The Panhandle's gillnetters will decide May 1 whether to tax themselves to fund regional projects that could increase the selling price of their fish.
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The concept has a lot of support in the southern Panhandle, especially in Wrangell and Ketchikan, where new marketing projects initiated by gillnetters are already lifting prices for Stikine River salmon, proponents say.
But the tax proposal is getting some static from northern Panhandle gillnetters.
Though they've received their ballots in the mail, some Juneau and Haines gillnetters say they haven't been educated on the tax proposal yet and they aren't sure if they want to pay out the proposed .05 to 2 percent of their gillnetting income.
"I'm not convinced we are going to see benefits," said Charlie Polk, a Juneau gillnetter.
"We are wondering what we will get for the 1 percent," added Mike Saunders, president of the Lynn Canal Gillnetters Association, based in Haines.
For more information, see http://www.rainforestwild.org.
The potential self-levied tax on the region's 470 gillnetters - which could net $50,000 annually - would be collected by Southeast Alaska Rainforest Wild, one of a number of regional seafood development associations (RSDAs) set up by the Legislature in 2004 as a vehicle for fishermen-led marketing projects.
At least 30 percent of the gillnet fleet must vote on the proposed tax for it to go forward this year. A simple majority is required for the tax to pass. That means 15 percent of the fleet plus one fisherman could decide the issue, Polk said.
Polk was displeased Monday to learn that such a small percentage could influence the outcome.
Other fishermen pointed out Monday that it's hard enough to get anybody to vote in any kind of election, where turnout is often far below 50 percent.
"I think that the way the fishery is now, the biggest problem of our fleet is basically price," said Bill Auger, a Ketchikan gillnetter who strongly supports the proposed tax. Auger is also president of the United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association.
"We've got plenty of buyers, so I think marketing is where it is going to have to be done," Auger said.
But the tax/marketing plan has been confusing for fishermen because it is a new idea, and because there is no established plan on how to spend the money, Auger said.
After they join the marketing effort, the gillnetters themselves will have to decide how best to spend the money, according to RSDA guidelines.
Gig Decker, a Wrangell gillnetter who worked to organize the Rainforest Wild RSDA, envisions a plethora of projects.
Decker is already working on one project that could be picked up by the fleet, he said. It involves creating an incentive program with regional seafood processors to give a better price to fishermen who do extra work on the boat - like bleeding and freezing their fish promptly - to create a higher-quality product.
The market is clearly willing to pay more for fish that are of a higher quality, Decker said. Wrangell gillnetters, for example, have received two to three times the regular dock price for "premium" sockeye that are put through a more rigorous cleaning and chilling process, he said.
"Our goal is to have some sort of incentive program in every community in Southeast," Decker said.
So far, Rainforest Wild has been operating on grant money and volunteer time put in by its board. The organization held a meeting in Juneau last month to educate gillnetters about the proposed self-levied tax but had to withdraw plans to travel to Haines due to lack of funds, Decker said.
The gillnet fleet's upcoming vote is just the first push in Rainforest Wild's overall effort to gather in most or all of the fisheries in Southeast Alaska. But with 69 different gear groups in the region, that adds up to a long ballot petition process. Each gear group will need to vote on whether to assess the tax on themselves.
Next year, Rainforest Wild will approach the dive fisheries and the seine fishermen, Decker said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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