Crew members on the fishing vessel Commodore shovel pollock on the Bering Sea in January of 2019. (Photo by Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

A raw fish tax that’s pumped tens of millions of dollars into coastal communities over the past decade has survived a legal challenge before Alaska’s highest court

The state can tax seafood caught beyond the 3-mile line in federal waters, then loaded on a bulk carrier at the dock for foreign export, without violating provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

That’s according to the Alaska Supreme Court, which released its 31-page ruling Friday.

Fishermen’s Finest, a Washington state seafood company that operates factory trawlers and exports most of its product overseas, had challenged the state’s tax in court. It argued that there are protections against state taxation on shipping in coastal state waters, and a lower state superior court agreed.

But the justices, writing in a unanimous opinion, found that the fees assessed on Fishermen’s Finest’s products are not unconstitutional

“The landing tax is not opportunistic taxation of vessels ‘merely transiting’ adjacent waters without landing or benefitting from any local services,” the justices wrote.

At stake was about $47 million dollars in revenue collected since 2017 — half of which goes to the state, and the other half goes to coastal communities. In the Aleutians, the case was watched with interest, as taxes on the lucrative pollock fishery is a major economic driver in the port of Dutch Harbor and its neighbors

Unalaska’s Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson says the raw fish tax is a major source of the city’s municipal revenue, and local officials had been anxious about the impact of a decision against them. 

“I’m pretty relieved of that,” he told CoastAlaska on Monday. “Because that is roughly 17% of our budget, and it would be devastating to this community.”

The Fisheries Resource Landing Tax has existed since the 1990s and is designed to capture revenue for raw seafood that’s landed on Alaska port docks before it’s transshipped on cargo vessels and sold overseas.