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The fundamental question concerning the proposal to allow foreign processors into Alaska waters is one of processing capacity. And yet, the underlying current of the debate concerns control over the seine fleet.
In a Feb. 22 article in the Anchorage Daily News, Don Giles, the president of Icicle Seafoods, said, "domestic processors last season kept their word to buy the full fish harvest and to keep most commercial fishing boats at work." This was not the case.
In 2002, Ward's Cove laid off 26 seiners, one third of its fleet, and imposed quotas on its remaining seiners. Although the fish was there, the buyer was not. In an apparent attempt to address the glut of canned pink salmon, the processor placed limits on the fleet.
And Metlakatla last year could not find a domestic buyer for its gillnet pinks. Not one domestic processor was willing to step up to the plate.
In 2002, Southeast processors clearly did not handle all the pink salmon they could have. And now, with the loss of Ward's Cove, and 92 million pinks on their way, it will be very difficult to argue that both processing capacity and the intent to process will be there.
The canned salmon industry must fear the Russians because of a perceived loss of control: The loss of the ability to keep the seiners on quotas, and to impose further fleet reductions, if deemed necessary.
Economic growth in the fishing industry should be driven by maximum sustainable resource development, not by quotas and fleet reductions. The fisherman does not need a government handout, he needs a willing buyer for his fish. And Alaska needs a healthy seine fleet.
The Global Seafood proposal, one of three currently before the governor, has real potential to address the crisis in the pink salmon fishery. Up to 120 million pounds would be sent to Russia in the round.
By mopping up surplus pinks and exporting them to a previously untapped market, the venture could only have a positive influence on canned Alaskan pink salmon. It would take the pressure off the remaining canneries to unprofitably fill the void left by Ward's Cove. The industry would no longer face a situation in which they can more pink salmon than they can sell, to the tune of a half-million cases last year.
At the same time, the Russians would provide a buyer for upwards of 70 seiners and as many as 100 more left idle in the last few years. Each seiner employs an average crew of five. The Russians are also willing to buy gillnet pinks from Metlakatla. The proposal does not take jobs away from Alaskans, it saves them by the hundreds. And it will help the economies of small communities throughout Southeast.
Raw fish taxes generated could be directed to those communities hurt by the loss of Ward's Cove.
While some in the industry approach the issue with skepticism, the idea to allow Russian processors into Alaskan waters is a powerful one that could adequately address the current crisis.
The pink salmon fishery is facing a de facto state of emergency. There is a general consensus that something must be done. The question for Alaska is whether we will seek government welfare, or whether we will seek a market-based solution in order to maximize resource development.
I strongly urge the governor to approve the Global Seafood proposal, for the fishermen, for coastal communities and for Alaska.
Allan Engstrom of Juneau is a professional translator of Russian and local gallery owner.