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.