You might call it Juneau's hidden industry.
State government and tourism are familiar legs of Juneau's economy, but people often forget about the seafood industry, which accounts for $19.3 million in annual payroll to local residents, members of the city's Fisheries Development Committee told the Juneau Assembly on Monday.
Neglecting the fishing industry isn't a good idea, they warned, as they offered ways the city could help. A loading dock for commercial boats near Auke Bay is one priority, said Greg Fisk, chairman of the city's fisheries panel. Voters approved $3.25 million in bonding for the project in October.
"We did surveys of the processing industry and the fishing industry - the permit holders - and it was rated the top priority of those two sectors of anything the city could undertake," he said. "We urge you to push forward with this off-loading facility."
The dock's design is the next project slated to go before the Assembly's Public Works and Facilities Committee, Deputy Mayor Ken Koelsch said. Fisk encouraged the city to keep the project simple.
He also asked the city to keep an open mind about seafood-processing permits.
"We're not suggesting the rules be relaxed in any way, but just to see this as a priority," Fisk said. "If we do this, there's good potential for substantial growth in the industry."
As an example, the Juneau Planning Commission last year approved a permit for a new Alaska Glacier Seafoods plant near Auke Nu Cove. An appeal by neighbors is pending before the Assembly.
Although salmon markets are "in tough shape," Juneau's fishermen hold a mix of fishing permits, fisheries committee member and seafood industry analyst Chris McDowell said. Forty-six percent of earnings by Juneau fishing-permit holders come from halibut and sablefish, followed by salmon at 38 percent and shellfish at 12 percent, according to the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.
"When I talk to folks, most of what they hear about the fishing industry is bad news about salmon," McDowell said. "But the truth is, Juneau permit holders make almost two-thirds of their earnings from nonsalmon species, most of the markets of which are very healthy."
Juneau had 312 active fishing-permit holders with earnings of $14.4 million in 2001. Gross income is down somewhat - the 10-year average for permit holder earnings is $16.4 million, McDowell said.
Juneau also is home to 412 crew members with income worth roughly $2 million. The payroll of local processors and hatcheries accounted for another $2.8 million last year.
"As far as the salmon markets are concerned, it's quite true that we are taking a beating pricewise," Fisk said. "The plus side is the salmon market, particularly the domestic market, has grown enormously. ... We haven't adjusted to filling the market needs yet, so there's a lot of potential for us to recover."
Earnings by fishermen often are categorized as "self-employment" in state statistics, which is why fishing is sometimes missing from Juneau's economic picture, McDowell said. The seafood industry's payroll in Juneau is larger than that of the University of Alaska Southeast and the banking and real estate industry, he said.
In another trend, the city's raw-fish tax receipts have increased over the past decade - from $40,000 in 1993 to $223,000 in 2001, McDowell said.
The growth is tied to increases in high-value halibut and sablefish landings and the fact that Juneau is a transportation hub, McDowell said. The state, which collects the tax, sends half of the proceeds to the communities where the fish were brought to port, he said.
"CBJ receipts of the raw-fish tax probably will continue to climb as we see increased halibut landings, sablefish ... and crab," he said.
Along those lines, the fisheries committee said Juneau has an opportunity to boost local processing and landings. About 40 percent of fish caught in this area are brought back to Juneau, with the rest going to Excursion Inlet, Petersburg, Ketchikan and tenders, McDowell said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.