Alaska lawmakers approve task force to consider responses to seafood industry ‘implosion’

By: Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon

Fishing boats are seen in Kodiak’s St. Paul Harbor on Oct. 3, 2022. Glutted world markets, plunging prices, reduced consumer demand and other problems have afflicted all sectors of the fishing industry. A measure passed by lawmakers would establish a task force to come up with recommended actions for responding to those problems. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

A special legislative panel is to make recommendations about state policies to rescue Alaska’s seafood industry, a major pillar of the economy that is mired in crisis, under a bill that won final passage over the weekend.

The measure, Senate Concurrent Resolution 10, would establish an eight-member seafood industry task force, with four state senators and four state House members and with the Senate president as chair.

The House passed it nearly unanimously on Saturday. The Senate, which originally passed it on April 19, on Sunday gave unanimous approval to changes made in the House.

The task force, to present recommendations to the Legislature by Jan. 21, 2025, is charged with finding some kind of response to the “unprecedented economic implosion of our industry,” Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, one of the sponsors, said in floor comments on April 19.

Stedman, as well as the text of the resolution, listed numerous challenges facing the industry in Alaska: higher operating costs within the state; much lower prices for fish, driven by reduced consumer demand and a world market glutted with supply, much of it from Russia; closures of fish processors; losses to communities dependent on fishery taxes; and crashes of salmon stocks in some rivers, notably the Yukon, and of crab stocks in the Bering Sea.

“We have not seen an impact of our fisheries like this, I don’t think, in my lifetime,” he said. Twenty years ago, there was a crisis in the Alaska salmon industry, which spurred the creation of a salmon task force that produced some solutions, he noted. “This time, we’re dealing with virtually all our fisheries,” with effects not just in smaller coastal towns but throughout the state, he said. 

Sen. Bert Stedman speaks about the budget at a news conference on May 11, 2023. Pictured with him are Senate President Gary Stevens and Sen. Bill Wielechowski. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Sen. Bert Stedman speaks about the budget at a news conference on May 11, 2023. Pictured with him are, from left, Senate President Gary Stevens and Sen. Bill Wielechowski. Stedman and Stevens were among the Senate leaders who championed the idea of an Alaska seafood industry task force. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

“No area goes untouched. Shellfish, whitefish, groundfish,” he said.

The resolution was introduced on March 1 by the Senate Finance Committee and championed by that committee’s powerful co-chairs: Stedman, Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, and Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel. Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, also played a leading role in the measure.

As it moved through committees, different ideas about the task force makeup emerged. The original bill proposed a task force of seven, with two House members, two Senate members and two public members representing either United Fishermen of Alaska or the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. The seventh member, under the original bill, would be the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game or a commissioner’s designee.

In the House, the proposed size of the task force grew to 19, including eight members of the Legislature, three commissioners of state departments and representatives of tribes, commercial harvesters, processors and communities.

The final version of the bill settled on a task force of eight – four Senate members and four House members. The final version also authorizes a legislative staffer to support the task force’s work, and it omitted a provision about possible buybacks of harvest permits.

“These overall changes were done in the spirit of keeping the size and scope of the task force more narrow and for the work of the project to be completed in an efficient manner,” Stedman said on Sunday.

The measure is now headed to Gov. Mike Dunleavy for his consideration.