Angoon used to have 27 seiners, but today has just one. In Pelican, a community with an entirely fish-based economy, the population has shrunk by one-third in the last few years. The biggest employer in Hoonah, which used to boast a robust fishing and logging economy, is the school.
These woes are a result of the problems plaguing Southeast's salmon economy, said area mayors who spoke Monday on the first day of a three-day salmon conference being held in Juneau. The mayors said Southeast fishing communities need better transportation and new, innovative products and production techniques if they are to continue making a living.
The conference is hosted by the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
Pelican Mayor Kathie Wasserman noted her town's population has dwindled from 175 to 115 in the past few years.
"Every single business including the city government has been terribly impacted," she said.
More frequent transportation in and out of Pelican would go a long way toward boosting the community's economic health, she said. In January, she said, the town went 10 days without an Alaska Airlines flight, and only one ferry comes in per month. That creates a problem for fishermen who need to get their fish to processors immediately after harvest.
Craig Mayor Dennis Watson said Southeast needs not only more frequent ferries, but transportation focused on moving just fish, and not fish and people together.
"We would also like to see more expanded service from the barge lines," he said.
Metlakatla Mayor Victor Wellington, who noted he does all of his fishing close to home now to conserve fuel, suggested any measures that would help smaller fishermen may hurt the industry more than help it.
"Making it easier for marginal fishermen to stay in business is not wise," he said.
Wellington said the state's money would be better directed at developing new products and marketing them.
"We don't want to be meeting someday in the future about marketing our fish when the rest of the world has committed to farmed product," he said.
A bill proposed by the Legislature's salmon task force would provide tax incentives for fishermen who purchase new, more efficient equipment. But any measures that require money will face an uphill battle in the Legislature, said Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat.
Conference participants also stressed quality control.
"Alaska's got a pink and chum problem," said Eric Norman of Taku Smokeries and Fisheries. "Those are the low-value products and frequently low-quality as well. We've got a lot of product coming out of the state that smells very fishy."
The tone of the conference wasn't all gloom and doom.
Marketing industry representatives noted the recent trend in Europe toward buying wild salmon and the dramatic growth in the salmon fillet market since the mid-1990s.
Domestic imports of salmon fillets have tripled in the last three years, said Ray Riutta, executive director of the Alaska Salmon Marketing Institute, while salmon imports in general have gone up 28 percent in the same time period.
Former state Sen. Alan Austerman, a Kodiak Republican appointed Monday to be Gov. Frank Murkowski's advisor on fisheries, said he and the governor are building a business plan for Alaska seafood. It wasn't immediately clear what that plan would entail.
Conference organizers are collecting proposals for measures to help the industry, which will go into a report distributed to communities and fisheries.
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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