May 31, 2012 | Volume 42, No.22

Visa program to last through fish season

Seafood processing – at least temporarily – will continue to benefit from a visa program that brings thousands of foreign students to Alaska each summer.

The State Department recently proposed eliminating seafood processing from the J-1 Summer Work Travel program, a move that would have impacted this commercial fishing season. As of early May, the change has been delayed until November.

“I’m disappointed that the administration is implementing some significant changes without the typical formal notice and comment period, but pleased they realized an immediate prohibition would be disruptive to summer salmon fisheries across the state,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a news release.

In April, Mike Forbush of Ocean Beauty Seafoods told the Chilkat Valley News the company’s Excursion Inlet plant, which has around 400 employees, hires about a dozen foreign workers annually who transfer from Bristol Bay. Harry Rietze of Haines Packing Co., the cannery at Letnikof Cove, said his business employed four students through J-1 last summer, out of its approximately 14 total employees seasonally.

The visas are aimed at promoting cultural exchange, but have been criticized for exploiting foreign workers and limiting local job opportunities.

“The new reforms for the Summer Work Travel program focus on strengthening protections for the health, safety and welfare of the participants, and on bringing the program back to its primary purpose, which is to provide a cultural experience for international students,” said Robin Lerner, a deputy assistant secretary for the State Department.

As the federal Office of Management and Budget reviewed the proposal, Alaska’s Congressional delegation argued in support of keeping seafood processing in the program.

A news release from Sen. Mark Begich noted the seafood industry is the largest private sector employer in Alaska, with about 70,000 jobs annually.

“In talking to processors, I continue to urge them to maximize local employment first but for many processors, especially those in remote communities, that local labor pool is insufficient to meet the industry’s needs,” Begich said.