Local grocery and department stores have shelves lined with thousands of items, the great majority of which didn't originate in Alaska. So where did those potato chips come from? What size was the barge that brought those vacuum cleaners here? How many bicycles came in the latest shipment?
While the general public may not spend much time pondering those questions, the reality of what it takes to bring goods to the state is truly a testament to Alaska's robust tug and barge industry, which serves a critical role in the state's commerce.
"We like to think that we're kind of a shining star here, enabling commerce for a broader state," says Michael O'Shea, senior business development director for Cook Inlet Tug & Barge. 'If the maritime industry doesn't work, the state's wheels won't turn. Without us, the truck drivers don't work, the longshoremen don't work. Think about it: the stuff doesn't get on the shelves at Fred Meyer from cars."
Approximately fifty tugboat and barge companies operate more than 150 vessels throughout Alaska's 5,500 miles of inland waterways, more than any other state. State economist Neal Fried says the tug and barge industry is tricky to quantify because its importance isn't necessarily reflected in the jobs that are directly created within the industry but rather the jobs that are created as a result of the work the tug and barge industry accomplishes. He points out that the 2018 Revised Annual Employment and Wages Report shows 1,222 jobs were created in the water transportation industry and yielded approximately $109 million in total earnings, resulting in an annual wage of $89,376 per employee.
American Waterways Operators is the national trade association for the nation's tugboat, towboat, and barge industry. It published a 2017 study, Economic Contribution of the US Tugboat, Towboat, and Barge Industry, that shows that there were 2,040 jobs associated with the industry in 2014 in Alaska. Many of those jobs (890) are indirect employment, with 640 jobs acting as direct employment positions within Alaska's barge and tug industry. That same American Waterways Operators study says the industry yielded approximately $208 million in revenue in 2014.
Developing Western Alaska
Lucas Stotts rarely has a moment to relax from the responsibilities he faces as the Port of Nome Harbormaster. "I'm on the radio 24 hours a day, dispatching vessels in and out of the facility," says Stotts. Because Nome has a limited number of deep docks it can maintain, there is a growing waitlist of people reaching out to Stotts months in advance to book space at the port. Amidst high traffic and...