My Turn: Road would benefit fishermen, too

A Lynn Canal highway would be a boon to Juneau's fishing industry

Posted: Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The completion of a Lynn Canal highway linking Juneau to Haines, Skagway and the rest of Alaska will prove extremely beneficial to Juneau's healthy and growing fishing industry.

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Even with the short ferry shuttle link, it will be virtually a 24/7 transportation corridor for delivering seafood to market.

The seafood industry estimates that an average of 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of salmon, halibut and black cod could be shipped every day once Juneau has a road. Currently, an average of 10 million to 15 million pounds of salmon is harvested annually in Juneau-Lynn Canal waters. But once fish is caught, it must be processed and transported to market.

The Juneau Assembly and Juneau Docks and Harbors Board have shown their commitment to improving our industry's infrastructure. Juneau citizens have passed bonds for several millions of dollars to provide loading and unloading facilities. Juneau now has two major processing facilities and several smaller custom seafood processing companies. Also, Docks and Harbors is planning to provide additional cranes and improved boat repair facilities.

While we are improving our infrastructure, we still need more reliable transportation to get our fish to market.

Juneau has three options for shipping seafood:

1. Air freight at about 53 cents per pound.

2. Barge at just under 10 cents per pound.

3. Existing ferry/road at about 23 cents per pound.

All of these costs are expected to increase due to rising fuel costs.

Alaska Airlines' new fleet of cargo aircraft demonstrates its commitment to our industry, and I commend them for the investment. But the small portion of seafood the airline carries is our high-value product. Barges are the least expensive way to ship seafood, but because of the length of time it takes, all products shipped must be frozen or canned. These products return a minimum price to our industry.

The existing ferry/road mode is used on a limited basis. Processors can put a van load of seafood on the ferry in Juneau and send it either north to Haines or Skagway, or south to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, where the city connects with existing highways. This transportation option is plagued by ferry scheduling problems and limited capacity. It does not meet current or future needs.

Air freight and barge shipments will always play a role and will continue to be used to get our seafood to market. But the best possible transportation scenario is a road that is connected to the continental highway system.

Fishermen and local seafood processors agree that the highest value for our products is the fresh fish market. A Lynn Canal highway would provide an opportunity to establish new fresh fish markets in the Lower 48. But fresh fish markets are time-sensitive; shelf life is limited, and any improvements we can make to transportation infrastructure will be reflected in positive financial growth for the fishing industry.

The existing ferry/road option has proven the markets are there. But time is critical when dealing with fresh products.

I also believe trucking seafood via the new road would create back-haul opportunities such as carrying groceries one way and seafood the other way as demonstrated in other Alaska seaports linked to the continental highway system, such as Kenai and Seward.

With the advent of the individual fishing quota system for halibut and black cod, Juneau has become a major seaport. Our share of the state's raw fish tax is around $400,000 per year - up from $70,000 several years ago. It is entirely conceivable that the current number could double with the completion of a Lynn Canal highway.

The road would provide a reliable transportation corridor that would create new markets, cut transportation costs and create an economic benefit to Juneau and northern Southeast Alaska.

How can Juneau afford not to build this road?

• Jim Becker is a Juneau resident.

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