Fishing industry enjoys another robust year
January 9th 12:11 pm | Laine Welch; Bristol Bay Times
Alaska still has its share of naysayers who will quibble about the seafood industry's importance to our great state. They dismiss the fact that fishing was Alaska's first industry and that it was fish that spawned the push to statehood.
"The canned salmon plants started in the 1870s and by the early 20th century, canned salmon was the largest industry and generated 80 percent of the territorial tax revenues. It had a position in the state economy that oil enjoys today," said fisheries historian Bob King.
The fisheries that Alaska inherited from the federal government at statehood in 1959 were in bad shape. That year the salmon catch of 25 million fish was the worst since the turn of the century, and total seafood production was just 324 million pounds. In contrast, salmon catches today often top 200 million fish, and more than five billion pounds of seafood cross the Alaska docks each year.
Here are fishing notables from 2014, in no particular order:
Alaska claimed the nation's top three fishing ports for seafood catches last year: Dutch Harbor, Kodiak and Akutan.
The 2014 salmon harvest totaled 157 million fish with a dockside value of nearly $577 million. That's 116 million fewer salmon than last year, and a $113 million drop in value.
Prince William Sound squeaked by the Panhandle to claim the year's highest salmon catch at 49.35 million fish — topping Southeast's landings by just 103,000 salmon.
Bristol Bay's sockeye catch of 28.8 million was 61 percent higher than expected and rang in at nearly $193 million at the docks. Fish forecasters said in 2015 Bristol Bay can expect the largest red run in two decades - 54 million with a harvest of 38 million.
Norton Sound fishermen also saw a nice salmon payday from one of the best chum harvests in 25 years, plus the fourth best for silvers and the highest price in the state at $1.60 per pound. Chums from the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim regions fetched some of the highest prices at $.55 to $.60 per pound.
Salmon permits in many fisheries tripled in value since 2002. By mid-year Bristol Bay driftnet permits were listed by brokers at $150,000 to $170,000, compared to $90,000 in January. Southeast Alaska seine permits were the priciest in the state topping $300,000.
Scientists discovered that crabs can hear through a small sac at the base of their antennae. Even more exciting, they found clues to determining crabs' ages - parts of the crab stomach and eye stalks remain after molts and show bands similar to rings in a tree. It means that for the first time managers will soon know for sure how fast crabs grow, a key factor in stock assessments.
Shrimp remained as America's top seafood favorite, but salmon bumped canned tuna to take over the second spot. Each American ate 2.7 pounds of salmon, a 34 percent increase in one year.
The pollock biomass in the Bering Sea more than doubled its 10-year average to top 20 billion pounds, and the stock is healthy and growing. (The allowed catch is around 3 billion pounds.)
A first lawsuit challenged a new law designed to clamp down on hired skippers fishing the halibut and sablefish quota shares owned by others. The rule took effect Dec. 1; it bans using a hired skipper to harvest any quota acquired after Feb. 12, 2010.
A massive tailings dam breach at the Mt. Polley gold/copper mine fouled lands and waters for miles in neighboring British Columbia. That began an uproar downstream at Southeast Alaska, where five huge mines are planned near watersheds that feed into some of the region's most productive salmon rivers. Canadian officials rejected calls from Southeast and Alaska Senators for more thorough environmental reviews.
More than 100 researchers and three dozen projects got underway to find clues to the seven-year decline of Alaska's king salmon. The state-backed five-year, $30 million Chinook Salmon Research Initiative includes 12 major river systems from Southeast Alaska to the Yukon.
Xtra-Tuf Boots partnered with the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) to help expand training and reduce injuries to all mariners. The company sealed the deal with a $10,000 check at the Alaska State Fair.
Russia began a yearlong ban on food products from the U.S. and other nations over political grievances in the Ukraine. For Alaska the ban means a loss of 20 million pounds in seafood sales, mostly salmon roe and pollock surimi, valued at $60 million.
Corrosive effects of ocean acids were documented by the National Oceanic and Atmos-pheric Administration scientists on the shells of tiny, snail-like pteropods, which make up 45 percent of pink salmon diets. Unmanned gliders began tracking how melting glaciers may be intensifying corrosive waters in Prince William Sound.
A Maritime Workforce Initiative was launched by the state labor department that targets 23 different occupation types such as fishing, research, machinists, ship building and repairs. Right now there are not enough skilled workers to meet demand.
Researchers reported that nothing on retail shelves compares to the levels of antioxidants and other healthy compounds seen in Alaska seaweeds.
The 'graying of the fleet' spawned a multi-year project to find ways to attract more young people to fishing careers. The average age of Alaska permit holders is 47, with twice as many permit holders aged 45 to 60 as there are between 30 and 44.
With a $335,000 grant from the North Pacific Research Board, a team with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and Alaska Sea Grant will focus on the Kodiak and Bristol Bay regions through 2016.
Alaska processors launched a new line of pink salmon in smaller cans aimed at endurance athletes. The smaller cans also will let processors use the salmon development tax credit passed this year by the Alaska legislature to upgrade canning lines, many of which are from the 1950s.
Bob Tkacz, one of Alaska's best fishery writers, died suddenly in Juneau. Bob covered seafood industry issues for 33 years and published the weekly "Laws for the Sea "during the legislative sessions.
Approval (or not) of genetically modified salmon, dubbed Frankenfish, remained in Food and Drug Administration limbo.
A new Alaska Mariculture Initiative began "to grow a billion dollar industry within 30 years." The first phase was bankrolled by a $216,812 federal grant to the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation as part of NOAA Fisheries' national mariculture expansion policy.
Slow growing halibut stocks showed signs of reversing a near decade-long decline that has seen commercial catches slashed by 70 percent. The price for halibut quota shares hit $50 per pound at Southeast Alaska, the only place where catches have increased in recent years. Dock prices for halibut topped $6/lb at major ports for much of the eight month season.
A ballot measure to allow the Alaska legislature to ban large mining projects near Bristol Bay passed with a 65/35 vote. Currently, only state and federal agencies can decide on mining permits.
Ocean Beauty Seafoods was awarded the 2014 Supplier of the Year by Whole Foods Markets. Whole Foods said it "admires Ocean Beauty's partnering with port buyers to ensure fishermen are recognized and treated with respect."
Trial fisheries began for seine-caught pollock at Kodiak and Homer with little interest.
Alaska seafood remained free of radiation stemming from Japan's 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster.
The Environmental Protection Agency concluded that the Pebble Mine would be "devastating" to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery and Native culture. That set the stage for the agency to permanently ban large scale mining in the region.
Federal fishery managers began a move toward a "bycatch mitigation" plan for groundfish trawlers in the Gulf of Alaska, which will include some form of catch sharing.
A new Kenai-based sportfish group formed an Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance aimed at banning setnetting near Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, Valdez and Juneau. It would eliminate Cook Inlet setnetters and affect 500 fishing families in all. The group is still gathering signatures to bring its case to Alaska voters.
The "nation's fish basket" was closed indefinitely by President Obama to oil/gas development, meaning 36 million acres of the Eastern Bering Sea that include Bristol Bay.
Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. Visit her Web site at www.alaskafishradio.com.
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Fishing industry enjoys another robust year