Laine Welch

E-Stop offers fishermen a safety lifeline

The most common piece of equipment on a fishing boat is also the most dangerous: the winch. "Fishermen tell us it is the most powerful thing on the boat," said Ted Teske, a health communications specialist with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. "If that thing gets a hold of you when you’re pursing a line or moving a line, it will not stop and it won’t let go. It will end up tearing your arm off or breaking your neck or ripping you apart." NIOSH research shows that a high number of traumatic fishing injuries come from entanglement in a rotating winch, especially on seine vessels. If a fisherman is working on deck and gets pulled into the winch, it pulls him away from the controls to stop it, which are mounted on the back of the wheelhouse. Teske helped develop a simple device called an E-Stop, emergency stop, that interrupts the flow of hydraulic fluid to the winch and locks it in place. Teske said it is a simple mechanism used by a lot of manufacturing processes, such as production lines in the automotive industry. Many longline fishermen use an E-Stop to put the brakes on their gear if someone gets snagged and goes over. "It’s mounted on top of the winch horns so as you’re pulled in, it’s right there in front of you like a game show buzzer and you can slap it to lock the winch in place," he said. "So you’re still wrapped up but you’re not going round and round multiple times, and crewmembers can come and reset the system and back the winch off to get you untangled." James Burton of Cordova, skipper of the F/V Keta, knows firsthand how deadly the common tool can be. His brother, Carl, got caught in a winch in 2008, and will never regain full use of his arm and hand. That accident prompted Burton to be the first in line for an E-Stop when they became available 2008. In fact, his was the first boat to purchase and have one installed at Emerald Marine in Seattle, and it served as the model for a "how to" instruction manual for the distributor. "The winches are so dangerous and I know so many people who have been hurt by one," Burton said. "Those things can pull 7,000 pounds and if you have a 200-pound guy wrapped up in it, it doesn’t slow down a bit and rips you apart in the process." Burton said he feels disheartened that so few fishermen have opted for an E-Stop. "I just don’t know how to convince people to get something that makes so much sense. Everyone has excuses," he said. "The guys don’t want to spend money on anything that’s not going to catch them more fish or make things more efficient on their boat. It’s so cheap compared to losing your life or a limb or having a couple fingers ripped off. We all know guys who have been caught in a deck winch and for whatever reason, people still act like it’s never going to happen to them." Ted Teske said NIOSH is targeting Alaska’s seine fleets to make them more aware of the E-Stop device, and plans to expand to other fisheries. "It can stop not just a winch, but any kind of hydraulically run equipment on a crabber or trawler," he said. The E-Stop comes in an easy-to-install kit with all materials included. Teske said he is hopeful the kits will be available soon in fishing ports.  MAP in peril? Fully half of the state university’s marine advisory programs are in danger of closing their doors within a year due to funding shortfalls. "Five of the positions will be out of funding in the next year since they are paid solely with grant funds," said marine advisory program director Paula Cullenberg. Those include Nome, Dillingham, Unalaska, Cordova and Petersburg. The sixth position is in Kodiak, an office that has been empty for 13 years. The program has requested a $614,000 appropriation from the Alaska Legislature to fund the six coastal offices. "That would represent a permanent commitment by the university to the position in each community and region," Cullenberg said. Fish bits A report by First Research in the United Kingdom says that the U.S. seafood processing sector consists of about 650 companies, with annual revenues of $9 billion. There are roughly 2,500 U.S. seafood distributors, with yearly revenues of $12 billion. Neither sector is very concentrated, the report says. The largest processors include Connors Brothers/Bumble Bee Foods, Los Angeles-based Red Chamber, Trident Seafoods and Maruha Nichiro’s U.S. companies, which include Alyeska and Western Alaska Seafoods. Altogether the 50 largest processors account for about 45 percent of all sales; while in the distribution sector, the 50 largest seafood distributors account for about 33 percent of total sales. Product revenues are led by frozen fish at 30 percent; frozen shellfish at 20 percent; fresh fish and shellfish at 15 percent; canned seafood also accounts for 15 percent of the total products sold. Speaking of selling products: Safeway, one of the nation’s largest grocery retailers, is the latest to opt for earth-friendly fish. The company is starting a traceability system to screen out suppliers of seafood products not meeting its new sustainable seafood policy. Safeway also has discontinued the sale of any fish that are deemed to be overfished, such as grouper, red snapper and monkfish.  

Fishing gear that helps anglers be smarter

The call is out again for new ideas for fishing gears that help fishermen "fish smarter." The International Smart Gear competition, launched by the World Wildlife Fund in 2004, aims to inspire gear innovations that help fishermen retain their target catch while letting marine mammals, turtles, birds or small fish swim away. A high-rise trawl net called the eliminator took home the $30,000 top prize in 2007, the most recent year the competition was held. The net, made in Rhode Island, uses large mesh openings in the front and underbelly to reduce bycatch of cod in haddock fisheries. The smart gear competition took a year off to put that gear to work out on the water, said WWF Program Director Mike Osmond. "After the 2007 competition we decided that having it every year didn’t allow us enough time to work with the winning ideas and get them to a stage where they could be adopted by the industry. Now we’ll have it every two years," Osmond said. In the case of the eliminator, it was bureaucracy that kept it on the beach. "The net was shown to be very effective for several years and they had been trying to get it through the bureaucratic process. And because NOAA is one of the supporters of the smart gear competition, we were able to help them navigate their way through that process," Osmond said. The eliminator was regulated for commercial use in the U.S. last August and is now being trialed in the U.K. and the North Sea. Also undergoing trials is an innovation from one of the two $10,000 smart gear runners up: a nested cylinder device from Mississippi that uses light and water flow to reduce bycatch of red snapper by up to 80 percent in the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery. An Argentinean entry won for a simple plastic cone that attaches to trawl cables to keep away sea birds. The 2007 smart gear contest attracted 70 entries from 22 countries, but only one from Alaska (down from four in 2006). "We would love to get more ideas from Alaska," Osmond said. "Fishing is such a huge industry in Alaska, and obviously there are a lot of smart fishermen there. I can only think they don’t need the money. But $30,000 isn’t anything to sneeze at." The competition is open to all. But it’s the guys out on the water who have the best ideas, Osmond said. "They’ve come up with the ideas to reduce bycatch, and they’ve put it into practical and it works," he said. The smart gear winners will be chosen in September by an international judging panel at the International Fishing Exposition in Spain. Deadline to enter is June 30. Best seafood bash The 16th annual Symphony of Seafood is poised to debut 10 new products at two events, in Seattle and Anchorage. On Feb. 10 at the Fare Start banquet facility in Seattle, the seafood products will be judged in three categories: retail, food service and smoked. "One of the noteworthies is a smoked salmon parfait by Sea Bear Seafoods," said Jim Browning, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, host of the popular event. Seattle Symphony goers will choose a People’s Choice award, but no winners will be announced until the event moves to Anchorage for its "gala soiree" sampling bash on Feb. 19 at the Captain Cook. The annual event attracts entries from both large and small Alaska seafood companies. Diamond Lodge Smokehouse of King Salmon, for example, has been a grand prize winner for its smoked halibut, and Boreal Fisheries of St. Mary’s also has taken home awards for its smoked king salmon strips. Winners in each category get a free trip to the International Boston Seafood show in March. Tickets for Symphony of Seafood are on sale now at Center Tix. They sell out fast. Fish as economic fuel Fishery issues don’t often grab the attention of most state and federal lawmakers, and many are not aware of how seafood drives economies all across Alaska. A new report called "The Seafood Industry in Alaska’s Economy" provides a one stop shop that outlines the importance of fishing to Alaska and the nation. "A lot of reports come out by the Department of Commerce, NOAA and other sources, but they don’t pull all the components into one place. That was our goal," said Dave Benton, director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, one of the trade groups that commissioned the report by Northern Economics of Anchorage. The other groups are the At-sea Processors Association and Pacific Seafood Processors Association. "The message that comes through for Alaska is very dramatic," Benton added. Fishing provides some $5.8 billion worth of economic activity, 78,000 direct and indirect jobs, and 80 percent of the manufacturing that goes on in Alaska is accountable to the seafood industry, according to the report. Alaska is ninth in the world in terms of production, and provides 62 percent of U.S. seafood landings as well. "That’s a pretty big record, and we’ve done it with no overfished stocks and on a sustainable basis for decades," he said. Other findings: Alaska provides 96 percent of all U.S. salmon landings. Alaska’s seafood industry provides more jobs than oil, gas and mining combined.

Few seafood bills in Juneau

Longtime Alaskan and fisheries historian Bob King is heading to Washington, D.C., as Sen. Mark Begich’s point person on fisheries and several other capacities. "My specific job responsibilities include staffing Sen. Begich on his appointment to the Commerce Committee, which includes a number of things that are really important to Alaska, such as fisheries, the Arctic and the Coast Guard," King said in a phone interview from Juneau. King was news director at KDLG in Dillingham for nearly 20 years, then moved to Juneau when he was tapped as press secretary for Governor Tony Knowles. Most recently, he’s been director of the marine debris programs spearheaded by the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation. King also has just completed a history of Alaska’s fisheries for the state Department of Fish and Game for the state’s 50th anniversary. "In my work over the years I’ve gotten to know people from the small boat fisheries and the setnetters all the way to the large at-sea processors," King said. "I really have a sense of the importance of this industry from the big boats to the small boats that I will take back to Washington, D.C., and put to good use for the benefit of Alaska." "Bob is well known throughout Alaska for his great expertise and knowledge about the fishing industry, but also in his capacity to look at many other issues we will be dealing with through the Commerce Committee. It’s a huge plus," Begich said via phone from D.C. "He also has interest in one of my primary areas of focus: climate change and the impact it has on Alaska." King said that it is really tough to leave Alaska, even temporarily. He said he is honored to join Begich in Washington, and that President Barack Obama’s words have resonated with him. "When he talked about a new era of responsibility for citizens to give our all to the difficult tasks that lie ahead; I’m anxious to be part of it," he said. King will join the Begich team in D.C. in early February. Few fish so far The Alaska Legislature convened Jan. 20, and there were few fishery-related bills so far. But that doesn’t mean much at this point. "Just because there are no bills the first week doesn’t mean it’s not going to be a lot of fun to watch for the next three months," said fisheries analyst Bob Tkacz, who has been watch dogging the Legislature for 15 years. Overriding everything this year is money. Last year there was plenty, but that’s not the case now. Big Oil bankrolls 90 percent of Alaska’s revenues and Gov. Sarah Palin’s budget is based on $70 per barrel oil; the real price is closer to $40 per barrel. "We’re in a budget cutting year this time around," Tkacz said. "The bigger picture I believe is that this is Gov. Palin’s first budget cutting session in any of her executive experiences. So the big picture is how she is going to approach budget cutting and how much money we actually have." It’s unlikely, for example, that the state will again pony up the $6 million or so to cover federal funding shortfalls in co-managed fisheries, such as Bering Sea crab. That could mean fewer surveys and less research data that managers depend on to set catch quotas. Tkacz said the new make up of the Legislature this year also raises some red flags when it comes to fisheries. "Anchorage and the Mat-Su have hugely important seats in the committees that are really important to fishermen," he said. The House Resources Committee, for example, is chaired by Republicans Craig Johnson of Anchorage and Mark Neuman of Wasilla, two leaders of the Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force who are both critical of commercial fishing catch quotas. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak and co-chair of the House Finance Committee, also is a critic of commercial fishing in the Inlet. On the Senate side, Resources is controlled by Democrat Bill Wielechowski and Republican Lesil McGuire, both of Anchorage, who also is no fan of the fishing industry in Cook Inlet. "There is incredible potential for game-playing here," Tkacz said. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, heads the House Special Committee on Fisheries. Other fish friendly lawmakers are at Senate Finance, co-chaired by Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel. Speaker of the House is Mike Chenault from Nikiski and Gary Stevens of Kodiak as Senate president. Both are Republicans. "So the fishing industry has strong support at the very top, but what kinds of bills will get to the top is a huge question," Tkacz said. "Who controls the gavel dictates where things go." Tkacz’s Laws for the Sea provides an in-depth look at fish policies and personalities each week during the legislative session. Slow down, save fuel A survey by Alaska Sea Grant and United Fishermen of Alaska asked fishermen to share how they dealt with the skyrocketing cost of diesel fuel, which topped $5 a gallon last summer, and to share energy saving ideas. Many of the 126 respondents said they fished less, skipped openers, fished closer to home or ended their season earlier. Other findings: 43 percent said between 10 percent and 20 percent of their gross income was spent on fuel last year. Nearly 62 percent said they hired fewer or no crew, and crew shares were lower. Some 62 percent also said they believed fishery management decisions affected their fuel consumption, but more than half said managers should not make decisions based on the price of fuel. In terms of fuel saving techniques, 76 percent said they throttled back and slowed down. Some 77 percent cited maintaining engines and fuel systems. Also popular, good route planning and timing, keeping a clean hull to reduce drag and properly tuning propellers. Several fishermen credited buying fuel from processors, who bought in bulk and passed on the savings. Many expressed interest in getting help to compare different engines and learning how to use energy saving devices like flow meters.

Agencies aim to compile labor data on Alaska fishermen

A project aimed at compiling labor data on Alaska’s fishing crews was gaining traction as a mix of state and federal agencies got down to business last week. It’s estimated that about 20,000 crewmembers work on Alaska’s fishing grounds throughout each year, but as self-employed workers, no wage reports are collected by the state. The lack of job data means deckhands have fallen through the cracks in terms of recognizing their economic importance to the fishing industry. "All we know is that someone buys a crew license. We don’t know if they fish, what they fish for, how many fisheries they participate in, for how long - any of that kind of stuff," said Geron Bruce, deputy director of the state Division of Commercial Fisheries. "You can’t really estimate the total economic impact of commercial fishing unless you know something about the earnings and employment patterns for the crewmembers, who are such an important part of the work force." The lack of data makes it difficult for both harvesters and communities to apply for economic assistance or benefit from other state and federal programs, said Mike Catsi, director of the Southwest Alaska Municipal League. SWAMC has championed the crew-counting effort and helped get a $150,000 appropriation from the Legislature last year to jumpstart the project. The federal government, which co-manages several of Alaska’s largest fisheries, is also providing funding. The lack of deckhand data results in an incomplete picture of how commercial fishing compares to other industries. It also means fishermen have been on the losing end of new management plans that dole out shares of the catch. "Individual crewmembers want to be able to document their participation in certain fisheries so that if future rationalization programs come along, they have a better basis to make their case," Bruce said. "They will be able to show that they are also dependent on these fisheries and should get some share of the quota, that their interests need to be considered more than they have been in the past." "I think it’s a great idea. This is a legitimate job," said Tyler O’Brien, a Kodiak fisherman. "But a lot of guys won’t want to provide any information because they don’t want a paper trail for the IRS." Deckhand Isaac Milligan agreed. "All the fish passes through our hands. We need to be given credit for our contributions, even if some fishermen don’t want to be counted." The crew data could be collected via fish tickets or electronic landing reports already in place. Bruce said the next step is to form an advisory committee of up to 15 industry stakeholders that represents a good cross section of Alaska fisheries, from small skiffs on the Yukon to big Bering Sea crab boats. "And we really need to broaden the discussion to include more regions," said Bruce. "Basically, it has been focused in Kodiak and the Aleutians areas, but for many other regions, it’s not even on their radar screen. But it’s going to be a statewide program and will affect everyone. That’s why we want to have a lot of involvement in the process, so we can start building a basis of support and understanding from the very beginning." Jan Conitz of Juneau has been named project leader. The multi-agency committee at its Jan. 21 meeting was to begin developing a framework on data collection options to present to the stakeholders group this spring. Fewer halibut, later start Alaska’s halibut fishery will get off to a later start and fishermen will haul in fewer fish this year. The catch limits for waters ranging from the West Coast and British Columbia to the Bering Sea were announced earlier this month by the International Pacific Halibut Commission in Vancouver, British Columbia. The total halibut catch for Alaska was set at 45.5 million pounds, down from 50 million in 2008. Longliners in Southeast Alaska, who were bracing for another 30 percent cut to their halibut catches to just 4 million pounds, got a bit of a break at 5.02 million pounds. Alaska’s biggest halibut hole - Area 3A, the Central Gulf - took a bigger hit than expected to 21.7 million pounds, down about 1 million. The catch at Area 3B in the Western Gulf remains the same at 10.9 million pounds. A larger bite than expected also came out of Area 4A, the Aleutians region, at 2.55 million pounds. Area 4B of the Bering Sea got a small increase to nearly 1.9 million pounds. Farther west in Areas 4CDE, the catch was boosted slightly to 7.63 million pounds of halibut. The mood at the IPHC annual meeting was somber, said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. "Both the IPHC and the industry are concerned that there seems to be an ongoing decline in the overall halibut biomass. And there was general acceptance of the new coast-wide assessment model, but still quite a bit of concern and questions about how they apportion the fish," he said in a phone call from the Vancouver meeting. The halibut fishery is set to open on March 21, a few weeks later than usual. "The processors argued for a later opening so they could get rid of some frozen inventory," Bowen said. "Most of the fishermen wanted an earlier opening date so they could get more fresh fish to market, but it was a compromise." Oil spill commemorative March 24 marks the 20th anniversary of North America’s largest oil spill - when the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of Alaska crude into Prince William Sound. Communities down stream were also shattered by the spill - notably, Kodiak. "Kodiak was sort of forgotten by the media and by anyone not in Kodiak. A lot of people didn’t even know we had an oil spill here, but it was a huge event," said Toby Sullivan, director of the Kodiak Maritime Museum and its oil spill commemorative project. Exxon denied that the oil would ever reach Kodiak, but by May fishermen were seeing differently. "Some of us were out herring fishing on the west side and we started seeing oil, and it also started showing up at Shuyak in pretty heavy amounts. So people in Kodiak were pretty upset about it and they wanted a clean up," Sullivan said. Frustrated by the brush off, local setnetters organized a protest march to get Exxon’s attention. A manifesto was read at the oil spill briefing in the high school auditorium that was attended by hundreds each day. "It was very powerful and the whole audience went crazy and the Exxon guy was stunned - he was like a deer in the headlights. He put down the microphone and walked out of the room. Exxon evacuated Kodiak for two days because they were afraid of violence due to the high emotional level," Sullivan said. Within 48 hours businesses closed their doors and more than 1,000 islanders marched in the pouring rain. "That got Exxon’s attention for sure," Sullivan said, "And that’s how they started a clean up around Kodiak." Sullivan is compiling a riveting display of images from Kodiak, many from 70 videotapes found stashed away for 20 years. Anyone with pictures are encouraged to submit them for possible inclusion in the display and the Maritime Museum archives.

West Coast managers meet to tangle over catches

Halibut managers and industry stakeholders meet next week in Vancouver, British Columbia, to decide on catch limits for this year’;s upcoming fishery, which usually begins in early March. Harvesters are bracing for a 10 percent coast-wide reduction to 54 million pounds, covering fishing grounds from the West Coast and British Columbia to the farthest reaches of the Bering Sea. Alaska always gets the lion’;s share of the halibut catch and will get 46 million pounds of the fish, if the International Pacific Halibut Commission goes along with the scientists’; recommendations. That’;s down from 50 million pounds last year. Southeast Alaska fishermen would see the biggest hit - a catch of just 4.5 million pounds is a drop of nearly 30 percent for the second year in a row. The IPHC will also consider several new management proposals. One requests the continued use of electric or electric-assisted sport fishing reels to benefit older or disabled anglers, especially in deeper waters. It says not doing so discriminates against people with physical limitations. Two proposals ask for clarifications of filleting sport-caught halibut at sea. Another asks that qualified harvesters be allowed to retain halibut taken in pots along with sablefish in area of the Bering Sea. Pots are frequently used by fishermen instead of hook and line gear to prevent killer whales from stealing the sablefish, but current rules demand that all halibut taken as bycatch in the pots must be discarded. The halibut can’;t be safely returned to the sea, the proposal states, because the whales gather to quickly gobble them up. Other proposals ask that size limits for halibut be eliminated, and for the state of Alaska to develop a harvest tag program for all recreational anglers to get more accurate counts of their catches. The IPHC meets Jan. 13-16 in Vancouver. Slow start for snow crab The Bering Sea snow crab fishery officially opens in mid-October but it doesn’;t really get going until mid-January. Low cod prices were expected to prompt more boats to target snow crab during the early weeks of the season. But encroaching sea ice is getting things off to a slow start all around, said state fishery manager Forrest Bowers in Dutch Harbor. “There are 39 vessels registered for the snow crab fishery and some people that normally fish cod are on the fence about whether to fish cod or crab. Another part of the equation is that there is quite a bit of sea ice forming in the northern Bering Sea and ice in St. Paul harbor. So that is another factor that is influencing decisions by fishermen,” Bowers said. The new “rationalized” quota share management plan requires that a portion of all deliveries must be made in specific regions, and the bulk of the northern crab catch is earmarked for St. Paul. Bowers said the longer season means fishermen aren’;t forced to compete with the sea ice that is now plugging the harbor. “The season runs from Oct. 15 through May,” Bowers said, “so there is ample opportunity to harvest the crab and deliver in the north region when weather and ice conditions allow for it.” Crabbers and most processors settled on a base price of $1.40 per pound, down from an average $1.58 a pound last season. The snow crab market is weaker this year, said Greg White, a negotiator for the crabbers’; Inter-Cooperative Exchange, which represents about 70 percent of the king and snow crab caught in the Bering Sea. White added that snow crab prices seem to move on a three-year cycle. “What happens is that it gets a little too expensive, and then retailers stop promoting it as a special item. Then inventories build up and prices start dropping because people need to move the crab, and eventually it gets to a level where it’;s again capable of being promoted effectively at the retail level. Then demand goes up, inventories fall and prices eventually increase. So there is a recurring cycle that usually plays out over a three-year period,” White said. Meanwhile, Forrest Bowers said up to 70 vessels would likely fish for snow crab and boats are leaving Dutch Harbor every day. The total catch quota is 58 million pounds, a decrease of 7 percent. Economics of fishing The U.S. commercial fishing industry is way ahead of sports angling in terms of the revenues and jobs it generates. That’;s from a new, user-friendly report just released by NOAA Fisheries that breaks down incomes, jobs, landings and all kinds of data for each coastal state through 2006. A glance at “Fisheries Economics of the U.S.” shows that the seafood industry, including harvesters, processors and sellers, generated $103 billion in sales in 2006, some $44 billion in income and 1.5 million jobs. That same year recreational fishing generated $82 billion in sales, $24 billion in income and 534,000 jobs. Halibut was the most popular fish to catch by sports anglers, followed by coho salmon. The report says that from 1997 to 2006, prices paid to Alaska fishermen increased 93 percent for cod, 72 percent for halibut and 58 percent for rockfish. In contrast, prices for herring decreased 45 percent and 29 percent for salmon. Alaska pollock contributed 60 percent of the state’;s total landings, far more than any other species. Alaska ranked fifth for total commercial seafood sales value at $3 billion, following California ($9.8 billion), Florida ($5.2 billion), Massachusetts ($4.4 billion), and Washington ($3.8 billion). The most commercial fishing jobs were generated in California (179,000), Florida (103,000), Massachusetts (83,000), Washington (75,000) and Texas (47,000). Recreational fishing generated its highest economic effect in sales and jobs in Florida, Texas, California, North Carolina and Louisiana. In all, commercial and recreational fishing in the U.S. generated more than $185 billion in sales and provided more than 2 million jobs. The report includes data on management plans, buybacks, price trends, even eco-labeling programs. It is the first in a new series designed to give the public better access to fisheries information. Next up is a report on U.S. fishing communities. Salmon celebrity Madonna has introduced more salmon into her diet to counteract the aging process. The British newspaper Mirror reports that instead of detoxing, the 50-year-old pop star will “retox” by increasing her cardio-intensive gym regime along with a diet overhaul. Madonna believes salmon has “age-defying properties” the Mirror said, and “her aim is to knock 12 years off her appearance.”

Welch takes a look back at the past year of fishy news

Commercial fishing in Alaska remains a vibrant industry that each year provides more than half our nation’;s wild-caught seafood. Alaska’;s fishery resources are the envy of other countries around the world, and its management programs are regarded as a model for sustainability. The seafood industry also provides more jobs than the oil/gas, mining, agriculture, forestry and tourism industries combined. Here is a sampler of some seafood industry highlights from 2008, in no particular order or priority, followed by my annual picks and pans of fish stories. High fuel prices that topped $5 per gallon idled 20 percent of Kodiak’;s trawl fleet, along with hundreds of local seafood workers. Salmon boats stayed out between fishing openers, hurting coastal economies. A petition starting in Petersburg gathered thousands of fishing signatures asking Congress for a tax break from high fuel prices, but to no avail. New data from the state Department of Labor revealed the average age of Alaska commercial fishermen was 47; nearly 40 percent were non-residents. Every month 7,260 fishermen were out on the water plying their trade. That number jumps to 20,137 per month at the peak of salmon season. Add in processing, transportation, management and support services, it adds up to at least 54,000 jobs a month. Nearly half of the state’;s fishery biologists continued to drift away due to retirement, or were lured by federal paychecks that ranged from 35 percent to 80 percent more than their current salaries. The University of Alaska added a bachelor’;s degree in fisheries to its lineup, the fourth in its fisheries degree programs. Nearly 40 percent of university graduates go to work for the state Department of Fish and Game or federal agencies in Alaska. Beech-Nut Corp. launched sweet potatoes and wild Alaska salmon baby food. The baby food uses pink salmon from Ocean Beauty Seafoods. West Coast salmon fisheries were cancelled, and chinook catches in Southeast Alaska were cut by half to just 170,000 fish. The Bush administration opened the door for oil/gas lease sales in a nearly 6 million-acre “fish basket” that encompasses most of the southeastern Bering Sea and Bristol Bay. The United Fishermen of Alaska, the nation’;s largest fishing trade group, declared fishing rights should also be considered as “property rights” in any lease sales. The Bush administration also sidestepped Congress and gave the nod to the first offshore fish farms that will make use of existing oil and gas platforms. Bush also pushed for watered-down environmental and endangered species protections. Fishing retained the dubious distinction as America’;s most dangerous occupation, with on the job death rates 36 times greater than all other occupations. Surprisingly, the Pacific Dungeness crab fishery ranked as the deadliest catch, with 17 deaths in the past seven years. That’;s 50 percent higher than Bering Sea crabbers. Bering Sea king crab base prices increased to $5 per pound, up from $4.19 last year. The 2007-08 king and Tanner crab fisheries had a landing value of $202 million. Meanwhile, disenfranchised crab crews continued efforts to obtain shares of the crab quotas. Each American ate 16.3 pounds of seafood, a figure that is expected to drop as cash-strapped Americans cut back on dining out. The National Restaurant Association said Americans spent 48 percent of their food budgets eating out nearly six times each week. America’;s seafood favorites remained the same, with shrimp, canned tuna, pollock and tilapia the top five. Alaska’;s seafood message of sustainability and food safety trumped concerns over “food miles” and “carbon footprints” among global buyers. Trendy new lunch entrees made from Alaska pollock got “kid approved” at schools in Fairbanks and Kenai. Salmon wraps by Taco Loco of Anchorage also scored big with school kids. Bristol Bay fishermen and Peter Pan Seafood expanded their salmon give-away to more schools and senior centers in Western Alaska. Halibut prices continued to hover near or above $5 a pound at major ports. Early estimates peg the dockside value for halibut at $175 million, an increase of $3 million from 2007. For sablefish (black cod), the value was $69 million, up $7 million from last year. The U.S. became the first country in the world to approve foods from cloned animals. Bio-engineered Atlantic salmon can grow up to 600 times faster than normal, and are ready for market in 18 months instead of the usual three years. The FDA says since foods from cloned animals pose no significant health risks, they need not be labeled. Halibut harvesters faced reduced catches stemming from a new way of counting the fish. Scientists for the first time began assessing the stocks as a single, Pacific coast-wide unit instead of by separate regions, as they had done for 20 years. That slashed the Southeast catch limit by 27 percent, to just 6 million pounds. It was even tougher for the Panhandle’;s halibut sport charter operators, whose bag limits were cut to one. Exxon finally started cutting checks to 32,000 oil spill plaintiffs, after a 19-year wait. The U.S. Supreme Court reduced the punitive damages award from $2.5 billion to $507 million. Exxon is appealing interest payments of roughly $500 million; that decision will come sometime this year. Plaintiffs got a bit of a tax break thanks to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who championed a bill through Congress to allow income averaging and onetime retirement contributions for those receiving Exxon payments. Alaska’;s fortunes could be fueled by another kind of oil boom: omega 3 oils from salmon and other seafoods are the biggest buzz in the by-products world. Omega 3 fatty acids have become one of the most popular food additives due to a whole host of health benefits - they were added to 250 food products from eggs to orange juice, and the list is growing. Murkowski also went to bat for small fishing boats to exempt them from strict new federal water discharge rules that would have required permits for even hosing off the deck. Dutch Harbor remained the nation’;s top fishing port for the 19th consecutive year. Kodiak held on to the No. 4 spot for seafood landings. Seven fish stocks were removed from the U.S. overfishing list and none were added. No fisheries in Alaska waters were on the list. Fish managers at Bristol Bay got an earful after the sockeye run arrived late, and then came all at once, overwhelming processing capacity. Idled fishermen estimated the plug cost them 3 million fish, bringing the Bay harvest to a lower-than-projected 28 million reds. Marine debris cleanup efforts in Alaska reached a milestone: 1 million pounds of debris was removed from coastlines since 2003 in efforts spearheaded by the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance. That’;s equivalent to four 747 cargo planes full of nets, plastics and other trash. Alaska pollock catches were cut nearly in half to 815,000 metric tons, while a new pulse of fish readies to recruit into the fishery in a year or two. Alaska’;s statewide salmon harvest of 146 million fish was a decrease of 31.4 percent from 2007 - still, it was the 16th largest catch since statehood in 1959. And although the value of the catch was down, it topped $400 million at the docks for the second consecutive year. The National Organic Standards Board gave the organic nod to wild-caught forage fish used as feeds for farmed fish and livestock. Wild-caught fish for humans did not make the organic grade. Fishing groups, Alaska Natives and concerned citizens joined in a lawsuit to stop discharges of pollutants into Cook Inlet. The case challenges the Environmental Protection Agency for issuing a permit that will almost triple the amount of oil and gas discharges each year. A new low interest state loan program was launched to help fishermen replace or retool their engines to boost energy efficiency. 2008 Fish Picks & Pans Best “fish crat”: Again - Denby Lloyd, ADF&G Commissioner Best fish voice in Congress: Sen. Lisa Murkowski Best fish friend to the environment: MCA Foundation’;s marine debris clean up program Scariest fish story: ocean acidification Biggest fish folly: Chuitna coal strip mine Tastiest new family fish-product: Trident’;s Ultimate Fish Sticks Fondest fish farewell: Sen. Ted Stevens Most promising fish story: Turning Alaska’;s nearly 3 billion pounds of fish wastes into oils, nutraceuticals, biofuels, etc. Best fish partnership: ADF&G, UAA/UAF and Sea Grant for efforts to recruit more Alaskans into fishery-related careers Best “eat fish” ambassadors: Bristol Bay fishermen & Peter Pan Seafoods, Taco Loco, GAPP for getting top-quality fish into school lunch programs. Best “squeezes the most out of the fewest fish bucks”: ASMI Biggest fish backfire: WWF’;s well intentioned but horrible “stinky fish” ad campaign Best fish teaching tool: Former Bering Sea crabber Aleutian Ballad, now launching pots for tourists at Ketchikan Best back to the future fuel saver: wind kites for fishing boats, skysails for cargo vessels Best fish innovators: RSDA’;s at Copper River/PWS and Bristol Bay Biggest fish story of the year: The defeat of Sen. Ted Stevens by Mark Begich.

Kids approval of fishy school lunches

On any given month in Alaska 7,260 fishermen are out on the water plying their trade. That number jumps to 20,137 per month at the peak of salmon season each summer. Add in jobs in seafood processing, transportation, management and other support services and it brings the number of fishing industry related jobs to at least 54,000 a month. Those are just a few of the findings revealed by the state Labor Department in the November issue of Alaska Economic Trends, which tracked employment in the fishing industry from 1988 through 2007. Fish harvesting jobs have proven tough to track because they don’t generate payroll records and other documents used to calculate employment in other industries. The state has projects underway to compile more information on the working profiles of the “boots on deck” fishermen, and their economic importance to coastal communities. A sketch of the findings shows that Alaska’s fish harvesting employment decreased slightly in 2007, losing 54 jobs, a 0.7 percent drop. Fish harvesting jobs decreased by 17 percent, or 1,446 jobs, since 2000. The biggest drop occurred between 2001 and 2002 when employment fell by 791 jobs, mostly due to depressed salmon markets. Salmon provided more than half of all fishing jobs, and 30 percent of those workers were on the job at Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay draws more fishermen than any other fishery in the state - 2,303 permits fished in 2007. Groundfish landings in Alaska waters topped 4 billion pounds and generated 1,182 jobs in 2007; the halibut fishery put another 1,246 fishermen to work. Alaska’s largest crab fisheries in the Bering Sea generated 418 jobs in 2007 - a 40 percent drop from 2002 when the fisheries provided 692 jobs. The crab fleet dropped from 252 boats in 2003 to about 75 boats for king and snow crab in 2007. That’s due to the rationalized crab quota share program that was implemented in 2005. Conversely, crab fishing jobs in the Southeast region, the state’s second largest producer, has fluctuated little since 2003. In all, Alaska’s fishing industry contributed $770 million to the state’s GDP in 2007 - a contribution that would be higher but for the big portion that goes south with nonresident workers and seafood companies. Seafood accounted for fully half of Alaska’s total exports in 2006 and 2007, valued at $2 billion. Find the fishing industry employment report at http://labor.alaska.gov/trends/nov08.pdf. Trendy new lunch entrees made from Alaska pollock got “kid approved” at schools in Fairbanks and Kenai. The selections, which were taste tested in November, include po’boy sandwiches, fish strips with dips, salads and a FBLT. “Many people think that getting fish into Alaska schools should be easy because it is a fish-producing state,” said Pat Shanahan, program director for the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers trade group. “But the schools have the same challenges that any in the Lower 48 face - getting a product that kids really like at an affordable price. It’s not a slam dunk.” For three years GAPP has worked with national school nutrition programs to explain the best seafood buying tips, and has developed six snazzy new recipes. “I think our industry has been a little behind in updating its recipes for school lunches. Now we’ve got a whole range of options along the lines of what you’d find in a normal restaurant,” Shanahan said. The Baja salad - made with spicy, cornmeal crusted fish strips and served in a taco shell bowl - was the favorite at North Star High School, said Amy Rouse, director of nutrition services for the Fairbanks school district. “The kids want something a little more adult. When the fish is cooking the whole place smells like Doritos. The kids love it,” Rouse said. The pollock entrees are the first fish item ever used in Fairbanks schools. Rouse said the fish recipes are easy to adapt with ingredients on hand, and the mild taste and affordability of Alaska pollock make it especially appealing for school lunch programs. “We plan to permanently add at least two of the fish items to our menu next year,” Rouse said. Alaska pollock entrees are also on school menus in Seattle and Houston. Shanahan said GAPP is also getting nibbles from several other school districts, both in and outside of Alaska. The group also is preparing a seminar called Making Fish Affordable for a national conference to address spiraling food costs. “It’s particularly complicated for schools because more students are signing up for the federal free and reduced lunch programs, and food costs are going up at the same time. We want them to know that fish does not have to be eliminated from their menus,” she said. Shanahan suggested that Alaska schools partner to reduce food costs. “Because of their remoteness it is really beneficial for the schools to combine their buying power and transportation costs on food items and I know they work closely to do that. So I’m hoping they’ll be able to take advantage of the success this program is having and make it even more affordable to their schools.” Alaska fishermen who hold quota shares of halibut, sablefish (black cod) and crab pay an annual fee to the federal government to cover the costs of managing and enforcing those fisheries. The fee is based on the dock prices throughout each fishery and averaged across the state. Bills are in the mail to 2,302 Alaska longliners, down 80 from last year, said Troie Zuniga, fee coordinator at NOAA Fisheries in Juneau. The overall value for halibut is $175 million and about $69 million for black cod. That’s $3 million higher than the 2007 value for halibut and $7 million higher for black cod, Zuniga said. For both fisheries, the 1.4 percent fee is up slightly from last year (1.2 percent), and yielded $3.4 million for coverage costs. Fee managers collect the catch data through September and don’t include the most recent prices. But the fish prices for 2008 were up across the board. This year’s average price for halibut was $3.70 per pound and $2.58 for black cod. That compares to $3.49 and $2.08 from last year, Zuniga said. For Bering Sea king and Tanner crab, the 2007-08 fishery had a landing value of $202 million, as reported by 20 registered crab receivers. Price per pound information for the crab is confidential to the receivers. Find the IFQ reports and pay fees online at www.alaskafisheries.noaa.gov. Payments are due by Jan. 31.

Tiger Aspect looking for the next fishy television star

Do you have what it takes to be the next seagoing reality TV star? The search is on for a host for a new cable television show that takes viewers out to sea. “There are so many extreme boats with incredible stories. From fishing boats to ice breakers and tug boats ... cargo and cruise ships to aircraft carriers - there is an endless list of stories floating out on the water,” said Fred Grinstein, director of development for Tiger Aspect Productions in New York City. “There also are offshore rigs and building of underwater tunnels and pipelines. The show will feature everything it takes to live and work on the water.” The maritime show will be modeled after the “Extreme Trains” series now airing on the History Channel. The task now is to find a good host. The ideal candidate will be a male in the early 30s to 40s who has “insider” experience and a “kid in a candy store” kind of excitement about life at sea, Grinstein said. He pointed to Geo Beach of Homer, host of the “Tougher in Alaska” series, as a character who is “brimming over with personality that people can really connect with.” “It’s a weird formula as far as finding these real characters, who also have credibility and can do the job. We’re not just asking them to sit down and be a talking head or just stand by and watch. We’re asking them to take us somewhere and engage the people they are interacting with and the viewers,” Grinstein said. Tiger Aspect Productions will be doing casting calls at Pacific Marine Expo this month in Seattle. “I will be there to meet anyone who swings by, and we can do a casting session right there. People can be on camera and do some interviews,” Grinstein said. Kodiak crabbers will compete for a reduced catch of bairdi Tanners when the fishery opens in mid-January. Bairdi are the bigger cousin of snow crab, caught in the Bering Sea. State managers set the Kodiak crab harvest at 400,000 pounds, down from 500,000 last season. The crab fishery occurs primarily in two eastside districts around the island, and the popular nearby Chiniak, Ugak and Kiluda bays will be off limits. “The crab population in those bays was down a little bit in the surveys, and those areas tend to be important for recruitment into the stocks. So as an added conservation measure we’re keeping them closed this year,” said regional manager Nick Sagalkin. Chignik will remain closed to Tanners; a small catch of 275,000 pounds is allowed for the Southern Alaska Peninsula. In its heyday during the 1970s, the Kodiak fishery produced more than 30 million pounds of Tanner crab. Two years ago the catch topped 2 million, but the year class that was sustaining the fishery has dwindled. The future bodes well for bigger harvests for Kodiak and down through the Aleutians, Sagalkin said. “We are still seeing the strong year class that we first noticed several years ago. That should start recruiting into the fishery within the next two to three years,” he said. The fishery attracts a fleet of about 35 local crabbers, who averaged $2 a pound for their catch last season. Traditionally, bairdi crab has gone almost exclusively to Japan, but more markets are getting a taste for Tanners. Alaska fishery managers are world famous for their cautious approach to setting annual catch limits. An example is Alaska pollock in the Bering Sea, where stocks have taken a tumble from record highs during the past decade. Pollock harvests have topped 3 billion pounds most recently, but they may be reduced by nearly half while the stocks take a year or two to rebuild. “We buffer downward to account for uncertainty,” said James Ianelli, a federal fishery statistician at the Alaska Science Center in Seattle. But it is hardly a “collapse” of the world’s largest food fishery, as some headlines have screamed. Scientists and industry stakeholders have been braced for the pollock decline for several years. Surveys two years ago indicated a big drop in the population caused by poor recruitment of smaller pollock into the fishery. It takes three to five years for pollock to reach maturity, and Ianelli said a strong year class from 2006 appears poised to soon enter the pollock fishery. Ianelli and industry stakeholders are critical of claims by environmental groups that the Alaska pollock fishery is being mismanaged and overfished. “We always err on the side of caution,” Ianelli said. Alaska fishery managers will set 2009 catch quotas for pollock, cod and other groundfish in December. In the spirit of “giving back,” American Seafoods Co. is again offering $30,000 in donations as part of its annual community grant program. Since 1997 ASC has awarded $75,000 each year to projects throughout rural Alaska that tackle hunger, housing, education and cultural programs. Award recipients in February included the American Red Cross/Alaska, St. Paul Volunteer Fire Department and Ketchikan schools. Some 23 educational scholarships were awarded in May totaling $14,600.

Oiled Alaskans may get greased in Sea Hawk appeal

After waiting nearly 20 years, thousands of “oiled” Alaskans are now set to get checks from Exxon before Christmas. The money, $507 million, comes from damage awards stemming from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. More than 32,000 Alaskans are eligible for settlement checks; 80 percent are fishermen. Holiday hopes could be dashed, however, unless an appeal by Sea Hawk Seafoods is kicked to the curb this month in an Anchorage courtroom. Sea Hawk, a former Prince William Sound fish processor, has filed a lawsuit to reshuffle the long agreed upon payment amounts and boost its share by $7.6 million. “That would basically alter the plan of allocation that took almost 10 years to build,” said Andrew Ott, a plaintiffs’ attorney in Kodiak. The legal wrangling could set back payments to all claimants for years. Ott, along with Oiled Fishermen’s Frank Mullen of Homer, said the court does not appear to be very sympathetic to the case. Early court briefs called Sea Hawk’s motion “at best highly disruptive of ongoing proceedings, and at worst divisive and ill-considered.” “No one can second guess the judge, but at first blush, it does seem to be the direction the judge is going,” Ott said. “I hope this will just go away and we can move forward (with the distributions) very quickly.” “My hope is that Sea Hawk pays all expenses associated with their last minute grab,” Mullen added in an e-mail. Even Exxon lawyers have joined the call for a quick resolution to the case. “This litigation has gone on long enough, and Sea Hawk should not be permitted to prolong it,” Exxon attorneys told reporters. If the Sea Hawk case is settled on the Nov. 15 target date, Exxon checks would be distributed before Christmas. By then, oil spill plaintiffs might also know the status of the additional $488 million in interest payments that Exxon has appealed. “That is now on a briefing schedule with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and they may come out with a ruling by year’s end,” Ott said, “but more likely in early 2009.” After decades of debate, the National Organic Standards Board has made its final recommendations on what aquaculture products are considered “organic.” Getting the seal of approval are wild-caught forage fish that are used as feeds for farmed fish and livestock. But wild-caught fish to feed humans did not make the organic grade. “It defies common sense and logic,” said Kate Troll, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Alliance. Troll worked for years with the board on behalf of Alaska’s seafood industry as a former fishery specialist with the state Commerce Department. “When we were dealing with trying to get Alaska salmon into the organic program, the biggest obstacle was ’we don’t know where they feed or what they’re living off of.’ But you can say that same thing of the wild fish they are certifying,” Troll said. Troll and other critics claim the same standards are not applied to other organic products. “They certify bees that make honey, and they migrate over thousands of miles. You don’t know where the bees have been. A lot of the rain that falls on organic crops; you don’t know where the rainfall has been either,” Troll said. “Wild fish are held to a higher bar.” Forage fish, such as sardines, anchovies and menhaden, account for 37 percent of all fish taken from the world’s oceans each year. Nearly all of the fish are ground up and used as oils and feeds for livestock, poultry and farmed fish. Pigs and chickens eat six times more seafood than U.S. consumers, according to U.N. reports. Critics claim the forage fish industry is “squandering a precious human food resource and disregarding the overfishing crisis in world oceans.” Meanwhile, Alaska seafood producers will continue touting their popular wild, sustainable and safe messages in the marketplace. Troll said the USDA organic brand does have market clout. “It assures consumers that it is pure and free of contaminants and healthy to eat. It’s a term they connect with,” Troll said. The USDA could approve the standards by the end of November. The Alaska Shellfish Growers Association met in Anchorage last week, and along with bi-valves, they were set to be talking jobs. There are 26 shellfish farms operating now in Alaska, mostly for oysters. The value of the crop last year was $500,000. Some estimate the industry could be worth $70 million or more, just in Southeast, and provide good jobs in rural regions. “If we look at what are the opportunities in Alaska for year-round sustainable jobs in Southeast, Prince William Sound, Kenai Peninsula and along the Aleutians, the shellfish industry is one of the best options we have,” said John Sund of the Alaska Oceans Center in Ketchikan. “We need to help the industry grow.” Rodger Painter of Tenass Pass farms near Juneau said growers have learned to mechanize more parts of their operation, and are using waves and tides to turn their oyster crops. An offshoot for any coastal region could be seaweed farms - especially kelp, which is a $2 billion industry in Japan. Nori, for example, is a staple food throughout Asia, and is loaded with nutrients. Kelp provides alginin, an edible material widely used in ice cream and cosmetics. The seaweed industry is considered untapped in North America. Painter said St. Lawrence Islanders were interested in kelp farming but no funds were available to jump start a project. Mariculture programs are faring better elsewhere - a new center in Homer will serve growers at Kachemak Bay, king crab are being grown at the Alutiiq Pride Hatchery in Seward, the new Oceans Center in Ketchikan aims to be a world leader in mariculture, and the state’s largest shellfish nursery at Naukiti on Prince of Wales Island has helped replace timber as a leading industry. Mariculture jobs could help slow the out-migration from rural Alaska, Painter said. “It’s very scary. People are fleeing rural Alaska and coastal villages,” he said. “We can’t necessarily solve the problem of high costs of groceries and fuel, but maybe we can provide some jobs.”

Beach cleanup efforts reach million-pound milestone

Marine debris cleanup efforts in Alaska reached a milestone this year. The Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation removed more than a million pounds of debris from Alaska’s 34,000 miles of shoreline since its program began in 2003. “People ask how much is a million pounds? Think of it as getting four 747 cargo planes full of trash off the beach. It’s a lot of junk and a real accomplishment,” said program coordinator Bob King, adding that the group picked up almost 150 metric tons of trash this year alone. The foundation has partnered with more than a dozen groups and communities to pick up debris from the panhandle to points far west. The group had cleanups this year in Juneau, Prince William Sound, Sitka, Kodiak, the Pribilof Islands, Aleutian Islands, Bristol Bay, Shelikof Strait, Yakutat and Port Heiden. “We had one of our biggest projects in Norton Sound,” King said. “We pulled almost 100,000 pounds of trash off of St. Lawrence Island with crews from Gambell and Savoonga hired by the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. And on top of that, they picked up another 20,000 pounds off of Golovin.” One innovative partner is the Alaska Brewing Co., which provides “brew crews” and donates 1 percent of certain Alaska sales to a program called the Coastal CODE (Clean Oceans Depend on Everyone). The marine debris in Alaska differs from other places in the nation, King said, where 60 percent comes from land-based sources, such as beach litter or urban storm drains. Roughly 30 percent is cigarette butts and other smoking-related trash. In Alaska, it is mostly fishing related - but not necessarily from Alaska fishing operations. “There has been intensive fishing going on in the Bering Sea for over 50 years, and there also are currents that bring over a lot of debris from Asia. So many of the nets picked up are scraps from old high seas drift nets, and trawl nets that are not a type used by our domestic industry,” King said. Disposal varies depending on the location, King said, as certain communities have landfill capacity but many in rural Alaska do not. “We are working with some recyclers in the Seattle area, and the Port of Seattle has been very helpful in putting together a program where fishermen can drop off their old nets and have them disposed of for free or at a low cost,” King said. The MCA Foundation has so far invested about $1 million in Alaska clean up projects, most of which comes from federal funds as part of a nationwide effort. “It’s hard work, but it is so gratifying to see the improvements to the shoreline, and also to reduce the threats to marine mammals, sea birds and fish,” King said. Despite the accomplishment of removing a million pounds from Alaska’s shoreline beach, “there is still a lot more out there and it continues to come in, which is very troubling,” King said. “But more people are realizing that marine debris is a huge problem and we are committed to continuing this clean up effort in the years to come.” Amid the growing chant of “drill, baby, drill,” one of the first areas that could be affected in 2011 is the nation’s “fish basket” - the nearly 6 million acres of the North Aleutian Basin, including the Southeast Bering Sea and Bristol Bay. The region yields 40 percent of the nation’s wild seafood harvests, worth more than half a billion dollars to Alaska fishermen. “The biggest red crab fishery happens there, it’s the catcher vessel operations area, it’s the halibut nursery grounds for the area and the major migratory salmon area,” said Joe Childers, president of United Fishermen of Alaska, which represents 37 fishing groups. UFA is not opposed to oil and gas development, but worries that it poses big threats to Alaska’s fishing industry. The group has created an official position that claims Alaska’s seafood production is an integral part of our national food supply, and needs to be protected. “We think of our operations as part of the national security equation, as well as the oil and gas that might come out of there. And we feel that our property rights to our fisheries are not protected at all,” Childers said. “In a lease sale, the oil companies are very likely to wind up with something akin to a property right and we would just be forced to move. We find that very threatening.” Childers, who grew up fishing at Cook Inlet, said by its very nature, oil and gas development takes over traditional fishing areas. “It involves putting in rigid physical structures, seismic testing, laying pipeline,” he said. “In every case, it is most likely that fishing activity will be changed, impaired or forced to move.” Childers said UFA believes the Alaska fishing industry should be granted the same considerations as local boroughs. “If there is going to be drilling, we want to require that a Regional Citizens Advisory Council be established immediately, and funded by the oil companies,” Childers said. UFA also calls for, among other things, creation of a disaster fund to provide compensation to the fishing industry and coastal communities in the event of disruption of fisheries; research on the potential impacts of oil/gas development to seafood markets; and long-term scientific monitoring to assess impacts to fisheries and the marine environment. National chairman Arni Thomson, director of the Alaska Crab Coalition, said he believes UFA’s position paper “has significant implications for all other U.S. states facing offshore oil development.”

Exxon spill awards could be held up in court for several weeks

Damage awards stemming from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill were scheduled to be in the mail this week, but the payments could be stalled for a month or more. The settlement, which was slashed in June by the U.S. Supreme Court from $2.5 billion to $507.5 million, will be distributed to more than 32,000 plaintiffs, of which 80 percent are Alaska fishermen. “Some obstacles have arisen and the soonest we will see checks is mid-November, and it may roll over to December,” said Andrew Ott, a plaintiff attorney in Kodiak. Ott defined one of the obstacles as complex accounting procedures over the payment distributions. Another snag comes from a threat by “a very small claimant group that is unhappy with their share,” Ott said. “They are having it reviewed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and we are waiting for that outcome. In the meantime, they might throw in an objection to any authorization for distribution to the rest of the claimants until they say their share has been confirmed or changed,” he said. “At this stage, the distribution allows for the remaining plaintiffs to receive their portion of the shares, and the objector’s portion can be put in a reserve fund until their issue is resolved. In the meantime, the court has to give process whenever something is filed in court, so there may be a delay of 30 days or so until that ruling occurs. It is a fairly minor issue, but it does eat up a little bit of time.” Whenever the plaintiffs do get their settlements, they will also get some tax relief as part of the $700 billion bail-out package passed by Congress. It will allow plaintiffs to income average their awards over three years, contribute up to $100,000 to retirement plans, and exempt payments of self employment or payroll taxes on any Exxon awards. “We recognize that waiting 19 years to get settlements from Exxon is tough enough, but having to turn a good portion over to Uncle Sam is adding insult to injury. And the timing of this in allowing for some tax relief is just about perfect,” said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who pushed through the tax relief measure along with Sen. Ted Stevens. Murkowski said in a phone interview that she was not happy to vote for the massive Wall Street bail out package, but she felt it was necessary to provide a financial assist to U.S. credit markets. “Having the Exxon tax relief included made it a bit easier to swallow,” she said. Exxon is appealing an additional $488 million in interest payments on the damages award, and the tax breaks will also apply to that settlement. “That is now on a briefing schedule with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and they may come out with a ruling by year’s end, but more likely in early 2009,” said attorney Ott. A bill by aimed at giving U.S. fishermen a fuel tax break failed to get the nod from Congress this session. The two-year measure would give fishermen an extra tax deduction based on the difference between fuel prices paid on Labor Day 2004, adjusted for inflation, and prices paid this year. “The finance committee was faced with so many different bills that the fuel tax relief bill simply didn’t rise to the top of the stack,” Murkowski said. “I do intend to see what I can do in the next Congress to introduce legislation that would again provide relief to fishermen, whether in the form of fuel assistance, or maybe some kind of consideration if you work, for example, to retrofit an engine.” The nation’s financial crisis derailed many other bills, including one that would allow fishermen to obtain low cost operating loans through the Farm Bill. Likewise, efforts failed again to get the U.S. to sign on to the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST). This year the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia adopted a declaration of cooperation in the Arctic, which supports the treaty as the legal framework for governance. But without ratification, the U.S. remains sidelined while the other nations stake claims to oil, gas, fisheries and other resources in the Arctic. One measure that did move forward was the Bush Administration’s push to permit offshore fish farms using converted oil and gas platforms in U.S. waters. That was advanced through the rulemaking process and tagged on to an energy bill as a way to sidestep Congressional hearings. “What they were doing was kind of back door to get offshore aquaculture moving because we have not advance that bill in the way they wanted. And I don’t appreciate that at all,” said Murkowski. “My office has been very vocal in letting folks know that there is a process that needs to be followed, and if not, you can expect strenuous opposition. I am very concerned about this and we are not going to let it get away from us.” The Minerals Management Service has scheduled offshore fish farm public meetings on the West Coast next year and Murkowski said she is insisting that Alaska is included. October marks the start of dive fisheries for sea cucumbers, geoduck clams and urchins. “These are pretty hardcore fishermen diving in the winter weather in the Gulf of Alaska. But for a lot of these guys it’s an important piece to their overall annual fishing livelihood,” said fishery manager Nick Sagalkin of Kodiak. About 14 local divers compete for 140,000 pounds of cukes around Kodiak, smaller fisheries occur at Chignik and along the Alaska Peninsula. Southeast Alaska boasts the biggest dive fisheries; 175 divers are targeting more than a million pounds of sea cucumbers, valued at over $2.50 a pound. Divers can also scoop up 5.4 million pounds of sea urchins, valued at about 33 cents a pound. Giant geoduck clams are the most lucrative dive fishery, and this year’s quota is 869,000 pounds. The clams, which can weigh up to 10 pounds, fetch $3.50 to $3.90 a pound if live, and less than $1 if processed. About 60 divers are on the grounds, said regional manager Bill Donaldson. The combined dive fisheries were valued at $7 million at the Southeast docks last year. Also in Southeast each October: spot prawn and coon stripe shrimp fisheries, fall Dungeness crab, and the winter troll fishery reopens for 45,000 king salmon. “Similar to Kodiak, more and more you get salmon fishermen who also do dive fisheries or shrimp or something in the fall,” Donaldson said. “Fishermen have diversified and they fish a portfolio of different fisheries.”

Water's most unwanted visitors

Atlantic salmon no longer top Alaska’s list of unwanted visitors. Nearly 500 Atlantic salmon were captured in Alaska waters through the 1990s, mostly in Southeast, but as far west as the Bering Sea. The fish were escapees from West Coast fish farms, and Alaskans feared the Atlantic transplants would take hold and taint the gene pool of wild stocks. But good news - just seven Atlantic salmon have been captured in Alaska waters since 2006. “We only can count the fish that are brought in, but the numbers have gone down significantly in the past 10 years,” said Tammy Davis, invasive species project leader for the state Sport Fish Division. “We have to commend the fish farmers in Washington and off the coast of British Columbia for their efforts to contain their stocks.” It’s northern pike that pose the biggest threat to salmon and trout in Southcentral lakes and streams, Davis said. Those voracious feeders were illegally transported from north of the Alaska Range to the Susitna River Drainage in the 1950s. Crayfish also have been released and captured in the Kenai River, said biologist Bob Piorkowski. “They’re like vacuum cleaners and eat everything on the bottom,” he said. Ditto tiny New Zealand mud snails, which often arrive in Alaska on the bottom of boots or other outdoor gear. The snails were called “a serious threat to Alaska’s sport fisheries” in a 2002 Aquatic Nuisance Species Management Plan. “If anyone is coming to Alaska, make sure your wading gear, especially with felt liners, have been in the freezer for five or six hours. It will kill the mud snails,” Piorkowski said. Hundreds of invasive marine species make their way around the world as stowaways in the ballast water of ships. For Alaska, a watch is on now for European green crabs in Southeast and Southcentral waters. The highly adaptable crabs are making their way up the West Coast and have huge appetites for oysters and other crabs. “The farthest north population is off the coast of Vancouver Island, and researchers believe there is a very good chance that green crabs could move up the coast to Alaska,” Davis said. Fishery managers encourage anyone who spots an odd sea creature to bring it to an appropriate office. “You know what lives on your beach. If you find something unusual, we’d love to hear about it,” Davis said. If you suspect you’ve landed an Atlantic salmon, look for spots on the gill plates and a slender, pinched tail. Climate change is the biggest challenge facing Alaska’s fisheries, believes Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. The U.S. Senate candidate recently launched a series of teleconferences for reporters in remote regions. Begich said it is part of his “full access” promise to keep all Alaskans more engaged in political decision-making. Begich ticked off challenges to the seafood industry: “High energy costs to go out and catch the fish...they need affordable health care...a sustainable financial lifestyle, capital for new vessels and equipment upgrades....” Begich is getting his sea legs by traveling to fishing communities, and said he is hearing “lots of differing philosophies” about Alaska fisheries management. “It’s mixed within the industry, but I do hear concerns that final decisions around fish allocations are not done out in the open, and decisions are not always based on science,” he said. The mayor is on more solid ground with energy issues, a centerpiece of the Begich campaign both in terms of new ideas and criticisms of “our current representation.” “Because of the lack and neglect over the past 40 years to focus on a long-term plan, we have no energy policy for Alaska or the nation. Now people are paying enormous costs for energy, we are dependent on foreign fuel, and we have put ourselves at economic and national risk,” Begich said. “When I see wind farms in rural Alaska producing enough energy so they don’t have to buy 80,000 gallons of diesel - we should step up as a nation and put hard dollars on the table to offset the cost that the consumer has to pay,” Begich said. “If you front load the financing for these energy projects, it’s tough to get them working today.” Begich said he has not taken a position yet on the proposed Pebble Mine, situated at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. “I want to let the process between all the different agencies move forward because that has barely started. I’m one of these guys that believes you have to allow the scientific evidence to move forward before making any policy decision,” Begich said. “That said, I do have grave concerns,” he added. “In this case, the fisheries in the long term, because that is a sustainable, renewable resource that we have to make sure under any circumstances. And I don’t care if it’s Pebble or any other development in our state, we make sure it is protected.” Fishing by wind made history in Hawaii recently, when a 20-pound ono and a 160-pound tuna were hauled aboard kite-powered boats. “Seems like the incubator for this is going to be the fishing industries, you know?” said Ian Fisher, co-owner of a Maui-based start up company called Kite for Sail. Fisher has developed simple kite systems for sport and fishing boats since 1999, tapping into the steady trade winds of the Hawaiian Islands. “The way the kite moves through the wind and the hull moves through the water is a natural combination,” Fisher said, “The pulling instead of pushing force makes it very versatile and really smoothes out the ride. Most boaters will find it very useful.” The kite system can be used off any sized power boat or hull, Fisher said. It includes an inflatable kite (5 to 20 meters), five lines and a winch. When the kite latches on to the powerful winds far above the water, boats can really pull back on the throttle. “If you’re going to travel over a certain course and you have a good wind for an hour or so, the kite can be deployed to save anywhere from 20 to 30 (percent), even 70 to 80 percent of fuel costs, depending on your hull type and your course off to the wind,” Fisher said. He estimated the cost of a kite system for a 30-foot fishing boat at $3,000 to $7,000. “I think fishermen would be the most naturally skilled kite pilots and really help grow the concept,” he said. Kite systems can also power energy solutions on shore, he added. “It can be used to pump water, make compressed air, produce electricity - things of that nature.”

Global network of robots submerged

A global network of 3,000 underwater robots is now measuring how oceans influence fisheries productivity and the world’s climate. According to the Asia Pulse, the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization announced completion of the so-called Argo program in Tasmania. Australian scientists deployed 144 of the world’s first Argos between Australia and Indonesia in 1999. The robots will be able to research oceans that have never been measured before due to their remoteness and stormy conditions. The four-foot tall Argo deep-sea divers measure temperature and salinity in the upper mile and a half of oceans around the globe, and surface every 10 days to upload the data to a satellite. Data canters in France and California analyze the information by climate. The information has already helped researchers track how fast and where the ocean is warming due to greenhouse gases, and aided in ocean forecasting. Scientists said the Argo project would allow them to solve some of the big climate questions, as well as provide insight into how the ever-changing ocean weather affects marine ecosystems. The $905 million project is funded by 26 countries. The report said the U.S. has committed to maintaining half of the robots for the next four years, with other contributing countries covering the remainder. Laine Welch, who lives in Kodiak, can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

Warming up to 'iceless' fish shipments could save millions

Shipping live or fresh fish without water or ice would save millions of dollars for seafood companies. A new waterless transport method could soon allow fish shippers to do just that. Waterless transport technology has won several international “best invention” awards for Bonifacio Comandante of the Philippines, who presented the concept as his master’s degree thesis two years ago at a San Francisco university. Since then, investors from Australia and Japan have partnered with Comandante to bring the benefits and savings to their countries. Comandante’s transport process involves bathing fish in a proprietary mixture that puts them in a soothing state of hibernation. “It’s an organic compound found naturally in the water, and I just found a way to trigger a hibernation process in fish,” Comandante said in a phone interview as he was on his way to the International Boston Seafood Show. The hibernating fish are kept at a controlled temperature and shipped upright in a vertical position to ensure that their gill covers remain open. Comandante said he has tested the transport method on 12 species of fish with 100 percent success. “From the Philippines, we’re shipping three kinds of groupers, two kinds of snappers and many crustaceans and mollusks,” he said, estimating the savings from Southeast Asia to Hong Kong at $85 million for live products. The inventor recently signed a $4 million contract to apply the technology to Australia’s top seafood exports to the United States and Japan: tuna, rainbow trout and salmon. “In Australia, we were successful in putting live salmon into hibernation for 10 to 12 hours,” he said. Comandante said his shipping method has an even bigger application for fresh fish because it eliminates the need for ice. “Normally when you send fresh fishes, you need ice to go along with the fish. Without ice, you save somewhere between 20 to 25 percent in freight costs,” he said. “If you figure the volume that is traded worldwide that goes to Hong Kong, China and Japan, the instant savings would be about $248 million.” The mixture can also be applied to fish processing. “You can time the death of the fishes before you process them,” Comandante said. His Philippines-based company, Buhi International Group, is awaiting an international patent before fully commercializing the waterless shipping technology in selected countries. Comandante said he is very interested in networking with Alaska producers. Meanwhile, the inventor is a finalist in a May 21 World Bank competition for another innovative project that boosts the nutritional content of shellfish by 70 percent. “The vitamins and green algae I use make up an acronym for Viagra, but it’s not what you think,” he said with a laugh. Ketchikan counts on shellfish Construction is set to begin this summer on the Oceans Alaska Marine Science Center near Ketchikan. The new nonprofit was created last year when the state and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough donated 28 acres to build the facility, which aims to be the hub for building a global industry for Alaska shellfish. “Economic development is the primary thing. If we look at what the opportunities are for year-round, sustainable jobs in Southeast, Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula and along the Aleutians, the shellfish industry is one of the best options we have. A focus will be on how we can help the industry grow,” said project manager John Sund. Alaska currently has 34 shellfish farms throughout Southeast Alaska and 27 in the Southcentral region — Prince William Sound and near Homer. Values last year, primarily centered on oysters, totaled just more than $676,000, split almost evenly between the two regions. Sund said if the dive fisheries for geoduck clams, sea cucumbers and urchins are included, total shellfish values for Southeast Alaska top $7 million. Research economists estimate the region’s shellfish value could reach $50 million to $100 million if production was increased through aquaculture. Sund believes the state could enjoy similar financial gains and points to New Zealand as an example. “The green mussel industry there struggled for years until they formed a collaboration with the government and researchers, and learned how to freeze the mussels. That took them into the world market from $18 million to a $100 million industry,” he said, pointing to similar successes with cultured scallops in Japan, clams in Florida, and oysters and geoduck clams in British Columbia. Ray RaLonde, an aquaculture expert with Alaska Sea Grant, agrees that shellfish aquaculture provides huge opportunities for Alaska. “Right now there is growing demand for Alaska shellfish — what we lack is enough production,” RaLonde said, adding that co-operative farming is the best way for the fledgling industry to move forward. In Ketchikan, projects are already underway even before the Oceans Alaska facility is built. “We don’t need a building to help move the research projects and our mission forward,” Sund said. The Oceans Alaska board is seeking an executive director. Lost in translation Reports from Japanese newspapers that major buyers were bailing out of Alaska’s biggest herring fishery at Bristol Bay were way off base. A thorough canvassing by Dillingham radio station KDLG revealed that five processors have signed up to purchase Togiak roe herring: Icicle, Trident, Norquest, Yardarm Knot and North Pacific Seafoods. A Norquest spokesman said poor prices and reduced demand for herring have forced processors to scale back their operations in the Togiak fishery, and several will be operating with fewer tenders and a smaller fleet. The Togiak herring quota this year is 26,000 tons, but state fishery manager Tim Sands told KDLG that his poll of processors indicates they only intend to buy about 16,000 tons. The Togiak roe herring fishery, which typically gets underway in May, was worth $2.6 million to fishermen last year.

State will soon learn just how well the salmon industry fared in '06

Industry watchers will soon have a more complete picture of how Alaska salmon is playing out in world markets. The state Department of Revenue is expected to release its annual “score card” for the 2006 salmon fishery any day. The Alaska Salmon Price Report will provide first wholesale prices and sales volumes for key salmon products: canned salmon, fresh and frozen/headed and gutted, fresh and frozen fillets, and salmon roe. The annual production report will tell exactly how much salmon was processed by Alaska seafood companies last year. “It allows us to pin down what we produced and what was the real growth in products like fillets, which are of great interest to many people,” said analyst Chris McDowell of the Juneau-based McDowell Group, which tracks and translates the salmon data in reports to the industry. Looking at some 2006 salmon highlights: Alaska chum salmon continued to show substantial price recovery at the docks, from 19 cents per pound three years ago to 31 cents a pound. The 20-year average is 32 cents. “The dockside value was about $56 million, and 18 percent of Alaska’s total salmon value was chums,” McDowell said. A record chum catch of 24.7 million fish is projected for Alaska this year. Coho salmon was a sleeper that really woke up last year. The statewide average price was nearly $1 per pound, not including bonuses. In Southeast Alaska, troll-caught cohos fetched a record $2.85 a pound. Fewer Alaska pink salmon are ending up in cans, going instead into pricier frozen fillets. Ten years ago, 80 percent of the pink catch would be canned; now it’s closer to a 50/50 split for canned and frozen pinks. Pink salmon are not expected to pull another no-show in 2007, as they did in major Alaska regions last year, notably Southeast. Pink salmon have a two-year life span and return in odd/even year cycles of run strength. “The parent year for the 2007 pink return was 2005, which was the largest pink salmon harvest on record, at 161 million fish,” McDowell said. For the past 20 years, on odd-numbered years, the pink salmon catch has been 23 percent over projections. If that holds true, the Alaska catch could top 130 million pinks in 2007, McDowell said. Another big harvest could be a mixed blessing for Alaska’s money fish — sockeye salmon. “Half to two-thirds of the total dockside value is from sockeye, and we haven’t seen a whole lot of movement in the past year or two,” McDowell said. Last year, 70 percent of Alaska’s sockeye catch of roughly 40 million came from Bristol Bay, where prices remained in the $.55 per pound range. The sockeye were smaller than usual, making them less suitable for fillet production. That meant the bulk of the bay’s red salmon went into cans in an already crowded market. “It appears we’re entering into a time of oversupply for the canned sockeye market. And with high production coming from Bristol Bay, we’re looking at a pretty significant canned pack again,” McDowell said. Alaska king salmon prices continue to reflect the lack of availability of fish from Pacific coast fisheries, closed for conservation concerns. The average dock price last year was almost $2.80 per pound, the highest price in 25 years. Southeast trollers fetched $9.20 per pound for winter kings two weeks ago. “In terms of the price for king salmon, this is ’the good old days’ right now,” McDowell said. State fish forecasters are predicting an Alaska salmon catch of 179 million fish this year, up 21.2 percent from the 2006 harvest of 141 million salmon It soon will be easier to make sure those fish you are buying are the real thing. Fish frauds are at an all time high, and suppliers are too often substituting fakes for higher-value species — farmed salmon for wild, for example, or tilapia or catfish for grouper. A project underway at Ontario’s Guelph University may soon allow people to test their own fish, even while sitting at a restaurant. Called the Barcode of Life, the project aims to a build a genetic sequence database for every known plant and animal species on Earth. Researchers have developed a wireless, handheld device that can analyze a sliver of fish and identify it within minutes. They predict it will be widely used in five to 10 years. The device can also be used to target invasive species at ports. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) wants to hear from the public on what research strategies and priorities it should adopt for the next five years. By law, NMFS must update its strategic plan for fisheries research every three years. Scientists are awaiting the hatch of the first batch of baby king crabs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Marine Center in Seward. “It’s really exciting. It’s the first time that we have ventured into culturing king crab,” said Brian Allee, director of Alaska Sea Grant and manager of the crab research program. Researchers believe the hatchery program marks the first step in rebuilding wild king crab stocks in Alaska waters. The arrivals will be newborn red and blue king crab larvae, each only about the size of a finely sharpened pencil tip. In all, more than 1 million king crabs are expected to hatch at the facility in coming weeks. Their mothers, 58 in all, were collected from waters around Kodiak and the Pribilof Islands. The first batch of crab will not be released into the wild, but will serve as test subjects for future generations. It will take several years, but the goal is to eventually release the crabs to their home waters. “Then they would contribute to the common-property fishery. First and foremost, the crab will contribute to brood stock that will provide the seed for the future,” Allee said. The Alaska King Crab Research and Rehabilitation Program will be a feature at ComFish in Kodiak in March and at an open house March 24 at the Alutiiq Pride Hatchery in Seward. Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and Web sites. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 25 stations around the state. Welch, who lives in Kodiak, can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] 

Alaska's most valuable salmon is seeing more of the world

It used to be that the Alaska salmon industry was criticized for "putting all its eggs into one basket," meaning, selling all of its big-money fish, sockeye, to one customer, Japan. That’s not the case any longer. For the past decade, the trend has been a steady shift away from that traditional customer toward eager markets in the United States and Europe. The latest Seafood Market Report from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute reports frozen sockeye salmon exports to Japan so far this year are 27 million pounds, just 33 percent of the total pack. This contrasts sharply with the past two years when production levels were similar, but Japan imported 66-69 percent of Alaska frozen sockeye. Frozen sockeye is by far the most valuable salmon product produced in Alaska, with first wholesale value of nearly $160 million in 2005. The sockeye market is of keen interest for the industry, especially since Alaska harvests have topped 40 million reds for three years running. The export and sales patterns since 2004 are the most relevant for illustrating the changing market destinations for Alaska’s frozen sockeye, the report said. Conversely, the market for canned sockeye is facing a glut. While the sales season for all canned salmon begins in September, all indications point to a large carryover of canned reds from previous years, plus above average volumes coming into the market from British Columbia, Canada. There is a rosier outlook for pink salmon, as fewer of those fish end up in cans. Canned production this year, combined with carryover inventory, add up to the lowest case load in several years, the Seafood Market Report said. "In fact, closer to 55 percent of the pink harvest is now going into cans. That compares to roughly 76 percent in recent years. We’re seeing a big shift into higher-value frozen pink production," said Chris McDowell of the Juneau-based McDowell Group, producer of the market report for ASMI. Salmon fillets continue to be the biggest trendsetter, and Alaska processors are "putting in more fillet lines all over the state, especially for sockeye," McDowell said. First wholesale prices for fresh fillets showed the largest price increase this year with gains between 27 and 36 percent. The total value of fresh and frozen Alaska salmon fillets from May through August jumped from $18 million to $26 million, an increase of 41 percent. Through mid-September, state managers report the total 2006 Alaska salmon harvest at 135 million fish, ranking as the 17th-largest catch on record. Latest sea lion counts The 2006 population counts of westward populations of Steller sea lions showed mixed reviews. Whereas the animals are thriving throughout Southeast Alaska, populations from Kodiak and further west have dropped dramatically since the 1980s, and they are listed on the federal endangered species list. Every two years, federal researchers from the Seattle-based Alaska Fisheries Science Center conduct aerial surveys to assess trends in the numbers of adult and juvenile sea lions at nearly 250 sites, ranging from Cape St. Elias to Attu Island. The mix of sites has been surveyed consistently, some since the mid-1970s and others since the 1990s. Population counts from 2000 through 2004 showed nearly a 12 percent increase in sea lions throughout the westward region, the first increase since the late 1970s. For two weeks in June this year, researchers were able to only survey 159 of the sites due partly to bad weather that grounded survey flights. Researchers were also hamstrung by court-ordered delays stemming from a lawsuit by the U.S. Humane Society that found federal managers had failed to comply with regulations in issuing research permits. A summary memorandum said the June 2006 survey yielded no new information on abundance trends for the entire western stock of sea lions. The counts of non-pups in the eastern and western Gulf of Alaska and eastern Aleutians appear to be unchanged since 2004, suggesting that adult and juvenile populations may have stabilized. The survey indicated, however, that sea lion declines appear to be continuing in the western Aleutians, perhaps by as much as 19 percent. Find the survey summary at www.afsc.noaa.gov. Alaska fish vs. global warming Snow crab stocks are marching farther north, likewise pollock and other fish stocks, as Bering Sea waters get warmer due to global climate changes. Scientists from around the world were to gather last week to discuss the ability of members of a family of fish called gadids to adapt to human and environmental pressures. Gadids include 30 species of cod, haddock, pollock, lings, whiting and hake that inhabit the cold waters of the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Arctic oceans. The conference, Resiliency of Gadid Stocks to Fishing and Climate Change, will include experts from the United States, Canada, Norway, Russia and other fishing nations to discuss what’s needed for gadids to cope with fishing and climate changes. The meeting is the 24th Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium, coordinated by Alaska Sea Grant since 1982 to bring scientists together to discuss research and help improve fisheries management and marine conservation. The series is named after Lowell Wakefield, founder of the Alaska king crab industry. The conference was to take place at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, Oct. 31-Nov. 3.

Seafood industry looks to reach the youngest customers

Cruise the baby food aisles of any American supermarket and you’ll see jars of beef, chicken, lamb, eggs - every kind of protein except fish. That could soon change if an initiative by Alaska food scientists and the seafood industry is successful. Fueled by $443,000 in federal funding from the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, a project is underway at the University of Alaska Fisheries Industrial Technology Center in Kodiak to create baby food made from salmon. AFDF is an industry based nonprofit created in 1978 to help provide a bridge between research and the marketplace. "Starting last year we began developing two prototype products - a pate’ form for infants and a chunk-style food for toddlers made from pink and/or sockeye salmon, with or without fish oil additives. We may also use ground up salmon bone as a source for organic calcium," said FITC director Scott Smiley. Another project will focus on using salmon roe as a baby food ingredient. Smiley said it will be two or three years before the salmon products are ready to hand off to baby food manufacturers. But that is something that is beyond the realm of science. "We can tell seafood processors what they need to do to make a product that is 100 percent pure salmon and meets specific nutritional standards. It’s up to them to sell the idea to baby food manufacturers and to market researchers to try and make it fly in the market place," Smiley said. Smiley displayed jars of seafood baby food from Japan adorned with labels showing colorful pictures of flounder and cod. He said infant formulas throughout Asia also contain fish oils to meet minimum requirements for omega 3 fatty acid levels. With all the health positives surrounding fish, why is the same nutrition not available to American babies? "We can’t get it past the gate-keepers. Parents just seem to have a bias against fish," was the response 10 years ago by Gerber spokesperson Nancy Lindner. That attitude holds true today. "At this time, Gerber does not manufacture a baby food containing fish. The selection of products we offer is determined in large part by the preferences of parents," was the reply to a query at Gerber’s consumer questions line. (Other companies did not respond.) One baby food company expressed concern over the "odor" of processing fish at their manufacturing plants, said AFDF director Bob Pawlowski. To that end, AFDF has invited food scientists from major baby food makers to visit processing plants next month in Kodiak and one other Alaska community. "We want to show them that we have the most healthful, all-natural salmon in the world with no bio-accumulation issues of contaminants or impurities. We will try and convince them that we can produce it and they can distribute it," Pawlowski said. He and Smiley have already scheduled follow-up meetings in August with research and development staff at baby food companies headquartered in Urbana, Ill. Both men are optimistic that salmon baby food is an idea whose time has come. "Moms recognize it as healthful, low-fat, loaded with omega 3s, it comes from pure Alaska waters ... there is a whole lot going for fish," Smiley said. "It just depends on how willing people are to make that vision translate into new products on the supermarket shelves." New rules Mariners have long been required to take steps to test anyone involved in a serious accident or incident for evidence of drug and alcohol use. Many might be caught off guard by new U.S. Coast Guard rules that go into effect on June 20 setting specific time limits for conducting the tests and mandating that approved testing equipment be carried on board. The new requirements say that alcohol testing must follow a serious marine incident (SMI) within two hours, and no later than eight hours, following the incident. Drug testing must be done within 32 hour of an SMI. An SMI includes such things as a death, an injury that requires treatment beyond first aid, property damage in excess of $100,000, loss of a vessel, or various pollution incidents. Lt. Randy Waddington said the Coast Guard recognizes that sometimes testing can’t be done within the required time frame, such as when "people are being plucked out of the ocean." "Enforcement will be done on a case-by-case basis," Waddington said. Regardless, mariners must have approved testing devices on board by June 20 and know how to use them. The only exception is for vessels operating within two hours of a location where testing can be done, such as a police station or hospital. Waddington was not sure if the devices will be available from outlets other than the Internet. A list of approved testing equipment, which sell for $100-$150, is available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Failure to comply with the new chemical testing regulations can result in fines of $27,500 for each violation. For more information, contact Lt. Waddington at the Marine Safety Office in Juneau at (907) 463-2444. New sea bird guides An ongoing collaboration between the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has produced a new series of colorful placards showing 51 bird species that might be encountered on the fishing grounds. The guides contain life-size outlines of the birds’ beaks so they can easily be identified by fishermen or onboard observers. The new series follows on a release last year of guides produced in both English and Russian that identify three types of endangered short-tailed albatross. Accidentally catching just four of those in a two-year period can have serious ramifications, potentially closing down a fishery. "Happily, we have not gotten close to those limits. We have not taken a short-tailed albatross since 1998," said Thorn Smith, director of the North Pacific Longline Association and an MCA board member. Alaska’s longline fleet already uses avoidance measures to keep sea birds away from their fishing gear. "The streamer lines we deploy over our baited hooks while we’re setting them out are extremely effective and we have reduced our incidental take of birds eightfold," Smith said, adding that the bird guides have been very popular. "We’ve got some real birdwatching fishermen out there. It tends to raise their consciousness and has been a very successful series." The collaboration also has provided guides to identify and avoid the world’s most endangered whales - right whales. "The series represents a remarkable cooperative effort by industry, government and environmentalists," said MCA director Dave Benton.

Halibut fishermen to start work early, but catch is reduced

Halibut fishermen will hit the water on March 5 this year, a Sunday opening date that will get the fish to market early during the first week of Lent. Harvesters will also take home a slightly lower catch during the halibut fishery, which will last through mid-November. That news was announced Jan. 20 by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which sets annual catch limits for Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia, Canada. The commission recommended a coast-wide halibut catch totaling 69.9 million pounds, a 5.4 percent decrease from the 2005 catch limit of 73.8 million pounds. The IPHC said in its 2006 annual report that the halibut stock appears healthy throughout much of its range, but is believed to have declined in the western Gulf of Alaska and parts of the Bering Sea. This is the second year in a row that harvest rates for those areas have been lowered as a precautionary measure, the IPHC said. Here are the 2006 halibut catch limits for Alaska: Alaska total, 53.7 million pounds; Area 2C in Southeast Alaska, 10.6 million; Area 3A in the Central Gulf, 25.2 million; Area 3B in the Western Gulf, 10.9 million; Area 4A in the eastern Aleutians, 3.3 million; Area 4B in the western Aleutians, 1.7 million; Area 4C in the Pribilof Islands 1.6 million; Area 4D, northwestern Bering Sea, 1.6 million; Area 4E, Bering Sea flats, 330,000; Area 4 total, 8.6 million. Get more information at www.iphc.washington.edu. Fishing and flying deaths Fishing and flying still account for most deaths on the job in Alaska. Air transportation and commercial fishing accounted for the most work-related deaths in Alaska in 2004, the latest year for which there are statistics. According to the state Department of Labor’s January issue of Alaska Economic Trends, that has been the case since 1992, when the U.S. first began tracking workplace fatalities. The data are derived from the number of deaths per 100,000 workers. Transportation incidents led Alaska’s deadly list, accounting for 73 percent of job fatalities in 2004. That includes any mode of transportation, from cars and trucks to boats and aircraft. Nearly one out of every three deaths was associated with some type of marine mishap. Twenty percent of Alaska’s workplace fatalities that year, or eight out of 40, were commercial fishermen. Aircraft incidents accounted for one-third of workplace fatalities, or three out of every 10 deaths. In more recent years, the on-the-job death rate has improved dramatically for both fishing and flying. For fishing, it has dropped from 38 percent in 1992 to 20 percent in 2004. The rate has declined from an average of nine deaths per year for aircraft pilots to four. Between 1992 and 2004, some 721 workers died in Alaska’s workplaces, an average of about one every seven days. Alaska’s average annual number of workplace deaths has decreased in the last 10 years, even though the number of workers has increased 10 percent. In all, Alaska had 40 workplace deaths in 2004, down from an average of 55 in a run of previous years. Nearly three-quarters of those who died in Alaska’s workplaces were between the ages of 25-54, and white/non-Hispanics and Asians made up 85 percent of the deaths. While things are improving, Alaska’s on-the-job fatality rate is among the nation’s highest, at 9.2 persons per year. That is second only to Wyoming, with a rate of 13.9 on-the-job deaths. Vegas is wild for "The King" Seafood lovers selected smoked Yukon king salmon as their favorite at the Alaska Symphony of Salmon contest earlier this month in Las Vegas. The popular People’s Choice Award went to Yukon King Seafoods of Marshall, Alaska, for its Smoked Cajun King Salmon. The buttery texture and balanced flavor of the salmon portions bested 18 other seafood entries, and also drew raves from the judges. On its entry form, Yukon King Seafoods said its smoked salmon products - which are also available in lemon pepper, traditional and peppered flavors - are currently sold in villages along the Yukon River. The Seafood of Symphony event now moves to Anchorage, where three winners will be announced in three categories - retail, food service and smoked - along with a grand prizewinner. First-place entries earn a trip to the International Boston Seafood Show, scheduled in March. Now in its 13th year, the Symphony of Seafood was created by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation to showcase new products and introduce them to the marketplace. Exxon vigil An all-night vigil was set for Jan. 26 in front of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Jan. 27 marked the third and probably final round of oral arguments about whether Exxon should pay $4.5 billion, plus interest, in punitive damages to more than 30,000 Alaska plaintiffs whose livelihoods were hurt by the 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound. Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and Web sites. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 25 stations around the state. Welch, who lives in Kodiak, can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

Halibut fishermen to play key role in decision-making study

How do fishermen make risky decisions out on the water? Researchers are hoping Alaska halibut skippers will help them find out. Quinn Weninger, an economist at Iowa State University, is leading a study called "Decision-Making in Uncertain Circumstances: Learning from Alaskan Halibut Fishermen." He has put out a call for 50-60 halibut skippers to participate in the project for the 2006 and 2007 fisheries. "Halibut fishing is a great example of a process in which decisions have to be made about where fish might be, and the decisions are all subject to various forms of uncertainty. It is a very interesting, natural experiment for us to try and test some of the theories that are being put forth about decision making under uncertainty. That’s the motivation for this study," Weninger said. Researchers suggest that people tend to use simplifications or "rules of thumb" - called heuristics - to aid in the complex task of making decisions under uncertainty. "These rules of thumb can lead to errors or mistakes, and there is tremendous interest in the academic community to try and uncover how these various heuristics influence decisions," Weninger said. For the two-year halibut project, each skipper will be given a hand-held computer and GPS logger, and asked to "point and click" through a short list of questions before they leave for a fishing trip. "They’ll be asked about the thought processes that went into making the decision about where they are going to fish, and in particular, what they expect to catch. At the end of the trip, they’ll do another round of questions, such as what might have changed out on the water, and how they reacted as the trip proceeded," Weninger said. He stressed that all fishing data will remain strictly confidential. Weninger added that getting "real" results from the fishing grounds will be more meaningful than from controlled experiments. "Because we will be gathering data from real decision makers where risks are important and the stakes really matter, we think we’ll have something to say that is new and exciting," Weninger said. Results of the two-year study, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, will help researchers learn how expectations are formed, how choices are made and how the level of risk affects the decision-making process. The work can benefit others who work in high-stress occupations, and those who provide support services, Weninger said. Pollock goes to school The Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers is taking the lead to get more fish into the mouths of America’s school kids. The GAPP is an association formed in 2003 that represents every at-sea and shore-based processor in the Alaska pollock industry. It promotes Alaska pollock in markets around the world with a focus on Europe, North America and Asia. GAPP members were recently in Orlando, Fla., for a three-day School and Child Nutrition Industry Conference, which brings together food decision makers and seafood suppliers. The GAPP’s goal is to convince them to use more pollock products in the nation’s school lunch program. According to fishing industry journal Intrafish, GAPP will share results of a pilot project done last fall in three school districts in Seattle, Houston and Virginia Beach. It showed that students were receptive to Alaskan fish tacos, and they would like them to be part of their regular school lunch menus. GAPP president Rick Muir said the group is developing more kid-tested menu items, and they believe children would enjoy fish more if better-quality products were available in American schools. Pollock pays out Speaking of Alaskan pollock, many will be surprised to learn that pollock is the source of the largest privately funded, marine research program for state universities in Alaska’s history. Since 2000, member boats of the At-sea Processors Association have donated a total of $1 million each year to the Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center (PCCRC), headquartered at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "The PCCRC is one of our real delights," said Denis Weisenberg, dean of UAF’s School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. "Part of their contribution goes to an endowed chair, part to a research endowment, and part of it funds directed research. It is a wonderful arrangement and helps us offset state dollars that don’t seem to be coming as quickly as we need them." The PCCRC research projects are primarily designed to improve knowledge about the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. Studies have focused, for example, on predation of northern fur seals in the Pribilof Islands, jellyfish impacts on food web production, the use of acoustic data loggers on fishing vessels, and the possible relationship between killer whales and disappearing sea lions. The PCCRC is a sponsor of the Marine Science Symposium held Jan. 22-25 in Anchorage. Symphony of Seafood attracts new fish The popular Alaska Symphony of Seafood kicked off on Jan. 19 at the Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas Resort. Now in its 13th year, the 2006 event attracted 19 new Alaska seafood products from large and small companies. The entries competed in three categories - retail, food service and smoked - and were judged by a panel that represents diverse segments related to the seafood industry. Of note this year was a new fish entry into the field long dominated by salmon. Prowler Fisheries of Petersburg and Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas partnered to offer five specially flavored sablefish tenderloin dishes. Except for the Las Vegas People’s Choice Award, all winners were kept secret and announced at a second Symphony event Feb. 4 at the Fourth Avenue Theater in Anchorage. All top winners receive a trip to the International Boston Seafood Show in March.

Fisheries say long and costly eco-label worth the effort

Sometime in May, Alaska halibut and black cod should receive a coveted earth-friendly label from the international Marine Stewardship Council. The bright blue label on packages tells customers their seafood purchases come from well-managed fisheries. Such "purchase with a purpose" programs are becoming more popular with chefs, large seafood buyers and the general public, especially in Europe. All fisheries undergo intense scrutiny by a scientific team and interested stakeholders before being certified to use the eco-label. There’s been some grumbling lately that the process takes far longer than the customary 12 to 18 months originally outlined by the MSC. Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska pollock, for example, took more than four years to get the MSC nod. The halibut and black cod fisheries have been in the pipeline since February 2003. Many blame the hold-up on the independent review teams being over-extended. "It’s been a longer process than I envisioned, and more costly. That’s one of the objections that’s been cropping up," said Bob Alverson, director of the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners Association, which sponsored the halibut/black cod effort. Fishermen have taxed themselves to pay for the certification, which so far has cost roughly $150,000. Alaska salmon, the first fishery in the world to merit the eco-label, is undergoing a required five-year review at a cost that is nearly twice that. The state, however, is picking up that tab. Complaints aside, Alverson believes that being able to boast the MSC label in the marketplace is worth all the bother. "Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it," he said. The Gulf of Alaska pollock fishery is expecting to get its final OK for the eco-label any day. "We are extremely pleased that the entire Alaska pollock fishery is now proven to be responsibly and sustainability. Alaska pollock producers are excited to be bringing certified fish to environmentally conscious consumers in markets in the U.K., Europe, Asia and the U.S.," said Kevin Duffy, director of the At-Sea Processors Association. In all, 11 fisheries around the world produce products bearing the MSC label: Bering Sea pollock, Alaska salmon, Burry Inlet cockles, Loch Torridon nephrops, Mexican Baja California red rock lobster, New Zealand hoki, South African hake, South Georgia toothfish, South West handline mackerel, Thames herring, and Western Australia rock lobster. Along with Pacific halibut and black cod, 14 other fisheries are applying for the label: Australian mackerel icefish, Bering Sea freezer longline cod, British Columbia salmon, California chinook salmon, Chilean hake, Hastings Fishing Fleet Dover sole and pelagic (mid-water) fishery, Lake Hjalmaren pikeperch, South Australia Lakes and Coorong fisheries, North Sea herring, Oregon Dungeness crab, Patagonia scallops, and Oregon pink shrimp. Fish list follies Americans are starting to scratch their heads over well-meaning attempts to advise them on which fish are safest to eat. It’s a huge issue, as 48 of 50 U.S. states now have mercury warnings for various fish. Headlines about high levels of other toxins and contaminants also have consumers feeling gun shy about eating seafood. To the rescue has come a series of "fish lists" from national medical and conservation groups. They provide colorful, walletsize cards that clump seafoods into categories based on how "safe" they are to eat. The problem is, the advisories are all different, and what is recommended on one list has a "don’t eat" warning on another. For example, a list by the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says to avoid all salmon, and includes fish having the highest mercury levels. Yet other lists, such as Audubon, Monterey Aquarium and Environmental Defense, list wild salmon as the healthiest choice. The waters get even murkier because nearly all of the groups mix up their health advisories with ecosystem concerns, like overfishing. No wonder people are confused! And get this, the new Food Pyramid revealed last week actually recommends that Americans eat those fish that the government says are most contaminated with mercury, like swordfish and some tuna. The Food Pyramid is being sharply criticized by food experts and educators because, for one thing, it is completely Internet based, and provides nutritional information only to those who have computers. "Well, that cuts out a pretty significant segment of the population. This is dietary advice for people who have computers. And that is the segment of the population that probably needs it least," said Marion Nestle, author of "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Health & Nutrition." Michele Simon, director of the Center for Informed Choices, commented in Salon.com: "The nicest thing I could say is that it’s a missed opportunity. The worst I could say is that it’s a joke." The federal government’s response is that information from the Web site can be printed out and handed to low-income people. But critics say that many of the organizations serving poorer communities don’t have access to the Internet, much less a color printer. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Food Pyramid is only a colorful picture devoid of a single word, with a stick figure running up one side to promote exercise. A click on the color purple, for example, brings up a meat and beans section. And that’s where you’ll find seafood.

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