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By JOHN LEE McLAUGHLIN
Daily News Staff Writer
Now appearing more imminent than ever, a state government shutdown would shut down the bread and butter of commercial salmon fishing in southern Southeast Alaska.
And the fiscal failure could strike just as state officials begin ramping up efforts for the traditional July start of those fisheries — that is, drift gillnetting and purse seining — for the summer season.
As of Friday, the Alaska Legislature remained at a political impasse in securing a fully or even partially funded state budget, causing the state to sail toward uncharted waters for the second time in as many years.
Alaska last dodged a state government shutdown in 2015 by passing a partially funded budget on June 11 that year. Now much later in the game, the July 1 start of the 2018 fiscal year lies a mere two weeks away.
Without a budget, the state would be forced to enter a government shutdown, which essentially equates to a furlough of state programming and services, typically during which only essential government tasks are maintained.
A slew of recent state announcements warned, however, that “money has not been appropriated for any government services,” assuring that a complete government shutdown looms for the very near future.
The shutdown effectively would shatter the state's ability to manage commercial fishing efforts, a key economic driver of the region.
As a result, there would be no drift gillnet and purse seine fishing in Southeast Alaska, according to Fish and Game Ketchikan Area Management Biologist Scott Walker.
Walker said even a brief government shutdown could have lasting effects on either fishery, aside from an unrecoverable loss of fish.
“These are our biggest fisheries, and in combination, if you look at seine and gillnet, I mean, we may have 200 to 300 boats down here,” he said.
But those boats might stayed moored, as Walker said the Ketchikan management office has received no indication that the state will remain open as of July 1.
“We've been told that things will shut down,” he said, “and the fisheries will get shut down. There's no stipulation that we've heard where there will be a (small) number of people held on to keep fisheries going.”
Walker said traditional drift gillnet and purse seine fishing efforts typically are running at full steam by the first Sunday of July, which this year coincidentally lands just one day after the feared government shutdown.
“It's all new ground to me, but we've been told by our powers that be that (on) June 30 at 4:30 p.m., we just go home,” he said. “I have in my office here, there's three biologist, three administrative staff (members) and one seasonal technician. And it takes all of us, you know, to prepare for announcements and get all the information.”
“Plus, we have another about 15 people in our salmon research (team) who are out getting scales and looking at sex ratios and getting fish weights and all these sorts of things,” Walker said. “You couldn't have a normal fishery if it's just me sitting in the office.”
Meanwhile, at 5 a.m. Sunday, Fish and Game will open a special four-day window of traditional commercial purse seine fishing in a portion of District 2 near Ketchikan. The open area encompasses waters just east of Prince of Wales Island, between McLean Point Light and the northernmost tip of Polk Island.
Among other restrictions, all waters of the nearby Moira Sound will be closed to purse seine gear.
New this year for District 2, Walker said, no chinook salmon can be retained, landed or sold, including kings caught in the Kendrick Bay Terminal Harvest Area, regardless of fish size.
As fishing progresses, the state will also keep closed District 4 waters west of Prince of Wales Island to help conserve Skeena River sockeye, per the U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty.
“District 4 often times catches 30 percent of the pinks that are caught in Southeast Alaska, and to have it shut down is a very serious move and not done without a lot of consternation,” Walker said.
The added restrictions, although considerable, pale in comparison to the potential state shutdown, according to Southeast Alaska Seiners Association Executive Director Sue Doherty.
“To have a fishery and be able to release the chinook and still harvest the chum, I don't personally see that as an issue,” Doherty said. “You know, for us, the other side is not being able to fish.
“We're more concerned about the government shutdown,” she said.
Doherty said additional shutdown concerns center on how it might later affect the state's ability to manage accurately the fishery, in that the state would not be collecting any of the all-important fish data during a shutdown.
“There's no guarantees, but everybody realizes that you can't run a fishery if you can't manage a fishery,” she said. “So the prime thing is this year's fishery, but then there's a big component of the Fish and Game budget that gathers data for the next year's fishery.”
That's important, she said, because that fish data is used to determine the region's stake in key fishery elements, such as the Pacific Salmon Treaty.
In general terms, less fish data equates to a more stringent state management stance concerning any fishery, thereby limiting the catch.
“So if we can't collect the data that we need for our negotiations in the U.S. and Canada — those treaties are 10-year treaties — if we have a gap in data, especially right now because the (Pacific Salmon Treaty) is being renegotiated, it's really bad timing,” Doherty said.
She said another concern is that state commercial fishing management currently is considered a nonessential state service, meaning it doesn't share the same status as essential services that typically weather government shutdowns.
“Yeah, we're all on pins and needles around here,” Doherty said. “The seiners have had two really horrible seasons, '16 and '15.
“We needed to have a good season this year,” she said.
For commercial drift gillnetting near Ketchikan, Fish and Game will be opening Section 1-B at 12:01 p.m. Sunday through noon Thursday. The area includes Foggy and Tree points. Pearse and Portland canals of that section will be closed north of Akeku Point.
Farther north, District 8 also will be closed for at least the initial opening of summer drift gillnet fishing to help conserve Stikine River chinook.
Different than for seiners, chinook measuring 28 inches in length or less can be retained by the drift-gillnet fleet, and then sold at market.
Restrictions aside, United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association Executive Director Cynthia Wallesz said a government shutdown simply is scary, not only for the fleet, but also for the communities and families that the fleet supports.
“This government shutdown would just turn everything on its head, and it wouldn't just be for this year,” she said. “It's hard to know exactly what would happen.”
“I guess we're just hoping that the Legislature gets it together,” Wallesz said, later adding: “We're going to have two weeks to get our nets in the water, so hopefully it will be a good two weeks.”