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Partial Government Shutdown Hooks Alaska's Fishing Industry

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The fishing in the Bering Sea off Alaska's coast is among the nation's most lucrative. Billions of pounds of fish are caught there each year. January marks the opening of a number of major fisheries in Alaska. And right now with the government shutdown, there are hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue at stake. That's because some of the boats are still missing federal permits and inspections needed before they can leave the docks. Nat Herz with Alaska's Energy Desk reports.

NAT HERZ, BYLINE: Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska, spent his holiday season worried about fish. His office is a conduit to the federal government for the big companies that harvest fish off Alaska's coast. And parts of the federal government were shut down just in time for the opening of a big cod fishery on New Year's Day.

DAN SULLIVAN: Every day, every hour - I was getting emails on January 1, on December 31.

HERZ: The federal government tightly regulates the cod and other fisheries in the Bering Sea. The National Marine Fisheries Service certifies scales that are used to weigh fish. It also trains and debriefs independent observers who ride along on boats to collect data on fish being caught. And the whole agency is short-staffed because of the shutdown. Here's what you hear when you call the Alaska spokesperson for the fisheries service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIE SPEEGLE: I will respond to your message in a timely manner once funds have been appropriated and the shutdown ends.

HERZ: With permitting and inspection obstacles, Sullivan's office was scrambling to get all the boats out to sea.

SULLIVAN: We thought the fishery was good to go, cleared hot. And yet, an issue arose that affected up to eight vessels - Alaskan fisherman - that kind of arose at the last minute that we were not aware of.

HERZ: The boats couldn't get their catch-monitoring plan - that's a data gathering system that ensures compliance with fishing regulations - approved because of the government shutdown, Sullivan says. His office managed to fix the problem with the help of the fisheries service. But now an even bigger season is getting ready to open January 20. The $750 million a year pollock fishery. You might not have heard of pollock, but it's everywhere. Here's Jim Gilmore, a spokesman for a trade group of companies that catch the fish off Alaska's coast.

JIM GILMORE: It's every McDonald's fish sandwich served in North America. It's imitation crab product. It's Gorton's fish sticks. And still, 70 percent of what we catch is exported.

HERZ: Crews are ready for the trip out to the Aleutian Islands. Boats have to stock food and fuel, but there's still uncertainty about who will be able to fish. The shutdown would only have to affect a small number of Bering Sea boats for the economic impact to be substantial. A single fishing trip for a large factory trawler can be worth millions of dollars. Pollock boats that can't get the permits or inspections needed can lease their fishing quota to other vessels if they have to. But, Gilmore says, that would present some serious logistical problems.

GILMORE: It's dealing with the practicalities of taking a $60-million fishing vessel with a crew of 130 people and taking it up to a very remote location and trying to make all that come together in a cost-effective way.

HERZ: One fisheries service branch that's still functioning - its law enforcement arm. It still has offices running in three different regions of Alaska. If boats venture out without the necessary authorizations, they could be cited. For NPR News, I'm Nat Herz in Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.