Fishermen push for Farm Bill benefits

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2008

JUNEAU Just this once, wild-harvest fishermen in Alaska and nationwide want to be lumped in with fish farmers.

They're pushing for a version of the federal farm bill that redefines "farm" to include "a commercial fishing enterprise."

The reason is money. Farmers who can't get conventional bank loans can get extra help from the federal government, in the form of low-interest loans of up to $200,000 for operating expenses. Fish farmers can apply because fish has been an agricultural product since the 1930s, but commercial fishermen cannot.

"We're not looking for handouts," said Bruce Schactler, a Kodiak-based fisherman who has organized much of the effort to pass the bill. "We just would like to be on an equal playing field with other food producers."

Schactler said that salmon fishermen in particular have had a hard time the past few decades.

"Prices are still quite low," he said. "What goes along with that is that everybody keeps putting their boats together with bale and wire and black tape."

"Gosh, the last time I bought a new net was 20 years ago," he said.

"I think any sort of new loan option for commercial fishermen would be useful, for just about anyone," said Chris Knight, a Juneau-based gillnetter and longliner who has taken out loans through the state.

He said the loans would be a big deal for those who can't get conventional bank loans.

Moreover, fishing quotas aren't real assets, though they may cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because they represent the right to fish, not ownership of fish, banks can't take them away if an operation flops. So they can't be used as collateral.

The state of Alaska offers fishermen various loans, which max out at $100,000. Federal loans appropriated by the new farm bill would have a $300,000 cap.

The farm bill, also known as the Farm, Nutrition and Bioenergy Act of 2007, is a roughly $285 billion package targeted at America's food producers. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in December introduced the amendment that would make commercial fishermen eligible for those loans.

Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska, said the average age of Alaska skippers is 48 and rising. These loans could make it easier for younger people to break into the business.

"We need the next generation to have access to low-interest loans to assume permits, quotas and vessels," he said.

At the moment, the House and Senate have each passed separate versions of the bill. Only the House version includes the Stevens amendment. Lobbyists for fishermen are pushing now to get it into the joint conference version of the bill.

A 2007 report from the United Nations said that aquaculture now accounts for 45 percent of the world's food fish supply, and that it will soon overtake wild-capture fisheries as the world's main source of fish eaten by people.

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