Emerging mariculture industry takes setback from market losses

For the past few years, mariculture has been the hot topic of innovation in fisheries in Alaska. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, many of the budding farms took a huge financial hit to their operations. In the past five years, Alaska has seen a boom in the number of applications for mariculture operations, focusing on oysters, geoduck clams and kelp. Their main outlet has been in restaurants and wholesale food service, where they’ve been able to carve a niche for sustainably grown Alaska seafood and supply markets both in the state and the Lower 48. But the coronavirus pandemic closed restaurants across most of the United States in March, and large events or group cafeterias that required catering or food service remain mostly off the table. That left the mariculture farms in Alaska with a much more limited market but still a lot of product to move. For Ketchikan-based Hump Island Oyster Co., it’s going to be a tough year. Owner Trevor Sande said the company has mostly sold its oysters to wholesalers who distribute to food service businesses and retailers, with some going to local sources. They also grow a small amount of kelp, but the majority of the farm produces oysters. With seven years of shellfish growing under their belts, Hump Island has been increasing its business size every year, and this year’s plummet leaves them with a lot of oysters that don’t have anywhere to go. “It’s going to be a tremendous disaster, financially,” he said. “We have six to seven million oysters in the water right now. We’re just going to need to keep borrowing money to keep them alive and keep up with the husbandry.” Sande said this year they were planning to expand their tours, pulling in more cruise ship passengers and visitors to Ketchikan. But with cruise ships docked and the Canadian border closure limiting ferry visitors coming from Prince Rupert, Ketchikan is quiet. Oyster farmers may be getting hit twice, too. Sande said his farm, like many others in the state, uses floating rafts and trays to cultivate oysters because of a lack of suitable tidelands in the Ketchikan area. That means that in order to build capacity, farmers have to first build more rafts with trays. That costs money, and without anywhere for the oysters to go, it’s either throw out more or swallow the cost for more infrastructure. A survey conducted by Alaska SeaGrant in February and March showed that many farms had to lay off staff after the mandates sharply reduced revenue. About 43 percent of respondents said their revenue was down by more than half, and more than a third had laid off employees. The vast majority cited restaurant closures as the reason, though about half said labor shortages or reduced export opportunities were also responsible, according to the survey. The winter months are mostly kelp harvest. Oysters are harvested in the summer, and while some restaurants have reopened, mandates vary across the country and restaurant sales are still down. Some oyster farmers cited concerns about wasted harvest due to labor shortages, according to the survey. That’s not been Sande’s experience so far in Ketchikan, where he said plenty of people are out of work because of the downturn in the tourism industry. “Ketchikan’s been so devastated by the lack of any cruise ships,” he said. “If I could afford it, I ‘d hire 20 of (the displaced tourism industry workers). We do most of our work from May through September.” Getting a mariculture farm off the ground is expensive, both for the working capital for business expenses and the permitting. But in early 2019, so many people had applied that the state was backlogged nearly a year-and-a-half on approving applications. There are still some that haven’t been processed, and once they are, there may be a lull in people being willing to lay out cash to build up farms, said Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. “Long-term, I don’t think it’s going to see a significant impact, because there’s still good demand for food products,” she said. “They’re still sort of an essential item … They’re being sold in different markets in different ways, but there’s still a demand for food.” One thing that may rise from the difficulty in the supply chain for mariculture businesses is a diversification of products, but even that takes time and money. Rebranding, reinventing, and remarketing can be challenging, Decker said. While demand in restaurants has been down, demand in retail has been up during the course of the pandemic. Mariculture businesses that have heavily relied on restaurants or wholesalers may have to diversify, similarly to how the salmon fisheries had to change to frozen fillets from canned after farmed fish began challenging their market. For some products, shifting to frozen or online has been easier than others—for example, kelp farms have been providing product to Juneau’s Barnacle Seafoods, which has been selling shelf-stable products like salsa and seasoning for some time, Decker said. “A live product like a live oyster (or a ) half-shell oyster has more challenges than some other products to shift quickly. Transportation is hard for online sales unless you can get to a frozen product,” Decker said. “When you put all your eggs in one basket, when there’s a disruption, you’re hit really hard.” Ocean farming has been attractive for Alaskans, particularly for fishermen in regions who have increasingly seen their fisheries restricted due to low abundance and the cost to participate continue to rise. “It’s hard to say how drastically this will impact development in the next couple of years,” she said. “Sometimes crises force people to do things different, or drive them toward change faster than they would have otherwise. It’s hard to tell exactly how it’ll turn out.” Sande said the farm is luckily not his family’s sole income, and they’re working on some other options, like canning smoked oysters, to take care of some product. At the end of next year, though, if the farm’s not making money, he said they’ll make a decision about whether to keep going. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Copper River Seafoods’ new building keeps product in Alaska

Copper River Seafoods is adding new seafood industry infrastructure to Anchorage and bringing a key part of its supply chain back to Alaska. The Anchorage-based seafood processor and retailer on July 9 announced the opening of its new south Anchorage cold storage facility, which the company has dubbed “Copper River Seafoods Cold.” The formerly vacant property at 6700 Arctic Spur Rd. has capacity for approximately 2 million pounds of seafood and is the only facility of its kind in the city, according to Copper River Marketing Director Kim Kostka. He said the company has had to warehouse its products that are processed in Anchorage in Seattle for at least 15 years and had been in discussions with other, slower-moving developers in the city for some time before deciding to open their own facility. The chilled warehouse brings all of Copper River’s primary business operations back to Alaska. “Bringing this function of our business to Alaska creates efficiencies and synergies to our two existing value-added plants in Anchorage as well as meeting a strategic goal that is in line with our mission values of providing economic opportunities to the residents and communities we serve,” Copper River CEO Scott Blake said in a formal statement. Company leaders have said Copper River could add up to 40 jobs when a portion of the building is eventually converted into a small cutting facility at a time when other sectors of Anchorage’s economy are shedding jobs as a result of the pandemic. “We’re trying to keep everything right here, the jobs included,” Kostka said. Storing its seafood in Seattle often meant seafood caught and processed in Alaska was sent south only to be brought back to Anchorage for packaging and eventual distribution nationwide. Founded in Cordova in 1996, Copper River Seafoods operates in most of Alaska’s major fisheries. Copper River Seafoods originally planned to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the facility July 14 with Alaska business and political leaders, but the event was canceled as a precaution against coronavirus.

Salmon fishing off to a slow start statewide

Salmon harvests statewide are slow so far as the fisheries head toward their usual high points in July. So far, fishermen have landed about 5.8 million salmon. That’s less than half of the 2018 numbers by the same date, when 14 million had been landed. Much of that is due to poor sockeye returns, particularly in the Copper River area, though everywhere is slower than previous years, including Bristol Bay. The Copper River and Bering River districts continue their shutdown this week due to unexpectedly low sockeye returns. The return to the Copper River is not living up to the preseason forecast, with only 378,058 sockeye through the Miles Lake weir as of June 29, compared to more than 696,828 by the same date last year. The forecast called for 1.5 million sockeye to return to the Copper River this year. In an emergency order issued June 27, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game noted that the escapement through June 25 is about 85,000 fish behind projections, and the surveys of the Copper River Delta are significantly behind estimated ranges. “[Through June 25], the sonar count is the 14th lowest on record (1978-2020),” the emergency order states. “Cumulative commercial harvest this year is the fourth lowest harvest to-date in the last 50 years. “ As of June 27, fishermen across Prince William Sound had harvested about 495,000 sockeye, less than half of the 2019 number of about 1.1 million. Chum salmon harvests are down about 44 percent as well, and king salmon harvests are down about 75 percent, according to a harvest update from the McDowell Group. Fishermen in the Copper River district have harvested 81,228 sockeye, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Pink salmon have yet to show up in the Sound in large numbers. Bristol Bay is also somewhat behind, though there’s still time for the harvest to pick up. Last year was another banner one for the Bay, and 2020 is forecast to be more modest—around 34.6 million available for harvest with a total run of 46.6 million, according to ADFG. But even for that prediction, harvest is pretty slow; only about 1.5 million sockeye have been harvested, about 78 percent less than last year. Andy Wink, the executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, noted that other seasons that ended up having exceptionally large harvests started slowly as well. “We also had a slow start in 2012, 2015 and 2016; those last two ended up producing over 35 million sockeye harvested in the Bay,” he said. “We’re between 10 and 15 percent of our way through the normal harvest curve. There’s still plenty of time to catch up.” One of the major pressures on the Bay has been concern about COVID-19 infections, both spreading in vulnerable communities and in processors, where they could bring the fishery to a swift halt. Last week, a dozen seafood workers in Dillingham tested positive, though they were quarantined and not spreading it in the community. Overall, there were 19 nonresident cases in the combined Bristol Bay and Lake and Peninsula boroughs, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. By contrast, there were only two resident cases in the combined Bristol Bay and Lake and Peninsula boroughs. Wink said the protocols the industry has set up to prevent the spread of the virus seem to be working. “We haven’t seen really any community spread thus far in the Bay, and that’s really encouraging. A lot of the fishermen and processing workers came in in early June. I think one of the concerns was were we going to see transmission of the virus when they were in the plane, in the boatyards … by this time, we would have seen that if that had happened,” he said. “So far so good. We’re not out of the woods yet, but I think all of the precautionary measures and all of the work that went into setting up the season are working.” Commercial fishing is mandated as an essential industry, with long lists of protocols for how fleets and processors should work this year and prevent the spread of the virus. Of the 64 nonresident cases identified last week, 43 were in seafood workers. All of them were quarantined prior to testing positive, according to the DHSS. Upper Cook Inlet’s fishermen are off to a slow start as well, with 61,904 salmon landed so far. About 59,000 of them are sockeye. That’s down about 73 percent from last year, according to the McDowell Group. The Kenai subdistrict setnetters have yet to come online, but they’ll be restricted based on the prohibition of bait in the Kenai River late-run king salmon fishery as well. The Kasilof River is tracking ahead of last year, with 79,292 fish passing the sonar as of Monday, according to Fish and Game. The Kenai River sonar went online July 1. The sockeye being caught in the Kenai mainstem so far are largely Russian River sockeye, which are headed upstream to spawn near Cooper Landing. That sportfishery opened mid-June with additional area: Fish and Game opened the sanctuary area near the confluence of the two rivers early. The sanctuary doesn’t usually open until the late run or if the run is particularly large. Upper Cook Inlet sportfish area management biologist Colton Lipka said opening up that area spaced out the anglers more along the fishery. “This year, we saw what we needed to see, and I think it served everybody’s interest to spread out a little more up there,” he said. “This is a fairly new tool that we have since we have a few more years of data.” The weir at Lower Russian Lake has counted 13,655 sockeye so far, a fraction of what it counted last year on the same date. However, that 13,655 is about 8,400 fish lower than the lower end of the escapement goal for the early run, and there are still two weeks left before it transitions to the late run. Last year was an anomalously huge run, Lipka said. They ended up with nearly 126,000 sockeye on the early run, about triple the upper end of the escapement goal. “If we actually look at the average early run escapement, last 10 years, it’s 40,000,” he said. “Last year’s was 125,000. The next biggest year behind 2019 was back in 2002, and that was 85,000. Last year was a true exception. It’s awesome to see those years; what we’re looking at this year was a little more back towards normal. It does seem like the run is a little more spread out.” Effort on the Russian so far has been reportedly good on weekends but light on week days compared to a normal year, meaning it’s mostly residents using their weekends to fish as opposed to the normal load of tourists. Lipka cautioned anglers that there have been reports of brown bear activity on the road side of the river this year and that anglers should keep their gear and fish close. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Cod relief funds stall as humpy payments finally move

Unexpected upheavals stemming from the coronavirus have slowed the process of getting relief payments into the hands of fishermen and communities hurt by the 2018 Gulf of Alaska cod crash. In late February, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross cut loose $24.4 million for affected stakeholders. Then in late March, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang proposed a written timeline for developing a distribution plan and also called for input from communities and fishing groups. A draft of the initial plan was intended to compile stakeholder comments in April, be revised in May, and go out for a second round of public input in June and July. But that timeframe was derailed a bit by Covid-19. Now, the state is “aiming” to get the draft distribution plan out for the first round of stakeholder and public comments by the end of June, according to Rick Green, assistant to the ADFG commissioner. There will be a month for comments, Green said, and after resulting revisions the plan will be sent out for more feedback, likely in late August. Then it will be reviewed, finalized and sent to NOAA Fisheries for approval, hopefully in September. ADFG will work with the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission to get the distribution done as quickly as possible, he added. The disaster funds will assist fishing communities affected by the cod crash by going to fishermen, subsistence users, shore-side businesses and infrastructure. Money also can be used for research activities to help improve the fishing ecosystem and environment. Pink salmon funds, finally Hopefully, the process for cod losses will move more quickly than they payout for the 2016 pink salmon failure in which more than $56 million in federal relief funds finally made it to fishermen, processors and communities in just the past few months. It includes Kodiak, Prince William Sound, Chignik, Lower Cook Inlet, South Alaska Peninsula, Southeast Alaska and Yakutat. Congress OK’d the money in 2017, but the authorization sat on bureaucrats’ desks in D.C. for more than two years. Then it was discovered that the ways in which the payouts to pink salmon fishermen were calculated was badly flawed, stalling the process even further. Salmon permit holders, who split the biggest share at nearly $32 million, were finally able to apply last October to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission which administers the funds. There were 1,318 permit holders who applied and 905 received payments, according to Karla Bush, ADFG Extended Jurisdiction Program Manager. Funds allocated to permit holders were calculated based on the loss of pink salmon ex-vessel,or dockside, value for each management area as compared to its five even year fishery average value. The disaster funds were distributed based on an area’s fishery value equal to 70.56 percent of the respective five even year average dockside value. That resulted in minimum payments of $139,200 for 464 permit holders in Southeast Alaska; $22,800 for 76 from Yakutat; $7,800 for 26 Lower Cook Inlet salmon permit holders; $97,500 for 325 at Prince William Sound; $71,400 for 238 Kodiak fishermen; $31,500 for 105 recipients at the South Alaska Peninsula; and $18,900 for 63 salmon permit holders at Chignik. Of the 2,233 crewmembers who applied for disaster funds 1,554 were eligible for payouts. According to a PSMFC fact sheet, payments to crew were deducted from a permit holder’s loss based on crew shares. For example, if a permit holder had a loss of $25,000, a crewmember listed as earning a 10 percent share would be eligible for a payment of $2,500. A total of 38 Alaska salmon processors applied for the funds and 30 were eligible, Bush said. They split nearly $18 million in relief funds, of which 15 percent of each processor’s total were deducted and distributed equally to eligible processing workers. In addition, $2.4 million was earmarked for Alaska municipalities affected by the pink crash and nearly $4 million for pink salmon research. Of that, $450,000 went to Kodiak’s Kitoi Bay Hatchery for its Saltwater Marking Sampling project. The Southeast Alaska Coastal Monitoring Survey was set to get $680,000 to help with pink salmon forecasting. And $2.5 million went to the Alaska Hatchery Research Project that since 2010 has studied interactions of hatchery and wild salmon in Prince William Sound and Southeast. U.S. regions that face fisheries disasters will no longer endure the years of awaiting funds if Congress passes a bipartisan bill introduced in January called the Fishery Failures: Urgently Needed Disaster Declarations Act, or Fishery FUNDD Act, that would improve the federal process and set a strict timeline for payout of funds. Signs of salmon trouble The total abundance of Pacific salmon in the North Pacific remains near all-time highs but there are some troubling signs. Harvests have slowly declined over the past decade, and last year showed especially low catches of some salmon species. That’s based on annual data from the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, or NPAFC, which for nearly 30 years has summarized abundances and catches of salmon as reported by its five member countries: Canada, Japan, Korea, Russia and the U.S. It tracks all salmon species caught in the North Pacific, Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, and also coordinates research and enforcement. The latest NPAFC findings show that the total 2019 salmon catch was 563.3 million fish, down from 651 million in 2018. The declines were driven by several factors: Japan had its lowest chum catches since 1970 (55.9 thousand metric tons). In Canada, catches of chum, sockeye and pink salmon were the lowest since 1925 (2,973 metric tons). Even worse, for Washington, Oregon and California, catches of chinook, chum, and coho salmon were the worst on record (4,965 metric tons). In terms of who caught the most salmon, Russia took 51 percent of the total (499.2 thousand metric tons), followed by the U.S. at 42 percent (406.9 thousand metric tons), nearly all of which came from Alaska (401.9 thousand metric tons), mostly pinks and sockeye salmon followed by chums. Japan was a distant third at 6 percent (59.5 thousand metric tons), with Canada claiming just 1 percent of the salmon catch (2.9 thousand metric tons) and Korea at just 130 metric tons. Pink salmon made up 54 percent of the North Pacific catch by weight, followed by chum (24 percent) and sockeye salmon (19 percent). Coho comprised 2 percent, while Chinook salmon, was less than 1 percent of the total catch. Last year also saw record salmon hatchery releases into the North Pacific. While releases from the five nations have held at roughly 5 billion fish since 1993, they reached 5.5 billion in 2019 due to increased output from Asian hatchery. Hatchery releases were primarily chum (3,469 million, 63 percent) and pink salmon (1,357 million, 25 percent), followed by sockeye (341 million, 6 percent), Chinook (241 million, 4 percent), and coho salmon (82 million, 2 percent), The NPAFC added that “interannual variability in the total catch in North America has been more pronounced during the last decade than in previous decades, primarily because of variability in pink salmon catches.” ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

Copper River counts keep commercial fishing closed

There seems to be a decent chance commercial fishing in the Copper River District could resume soon despite a dismal start to the famed early season salmon fishery. “I’m optimistic about having some opportunity at this point,” Cordova Area Management Biologist Jeremy Botz said June 16. Botz attributed the more positive sentiment to the facts that recent counts of sockeye at the Miles Lake sonar in the Copper River have been greater than expected and the sockeye that move through the river in May and early June are not headed to the same spawning tributaries that the fish entering the Copper in late June and July are. “We are definitely managing for a different set of stocks than we were before,” Botz said, noting there are more than 100 distinct sockeye stocks throughout the Copper drainage and nearby systems that contribute to the overall fishery. The diversity of the stocks means managers are not trying to “make up” for fish that did not show up early in the run by restricting opportunity the rest of the season, Botz explained. However, exactly when the commercial fishery might reopen is unclear as ADFG managers are still compiling run data from across the system. As of June 15, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had counted 245,645 sockeye at the Miles Lake sonar and approximately 53,000 of those fish, or more than 20 percent of the total escapement, had been counted in the past four days. While the counts are improving, the total escapement was still just less than half of 2019 when 502,000 sockeye had been counted as of June 15 — with much more commercial fishing time. ADFG’s sustainable escapement goal range for the Copper River is 360,000 to 750,000 sockeye. Fishing time in the Copper River District was halved from two 12-hour openers per week to one for multiple weeks following mid-May openers the first week of the season that cumulatively netted just 6,071 sockeye compared to managers’ expectations of harvests in the 25,000-fish range each day. More than 30,000 sockeye were harvested in each of the two following openers, but the typical early season peak in daily sockeye escapement counts never materialized, which has forced managers to close commercial fishing since June 1. Overall, 71,370 sockeye have been harvested so far this year from the Copper River District, about 10 percent of the overall preseason forecast of a 771,000-fish harvest and a total run of about 1.5 million fish. The Copper River District fleet harvested approximately 1.2 million sockeye last year. The Copper River king salmon harvest has also been lower than expected with 5,751 fish caught over the four openers. The lack of a significant restaurant market this year has also depressed ground prices for Copper River salmon, which traditionally fetch high prices in-part because it is the first large-scale Alaska salmon fishery of the year, based on reports from Botz and other observers. Prices for during the early openers were in the $3.50 per pound range for sockeye and approximately $6.50 per pound for king salmon. The price for kings was about $10 per pound last year. As for some of the other Prince William Sound gillnet fisheries, Botz called it a “mixed bag” of early results. Through June 15 nearly 5,000 sockeye and 42,000 chum had been harvested at the Coghill River and another 41,000 had been caught in the Eshamy-Main Bay District, according to ADFG figures. According to all-gear harvest data compiled by the research firm McDowell Group for the Alaska Seafood Marketing institute the overall Prince William Sound sockeye harvest — including the Copper River District — was off 82 percent from last year with approximately 114,000 fish caught through June 14, compared to a harvest of 646,000 sockeye by the same date a year ago. The Prince William Sound chum harvest of 221,000 fish was off 14 percent from 2019 as of June 14 as well, according to the ASMI data. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Poor Kenai king returns will restrict start of Cook Inlet fishery

Segments of the Upper Cook Inlet commercial sockeye fishery will again start with restrictions to limit the harvest of late-run Kenai kings. Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers issued an Emergency Order June 15 restricting the late-run Kenai king sport fishery, which starts July 1, to fishing without bait and all kings longer than 34 inches must be released. That means the fishing time for East Side Cook Inlet setnetters will be no more than 36 hours per week, as long as the sport gear and harvest restrictions remain in place, per the Board of Fisheries paired restrictions plan for the sport and commercial fisheries that are often in conflict. This year the time restrictions on the setnetters kick in earlier as well because the Board of Fish broadened the paired restrictions to also include the Kasilof Section, where fishing will start June 25 or before if the number of sockeye into the Kasilof is sufficient to warrant an early opening. ADFG’s late-run Kenai king forecast estimates a total return of 22,707 large kings greater than 34 inches, which is within the sustainable escapement goal, or SEG, range of 13,500 to 27,000 large fish but would be the sixth-smallest return in the past 35 years, according to the department. However, it would still be nearly double last year’s total return of just 12,780 of the famed large, late-run Kenai kings. The average return over the past 35 years is approximately 43,000 large fish but over the past five years it’s fallen to an average of about 21,600 large kings, according to the department. The Board of Fish also established an optimal escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 late-run Kenai kings — a win for sport interests — in a further attempt to get more fish into the river. Kenai-area Sport Fish Management Biologist Colton Lipka said the preseason Kenai late-run restriction was implemented in part because of the low forecast and also because the early-run of Kenai kings has been extremely poor. Through June 15 just 1,165 large kings had been counted on the Kenai, much less than the minimum optimal escapement goal of 3,900 fish. Early-run fishing was closed June 8 by Emergency Order. Lipka said there is some correlation in the performance of the two stocks; the early-run Kenai kings generally spawn in tributary streams while the late-run fish spawn in the main stem of the Kenai. The king fishing restrictions on the Kenai also trigger regulation changes in the nearby Kasilof king fishery to limit the effect of likely increased fishing pressure. The Kasilof will continue with single-hook and no bait limitations through the July 31 close of the season or until the restrictions on the Kenai are lifted. For all interests, the slow start to another Kenai salmon season is beginning to feel less like an exception and more like the norm. For the setnetters, the time restrictions come on top of a less-than-stellar forecast for sockeye on the Kenai Peninsula. The Kenai sockeye return is forecast at roughly 2.2 million fish, which is 38 percent less than the 20-year average of 3.6 million. About 723,000 sockeye are expected to return to the Kasilof, which would be 26 percent less than the average of 971,000 fish. While better than average returns are forecasted for the Fish Creek and across the Susitna River drainage, the low expectations on the two most productive sockeye systems in Upper Cook Inlet mean the total commercial sockeye harvest is forecast at 1.7 million fish this year, which would be approximately 40 percent less than the 20-year average of 2.8 million sockeye caught. The small harvest forecast comes on the heels of two consecutive low-harvest years for the Upper Cook Inlet sockeye fishery as well. As a result, this year Pacific Star Seafoods in Kenai will be the only processor in the area, according to multiple sources. Representatives at Pacific Star did not respond to requests for comment. Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen contend the processor situation exemplifies the broader economic activity lost in the region as restrictions are placed on commercial salmon harvests, largely in attempts by the Board of Fish to provide more fish to other user groups. The small expected returns also come in the first year of an increased SEG for the Kenai and a lower optimum goal for the Kasilof. The board increased the Kenai goal range from 700,000 to 1.2 million sockeye to 750,000 to 1.3 million based on the department’s recommendation and moved the lower bound of the Kasilof goal down by 20,000 fish to 140,000 sockeye and the upper bound up by 30,000 to 370,000 sockeye. Upper Cook Inlet Commercial Fisheries Area Manager Brian Marston said it’s unlikely the Kasilof will meet the threshold of 30,000 escaped sockeye to open the Kasilof Section before at least June 22, but noted that assessment was based on just the first day of counts, June 15, in which 3,942 sockeye passed the Kasilof sonar. The Kasilof Section is otherwise scheduled to open June 25. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Salmon set to return, but market questions loom

The start of the massive Bristol Bay commercial sockeye fishery is fast approaching but this year is bringing with it a level of uncertainly rivaled by few others even in the volatile fishing industry. Fishery participants and observers generally expect a softer market and lower prices for Bristol Bay sockeye due to several factors, though it’s difficult to predict how the market influences will interact, according to Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association Executive Director Andy Wink. The COVID-19 pandemic has all but evaporated traditional restaurant markets for Alaska salmon and other seafood, which has resulted in lower-than-normal prices for the Copper River sockeye and king fishery that started in mid-May, Wink noted. However, he added that poor returns and a corresponding small harvest at the Copper could help buoy demand for salmon from Bristol Bay. Adding to the complexity of the situation, Wink also cited news reports indicating an increase in retail seafood sales and that could be a boost for the fishery that sends a large portion of its harvest to supermarkets. Bloomberg reported June 12 that generally homebound consumers had increased retail seafood sales by 27 percent nationwide since early March compared to last year. “Although Bristol Bay salmon is more commonly sold in grocery stores, which have seen a bump in seafood sales, massive spikes in unemployment and a standstill in restaurant traffic could also affect pricing,” Wink wrote via email. “However, we do expect continued strong demand for one of the healthiest proteins available, all things considered.” On top of that, Wink said the strength of the U.S. dollar could hurt Alaska fishermen in export markets and lower prices for farmed salmon worldwide aren’t likely to help either. “On the plus side, lower predicted harvests for sockeye and other salmon species globally could provide some support for pricing in 2020 as well as potentially more demand for canned product,” he said. The final price for Bristol Bay sockeye has averaged between approximately $1 per pound and $1.60 per pound in recent years following a sudden drop to 64 cents per pound in 2015, according to data compiled by BBRSDA. A large sockeye return last year led to a preliminary ex-vessel harvest value of $306.5 million, which is the highest initial value ever for the fishery, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The initial base price for Bristol Bay sockeye averaged $1.35 per pound last year. ADFG managers are expecting another strong return of sockeye to Bristol Bay. The department’s preseason forecast estimates a total return of nearly 49 million fish and a harvest of 34.5 million sockeye. Last year’s run of 56.5 million fish was the fourth-largest ever and also marked the fifth consecutive year the Bristol Bay sockeye return exceeded 50 million fish. The 20-year average return is approximately 39 million sockeye to the region, according to ADFG. And even if it goes off without a significant outbreak of COVID-19, the impact of the virus are still likely to ripple through the Bristol Bay fishery in the form of more expenses for processing companies paying for extra health precautions for their workers, such as COVID-19 tests and chartered flights in some instances, according to Wink. He said it’s unknown at this point to what extent the industry will be able to recoup those costs and without government aid, they could result in lower prices for fishermen. Through the federal CARES Act, the fishing industry in Alaska was allocated $50 million and the state appropriated $100 million from the block grant in the same bill. “The processing companies which buy Bristol Bay salmon are also very involved in other Alaska regions and species. Some of those species have struggled with a combination of low prices and/or lower biological production,” he wrote. “So even if the Bay is doing well, from a consumer demand standpoint, the fishery’s ex-vessel value could be affected by worse performance in processors’ other business segments.” Operationally, Wink and Dillingham-based ADFG Nushagak Area Manager Tim Sands said they expect fishery to go off as close to usual as could be expected this year, barring an outbreak of COVID-19 among participants or sudden changes to government mandates. “By and large we expect processing and harvesting capacity to be pretty normal,” Wink said, a conclusion Sands echoed. In most years processors are able to handle daily harvests of slightly more than 2 million fish during the peak of the season before the system starts to back up, according to Sands. As for the fish, Sands said ADFG’s Nushagak River sonar has been operating since June 6 as normal and had counted roughly 10,000 fish as of June 15, but department personnel had not been able to apportion the numbers of fish passing the sonar to get species-specific data. However, anecdotal reports from subsistence harvests near the mouth of the Nushagak around Dillingham indicate early king returns have been poor, which is something managers are “very concerned about,” Sands said. Poor king returns often lead to reduced opportunity for fishermen targeting sockeye as managers try to allow more kings into the river. “I feel like we were catching more fish just in general at this point in the season with subsistence nets over the last several years so things might be a little bit later in general,” Sands said. He also noted that sockeye harvested by subsistence users have generally been smaller than normal, but it’s too soon to tell yet if that means an overall larger run is coming or something else. The commercial fishery is opened when certain river escapement thresholds are met. Fishing activity traditionally peaks around July 4. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Grundens partners with Alaskans for recycled net fishing gear

Recycled fishing nets from Cordova will soon help launch a new clothing line by Grundens, the maker of the iconic foul weather gear “built by fishermen for fishermen for over a century.” The Copper River Watershed Project is “refreshing” its net recycling program underway for a decade that’s been backed by the Pacific Marine States Commission. Now, the program wants to broaden its base and stand on its own, said operations manager Shae Bowman. “The vision with a new program is to create a self-sustaining recycling program that is a valued asset to the commercial fishing fleet. We also want to provide a high quality product to recyclers. And we don’t want to have to be constantly chasing down grants and sources of funding,” Bowman said, adding that the project has recycled more than 200,000 pounds over 10 years. Enter Nicole Baker, founder of Net Your Problem, who since 2015 has jumpstarted net recycling programs across Alaska. Her work so far has included gathering and shipping primarily plastic trawl nets to Europe where they are recycled into pellets for sale to makers of a myriad of products from skateboards to cellphone covers. “I think the gillnet fleet is pretty dialed in, but seines are made out of the same type of plastic that gillnets are, so those two gear types can be recycled together,” Baker said. A goal is to fill a 40-foot shipping container this summer. But changes in the recycling market mean that unlike before, the nets must be clean and stripped before drop off. “You have to collect a really high quality product that somebody wants to buy,” Bowman explained. “We don’t want to collect something that’s full of garbage and that’s the problem we’ve been struggling with. I really want to get the word out that we need to recycle nets better. Our nets coming in need to be clean and stripped of any non-nylon material; that’s the cork lines, the lead lines, the hanging twine, all that needs to be removed to increase our quality.” European recyclers will turn the Cordova nets not into pellets for making other plastics, but yarn for clothing. Enter Grundens. “Our statement as a brand is ‘we are fishing,’” said Mat Jackson, Grundens chief marketing officer. “We believe it’s really important to use our brand voice and strength to help protect and maintain healthy marine environments and to lend a hand where we can. But at some point, you’ve got to just start doing it and making the process happen. And when talking with Nicole, Cordova became something that seemed like a tangible opportunity.” Jackson said the net recycling project also dovetails nicely with Grundens new clothing line. “In 2021 we are launching a full line of products from technical outerwear to more lifestyle casual items like shorts built out of “Econyl” regenerated nylon, which is largely comprised of recycled fishing nets and has been a main source that Nicole has been pursuing in terms of shipping this gear out of Alaska and into a recycler supply chain,” Jackson said, adding that he believes it is “a really powerful package.” “Our consumer base is commercial fishermen, but it also includes recreational fishermen and delivering them a product that fits their needs, performs at a high level, and is built from recycled material that our core customer uses to make a living, we just feel is an incredibly powerful message to help put the spotlight on these efforts and hopefully build a coalition around this process,” Jackson said. “Because it’s going to take more than just our brand getting involved. This really has to become an effort that the whole industry starts to embrace.” Bowman agrees. “My big hope,” she said, “is that if we can get this program to work out, it can serve as a model for other commercial fishing communities in Alaska as they look into setting up a recycling program. Seafood Council redux “Got Milk?” … “Beef – It’s What’s for Dinner!” … “Pork – The Other White Meat” … “The Incredible, Edible Egg” … those are familiar brand slogans, all backed by the producers who pitch their products with a unified voice. From livestock to fruits and dairy, most U.S. food makers have some sort of national marketing board supported by federal and industry dollars to promote their products. Seafood could soon be among them. Reviving a dormant National Seafood Council is gaining steam among industry members, especially as Covid-19 upends markets. About a year ago, Seafood Source reports that the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee brought up the idea to restart the council. MAFAC is a federal advisory committee to the Secretary of Commerce and NOAA Fisheries. Since then, the idea has met with lots of enthusiasm, and MAFAC has formed an 11-member task force to move forward. A National Seafood Council was created by the U.S. Fish and Seafood Promotion Act in 1987. It operated for five years before running out of money and becoming quietly defunct. MAFAC members agreed that if any food could now benefit from more consumer education, it’s seafood. A National Seafood Council could help with marketing, research, and educational awareness for all U.S. fish and shellfish products, both farmed and wild. It also could improve consumer confidence by allaying concerns about seafood safety and sustainability, and highlighting its many proven health benefits. The MAFAC committee’s first task is to define what direction a promotional council could take. Another is checking the language in the 1987 Act to make sure it is meeting the needs of today. The core mission would be simple: to get Americans to buy and eat more seafood. Patron saint of salmon As Alaska’s salmon season gets underway, it seems appropriate to acknowledge the patron saint of salmon: Saint Kentigern of Scotland. Born long ago in 518, Kentigern was the illegitimate son of a king’s daughter. He trained as a priest at a monastery, where his sainthood evolved around a dangerous love-triangle. Legend has it that the king suspected his wife of having an affair, because she had given one of her favorite rings to a court favorite. The king took the ring when the man was sleeping and threw it far out into the River Clyde. When he returned home, the king angrily demanded that his wife show him the missing ring and threatened her with death if she could not produce it. In her misery, the queen beseeched the priest Kentigern to help her. Kentigern took a fishing rod to the spot where the ring had been flung into the river and quickly caught a salmon. Amazingly, upon cutting it open the ring was found in the salmon’s belly. The queen was able to deliver the ring to her doubting husband and peace was restored. From the time of his death in 603, Kentigern was regarded as Scotland’s patron saint and the cathedral at Glasgow was built in his honor. To this day Kentigern’s figure and symbols, including a salmon, make up that city’s coat of arms. So who knows? Perhaps a quick prayer to the patron saint of salmon will lead more fish to your nets. ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

FISH FACTOR: Efforts at seafood industry relief continue in Congress

Giving COVID relief funds to the seafood industry and stepping on the gas for offshore fish farming are two big takeaways from the executive orders and congressional packages coming out of the nation’s capital. Recent news that Alaska would receive $50 million from the $300 million fisheries relief funds in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was well received by industry stakeholders and it’s likely to be followed by more. A May 15 hearing titled “COVID 19 impacts to American Fisheries and the Seafood Supply Chain” was scheduled by the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee to focus on the lack of assistance for harvesters and processors. A bipartisan group of 49 House members also has pushed for at least $2 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase domestically caught and processed seafood and to distribute it through food assistance programs, as the agency does for agricultural products. Likewise, a group of 25 Senators is trying to get an additional $3 billion for the seafood industry from the next relief package. A new bill called the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act would add another $3 trillion to overall relief assistance. While it builds on the CARES Act, critics claim it does little for the seafood industry except to give NOAA another $100 million to aid fishery participants. Undercurrent News reported that President Trump called the HEROES bill “dead on arrival” saying it contains too many unrelated priorities, such as expanding access to mail-in ballots. Somewhat lost in the particulars about relief payouts is the federal government’s renewed push and strict guidelines for expanding U.S. aquaculture. The May 7 executive order by Trump that cut loose the first batch of fishing funds also calls for an update to the 2017 National Aquaculture Development Plan in order to “strengthen domestic aquaculture production and improve the efficiency and predictability of permitting.” It states that “more than 85 percent of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported” and outlines rigorous ways and timelines to turn that around. It also designates the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the lead agency for aquaculture projects from three to 200 miles offshore. Among other things, the order calls for a “guidance document” within eight months that describes regulatory requirements for aquaculture operations and identifies grant programs. It also removes barriers to permitting and calls for a proposed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “nationwide permit authorizing finfish aquaculture activities” within 90 days. Within one year, federal agencies, fishery management councils and states are required to identify at least two “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas” suitable for commercial operations. And within two years of identifying those areas, agencies must complete an environmental impact statement, and come up with two additional opportunities to be developed in the following four years. Finally, Trump’s order calls for the establishment of a new Seafood Trade Task Force that will, within 30 days, create a new agency to promote American seafood internationally, resolve technical barriers to U.S. seafood exports, and support fair market access for US products. (Suggestion: start with the seafood trade imbalance with Russia. Russia has not purchased a single pound of U.S. seafood since 2014, yet the value of Russian imports to the U.S. has grown 70 percent since 2014. The amount has tripled to nearly $670 million since 2016.) Tim Bristol, director of SalmonState, agreed with the need to maximize the value of our country’s seafood industry, but called Trump’s order “the wrong approach.” “It ignores the fact that America already has healthy wild fisheries generating billions of dollars in revenue and providing hundreds of thousands of jobs. We should be investing our resources in what we already have and better maximizing the value of our fisheries to American communities rather than displacing hard-working fishing families with open-water feedlots and fooling ourselves into believing that farmed fish will solve all of our problems,” he said in a statement. Fish farming is banned in Alaska although growing shellfish and seaweeds is permitted. At a U.S. Department of Commerce hearing in 2018, Sam Rabung, director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s commercial fisheries division, said: “I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to fight pretty hard to maintain the state’s opt-out option and maintain the ability to prohibit finfish farming off of Alaska.” Copper River salmon slump It was slow going for the May 15 fishery at Copper River, which marks the official start of Alaska’s salmon season. Just more than 3,000 fish crossed the docks (1,491 sockeyes; 1,646 Chinook) by 337 deliveries in a 12 hour opener. Prices tanked for the famous “first fish” that usually fetch the highest prices of the year. Fishermen reported a base of $3 per pound for sockeye salmon and $6 per pound or slightly more for kings, for starters. That compares to record prices in 2019 of $10 for sockeyes and $14 for kings, respectively. Instead of the usual diners at high-end restaurants getting the first tastes, front line workers at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital were the first to be treated to the prized fish the day after the fishery. A partnership of Seattle chef Tom Douglas, Alaska Airlines, Trident Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods and the Copper River Marketing Association provided 200 salmon meals to the nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals, reported On May 17, the same group organized a Grilling for Goodwill event in Ballard, featuring a special $45 Copper River salmon meal for pick up with 100 percent of the proceeds donated to Food Lifeline. Letter to the fleets As thousands of boats head to the salmon grounds, everyone knows it’s not business as usual. United Fishermen of Alaska has penned a letter to the fleets with a concise list of the new rules in place during the COVID plague. Above all, you must know what is required of you and have a plan to implement the protocols, wrote UFA president Matt Alward of Homer, adding: “As a vessel operator, you are responsible for your crew’s compliance with the mandate.” “We also need to understand if there’s any local rules in the communities that we’re fishing in, and on top of that, if some of the boat yards or harbors or even the supply stores and whatnot have their own rules that we should follow,” Alward said in a phone interview. “If your crew’s coming from out of state, it’s important to have already figured out how and where you’re going to quarantine and how you’re going to get food and supplies without breaking quarantine. The quarantine part for those coming from out of state I think is by far the most important thing to really protect our communities and ourselves from bringing the virus in.” What about those who refuse to wear masks? Alward said contracts with his crew require that they follow all mandates and not doing so is grounds for termination. “They don’t have troopers running around making sure everyone’s following this. It’s really upon ourselves to self-regulate,” he said. “If someone sees crew members from another boat running around town without masks and violating the rules, it’s going to get the whole industry in trouble with the community. Fishing is a privilege, not a right, and we have to respect the community we fish in. The hope is everyone will comply.” Find the UFA letter and get COVID fishing updates at Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

Copper River closes for a week after poor sockeye showing

It’s been a very rough start to what was already a harried season for Copper River salmon fishermen. Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers announced the Copper River District will be closed for commercial fishing during the regular 12-hour period scheduled for May 21 due to very low initial sockeye catches indicating a lack of fish. Early indications for the May 18 opener show fishermen harvested 1,698 chinook, which Area Management Biologist Jeremy Botz described as “low,” but just 4,550 sockeye, which Botz called “dramatically low.” Subsistence gillnetting will remain open during the commercial closure, but waters inside the expanded Chinook closure area will be closed to all harvest. Botz said that while it has been a late and cold spring and weather deterred some fishing May 18, department officials expected a harvest of more than 28,000 sockeye based for that day based on the overall forecasted run. The total harvest from the first two 12-hour openers was 3,250 chinook, 6,023 sockeye and a handful of chum. Botz said May 19 that the sonar at Miles Lake used to enumerate Copper River sockeye had just been installed and was up and running. Managers expect fishing to resume May 25 with the time and area being announced May 22, according to the closure announcement. ADFG biologists initially forecasted a smaller Copper River sockeye run of 1.5 million fish this year compared to a 10-year average of 2.1 million wild fish. The Gulkana Hatchery supports a small portion of the annual Copper River sockeye run. The department’s official forecast estimated a commercial sockeye harvest of 771,000 fish versus a harvest of 1.2 million sockeye last year. The Copper River chinook return and harvest was initially expected to be strong with a total run of 60,000 fish and an all-fishery harvest of up to 36,000 fish possible. The early harvest figures this year are reminiscent of 2018 when the sockeye harvest averaged just 8,660 fish over the first three periods. Subsequent fishing closures limited the commercial catch to 44,400 fish in 2018; however they allowed the run to surpass minimum escapement goals with 701,577 sockeye counted at Miles Lake that year. Adding to the challenge for fishermen are lower prices for the salmon they do catch, a direct result of the restaurant closures largely in the Seattle area imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19. Botz said ground prices for the first period May 14 was $3.25 per pound for sockeye and $6.25 per pound for chinook. In recent years the price for famed Copper River chinook has been significantly higher; Botz noted it was around $10 per pound last year and the ex-vessel price averaged nearly $13 per pound in 2018. Botz said there is speculation that an improving retail market could boost prices for subsequent periods. Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle was advertising Copper River king salmon for $74.99 per pound at the time of this writing. Copper River sockeye was selling for $49.99 per pound at the renowned market. On May 20, 10th and M Seafoods in Anchorage had no kings for sale but was selling sockeye for $30.95 per pound. Botz and Cordova District Fishermen United Executive Director Chelsea Haisman both said participation in the fishery was down slightly from previous years but not much. Botz estimated it was 85 percent of normal and Haisman surmised about 70 fewer boats than last year participated in the first openers based on delivery totals. There were 372 deliveries made May 14 and 412 made May 18. Haisman said logistics complications delayed some fishermen from fishing and others have been slow to participate because of the cool spring. She said there is still some ice flowing downriver from Miles Lake. “Our hope is that it’s just early and time will tell,” she said. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Alaska halibut getting battered by foreign imports

Sales of Alaska’s most popular seafoods are being hit hard by markets upended by the coronavirus, but perhaps none is getting battered worse than halibut. Along with the big losses in the lucrative restaurant trade, Pacific halibut also is facing headwinds from increasing foreign imports. Starting three years ago, sales of fresh Pacific halibut to established markets on the East Coast were toppled by a flood of less expensive fish flowing in primarily from eastern Canada. Trade data show that for 2019 through February 2020, total Canadian halibut imports to the U.S. topped 15.3 million pounds for which the U.S. paid nearly $107 million. “It is taking over the eastern seaboard and also is being trucked from Boston to major middle American markets such as Chicago and Denver. It’s very hard to sell Alaska halibut to these traditional markets now. The Canadian product is cheaper and is available nearly year round,” said a marketer with more than 30 years of experience in selling halibut from Southeast Alaska, speaking on condition of anonymity. “All of a sudden, an important market that paid a good price for fresh halibut has disappeared,” he said. “Rule of thumb is generally, sell fresh make a profit, freeze halibut, lose money.” Earlier this year, fresh farmed Atlantic halibut was spotted for sale at $9.99 per pound at a Costco near Seattle. Total global production of farmed halibut is only 4.4 million pounds, of which 3.5 million comes from three farms in Norway. (The remainder is from Scotland, Canada and Iceland.) From 2019 through February 2020, the U.S. bought nearly 2 million pounds of wild caught and farmed halibut from Norway for $10.5 million. Alaska’s losses in fresh sales are combined with huge hits in the West Coast frozen market. That’s due to another newcomer: increasing imports of halibut caught by Russians and processed in China. “Halibut is not consumed by Asians nor Russians so they target the U.S. The Russian halibut is mostly fished longline, dressed collar and tail off and frozen in blocks at sea. They off load in Busan and auction it to processors for making into fillets,” he said. The fish then goes to the U.S. and Canada for resale at prices that undercut all others. “I have been calling end users and distributors trying to find placement for our Alaska product in the frozen fillet form. But the Russian product has taken over,” he wrote in an email. “I visited a customer in Vancouver and he showed me some Russian/Chinese skinless halibut fillets he had bought in the low $6s. Alaskan fillets, for reference, needed to be in the $13s to recoup costs. He mentioned that most of his customers have switched to the less expensive imported. I spent weeks calling fish and chip shops that have always used Alaskan and they prefer not to cut in house but use the imported twice frozen fillets,” he said, adding that Canada is where most of Alaska’s larger frozen halibut (60+ pounds) has gone over the last few decades.” Other market watchers agree that the appearance of Russian halibut is a new twist to conventional market trends. “We started seeing increased Russian production about a year and a half ago when it started to pop up in the data,” said Garret Evridge, a fisheries economist with the McDowell Group. “We were wondering where that volume was going, but given the difficult nature of trade data, we didn’t have a firm grasp. Now we see that some of that harvest is making its way into the U.S. It is a relatively new development,” The Russian/Chinese fish also makes an end run around trade tariffs of up to 25 percent imposed two years ago by the Trump Administration. “A lot of the product used to come in through Seattle, but since the USA imposed the duties for Chinese processed halibut coming into this country, a lot comes into Vancouver, thereby avoiding the duty,” said the marketer. The volume coming in from Russia has been tricky to track once it enters the “black box of China,” said Evridge who added, “Then our data really falls apart. But we understand that Russian Pacific halibut entering China can make its way to the U.S. through a variety of ways.” And the Russian imports are increasing. “In 2019, we saw about 2 million pounds of frozen Russian caught halibut imported into the U.S. The year prior it was 140,000 pounds. Through the first two months of 2020, we’ve imported about 420,000 pounds, so it’s trending higher. For a relatively low volume fishery and for U.S. markets 2 million pounds is pretty substantial,” Evridge said. Trade data show that the U.S. paid nearly $6.7 million for 2 million pounds of Russian caught halibut from 2019 through January 2020. The foreign fish also get the benefit of more favorable exchange rates. “The Russian ruble has weakened against the U.S. dollar by about 14 percent. If I’m a U.S. buyer, there’s a 14 percent discount. The ruble is also weak against the Chinese yuan, so if I’m a Chinese buyer, bringing that product in is relatively affordable. That’s another thing that that we struggle with,” he explained. Tariffs of up to 25 percent are in place for most seafood both coming and going to China, and Russia has not purchased a pound of U.S. seafood since 2014. Meanwhile, Alaskans have 17 million pounds of halibut to catch this year and landings so far are down 60 percent. With deflated markets and dock prices in the $3 to $4 range, there’s not much motivation to go fishing. Salmon starts! Alaska’s salmon season officially kicks off on May 14 at Copper River near Cordova with the arrival of kings and sockeyes. Other salmon fisheries will quickly follow. Alaska’s total 2020 salmon catch is projected at just less than 133 million fish, a 36 percent drop from the 208 million fish taken in 2019. The state’s largest herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay opened on May 3. Icicle is the only buyer for a haul of nearly 39,000 tons of herring caught for their roe. Kodiak’s roe herring fishery is still underway with catches topping 1,500 tons. The price was reported at $300 per ton. A small, one-day-a-week herring fishery is underway at Upper Cook Inlet through May 31. The UCI’s 200 ton smelt fishery runs from May 1 through June. Dungeness crab opened around Kodiak on May 1. Southeast Alaska’s longest ongoing fishery — beam trawling for pink and sidestripe shrimp — opened on May 1 with a catch quota of nearly 1.8 million pounds. A pot shrimp fishery opens on May 15 with a 32,000-pound quota. A lingcod fishery is underway and Southeast divers are still going down for giant geoduck clams. Trollers will be out on the water this month targeting hatchery kings in several regions. At Prince William Sound a second opener for big spot shrimp was set to wrap up on May 9. The total catch by 60 boats will come in at just more than 68,000 pounds. Just more than 2 million pounds of halibut has been landed since the mid-March opener. Sablefish catches at just more than 5 million pounds also are down. The Bering Sea snow crab fishery is wrapping up with a 30.6 million-pound catch. Final prices won’t be settled until July. And as always, catches for cod, pollock, flounders and much more are ongoing in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Get mugged Mug Updates tell Alaska fishermen how to navigate the strict COVID-19 mandates in place for salmon season. The updates are provided by the Alaska Fishermen’s Network, an arm of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “The purpose is to help you dip your toe in and give you a roadmap for some information to prepare for this upcoming salmon season and for fisheries that are currently ongoing,” said Jamie O’Connor, Network director and a longtime Bristol Bay fisherman. COVID puts the kibosh on parties in the boatyard, the Mug Updates advise, and include simple suggestions like using paper dishware and changing up your galley game with gloves and masks for making meals. “Basics of sanitation and hygiene are huge,” O’Connor stressed. “I think when people are putting together their grubstake, whether they’re putting in a barge order for their summer in the community or they’re going fishing, it’s important that they flag some of these little things to put in their shopping cart. It can make a world of difference.” From what she’s hearing, O’Connor said fishermen “are committed to doing things as safely as possible.” “I’m also hearing a real concern for our supply chain, and people are very aware of the important role we play as food producers,” she added. “Keeping informed is vital right now,” she said, “and we’re doing our best to make that as understandable and digestible as possible. We’re also helping people work through the decision process about whether they are able to fish this season or sit this one out.” The Mug Updates tell it straight about salmon fishing during the COVID pandemic: Play by the rules or everyone gets sent home. Find the Updates at and on Facebook. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

FISH FACTOR: Virus fallout shaping value of fishing permits

The value of Alaska salmon permits is another casualty of the coronavirus with prices dropping for all fisheries across the state. There are a lot of permits for sale, and the most offers ever to lease permits, especially at Bristol Bay. The virus has changed everything, said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. “There’s so much uncertainty about if there will even be a salmon season here and there, and if so, what kind of a price can be expected and so on. I can’t think of one salmon permit that is going up in value. And if there are different permit values that have not gone down, it’s simply because they’re not selling,” he said. Prices for the bellwether drift net permits at Bristol Bay are all over the place, he said, but well below last year’s high of $195,000. The 2019 fishery produced the second-highest harvest of all salmon species combined, and the highest value ever to fishermen at $306.5 million. “We sold quite a few Bay permits at that price and then the market softened a bit after the excitement died down, and we sold a number of them in the $180,000 range. Since the news of the virus broke, they’ve sold in the $150,000 range, and we just sold one recently for $165,000 and then the next one for $159,000. They are all over the map but the trend is unmistakable and it’s down. And that’s the same story with all the salmon permits,” Bowen said. Bowen’s brokerage lists 26 Bristol Bay drift permits for sale of which eight are offered for lease as Emergency Medical Transfers, or EMTs, in the $18,000 to $25,000 range. That’s perhaps the most eye-raising twist in this time of pandemic: the number of EMTs listed for Bristol Bay this summer. Dock Street brokers, for example, has 18 Bristol Bay drift permits listed, of which half are EMTs; Permit Master lists similar numbers. Of the six permits on the board at Alaskan Quota and Permits in Petersburg, four are EMTs. “Folks that are down in the Lower 48 are having trouble making arrangements or either can’t or won’t travel up here and they’re leasing their permits out,” Bowen said, adding that the same applies to out of state holders of Alaska halibut and black cod quota shares. “It’s not a selling issue. It’s just a temporary arrangement that someone else can go out and use your permit for the season. This year we’re seeing more folks using COVID-19 as a reason for transferring their permit or their quota on an emergency basis,” he explained. The upturned food market also has more industry stakeholders talking about increasing canning of salmon this summer to feed the need for more shelf stable proteins. While it’s a valuable market, cans have the lowest value of all salmon products. “Not many are going out for dinner and that restaurant trade was largely responsible for some of the great prices we’ve seen for seafood here for many years,” Bowen said. “And I think it’s going to take a while for those restaurants to reopen and for folks to feel confident to go out and sit down and enjoy a great seafood dinner with Alaska salmon, halibut, or whatever. It is just the times that we find ourselves in and there’s so much uncertainty about the virus. I think that’s why you see so many permits on the market.” New tool saves fuel A new online tool helps fishermen tap into how they can make their vessels more fuel efficient. It’s dubbed the Fishing Vessel Energy Analysis Tool and it was grounds tested in longline, seine, gillnet, troll and pot fisheries. From 2015 through 2018 the FVEAT was installed on nearly 50 vessels, said Chandler Kemp, an energy consultant with Nunatak Energetics who helped design the user-friendly fuel saver. “During the course of the project, we installed data loggers and strain gauges and measured all the different types of energy loads on the vessels. The tool compiles that information and puts it in a format that that we hope will be useful to people,” he said. A user simply enters data about the boat, its fisheries and operating patterns and the readout gives estimates on what fractions of fuel go through the different loads. “For example, it will give an estimate of how much energy goes to a refrigeration or freezer system versus propulsion versus electrical loads on the boat,” Kemp explained. Outputs also include hydraulics systems and hybrid propulsion options, which Kemp said can be a fuel saver in several fisheries, notably, trolling and gillnetting. “When the propulsion engine is doing very little work and you’re idling along at a low speed, maybe even deploying some drag bags to help slow down the boat, or you’re just drifting with the net. In those cases, it can make sense to have even a little electric secondary propulsion system. That would allow you to turn off that main engine during times when the load is really low,” he said. The Energy Analysis Tool is loaded with short videos. It’s free online at the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation website, a project partner along with Sea Grant, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and Navis Energy Management Solutions. Fish voice counts Scientists who track Alaska’s fish stocks will soon get an assist from voice recognition software that can handle the rigors of an often sloppy job at sea. During yearly trawl surveys each summer in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, scientists must identify, sort and weigh hundreds of species quickly and accurately. These long-term studies are vital to keeping Alaska’s fisheries healthy and sustainable. Until 2013, scientists wrote the results on paper forms as they worked on deck, then switched to computer tablets to digitally record the data. But salt spray, rain and lots of fish slime caused the tablets to act erratically and freeze up. The solution? Voice recognition. NOAA’s Alison Vijgen is leading a NOAA team that is working with an Ohio-based company called Think A Move, Ltd, or TAM, which specializes in voice recognition software in noisy environments. Together they are developing an application for Alaska’s fish surveys. Tests so far at sea using eight different voices have worked on 350 of the most frequently encountered fish species. The response has been positive enough to get the software fine-tuned for use in surveys this summer. It will include coverage of the nearly 3,000 species found in Alaska’s waters. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

With pandemic procedures in place, Copper River ready to open

With about two weeks until the Copper River salmon season, the industry is pulling together the details of how to execute a safe fishery amid the coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of vessels and workers flood into Prince William Sound each May for a chance to harvest the first fresh wild king salmon of the year, followed by the famous Copper River sockeye and the broader Prince William Sound pink salmon fisheries. However, with limited road access and health care facilities, city and state officials have been coordinating with the fleet and stakeholders about how to safely allow in deckhands, captains, and processing workers from Outside without inviting the pandemic to Cordova as well. As of April 28, Cordova had not reported any positive tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. With no ferry service this winter and no connection to the road system, Cordova has limited physical contact with the rest of Alaska and the Lower 48 except during the fishing season. Bringing in seafood workers from outside the area poses a risk, but not doing so means the fishery — a vital economic driver in the region — wouldn’t be able to operate as normal. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration released Health Mandate 17 on April 23, offering guidelines for commercial fishermen to help control the spread of COVID-19. Fishermen often work in close quarters on boats and in harbors, as do processing workers. The mandate outlines requirements such as screening procedures for crew, quarantine for workers coming into the state, and prohibiting non-essential trips into town for non-local crew, among others. “Fishermen are very concerned and have been concerned since day one,” said Francis Leach, the executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska. “Now that procedures have been put in place, there are a lot of questions. It’s always a learning curve. Folks are really going to have to pay attention to (the mandate).” UFA, along with other stakeholders, weighed in on the mandate prior to its release. Having the mandate helps define what fishermen need to figure out for their plans for the summer, Leach said. It also eliminates the need for every individual fishermen to submit a plan of operation. A number of fisheries are already operating, including halibut longliners, and though salmon are the largest fishery by number of employees, the UFA represents all commercial fishermen across the state. One of the hanging questions, though, is how to make sure fishermen get access to the equipment they need to comply with the mandate. One of the items required is that captains conduct temperature screenings on crewmen before boarding and “as needed to minimize risk,” according to the mandate. Right now, with the demand on personal protective equipment and medical supplies high in all areas, getting enough disposable thermometers, masks, gloves, and sanitizing materials could be a challenge. “Different sectors of the industry are working on that,” she said. “It’s very hard—you can’t just run down to the store right now and get a thermometer. At least, in Juneau you can’t.” The Alaska Manufacturing Extension Partnership, housed within the University of Alaska, is working to make more Alaska-manufactured PPE available, including face masks and sanitizing equipment, by helping manufacturers convert to making the equipment. While some is available on demand, other items can be arranged on an as-needs basis, according to the Alaska MEP. While many of the Copper River fleet’s workers live locally in Cordova, others live aboard their vessels or come to the community for the season. Cordova District Fishermen United, a trade group representing Copper River-area fishermen, is working to get clarification about whether fishermen who live aboard their vessels during the season qualify as locals and therefore can disembark and enter Cordova, said Chelsea Haisman, executive director of the CDFU. The group is also seeking clarification for what constitutes a “non-essential” trip into town. Overall, though, the mandate simplifies some of the aspects of Mandate 10, she said. “As far as the uncertainties go, a lot of it is trying to navigate the businesses around town, getting parts and groceries and things,” she said. “It’s definitely changing the way the fleet operates; it’s definitely not business as usual.” There is uncertainty among the fleet going into this season, as the COVID-19 situation is changing frequently, particularly as it regards travel to and from communities, Haisman said. However, the stakeholders have been involved in the City of Cordova incident management task forces and have been regularly coordinating with the processors to deal with the season’s challenges. Most of the fleet is concerned with how to operate the fishery without endangering coastal communities, she said. “We acknowledge the concern of communities as the season begins and we will continue doing important outreach to ensure that fishermen have the information on all state and local mandates, as well as access to resources to help them get their vessels geared up for the season,” she said. Processors have been working together this spring to try to determine best practices for worker safety while still operating in Alaska. Many salmon processors, including Cordova, operate facilities in remote communities and bring in workers from all over Alaska and Outside to work for the season. The processors have been in close communication with the state, communities and stakeholders, Leach and Haisman said. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has jurisdiction over processing plants and can take enforcement actions if the operators do not comply with safety measures. Dunleavy’s Health Mandate 3, which closed bars, restaurants, and other food establishments, did not include seafood processors, as they were included in the list of essential businesses. Since the mandate came out, the DEC has received seven complaints of businesses allegedly violating the mandate, said Laura Achee, a spokesperson for the DEC. She did not specify the type of businesses. “For each, DEC responded by speaking the operator, and the operator voluntarily complied with the mandate with no further action needed,” she said. Beyond just the logistics of getting the salmon into nets, another lingering question is what will happen to them once they’re on their way to the market. Copper River king salmon are usually greeted by the red carpet of the seafood world, with a ceremony in Seattle when the first arrives via Alaska Airlines flight. In the past, the first Copper River kings have gone for $50 per pound — primarily to restaurants. And therein lies the rub: Most restaurants nationwide are currently closed for social distancing. It remains to be seen what will happen with restaurants as states and the federal government move to reopen the economy, but right now the prices Copper River fishermen are likely to see are uncertain, said Garrett Evridge, an economist with the consultant firm the McDowell Group. “In a typical year, we kind of have an establish playbook we can rely on,” he said. “Right now, because everything is changing all at once, we really struggle to understand what’s going to happen.” Grocery stores don’t typically pay as much nor charge as much for the fish, and as the season goes on, the prices for kings and sockeye usually drop as more fisheries come online. Copper River in the past has been an indicator for how prices may behave in the rest of the season, but this year it may not, Evridge said. The same is true in other regions of Alaska; what’s true in one region for prices may not be true in another this year, he said. Another factor that may affect demand for Alaska’s seafood is the negative impacts on the economy that will last beyond the end of the pandemic restrictions. Alaska’s wild-caught seafood typically commands a higher price than farmed Atlantic salmon or other comparable products. With millions out of work nationally, the economy may move into a recession, which would affect demand for a higher-price product. Retail demand has been strong, but it’s hard to say whether that will continue, Evridge said. The first announcement for the Copper River District will be issued between May 1 and May 8, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

ADFG: Safe conduct of salmon fisheries is possible

State fisheries managers insist it is too early to close commercial salmon fisheries to prevent the spread of COVID-19 despite growing concerns from many in small communities about the coming influx of seasonal workers. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said in an interview that he is certainly aware of the issues that could arise from holding spring and summer salmon fisheries that start next month as everyone also attempts to limit the spread of the disease, but he stressed state officials are drafting plans to provide extra protection to local residents and fisheries workers. He also noted that salmon is just one sector of the state’s diverse and year-round fishing industry. “I think people are wondering whether we’re going to have fisheries; I think they forget that we actually have a lot of fisheries in the water right now and we’re geared up to manage those,” Vincent-Lang said. In addition to numerous federally managed fisheries, commercial boats are currently targeting crab, halibut, rockfish, pollock, Pacific cod and other species in state waters. Commercial and charter fishing have been deemed essential industries by state officials through the COVID-19 travel and work restrictions, meaning they can continue as long as participants submit operating plans to the state Commerce Department that adhere to current health mandates. Those ongoing fisheries “have been operating fairly smoothly,” he said, and ADFG managers are learning a lot about the daily operations of a fishery in the era of social distancing and travel restrictions that can be applied to the upcoming salmon seasons. “We’re learning how to be adaptive,” Vincent-Lang said. For example, managers are using new ways to sign fish tickets that verify catches and take biological samples used for management from harvested fish, according to Vincent-Lang. Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby and Curyung Tribe First Chief Thomas Tilden urged Gov. Mike Dunleavy to consider closing the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery in a letter dated April 6 citing concerns about the region’s limited capacity to provide health care and a possible need to make the decision early to allow impacted fishermen and processors to apply for federal aid. In Cordova, home to the state’s first large-scale salmon fishery each year in mid-May at the mouth of the nearby Copper River, residents have started a KEEP CORDOVA SAFE website, containing numerous open letters to local and state officials demanding further travel restrictions for fisheries workers and suggesting only local fishermen be allowed to fish, among other measures. The leaders of 11 Bristol Bay processing companies followed up with an April 7 letter to regional leaders outlining their strategies for safe operations this summer in what has been a $300 million fishery in recent years. Vincent-Lang said the department is ready for the Copper River chinook and sockeye season and the first opener will be around May 14 with normal adjustments for weather and water conditions. “We’re expecting a fairly high participation rate in that fishery,” he said. Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin said in a prior interview with the Journal that processor companies have submitted detailed plans to the city for managing their crews this summer and some include bringing additional medical personnel to Cordova. As for Bristol Bay, where fishing starts in June and typically peaks in early July, Vincent-Lang said he has seen several plans from processors there as well. Processors are protecting public health by also making quarantines mandatory for their workers upon arrival on top of state and local government mandates as well as keeping them “on campus” throughout the season to limit interaction with local residents. “What I’m doing is telling local community leaders to be is patient; this is working its way through,” Vincent-Lang said. “We’re learning things as we conduct fisheries right now and it’s premature to make a decision to close those fisheries at this point. As we gear up we’ll be sharing our plans with you to understand what we’re doing to protect public health in those areas.” Bristol Bay Borough Mayor Dan O’Hara said he and other officials from area fishing groups and local governments have participated in teleconferences with Seattle-area processors and state officials in recent days to more closely coordinate operations this summer. O’Hara said the Bristol Bay Borough, which covers the communities of Naknek and King Salmon and receives more than $4.5 million in fish landing taxes each year, is not interested in closing down the salmon fishery this year. He also said it is too soon to take such a big step. Instead, “there’s nobody coming off the water to the mainland” at Naknek’s docks, O’Hara said as long as current state work, travel and distancing mandates persist. He said the borough assembly passed a resolution in April restricting travel into its communities beyond the governor’s health mandates but borough leaders were later informed by the governor’s office they did not have the authority to do so. Exactly what authorities local governments have to restrict travel and other specific activities during the ongoing public health emergency is also being worked out statewide. “We don’t need to be stepping around him,” O’Hara said of Dunleavy’s orders. As of April 14, Bristol Bay Borough administrators had received seven plans from processors, according to O’Hara. “They plan on either chartering in (workers) and being tested before they get here and just getting on the bus and going straight down to the processing plant, shutting the campus completely down and they’ll not come out of there until the fishing season’s over, and I think that’s a good plan,” he said. “As mayor I’d prefer that nobody comes here prior to May 15 but we already have 400-500 people here and they’re of course following the quarantine.” The Bristol Bay Borough will maintain the restrictions it can at least until public health officials have a better handle on the virus, according to O’Hara. If the situation improves, mandates could be lifted. Managers also must consider what not having a fishery could mean for future runs. Nearly 50 million sockeye are expected to return to Bristol Bay rivers this summer and not catching the vast majority of them would make for salmon escapements that would far exceed the goals for each river. Commercial fishermen usually harvest approximately 75 percent of the sockeye that return to Bristol Bay rivers. At a high level, managers typically try to allow sufficient numbers of fish to escape and spawn to generate the highest return based on historic data and scientific modeling. Allowing additional salmon to escape harvest and spawn can increase competition for food among juvenile salmon rearing in freshwater and reduce the productivity of future runs. “We don’t want to damage the long-term health of those ecosystems in terms of fish reproduction, but second of all it provides a significant economic boost to that local community in terms of income to fishermen and income to the local community,” Vincent-Lang said, while also stressing that accounting for those considerations will not come at the expense of public health. “We’re not going to just harvest fish and put the local health at risk.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska’s charter fleet faces dry dock decision

Amidst stay at home orders and a 14-day mandatory quarantine for travelers coming to Alaska, Alaska’s charter fleet, of over a thousand vessels, are preparing for an uncertain fishing season. Alaska’s sportfishing tourism business is a major economic driver for small Alaska coastal communities. In a recent economic study done by NOAA Fisheries, based on 2015 data, the Alaska’s charter sector contributed to over $180 million to Alaska’s economy and $330 million to the U.S. economy. Alaska’s charter fleet has seen ups and downs over its history, some due to changes in fisheries regulations and some due to just ups and downs in the nation’s economy. More recently the charter sector has seen a growth in active vessels in the fishery, which is probably due to a good economy and increased tourism. This trend may be facing a sudden cliff this year if businesses can’t open on time because of the coronavirus, or Covid-19, pandemic. The million-dollar question (literally) is when will Alaska be open for business? A 14-day mandatory quarantine for travelers to Alaska is a non-starter for the charter sector and so is social-distancing, an almost impossible situation on small six-pack charter boats. Even with these unknowns, lodges and single boat operators are gearing up for the season and preparing the best they can. A recent Alaska Charter Association poll showed more than 90 percent of respondents still hope to open this summer if possible. Dennis Meier of Tanaku Lodge, Southeast Alaska, is planning on opening as soon as travel restrictions are lifted. Most lodges open in May and run until September. He is currently drafting a Covid-19 Operations Manual, which he plans to share with other lodges in the area. It includes sanitation procedures for his lodge and sportfishing vessels, health checks of his employees, and social distancing guidelines if and when possible. He even purchased an anti-static disinfectant sprayer, the type used on commercial aircrafts to use at his facility. Capt. Jimmy Akana of Seward is typical of Southcentral operators who need to be open to pay their bills: “Even a month’s worth of business will help me pay my bills. I don’t want to depend on the government handouts, who knows if and when they will come.” Capt. Daniel Donnich, a single boat charter operator out of Homer, who normally fishes year-round, is currently unable to take charters due to the recent mandates that close all but essential businesses. Over recent years, as fishing regulations have become more restrictive for guided anglers, his clientele base has shifted from local residents to out of state anglers. He has put his clientele on hold until business and travel restrictions are lifted. Theresa Weiser, owner of Wild Strawberry Lodge in Sitka, takes calls daily as cancellations roll in due to the coronavirus pandemic and hopes her clientele base of 28 years will decide to move their reservations to next year. Some do and some don’t. She has tried to roll over her May reservations to June in hopes things will get back to normal by then. A Southeast Alaska lodge owner for 38 years, I am on the other side of the spectrum. I decided to close for the season after riding the emotional roller coaster from day to day not knowing when it will be safe for our guests to travel or even if it was, how many of my guests would still have a fear of travel, as well as their willingness to spend money during this time of economic uncertainty. Unfortunately, those that depend on cruise ship business, have all but written off their season. The federal government’s cruise ship “No Sail Orders” have recently been modified which will probably prevent cruise ships from coming to Alaska beyond the originally announced July 1 date. The sooner the charter sector can plan on a fishing season, even if abbreviated, the better. Lodge operations need time to ramp up to do business. Hiring staff, getting boats and facilities ready and getting supplies out to remote locations are challenging in a normal season. This year, there will be additional challenges. Commitments to seasonal staff as to when and if they will be hired has stressed relationships. Availability of supplies may be an issue; will there be enough food supplies, sanitation agents, face masks if required, toilet paper? With local air service providers going out of business, will remote lodges be able to get their clients out to their facilities? The decision to lessen the damage to Alaska’s economy brought on by the coronavirus and to open businesses as soon as possible versus the potential of jeopardizing people’s health if done too early, will have to be made soon. Prior to this, the governor should work closely with the charter sector to outline a management plan for reopening the charter fishery when appropriate. The COVID-19 peak and decline projections have healthcare back to normal around the end of May. Will the governor open businesses shortly thereafter? What will be the metrics used to make such a decision? Does this mean no more deaths due to COVID-19 for a period of time or no one gets sick with COVID-19 during this time? The governor will probably be the first to weigh in by lifting travel restrictions and other mandates. Each lodge and charter business will have to make their own health risk and operating cost assessments to determine whether it’s worth opening for the remainder of the season or better just to dry dock their boats. Richard Yamada is the president of the Alaska Charter Association, a non-profit statewide charter organization. He is one of three U.S. Commissioners on the International Pacific Halibut Commission, is on NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee which advises the Secretary of Commerce on all marine matters, and is a board member of NACO, the National Association of Charterboat Operators.

FISH FACTOR: Seafood industry gets $300M in relief under disaster bill

The U.S. seafood industry received a $300 million assist from the $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress on March 27, and a wide coalition of industry stakeholders is hoping for more. Fishery recipients in the relief bill include Tribes, persons, communities, processors, aquaculture and other related businesses. reports that those eligible for relief must have “revenue losses greater than 35 percent as compared to the prior 5-year average revenue, or any negative impacts to subsistence, cultural, or ceremonial fisheries.” The funds will be provided on a rolling basis within a fishing season through Sept. 30, 2021. Two percent can be used for administration and oversight activities. The package follows a bipartisan letter sent on March 23 to Congress by Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Alaska’s Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. They asked, among other things, that fishermen be able to collect unemployment insurance, get help with vessel loan payments and ensure that the global pandemic does not compromise management of U.S. fisheries. Also last week a coalition of nearly 200 seafood stakeholders sent a 12-page letter to the White House and Congress asking the government to purchase at least $2 billion worth of seafood and provide another $1.5 billion in relief for businesses and fishing communities. The letter states that nearly 70 percent of the more than $102 billion that consumers paid for U.S. fishery products in 2017 was spent in dining out as opposed to eating it at home. As a result, they said that for many fisheries the sudden shutdown of restaurants and other storefronts has caused demand to evaporate overnight, “threatening the economic viability of the entire supply chain.” Undercurrent News reported that the letter also asks the government to appropriate a minimum of $500 million to purchase surplus seafood that can be shipped overseas or supplied to U.S. hospitals and state and local government programs. And while the Department of Homeland Security has declared that fishermen and processing workers are “essential critical infrastructure,” the letter asks that support staff also receive the same designation in order to continue operations amid any self-quarantine orders. The stakeholders also urge the government to launch a “Buy American” campaign to promote consumption of seafood, along with expedited visa plans that will help to quickly staff and reopen businesses and fishing operations when travel restrictions are reduced. Meanwhile, in Alaska the Governor’s Economic Stabilization Task Force is organizing a fisheries subcommittee to address safety provisions. Staff at the office of Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, is in contact with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration about forming groups to report on the needs of each region. Fish for the needy Eighteen truckloads of more than a half-million pounds of donated breaded pollock portions went to 16 food banks in 12 states this month, and more seafood is on its way. “We did a press release and it’s actually grown to the point that another company, Gorton’s Seafood, has come up with 120,000 pounds at cold storages around the country. Our donors are so generous and everybody’s calling and asking how they can help. It’s rewarding to be in this business right now,” said Jim Harmon, executive director of SeaShare, a nonprofit that works with fishermen, processors, logistics and distribution partners to provide top quality seafood to Feeding America, a network of 200 large food banks in every state that services up to 500 smaller agencies. SeaShare dates back to the early 1990s when Bering Sea industry members banded together to turn mandatory discards of groundfish (bycatch) into frozen portions for food banks. “We’ve been doing it for 25 years and grown to the point where bycatch represents only about 10 percent of our total donations,” Harmon said. Products have broadened to include a wide variety of species, such as salmon, shrimp, rockfish, halibut, catfish, and tilapia. Most are frozen although canned and other shelf stable items are included. SeaShare also distributes seafood throughout Alaska where industry donations have put freezers in hub centers such as Bethel, Dillingham and Juneau. The fish is then sent to over 30 remote communities. During the coronavirus crisis the less fortunate are especially at risk, Harmon said, and SeaShare is getting requests for fish from all over the world. Anyone with products available in any quantity as a donation or at a low cost is encouraged to contact SeaShare as it has some resources to help access seafood that might not be available for free. “We’re asking everyone we know to pull on the oar with us,” Harmon said. “We’re hoping that getting the message out about the 18 truckloads of pollock and the 120,000 pounds from Gorton’s will resonate with others and get people thinking about how they can get on board.” “I’m so thankful and proud of our seafood partners who really come together when emergencies happen. It also takes financial support along with the efforts by seafood processors and fishermen,” Harmon added. A donation of just one dollar provides eight servings of seafood. See more at PWS aims to expand fisheries Prince William Sound’s Tanner crab fishery has been underway since March 2 for the third year running. Sixteen boats have pulled up more than 54,000 pounds so far fetching $3.50 per pound. That’s about half of last year’s 124,000-pound catch. “Things are going well and we’ll just let it click along and we’ll be monitoring it every day,” said Jan Rumble, PWS and Cook Inlet manager for shellfish and groundfish for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Homer. A test fishery also is underway in unfished areas in hopes of eventually expanding the Tanner fishery. “We’re collecting information and we’re hoping to combine that with our trawl survey data and historical harvest information to provide a more expansive harvest strategy than what we have in regulation currently,” Rumble said. Tanner crab fishermen also are recording the numbers and where they pull up golden king crab to provide more data for a potential fishery. Goldens appear to be on an upswing in some areas, but no stock assessments have been done since 2006. Two proposals to open a commercial fishery were denied this month by the Board of Fisheries but Rumble said ADFG and local harvesters are committed to gathering more information. ADFG already manages 25 shellfish and groundfish fisheries in the region and there’s no money in the budget for surveys, but Rumble said a test fishery, hopefully this year, might help get the data they need. “People bid on the test fishery and that could provide us with revenue where we could send observers aboard a vessel to collect biological and abundance information. So that’s kind of the route we’re pursuing right now,” she said. Another potential fishery for Prince William Sound is sea cucumbers. Rumble, a former diver for the state’s largest cuke fishery in Southeast Alaska, is working with local fishermen on a pilot survey for this summer. “With dive fisheries, you’re allowed to tax the product, it’s in the state statutes. So that creates a situation where you are providing funds for stock assessment through the taxation of the fishery,” she explained. “If things go well with the survey, we’re hoping to expand it throughout the Sound, and to continue stock assessments and development by using proceeds from anything that’s sold.” In 2018, sea cucumbers in Alaska averaged $5.29 per pound and a harvest of roughly 1.4 million pounds was valued at $7.4 million to divers. Up next in Prince William Sound is the popular pot shrimp season starting in mid-April with a harvest of 68,100 pounds. Registration is open through April 1 and shrimpers must first get a Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission card before they sign up with ADFG. The big spot shrimp can pay fishermen $10 to $16 per pound in what Rumble calls a very local fishery. “We provide shrimp to people on the street and people sell it through Facebook and to local restaurants,” she said. “It’s local sales that drive this fishery and I think that we would all say that we’re pretty proud of it.” ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

Fishing industry grapples with fallout from coronavirus response

Like almost all industries and institutions across Alaska, the novel coronavirus pandemic is shaking up the fishing industry. With restrictions changing almost daily and cases spreading across the United States, fishermen are still fishing, but the normal seasonal progression of the industry is likely to hit some rough waters. Travel in and out of Alaska has dropped after federal and state advisories against it, and questions are hovering about how seafood processors and fishing vessels will find the employees they need for upcoming seasons. Demand for seafood has fallen in restaurants after sweeping closures, and large numbers of layoffs may affect demand as workers scale back their expenses after losing incomes. Status-quo industry events have been disrupted, too. Hiring events have been postponed or canceled; the North Pacific Fishery Management Council cancelled its April meeting, and Kodiak’s annual ComFish exposition has been rescheduled for Sept. 17-19 due to concerns about gatherings where the COVID-19—the name for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus—could be spread. As of March 24, Alaska had reported 42 cases of the illness in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Soldotna, Ketchikan, Sterling, Seward, Juneau and Palmer. The primary recommendation to limit the speed of spread is to maintain physical distance of at least six feet. But it can be hard to limit close contact in the seafood industry, where fishermen work in close quarters on vessels and processing plant workers sleep in dormitories and work together. Adding to that, the workers in the seafood industry are often seasonal and come from outside the communities where they work, from elsewhere in Alaska, the Lower 48 or international. That’s something the processing industry is working hard to figure out. For the past few weeks, as cases of COVID-19 have spread across the U.S., seafood processors in the North Pacific have been meeting in a work group to coordinate how to respond to the pandemic, said Chris Barrows, the president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “From the earliest days of the COVID-19 threat, companies have worked with urgency, together — within this AFISH Committee, to minimize the impacts of this public health threat on Alaskan fishing communities, fishing crews, and processing workers,” Barrows said. “As part of those efforts we have strengthened cross-company information sharing through this AFISH Committee, including through formation of a layered, robust prevention and response network and continue to work together to update guidelines focused exclusively on challenges relating to COVID-19.” The group is currently working on partnerships with public health and government authorities on how to protect employees and the communities they work in, he said. Many of the plants in Alaska are in remote communities with small year-round populations, such as Akutan, Cordova, False Pass and Dutch Harbor. Community leaders from the involved regions, including Unalaska and Bristol Bay, are involved in the discussions, and Barrows said leaders from other remote communities are welcome to work with the committee on response and prevention coordination. Government public health and safety officials from Washington, Alaska, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Coast Guard are all involved in the committee as well, Barrows said. “The network continues to share within the membership guidance on best practices for companies, vessels, and plants throughout Alaska and work to disseminate the most up-to-date information from state and federal authorities to key stakeholders,” he said. The seafood industry relies on seasonal labor from Outside, much of it from foreign countries. Nelson San Juan, the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, estimated that the seafood industry brings in more than 20,000 workers to the state each year. The guidelines for how to handle employees coming in from out of state and out of country are still new, he said. On March 23, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued Health Mandate 10, requiring anyone traveling into the state — resident, visitor or worker — to self-quarantine for 14 days, from March 24 until at least April 21. Visitors and incoming workers will have to go directly to their hotels or rented housing to quarantine, where they can only leave for medical emergencies. Businesses who had to bring in workers from Outside to maintain critical infrastructure were required to submit a plan on how they would prevent the spread of the illness and not endanger the lives of other employees or those in the communities to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development by 3 p.m. March 24, according to the mandate. Barrows said the governor’s office had informed the industry of the mandate, and the AFISH committee is working on how to handle the quarantine requirement and worker plan. Seafood companies are also updating their screening and monitoring plans with maritime health doctors to prevent anyone with a risk profile from traveling to the remote communities and prevent sick crew members from being placed on vessels or in plants, he said. “We are all operating in a period of high uncertainty,” he said. “Access to a sufficient and healthy workforce is key challenge among those uncertainties. The industry is working together, and with local, state, (and) federal officials to successfully address such challenges.” Health Mandate 10 included a list of industries identified as essential to national infrastructure, within which employees would still be allowed to report to work. The fishing industry, including seafood processing, was included on the list, along with other agricultural and food supply industries. In Bristol Bay, where the workers largely come from out of the region, the mandate raised some concern because of the timeline. The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association wrote on its website that anyone who needed to bring in workers prior to May 1 had to submit any plan they had before 3 p.m. March 24, while others who need to bring in workers after that date could submit plans now or at a later date to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. BBRSDA originally looked into submitting a “blanket plan” for all Bristol Bay fishermen, but because of the tight timeline, it likely wouldn’t be feasible, and the organization wrote that it would continue to work on it if deadlines are extended. “In terms of broad advice, it is critical that everyone prioritize partitioning and avoiding increasing the number of places where the virus can live and spread,” BBRSDA wrote on its website. “For partitioning, this means isolating yourself and crew as much as possible until you can get on the water or to your setnet site.” Under regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, seafood processing plants are already required to practice safe sanitizing processes for food products. So far, the federal government has not found that the coronavirus can be spread through food, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. The coronavirus has been found to live on surfaces, but it is unlikely that it will be spread by food products or packaging that has been shipped for a period of time at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures, according to ASMI. “As part of each plant’s required preparedness plans, there are contingency mechanisms in place to deal with human disease outbreaks and other externalities so as to protect the health and safety of both employees and the public and guard against threats that could cause a disruption to plant and processing activities,” ASMI wrote on its website. “Human health and food safety are always the priority.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Flattened prices greet fishermen to start halibut season

The Pacific halibut fishery opened on March 14 amid little fanfare and flattened markets. The first fish of the eight-month season typically attracts the highest prices and is rushed fresh to high-end buyers, especially during the Lenten season. But that’s not the case in this time of coronavirus chaos, when air traffic is stalled and seafood of all kinds is getting backlogged in global freezers. Alaska’s share of the 2020 halibut catch is about 17 million pounds for nearly 2,000 fishermen who own shares of the popular flatfish. A week into the fishery, fewer than 50 landings were made totaling just more than 262,000 pounds and, as anticipated, prices to fishermen were in the pits. Earliest price reports at Homer were posted at $4.20 to $4.40 per pound, Kodiak prices were at $3.25 for 10- to 20-pounders, $3.50 for halibut weighing 20 to 40 pounds and $4 for “forty-ups.” Prices ranged from $3.75 to $4 at Yakutat and $3.50 “across the board” at Wrangell, according to Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. The highest prices of $5, $4.75 and $4.50 were reported at Southeast ports that have regular air freight service, although they are expected to drop by $1 to $2 per pound, a major buyer said. The average statewide price for Alaska halibut in 2019 was $5.30 per pound and $5.35 in 2018. For this season’s start, some Alaska processors were buying small lots of halibut on consignment or filling existing orders; others were not buying at all. “We are tentatively going to be buying longline fish on the first of May after the Columbia ferry gets back on line,” said a major buyer in Southeast who blamed not having traditional ferries that haul thousands of pounds of fish each week, and a lack of air freight options at smaller communities. “We’re down here where transportation is dictating where fish has to go,” he added. Most of Alaska’s halibut goes into the U.S. market where in recent years it has faced stiff competition from up to 8 million pounds of fresh Atlantic halibut, primarily from eastern Canada. And although Russia has banned purchases of U.S. seafood since 2014, increasing amounts of halibut caught by Russian fishing fleets are coming into our nation. Trade data show that 2 million pounds of Pacific and Atlantic halibut were imported to the U.S. over the past year through January 2020, valued at nearly $6.7 million. A major Alaska buyer said: “One of our salespeople shot us a deal showing that right now you can buy frozen at sea, tail off, 3-5 and 5-8 pound Pacific halibut from Russia for $3.25 a pound.” Also newly appearing on U.S. shelves: farmed halibut fillets from Norway retailing at $9.99 a pound. Hatchery hauls Alaska salmon that got their start in hatcheries made up 25 percent of last year’s total statewide catch. In 2019, roughly 50 million hatchery salmon were caught by Alaska fishermen, mostly pinks and chums, valued at $118 million, or 18 percent of the state’s total salmon harvest value. That’s according to the annual salmon enhancement report by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Currently there are 30 hatcheries producing salmon in Alaska, of which 26 are operated by private, nonprofits. ADFG operates two sport fish hatcheries in Anchorage and Fairbanks, the federal government runs a research hatchery near Sitka, and the Metlakatla Indian tribe also operates a hatchery. The hatcheries are funded by a fishermen’s tax and sales of a portion of the returning fish and receive no state dollars. They also produce salmon for sport, subsistence and personal use fisheries at no cost to the state of Alaska. “For the coastal communities the hatchery program is a lifesaver for many of the people who fish for a living. It gives about 25 percent of the salmon harvest and that supplementation is a critical component for their business model,” said Steve Reifenstuhl, who on March 15 retired after 40 years as general manager at the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association. At Prince William Sound, where most of Alaska’s hatchery fish call home, 31 million salmon were caught last summer valued at $64 million, or 56 percent of the region’s total dockside value. Nearly 83 percent were chums, 61 percent were pinks and 34 percent were sockeye salmon. For Southeast Alaska, the second-largest hatchery region, fishermen harvested about 6.5 million hatchery fish valued at $32 million, or 37 percent of the region’s landings value. Chum salmon contributed $24 million of that total. Kodiak has the state’s third-highest hatchery production and about 3.4 million hatchery salmon were caught last year, nearly all pinks. The value to fishermen was close to $5 million, or 11 percent of the total dockside value for Kodiak fishermen. Three hatcheries in Cook Inlet produce primarily sockeye and pink salmon. About 42,000 hatchery-produced salmon were harvested there last year for a total of nearly $2 million, or nine percent of the value for the region. About 1.7 billion tiny salmon were released by Alaska hatcheries in 2019 which operators predict will product a total return of about 52 million salmon in 2020 including 35 million pinks, 13 million chums, 2.2 million sockeyes, 1.2 million cohos, and 100,000 Chinook salmon. Alaska’s on acid Alaska waters are showing effects of increasing acidity faster and more severely than lower latitudes because cold water is richer in carbon dioxide and melting sea ice and glaciers worsen the problem. The off kilter ocean chemistry reduces the amount of minerals sea creatures need to build and maintain their shells. That’s the verdict in the 2019 report by the Alaska Ocean Acidification Network, which updates the science going on around the state. The Network has modeled 40 years of ocean changes in the Gulf and is doing the same for the greater Arctic. At Sitka, researchers are testing the effects of acidification and ocean warming on the earliest life stages of herring; early signs point to warming as the bigger threat. At the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery at Seward, studies on razor clams indicate they are hurt by increasing acidity. Tiny swimming sea snails called pteropods that make up 40 percent of the diet of juvenile pink salmon already are showing extensive shell corrosion in both the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. The 2019 report also updates the monitoring being done since 2017 by the ferry Columbia as part of an unprecedented Alaska/Canada project to learn how increasing ocean acidity affects fisheries. The 418-foot ferry sucks up water samples every two minutes and has produced more than 700,000 measurements. The monitoring will resume when the Columbia is back on the water in May. “The fantastic thing about this vessel is it’s going from Bellingham to Skagway and back every week. That’s a 1,600-kilometer run. Nowhere in the world is there a ferry system that’s outfitted with CO2 sensors that’s running that scale of a transit. This is really exciting,” said Wiley Evans, program technical lead with the Hakai Institute. Early data point to an extremely variable seascape in which the surface water is more corrosive in fall and winter, representing the most vulnerable time for species that are sensitive to acidity. When spring arrives, the phytoplankton bloom removes carbon dioxide from the water through photosynthesis, and the water gets warmer making conditions more favorable for shell production. So far, only a limited number of Alaska’s commercially important species have been studied for their response to increasing acidity. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

FISH FACTOR: More non-seafood ‘seafood’ proliferates in market

Genetically tweaked salmon that grows three times faster than normal fish…fillets grown in labs from fish cells…now plant-based seafoods such as “vegan shrimp,” or “Toona” are gaining footholds in the marketplace — and confusing customers. A new study by FoodMinds for the National Fisheries Institute showed that about 40 percent of consumers believed plant-based imitations contain actual seafood. Up to 60 percent thought the products had similar nutritional content as real fish. Still, fake seafood producers are pushing back against more accurate labeling, claiming without any evidence that customers know what they are getting. “We have to ensure that the labels are educating people about something as simple as what’s in the package. A lot of these plant-based alternative makers have even suggested that they have the ‘first amendment right’ to call their products whatever they want. And that’s simply not the case,” said Gavin Gibbons, NFI vice president for communications. Good Catch Foods, for example, positions itself as a “seafood company” and New Wave foods calls itself “shellfish evolved.” “During our consumer research, three of the five vegan seafood products we displayed were less nutritious than real fish. They had less protein and more saturated fat and sodium. Yet, almost 60 percent of the respondents thought that they all had similar nutritional content between actual fish and the highly processed plant based alternatives. So they’re actually being misled in some of these particular labeling scenarios,” Gibbons said. “In what society is it not a proper government role to ensure that consumers get the food that a label claims is in the package? The government has a legitimate interest in ensuring accurate labeling of foods. Otherwise, why not call ground meat filet mignon?” John Connelly, NFI president, wrote in a March 2 opinion piece. There’s nothing wrong with the vegan seafood products, Gibbons said, and they can make an important contribution to a growing world. But the makers don’t even want the term “imitation” seafood included on their packaging. “Consumers have a right to know what’s in the package and what’s more, a package has something called a Statement of Identity on it,” he explained. “A lot of these products have labels that tell you what is not in the package. For instance, it says ‘vegan shrimp.’ Well, it’s a vegan product that does not contain shrimp. And that is not how a Statement of Identity works. It has to tell you what is in the product. And those labels currently do not do that.” Gibbons said that along with the dairy, beef and poultry industry, NFI is working to get a federal labeling fix. “We have seen time and time again where the Food and Drug Administration does not take action on a labeling issue and then it becomes mainstream,” Gibbons said, using “almond milk” as an example. “Obviously, almonds don’t produce milk but they’re right next to cow’s milk on the shelf and labeled as milk. We want to get ahead of this now and we are talking to the FDA and folks on Capitol Hill to let them know that this is a problem that has to be fixed through an active regulatory effort.” Ironically, fake seafood makers brutally bash the seafood industry in their promotions as being unsustainable and cruel and urge customers to “leave fish off their plates for good.” On a related note: NFI has created a website to answer questions about seafood safety and the coronavirus at Fishing updates The Pacific halibut fishery got underway on March 14. A fleet of nearly 2,000 Alaska longliners will share a 17 million-pound catch during the eight-month fishery. It was set to be a bumpy start in the face of jittery markets and transportation snags. No ferries and limited air freight meant no way to move the fish in many Southeast Alaska ports. A major processor there was not buying any halibut until April. Sablefish (black cod) also opened March 14. That market remains poor with a backlog of small fish in the freezers. For the second year, Sitka Sound’s roe herring fishery is not likely to occur this month due to small fish and no markets. Fishery managers had anticipated a harvest of 25,824 tons (nearly 57 million pounds), double from 2019. Just more than 10,000 tons of herring spawn on kelp can be taken from pound fisheries near Craig and Klawok. Herring pounds contain from 900 to 9,000 blades of kelp to catch the herring spawn. Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay has a huge quota at nearly 39,000 tons (over 85 million pounds). That fishery typically opens in April but many fishermen are opting out due to low herring prices of less than $100 per ton. The winter troll fishery for Chinook salmon closed in all waters of Southeast Alaska on March 15. Boats are targeting black rockfish throughout the Gulf and along the Aleutians. Lingcod also is open in Southeast, and some areas are still open for golden king crab and Tanner crab. A Tanner fishery opened in Prince William Sound on March 2 and the Kodiak fishery is still going slow in one open region. The snow crab fishery in the Bering Sea has yielded about 70 percent of its 34 million-pound catch quota. A red king crab fishery for 13,608 pounds opened at Norton Sound on Feb. 29 but no one showed up due to no buyers. Many stakeholders fear the stock is declining and opted not to drop pots (through the ice) for the winter fishery. Fishing for pollock, cod, mackerel, perch, flounders and many other whitefish continues in regions of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Fishing fellows The call is out for young Alaska fishermen who want hands-on training in management, advocacy, research, marketing, conservation, business and more. The Young Fishing Fellows Program, now in its fourth year, is an initiative of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. This year it includes six mentor groups: the Copper River / Prince William Sound Marketing Association, Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Homer Charter Association, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, North Pacific Fisheries Association and the Alaska Fishermen’s Network. The fellowships, which begin in the fall, are open to fishermen 35 and younger who are paid $16 to $26 an hour, depending on experience. The hours are flexible by design, said Jamie O’Connor, AMCC working waterfront director. “It usually ends up being about 10 hours a week for three to five months. There’s a lot of flexibility so people can work around their winter schedules and of course, work around fishing seasons,” she said. O’Connor, who fishes at Bristol Bay, was part of the first cohort in 2017 and it resulted in her job at AMCC. “One of the most beneficial aspects of this fellowship is access to the people who can open doors and show our young fishermen the work that’s being done on behalf of our oceans and our fishermen and our communities she said.” Apply by May 4 to the Young Fishing Fellows Program at Questions? Contact O’Connor at [email protected] Fish art contest update The deadline for entries to the State Fish Art contest is March 31. The contest is open to kids from kindergarten through grade 12 and can include any Alaska fish. For a new Alaska Fish Heritage category added this year, chinook salmon should be the star. “Here in Alaska, the chinook is our state fish. That’s something a lot of people don’t even know,” said Bobbie Jo Skibo, U.S. Forest Service regional partnership coordinator in Alaska, host of the state art competition. Young artists also can enter an international competition called the Fish Migration Award . Find entry forms at COVID cancellations The North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting on March 30-April 7 in Anchorage has been cancelled following the announcement of Alaska’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus. The 41st ComFish Alaska trade show at Kodiak set for March 26-28 has been rescheduled until Sept. 17-19. The fourth Kodiak Area Marine Science Symposium scheduled for April 21-24, sponsored by Alaska Sea Grant and the University of Alaska/Fairbanks, has been canceled until next year. ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

House budget rejects proposal for shellfish sector to fund lab tests

Alaska shellfish farmers and divers fear they won’t be “open for business” much longer if they’re forced to pick up the tab for federally required lab tests as outlined in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget. The Department of Environmental Conservation has proposed shifting the state cost to the harvesters which last year totaled almost a half-million dollars. Geoduck clam divers in Southeast Alaska, for example, pay about $150,000 each year to collect samples that are sent to the single federally approved laboratory in Anchorage and tested for paralytic shellfish poison and other toxins. Divers also pay $20,000 for water quality samples twice a year, and $8,000 to test for inorganic arsenic. “And then we pay the Alaska Department of Fish and Game about $25,000 a year for them to do the management and assessment of the geoduck resource,” said Phil Doherty, co-director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Association, or SARDFA. The geoduck divers also tax themselves 7 percent to cover SARDFA’s $50,000 administrative costs. In all, Doherty said it adds up to $266,000 per year. SARDFA is unique in that it is the only commercial fishing group in Alaska that is taxed through legislative action to pay for state oversight of the fishery, which is centered around Craig and Ketchikan. “We pay the department to do the work they need to do and we pay for all of the PSP sampling that needs to get done. We just don’t pay for the lab costs,” Doherty explained. The geoduck fishery harvests about 650,000 pounds each year valued at around $4 million to about 60 divers. “Out of that $4 million, you take the 3 percent fisheries tax, So that is about $120,000 a year that goes to the state via the fisheries tax that goes into the general fund,” he said. If a testing fee of $400 to $700 per sample is added, Doherty said it would increase divers’ costs by $60,000 to $100,000 per year. “We would not have the money to pay for that,” Doherty said. “And therefore, the geoduck fishery would close down. That would mean a loss to the State of $120,000 a year in geoduck fish taxes, $25,000 in ADF&G payments and $20,574 for Dept. of Environmental Conservation permits.” Meanwhile, 50 or 60 geoduck dive boats and their crews have been beached for more than a month because their market in China is closed due to the coronavirus. Meta Mesdag, owner of the Salty Lady Seafood oyster farm in Juneau and president of the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association, called the cost shift “an impossible ask.” In a letter to the House Finance Committee and DEC Commissioner Jason Brune, Mesdag said, “asking a nascent industry that produced $1.6 million in revenue last year to absorb $457,700 in program expenses will decimate shellfish farming in Alaska,” reported the Alaska Landmine. “The state is fully on board with growing this industry; however, they seem to not understand that in order to do so, we must have the necessary infrastructure in place to comply with federal mandates, and it’s not the farmers’ responsibility, but a matter of public safety,” Mesdag said. The Alaska Mariculture Task Force, created in 2016 with a goal of growing a $100 million industry in 20 years, opposes shifting the lab costs. “This public health service assures that commercially available shellfish is safe for consumption. At the current size of the mariculture industry, the proposed fees are not financially feasible nor realistic. The rate increases will be devastating to the existing industry and will restrict future expansion,” the task force wrote in a letter to the legislative finance committees. Should it pass, Alaska will be the only state that makes its growers/divers pick up the federal testing tab. Mesdag also questioned Alaska’s high testing costs for samples from 26 Alaska shellfish oyster growers. She told the Landmine that Bigelow Analytical Services, a private nonprofit in Maine, told her they would do all of Alaska’s tests for $31,000 per year. “The industry believes that we are actually subsidizing (Alaska’s) environmental health lab at $457,700 a year for a test that should cost $31,000 a year to operate,” Mesdag said. Alaska legislators in the House rejected the proposal in the operating budget that passed last week, and it is now up to the state Senate — and the governor’s veto pen — to decide. Warm bottom crashed cod Warmer temperatures on the ocean bottom were key to causing the cod crash in the Gulf of Alaska. That’s the conclusion of a National Marine Fisheries Service study that connected low numbers of cod larvae, juveniles and adults to loss of spawning grounds in the 2013–16 heatwave called “the Blob,” the largest warm water anomaly ever recorded in the North Pacific. Pacific cod are unique among all cod species because they only spawn once in a season and have eggs that adhere to the ocean floor. Females can actually place their eggs in habitats with temperatures that optimize hatch success. Researchers Ben Laurel and Lauren Rogers at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Newport, Ore., determined that Pacific cod eggs have a very narrow bottom temperature range for hatching success, much narrower than Alaska pollock or Atlantic cod. The Blob caused Gulf of Alaska waters to reach nearly 61 degrees, compared to a norm closer to 50 degrees. Right after, biologists saw no first year cod. “A lot can happen in that first year of life that we would like to learn more about how to predict whether or not these year classes coming through are actually going to survive. But there is always variability and uncertainty that we have to be braced for,” Laurel said in a previous interview, adding that data on young Gulf cod go back to 2005. The research is providing a window into how the fish will fare in a changing climate, he said. “It’s sort of a dress rehearsal for things to come. And it’s encouraging we had really responsive actions to this really drastic reduction in the population,” Laurel added. “I’m encouraged by that, but also tentatively nervous about what’s in line for the future.” The report titled Loss of spawning habitat and prerecruits of Pacific cod during a Gulf of Alaska heatwave, appears in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. Fishy winners Bullwhip Hot Sauce was the biggest winner in the final round of the Alaska Symphony of Seafood competition in Juneau. The hot sauce, made with bull kelp by Juneau-based Barnacle Seafoods, took home the Grand Prize in a field of 20 entries, four of which were seaweed products. The Symphony contest begins in November at Pacific Marine Expo where all entries are judged by an expert panel and first place winners are announced. Second and third place and the grand prize winners are kept under wraps until the Juneau event where legislators and others select their favorites in three categories: retail, foodservice and Beyond the Plate, which features items made from seafood byproducts. “It can be things that are edible such as fish oil capsules, or things that are nonedible such as salmon leather wallets,” said Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, host of the Symphony for 27 years. Barnacle’s Bullwhip Hot Sauce also took first place at retail. A Cod Fish and Chips Meal Kit by Alaskan Leader Seafoods placed second and Sea Asparagus Pesto by Seattle’s Foraged and Found came in third. For foodservice, Alaska Southern Style Wild Wings by High Liner Foods took top honors. Second was Alaskan Kombu Seaweed made with Kodiak kelp by Blue Evolution. Salmon Dumplings by Tai Foong USA placed third. For Beyond the Plate, Juneau’s WILD by Nature Alaskan Fish Skin Jewelry came in first, followed by Pescadots dog treats from Drool Central, a Mum and Pup Barkery of Anchorage. Top winners were set to travel to the big Seafood Expo North America next week in Boston which was postponed due to the Coronavirus. Fish givers American Seafoods is accepting applications for its community grant program from Kodiak Island, Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, Western Alaska Peninsula, Bristol Bay, Lower Kuskokwim, Lower Yukon, Norton Sound and regions north. The majority of awards will range from $1,000 to $7,500 each for a total of $45,000. Since 1997, American Seafoods has granted over $1.7 million to Alaska organizations and programs. Request forms are available at or contact Kim Lynch ([email protected]; 206-256-2659. The deadline is April 13; grant recipients will be announced on April 29. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.


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