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Fish Factor

Fisheries sees increase in federal dollars


September 19, 2011

Fisheries are on the receiving end of federal dollars, instead of the other way around. As Congressional lawmakers slash budgets in D.C., money for all-important fishery stock assessments was actually increased from $51 million to $67 million for the next fiscal year, the amount requested by President Obama.

The money was included as part of a Commerce, Justice and Science (CSJ) subcommittee appropriations bill that passed in a bipartisan vote late last week. Despite the fisheries increase, the bill is $600 million below the amount in FY2011 and $5 billion below the President’s request, said Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a CJS subcommittee member.  

“The overall appropriations account is dramatically reduced, so the fact that we were able to increase our fisheries dollars is really quite significant.  I was very pleased,” Murkowski said in a phone interview from her Senate office.

One big NOAA budget item that was zeroed out drew sighs of relief from Alaska’s two Senators – ocean zoning, or ‘marine spatial planning.’  The plan, which would affect all users and uses, on and beneath the oceans, was listed as a priority in the President’s national ocean policy, with a price tag of $60 million.             

“It made no sense to me for this administration to request funding to move forward with this.  The concept was a bad idea from the get go and unwanted by Alaskans,” said Murkowski, who insisted that the federal funding be removed.

Both she and Senator Begich also were concerned that the new program would siphon dollars away from fishery research and assessments. Begich said as Chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries, and Coast Guard ocean zoning is an  issue that has given him “the biggest earful.”

“We don’t need to do it right now and that’s the bottom line,” Sen. Begich said. “NOAA does not need another big project and expenditure when they have so many other things they need to keep on track with.”

Sen. Murkowski cautioned that while ocean zoning might appear to be deep sixed, it might resurface.  

“In the CSJ appropriations budget there is funding for what they call Regional Ocean Partnership Grants, and some may be able to argue that these are a backdoor approach to continue implementing coastal and marine spatial planning. It is something I will be watching very closely,” Murkowski said.  

Senator Begich was jubilant that $920 million was allocated for the NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System, after not being funded in the FY2011 cycle,  “The need for Alaska is huge, not only in our fishing industry but for aviation and the Coast Guard.  Without these satellites, accuracy of weather forecasts would go back to the 1980s,” said Begich, who spearheaded the push in the Senate for the funding.  “And that satellite will be critical for us as we do additional work in the Arctic, and in 2016 it’s anticipated there will be a lot of activity up there from a variety of industries, as well as research.”

Senator Begich added that he hopes to introduce a Coast Guard reauthorization bill “hopefully in the next three weeks.”

Both Senators were optimistic that progress will be made in Congress this year on ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST). Alaska and the U.S. can’t lay any claim to the Arctic, unless it signs on to the treaty, whereas all other Arctic nations  support it as the legal framework for governance. 

The Law of the Sea Treaty originated in 1982 by the UN as a way to govern activities on, over, and beneath the oceans. But some sovereignty provisions were strongly opposed by then President Reagan and the U.S. has never signed on.

Meanwhile, Russia has planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole and is building the first offshore oil rig to withstand extreme cold and pack ice. Norway has staked claims to vast oil and gas deposits, and Canada has plans for an Arctic military training base. Meanwhile, the US remains sidelined.

 “As an Arctic nation we have an opportunity as to extend our territory on the outer continental shelf to an area nearly the size of California. That would be available to us for resource exploration and development,” Senator Murkowski has lamented for years.

Both Alaska Senators said they get a sense that there is more understanding why ratification of LOST is so important. Murkowski added that she believes there will be “a level of stepped up activity towards the end of the year.”

Both also are optimistic about a new 15 member, bipartisan Oceans Caucus, which Senator Murkowski will co-chair.

“In the Senate and House there are  more caucuses than you can shake a stick at, But this one is different,” Murkowski said.  “It will be a working caucus where we will connect with outside groups to shine the light on the health of our oceans. We will really key in on policy issues beyond just legislation.  Our biggest challenge is to get people to understand how little we know about our oceans.”

“We as a nation have committed ourselves to discoveries in outer space, and good for us. But it has come at an incredible cost,” she continued, referring to a new $35 billion super fast space rocket.  “And then we fight and nickel and dime over what we spend on learning what goes on within our oceans. We are oblivious to what is going on around us and we take it for granted.”

Both senators continue to push legislation that will pull the plug on any funding to advance genetically modified salmon, dubbed Frankenfish. Sen. Begich said it is a good sign that the Food and Drug Administration has done nothing to enact the measure since complaints were filed a year ago.

“So that’s a good sign and we are working aggressively to see if we can get an amendment that really prohibits this type of production of fake fish,” Begich said.

Finally, Sen. Murkowski said she may announce a new fisheries advisor within a couple of weeks.

“We have had the reputation of being the go to place when it comes to fish issues, and I am not willing to cede that to anybody. This is an exceptionally important position that requires a real depth and breadth of understanding.  I am taking my time to   make sure that I have the right person for this position.”

Seafood favorites

Shrimp, canned tuna and salmon remained as America’s seafood favorites last year, but there were interesting shifts in fish eating patterns. The annual list by the National Fisheries Institute showed that Americans ate more canned tuna, cod and  farmed favorites: tilapia and Pangasius (also called basa). The cheaper choices were likely driven by the recession.

An Intrafish analysis shows tilapia gained the most with consumption up 20%, bumping Alaska pollock from fourth to fifth place on the list. Rounding out the top 10 were catfish, crab, cod   (up 11 percent)  pangasius and clams.

In all, Americans ate 15.8 pounds per person of seafood last year, down from 16 pounds in 2009. To see the power that prices played at the grocery store - in every case where prices increased, consumption dropped. Along with seafood, that included the biggest competing proteins: beef and pork.

A breakdown by Seafood Trend’s Ken Talley shows that pork saw the biggest drop in per capita consumption to just under 45 pounds , down 5%.  Beef was derailed last year as America’s most popular protein. As with pork, the supply of beef was constrained by high production costs which translated and higher retail prices. Beef consumption fell 2.6% to just under 57 pounds per person, the lowest in 10 years.   Less expensive chicken was the big choice by cash strapped Americans last year at nearly 59 pounds per capita, a 3.3% increase.

For those dining out, seafood topped the list of favorites. The annual Zagat survey of 103 US restaurant chains and over 6,000 diners showed the Bonefish Grill at #1 for food, facilities and service as well as best seafood.



This year marks the 21st year for this weekly column that focuses on Alaska’s seafood industry. It began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites. A daily spin off – Fish Radio – airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. My goal is to make all people aware of the economic, social and cultural importance of Alaska’s fishing industry to our state, the nation and the world. 


Laine can be reached at msfish[AT]
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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska


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