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The heart of the Southeast Alaska economy is its ocean

Despite the fact that Southeast Alaska is 35,000 square miles, we don’t have much in the way of land here. Of that total, only 0.3 percent is owned by communities and private landowners — just 1/3 of one percent. The federal government owns 95 percent of our land base, while the rest is owned by a combination of the State of Alaska and Alaska Native Corporations. But, in addition to the land, there has always been the ocean.

 

The vast shoreline of Southeast Alaska is (by the latest count) 18,500 miles, and saltwater has always acted as a fuel for our economy. For every $4 paid to workers in Southeast Alaska, one of those dollars goes to someone who works directly with the ocean. It could be a commercial fisherman, kayak guide, marine biologist, boat builder, an engineer on the ferry or a Lieutenant with the Coast Guard. But taken together, the more than 400 businesses and government agencies directly tied to the ocean comprise Southeast Alaska’s largest economic sector. In Southeast Alaska there are 8,200 of these “blue workers,” and they earn nearly a half-billion dollars annually.

 

This maritime employment sets Southeast Alaska apart from the rest of the United States. When economists look at an economy to identify the economic drivers, they look at something called a “location quotient” to see what makes a region unique compared to national norms. The national location quotient is 1.0 and thus anything over two (twice as prevalent) is considered to be significant. Maritime jobs are 49 times more prevalent in Southeast Alaska than in the U.S. as a whole.

 

Our economic dependence on the ocean extends beyond direct employment and wages. We import a billion and a half pounds of commodities each year into our region on barges. A million visitors come to Southeast Alaska on 500 cruise ship voyages in the summer, creating their own micro economy of jewelry stores, eateries and excursions. The heart of our seafood industry is the flotilla of 3,000 commercial fishing vessels home-ported in the region. Freight ships move logs and freshly mined ore to markets in the south. Our two public ferry systems provide affordable transportation between communities, increasing access to medical care and camaraderie between regional high schools.

 

We are also maritime manufacturers. We can build 500-foot-long ships, breathtaking sea otter scarfs, and we develop new seafood products that are in turn shipped all over the world. The ocean has steered the Southeast Alaska economy for 10,000 years, yet there are important new opportunities emerging. A $140 million investment into the Ketchikan Shipyard has positioned Southeast Alaska to be a maritime center. Retreating sea ice has increased accessibility to the Arctic and the US Coast Guard is increasing its presence in response. The Coast Guard has recently displaced the Forest Service our number one federal employer in the region — yet another symbol of the movement of our economy from forest to ocean.

 

If the dominant role the ocean plays in our regional economy is news to you, you are not alone. The traditional means of measuring economies are not set up to focus on the maritime sector, and do not make it easy to highlight our blue jobs. Last fall, I was lucky enough to be tasked with analyzing our maritime economy. To find out more, read the Maritime Economy of Southeast Alaska at www.sheinbergassociates.com/maritime-economy-southeast-alaska.