Bristol Bay fisheries management will receive extra funding from a regional fisheries group this summer but long-term funding remains up in the air.
Fishermen and processors aren’t the only ones who rely on Bristol Bay sockeye for part of their annual income. Each summer, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses cost recovery fishing to help fund management in Bristol Bay. But this summer, BBRSDA has agreed to pick up the tab to avoid what's widely seen as an inefficient way of funding management.
In late March, the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association agreed to provide the Alaska Department of Fish and Game with up to $250,000 to replace the need for the cost recovery fishery in Bristol Bay.
BBRSDA President Abe Williams said that while the board is providing funding this year, they have concerns about the long-term plan for funding fisheries management in the region.
“We see the budget of the department of fish and game being stripped, but in turn, they’re being forced to look at options like cost recovery to fund their budget,” Williams said. “I think collectively we need to look at how do we get the message back to the state of Alaska that they need to adequately fund the Department of Fish and Game so they can take care of the management business of the fishery in Bristol bay.”
Like most components of state government, funding for fisheries management is in limbo as the state grapples with a billion dollar budget deficit and lawmakers look for cuts. But unlike many departments, Fish and Game generates some of its own revenue through the cost recovery test fishing efforts, and the Legislature has the authority to direct it to generate more.
The basic cost recovery scheme for Bristol bay is that the department puts a bid out to sell enough of a state resource – here, sockeye salmon – to get some money. A processor agrees to buy fish from the state of Alaska for less than market value, and it hires a few fisherman to go catch those fish, often during closed periods.
But that practice has drawn scrutiny. It can be seen as an inefficient way of generating revenue, as the department typically makes less per pound than fishermen.
This March, the issue came up at a BBRSDA meeting, where Williams said fishermen were particularly concerned about the potential for Fish and Game to catch Nushagak kings earlier in the season.
“That was something our board looked at as unacceptable in our eyes, as far as cost recovery and the nature of the king fishery and what it means to escapement goals,” he said.
That was just one component of the plan for the 2015 season that took shape this winter and spring, as Fish and Game tried to find a way to bring in about $250,000 for management. This summer, the department was looking at contracting for about 150,000 sockeye or 800,000 pounds, said Bert Lewis, ADFG’s regional management for Bristol Bay.
Typically, most of the fishing occurs on the east side, but this summer, Fish and Game was looking at expanding to the Nushagak District. That would make king catches more likely, although Lewis said the department planned to set a limit of 2,000 Nushagak chinooks.
Kings were not BBRSDA’s only concern; the volume of fish to be caught worked out to about a full peak day of fishing, using rough estimates, Williams said.
Critics of cost recovery fishing have also said it’s a less efficient way of utilizing fish in the bay. To get contracts with processors, the department typically agrees to get paid a lower price than fish is otherwise sold for.
This summer, the department was looking at making thirty cents per pound, more than last year, but still less than the expected price. At that rate, and with a higher volume of fish than in most years, Lewis said there was more interest from processors than in the recent past.
Last summer, Fish and Game brought in close to $200,000 through two types of test fishing. The department contracted for about $100,000 of the revenue-generating cost recovery fishery, after having some difficulty attracting processors for a larger amount. Then, the department also did another type of test fishing that’s focused on data collection, but also brings in revenue. That brought in about $100,000 last year, more than usual in part because the run was so late, and the department kept looking for more information about what was happening.
That second type of test fishing may still occur this summer, Lewis said. That uses short-term contracts with commercial boats to get a better idea of what is happening with the run, which is why it’s described as a data-collection effort. But the fish caught in that test fishery are sold, and Fish and Game does get revenue from the endeavor.
“Generally, that’s a small number of boats deployed into closed areas to determine what the run entry is, and then the fish are sold from that, and it’s generally a low volume fishery,” Lewis said.
This summer’s funding from BBRSDA is one-time money, and next spring, ADFG may have to once again consider using cost recovery fishing to help fund management.
Prior to the BBRSDA funding commitment, the department had started discussing the possibility that it might need to raise nearly double the amount, about $450,000, during the 2017 fishery based on early budget numbers. That’s still a possibility.
“With the way the budget is going this year, and no end in sight for next year, it seems that this trend for replacing budget with test fish receipt authority is likely to continue,” Lewis said.
Although BBRSDA did not commit to funding beyond this summer, Williams said the organization is hoping to spur a conversation about how the state can manage fisheries without relying on the test fishing to generate revenue. The organization is also looking for others to help with this summer’s commitment.