JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill aimed at making it easier to buy back commercial fishing permits cleared the House on Wednesday.
Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, proposed the measure as a tool to improve efficiency in Alaska's troubled salmon fishing industry.
''Mainly what it does is it allows the commercial fishermen to create a buyback program and pay for it themselves,'' Scalzi said.
Alaska's commercial salmon fishermen have found it increasingly difficult to stay afloat financially, partly because of competition from farmed salmon.
House Bill 288 is intended as a potential tool to reduce the number of fishermen chasing salmon in Alaska, so those who remain stand a better chance of making money and delivering a quality product to the market.
The bill doesn't set up a buyback program, but it fixes problems in the state's buyback law so it could be used if needed, said Mary McDowell of the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.
''It's a statute that's been broken since it was enacted, but it just hasn't been a front-burner issue because nobody's been interested in using that statute before,'' McDowell said. ''We need to have a mechanism in place in case we really do need to do this.''
House Bill 288 changes the law to allow a buyback program to purchase only a fisherman's limited entry permit. Current law requires purchase of not only the permit, but also a fisherman's boat and gear.
That change would make a program less cumbersome and expensive, Scalzi said.
The measure allows a buyback to be paid for through a tax on fishermen who remain in the fishery after others were bought out. That's the same as existing law.
But the bill removes language on the handling of those tax revenues that conflicts with the state constitution's prohibition against dedicating funds for a particular purpose.
The measure leaves open the option that other sources besides a tax could pay for a buyback, such as federal funding, McDowell said.
The bill also lets the entry commission do a study of the optimum number of permits for a fishery without being locked into buying back permits if the study shows too many permits are out in the fishery.
Current law mandates a state-run buyback program if a study shows too many fishermen are chasing the fish, McDowell said.
The change would provide flexibility if fishermen wanted to look at alternatives to a state-run buyback, McDowell said.
The state recently started a study of the optimum number of limited entry permits for the Bristol Bay drift gillnet fishery, McDowell said. If it passes, House Bill 288 could guide what happens when that study is finished.
Rep. Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, said he supported the bill because a buyback would be a ''self-funded effort,'' and fishermen would not be looking to state coffers to pay for the program.
He said the measure is just one step toward addressing the industry's problems, and he hopes a long-term strategy for the industry can be developed.
The measure passed 38-0. It now goes to the Senate.
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