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Fish Factor

Alaska salmon fishermen now officially classified as agricultural producers

By Laine Welch


June 15, 2007
Saturday PM

Alaska salmon fishermen are now officially classified by the federal government as agricultural producers. As 'farmers of the sea,' they can be included in various programs under the US Dept. of Agriculture's Farm Bill, The bill is revised every five years and policies established in this latest version will last through 2012. With a budget of nearly $95 billion the USDA is the nations' premier food agency, and as the many measures in the Farm Bill are tweaked this year by Congress, fishermen need to make sure their ideas and needs are included.

"Fishermen need to have parity with fish farmers in any kind of support or other programs," said Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska. "Another key component is Country of Origin Labeling of wild and farmed fish. There may be efforts to undermine that and we can't have any backsliding on that. We would also like to see all product forms covered by COOL, especially canned salmon."

Fishermen can, for example, push for more U.S. seafood to be included in the nation's school lunch program. Under the Farm Bill, they can also apply for low cost loans to help improve their business or modernize equipment, and other programs available to our nation's farmers.

"These include such things as marketing programs, loan deficiency payments, cooperative marketing associations. There are a number of things we've discussed with various fishing groups and the state of Alaska as far as more inclusion of fishermen into USDA programs," said Chad Padgett, director of the Farm Service Agency in Palmer.

UFA's Vinsel pointed out the average age of Alaska fishermen today is just over 50; for family farmers it's closer to 65.

"That's alarming for the food production industry. We need to look for ways to make producing foods a viable career option for the next generation. That's an important part of the farm bill and farmers are addressing it very aggressively. We hope everything that is done to benefit farmers also applies to fishermen," he said.

Vinsel added that when it comes to making things happen in Washington, D.C. "it is critical for non-resident Alaska fishermen to contact their Congressional representatives, especially if they are members of the farm committee."

Get more information at bill, from UFA in Juneau, or call the Farm Service office at 907-761-7738.

Fishing top job for danger

Those who make their living from the sea still top the list of the most dangerous jobs, especially crabbers. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 48 fishing related deaths occurred nationwide in 2005. Based on the relatively small number of commercial fishermen, that puts the fatality rate at 118 per 100,000 ­ or about one of every 5,400 workers.

While the annual on the job death rate for fishermen is still quite high, it has declined more than 50 percent since 1990. The decrease is especially notable in Alaska, said Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA).

"Alaska has had the biggest improvement in fishing safety than any other place in the country. We've gone down from almost 40 fatalities a year in the early 1980's to an average of about 11 in the past five years. So that's a huge drop," Dzugan said.

Falling overboard is the number one way that most fishermen meet their Maker. Dzugan said simply wearing personal flotation devices could literally save the day.

"It doesn't make the big headlines, like when a boat goes down with all hands. But these 'one bys' really add up," Dzugan said.

The Labor Bureau puts the average take home salary for fishermen at $29,000 per year.

Logging ranks second for job fatalities at about 93 per year (average salary $31, 290). Next is aircraft pilots at 66.9 deaths, including mostly bush pilots, air taxis and crop dusters. (Salary: $135,040)

Alaska has a flying fatality rate that is four times higher than elsewhere in the nation, and Alaska pilots have a one in eight chance of dying during a 30 year career. Most fatal crashes in Alaska come from losing visibility and flying into mountains.

Also making the most dangerous jobs list were iron and steelworkers (55.6 deaths/salary $43,540): trash collectors (43.8 deaths/salary $30,160); farmers and ranchers (41.1 deaths/salary $39,720): , electric power line workers (32.7 deaths/salary $49,200); truck drivers (29.1 deaths/$35,460 for heavy or tractor trailer drivers) and agricultural workers (23.2 deaths/salary $24,140.)

Veggie trawlers

The first vegetable oil powered trawler is undergoing test trials in the North Sea. The diesel engine aboard the 'Jubilee Quest' has been converted to run on a mix of the more earth friendly fuel. The vessel is performing the same as with diesel, the skipper told the BBC 'Working Lunch' program.

The Jubilee Quest runs on a dual fuel system that starts on diesel, switches over to vegetable oil when the engine has warmed up, then reverts to diesel again before switching off.

Environmental benefits of using biofuel on fishing vessels would be vast. The BBC said a large diesel-powered trawler on a 10-day trip emits 37 tons of carbon emissions. That compares to a family car, which emits about two tons in a year.

Also in the UK - it was 'all aboard' the veggie train last week as the first passenger train fueled by 20 percent of biodiesel took to the tracks.

Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Trains, said after test trials the whole train line may be converted to run on the bio-blend.

Branson, who also owns Virgin Airline, is planning a test flight with one of his passenger aircraft using biofuel. The billionaire has committed to spending all the profits from his airline and rail business to combat global warming.

Britain currently gives a tax break to cars using veg oil fuel blends. Germany and Ireland have gone further with complete duty exemptions on some biofuels for road use. Similar tax breaks are likely to be appliedsoon to fishing boats and other transportation sectors.

Here's an interesting fact: the internal combustion engine was invented by Rudolf Diesel of France in 1898. Diesel's first engines were built to run on peanut oil for the developing world, which had no petrochemicals industry. So converting back to veggie oil fuels would be going back to what the designer intended.

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]

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Ketchikan, Alaska