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Alaska Sea Grant releases results of statewide commercial fishing fuel survey

Submitted by Doug Schneider
Phone: 907-479-2126

11/17/08

When Alaska diesel fuel prices surged passed $5 a gallon this past summer, commercial fishermen fished less, skipped openings, fished closer to home and, in some cases, quit fishing before the season ended, all in an effort to save money on fuel.

By far, the most common belt-tightening step was to simply slow down.

"Cutting back a little bit on the throttle is the easiest and most immediate way to conserve fuel, and that's what fishermen did in the short term," said Mark Vinsel, president of United Fishermen of Alaska, an umbrella group representing 37 Alaska fishing organizations.

Some 126 fishermen from across the state responded to an unscientific survey conducted during September and October by the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program and UFA. The survey explored the impacts of high vessel fuel prices on Alaska commercial fishermen during the past summer.

"The responses from commercial fishermen across a broad cross-section of the industry confirm that high fuel costs had a significant impact on how fishermen do business," said Glenn Haight, fisheries business management specialist with the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program.

Among the survey's findings:

" 63 percent of respondents said their fuel expenses more than doubled during the past five years. Forty-three percent said that between ten and 20 percent of their gross income was spent on fuel during the past year.
" Among the most popular techniques fishermen reported using to save fuel were (many fishermen had more than one answer):
Throttling back (76 percent)
Maintaining engine and fuel systems (77 percent)
Good route planning and timing (68 percent)
Keeping a clean hull to reduce drag (56 percent)
Properly tuned propeller (53 percent)
" Nearly 62 percent said the high price of fuel affected the crew. The biggest effect was that fewer or no crew were hired, and crew shares were lower.
" While 62 percent said they believed fishery management decisions affected their fuel consumption, nearly 52 percent said managers should not make resource decisions based on the price of fuel. Thirty-seven percent said they believed fishery managers should consider fuel costs in their decisions.

Some fishermen received help on their fuel costs. Several fishermen reported buying fuel from seafood processors, who bought fuel in bulk and passed the savings on to fishermen. The practice is not unusual, according to Cordova MAP agent Torie Baker.

"Fishermen routinely buy fuel from processor's and their tenders," said Baker. "Processors, especially if they are a larger company in a remote location like the Aleutians or Bristol Bay, are in many cases bringing in barged fuel purchased at bulk rates."

Alaska Sea Grant interim director Paula Cullenberg said she believes the value of the survey will be in helping policy makers and lawmakers design programs to help fishermen weather tough economic times.

"This survey provides them with insights into what fishermen may need, such as loan programs and tax breaks that enable fishermen to upgrade their engines," said Cullenberg.

Cullenberg said the survey provides Alaska Sea Grant with information to develop training workshops, publications, and other tools aimed at helping fishermen save money and improve efficiencies. Sunny Rice, the Marine Advisory Program agent in Petersburg, said the survey has given her some good ideas.

"Many fishermen expressed an interest in getting help to compare different engines and how to effectively use energy saving devices like flow meters," Rice said. "We will be looking at developing ways to give fishermen answers to their questions through new publications and workshops in their communities."

But perhaps the most important finding of the survey is that fuel efficiency is now clearly on the radar of most fishermen. And that, said Sea Grant's Glenn Haight, is probably a good thing.

"Fuel consumption in the production of food is an increasingly important issue," said Haight. "It's easy to see as an environmental issue, through such things as the carbon footprint of the fishing industry, but also through the competitiveness of Alaska as a seafood producer. Bringing down the cost of Alaska seafood production will make our products more attractive around the world."

ON THE WEB: Fuel survey results

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