As lawmakers convene this week in Juneau, Alaska’s fishing industry sees a glimmer of hope that its budget won’t be gutted again. 

A fishing boat is reflected in the water. Alaska Fish and Wildlife Service/W.Osborne photo.Under Governor Walker’s proposed budget for FY18, the commercial fisheries division of the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game reflects a .3 percent increase to $70.7 million. It’s a big relief for an industry whose oversight budget has been slashed by more than 30 percent over two years.

“All regions show slight increases,” said Tom Gemmell, a numbers guru and executive director of the Halibut Coalition in Juneau. “It was a nice surprise this year to get a little bit of a plus up.”  

Fishery management offices in the Central, Westward and Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim regions show budget increases of less than one percent and Southeast’s proposed budget boost is 1.7 percent. One component of the fish budget that could take a .7 percent hit is at statewide management headquarters in Juneau.

“The budget over the years has gone back and forth between what’s run out of the central office in Juneau and by the regional supervisors. Most recently, they’ve tried to identify projects in the specific regions. However, there still are statewide things like the genetics laboratory that have to be funded,” Gemmell explained.

The governor’s budget also proposes to cut back on so called test fishing in which a portion of fishermen’s catches are used to fund critical management tools such as salmon counting towers and weirs. Those receipts totaled nearly $3 million in FY16.

The state’s lone marketing arm — the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute — appears poised to receive a paltry $1 million from the general fund. ASMI, which promotes Alaska seafood in the U.S. and more than 120 countries, is funded primarily by the seafood industry and lawmakers already have put the group on notice that state support will be zeroed out by 2019. (Compare that to Norway’s Seafood Council which is funded by a tax on all seafood exports and had a budget last year of $55 million.)

While the early budget news is encouraging, there’s still a long way to go before it gets the nod from Alaska lawmakers. Gemmell believes it will be tough to cut an already barebones budget.

“I think we’re at a point where if there is no management, there is no science. Fishery managers have to be conservative, and that means reduced fishing time and harvests with the net result being job losses for the harvesters, processors and communities,” he said. “They’ve cut all of the fat already and we’re down to bone. It would be very hard to cut the budget further without having dramatic impacts on fishermen.”

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