View the Trout Unlimited economic study.

The final tally is huge – approaching $1-billion. Trout Unlimited’s state director Tim Bristol says he was not expecting anything close to the $986.1 million (to be exact) since the state’s most valuable salmon fisheries, based on price and volume, lay elsewhere.

 “No, we were actually really surprised when we saw how high the figure was. We had done some work out in Southwest Alaska with Bristol Bay, and you always kind of think about that as the big granddaddy fishery. But it turns out Southeast Alaska is worth even more than Bristol Bay.”

Bristol Bay sockeye far outstrip the $261-million value of Southeast salmon on the docks. In fact, Southeast salmon fisheries only account for a little more than a quarter of the state’s salmon production. But the numbers start to add up for Southeast when you throw in the value of the recreational fisheries for both salmon and trout, $204-million, and the subsistence fisheries at over $1-and-a-half million.

And then there’s the economic output of Southeast’s hatcheries. Bristol says many suspected all this fragmented information would add up to something substantial.

“It’s putting a number on something that we are all very familiar with, and we all had our hunches. But we started to look around at the different pieces of information that existed about fisheries in Southeast Alaska and realized that there was no one-stop shopping. You had reports dealing with sport fishing, some information about hatcheries and their contribution, and quite a bit out there about the huge impact that the commercial fishery has on the region, but there wasn’t a place where you could take commercial, sport, subsistence, and hatchery and get all that information in one place.”

About half as many people are employed in the salmon fisheries as work in state and local government in Southeast – just over 7,000 individuals, or 11-percent of the region’s employment. The timber industry, in contrast, produces less than 2-percent of jobs. For research economist Tom Wegge, the number of jobs is more significant than the billion-dollar figure being touted in the press.

“The measure of economic output doesn’t tell you that much in and of itself. The more important number from my perspective is: How many jobs are these fisheries, industries, and hatcheries supporting? How much in personal income, wages, and profits, and so forth? That to me is a more meaningful metric.”

Wegge is based in Sacramento, California, but he’s got a long track record of fisheries-based economics research in Alaska. In the 1980s and 90s he conducted a number of large-scale studies for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game while working for Jones & Stokes, an environmental consulting firm. Since forming his own company, he’s worked as an independent consultant for NOAA Fisheries on a series of salmon management programs.

 Wegge says the Trout Unlimited study took about six months of his firm’s time. No original research was required. He says Trout Unlimited was not asking the impossible; rather, they wanted to know about jobs related to salmon and trout fishing, and about the broader idea of “use value.”

“So there were these two paths that we went down. And treating each of the types of fisheries – commercial, recreational, and personal use subsistence – as its own entity. And then trying to find common measures that could be legitimately added together to come up with a total valuation scheme.”

And now that Trout Unlimited has data of its own, the organization hopes to paint a more accurate picture of the relationship between salmon and forest. Conspicuously absent from the study is any valuation of Southeast’s offshore fisheries – halibut or sablefish – or herring, or shellfish, or dive fisheries. State director Tim Bristol says the study is a first step in changing the way forest resource issues are debated in Southeast Alaska – even for people in the conservation community, who he thinks still “get high-centered on issues of the past.”

He recalls a meeting he had not too long ago with Tongass supervisor Forrest Cole.

“He was talking about how you had to have widgets, something you could report back to the folks back in Washington DC, both the higher-ups in the Forest Service and the congressional delegation, to justify big expenditures of tax money in Southeast Alaska. And we were like, Hey Forrest, salmon’s your widget. Timber may be a contributor, but the real driver – the thing you can point to as a source of production – are salmon.”

Bristol says he hopes also to convey the importance of salmon to local community leaders and economic interests, and then look to balance the fisheries with other economic and development pursuits in Southeast Alaska.
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