USAG’s executive director also works as the group’s lobbyist during the legislative session. The board makes decisions on the more weighty issues. We are engaged on most if not all legislative bills directly impacting the Southeast Gillnetters and the commercial fishing industry. Here is a summary of some of the issues we were working on this year to represent your interests.HB 20 – loans for Energy efficiency upgrades passed the legislature. The bill was sponsored by Bryce Edgmon, who fished Bristol Bay for many years. The bill basically provides cheap loans, 3% money, to repower your boat with a fuel-efficient engine and/or generators. The only requirement is that you must be a state resident. The loans are available with the state’s division of investments. Fishermen can barrow money for the cost of the engine including installment and pay back in 10 or 15 years. The Senate Finance Committee had some issues about what fuel efficiency means, and the bill was tightened up to prevent abuse of energy efficiency definitions. Basically UFA and USAG were spearheading the efforts once things got bogged down in the Senate. Fortunately we were successful in making this happen. HB 20 is the most significant bill to pass the legislature this year that will have direct benefits to the commercial fishing industry. The cheap loans available under the program can be used to save money in the long-term by utilizing new fuel-efficient engines.
SB 163 – Fishermen Fund Legislation, sponsored by Senator Joe Pasqvan also passed this year. This is another important bill for commercial fishermen by raising the payment cap to $10,000 from $2500 for an injury aboard a fishing vessel. This is a huge increase for us as most injuries eat up $2500 fairly quickly. So if you haven’t used fisherman’s fund before it is a good thing to utilize, if and when you are injured, or your crew for that matter, aboard a fishing vessel. There is a provision that if your have insurance, half of your deductible can be refunded from fishermen’s fund up to $5000. This is a very good bill for fishermen as a percentage of every commercial fishing license and permit fee generates money into the fund. Money from the fund pays for workplace injuries for fishermen as fishermen are exempt from worker’s compensation laws. The bill had multiple delays due to issues between the state and various fisheries-based organizations. Fortunately, those issues were worked out and the bill passed both legislative bodies. We supported the bill and worked with the sponsor to overcome some of the obstacles during the session.
HB 344 – Processor tax credit for salmon for value-added infrastructure also passed. The bill gives up to a 50% tax credit on processors’ raw fish taxes owed by deducting salmon infrastructure expenditures. Basically, this was a good bill for the processing industry. We supported the measure. The bill now includes ice machines, which was not an allowable expense in previous versions of the bill passed in previous years. Other processing equipment purchased in the last three years can also be deducted for value added salmon products. Like the oil industry and other industries to encourage new investment, this bill will serve our industry well in encouraging the processing industry to continue to invest in new technology, which will hopefully lead to new markets and better prices. HB 344 will sunset in four years.
HB 365 Seiner’s buyback conforming CFEC data bill passed. We did not get involved with this bill, but did follow it within the committee process. This bill allows for the sharing of information between Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission and NOAA-National Marine Fisheries to implement and access a tax on the Southeast Seine fleet. The seiners have been working for many years to implement a buy-back program to cut down the number of vessels participating in the southeast fishery. The processors lined up against the bill at the beginning, but seemed to back off once the bill entered the home stretch. USAG neither opposed nor supported the bill.
State Budget was very large with regards to the capital spending this year. Roughly, the budget was a 3.1 billion dollar budget well above the normal $1.5 to $2billion yearly expediture. USAG was able to work with the existing hatchery operators by helping find deferred maintenance dollars for SE hatcheries. The money is to be used for buildings and other structures owned by the state that are in disrepair. An appropriation for 500k for DIPAC was inserted to replac a roof at the Snettisham hatchery. Another 800k will go to NSRAA for various projects as well. USAG was also able to drop in a 35K request to study the acid leakage issue on the Taku-Tulsequah Rivers. Money goes to the Dept of Fish & Game to fund a thorough study of the acid leakage from the now vacant Canadian mine.
ADF&G Budget – This is always a concern for us commercial fishermen as our budget has historically been cut repeatedly. In the past few years, we have directly been able to add money each year to do important projects important to our industry. There were about 600k of additional funds for SE projects this year beyond the original budget. USAG was helpful in securing some money for additional sonar funding on the Chilkoot River along with some additional monitoring of McDonald Lake-both gillnet areas are facing issues relating to under escapement and stock of concern issues. Gillnetters have lost time and area to protect these wild-stock sockeye systems, which have been cutting into opportunities to harvest hatchery and wild-stock salmon. Overall, the department’s budget is up $1.8million from basically a flat funded ADFG governor’s submitted budget. USAG will continue to work on budget issues moving forward as many of our budget issues are tied to the Pacific Salmon Treaty utilizing federal funds and other treaty based funding sources. Without these funds, many of our gillnet fisheries would likely be undermanaged and in some cases closed.
ACMP – SB 4, by Sen. Donny Olsen, coastal management program pushed by the North Slope Borough did not pass the legislature. This program was rewritten to the detriment of fishermen in 2003 under the Murkowski Administration. During that time local coastal districts were removed from having review and a direct decision upon local development projects, in particular mining projects that used local rivers in coastal areas. The 2003 change limits fishermen from having input about their fishery when projects are in the permitting stage. SB 4 would have rewritten the legislation and returned the law to the 2003 level. All mining groups opposed the measure. If this bill were to pass it would allow local regions to control some of the development in their own areas. This bill would have effects on any large-scale project near coastal areas. USAG supported the legislation.
HB 266 – Personal Use Fishery Priority- sponsored by Rep. Bill Stoltz. The bill would have granted priority to urban fishermen on all fishery resources in the state. Under the bill, Subsistence and Personal Use priority would have in effect killed many commercial fisheries particularly in Cook Inlet. This bill was ill conceived and meant to hack away at the Cook Inlet fishery, which has been a sore spot for many Mat-Su based legislators. ADFG contributes recent poor salmon runs to habitat destruction and the introduction of salmon eating pike within the Mat-Su area. We did not support the bill and worked with other fishery groups to provide good, science based arguments to defeat the measure. This issue will likely come back in the future and the fishing industry as a whole will need to be vigilant and active in educating friends and relatives living in Southcentral Alaska. We did support additional money to do evasive species (pike) removal along with additional hatchery output in the Mat Su.
Mixing zones in salmon habitat – HB 46 – This was another bill aimed to redo legislation pushed by the Murkowski Administration. As passed under Murkowski, development projects can use spawning habitat as mixing zones for discharge of effluent or even mining waste. The bill would have reversed the current law to the 2004 law, which prohibited waste and effluent from mixing in salmon rivers. This bill is probably the most important piece of legislation for all salmon fishermen. Likely for this issue to be corrected, another sponsor should be found to carry the bill and a different version of the bill be drafted for the future. An organized effort by all fishing groups might help move this measure forward as all mining interests worked to defeat the bill. USAG supported the bill.