Juneau residents are no stranger to the spectacle of Xtra Tuff boots parading on our sidewalks this time of year, but if you’ve noticed an uptick this week it’s likely because—at least unofficially—Commercial Fishing Week is upon us. From all across Alaska, board and business members of the largest commercial fishing organizations in the state are in Juneau to talk fish, fishing, and the future. It’s also a good opportunity to take a step back and recognize the important cultural and economic value of our commercial fisheries.
While the numbers vary source to source, Alaska is indisputably home to one of the best and most productive fishing industries in the world. Figures released by the Alaska State Department of Fish and Game estimate our fishermen receive $1.5 billion for their catch annually, and that the total economic impact of Alaska’s seafood industry topped a whopping $4.6 billion in 2009 alone.
The employment statistics are equally remarkable. State economists estimate the fishing and seafood industry provides nearly 80,000 jobs. That means thousands upon thousands of Alaskans are providing for their families and putting food on the table—literally and figuratively—with a paycheck earned because of fish. Whether it’s on small skiffs or football-field-sized catcher processors, these vessels are collectively an enormous employer of Alaskans.
Perhaps even more impressive than the dollars and cents is the sheer diversity of Alaska’s commercial fisheries. While salmon get the most attention from the mainstream media, thousands of Alaskans make their living from our shellfish, groundfish, herring, and the lesser-known dive fisheries as well. And it’s not as if all the attention on salmon is unwarranted: in addition to being Alaska’s most culturally-iconic fishery, it’s also our most valuable. Forty-two percent of the world’s wild salmon and 80 percent of high-value species such as sockeye, king, and coho all come from Alaska’s waters. Bristol Bay alone is the largest sockeye fishery in the world.
Just as the fishing industry impacts our state’s economy in fundamental ways, it impacts us on an individual level for those of us who fish for a living — what we do shapes who we are. As fishing families, our ties and connections with each other run deep. Fishing makes you grow up fast. During summer months my high school friends were having a great time on shore at Fourth of July parties and soccer games. I was envious for sure, stuck out in the wind and rain on my father’s boat learning how to endure the toughest of physical labor, solve challenging problems and assess risk vs. reward out on the water. However, the envy later shifted to gratitude for the opportunities fishing provided me. I was surprised when college admissions committees were impressed with the fishing experience under my belt. I have since come to realize that fishermen are valued and respected throughout the country for the work ethic and skill that the profession demands. As a new parent, when I think of my baby son’s future, I sincerely hope that the opportunity to fish for a living will be a part of it.
I hope fellow Alaskans have an appreciation for who we are and value our individual and collective contributions to communities throughout the state. We are fishing families—small business owners who produce wild Alaskan seafood products that we are proud to put on your table. We are risk takers, troubleshooters and fierce competitors. On shore, fishermen are school lunch program donors, little league sponsors, and tax-payers who make Alaska a better place to live.
While disagreement and debate is all but certain to occur at various meetings during Commercial Fishing Week 2012, there’s no debating the historical, cultural, and economic value of Alaska’s fisheries. Working together, we can protect and preserve these fisheries—and their benefits—in perpetuity. Future Alaskans deserve nothing less.
• Juneau resident Bloom runs a commercial fishing business in Bristol Bay, is a board member of United Fishermen of Alaska and works on salmon habitat conservation with Trout Unlimited’s Alaska office. She can be reached at Lindsey@BloominAlaska.net