Challenges of 2001 aren't likely to disappear in new year

PHOTO/Journal File
Alaska’s big commercial fishing industry is facing its challenges, but there are bright spots.

Salmon fishermen and processors continue to be hammered by their competitors, farmed salmon in the case of the higher-value sockeye fishermen, and Russian wild-caught pink and chum salmon in the lower-value range.

Bristol Bay sockeye fishermen saw a poor harvest in 2001 with low prices, and the outlook for 2002 is worse. In the Kuskokwim and Yukon River regions, another failure in the chum salmon run means continued hardship.

Yet, amid all of this gloom some salmon fishermen did OK in 2001. There were large pink salmon runs in Southeast and Prince William Sound, and chum salmon runs and harvests met the estimates made by biologists, according to Chris McDowell, a fisheries economist who monitors Alaska fisheries.

Around Kodiak, sockeye fishermen did better than other sockeye fishermen working further west in Bristol Bay and along the Alaska Peninsula.

Overall, Alaska’s 2001 salmon harvest was large, although not a record. Markets for pink and chum salmon, which are mostly canned, remained fairly stable.

Next year is more uncertain. The Bristol Bay harvest will drop even further, biologists predict, and no relief appears in sight for hard-pressed fishermen in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Farmed salmon will continue to flood markets, and production will increase from Russian and Japanese salmon hatcheries, which may undercut markets for pink and chum salmon, said Geron Bruce, deputy director of the state Division of Commercial Fisheries.

Halibut continues to be a bright spot for the industry. Since a quota system for halibut and sablefish was implemented, the season for fishing has expanded and fishermen have developed new markets for fresh halibut, with strong prices.

The outlook for the state’s big pollock and cod fishing industry in the Bering Sea is also good with an increase in the allowable catch in 2001 and similar harvest levels expected in 2002, according to Frank Kelty, resource specialist with the city of Unalaska.

Gulf of Alaska communities with fleets fishing for pollock and cod will not fare so well next year, however. The allowable harvest has been cut substantially to allow fish stocks to rebuild.

A positive note for the entire groundfish industry is that controversy related to Steller sea lions have cooled a bit. New research shows the causes of the sea lions’ decline to be more complex than believed earlier.

12/30/2001 - 8:00pm