Fishing: Is it still king in Southeast?

Tourism industry may be closing in on the No. 1 spot

Posted: Sunday, November 06, 2005

The commercial fisherman arguably is one of the few enduring icons of Southeast Alaska's traditional outdoor life.

Though the industry has shrunk in size - commercial fishing permit holders dropped by 22 percent to 3,097 from 1990 to 2004 - several thousand men and women, mostly residents, continue to go down to the sea to harvest the Panhandle's marine riches.

It's becoming questionable, though, whether commercial fishing still holds its customary spot as Southeast Alaska's largest private employer.

With the steady growth of the cruise ship industry and its accompanying explosion of retail and guide businesses, commercial fishing may or may not now have a big brother named tourism.

"I think we're probably in the process of seeing the visitor industry surpassing commercial fishing in terms of the number of people," said Jim Calvin, a partner in Juneau's McDowell Group consulting firm.

"Arguably, (tourism) has passed us up in jobs - or comes awfully close," said Bob Thorstensen, president of the United Fishermen of Alaska.

It's a little hard to tell if it has happened yet, due to the muddiness of state data.

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development doesn't track either commercial fishing or tourism jobs - mostly because it would require the department's economists either to make questionable assumptions about the two complicated industries or develop a new method of collecting job data.

The fishing industry and its regulators are left wondering whether they are still numero uno - not just in Southeast Alaska, but statewide.

"It's a question that we struggle with all the time," said Sarah Gilbertson, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The Department of Labor and Workforce Development did release figures in 2004 showing that in 2002, the fishing industry (including processors and harvesters) generated 14 percent of all Southeast Alaska jobs.

Statewide, the industry accounted for 6.3 percent of private-sector jobs in 2002, but it was No. 2 overall after the construction industry.

In Southeast Alaska, two private employers provided more jobs than fishing in 2002: the retail and the leisure and hospitality trades, the latter including hotels, restaurants and other similar businesses.

Some might quibble over the lumping of both local retail and tourism traffic in the Labor and Workforce Development Department's figures.

"We are not set up to monitor who the customer is. We just count who is working in what business," explained Neil Gilbertsen, a Labor and Workforce Development Department economist.

Complicating the picture is the Juneau-based McDowell Group's most recent study of the cruise industry's economic influence in Southeast Alaska.

The study, which hasn't been publicly released, includes a gamut of trickle-down effects that have not been similarly calculated for the fisheries sector in recent years.

The cruise industry study claims many types of jobs - including bank clerks, school teachers and government workers - as the consequence of the industry's activities in Southeast Alaska.

The McDowell Group analysis indicates the cruise industry supplied 7,300 direct and indirect jobs in Southeast Alaska in 2003.

Only 800 of those jobs were actually paid by the cruise industry or its agencies.

The rest - 6,500 jobs - were from the trickle-down economics of retail stores, tour companies, public offices, schools and other employers.

The fishing industry could have employed between 5,900 and 8,200 individuals in 2004, but those numbers are also iffy due to the uncertainty about how many crew personnel participated in the commercial fisheries.

The 5,900 figure includes the average number of seafood processing jobs and the 8,200 figure includes the peak number of processing jobs in 2004.

If Juneau is an indicator, the lines between commercial fishing and tourism can become blurry.

In summer, tourists crowd into Taku Smokeries/Fisheries and dine at its popular restaurant, the Twisted Fish.

Despite the visibility of the tourists, they actually account for only about 10 percent of the fish plant's business operation, General Manager Eric Norman said.

Ninety percent of Taku Smokeries/Fisheries' business is its routine processing of salmon, black cod, halibut and crab for the wholesale market, Norman said.

The same mix of the two industries is apparent at Douglas Island Pink and Chum (DIPAC), which runs a combined nonprofit hatchery and visitors center in Juneau that attracts 200,000 visitors per year.

"We're supplying fish and jobs to the inland water economy and educating all these outsiders about salmon," said Eric Presteguard, DIPAC's executive director.

The proceeds that DIPAC makes from its visitors center are rolled back either into the production of fish or to pay down the hatchery's debt.

"Either way, it's the same benefit. Our ultimate goal is to produce fish for northern Southeast Alaska," Presteguard said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.



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