CDQ executive warns of threat to rural Alaska

Cotter: ‘If the state’s fiscal situation is not handled properly … God help rural Alaska’

Climate change, the state’s fiscal crisis and the relevance of rural communities to the rest of the country spell big trouble for rural Alaska communities, say top officials of two of Alaska’s community development quota groups.

“We may just be the canaries in the mine,” Larry Cotter, chief executive officer of the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, in Juneau, told the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference at its annual meeting in Anchorage on March 3.

“If the state’s fiscal situation is not handled properly … God help rural Alaska,” Cotter told symposium participants at the Hotel Captain Cook.

“The harsh reality is that rural America is becoming less relevant to the rest of the country,” said Norm Van Vactor, president and chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Education Development Corp. in Dillingham. “We need to start looking outside of the box. What we are doing now is not working.”

Cotter and Van Vactor were among several speakers at SWAMC’s annual conference, of which most of the second day was devoted to fisheries issues, and their focus was challenges facing the rural communities impacted by climate changes and changes in the economy.

“Today’s reality is substantially different in most communities from the 1990s,” Cotter said. “Populations are declining. Schools are in danger of closing at Atka and St. George. No year round economy exists. The cost of energy is astronomical.”

Substance abuse is also an issue, and the state’s fiscal situation only exacerbates the problem, with reduced revenue sharing and reduced services, he said.

APICDA is rebooting because old ideas and programs have not works and there is a need to identify problems and practical solutions or our communities will not survive, he said.

APICDA hosts an annual community conference, with wide participation from all six of its’ CDQ member communities.

This year the focus will be on sustainability and survival, with questionnaires going to all residents and entities in advance, he said. “We really, really want people to answer these questionnaires and we really want people to come to this conference prepared to talk,” he said. “We are admitting areas of failure, but at the same time are encouraging response and criticism. Let’s get to it and move forward.”

Communities need to find a way to organizationally come together, and to that end, APICDA is now working with BBEDC, he said. “There is too much at stake for us not to be successful.”

The issues touched on by Cotter are all issues being faced by the Dillingham-based CDQ group, Van Vactor said. “We have so many issues; so many challenges. What we are talking about here today is the graying of our communities.”

And the issue is relevant not just to rural Alaska, Van Vactor said. “There are dozens of articles (on the Internet) about the crisis of rural Alaska, and it is an issue prevalent throughout the world.”

One small Oregon community, for example, is advocating taking in more foreign high school students to keep its schools open, he said. “The harsh reality is rural America is becoming less relevant to the rest of the country. Eighty percent of lawmakers live in urban areas, but rural America has most of the land.”

For fish harvesters in Bristol Bay, another growing issue is the number of salmon fishing permits held by area residents and Alaskans is dropping every year.

“Each license represents a unique employer of two to three people,” he said.

The importance of adding value to seafood harvests also was on the agenda.

Marcus Hartley of Northern Economics, an Alaska based economics consulting firm,

Emphasized the need to catch fish of higher value in the first place, deliver high quality fish and produce more and better seafood products.

There is a need for collaboration to maximize the value of the fishery, minimize bycatch of salmon in non-salmon directed fisheries, and to determine optimal fishing times to allow for delivery of quality fish, he said.

Hartley praised the ice chilling program promoted by the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., which has put ice barges out in Bristol Bay and provided subsidies for refrigerated seawater conversions and slush bags. “The BBRSDA has done a lot of work educating and promoting icing and chilling of fish, and Bristol Bay processors are paying bonuses for icing,” he said.

There is also a need to reduce or eliminate delivery of fish that appear top quality, but when fileted reveal damaged flesh, a product that is difficult to process and sell, he said. Foam padding on the decks of fishing boats, at a cost of from $1,000 to $3,000 per boat, offers a cheap solution, he said. The other solution, he added, is to bleed all the fish.  Harvester owned Silver Bay Seafoods and Leader Creek Seafoods reportedly require all fish to be chilled and bled, he said.

“We believe that collaboration between processors and harvesters is possible and necessary to maximize value.”

The symposium also heard a presentation by John Sackton, publisher of the online publication Seafood.com, on Alaska’s Bering Sea fisheries in the global economy.

Sackton noted that while Alaska seafood has thrived because of its stability, the impact of budget cuts in fish management of salmon, the impact of the strong dollar on exports of Pollock and salmon, and declines in crab fishery stocks have made maintaining that stability more difficult.

The key to seafood is control of the supply, Sackton said.

Buyers will commit only to those companies that they trust to follow through with supply and they also invest in species that are reliably available, he said. That desire to control supply also spurs consolidation, he said.

Selling multiple species, such as Pollock, salmon and crab, to large buyers gives packers more market leverage, he said, citing the example of the growth of farmed whitefish competing with Pollock.

Keeping Alaska seafood as a premium brand and extracting a higher value depends on not undermining the processing, harvesting, and management that has brought Alaska’s seafood to that status, he said.

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Margaret Bauman is a veteran Alaska journalist focused on covering fisheries and environmental issues. Bauman has been writing for The Cordova Times since 2010. You can reach her at mbauman@thecordovatimes.com.