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A federal assistance program designed for industries adversely affected by foreign trade doesn't meet the needs of Alaska fishermen hurt by the downturn in the fishing industry, Alaskans told federal government officials at a hearing Thursday.
Representatives of the U.S. Department of Labor were in town at the state's request to discuss the plight of the state's fishing industry and try to determine ways to make federal assistance more accessible to fishermen.
Discussion centered on the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which is intended to provide job training and relocation benefits to workers who lost employment and income due to competition from imports. The Alaska salmon industry is struggling in large part due to the influx of farmed salmon imports from Canada and Chile.
Many who testified said the program provides no help for the fishing industry.
"How many of us want to be retrained to flip hamburgers?" said Homer fisherman Ray Welsh. "I'm a fisherman with an investment. I've been at it for 50 years. I don't see as help anything you folks have said yet."
Homer fisherman Wes Hamburg said trying to retrain fishermen who have been in the business for decades, like he has, would be insulting.
"I'd like to know what I'm supposed to do when I'm 60 years old and have been fishing all my life, and have a $250,000 investment in the fishery," he said.
Tim Sullivan, Labor's director of the AT program, said the agency is aware the program is not a good fit for Alaska's fishing industry. Part of the criteria for the program requires at least three workers in a firm to be adversely affected. Those terms don't accommodate Alaska fishermen, many of whom work alone or with just one crew member on a boat.
Sullivan said he would take information gathered at the hearing back to Washington, D.C., and discuss it with the agency's lawyers.
"We'll see if there's some way we can make more of this Trade Adjustment Assistance available to workers in the fishing industry that might benefit from it," he said.
Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association, suggested an effort be made to lobby Congress for changes to the TAA program, noting that Alaska needs the fishing industry.
"I'm a little concerned about what's going to happen in the next few years, given that seafood is second only to oil as a revenue generator in our state," she said. "Salmon revenues have been a bulwark of the fishing revenues until recently. If we're not making money, the state isn't generating those revenues and programs are being cut. Keeping an active fleet statewide is really crucial to the health of our entire state."
Kelley also suggested that Labor work with other federal agencies such as the Department of State to provide a holistic approach to the farmed fish problem.
Sullivan acknowledged that Labor has not collaborated with other departments on the issue.
"It's clear from our visit to Alaska this week that the issue is greater than job training and there should be more coordination and cooperation between (federal agencies)," he said. "I think we do need to bring all these resources to bear so we can have a complete comprehensive approach to dealing with the issues that you're faced with."
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.