Legislature(2003 - 2004)
03/23/2004 01:35 PM L&C
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
HJR 34-FED TRAINING AND ASSISTANCE FOR FISHERMEN CHAIR CON BUNDE announced CSHJR 34(FSH) to be up for consideration. MS. MELISSA DOVER, staff to Representative Dan Ogg, sponsor, said the HJR 34 asks Congress to make trade adjustment assistance a better fit for commercial fishermen. Last year commercial fishermen became eligible to receive trade adjustment assistance through two programs. One of them is a Department of Labor program that expends retraining benefits and the other is a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program that gives cash benefits up to $10,000. For a variety of reasons the programs have not fit very well for commercial fishermen - mostly because they were designed for agricultural workers. Things like receiving Exxon-Valdez payments made fishermen ineligible for the programs. HJR 34 asks for four specific things - the first is that USDA give price adjustment benefits to Alaska salmon fishermen who fished five out of six years from 1997 to 2002 and subsequent qualifying years if they can prove lost income or market share in any one of those five years due to imports. It also asks that the U.S. Department of Labor extend retraining benefits to Alaskan salmon fishermen who fished in the same years even if they did not fish in the preceding year due to impacts from price fluctuations or loss of market. Some people were not able to fish, especially last year, simply because they lost their market. Third, HJR 34 asks Congress and the USDA to make Alaska salmon a covered commodity, which would make Alaska salmon fishermen eligible for other disaster and price support benefits. This is something that Senator Murkowski hopes to get passed this year. Lastly, it asks Congress to pursue a program that is designed specifically for commercial fishermen so that they don't have the same problems in the future. CHAIR BUNDE asked how fishermen prove they have lost price due to imported fish. MS. DOVER replied that currently the USDA is not disputing the fact that prices have plummeted due to imports. MR. MARK VINSEL, Executive Director, United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA), added that UFA filed the petition that successfully qualified all five species of Alaska salmon for the USDA trade adjustment assistance. The Foreign Agricultural Service has determined that increased imports were a significant factor in the price decline according to guidelines in the program for all five salmon species. CHAIR BUNDE asked if the retraining program is designed to make fishermen better fishermen or to get them to move out of the fishing industry. MR. VINSEL replied that part of the program includes technical assistance training to show fishermen ways to be more efficient and other ways to get more income by diversifying their fishing business. The cash price adjustment helps fishermen to adjust financially to the impact imports have already had on their business. CHAIR BUNDE noted that he's often thought of commercial fishing as a way of life rather than a career choice. As I've told Senator Stevens from time to time, I believe in separation of church and state, so we ought not to be putting money into fishing that's a religion. SENATOR RALPH SEEKINS asked Mr. Vinsel to define an Alaskan salmon fisherman. MR. VINSEL replied that the petition included all permit-holding Alaska salmon fishermen throughout the state, all crew members if they could should show a crew license, which doesn't say which kind of fishery or species, and a letter from a captain stating that they did have a share in a catch of salmon. Fishermen of both crew and fishermen categories of the Metlakatla Indian Association are included. SENATOR SEEKINS asked, of the qualified fishermen, how many are Alaska residents. MR. VINSEL replied that he didn't have statistics for crew members, but of the permit holders, about 70 to 75 percent are residents. CHAIR BUNDE asked if it was possible for the State of California to have a program like this and that fishermen could possibly double dip and apply in both states? MR. VINSEL replied: This is a federal USDA program and the commodity that UFA qualified through our petition is all Alaska salmon. The Farm Service Agency of the different states is cast with following through with helping with the application process so basically the qualification of Alaska salmon is by the permit holder fishing fishermen from other states as well. They are included in the program. In addition, Washington State salmon, other than their pinks and chums were qualified.... California salmon - I don't think that they applied. Oregon salmon applied and were not approved. Alaska salmon - all five species were approved and it's a commodity-based program, so it's really based on the fish and that's where there's a little bit of misconception and the price adjustment is based on the poundage of fish during the year under the petition. SENATOR SEEKINS said the reason he asked is because language on pages 2 and 15 talks about Alaska salmon and that led him to think about Alaska residents who fish for the Alaska salmon. He thought language on line 15, "whereas alternative job opportunities are uncommon in many of the rural areas where Alaska salmon fishermen live", is a little misleading and was concerned about temporary people who come to Alaska from the Lower 48 to fish for a season and then want to get benefits because they are "Alaska salmon fishermen." SENATOR SEEKINS wanted to know how many members of the United Fishermen of Alaska actually live in Alaska and don't just fish here. He is not sympathetic to transients who come up here to take advantage of Alaska's disaster. CHAIR BUNDE said he would get an update of those numbers for him. SENATOR GARY STEVENS commented that Senator Seekins' concern has troubled all people in the fishing industry. Often permits are held by people who are not Alaska residents, but he hesitated to call them transients, because many had been fishing in Alaska for 20, 30 or 40 years. Charging non-residents more for their permits was found to be unconstitutional. Much of the industry has been created by people from outside Alaska and it's an issue that he didn't want to tackle. He asked Mr. Vinsel if there was any element of the retraining that would take fishermen out of the fishing industry. MR. VINSEL answered that the technical training part of it is specific to fishing and helping people be better fishermen, but the Department of Labor program, which a fisherman automatically qualifies for if he qualifies for the USDA program, previously required that a fisherman had to be part of an employee worker group. Employees of processors qualified for that, but not fishermen. That program is a retraining program to offer alternative work and new career paths. It includes other jobs that could go hand in hand with seasonal fishing. SENATOR GARY STEVENS stated that the salmon industry is in a crisis because of farming and hopefully it will come back, but it would take a while. Fishermen can train for fishing in undersubscribed fisheries - specifically the pollock jig fishery. CHAIR BUNDE asked if a person who lives in Seattle and fished in Kodiak for the last 20 years could take advantage of this program. That person could retrain and go from an oversubscribed to an undersubscribed fishery and thereby compete with an Alaska resident. "There could be a downside to this as well. Is that not possible?" SENATOR GARY STEVENS responded, "I would think that in a jig fishery, which is a year-round fishery...that person would probably become an Alaska resident, I would think...." SENATOR SEEKINS asked why those particular dates were selected. MR. VINSEL answered that 2001/2002 is the specific year of price decline for which UFA applied and a full year of data was needed for the application; 2003 was still in progress at the time. The concept should be carried forward into the 2003/2004 petition cycle, for which the salmon species will still probably be qualified. SENATOR HOLLIS FRENCH said language on page 2 was confusing, because it first states that fishermen experience reduced earnings due to a decline in price, but went on to say they couldn't show that. MR. VINSEL replied that is the crux of the problem with the specific net fishing income decline requirement for benefits. Salmon prices went down over the whole five-year period. It was a slam-dunk in getting the salmon qualified based on the numbers. And if somebody had $1 less fishing income in 2001, then they made $1 more than that in 2002, even though it's pretty much understood that both years were pretty poor, they wouldn't qualify for this program. So, the net fishing income decline is really the crux of the resolution, in my opinion. It's the main reason why many salmon fishermen weren't able to qualify for the benefits in the program. It's what we expect to have some possibility to work on with the USDA in fine-tuning the program. SENATOR FRENCH asked if the net decline was different than the annual decline. MR. VINSEL answered: The requirement for benefits in the program is a net decline in all fishing income. In my opinion, more or less rightly so, taking into effect that if you were a farmer or a fisherman and were already diversified and you made up on other species from the poor fishing in salmon - or say you grew another crop, because you knew the price would be low on your corn and so you grew potatoes or something like that.... Things like Melissa mentioned, like the Exxon Valdez payments and any other things that are ultimately in your tax returns in the fishing income category - that kept other people from qualifying. We believe these are not necessarily in the statutes; they were interpreted by the USDA as this was the first year of this program. Partly in their haste in the challenge of processing the potential large number of fishermen that may apply, which is a little beyond what the program was designed to do when it was started with farmers in mind. When they added fishermen, it made some procedural challenges - especially in Alaska where we didn't have a large infrastructure of Farm Service Agency offices.... SENATOR FRENCH said he heard him saying that net decline in fishing earnings is just a different measure than simply fishing earnings by themselves. MR. VINSEL sought to clarify further that the net fishing income on tax returns includes Exxon Valdez payments and other work a fisherman does with his boat. The original program started out with net farming income, which might not be as complicated as fishing income. SENATOR SEEKINS moved to pass CSHJR 34(FSH) from committee with individual recommendations. CHAIR BUNDE asked for a roll call vote. Senators Hollis French, Bettye Davis, Gary Stevens, Ralph Seekins and Chair Bunde voted yea: and CSHJR 34(FSH) moved from committee.