Budget cuts take bite out of herring harvest

ANCHORAGE — The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is buckling under deep budget cuts, and now the state’s largest herring fishery is feeling the squeeze.

ADFG has canceled vital abundance studies and surveys for several fisheries, meaning fishermen won’t get to prosecute the full amount of otherwise healthy stocks.

Last year, based on 17,337 tons harvested in all Togiak herring fisheries and an average price of $100 per ton, the total ex-vessel value for the Togiak herring fishery was $1.52 million. The season allowed for a harvest of over 32,000 tons.

This year’s harvest will be less.

ADFG will allow for a harvest of 26,170 tons, or 57.6 million pounds, of a forecasted biomass of 287.9 million pounds.

Al Chaffe, a processor working herring in the region since 1985, laments that what looked like healthy season was curtailed.

“Things look fine,” he said. “It probably should be 15, 20, 25 percent higher. It’s cyclical, but it seems that survival in the Bering Sea is just strong.”

The harvest would have likely been larger, but budget cuts forced ADFG to trim it. Typically, ADFG uses an age structure assessment model to estimate herring biomass.

“Because that data is no longer available to us, we forecast the 2017 biomass as the average spawning biomass for all years for which we have data (1978-2015) less 10 percent in order to be conservative,” according to an Oct. 10 ADFG release.

Across the state, herring fishermen should get used to the adjustment.

“Statewide, except for Sitka, all herring monitoring funds have been cut,” said Bert Lewis, ADFG’s Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound salmon/herring fisheries management coordinator. “For Togiak, that means out aerial survey budget was cut.

“That was used to document the aerial biomass, that determines whether we have the fishery, and it also cut our age and size data collection, which is what goes into the model that tells us the forecast. So we don’t have the age composition and the size at age data anymore.”

By regulation, herring fishermen are allowed 20 percent of the biomass as estimated by the age composition studies. This year’s measurement of the long-term biomass average — minus 10 percent as a conservation buffer — will be less than normal.

“Ultimately, this will mean over the long term that less fish will be harvested, I think it’s safe to say,” said Lewis. “And next year we will be coming up with some kind of recommendation on how to prosecute this fishery at some lower level we’ll feel comfortable with but there will probably have to be some regulatory change.”

Budget cuts

The Alaska state budget deficit of more than $3 billion is hitting Alaska’s fisheries where it hurts most: surveys and abundance estimates. More, and more valuable, fisheries than herring will feel the sting.

ADFG operates mostly on unrestricted general funds from the state coffers, explained Department of Revenue Tax Division Director Ken Alper.

In the last few years, ADFG’s budget has plummeted $15 million dollars — a 30 percent decline.

In fiscal year 2015, ADFG’s general fund allocation was $50 million. In fiscal year 2016 that number dropped to $40 million, then to $35 million in fiscal year 2017.

The number will likely fall again next year. Forrest Bowers, the deputy director of the Commercial Fisheries Division of ADFG, said the department has been told to brace for another 10 percent to 14 percent cut in Gov. Bill Walker’s upcoming budget proposal, scheduled for release in December, bringing the total unrestricted general fund allotment for ADFG to less than $30 million, nearly 40 percent less than just three years ago.

Along with herring abundance estimates, 75 different ADFG projects took cuts totaling $3.5 million in fiscal year 2017, including several salmon related projects.

These cuts include: Susitna River weirs, $52,500; Upper Cook Inlet offshore test fishery, $71,300; Salmon River weir in Aniak, $129,000; regional sonar support for Central region, $74,000.

For salmon fisheries, the Igushik and Togiak weirs in Bristol Bay and the Coghill weir in Prince William Sound have been cut. Partial salmon aerial surveys in Southeast Alaska — a $119,000 cut — were offset with transfer funds.

Some of the slashed projects have supplements attached to them. Bristol Bay catch sampling moved to a cost recovery model.

Budget Band-Aids

Without an increase in legislative appropriations for ADFG, stakeholders like Chaffe fear a slippery slope in which direct industry funding misleads legislators into further and further cuts.

Still, he can’t see another way.

“ADFG has to be funded, be it by the stakeholders or the government, one or the other,” said Chaffe.

There are no funds that go directly to the broad purpose of fisheries management for the Commercial Fisheries Division.

“The majority of our cuts are from the general fund,” said Lewis. “There’s very little tax on fisheries. If it goes into the general fund, it doesn’t mean it’s going back to ADFG. There may be taxes on fish, but it does not mean the department is gaining or losing. There’s no guarantee the (Legislature) is going to allocate back to the department.”

This is unlike other divisions in ADFG, which have direct funding sources.

“Sportfish and wildlife both get these designated funds from license fees. The commercial fisheries doesn’t have any comparable linkage to the state’s commercial fish taxes,” said Alper. “The other fish- and game-related taxes are all designated — the enhancement tax, the marksman tax, the fisheries assessment tax — these are taxes that for the most part users have accepted voluntarily and goes towards some specific function.”

Even without a guarantee of return, new taxes on the fishing industry are uncertain. Alper said Walker hasn’t yet proposed a new commercial fisheries tax increase bill as he did in the 2016 Legislative session, though he did mention the administration expects such bills from individual legislators.

Lewis acknowledges that ADFG managers have no real options except cost recovery fisheries, in which processors catch fish and funnel the money directly back to ADFG, or direct support from the industry.

The former is not popular.

“We’re basically harvesting fish that otherwise would be available to the common property fishery,” said Lewis. “We do not relish doing it.”

In addition to being an unpopular option, herring isn’t the most lucrative of catches and may not even help the budget situation.

“It really doesn’t work out in the herring fishery because of the economics,” said Chaffe. “You can’t afford to pay the state and the fishermen both.”

Direct industry support, however, has provided some relief in certain fisheries. Processors banded together in 2016 to pay for ADFG’s slashed aerial herring survey so managers could prove there were enough fish to open the season at all. In Prince William Sound, the Coghill weir was funded by private parties.

“We put out a ($250,000) bid to processors, and last year we did not have to fill that bid because (the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association) stepped up and paid that. They determined that those fish were better left harvested by the fleet and just paid it rather than have the process pay for harvesting projects through a bid process,” Lewis said.

If the money keeps bleeding out of ADFG’s budget, though, industry isn’t happy about being stuck with the bill.

“It just goes back to the slippery slope,” Chaffe said. “User fees, I guess. As we all know, the real problem is in the Legislature. Or we’ll have more situations like this.”

• DJ Summers is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce and can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com.

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