Alaska geoduck clams                        Credit: Anchorage Daily News

Alaska shellfish farmers and divers fear they won’t be ‘open for business’ much longer if they are forced to pick up the tab for PSP (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) lab tests as proposed by Governor Dunleavy’s budget.

Geoduck clam divers, for example, pay about $150,000 each year just to collect samples that are sent to a testing lab in Anchorage. They also pay $20,000 for water quality samples twice a year, and $8,000 to test for inorganic arsenic.

“And then we pay ADF&G about $25,000 a year for them to do the management and assessment of the geoduck clam resource.”

Phil Doherty is co-director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Association (SARDFA). Divers also pay $50,000 for SARDFA administrative costs. In all, the total costs add up to $266,00 a year..

“SARDFA is a very unique association within the state of Alaska. We’re the only commercial fishing group or fishery that is taxed through legislative action back 20 years ago, and the tax goes toward managing and assessing the fisheries, and no other fisheries in the state of Alaska does that. So we pay the department to do the work that they need to do. And we pay for all of the PSP sampling that needs to get done. We just don’t pay for the lab costs.”

The geoduck fishery harvests about 650,000 pounds each year valued at around $4 million to about 60 divers.

“So out of that $4 million, you take the 3% fisheries tax, and the geoduck divers already tax themselves 7% for  the SARDFA tax. So  3% of the $4 million is about $120,000 a year that goes to the state via the fisheries tax that goes into the general fund.”

If a user fee of $400 to $700 per sample is added, it would increase divers’ cost to up to $100,000 per year.

“If we were to incur the cost at the lab, we would not have the money to pay for that. And therefore the geoduck fishery would close down and according to a number of the oyster farmers, they cannot handle the extra costs and you’ll start to see oyster firms closed down here in the state of Alaska.”

Doherty adds that Alaska would be the only state that makes its fishermen pick up the testing tab.

“Alaska is the only one that does not pick up close to 100% of the cost of shellfish, whether it’s wild stock or mariculture or farming or harvests in the United States. So Alaska is sitting out there like a sore thumb in charging the shellfish farmers all these costs. It’s not done anywhere else in the United States.”

Meanwhile, 50 or 60 dive boats have been beached for more than a month because their main market in China is closed due to the coronavirus.

Doherty says stakeholders are working hard to inform Alaska legislators that shifting lab fees to shellfish harvesters means many will not be open for business much longer.

“So, to save $60,000 to $100,000 a year at the Anchorage lab,  that would mean a loss to the State of $120,000 a year in geoduck fish taxes, $25,000 in Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game payments and $20,574 for Dept. of Environmental Conservation permits.”