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Fish Factor

New law would protect deckhands from unscrupulous skippers
By Laine Welch


May 05, 2007

Deckhands will no longer be able to get stiffed by unscrupulous skippers if a new law gets the nod from Alaska lawmakers.

A measure being proposed by Rep. Bill Thomas of Haines, a lifelong commercial fisherman, would require contracts that outline how and when crewmembers will be paid. The written agreements would mirror a federal law that applies to vessels of 20 gross tons or more. Thomas' proposal would apply to all state fishing boats, even those with just one deck hand.

Many Alaska skippers routinely provide contracts for their crew, but most do not. And many agreements are ambiguous and open for wide interpretation.

"This would professionalize the relationship by putting a statute into Alaska law," said Thomas' fisheries aide Ian Fisk. "It would require contracts that outline how and when crewmembers will be paid. We're not trying to tell skippers what expenses are allowable, because that's up to them to determine. But the crewman needs to know what expenses are going to be deducted from the gross proceeds to arrive at the adjusted gross upon which his or her percentage will be paid."

Fisk, also a fisherman, said the contracts would be 'very basic' and could be "tweaked" to accommodate variances in different fisheries.

"We're not trying to limit the skipper's discretion in terms of how he or she wants to write a contract - as long as the crew agrees and knows up front what the arrangement is," he said.

Penalties for non-compliance are still being defined, but not having copies of crew contracts on board would likely result in a fine or ticket.

Several deckhands said requiring a clearly defined crew contract is a good idea.

"When salmon season was over, my skipper told me that I wouldn't get my full share if I didn't haul and chop firewood for his home use, and also paint his fence," said a Kodiak deckhand, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He made similar threats about my sticking around 'just in case' he wanted to make a few quick trips into the fall."

Several deckhands on a Kodiak halibut boat also lamented long lags before getting paid, with no explanations by their skippers. Similarly, Fisk said he and Rep. Thomas decided to take action after two Juneau crewmen complained they had each been shorted $10,000 by a skipper.

Fisk said time might not allow for the crew contract bill to be heard during the legislative session that is set to end on May 16. He said a draft will be circulated to fishing groups for public comment during the year and the measure will be taken up by Alaska lawmakers in 2008.

'We want this to be a requirement, similar to having car insurance. It would be a law that is enforced and has some teeth to it," Fisk said. "Fishing is a profession and whether a deckhand is working for a summer or the rest of his life, it's only fair to know how and what you're being paid. By having a contract signed by both parties, we hope to reduce the amount of disputes that end up in court."

Fish czarina

Cora Crome of Petersburg will cover Alaska's statewide fish policy beat as the newest member of Gov. Sarah Palin's staff, a position dubbed 'fish czar' by previous administrations.

"Fisheries Coordinator is what we're calling it," said Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Nizich in a phone interview. "Gov. Palin made a decision not to have what you would refer to as a 'fish czar' because we've heard that in other settings and she didn't want to go that route.

Crome's resume reads like a who's who in statewide fisheries groups and policy committees. Most recently she was director of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association and she currently serves on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council's Advisory Panel.

Nizich said Crome will work closely with a recharged 'fish cabinet', a loosely gathered group that rarely made it onto the radar screen in the Murkowski Administration.

"She's going to be a coordinator of a sub-cabinet of selected members, more than likely for the Departments of Commerce, Fish & Game, Labor, Law and our Washington D.C. offices on federal fishery issues. They will recommend state fisheries, and our fish coordinator will basically be the one doing the leg work and the staffing for that body," Nizich said.

Nizich has been the interim point person for fish issues in the Governor's office for the past five months, and said he is happy to pass the baton to Crome.

"It is very labor intensive. We get a tremendous amount of interest in fisheries statewide - every gear type, every issueyou name it, from sport to commercial, from groundfish to net fisheries. People call in and want to be able to talk to somebody on the governor's staff right here on the 3rd floor," he said.

Crome will be on the job in Juneau starting May 9th. She declined comment until Gov. Palin makes the official announcement.

Salmon starts!

Although trollers in Southeast have been landing fresh kings all winter, Alaska's 2007 salmon season 'officially' kicks off May 7 with trollers and gillnetters targeting kings on the Stikine River near Wrangell.

May 14 will see the start of Alaska's most famous salmon fishery at Copper River, where fishery managers are preparing for another good season for the region's 500+ permit holders. Steve Moffitt in Cordova says it's hoped this year's fishery will meet or beat last year's harvest

"Last year was a really good fishery - better than the preseason forecast, and I'm hoping this year's fishery will also be better," said Steve Moffitt at the AK Dept. of Fish and Game office in Cordova.

A catch of just over one million Copper River sockeye salmon is projected for this season, down just slightly from nearly 1.5 million fish last year, the 5th largest catch in 116 years. The king salmon harvest is pegged at 44,000, up from 30,000 last summer.

Moffitt said cold weather could get things off to a slow start.

"Generally when you have cold ocean temperatures the fish tend to arrive a little later than normal. So May 14 may be a little slow on the front end of the early arrivals," he said.

Starting prices last year for Copper River salmon set records at about $3.75 a pound at the docks for sockeyes and over $6 a pound for kings. The average prices for the season settled out at $5.00/lb for kings and $1.65 for reds.

Meanwhile, Moffitt said there is a lot of excitement in Cordova as the famous fishery gears up for the 2007 season.

"Anticipation is really building. Everyone wants to have some fresh fish and get out there and get the season started."

The 2007 Alaska salmon season is projected to yield a statewide catch of 171 million fish, an increase of more than 20 percent from last year.

Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. 2007 marks the 16th year that she has been writing this weekly fisheries column. It now appears in nearly 20 newspapers and web outlets.
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

This article is protected by copyright and may not be reprinted or distributed without permission. Contact msfish[AT]
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