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Salmon task force: Call to help fishermen

Panel recommends tax breaks, funds to market Alaska seafood, laws to spur change

Posted: Friday, January 31, 2003

Tax breaks for commercial fishermen who invest in new equipment and a $5 million state appropriation for seafood marketing are among 14 pieces of legislation proposed by the Joint Legislative Salmon Industry Task Force.

The task force is submitting its report to the Legislature today.

Created by the Legislature last summer, the task force was charged with recommending laws to help salmon fishermen, processors and communities cope with market changes caused by competition with foreign farmed salmon.

The task force was due to end March 1, but members are asking for more time. In light of the complexity of the problems facing the industry, one of the proposals in the report would extend the task force's life by two years.

"It takes awhile to get your arms around the issues," said Anchorage Republican Sen. Ben Stevens, task force co-chairman and Senate majority leader. "A lot of these things are not real fundamental basic changes."

The task force has proposed a 15 percent reduction in business property taxes for fishermen who invest in new equipment. The idea is to provide an incentive for fishermen to streamline production and create new products, Stevens said.

Another bill would allow fishermen to borrow money from the Commercial Fishing Revolving Loan Fund in order to pay back federal taxes. A similar provision was passed in the 1990s, but it ended two years ago. Under the proposal, fishermen could borrow up to $30,000 to satisfy those debts.

Under one proposal, fishermen would no longer be required to deliver their fish to the processors themselves, but would be able to hire a tender to take all their fish to the processor.

"That's a simple bill, a simple change ... a way we can streamline and allow them to cut costs," Stevens said.

Task force member Sen. Alan Austerman, a Kodiak Republican, said he is confident most of the 14 bills will pass during the next two sessions, but items such as the tax break might be more controversial. He was cautious in predicting immediate improvement, noting that, in the end, it's up to the industry to embrace the changes.

"We're just trying to give them the tools to work with," he said.

House Majority Leader John Coghill, a North Pole Republican, said the House probably would try to determine a priority for the bills. He said the proposal for a $5 million appropriation to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute might take a back seat to bills that would change the industry's structure.

"There will probably be a debate," he said. "My guess is, before they start talking marketing they'll start talking about, 'Is our house in order?' "

Funding for more marketing makes sense, said economist Gunnar Knapp at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. But ASMI can't solve the problem on its own, and attention must be paid to fish quality, he said.

"It's a tough assignment for a state agency to go up there and promote the quality of Alaska salmon if some of the products out there being sold under the name Alaska salmon is the kind that leaves consumers disappointed," he said.

An appropriations bill passed last week by the U.S. Senate includes $20 million to market Alaska seafood. Eighty percent of that money would go to create the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, while the remaining 20 percent would go to ASMI.

The task force report also proposes legislation regarding quality, including mandatory chilling of harvested fish.

Jamie Ross, a fisherman from Homer and member of the boards of ASMI and United Fishermen of Alaska, said a grant to ASMI is important. Norway spends $40 million to $50 million a year in the United States advertising its Atlantic salmon. Comparatively, Alaska is spending about $4 million a year domestically to advertise all species of salmon from all regions of the state.

"It's fighting an uphill battle," Ross said.

ASMI hasn't received an appropriation from the Legislature since fiscal 1997, spokeswoman Laura Fleming said. This fiscal year the quasi-independent public corporation expects to garner about $4.2 million from taxes on seafood processors and salmon fishermen, and it will use that to leverage about $4.5 million in federal funds.

The bottom line for fishermen, according to UFA Executive Director Thomas Gemmell, is that the state has to support them.

"We've been more than paying our way. The state's got to invest in us like they invest in oil," Gemmell said.



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