My turn: Take the harbors back

Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2008

Harbor rates are set to go up again. Here are the annual rates for permanent moorage for a 40-foot boat in area harbors: Juneau $1,687; Petersburg, $1,280; Ketchikan, $1,040; Sitka, $960; Hoonah, $720; Haines, $640; Wrangell, $600; Skagway $480; and Pelican, $410.

It's no coincidence that state-shared fisheries tax receipts - tax money the state returns to communities based on the value of seafood processed in their port - have declined to Juneau, Petersburg and Ketchikan, and increased to the remaining ports, according to a 2007 Department of Revenue report.

Continuing to compare harbor fees in Juneau to distant ports on the west coast is irrelevant. Fishermen, and increasingly other vessel owners, are moving their vessels and businesses out of Juneau to the nearby ports above, not Seattle. Seattle doesn't matter.

The fact is that the commercial fleet has already left Juneau for these ports, taking with it millions of dollars in fish sales to local processors, maintenance, repairs, materials, and food from local stores, and the state fish tax money that funds the harbors. Skippers are tired of being gouged and tired of seeing their fish tax money pay for a harbor administration that treats them like second-class citizens.

Testament to this is the construction of a commercial boat offloading facility in the middle of nowhere on land purchased at tens of thousands of dollars over the appraised value. As one harbor board member was quoted in the Oct. 8 2006, Empire article: The site is the second-best for wave protection.

"As far as inconvenience, if a fisherman operating by himself goes over and uses that (commercial loading) facility and has a pick-up, then has to go moor a boat over at Statter (boat harbor), he has to figure out some way to get back over (to the facility) to get his pickup, ... But commercial guys are not going to have to be running shoulder with hordes of tourists." Neat. We're spending millions on a site with the following qualities: poor wave protection and difficult to use.

A city planner e-mailed the city fisheries committee on July 18, 2006, the following: "It appears that the moorage fees for commercial fishing boats are high relative to neighboring port towns (Hoonah and Sitka) and fishing fleets have left Juneau for those towns. Additionally, the CBJ does not provide dockside facilities for repair of boats, netting and other gear. Consequently, businesses that repair commercial fishing boats and gear have moved to the other port towns."

When the Nov. 3, 2006, draft of the Comprehensive Plan was issued, all the planner's research was omitted! When asked why, she replied, "Docks and Harbors acknowledges these moves but thinks that the improvements they are doing in the Auke Bay area will retain the commercial fisheries we still have and may induce the others back."

Boats coming back? Not likely. Many of those still here are only biding their time till their name comes up on a waiting list elsewhere. Subsequently, her research was included in the report.

Any Juneau residents who think the Harbor Board does not affect them: Think again. All harbor users will have to make up for the declining fish tax dollars to Juneau harbors through still higher harbor rates. Juneau residents who twice voiced their opinion against a new cruise ship dock saw the March 5 joint Juneau Assembly and Harbor Board meeting discussing a new cruise ship dock at Gold Creek in the works. It's coming, folks. And under the current system, you won't be able to stop it.

Harbors are increasingly only affordable to the affluent. More unwanted cruise ship docks are on the way. It's time for a change.

A voter ballot initiative is needed to remove the current system of a harbor board appointed by the Assembly, and a port director who answers only to the harbor board. The enterprise fund system that requires harbor users to fund mismanagement of their harbors with no ability to remove those who continue to send our fishing fleet elsewhere must also be changed. We need an elected harbor board, affordable harbor fees, and a harbor system operated with Juneau residents as its priority. It's time we take our harbors back.

• Mark Stopha owns Alaska Wild Salmon Co. and is a commercial fisherman of Juneau.

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