FISH FACTOR: Reviewing 2013, annual Alaska fisheries ‘Picks and Pans’


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Alaska’s seafood industry worked hard again in 2013 to ramp up its message to policy makers, most of whom still tend to overlook the industry’s economic significance to the state and beyond. What is that message?

That “the industry” is made up of thousands of small businesses — the fishing boats that each supports one or several families.

That the seafood companies in coastal towns provide one of the state’s biggest tax bases. And together, fishing and processing provide more jobs in Alaska than oil/gas, mining, tourism and timber combined. Seafood also is Alaska’s top export, far exceeding all other natural resources.

Here are fishing notables from 2013, in no particular order, followed by my annual “fish picks and pans”:

Thousands of tiny red king crab raised at the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center were released into island waters, marking the first time hatchery-raised Alaska crab have been introduced into the wild. Divers will return to the stocking site to see how well they survive and thrive.

Halibut fishermen were again put on notice to expect a 21 percent coast wide catch reduction for next year. That adds up to catches being slashed more than 70 percent over five years due primarily to slow growth rates.

Also down by a dollar were dock prices as “halibut fatigue” finally hit the market over the skyrocketing costs and buyer scrambles for the dwindling fish. Meanwhile, the cost for halibut quota shares rose topped $50 per pound in prime areas.

The EPA concluded that developing one of the largest mines on earth at the headwaters of Bristol Bay would indeed put the world’s biggest sockeye salmon resource at risk. The agency will decide in early 2014 whether to use its authority to stop the issuance of Pebble Mine permits under the Clean Water Act.

Anglo American pulled out of the Pebble Mine project, leaving Northern Dynasty of Canada as sole owner. Mine opponents said they will remain vigilant at the prospect of another investor signing onto the project.

The first ever salmon dip net fishery on the Lower Yukon River was a resounding success for 90 fishermen. The nets were allowed as a way to fish for a good run of chums while protecting the Yukon’s dwindling numbers of king salmon.

Harsh restrictions were imposed again on Kenai River sport and commercial fishermen due to continuing record low returns of king salmon.

To find clues and solutions to the disappearing king salmon, Gov. Parnell included $10 million in the budget as a first installment of a five-year, $30 million research initiative focusing on 12 streams statewide.

An oversupply of cod in world markets caused prices to drop to a point where many fishermen stayed tied to the docks (21 cents). Going into the new year, reports indicate big improvements with strong demand and higher prices. Cod accounts for 11 percent of Alaska’s total fish landings, most of which goes to China to be reprocessed.

A superior court judge ruled that the state Department of Natural Resources violated its own rules by denying Alaskans’ their right to keep water in streams to protect wild salmon runs, in this case, at the location of the proposed Chuitna coal mine.

Basketballs and mounds of buoys, Styrofoam and other marine debris continued to wash ashore in Alaska from the massive 2011 tsunami in Japan. The worst is reportedly yet to come, but it remains a head scratcher as to who picks up both the debris and the tab. At least 750,000 tons of debris is expected to hit Alaska’s coastline.

Canada gave the go ahead for AquaBounty, the company producing a genetically modified salmon, for commercial production of GMO eggs at a Prince Edward Island hatchery. That marks the first time any government has given the go ahead to commercial scale production involving a GM food animal.

That means Frankenfish is most likely poised to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, despite outpourings of opposition from constituents and a full on assault by Alaska’s Murkowski/Begich/Young. Next up: making sure the manmade salmon is labeled for consumers.

Federal fishery managers began their move towards a “bycatch mitigation” plan for groundfish trawlers in the Gulf of Alaska, which will include some form of catch sharing. Fishing towns like Sand Point and Kodiak are making sure any new program protects their access to local resources and sustains, instead of drains, their communities.

Alaska salmon got dumped on by Wal-Mart, the U.S. Park Service, and Sodexo (global food contractor) for not using their choice of an eco-label that ensures the fishery is sustainably managed. The salmon industry opted out of labeling programs run by far away big wigs, believing the “Alaska” brand trumps a high priced eco-logo.

Domino’s Pizza also took heat from Alaska for dissing halibut.

Bristol Bay had a lackluster sockeye fishery after the bulk of the red run came and went eight days early. Quality improvements really started paying off with a base price of $1.50 a pound, an increase of 50 cents.

Bristol Bay remained home to Alaska’s single most valuable salmon fishery, with Bay sockeyes totaling $138 million at the docks this summer.

Brokers reported lots of great buzz for Bristol Bay driftnet salmon permits. Data show the value has increased steadily since 2010, most recently topping $135,000. (That compares to $20,000 in 2002.)

Seas otters continued wreaking havoc for Southeast Alaska crabbers and divers.

Most of the initial Dungeness fishermen have sold out and new entrants are buying dungy permits at basement prices.

The Alaska Cam Sled began sending a live stream of non-invasive, high resolution images of the ocean bottom while being towed by a research vessel. The Cam Sled, built and based at Kodiak ADFG, was dubbed “a really stupid robot that does one job really well.”

Americans ate slightly less seafood last year at 14.6 pounds per person, compared to 15 pounds the year before. One bright note: Each person ate just more than two pounds of salmon, a 3.5 percent increase.

Alaska’s 2013 salmon catch was one for the record books at nearly 270 million fish, powered by a mindboggling pink haul of 216 million humpies. The previous catch record of 221 million salmon was in 2005. The value of the 2013 catch ($691 million at the docks) also is likely to set a record when all the numbers are officially tallied.

For the second year running, Southeast claimed the title for the Alaska region with the highest salmon volumes and value. Fishermen there caught more than 100 million salmon for the first time ever, valued at nearly $220 million at the Panhandle docks.

For the 16th year in a row, Dutch Harbor ranked as the nation’s top fishing port with 752 million pounds delivered, valued at $214 million.

The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery was stalled by the government shutdown, when federal workers were furloughed and couldn’t compute how much crab each boat was allowed to catch.

The chitin in shells of crabs, shrimp, lobsters and other crustaceans in Norway were being turned into bio-plastics for food packaging. Chitin, also found in insects and fungi, is one of the most abundant biodegradable materials in the world.

Alaska’s coastal zone management program bit the dust when it failed to be extended by the legislature. That leaves Alaska as the only coastal state where citizens have no say on federal development decisions that could affect its 34,000 miles of coastline, more than all the other U.S. states combined.

 2013 Fish Picks and Pans

Biggest fishing adjustment: The expanded observer program that includes onboard coverage for the first time of the 1,500-vessel halibut longline fleet.

Best new fish dish: Alaskan Leader Seafoods cod dinners. From the freezer to the oven, in a half hour you will have a cod dinner for four, complete with choices of Thai Curry or six other sauces. All caught and made in the USA!

Best Fish Feeders: SeaShare, a partnership of fishermen, processors, transporters and others who have provided over 180 million fish meals to Feeding America’s food bank network since 1994.

Dirtiest fish story: Dilution is the solution to pollution! The State aggressively led the charge to discard a 2006 law (passed by citizen initiative) and allow cruise ships to discharge wastewater and sewage into “mixing zones” in any Alaska waters through which they are traveling. The public’s right to know where these zones are located was also dumped.

Best go to bat for Alaska fish: Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich.

Most outstanding fishing town: No town highlights its local fisheries and supports its future fishermen like Sitka.

Most earth friendly fishing town: Kodiak, which now generates most of its own electricity from wind and hydropower.

Best fish gadget: salmon locator mobile apps for Copper River and Bristol Bay salmon.

Biggest fish high five: To the Aleutian Islands which jumped to third place on the top 10 list of U.S. ports for fish landings. Nearly half a billion pounds of mostly groundfish was delivered to Trident’s plant at Akutan. (It dropped Kodiak to No. 4).

Biggest fish research backers: The Pollock Conservation Cooperative for its ongoing $1 million annual research donations to the state university.

Best fish caretakers: State and federal fishery managers, under whose stewardship Alaska’s stocks remain a model for sustainable management and the envy of fishing nations around world.

Biggest gives back fish bucks: American Seafoods Co., Alaskan Leader Foundation

Biggest fish blunder: Setting a State legal precedent by letting 11 miles of productive salmon stream be lost to a low grade coal mine. Coal is so yesterday, PacRim.

Scariest fish story: ocean acidification. See above.

Best fish ambassadors: Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

Worst global fish story: Illegal, Undocumented and Unreported catches by fish pirates. UN estimates say IUU catches amount to 20 percent of the global fish harvest.

Best fish advocates:  Alaska Marine Conservation Council, Fish Basket Coalition

Best fish-crats: Nicole Kimball, state Federal Fisheries Coordinator; Geron Bruce, Deputy Director of Commercial Fishing, ADFG; Duncan Fields, North Pacific Fishery Management Council

Biggest consumer fish snub: No labeling required for genetically modified salmon.

Best bivalve advocate: Ray RaLonde, Alaska Sea Grant aquaculture specialist

Trickiest fishing conundrum: What to do about sea otters vs. fisheries in Southeast Alaska.

Biggest fishing industry enthusiast: Bob Foy, director of the NOAA Fisheries Research Center at Kodiak

Best fishing career builder: Paula Cullenberg, director of Alaska Sea Grant

Biggest fish story: Taking the “stream” out of “streamlining.” A bill, introduced this year by the governor, is intended to expedite permitting and changes the way state lands and waters are managed. HB 77 will ax all laws calling for in stream flow protections to ensure salmon have enough water to survive before other uses are permitted.

Say so long to public comment periods on resource decisions and the same to any public appeals. The bill gives unprecedented decision-making power to the Department of Natural Resources commissioner. Color this a huge change in citizen participation in government! HB 77 will be revisited when the Alaska legislature convenes in mid-January.

This marks the 23rd year for this weekly column that focuses on Alaska’s seafood industry. It began in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites, including the U.K. A daily spin off – Alaska Fish Radio – airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. The goal of both is to make all people aware of the economic, social and cultural importance of Alaska’s seafood industry, and to inspire more Alaskans to join its ranks.

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