Cost of Lab Fees Could Put Geoduck Divers Out of Business

Restrictions imposed by China’s government to stem the spread of the coronavirus shut down markets for Alaska’s $4 million plus geoduck fishermen in 2020.Now harvesters are worried that proposed state of Alaska fees will shut them down forever.
Under Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget, harvesters represented by the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Association (SARDFA) would have to pick up the cost of the federally approved state laboratory in Anchorage, Alaska, for testing for paralytic shellfish poisoning and other toxins starting in the fall of 2021, when the new budget goes into effect.

“In every other coastal state, and they all have shellfish industries, the state pays for everything (testing), said Phil Doherty, co-director of SARDFA. “We are the only state in the United States of 23 coastal states that puts the burden on commercial fishermen. The state of Alaska has paid the cost of PCP lab testing for the last 30 years. This would be the first time a user fee was imposed,” he said.

Geoducks are routinely shipped to and marketed live in saltwater tanks in Chinese markets and restaurants. The firm, salty meat is enjoyed raw in sushi, but when the coronavirus hit China in January the government closed down live markets, and cargo planes stopped going into China, leaving SARDFA harvesters with no place to sell their catch in 2020, Doherty explained.

“We started fishing in October every week and in January we closed down because China was closed down. We have not fished since the second week in January. By then harvesters had brought in 260,000 pounds of geoducks and if markets were available, they would have another 350,000 pounds left for this year’s harvest,” he said.

If and when the closure on markets and air cargo travel will be lifted remained an unknown, but meanwhile SARDFA was working with Alaska legislators in hopes of preventing the inclusion of legislation that would force them to pay the PSP testing fees.

SARDFA already assumes the $150,000 annual cost to collect samples through a 7 percent assessment tax on landings, plus about $20,000 for water quality testing required by the federal and state governments. SARDFA also tests geoducks for inorganic arsenic and then there is the overhead for the association itself, which adds up to over $250,000 a year, according to Doherty.

“In some years it exceeds the amount of the assessment tax,” he said. If Dunleavy’s proposed new user fee for the lab becomes law “we don’t have any more money and we would have to close down,” he said.