Cheaper harbors lure Juneau fishermen

Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Juneau's moorage rates are the highest in Southeast Alaska. Some fishermen say they left town partly because of them, but port directors say the fees are as low as they can go.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Aldwin Harder moved himself and his fishing boat, the 47-foot Kelcey Michele, to Hoonah three years ago. He said he spends more than $50,000 a year in goods and services in whatever town he fishes from, not including moorage and fuel.

"If you kick me out, you kick that money out," he said.

Nine other boats located on his finger in the Hoonah harbor came from Juneau, he said.

Fees are based on boat length. The annual moorage fee for a 40-foot boat costs $1,687 in Juneau, $1,280 in Petersburg, $1,040 in Ketchikan, $960 in Sitka, $720 in Hoonah, $640 in Haines, $600 in Wrangell, $480 in Skagway and $410 in Pelican.

Juneau's moorage fees rose seven years ago after the state gave up harbor administration to Alaska municipalities, Juneau Harbormaster Lou McCall said. The Department of Transportation funded the city's harbor operations, but it wasn't enough to deal with harbors that in some cases were more than 40 years old.

"We had to take the bull by the horns, and instead of making tiny increases, say, 'Here's what it's going to cost to make these harbors usable again,'" McCall said.

Port director John Stone said the harbors are mandated to break even, and can't be subsidized by the city's general fund. Even so, fees are less than actual cost, he said. Capital and operating expenses cost about $3,000 per stall per year, about twice the average money coming in, he said. Those moorage fees don't cover improvements city harbors need, he said.

"I'm struggling with how to do Aurora Harbor," he said.

Harbor managers said they don't know how many fishermen had left for other towns. A boat may leave for many reasons. Stone said he is aware fishermen leave because of the fees.

"I know where the fishermen are coming from," he said. "It's not because we want to have higher moorage. We're dealing with constraints."

Demand for harbor slips is declining, Stone said. Five years ago, multiyear waiting lists were the norm for fishing boats. Now the waits are lower and, for some boat lengths, eliminated. Spaces opened up when boats left, but also because about 80 derelict boats have been removed, according to McCall.

Sitka Harbormaster Ray Majeski said that unlike Juneau's mandate to break even, local government directed him to keep moorage fees affordable for locals.

Majeski said he has enough money to run and improve the harbors, aside from major disasters, from moorage fees and taxes paid by fishermen. The fish tax provided a little more than $700,000 last year, he said.

Majeski said he has noticed boats moving from Juneau to Sitka, though he didn't have exact numbers.

It's a double loss for Juneau, he said.

"When they leave your harbor and come to my harbor, I wind up getting the moorage from them, but I also get the fish tax," he said.

Higher moorage rates are just one increase in the cost of fishing out of Juneau, fishermen said. And they're not necessarily the largest. Other Southeast towns are closer to the best fishing grounds. As fuel costs rose sharply in the last couple of years, that distance became more expensive to cover.

It is cheaper to fly to Hoonah than to run a boat there, said Ed Hansen, who docks his fishing boat in Hoonah but lives in Juneau.

Hansen said he moved his boat out of Juneau partly because of the higher fees, and partly because of the principle: He was angry.

"They're running the fishing fleet out of this town," he said.

He also said the Hoonah harbor's small size makes it easy for the harbormaster to keep an eye on the boats, which means he can trust that his boat will be safe without him. That's not possible in Juneau's harbors, which may see 10 times as many boats, he said.

"It's not that hard to just leave," Hansen said. "We have a harbormaster over there that's incredible."

• Contact reporter Kate Goldenat 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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