The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has been freed from a state hiring freeze so it can advertise for a new domestic marketing director to work in Seattle.
The starting salary is listed at $89,748 per year plus state health and retirement benefits.
Asked about the job posting on Thursday, ASMI Executive Director Alexa Tonkovich at first suggested the hire was exempt from Gov. Bill Walker’s freeze because it was paid for by an “industry assessment.”
When then asked to explain why ASMI was required to get approval for the hire from the governor’s office, Tonkovich said, “that’s the protocol we’re instructed to follow.”
ASMI bills itself as a “public-private partnership between the State of Alaska and the Alaska seafood industry.” It has a $21.5 million budget this year. State budget documents indicate about $3.5 million of that comes out of the state’s general fund. More than $10 million comes from a levy on the catches of Alaska commercial fishermen who pay a “Seafood Marketing Assessment.”
About $4.5 million comes the federal government. Seattle-based fish processing businesses that control commercial fishing in Alaska contribute a pittance. The same processors pay almost nothing in taxes to the state, but commercial fishermen contribute about $78 million per year.
The United Fishermen’s Association, the state’s largest commercial fishing organization, considers the seafood marketing assessment one of those taxes on their $735 million slice of what ASMI says was a $5.9 billion business in 2014.
Tonkovich reached out to some commercial fishermen in August when she was having trouble getting approval to hire a new domestic marketing director.
“As you may know,” she wrote in a Aug. 12 letter to the fishermen and others on her board of directors, “the state of Alaska is in a hiring freeze, and we are having some difficulty in gaining approval to hire for open positions.”
Impossible to do without?
Tonkovich added that she had “great confidence in existing staff and domestic contractors to keep the program running, and I will do everything I can to support them and ensure activities carry on as planned.”
In announcing a hiring freeze in January with the state facing a more than $3 billion budget shortfall, Walker Chief of Staff Jim Whitaker wrote that new and replacement hires would be limited to life- and safety-jobs and “mission critical” assignments impossible to cover by realigning other staff.
State agency heads who thought they had one of those mission-critical positions were told to submit a request to the governor’s office to fill the position. Tonkovich said she wrote up such a request and submitted it to Commissioner of Commerce, Community and Economic Development Chris Hladick, who passed it along.
Tonkovich refused to make a copy of the request available. Such documents are public records in Alaska. Tonkovich said Hladick could release it if he wanted. A copy was not immediately available from the commissioner’s office.
Tonkovich gained approval for the new hire about three weeks after notifying her board of directors she was having a problem. The commercial fishing industry is one of the most powerful lobbies in the state.
“A quick update,” Tonkovich emailed the ASMI board and others on Sept. 1. “ASMI received permission from the Office of the Governor to hire for the Domestic Marketing position, located in Seattle.”
ASMI’s staff is split between the state capital, Juneau, and Seattle, where most of the Alaska fish processing industry is based. Trident, the largest U.S. seafood processor, is there along with Peter Pan Seafoods, Alaska General Seafood, Golden Alaska Seafoods, North Pacific Seafoods and Westward Seafoods. Unisea, another major processor, is based in nearby Redmond, Wash.
Those companies are the backbone of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, a nonprofit, seafood trade association. Deckboss, a respected commercial fishing website, noted the PSPA among 17 commercial fishing groups paying lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to influence Alaska lawmakers in Juneau this year.
No new taxes
Those lobbyists were able to beat back proposed increases in Alaska fish taxes, but legislators did tell the fishing industry it had to find a way to pay for its own marketing instead of asking the state to help foot the bill for an industry that is more Outside than Alaskan.
Along with the Alaska fish processing industry being Seattle based, 81 percent of Bristol Bay fishing permits are now held by nonresidents, according to the Alaska Dispatch News. Bristol Bay is home to the state’s most valuable salmon fishery.
The shift in limited entry permits from Alaskans to fishermen from Outside has not been as severe in other areas of the state as in Bristol Bay, but the shift of fish from average Alaskans to commercial interests since the 1970s has been significant.
About 1,300 Cook Inlet commercial fishermen who historically split an annual catch of about 1.2 million sockeye now harvest about three times that many every year while average Alaskans complain about trouble dipnetting a few salmon in the Kenai River because of inadequate numbers escaping commercial nets.
The struggle over those salmon returning to the waterway at the front door of Alaska’s largest city, coupled with the state costs of subsidizing the management and policing of the commercial fishery for decades, has led some lawmakers to question just how much state money should be pouring into ASMI.
The state budget this year spelled out the “intent of the Legislature that the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute develop a plan to phase out reliance on unrestricted general funds for seafood marketing by fiscal year 2019 and continue marketing on industry contributions.
“Further, it is the intent of the Legislature the plan includes consideration of increasing revenue from industry contributions to (the) maximum allowed by law and deliver a report to the Legislature not later than Jan. 1, 2017.”
And there was one other sentence outlining something the state wanted done:
“It is the intent of the Legislature that all Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute positions are located in Alaska by FY 19.”
Asked why, in light of that declaration, ASMI is again hiring in Seattle, Tonkovich said, “the intent language, and it’s only intent, says 2019.”
The bluest skies
Asked if ASMI planned to move the marketing position to Alaska by 2019, she said, “I don’t wish to comment on that.”
Asked if prospective hires were being told they might have to move to Alaska in 2019, Tonkovich again said she didn’t want to comment.
There is at least one good argument for keeping the domestic marketing job in Seattle. Seattle is the headquarters of the Alaska fishing industry. All important decisions concerning the business get made there.
When ASMI went looking for a public relations agency to help it with marketing in 2014, it barely even considered Alaska businesses given their distance from the power players in the Alaska fishing business. The public relations contract went to “Edelman Seattle,” which is part of a global PR business that runs the biggest spin operation in the country.
“Edelman is known for its at-times controversial tactics. In 2006, the firm was forced to apologize for creating a misleading grassroots campaign for Wal-Mart,” TIME magazine reported last year. “To polish the company’s reputation, the agency had created “Working Families for Wal-Mart,” for which a couple drove across the country blogging positive accounts of the retail giant’s employees and customers — initially without disclosing that they were compensated. The campaign, which launched amid bad press about the company’s employment practices, sought to portray Wal-Mart workers as happy middle-class families.
“More recently, leaked documents revealed Edelman’s aggressive plans to attack opponents of a pipeline being developed by TransCanada Corp. Within days of the leak, TransCanada announced that it was severing ties with Edelman.”
PR, TIME also noted, is moving in on lobbying as the new way to peddle influence.
“Forget lobbying,” the magazine reported. “When Washington, D.C.’s biggest trade associations want to wield influence, they often put far more of their money into advertising and public relations, according to a new Center for Public Integrity investigation.”
UPDATE: This story was updated with new ASMI budget data on Sept. 26, 2016