As a Sitka-based commercial fisherman, I was excited to see the Alaska Department of Fish and Game confirm what many of us in the fleet suspected: that Southeast Alaska set records this past summer as far as volume, price and returns of salmon. The year 2011 was a blockbuster for commercial salmon fishing in this part of the world and, if anything, the numbers speak volumes for why managing the Tongass National Forest as one of the world’s greatest salmon factories makes good economic sense.
The overall dockside value of all public salmon fisheries in Southeast Alaska totaled $176 million, the highest since Alaska became a state in 1959. Seiners made out particularly well. Southeast Alaska purse seine harvests came in at $112.5 million, the highest since statehood. Gillnet harvests were worth $30.6 million, the second highest since statehood.
As you read Fish and Game’s statistics, the big numbers kept on coming. The 2011 pink salmon return in Southeast was 146 percent higher than the 10-year average, while the chum salmon return was 110 percent higher than the 10-year average. The Southeast Alaska Chinook salmon return neared the 10-year average and the regional sockeye salmon return was 93 percent of the 10-year average.
Southeast was also the state’s most productive region — even more so than Bristol Bay — in terms of number and weight of salmon caught. Southeast fishermen hauled in 73.5 million fish weighing 324.5 million pounds.
What does this mean? It means that what we have in the Tongass National Forest is an amazing wild fishery that employs thousands of people, including me. Although it comprises less than five percent of Alaska’s land mass, the Tongass produces about a third of state’s overall salmon harvest. Our salmon wealth stems from careful management by Fish and Game and great natural conditions, including 17,690 miles of salmon-bearing waters, including rivers, streams, creeks and lakes.
While we’re fortunate here in Southeast Alaska, there’s always room for improvement in how we manage our resources. I’m not going to venture into a tired debate about what we did in the past in the Tongass. But I would like to say that there’s a good opportunity right now to make sure that we do things right for our kids and grandkids so that they can enjoy gangbuster fishing seasons that we just had in Southeast.
As it stands now, the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Tongass, still puts too much money into its logging and road-building program and shorts the fish-habitat conservation and restoration work that pays dividends as far as salmon and jobs. The Forest Service spends around $25 million annually on timber and road building. This expenditure creates about 130 private-sector jobs and funds the positions of about 160 Forest Service employees. That’s less than one percent of regional employment. By contrast, the Forest Service invests only $1.5 million annually on fisheries, watersheds and salmon-habitat restoration. And yet salmon and trout fisheries pump nearly $1 billion into the regional economy and employ some 7,300 Southeast Alaskans either directly or indirectly, some one in 10 local residents.
Something just doesn’t add up with the Forest Service budget. It’s time for the agency to move the money around and place more dollars into the money-making sector of the Tongass economy — fishing.
The Forest Service has said that it’s moving away from old-growth logging and wants to transition its focus to restoration, second-growth logging, and job-producing industries like fishing and tourism. That’s welcome news. But the agency has said it needs over $100 million to do the watershed restoration that’s needed on the Tongass. Given how tight federal spending is these days, why not shift some of the timber budget over into fishing and restoration? Given the record salmon numbers we had this past summer, and all the jobs those salmon created and the house, boat and credit card payments they covered, I’d say it’s time to rethink the Forest Service budget and put those federal dollars into Southeast Alaska’s real growth industry — salmon fishing.
• Jordan is a commercial fisherman who is based in Sitka.