ripe to act on the solutions and policies we recommended. The work from our report should be translated into direct action and implemented. Alaskans are expecting action and change from today's lawmakers and administration. We simply cannot settle for less than progress when it comes to managing our state's economy and natural resources.
While the decline in oil prices creates a colossal budget challenge, we remain a resource state flush with opportunity and richness in the way of renewable energy sources, clean water and land, wild fish and game, and majestic beauty that millions of people from around world travel to experience year after year. Fisheries resources have diversified our economy and sustained Alaskans through jobs, local and state tax contributions, and putting food on the table for many generations. We must ensure that these natural assets -- much like our Permanent Fund -- are protected so that they can continue to provide dividends for generations to come.
It is our sincere hope that our leaders both in Juneau and Washington, D.C., will support and act upon our fisheries committee's recommendations. A fish first policy for Alaska will play a key role in a diverse and resilient economy that we will be proud to pass on.
Norman Van Vactor served on the Governor's Fisheries Transition Team, is the CEO of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and lives in Dillingham.
Linda Behnken also served on the fisheries transition team, is executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association and commercial fishes with her family out of their home port of Sitka.
Lindsey Bloom served on the fisheries transition team, is a fisheries consultant in Juneau and serves as an at-large representative on the board of United Fishermen of Alaska.
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