Fish Factor: Some layoffs likely in ADF&G

Now the shuffling begins at Alaska fisheries offices around the state as the impacts from back and forth veto volleys become clearer.

For the commercial fisheries division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, an $85 million budget, about half of which is from state general funds, reflects a $997,000 dollar cut for FY 2020. Where and how the cuts will play out across Alaska’s far flung coastal regions is now being decided by fishery managers.

“Now that the salmon season is about over, we’re taking a good close look at this and what we’re going to put in the water next season,” ADF&G commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said. “We’ve been assured we can look at our commfish budget in total and reduce the lowest priority projects.” 

Some layoffs are likely, and vacancies and retiree positions may not be filled to save money, he added.

“We’ll be consolidating different groups across the state in an effort to keep as much as we can going that is mission-critical in terms of work out in the field,” he said. “Because the less information we have the more precautionary we’ll become in our management.” 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes for commercial fisheries included $258,000 for surveys and stock assessment in Southeast, $240,000 in Southcentral, $300,000 from the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Region, and $200,000 from the Westward Region. 

A possible list includes: fewer or shorter surveys on Bering Sea juvenile Chinook salmon, and relying on fewer weir or sonar trackings for sockeyes at the Susitna River drainage. Test line fisheries at Cook Inlet might be shortened and Tanner crab surveys at Prince William Sound could get the axe. Salmon weirs at Kodiak and Chignik may be reduced along with various groundfish stock assessment projects.

Also cut by 50 percent were state travel funds for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and all ADF&G divisions, except for members of advisory committees (ACs) to the Boards of Fisheries and Game.  

“The AC travel appropriation was not vetoed with credit to the governor for seeing the value of the local citizens involvement,” said Rick Green, special assistant to the commissioner. “I’m told it will be tight, but we think we can still manage the meetings.”

The funding for directors of the state habitat and subsistence divisions (about $400,000) was rolled into the Office of Management and Budget, but their functions remain under the ADF&G. 

Vincent-Lang said he opted to not fill those positions and instead make the two divisions into “sections” to be able to retain more staff.

“I probably would have lost two permitters out of habitat and two staff members that go out and conduct community surveys in the subsistence division just to have a director in those roles,” he explained. “There are deputy operations managers for each of those new sections. The one for habitat reports to deputy commissioner Ben Mulligan and the subsistence section reports directly to me. The functions of subsistence and habitat remain at ADF&G.” 

Seafood contest call

The call is out for new seafood products for the 27th annual Alaska Symphony of Seafoods competition that will be celebrated at two gala events. 

The Symphony, hosted by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, showcases new seafood products to boost their value and appeal to a wider range of customers. It features four categories: retail, food service, Beyond the Plate and Beyond the Egg. 

“Beyond the Plate features byproducts or ‘specialty’ products,” AFDF executive director Julie Decker said. “We’ve had salmon leather wallets things made of chitosan from crab shells, fish oil capsules, and pet treats is another big one.”

“Beyond the Egg includes products made with roe,” she added. “It could be a paste or jarred salmon roe or pollock roe. It is some of the high value and high nutrition part of the seafood that comes out of Alaska waters and we really want to encourage more roe product development.”

Decker said the Symphony event is on a mission to acquire more major sponsors for three-year commitments to provide more money and stability for the dual seafood soirees. 

“We need more money in order to do more with the Symphony and have more impact for the industry and the coastal communities that rely on the industry,” Decker said.

Another push is to grow the competition beyond the dozen or so entries the Symphony usually receives.

“They can be from a company in the state, in the U.S. or in another country,” Decker said. “Anyone that makes anything out of Alaska seafood can enter.”

The seafood entries will be judged at Pacific Marine Expo on November 20 and first place winners will be announced there on Nov. 22. Second and third place winners, plus the grand prize, will be kept secret until a Feb. 24 Juneau legislative reception.

Symphony winners get a free trip to the Seafood Expo North America in Boston in March. Decker said the Symphony has even more benefits in store for its winners.

“We plan to start working with retailers to get commitments that they will give retail space to Symphony winners,” she said.

 Product entries are due to AFDF by Oct. 15. 

DC does salmon

In what’s got to rank near the top for savvy promotions, Bristol Bay sockeye salmon will be featured for a week this month at nearly 30 restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Wegman’s locations in Maryland and Virginia.   

Really, they signed up very quickly. All we had to do was tell people we have this massive wild salmon fishery in Bristol Bay Alaska, the largest in the world, and we want to create a special event around that to connect people to the place that it comes from and the people,” said Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (RSDA). 

The group, funded and operated by fishermen, was able to build “Salmon Week” based on chef and retail relationships it has cemented in recent years, and through its use of slick promotions in stores and on social media. 

The brand building outreach is bankrolled by a one percent tax on the catches of Bristol Bay’s nearly 1,600 drift gillnetters, which they’ve paid since 2007. For 2018, Wink said that added up to $3 million; the RSDA can use the money in any way it chooses. 

From the get-go the RSDA invested in chilling systems and infrastructure to boost overall fish quality. Processors rewarded chilling with bonuses that this year could pay fishermen $1.65 a pound or far more.

Wink said chilling has been the group’s best return on investment.

“From an ROI perspective you know that chilled fish are getting bonuses of usually 20 cents or better and it often unlocks bonuses which are far in excess of that,” he said. “These are really high returning projects for us. Last year when we added it all up, the amount of chilled fish we produced by RSDA investments almost paid for all of the funding that we would normally get through the assessment.” 

Why should Alaskans elsewhere care about salmon catches and quality at Bristol Bay?

“In the context of the Alaska salmon industry, Bristol Bay is really a market moving fishery. In 2018 it was about half of Alaska’s total salmon value,” Wink said, adding that all but three Alaska regions are home to residents who “fish the Bay.” 

“I think the only borough and census areas that don’t have a Bristol Bay permit holder are Nome, Skagway and Yakutat. Every other place has some residents who own a commercial fishing permit at Bristol Bay,” Wink said. “You’d be hard pressed to find any other fishery that has that type of scale and scope to it. What happens in Bristol Bay affects the entire state in a lot of different ways.” 

Bristol Bay Salmon Week is set for Sept. 16-20. Find out more at bristolbaysalmonweek.com.