By Laine Welch
Alaska’s seafood industry worked hard this year to ramp up its message to policy makers, especially those from rail belt regions who tend to overlook the industry’s economic significance.
How important is the seafood industry to Alaska and the nation? At a glance: 62 percent of all U.S. seafood landings come from Alaska … 96 percent of all wild- caught salmon come from Alaska … Seafood is by far Alaska’s #1 export, valued at nearly $2 billion (next in line: zinc and lead at $785 million) … Alaska ranks 9th in the world in terms of global seafood production.
The seafood industry is second only to Big Oil in revenues it generates to Alaska’s general fund each year. The industry provides more Alaska jobs than oil/gas, mining, tourism and timber combined.
Here are some fishing notables from 2010, in no particular order, followed by my annual ‘fish picks and pans’:
The University of Alaska created a center devoted entirely to ocean acidification studies. Meanwhile, acid levels in the Gulf of Alaska and the Chukchi and Bering Seas continued to increase faster and more severely than previously thought. Catch share programs became the preferred tool for managing U.S. fisheries. Federal managers budgeted $54 million as ‘incentive’ for catch shares to catch on in fishing regions.
The North Pacific Council approved sweeping changes to its fishery observer program that will include all vessels longer than 40 feet.
Alaska’s biggest fishery rebounded on schedule to accommodate a 2011 pollock catch of nearly three billion pounds, a 54 percent increase over the past two years (but in line with the average catch for the past 30 years.)
Kodiak and Sitka were the latest fishing towns to add some local catch to their school lunch menus, following Dillingham, Kenai, Fairbanks and Mat-Su.
The Chuitna coal mine project set its stakes (literally) on setnet lease sites in Upper Cook Inlet. The sites would make way for a 2-mile dock to shuttle coal to ships.
Halibut prices seldom dipped below $5 per pound, boosting the value of the fishery to $193 million, an increase of $61 million over 2009.
Halibut catches continued a downward trend and managers plan to trim the harvest again in 2011. Halibut catches in Southeast Alaska have dropped by more than 60 percent over the past five years.
Alaska salmon fishermen were paid an average of $.66 per pound this year, a 16 percent increase over 2009.
The 2010 catch of 169 million salmon was the 11th largest on record. The dockside value of almost $534 million was an increase of nearly 30 percent and the best showing in 18 years.
Two areas, Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound, accounted for 55 percent of the value of the total Alaska catch.
Prince William Sound set a record with a total catch of 75.4 million –nearly 45 percent of all salmon harvested in Alaska this year! The PWS harvest of 69 million humpies accounted for 66 percent of Alaska’s total pink salmon catch.
Norton Sound fishermen saw some of the best chum salmon runs in 25 years. At Kotzebue, the chum catches tracked the best in 15 years. Upper Cook Inlet fishermen hauled in a huge 2.7 million sockeye harvest, almost a million more fish than expected. King salmon continued to decline on the Yukon River.
A surprise pink salmon fishery at Bristol Bay (Nushagak) attracted 60 boats and 35 setnetters who pulled in over one million humpies along with 60,000 cohos. It’s been so long since a pink and coho salmon fishery occurred, managers had no numbers to compare the catches to.
Peter Pan Seafoods and Bristol Bay fishermen were recognized by Alaska Head Start Association for providing local salmon to children and elders throughout Southwest Alaska.
Frankenfish! After a decade of debate, the Food and Drug Administration officially proposed regulations to allow genetically modified animals for human consumption. First up: a salmon that grows up to 30 times faster than normal. Alaska Senators said they will try and stop the fish from ever getting to market.
Salmon “e-tenders” field tested a new system that computes the number of fish delivered, weights, species, then prints out a fish ticket and tally sheet.
It turns out that the deadliest catch is the safest catch. A federal report showed that salmon fishing is Alaska’s most dangerous fishery with 39 fatalities over the past decade. That compares to a death toll of 12 Bering Sea crabbers during the same time.
For the 21st year in a row Dutch Harbor ranked as the nation’s #1 port for seafood landings. Kodiak ranked #4, up from the #5 spot. Eleven Alaska fishing towns made the list of top 50 U.S. ports.
Americans ate slightly less seafood – 15.8 pounds per person, the lowest level since 2002. Beef is still what’s for dinner: 108 pounds per capita, followed by 73 pounds of poultry.
Alaska king crab also fetched some of the highest prices ever. Bering Sea crabbers got an advance of $6.25 a pound, compared to $4.76/lb last year
Higher fish prices drove up both the demand and value for fishing permits and IFQs/catch shares in most regions of the state.
The story of Yukon River salmon claimed a food Oscar from the James Beard Foundation as part of a PBS series called “Chefs A’ Field.”
Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley became home to 1,744 fishing permit holders – the most in Alaska.
Amidst much controversy, federal managers closed huge fishing regions to allegedly protect sea lions in the western Aleutians. Economic losses to the cod and Atka mackerel fisheries are estimated at $200 million a year.
President Obama withdrew offshore oil and gas leases for Bristol Bay and the eastern Bering Sea, at least until 2017. The area encompasses 5.6 million acres of fishing grounds that supply more than 40% of the total U.S. seafood harvest.
Two hundred Alaska fishermen field tested PFDs (personal flotation devices) as part of a national study and rated the Mustang inflatable PFD the highest.
The two year project to collect labor data on Alaska deckhands imploded when concerns by United Fishermen of Alaska stopped it from advancing to state lawmakers. At issue: skippers, not crew, would be tasked with all the paperwork.
All of Alaska’s cod fisheries merited an eco-label from the international Marine Stewardship Council.
Alaska’s sustainable fishery resources remained the envy of all other seafood producing nations. Alaska’s fishery management and stewardship is regarded as a model around the world.
2010 Fish Picks and Pans
Best Fish Samaritans – Saving Robinson Crusoe: N. Pacific fishing groups raised $85,000 in cash and gear to restore the remote South Pacific Island’s “lifeblood” lobster fishery after it was destroyed by a tsunami.
Fondest fish farewell: Capt. Phil Harris, F/V Cornelia Marie
Best fish invention: The rubberized canvas Salmon Slide that prevents fish from being dropped on the hard deck.
Worst Fish omission – Leaving Alaska fishermen out of the Farm-to-School Act (HB 70) that was signed into law by Governor Parnell. The Act will “facilitate increased procurement of Alaska-grown food by schools,” and provide “an opportunity for Alaska’s farmers and gardeners to develop a dependable new income stream.”
Best ‘futuristic’ fishing town: Sitka – for turning local herring into fish feeds for Alaska’s salmon hatcheries, launching the first Community Supported Fisheries project, which pre-sells shares of local catches directly to customers, and investing directly in its future fishermen.
Best Alaska fishing icons: Bering Sea crabbers
Biggest fish fiasco: Ocean zoning, or ‘Marine Spatial Planning’
Best fish feeders: Sea Share, American Seafoods Company, At-sea Processors Association for donating millions of fish meals to national food banks
Biggest no clue about fish: Joe Miller
Best She Fish: Cora Campbell, Commissioner ADF&G
Best fish byproducts booster: Peter Bechtel, UAF/USDA
Biggest fish blunder – DNR not posting public comment notices for the Chuitna coal mine project
Scariest fish story: ocean acidification
Best fish news site: www.seafood.com
Best fish PR: Norton Sound Seafood House opening at Ted Stevens Int’l Airport/Anchorage
Biggest fish snub: Pebble Mine CEO, Cynthia Carroll to Bristol Bay residents
Biggest fish waste: Alaska spending $20 million on Peruvian fish feed for its 33 salmon hatcheries while sending 200,000 tons of home made feeds to Asia.
Best fish bash: Symphony of Seafood
Best fish advocate: Jack Schultheis, Kwik-Pak Fisheries, Emmonak
Trickiest fish conundrum: Millions of pounds of halibut taken as bycatch while sport and commercial catches get trimmed. Huh?
Biggest fish sigh of relief: Senator Lisa Murkowski staying in D.C.
Biggest fish story of 2010: The loss of Sen. Ted Stevens
This year marks the 20th year for this weekly column that focuses on Alaska’s seafood industry. It began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites. A daily spin off – Fish Radio – airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. My goal is to make all people aware of the economic, social and cultural importance of Alaska’s fishing industry to our state, the nation and the world.
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