Alaska budget limbo could stall salmon, other fisheries

Alaska salmon managers are hoping for the best and planning for the worst as lawmakers extend into a third special session to try and agree on a state budget. It is the third year in a row they have not finished their legislative session on time due to budget differences.

The haggling, which could last up to 30 days, means pink slips could go out to all state workers in less than two weeks in advance of job layoffs.

“It’s similar to what happened last year. Pink slips go out on June 1 and then we have to start getting people out because they cannot be on salary effective July 1,” said Scott Kelley, director of the commercial fisheries division at Alaska Department of Fish and Game headquarters in Juneau.

“At this point, we are acting under the assumption that we are going to have a budget,” he added.

Kelley admits he’s closely watching the calendar as salmon fisheries get underway. Fish and Game differs from most state departments because so many workers must be flown or boated to remote salmon counting sites across the state. Orderly field camp set ups and shut downs take several weeks of advance planning.

“Day by day we are already increasing our field presence. The Chignik and Karluk weirs are supposed to go in this week, the Miles River sonar at the Copper River and other things across the state. We will be scrambling,” Kelley said, adding that about 670 fishery workers are on the job each summer.

The budget impasse also would stall other summer fisheries, and derail stock assessment surveys for Tanner crab in Prince William Sound, red king crab in Southeast and black cod at Chatham Strait, to name a few.

The governor’s operating budget for the commercial fisheries division for the next fiscal year is just over $70.7 million, which reflects a net gain of $670,000 to cover contracts and inflation costs.

Kelley said the extra money was spread to projects across the state that “are most closely linked to opportunities for fishing,” such as aerial surveys for Southeast salmon, the Coghill Lake project at Prince William Sound and Igushik salmon counting towers at Togiak.

But not having the money to manage the salmon season is the biggest concern caused by the legislative lollygagging.

Alaska’s salmon fisheries are tracked on a daily basis during the season to make sure enough fish can make it upriver to sustain future stocks. If that can’t happen, the result would be lost harvests from Ketchikan to Kotzebue.

“The economy of the state would take an enormous hit if we had to pull stock assessment projects, and that is obvious to everyone who lives here,” Kelley said. “That’s why I’m optimistic because it is just too big to ignore. And the legislators know that.”

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Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak, Alaska-based fisheries journalist. Click here to send her an email.

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