Ruling has lawmakers rethinking commercial fishing fees

Out-of-state class-action suit may reduce nonresident fishermen's fees

Posted: Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A court decision in a class-action lawsuit by out-of-state commercial fishermen has Alaska lawmakers rethinking the state's fishing permit fees.

A bill now being considered would reduce the fees paid by nonresident fishermen to $115 per person instead of $115 per permit. Numerous nonresidential fishermen hold more than one permit to fish the state's different fisheries, and the change would mean a loss of about $67,000 a year to Alaska.

But attached to the measure to put Alaska into compliance with the 20-year-old Carlson v. state of Alaska lawsuit are increases to license and permit fees that would boost the revenue coming in to the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission by an estimated $2.3 million a year.

"Because we had to correct Carlson, we attached this fee bill because we are in a declining revenue position," Commissioner Frank Homan said Monday.

The lawsuit was filed in 1984 by people living outside the state who were charged three times what state residents paid to fish Alaska waters.

Alaska reduced the nonresidential fees to $115 two years ago, but continued to charge the differential for each permit held by an out-of-state fisherman. Last year's ruling ordered that an out-of-state fisherman has to pay the differential just once, no matter how many permits he holds.

An appeal is pending before the Alaska Supreme Court that challenges the Anchorage Superior Court order that the state pay between $30 million and $50 million to the plaintiffs, who number about 11,000.

Right now, there are 21,763 Alaska fisheries permits held by commercial fishermen. Of those, 4,880 are held by out-of-state fishermen. Homan could not say how many fishermen held those permits or how many additional permits are being held by the state.

The change is included in a bill by Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, that was heard Monday by the Senate Finance Committee.

Other proposed changes in the measure would more than make up for the lost out-of-state revenue.

The proposal would remove a $300 cap in fees charged to renew commercial fishing permits and instead charge fees that "reasonably reflect the different rates of economic return for different fisheries."

Permit renewal fees now range from $60 to $300, depending on the fishery. The new fees would be worked out by the commission in a public process, but a proposal distributed to lawmakers by the commission puts the range from $75 to $3,975.

The great majority of permit holders would still pay between $75 and $120, including most salmon and halibut fishermen.

The intent, Homan said, is to bust the artificial cap and assess more realistic fees to the biggest fishermen operating in the most profitable fisheries, which include Dutch Harbor king crab, species of saltwater finfish and others.

"These fisheries for 20 years have benefited from having a cap," Homan said.

Stevens' bill also would boost the annual fees for vessel licenses by size of the vessel, which would raise another $291,000 per year for the commission.

The cost of renewing a vessel license would increase by $15 for a boat less than 25 feet long up to $90 for those longer than 250 feet.

The proposed increases are due only in part to the revenue that would be lost by changes to nonresidential fees, Homan said. The Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission's income has been steadily declining for years. Next year, he said, revenue is expected to match the commission's costs and continue to decline, eventually putting the commission in the red.

Since the commission is funded only by the revenue it generates, it needs to find a way to increase that stream, Homan said.

Fishermen's unions seem to agree and they are tentatively supporting the measure. But, they say, the fee increases need to be worked out publicly.

Joe Childers of the Western Gulf of Alaska Fishermen said his organization supports the measure, but he expects a lot of dialogue before the new fees are finalized.

The $300 cap also needs to be changed because some less profitable fisheries are subsidizing the more profitable fisheries because of it, said Mark Vinsel of the United Fishermen of Alaska. Abolishing the cap would mean more equitable distribution of fees, he said.

"The way it is right now, there are a lot of fisheries that are paying more than they would because that $300 cap limits everyone," Vinsel said.

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