Laine Welch

FISH FACTOR: Robotic technology emerging as tool for fish processing

Robots are cutting up snow crabs in Canada in a sign of things to come in the seafood processing industry.

Overall, seafood processing has a relatively small robotic involvement compared to other sectors. Robots have yet to make it into any of Alaska’s 176 fish processing shops, but the lure of reduced production costs, increased fish quality and crews of worker-bots is turning the tide.

FISH FACTOR: Salmon spawn unusual research

Salmon skin, heads, bones and other body parts have long been popular in cultural usages around the world. Now add salmon sperm to the list of desirable byproducts being hailed by specialists in two diverse realms of research.

A team of Japanese researchers is calling dried salmon sperm a miracle product for its ability to extract rare earth elements, or REEs, from ore.

FISH FACTOR: China poised to snap up even more Alaska seafood

China holds big promise to become a top customer for Alaska salmon, and not just for the bright red fillets.

Since 2011 China has been the No. 1 customer for Alaska seafood with purchases nearing $800 million and comprising 54 percent of all Alaska exports to China.

In Chinese food culture, fish symbolizes abundance and prosperity, which plays into a growing middle class that now earns the equivalent of about $25,000 in U.S. dollars a year.

FISH FACTOR: Government shutdown would slam salmon fisheries

Want a fishing license to crew on a salmon boat this summer? Got friends or family visiting who want to wet a line for a prized Alaska catch? Don’t count on it.

If the Alaska Legislature continues to defy its constitutional obligation to pass a budget, those opportunities will be lost because there won’t be any state workers to issue fishing licenses. Layoff notices went out on June 1 to thousands of state employees who will be off the job at the July 1 start of the fiscal year.

FISH FACTOR: Mariculture industry gains momentum

Homegrown shellfish and kelp are gaining momentum in Alaska, spurred on by growing markets and the steadfast push by Gov. Bill Walker’s visionary mariculture task force.

Applications for more than 1,000 acres of oyster and kelp farms were filed with the Department of Natural Resources by the April 30 deadline, far more than usual.

Fifteen are for new farms in the Southeast, Southcentral and Westward regions of which seven plan to grow kelp exclusively. Two farms at Klawok also are adding kelp to their current oyster growing operations.

FISH FACTOR: Trump budget dumps NOAA funding

The 2018 budget unveiled on May 23 by the Trump Administration is bad news for anything that swims in or near U.S. waters.

At a glance: the Trump budget will cut $1.5 billion from the U.S. Commerce Department, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, taking the hardest hit.

The NOAA budget for its National Marine Fisheries Service operations, research and facilities would be slashed by about $43 million. It would eliminate NOAA’s coastal research programs and the Sea Grant program.

FISH FACTOR: Managers deploy across state amid budget impasse

Alaska salmon managers are hoping for the best and planning for the worst as lawmakers extend into a special session to try and agree on a state budget. It is the third year in a row they have not finished their legislative session on time due to budget differences.

The haggling, which could last up to 30 days, means pink slips could go out to all state workers in less than two weeks in advance of job layoffs.

FISH FACTOR: Seafood values stable, new crab surveys and a fish promotion

The U.S. seafood industry’s contribution to the nation’s economy sank a bit, while Alaska’s output increased slightly and dollar values held steady.

An eagerly anticipated annual report released May 9 by NOAA Fisheries measures the economic impacts of U.S. commercial and recreational fisheries.

It highlights values, jobs, and sales for 2015, along with a 10-year snapshot of comparisons. A second report provides the status of U.S. fish stocks for 2016.

FISH FACTOR: Alaska salmon season ready to kick off in Cordova

Alaska’s salmon season officially gets underway in less than two weeks!

The first fishery for sockeye and king salmon is set for May 18 at Copper River and the town of Cordova is buzzing, said Christa Hoover, executive director of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.

“The mood changes at the start of May with all the folks back in town and boats going in and out of the water,” she said.

Enthusiasm among the fleet of more than 500 drift gillnetters has not been dampened by a reduced harvest projection.

FISH FACTOR: Salmon permits slide, but quota shares skyrocket

The values of Alaska salmon permits are on a downward slide, while prices for quota shares of other catches continue to skyrocket.

Despite an optimistic outlook this year for Alaska salmon catches and markets, buyers and sellers are still feeling a hangover from last year’s tough fishing season.

FISH FACTOR: Legislation takes on ‘graying of the fleet’

Numerous studies over the past decade have highlighted Alaska’s “graying of the fleet” (the average age of permit holders is 50), and the lack of opportunities for younger people to launch a career in commercial fishing.

State data show that between 1975 and 2014, more than 2,300 limited entry permits (nearly 28 percent) migrated away from Alaska’s rural fishing communities to non-residents.

FISH FACTOR: Salmon outlook looks bright for 2017

A brighter outlook for Alaska’s upcoming salmon season just got even better.

Markets are looking good, the statewide salmon catch forecast of 204 million is up by a million fish, and the world’s biggest sockeye salmon fishery at Bristol Bay is breaking records for chilling its fish.

Last year nearly 40 percent of Alaska’s total salmon value came out of Bristol Bay. When its fish fetch a better paycheck for boosted quality due to chilling, it is felt throughout the entire salmon industry.

FISH FACTOR: Electronic monitoring rollout coming soon

Automation is coming to Alaska fishing boats in the form of cameras and sensors to track what’s coming and going over the rails.

Starting next year, electronic monitoring systems, or EM, can officially replace human observers as fishery data collectors on Alaska boats using longline and pot gear.

Vessel operators who do not voluntarily switch to EMS remain subject to human observer coverage on randomly selected fishing trips.

FISH FACTOR: Retail seafood sales up sharply led by wild choices

Seafood sales at American retail stores are on an upswing and should remain that way for the foreseeable future. Better yet — demand for fish captured wild in the U.S.A. showed the biggest gains of all.

That’s good news for Alaska, which provides nearly 65 percent of wild-caught seafood to our nation’s supermarkets (95 percent for salmon!).

A new survey by trade magazine Progressive Grocer showed that retail seafood sales rose nearly 40 percent over the past year, and 56 percent predicted an upturn in seafood sales this year.

FISH FACTOR: Coastal communities want Navy’s Gulf training moved to fall

The required permits are not yet in hand, but the U.S. Navy is moving full steam ahead on its plans to conduct war training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska for two weeks in early May.

Meanwhile, nine coastal communities have so far signed resolutions asking the Navy to instead conduct its training between September and mid-March, times that are less sensitive to marine life. Several more communities have indicated they will do the same by month’s end.

FISH FACTOR: Humpies drive higher salmon forecast for 2017

Alaska salmon fishermen could haul in a harvest that nearly doubles last year’s catch, due to a projected uptick in the number of pinks.

An Alaska Department of Fish and Game report on 2017 salmon run forecasts and harvest projections pegs the total catch at 204 million fish. That compares to just more than 112 million salmon taken by fishermen in 2016.

The catch last season included 53 million sockeye salmon — the fifth-largest harvest since 1970 — but only 39 million pink salmon, the smallest harvest since 1977.

FISH FACTOR: Reduced catches send crab prices soaring

Alaska crabbers are hauling back pots from the Panhandle to the Bering Sea, and reduced catches are resulting in record prices for their efforts.

The year’s first red king crab fishery at Norton Sound has yielded 17,000 pounds so far of its nearly 40,000 pound winter quota for more than 50 local fishermen. The crab, which are taken through the ice near Nome, are paying out at a record $7.75 per pound. A summer opener will produce a combined catch of nearly half a million pounds for the region.

FISH FACTOR: Seldovia fish jobs; salmon ice cream wins Seafood Symphony

Puppy Love will soon be putting more people to work in Seldovia, a town of less than 300 people at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula.

The love comes in the form of salmon pet treats, formerly made in Anchorage and now ready to come home, thanks to funding from the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

FISH FACTOR: Mariculture industry set to bloom; Board of Fisheries set to battle

Shellfish, sea cucumbers, geoduck clams, seaweeds and biofuels are crops envisioned by a group of Alaskans who are crafting a framework for a statewide mariculture industry expansion.

An 11-member task force created last February by Gov. Bill Walker has wasted no time advancing its mission to put a comprehensive report on Walker’s desk by next March. The group, which has been meeting regularly, also has attracted wide interest from Alaskans who want to serve on advisory committees as the plan takes shape.

FISH FACTOR: Looking for salmon fellows and fish entrepreneurs

Salmon is the heart of Alaska’s fisheries — it almost singlehandedly spawned the push for statehood nearly 60 years ago. A new Alaska Salmon Fellows program wants to make sure Alaskans are poised to “shape the future” of the cultural fish and it is investing in the people to do so.

In its call for applications, the Fellows program is described as a means to “facilitate demanding conversations about salmon issues among leaders from a cross section of salmon policy, management, industry, activism, research and cultural sectors.”

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