Fishing is hard. I’m not talking catching the winning Salmon Derby fish on your first outing hard, or learning a new language hard. I’m talking about an occupation requiring total commitment as a calling or vocation. To be successful as a commercial fisherman, one has to be more than a little interested; one has to be 100 percent invested financially, mentally and with every waking moment. The curse of Alaskan reality TV has many down south thinking the Deadliest Catch is the norm in the industry. In the course of my job I often respond to emails of naïve and misguided potential “greenhorns”, looking for information where to sign on to fishing vessels; all without any experience, presumably looking for adventure and to satisfy a testosterone challenge.
Commercial fishermen skippers are not reality TV movie stars. Successful skippers are, however, pretty decent biologists, meteorologists, oceanographers, engineers, mechanics, human relation consultants, risk managers, accountants, and if you have ever read the volumes of federal and state fisheries regulations — policemen and lawyers. Certainly, today’s commercial fisherman must be jack-of-all-trades and masters of finding fish. Finding fish is the ultimate end game, but unfortunately landing fully laden vessels does not guarantee profitability. Worldwide market forces establish fish prices – but also determine fixed overhead cost such as diesel, insurance, fishing permits, ship repair and moorage charges that all eat into the bottom line. I’ve often thought commercial fishers would benefit financially by collectively reducing their catch to raise the market price. But commercial fisherman do what is in their DNA... they catch fish. They are fiercely independent and not an amalgamation of monolithic thinkers. They are however an important sector to the Juneau economy and merit appropriate nurturing.
In 2010, Juneau was a respectable 35th in the country on the list of largest fishing port by value, with $23.8M. This equates to 16 million pounds of seafood landed. Not surprisingly, salmon species make up three-quarters of the volume, but only half of the ex-Vessel value (price paid to captain & crew). An interesting factoid is that sablefish makes up only 3 percent of the volume but 21 percent of the ex-vessel value. If you’re keeping score at home, Sitka was 9th on the list at $51.3M and statewide the commercial harvest is valued at a formidable $1.2B. Within SEAK, the commercial fisheries estimated workforce is 10,150 jobs, making it the largest single private employment sector. According to records maintained by the United Fishermen of Alaska, there are 730 skippers and crew who fished off 748 vessels homeported in Juneau. These Juneauites, representing 2 percent of residents of the Capital City, added $21.5 million to our local economy.
Juneau, well suited as a transportation hub and source of relatively inexpensive electricity, is very competitive in the seafood processing industry. Data from 2009 shows that of the 53 seafood processors in SEAK, 10 are in Juneau. These 430 seasonal jobs brought home $4 million in processing $39 million of wholesale seafood.
Often overlooked in these numbers are the indirect benefits to our community that are important in stimulating the economic health of Juneau. For example, hardware and marine repair, fuel sales, lodging, freight agents, etc., along with transportation industry jobs necessary to ship millions of pound of product. Also supporting the industry are public sector jobs (Coast Guard, ADF&G, Ted Stevens Marine Research lab) created to oversee this important renewable industry.
Notwithstanding an understandable rift between charter halibut and commercial Individual Fishing Quota (IVF) fishermen, the current regulations have resulted in a sustainably managed program. Commercial fishing management practices in Alaska are touted as the world’s gold standard. The Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute likewise has masterfully branded Alaskan Seafood — Wild, Natural & Sustainable. The future of Juneau commercial fishing is half-full. The trend is increasing value of ex-Vessel but the number of fishing participants is declining in SEAK (as well as Alaska wide). This, in effect, is a consolidation of fish harvests but it also makes it more difficult for new blood to enter the industry, which is key to all business models. Another SEAK trend appears to be increasing numbers of non-Alaskan residents holding commercial fishing permits — 24 percent in 2009 up 10 percent from 2006 and accounting for 30 percent of gross earnings.
The intricacies of commercial fisheries are complex. While the City and Borough of Juneau does not have the authority to make sweeping changes affecting the large-scale commercial market forces in play, the Assembly has made commercial fisheries a Top 10 priority affirming their support to “Continue to support fisheries development in Juneau through infrastructure development.” Docks & Harbors has also embraced the commercial fishing sector with the newly completed $13M Auke Bay Loading Facility, including boat and gear stowage yard, an offshore net float for repairing gear, a new boom truck and a 45-ton hydraulic boat lift, scheduled for delivery later this summer. A proposal to determine the viability of a new Juneau “public cold storage” facility was investigated last year by Northern Economics, and while the study concluded that there is demand — a cold storage facility did not pencil out without subsidy. The recapitalization of the 50-year-old Aurora Harbor, and its home to 35 percent of the commercial fishing fleet, is Docks & Harbors’ highest priority in this week’s request to compete under the CBJ 1 percent sales tax initiative. Docks & Harbors also conducted a “direct seafood market facility” study – in essence looking for opportunities to bring fish-buying customers directly to a point-of-sale on the dock. The long-range vision is to integrate this “facility” with the future Bridge Park and Seawalk. So Deadliest Catch may be right in demonstrating that fishing in Alaska is hard; Juneau needs to continue its support of this valuable industry and take reasonable actions to ensure that local fishermen remain local.
• Juneau Port Director Carl J. Uchytil is a retired U.S. Coast Guard officer and former captain of a U.S.C.G. ice breaker. His column appears here monthly.