Alaska’s harbors grapple with rusty pilings and rising costs

a harbor full of docked boats on a cloudy day
Boats moored in the Thomas Basin marina in Ketchikan. (Jack Darrell/KRBD)

Cody Cowan is a fifth-generation Ketchikan fisherman. He’s standing near a boat his grandfather built on the Bar Harbor North floats, a city-owned harbor dock, talking to other fishermen on a clear, snowy day. He’s furious. 

“It’s getting bad,” Cowan says, to nods and echoes from the other men. “And there’s a lot of people just done with it. Like me. Honestly, I’m just done with it.”

A few weeks ago, Cowan was standing behind a podium talking to members of the city council about their proposal to raise harbor rates. Cowan expects his moorage rate to jump from around $1,300 to nearly $2,400 a year. He alleges that with all the other proposed changes, the total cost of keeping the boat his grandfather built in Ketchikan, will more than double.

“This isn’t sustainable. This isn’t a sustainable plan,” he adds.

At a Jan. 4 city council meeting, that proposal to raise harbor rates passed. There was uproar among harbor users like Cowan in and outside council chambers.

The rate change was catalyzed by a study commissioned by Ketchikan Port and Harbors in 2023. The study into harbor rates determined that, essentially, for the city-owned harbors to break even, annual revenue needed to be in the range of $2.5 million. That’s roughly 60% more than the annual revenue in 2022. 

But this reckoning is not unique to Ketchikan. 

The majority of the public boat harbors in Alaska were constructed and funded by the state during the 1960s and 1970s. Over the last 30 years, those state subsidies have dried up for municipal boatyards. As oil production declined, the financial burden of running the harbors has fallen on individual communities.

A 2023 resolution by the City of Valdez urged Gov. Mike Dunleavy to fully fund the state’s grant program for municipal harbors. The resolution, which was republished by the Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators, went on to say that municipal harbormasters inherited a major financial burden that their local governments couldn’t afford. 

“So we no longer have a big brother in the oil companies in the state of Alaska who can subsidize those facilities,” Ketchikan City Manager Delilah Walsh explained. “And that’s what happened in the past. Essentially, the state built these power dam projects, the state built some of the water infrastructure, the roads, the harbor infrastructure, there’s no oil money left to do that anymore.”

The Ketchikan harbor runs on a special revenue fund, meaning they are funded entirely by the fishermen, liveaboards, recreational boaters and others that use the docks. According to Walsh, the bottom line is that life in Alaska, on land and on water, is getting more expensive.

“Inflation goes up, supplies go up, fuel goes up, and we pay water and electric bills as a harbor entity,” Walsh said. “So those prices are going up and rates have to go up because that’s how it works. Whoever uses the harbors has to pay for the harbors.”

A community member at a recent city council meeting suggested spreading the cost out to the entire city. For Walsh, this is where it gets complicated.

“That would mean we’re socializing the harbors, essentially,” Walsh said. It’s a prospect that she said is different from other socialized municipal services like police and firefighters and museums, because the user group is smaller. But how much of a benefit do harbors provide to Alaskan communities as a whole?

Walsh said she doesn’t yet know an economist who’s figured out how to do that calculation.

The other question often asked, especially in Southeast Alaska, is if city officials can look elsewhere for the money, such as the cruise industry. The city receives a “head tax,” a fixed amount per cruise ship passenger that varies depending on the community. Ketchikan’s is $11. That money goes into the city’s Cruise Passenger Vessel funds or CPV. 

Legally, funds provided to the city by the CPV can only be used to directly benefit the cruise ship industry. Walsh said the city is looking at ways that municipal harbor improvements can satisfy that requirement. Like many city officials in Ketchikan, she’s cautious when talking about how the city can use cruise ship funds. 

“We have to be very, very, very careful how we do that, and that it’s well justified,” Walsh added.

But how affordable should it be to have access to Alaska’s waters as an Alaskan? And how does the state measure that value financially? It’s a question Bryan Hawkins, the port director in Homer, has been asking his whole career.

“It’s taken this community a lot of years to get around to the idea of what ownership means and, and our responsibilities,” said Hawkins, who is also president of the Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Directors. Homer bought its harbor from the state in 1999 for $1, and with it came years of deferred maintenance. Hawkins says he believes that for many communities in Alaska, harbors mean survival.

“It’s not just the end of the road and a connection to the water for the people who work on land,” he said. “It’s the beginning of the road for everybody who doesn’t have a road connection.”

There is a saying among harbormasters that if you want to build a city in the wilderness, build a harbor, and the city will grow around it. In Ketchikan, fisherman Cody Cowan stands on a dock that is a little rustier than the one his grandfather once used, trying to figure out if he can afford to stay.

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