Commercial fisherman Leroy Cabana did not intend to speak at a legislative hearing Wednesday on a bill to spend state dollars to market salmon.
But after listening to testimony, the Homer seiner walked to a table in front of the House Finance Committee and sat down to face the panel.
Cabana urged lawmakers to help the industry troubled by falling fish prices and approve a bill to boost salmon marketing efforts by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, or ASMI.
Fishermen "are not sophisticated people. I have never been to college," Cabana said. "We're not an organized people. We're a disorganized people."
"If we don't have ASMI, we won't have anything because we're not sophisticated enough to get our act together."
The plea for money was echoed by other fishermen and processors pushing House Bill 360, which would give $12 million to ASMI over five years to market salmon for the seafood industry, the state's largest private sector employer.
The Juneau-based institute has not taken state dollars since 1997 and relied mostly on taxes paid by fishermen and processors plus federal grants, said fisherman and ASMI board member Jamie Ross.
But the institute projects its annual budget will decline from $10.8 million in 2000 to $6.7 million by 2004 because a five-year federal grant is due to end and tax revenue to ASMI is falling with salmon prices, Ross said.
"Every year we're losing funding," Ross said. "If we're not able to maintain at least the level of funding that we're doing right now, it's just going to continue to spiral on downward."
If the Legislature does not chip in, the Alaska seafood industry will continue to lose ground to its nemesis, the subsidized farm salmon industry, which has flooded the international and domestic markets with cheap fish and driven prices down, bill supporters said.
A downturn in the Asian economy and the September terrorist attacks also have taken a toll on the industry, fishermen said. And a continued decline will come at the peril of small Alaska coastal communities dependent on commercial fishing, said ASMI board member and Dillingham fisherman Rose Heyano.
"There isn't another industry that can replace commercial fishing," Heyano told the committee. "If we don't get the state on our side, where do we turn?"
Committee member Rep. Con Bunde, who opposes the measure, sparred with bill sponsor Rep. Gary Stevens.
"Why should the state get involved in private enterprise?" asked Bunde, an Anchorage Republican. "Where is the state mandate to promote or shore up private enterprise?"
The Legislature spends money to promote tourism, countered Stevens, a Kodiak Republican.
"If one, why not the other?" he asked.
Bunde later noted he empathized with the industry but said he could not support spending an extra $12 million when the state faces expected annual $1 billion deficits.
"The state has a marketing problem, too," Bunde said. "The state has to market to its constituents that we truly do have a fiscal gap."
Committee co-chairman Rep. Bill Williams, a Saxman Republican, held the bill in committee, saying it would get another hearing.
Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com.
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