By Peter Loewi
For the first time since January 2020, the public was able to attend the board meeting and annual meeting of the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, held November 2-4 in Nome. There was no audience present.
The board approved this year a community benefit sharing of $100,000 per community. This is in addition to the $2.94 million already approved for fuel subsidies and recovery from former Typhoon Merbok.
Wednesday was for committee meetings, the full board met on Thursday, and Friday was the annual meeting of members and the annual meeting of directors. On Friday, the newly elected board members were sworn in and received their committee assignments.
A number of personnel discussions within the Rules and Regulations Committee, as well as most members of the Finance Committee, took place in executive session.
Jim Menard, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Area Manager, joined the online meeting to provide an overview of the past season. For salmon, the off-vessel value was about the same as last year, he said, at $466,000. In 2021, it was $451,000, two amounts considerably lower than in the late 2010s, where it ranged from $1.2 million to a record high of $4 million in 2018. For 2021, did t he says, most of the payment was for the pink salmon fishery, but in 2022 the chum and silver salmon harvests were up, bringing in more. The number of friends was better than last year, but also not like the last teenagers; mate counts were low in the south but improved as they moved north.
The number of permits fished was down. The average over the last five years was 138 but there were only 108 this year.
Menard was asked by Nome board member JT Sherman about commercial pink salmon fishing openings. Menard explained that they could have been open much longer than they were, but buyer capacity was limited due to the crab focus and then a line issue with the chiller.
After salmon, the discussion turned to crab. Menard said that while he didn’t have the preliminary numbers, it looked like the indicative harvest level, GHL for short, would increase next year. The price of the crab was still unknown. “With the snow crab fishery closed, who knows what the price of Norton Sound red king crab will be,” he said.
Following Menard’s presentation, Tyler Rhodes, NSEDC Director of Operations, presented the report on fisheries research and development. He announced that Renae Ivanoff, a longtime program biologist, had become the director. Rhodes said they were finally able to complete their blue king crab investigation. By sampling at 42 stations, they found that 31 stations had at least one blue crab. They found 31 women, 52 sublegal men and 24 legal men.
Despite a late start due to weather and adapting to a new normal of high water impacts, all of their salmon count projects have gone well, Rhodes said. They had “just enough staff to operate,” he said. Some NSEDC projects have been hit by staffing issues, such as Clean Waters beach cleanups. They have hired a new biologist to work at Unalakleet and will be adding another. Both had been fisheries technicians, received NSEDC scholarships and returned to work, which Rhodes called a success for their scholarship program.
In the third quarter, the NSEDC awarded 108 scholarships totaling more than $332,000 and declined 43 applications. That leaves $558,000 on their $1.4 million budget for the year. The committee had increased scholarship amounts in the past for similar reasons and considered surveying students and providing more opportunities to explore careers.
Norton Sound Seafood Working Group
NSSP Director of Operations Justin Noffsker guided committee members through the season. In Nome, the focus was on crab and they paid $3.75 million to 25 fishermen for 309,000 pounds. The only hiccup, which was described once as a “headache” and then again as a “catastrophic failure,” was a hole in the coolant line.
In a follow-up email, Rhodes explained that the line had developed small holes that allowed water to enter the crab line’s overall refrigeration system. “This forced us to forgo the purchase of crab during a five-day window between June 26 and June 30. On June 30, we were able to get crab deliveries to a processing vessel that we had under contract while repairs were being made to the system at the Nome plant. . We were able to resume processing at the Nome plant on July 8. The new unit arrived later in the season, and we will be purchasing and installing additional refrigeration components before the start of next season,” Rhodes wrote.
At Unalakleet they worked on the roses, largely without interruption.
The Nome and Unalakleet dormitories, which sleep around 30 people in total, were at full capacity for the season, but staffing was a recurring theme. Nome NSSP factory manager Josh Osborne noted 18 community hires and 45 local hires, but ship manager Martin Lewis said they had struggled to find deckhands.
Rhodes, via email, explained that “We have been delighted to once again be able to offer our regional recruitment program to bring residents from the member community to Unalakleet and Nome for positions in our seafood factories. This program was suspended in 2020 due to COVID and reduced participation in 2021 due to reduced work opportunities associated with salmon and crab fishing failures that year. A resumption of activity in 2022 has once again enabled us to better exploit the program.
Noffsker ended his report by saying that the season had ended with the typhoon and their early preparations had paid off. The only issue was with Shaktoolik’s floating docks being swept away. Although they have been located, it is not clear if they are recoverable, and so far the only disaster funding that has been offered has been loans, an issue that other entities in the region also expressed.
Wednesday’s finance committee was the only committee meeting with public comment. Isaiah Towarak asked about long-term plans for future operations and the impact of the pandemic and rising interest rates. NSEDC President and CEO Ivanoff noted that there was an investment portfolio review on the agenda, but it was to be discussed at an executive meeting.
During the open sessions, two topics took up most of the discussion. The first was a capital budget request of $33,501 for the replacement of the chiller at the Nome plant. Rhodes said the failed part was already due for replacement, but supply chain issues had delayed installation. To prevent similar issues from happening again, this request was to purchase, ship and install parts of similar age.
The request has been approved to switch to full board.
The other subject of discussion was bulk fuel receivables and more particularly, the increase in the price of propane in the villages, which was discussed at length on Thursday during the meeting of the board of directors. Dan Harrelson of White Mountain, said he was told propane, which currently costs $285 for a 100-pound bottle, could reach $800 a bottle.
Quota and Acquisitions Manager Simon Kinneen said they were hoping for a quota increase for the coming year but still called it a good year despite the low quotas. “Prices remain high, which we are happy with,” he said. Despite the crab closures, he said, “we are very grateful to be well invested in golden king crab, which looks very promising for the future.”
Community Benefit Sharing
In August, the council approved a special CBS with the aim that communities use it to subsidize the cost of fuel oil. Rhodes asked the board to authorize the revision of the guidelines. When initially proposed, the funding would be distributed through a process similar to that of the NSEDC Energy Grant. Rhodes suggested distributing it based on the number of households in the community. The council accepted the amendment. The administration of the grant rests with each community, and at least five communities have already received the funding. Rhodes encouraged community members to contact their city administration to find out how the distribution would be implemented.
Director of Community Benefits Paul Ivanoff III said in addition to the $575 per household fuel subsidy and $100,000 per community for disaster recovery, now was the time to report the sharing amount 2022 community benefits. With a motion on the table to approve an additional $100,000 per community, two board members questioned the long-term viability of “such generosity.”
NSEDC President and CEO Janis Ivanoff said while these concerns are valid, “at this time we are comfortable as your staff with a community benefit share of $100,000 for 2022”. All board members voted to approve the amount.
Other new business on the agenda included grants for Head Start teachers from Kawerak to pursue a semester of higher education, community energy fund requests from Gambell and Teller, and major infrastructure fund requests from Stebbins and St. Michael.
The annual membership meeting lasted less than 15 minutes and was mostly devoted to member feedback, all of which was appreciation from staff and the board. CEO Janis Ivanoff noted that outgoing board members Truman Kava of Savoonga and Oscar Takak of Elim had served 25 years, all but six years since the founding of the NSEDC in 1992.
During the annual trustees meeting, new trustees Art Amaktoolik and Preston Rookok joined re-elected members JT Sherman of Nome, Milton Cheemuk of Saint Michael and Joe Garnie of Teller for an oath of office before discussing the nominations on committees and the election of company officers. Rookok will be a member of the Rules and Regulations Committee and the Scholarship Committee; Amaktoolik will be part of the Norton Sound Fisheries Development Committee and Seafood Working Group.
Unalakleet’s Frank Katchatag was re-elected chairman of the board and White Mountain’s Dan Harrelson won a close re-election as vice-chairman. Shaktoolik’s Harvey Sookiayak was retained as Sergeant-at-Arms. Dean Peterson of Golovin was reappointed to the Executive Committee. Joe Garnie was elected to fill Takak’s seat on the executive committee.