Fish Factor: Commercial fisheries dodge the budget cut bullet

As Alaska lawmakers continue their struggle to keep the state afloat, commercial fisheries dodged a bullet that would have removed millions of dollars from its budget. 

An obscure procedural action within the capital budget called a ‘reverse sweep’ prevents dozens of program-specific pots of money from being automatically drained into the budget reserve, as Governor Dunleavy aimed to do.  

 “The sweep is money that is not spent in a single year. In this case, it comes from certain sources, such as test fish receipts, commercial crew licenses and sale of Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits and licenses,” explained Doug Vincent-Lang Alaska, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “There is usually unexpended funds within the budget that typically carry over by the reverse sweep into next year’s budget, and they are integrated into the department’s operational budget as there is an expectation those moneys will be available.” 

There was a lot of confusion about what the sweeps swept up, he added.  “From the ADF&G perspective, there was an initial document that showed all of those different pots of money are sweepable. However, we have since learned that the actual budget that was signed by the governor and passed by the legislature included language that makes the test fish receipts, crew member licenses and the CFEC licenses non sweepable.”   

Money from test fish receipts comes from sampling salmon or other species that are caught by the state to gauge run strength and collect other biological data and then are sold.  

Crew license sales and CFEC dollars from permits, vessel licenses and other fees go into separate savings accounts; more comes from General Fund Program Receipts, primarily from crew license sales.

 “The test fishing receipts are on the order of $2.5 million, crew licenses bring in $2.5 to $3 million and those are built into our management program for the next year,” Vincent-Lang said. “We use them for doing things like crab and shellfish management to herring management, conducting aerial surveys and running weirs and sonar operations.”  

Vincent-Lang said the comfish division is working out the details of a nearly one-million-dollar budget cut, which he calls “not life threatening.” 

 “There’s going to be impacts on some weir operations and sonar operations, but we’ll be able to manage around them,” he said, adding that things would have been far worse if the test fishing and license receipts were swept away.

 “Not all of that would’ve been spent in a single year, but it would have meant somewhere on the order of $2.5 to $4 million worth of unexpected budget impacts to the division of commercial fisheries,” Vincent-Lang said. 

The approved FY20 budget for the commercial fisheries division is about $71 million of which $52 million is from general funds. 

Catch 49 grows fish sales – The Catch 49 program that delivers locally caught seafood to Alaskans across the state has expanded its 900 customers to include a growing wholesale base and a retail store. 

Princess Holland America lodges in Denali is now one of its biggest buyers for jig caught rockfish and Tanner crab from Kodiak. The Bridge Restaurant in Anchorage and the Muse Restaurant at the Anchorage Museum are clients as is North Star Quality Meats, the protein supplier for all of the AC stores in rural Alaska.

 “We are really proud to be one of the first people to supply Alaska caught seafood to those rural communities. It’s kind of shocking they weren’t getting that before, but we’re happy to be filling that gap,” said, Katy Rexford, director of Catch 49 which is an arm of the non-profit Alaska Marine Conservation Council. 

It’s the eighth year for the “boat to table” program described as a community supported fishery. 

Customers pre-order their seafood favorites in advance and pick it up at distribution hubs across the state a few weeks later. 

Up to 15 boats fish for Catch 49 products now, Rexford said, and they are always on the lookout for more fishermen across the state. The group offers sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay and Copper River, halibut, Tanner crab, king crab from Norton Sound, Kodiak rockfish, shrimp from Prince William Sound, octopus, sablefish, smoked products and “just about anything you can pull out of the water.”

Rexford said when the seafood arrives at the various distribution centers, it’s like “fishmas!” 

 “I get to hand customers these big beautiful bags of gorgeous fillets or shrimp and people are so happy to be able to buy the best seafood in the world and to know they are supporting fishing families and the fishing way of life in our small Alaska coastal communities,” she said. “One hundred percent of our proceeds is supporting policy work and conservation programs that buoy our fisheries and keep them sustainable and productive for generations to come.”

Catch 49 summer orders are being taken through August 5 at www.catch49.org; drop offs will take place a few days later in Fairbanks, Seward, Homer and the Mat-Su Valley. Anchorage customers can now pick up seafood every Thursday from 12-6 p.m. at a new retail location at 636 E. 15th Avenue. 

 “Instead of four or five times a year, people in the Anchorage area can now order seafood year-round. We’re trying to position ourselves as a more regular source of sustainable seafood,” Rexford said, adding that Catch-49 hopes to expand the opportunity to other regions.  

Fraser salmon stuck – There could be fewer wild salmon from British Columbia competing with Alaska this year due to a rockslide 250 miles up the Fraser River that is keeping the fish from their spawning grounds.   

 “All that rock on top of that face has fallen into the river which is confining passage for fish. I’ve never seen anything to this degree on this side of the river,” Dale Mickey, a manager with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told CTV News Vancouver.

Nearly 80 percent of the sockeye runs from eight tributaries head up the Fraser River which this year is expected to be 3.5 million fish. A run of 180,000 reds a day is starting to arrive and a sense of urgency has rescuers resorting to a temporary solution – flying the fish upriver by helicopter.

Crews have begun air-lifting the fish from a holding pond below the rockslide where the sockeyes are netted, tagged and put in oxygenated aluminum tanks for transport and release upriver. They also are working nearly round the clock to secure the canyon and create a “natural fishway” using artificial salmon ladders inserted into the river.  

Another assist could come from pressurized tubes called fish cannons created by Seattle-based Whooshh Innovations. The cannons literally shoot the fish up and over dams or other obstructions blocking their migrations. Company CEO Vince Bryan said results have shown that the cannons provide far less stress on the fish than other transports, like trucks and helicopters. 

 “People have asked us how we know it’s okay for the fish, and we tell them because when they come out of the tube, they turn their heads and look back at us waving their tail and saying thanks,” he said in a phone interview. “In all seriousness, studies we did on the fish cortisol (stress) levels as they were going into the tube were not raised.”

Cohos will arrive later and the Fraser produces more Chinook salmon than all the rivers of Puget Sound combined. Canada’s provincial and federal governments say they will do everything possible to make sure the salmon are able to reach their spawning grounds.