Plunging fish tax payments raise concerns for coming years, Southeast officials say

The F/V Tuckahoe trolls for king salmon on Southeast Alaska’s Outer Coast. (Berett Wilber/KCAW)

Wrangell will receive considerably less in fish taxes than expected this year, city manager Lisa Von Bargen explained at an assembly meeting Tuesday.

“That speaks to the abysmal situation related to the fishing issues in our region,” Von Bargen said.

The money she referred to is the “fisheries business tax” collected outside of municipal boundaries. The state disperses the tax money to communities in the region.

Those communities will get much less than they expected. For instance, Wrangell planned to receive $10,000 dollars this year from the shared fish tax. But, in reality, the city will get just over $1,600.

Municipalities also receive similar taxes for fishery businesses within municipal boundaries. Wrangell’s payment from that tax is lower than expected as well: About $203,000 for the last fiscal year.

What’s more concerning, Von Bargen said, is that the $1,600 payment is based on the 2019 fishing season. As many fishermen and industry workers in the area already know, the 2020 Southeast fishing season was much worse than in 2019.

Because of their higher populations, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell receive the biggest chunk of the shared fisheries tax in central Southeast.

The payments have been dropping for years.

In 2015, for example, Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell and Kake all received sums upwards of $10,000. Sitka’s collected over $40,000 that year. This year, Sitka will receive just $4,000.

Petersburg borough manager Steve Giesbrecht said his borough didn’t overestimate this year’s payment quite as much as Wrangell. But he agreed that seeing the financial effects of a downturn in Southeast fishing is worrisome.

“It has just been bad,” Giesbrecht said, referring to the dwindling salmon fishing returns in the area. “I mean, I’ve got a couple fishermen on our assembly, and our finance director is involved in the industry. And they’ve all been warning — have been talking this up for the last couple of years. And then last year was so bad. I’m not looking forward to looking at (finances) when we start getting into our budget for next year.”

Both Wrangell’s and Petersburg’s managers said the shared, out-of-municipal-boundaries fish tax doesn’t represent a massive piece of their budget. But it’s an indicator of plummeting fish revenue, at a time when the communities are also hurting from the effects of the pandemic and a dismal tourism season last year.

As of Friday, the state’s reporting site shows payments for 2020’s shared fish business tax haven’t been sent yet to Alaska fishing communities.

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