Alaska Department of Fish & Game workers are heading out to weirs and counting towers this month to prepare for the opening of salmon fisheries across the state, but with the Alaska Legislature unable to reach agreement on an operating budget, uncertainty remains about how to pay them.
State workers have already received notice of potential layoffs should the Legislature pass the July 1 deadline.
Fish & Game is rolling out management plans under the assumption that the Legislature will pass a budget before July 1. If lawmakers don’t pass that budget, a government shutdown would result in the layoff of thousands of state workers, ADF&G Commissioner Sam Cotten told the Empire in an interview Thursday at the State Office Building in Juneau.
Lucrative salmon fisheries are set to open in Bristol Bay and Southeast Alaska in coming weeks. Bristol Bay salmon runs traditionally peak around Independence Day. Because salmon only spawn during the summer, the shutdown makes them particularly vulnerable, Cotten said.
“If we’re talking about cod fish, you can wait a few months and the cod fish will still be there. But with salmon, the timing is pretty critical,” Cotten said.
In 2015, ADF&G estimated the value of Alaska’s commercial salmon harvest at $414 million.
“There’s thousands of jobs that are involved here, hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and logistic planning,” Cotten said. “Big ships are in Bristol Bay waiting to haul fish out and people are being moved there and processing crews are getting the equipment ready to roll and it’s a situation we don’t want to find ourselves in. It’s hard and I’m struggling a little bit because there is so much uncertainty.”
Cotten said ADF&G has been working closely with the Department of Law on contingency plans should the Legislature miss its July 1 deadline. By then, most of ADF&G’s field personnel will be in place, Cotten said.
“We are going to presume the Legislature is going to pass a budget, so we are not going to hold people back,” Cotten said. “There would be severe economic distress if the fisheries do shut down, and we’d like to avoid that. We’re going to be working with the Department of Law to make sure we understand what we can legally do.”
The situation is largely out of ADF&G’s hands, he said.
“It’s in the Legislature’s hands as far as coming to some resolution. That’s the way it is.”
In a Thursday press release, one of many issued by different state departments during the afternoon, ADF&G detailed the potential impacts of a government shutdown.
Not only would in-season management of the 2017 fishing season be potentially impacted, the release states, but the data Fish & Game relies on would be “significantly compromised” in the event of a shutdown.
A shutdown could also threaten Alaska’s two state owned hatcheries, which annually produce 4.5 million salmon, rainbow trout and Arctic Char.
Additionally, a government shutdown could impact ADF&G’s response to wildlife encounters, the issuance of subsistence and drawing permits, the operation of state shooting ranges and responses to emergency resource conservation situations, among others.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org