Industry, state still working to count fish crew

Posted: Monday, August 09, 2010

ANCHORAGE - No one really knows how many crewmembers work the fishing vessels operating in state waters. And that could be knocking the crews and their communities out of potentially millions of dollars in grants and potential fishing quotas, according to industry leaders.

Existing catch shares for sablefish, halibut and crab are based on a given harvester's history and participation in the fishery.

Giving crewmembers a better way to access and log information about their employment would allow them to prove their level of participation in a given fishery, said Geron Bruce, an assistant director with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

As quota holders, crewmembers would likely be more valuable employees to captains because the addition of their shares to the shares captains hold would increase the amount of fish the boat would be allowed to catch. That could give crewmembers a better position to negotiate their pay.

Communities with economic ties to the seafood industry may have a better chance to apply for federal grants and similar programs if more accurate information about harvesters' hometowns could be accessed, according to a 2007 study by Northern Economics Inc., entitled "Improving Seafood Harvesting Labor Data Collection in Alaska Fisheries."

Tying the crewmembers to their communities also would better illustrate the economic impact of fishery policymaking on those communities, Bruce said.

The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development can say exactly how many people work in most fields. But fishing crew are generally exempt from state unemployment insurance reporting, and are treated more like independent contractors rather than regular employees.

That leaves labor economists having to estimate, taking the number of fishing boats working under a specific permit in a fishery, and multiplying that number by the estimated crew that is generally needed under that permit.

For the purposes of data collection, the permit is considered to be the employer rather than the fishing boat captain.

Work done before and after the season - generally time to prepare for fishing and cleanup after - is not counted as time spent on the job. Instead, landings are used to determine how long a given crew has worked.

The state Department of Fish and Game is working with industry representatives to find a solution.

Proposed solutions were noted in two separate studies: one was the Northern Economics effort, paid for by the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference; and a 2009 study by information technology firm Wostmann and Associates.

The Northern Economics study proposed four courses of action, including keeping with the current system, work to improve it, creating an entirely new method or setting out to build a system that identifies crews into an existing procedure that is used to track boat landings.

The Wostmann study proposed three possibilities. The first, referred to as the "landing report capture," would involve logging crew licenses on a worksheet for each landing report. A "vessel operator report" option would allow vessel operators to enter crew license data after landings are completed. The third would have vessel operators enter crew information into paper and electronic logbooks as crew entered and left the vessel.

A proposal to adopt the last suggestion was blocked earlier this year before it had a chance to go before the state Legislature. The United Fisherman of Alaska, an association of seafood industry players, said tasking captains with logging the data would bog them down in paperwork.

Instead, Mark Vinsel, the group's executive director, said he would prefer the burden of logging the information fall on boat crews.

"We didn't oppose the project. We had concerns with the burden of producing the logbooks falling on the skippers," said Vinsel.

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