Alaska seafood marketers are facing some strong headwinds heading into 2015, notably, for sockeye salmon and crab.
Snow crab is Alaska’s largest crab fishery, underway now in the Bering Sea. The fleet has a slightly increased 61 million-pound catch quota; boats also are tapping on a hefty bairdi Tanner crab catch, the larger cousin of snow crab.
A 25 percent increase in snow crab, the unexpected 15 million pound Tanner fishery, a weak Japanese yen, plus several million pounds of Russian snow crab from a new fishery in the Barents Sea, (not to mention all the pirated crab) – all are combining to give buyers plenty of choices, said market expert John Sackton.
Alaska still has its share of naysayers who will quibble about the seafood industry’s importance to our great state. They dismiss the fact that fishing was Alaska’s first industry and was fish that spawned the push to statehood.
“The canned salmon plants started in the 1870s and by the early 20th century, canned salmon was the largest industry and generated 80% of the territorial tax revenues. It had a position in the state economy that oil enjoys today,” said fisheries historian Bob King.
Salmon will always be the heart of Alaska’s fisheries, and that’s why most people think of summer as the fishing season. But that’s not the case.
The heart of winter is when Alaska’s largest fisheries get underway each year.
On January first, hundreds of boats with hook and line gear or pots begin plying the waters of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska for Pacific cod, rockfish and other groundfish. Then on January 20th trawlers take to the seas to target Alaska pollock, the world’s largest food fishery with annual harvests topping three billion pounds.
Alaska seafood innovators are getting serious about ‘head to tail/inside and out’ usages of fish parts, and they see gold in all that gurry that ends up on cutting line floors.
Fish oils, pet treats, animal feeds, gelatins, fish scales that put the shimmer in nail polish – “almost anything that can be made out of seafood byproducts has increased in value tremendously in the last few years,” said Peter Bechtel, a US Dept. of Agriculture researcher formerly at the University of Alaska.
In today’s climate of planet consciousness “co-products” is the place to be, Bechtel added.
It went down to the wire, but fishermen were relieved to learn they can continue to hose down their decks without fear of violating the Clean Water Act.
Congress voted unanimously this week to extend a moratorium for three years that exempts commercial fishing vessels 79 feet and under from needing incidental discharge permits from the Environmental Protection Agency for deck wash. The current moratorium, which affects 8,500 Alaska vessels, was set to expire on Dec.18.
The regulation is aimed at preventing fuels, toxins or hazardous wastes from entering the water. That makes sense, said Senator Lisa Murkowski, but needing permits for hosing down a boat is going overboard – especially when recreational boats, even 300 foot yachts, are exempt from the rule.
The Pacific halibut stock appears to be rising from the ashes, and that bodes well for catches in some fishing regions next year. It would turn the tide of a decades-long decline that has caused halibut catches to be slashed by more than 70 percent in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.
Three Alaska areas showed improvement in the annual stock surveys that range from Oregon to the Bering Sea, and could have higher catch levels in 2015. That’s according to information revealed at the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s interim meeting last week in Seattle.
Two are the most prime halibut fishing spots: Southeast and the Central Gulf; the third is the Alaska Peninsula Region.
It’s that time of year when Alaska’s fishery meetings kick into high gear.
The industry will get a first glimpse of potential 2015 halibut catches when the International Pacific Halibut Commission convenes Dec. 2-3 in Seattle. It’s been a wait-and-see attitude among fish circles: Will Alaska’s catch limits again be reduced, down already 70 percent over a decade to just 16 million pounds? Or has the Pacific halibut stock started to rebound as some of the science indicates?
Alaska is poised for some big fish stories next year, based on predictions trickling in from state and federal managers.
For the state (and nation’s) largest fishery — Alaska pollock — the Eastern Bering Sea stock has more than doubled its 10-year average to top nine million tons, or 20 billion pounds.
And the stock is healthy and growing, according to annual surveys.
“It is one of the most stunning fisheries management successes on the planet,” said global market expert John Sackton about pollock numbers released by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. He said Alaska pollock represents 40 percent of global whitefish production.
Commercial fishing jobs grew last year to a level not seen since the year 2000, according to the State Department of Labor. Driven primarily by an increased salmon harvest — notably from the record run of pinks — fishing jobs grew by nearly 2.5 percent last year. That brought the annual monthly average to 8,400 jobs, just 400 shy of the record more than a decade ago.
Seafood harvesting and processing jobs are a focus of the November Alaska Economic Trends, which breaks down the numbers by region. Some highlights:
Alaska claimed the nation’s top three fishing ports for seafood catches last year, and wild salmon landings – 95 percent from Alaska – topped one billion pounds. It’s an all-time record and a 70 percent increase from 2012.
That’s according to the annual Fisheries of the United States report for 2013, just released by NOAA Fisheries.
Dutch Harbor topped the list for landings for the 17th year running with 753 million pounds of fish crossing the docks last year, valued at nearly $200 million. The Aleutian Islands region ranked second for landings, thanks to the big Trident plant at Akutan; Kodiak ranked third for both seafood landings and value.
For the 14th year in a row, New Bedford, Mass. had the highest valued catch at $380 million. That’s due mostly to pricey sea scallops, which accounted for more than 80 percent of New Bedford’s 130 million pound landings.