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The biggest fish tale in Alaska

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News-Miner Community Perspective:

Fishing season is right around the corner and it’s time to once again debunk the biggest fish tale, the biggest lie, ever told in the great state of Alaska: The state of Alaska makes money from commercial fishing. Believe it or not, we subsidize this $8 billion to $9 billion industry and lose about $27.2 million per year to support it.

Don’t take my word for it, read the report hosted by the Alaska Resource Development Council yourself: “Fiscal Effects of Commercial Fishing, Mining and Tourism.” What does Alaska receive in revenue? What does it spend? This report was published in December 2015 for the Division of Economic Development of the  Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, prepared by Bob Loeffler and Steve Colt of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“Not counting municipal revenue and expenditures, state expenditures are greater than state revenue. Considering only revenue to the state, excluding local government revenue, state expenditures for commercial fishing are greater than the state revenue: state operating budget expenditures are $8.7 million higher than state revenue; operating plus capital budget expenditures are $27.2 million more than state revenue,” the report reads. Although municipalities like Cordova receive more money than they spend in support of the industry, the state does not, losing millions per year.

We’ve all heard the ads about how great the fishing industry is for Alaska, bringing lots of jobs, for example. This is true, but more than 55 percent of commercial fishermen are nonresidents, more than 74 percent of fish processors are nonresidents and, perhaps even worse, more than 81 percent of Bristol Bay permit holders alone are nonresidents.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute perpetuates the fish tale. They claim, in their 2015 publication “The Economic Value of Alaska’s Seafood Industry,” that the seafood industry contributes $76.1 million in tax revenue to the state, with $39.8 million going to the general fund. They fail to mention how much money the state pays to support the industry, however. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, for instance, brings in about $16 million from commercial fishing. Sounds great, except the department spends more than $42.5 million per year supporting the industry. ASMI’s report also takes credit for “industry self assessments,” taxes they impose on themselves to enhance their industry. They collected $10.2 million to fund ASMI, for instance. They collect money to market our fish for their benefit, then show this as tax monies generated for the people of Alaska. They also fail to mention the actual dollar amount the state annually gives to ASMI to advertise and market our fish — about $25 million.

We give our fish away and subsidize the industry — literally pay them to take our fish. Think of that the next time you watch “Deadliest Catch,” when they brag about how much money they are making from our fish, the next time your dividend is garnished by our “Alaska First” governor, or the next time you have to toss a king salmon back while commercial fleets harvest the chinooks out of existence.

I am not opposed to commercial fishing but I am opposed to the way we manage our fisheries. We are literally losing our fisheries for the sake of money — money we collectively as a state don’t even make. Think about that one statement for a second and how ludicrous it is. We are ruining our fish stocks for the sake of making a buck, but we don’t even make one dollar in net revenue.

In May, the Alaska Board of Fisheries made a decision showing commercial fishing trumps all other methods of fishing and that even subsistence fishermen can be forced to “share the burden” if necessary to keep a commercial fishery operating. The Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Board filed a petition asking for a review of emergency restrictions on the harvest of Copper River king salmon. With an escapement goal of 24,000 fish, only 29,000 were expected to return. All sport fishing and personal use dipnetting for kings on the Copper River drainage was closed. Subsistence users could only harvest two kings. Commercial fishermen, though, were allowed to harvest 5,000. In the first opener, 2,100 chinooks were harvested, almost half that allotment.

Sue Jeffery and John Jensen, both commercial fishermen, and Robert Ruffner, whose appointment was pushed by commercial fishermen, all voted against it. Orville Huntington, representing one would think the subsistence lifestyle, voted against it as well, deciding commercial interests that bring absolutely no positive monies to state coffers are more important than people feeding their families with fish they catch from their rivers. Sam Cotten, Fish and Game commissioner and also a former commercial fishermen, believes the same — no emergency exists. They will allow the commercial harvest of chinooks to continue until there are none. Some people believe that is their intent all along — get rid of the chinooks, then they can focus on harvesting the reds even harder. Once those chinooks are gone, they are gone forever.

Even if we did make the money the industry tries to make us believe we are making, it would still not be worth losing these spectacular fish stocks. There is no higher value for our fish than feeding Alaskans. It is not feeding people in Seattle. Nor is it feeding the greed of commercial fishermen. This is no fish tale. Saying commercial fishing positively benefits our state coffers, however, is — and is it is one we must stop from continuing.

You can help stop the myth by contacting your legislators. Tell them to stop diminishing our children’s dividends while wasting money on industries that have no positive return to our state coffers. Tell them to quit thinking about an income tax while giving our fish away — at a $27 million dollar loss—and to start taxing the commercial fishing industry like we do the mining and oil industry. And tell them to stop stacking our Board of Fish with commercial fishermen who care more about their personal fortune than their fellow Alaskans and most importantly, our fish stocks.

Jake Sprankle is a Fairbanks resident, hunter and fisherman.

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