Fishing Still Crucial to Peninsula, Says State Economist

Shaylon Cochran

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     After this year’s poor fishing season, the call has been made by fishermen and political leaders for more economic data concerning the role of commercial and sportfishing in the local economy.  The first small steps toward getting that information were taken this week.

     At the invitation of Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, University of Alaska economist Dr. Gunnar Knapp delivered a presentation to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly at its meeting this week outlining some possibilities for an economic study to examine just how much the local fishing industry drives the local economy.  Knapp was able to answer that question in very broad terms Tuesday evening.

     “You’ve got three communities in the borough that are among the top commercial fishing ports in the United States,” Knapp said. "This is big time.  Alaska’s big time in US commercial fishing and the Kenai Peninsula Borough is big time in Alaska."

     Over the past ten years, the fishing industry, and chiefly the salmon industry, have seen strong prices in demanding markets - to the tune of $50 million in revenue generated toward fishermen in the Borough in 2011, Knapp told the Assembly.

     And that’s just the start.

     “You can more than double that if you look at the wholesale value of the salmon production that takes place in the Borough.  Basically the processing industry more than doubles the value of the harvesting,” said Knapp.

     And it doesn’t stop there.

     “You can double it again in wholesale value if you look at the other species that are landed in the Borough and processed here,” he said.

     That’s a rough estimate of some $200 million attached to just the commercial fishing industry.  Add to that what sport fishing contributes, and then the tourism spending that comes along with it and you get some idea of just how important these industries are.

     Navarre said part of the reason behind Dr. Knapp’s visit and presentation was to weed out what the focus areas of any study might be.

     “Because obviously you can spend a lot of money on studies but if you don’t have a specific purpose and use for it then all you’re doing is putting another study on the shelf,” Navarre said.

     The cost of a study, of course, depends on what’s being studied, for how long and to what degree.  Dr. Knapp said the state has put some effort toward compiling this sort of information, but that information doesn’t tell the whole story.  As an example, he cites a lack of data about commercial fishing crews.

     “There was a major effort put forward to collect exactly that kind of information. People were frustrated because this state where we’ve got tens of thousands of people working in fishing as fishing crew, we don’t have any data on who the people are or how many there are or what they earn and so on,” Knapp said.  

     "Politics got in the way of starting to collect that,” he said.

     Dr. Knapp recognized that economic analysis of the fishing industry does little good if there aren’t any fish to catch, a problem faced by many this past season.

     “If I could spend money and figure out how to get the chinook salmon to come back, what happened and how to fix that and if a study would show that, I’d sure spend it on that before I’d do an economic study,” he said.

     Navarre said the first step is to have staff begin to gather the appropriate data and from there the decision can be made about whether or not to commission a full study and what that would entail.

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