JUNEAU -- Changes to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's funding and board of directors are among the issues the Joint Legislative Salmon Industry Task Force is considering as it prepares for the upcoming session.
The Legislature created the task force in 2002 to recommend laws to help salmon fishermen, processors and communities cope with market changes caused by competition with foreign farmed salmon. Last year the task force proposed more than a dozen pieces of legislation and four became law, said co-chair Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.
"It was easier the first time because there were some obvious things that needed to change, so we worked hard to get those through -- assistance to processors, salmon marketing, assistance to fishermen," Stevens said. "This year, you'll probably see fewer pieces of legislation, but more difficult, complex pieces of legislation that might or might not make it through the process."
Stevens is proposing to reduce ASMI's board of directors to nine people instead of 25 and to change the taxes fishers pay to support the agency. He said the board is so big now that it's impossible for members to meet more than twice a year.
"It's pretty hard for those 25 members to know what's going on when they only have a face-to-face meeting twice a year," he said.
ASMI spokesperson Laura Fleming said the board supports a reduction in its members, so long as the board maintains a even balance between fishers and processors. Fleming said ASMI also would like to see legislation to stabilize the agency's funding, because tax revenue from salmon fishers has declined along with the industry.
Salmon fishers pay a voluntary tax of 1 percent of their fish deliveries. That money goes to ASMI. Stevens is proposing to revise the tax, possibly making it mandatory and a higher percentage.
"I would like to reduce the salmon portion because, frankly, the industry is having such problems with farmed fish," he said.
Another proposal the task force is discussing could change the structure of the salmon enhancement tax. That tax is either 1 percent, 2 percent or 3 percent of a commercial fisher's landings, and varies by region. The revenue is used to fund regional aquaculture associations.
Task force aide Cheryl Sutton said the proposal would allow regions to set the tax as high as 10 percent.
"We had concerns that in some regions they were not able to meet their budgetary needs because of a drop in value of salmon," Sutton said.
Another proposal would reduce the fisheries business tax paid by fishers who market their catch directly rather than sell it to a processor. Direct marketers are taxed at the same rate as off-shore processors -- 5 percent -- while on-shore processors pay 3 percent. Among other things, the proposal would tax direct marketers at the 3 percent rate.
Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association, said the bill would improve operating conditions for direct marketers. She said direct marketers are subject to regulations and taxes designed for larger processors, which unfairly penalizes them.
Bruce Schactler, president of the United Salmon Association, said the direct-marketing bill is important because more fishers are turning to selling their own catch.
"It's a very big deal and that's in a general sense what I want to see out of the task force. I hope they pick as many things as possible to get through that will actually make a difference in 2004," Schactler said. "We're in disaster mode here ... and we need some life jackets."
Masha Herbst is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.
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