Summit seeks fix for low fish prices

Posted: Friday, April 05, 2002

KODIAK -- Alaska's often acrimonious commercial fishing groups buried the hatchet Thursday to unite against a common problem: a market for salmon that has bankrupted some fishermen, closed processors and devastated local economies.

About 40 panelists representing fishermen, processors, fishing communities and government agencies gathered at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and Gov. Tony Knowles to consider Alaska's response to a glut of salmon on the globe.

At the end of the day, they had identified plenty of problems but were ready to leave solutions to a 13-member commission now under consideration in the Legislature.

Proposed by state Sen. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, the task force would have until Jan. 31 to propose industry and legislative changes to make Alaska fish more competitive.

The event Thursday was billed as the Alaska Fish Summit, but salmon took center stage.

Terry Gardiner, president of NorQuest Seafoods, borrowed a phrase from a best-selling book describing disastrous weather conditions that took the lives of East Coast swordfish fishermen.

''The salmon crisis could be characterized as a perfect economic storm,'' Gardiner said.

Once the main supplier to the world, Alaska has taken a back seat. The villain is usually portrayed as farmed salmon from Chile and Norway, but Alaska also competes with wild salmon caught by Russia and Japan, Gardiner said.

Cheap labor costs among competitors, economic downturns in major markets and a strong U.S. dollar also hurt Alaska's fishing industry. So does Alaska fish policy.

Gunnar Knapp of the University of Alaska Anchorage laid out in economic terms what everybody in the room already knew: fish in Alaska are not managed to create a competitive and cost-efficient industry. Instead, the system is designed to achieve social and political goals of spreading the wealth by maximizing jobs and incomes for Alaskans.

The model no longer works. The value of the 2001 salmon harvest was less than half the average value during the 1990s, Knapp said. No one expects 2002 to be different.

''What do we need to do?'' Knowles asked.

''The answer is simple. Change.''

Stevens appealed for Alaskans to pull together to find solutions, much as they did 44 years ago when they pushed for statehood. Quoting the late Elmer Rasmuson, an Anchorage banker and philanthropist, Stevens said the seafood industry touches all state residents.

''Anything that affects any village affects Anchorage and the rest of the state,'' Stevens said.

Stevens said long-term solutions must come from Alaskans because the federal government was not likely to help out.

He's heard the call for reductions in Alaska's fishing fleet, possibly through buybacks of boats and permits. Other pressures on the federal treasury, such as the war on terrorism, almost certainly will make that impossible, Stevens said.

He gave a similar dismal outlook for those hoping for import fees on Chilean salmon. Trade officials successfully fought cheap Norwegian salmon a few years ago, Stevens said, but in doing so provided Chile with a virtual blueprint for how to avoid import duties. Consumer groups also would put up stiff resistance to action that would raise the price of imported fish, Stevens said.

Stevens urged industry representatives to target high-end salmon markets and said there could be federal seed money to do so. He said he would also push for increased federal purchasing of salmon and stronger loan programs.

Stevens also said Alaskans should consider dedicating a portion of the revenue stream from future petroleum development, such as a natural gas pipeline, toward fish research.

Knowles said federal legislation on the proposed natural gas pipeline likely will include subsidies for gas if the price falls below a certain level. The time might be right for a similar program for salmon, he said.

He said he was ashamed that under his administration, all state funding for salmon marketing has been axed.

''I think it is one of the reasons why we are not competing successfully,'' he said.

Knowles also said budget cuts proposed by the Legislature are hurting fisheries management, habitat and research.

''We're slowly dismantling our Department of Fish and Game. We are going back to territorial status,'' he said.

As for other solutions, most of the summit participants were willing to let them be found by Austerman's task force.

Austerman's measure, Senate Concurrent Resolution 28, has already passed the Senate and awaits action in the House. The panel it sets up will make recommendations on efficiencies, better marketing, higher quality and new products.

Austerman said he hoped the House would approve the legislation so that the group could start meeting before the end of the month.

''Obviously we waited too long, because we're in a crisis mode,'' Austerman said.

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