Medvejie Hatchery south of Sitka is one of the salmon enhancement facilities operated by NSRAA. (Photo courtesy of NSRAA)

Medvejie Hatchery south of Sitka is one of the salmon enhancement facilities operated by NSRAA. (Photo courtesy of NSRAA)

Commercial fisheries have never been more important to Southeast Alaska, and the region’s hatchery programs are a critical part of that success.

That was the message Steve Reifenstuhl delivered to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (Wed 2-5-14).

Reifenstuhl is the general manager of the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association based in Sitka. NSRAA is one of two regional nonprofit hatchery programs in the panhandle, and one of the most successful in the state.

In this brief excerpt, Reifenstuhl runs the numbers.

Here’s what the fishing community brings to Sitka–to Sitka’s economy. Nearly 2-thousand people earn money catching fish or processing fish in Sitka. It’ by far the largest employer. Eleven percent of Sitka’s population fishes commercially. Think about it: that’s over one in ten. We have three major processors in town and a combined payroll of $13.5-million. In 2013 they processed 90 million pounds of fish, valued at $72-million. That’s to the fishermen, referred to as ex-vessel value. The first wholesale value of this fish is somewhere around $150-million, as it goes out the processor’s door. And as it swirls around Sitka’s economy, it has a total economic output of over $200-million. That’s just for one year.

Listen to Reifenstuhl’s entire presentation to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce.

Except for a brief detour to Silver Bay Seafoods, Reifenstuhl has been at NSRAA for his entire 34-year career. He discussed the circumstances in the 1970s that led to the creation of NSRAA and its counterpart, the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association — also known as SSRA.

There have been lean years in NSRAA’s history, but not recently. Last season alone it contributed over $20-million in value to the commercial fisheries.

Now, no individual fisherman is getting rich off this. I don’t want you to think that. There are roughly one-thousand hand trollers, but the permit holders that focus much of their time during the season are the power trollers (just under a thousand of those), the seiners (380 of those), and gillnet (425). So roughly 2,000 dedicated fishermen fishing each summer on salmon. That money gets spread among them. I thought it was important not to have a misconception — $20-million is a lot of money. But when you think of it spread out, it’s very helpful but it’s not enough to pay all the bills. Wild stocks are what they really depend on to make their season.

In his half-hour presentation, Reifenstuhl stressed the value of the guided sport fisheries in Sitka, and the contribution of both the commercial and guided sport sectors to Sitka’s tax base.

But he did give the commercial sector exclusive credit for one thing: Voluntarily imposing a 3-percent tax on their harvest to support the nonprofit hatchery programs. An investment of about $33-million over the decades, he said, that has produced value of almost $234-million.

He told the chamber, “I want that to be your takeaway.”

KCAW’s Rachel Waldholz contributed to this story.