A fishy look back at 2014  —                         

Laine Welch  24th year of fish picks and pans

Laine Welch
24th year of fish picks and pans

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 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% 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, followed by my annual ‘fish picks and pans’:

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% 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/lb. Chums from the AYK regions fetched some of the highest prices at $.55 – $.60/lb.

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% increase in one year.

The pollock biomass in the Bering Sea more than doubled its ten 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 December 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 US 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 NOAA scientists on the shells of tiny, snail-like pteropods, which make up 45% 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 Dept. 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 FDA 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 decline that has seen commercial catches slashed by 70%. 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 EPA 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 towards 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 Pres. Obama to oil/gas development, meaning 36 million acres of the Eastern Bering Sea that include Bristol Bay.

2014 Fish Picks and Pans

Biggest fish wait and see: Senator-elect Dan Sullivan

Trickiest fishing conundrum:  Sea otters vs. fisheries in Southeast Alaska

Best fishing career builder: University of Alaska/Southeast for its hydraulics and vessel electronics courses, fish tech training – all available on-line.

Best Fish Givers – SeaShare, which has provided close to 200 million fish meals to food bank networks since 1994.

Biggest fishing industry critic using questionable “facts:” Craig Medred, Alaska Dispatch News

Best fish reality show: Kodiak’s fish debate featuring Begich vs. Sullivan and Young vs. Dunbar. Sullivan’s plans to pull a double debate no show backfired when the “fish diss” story went viral. Sullivan showed up, but it was Rep. Don Young who corked the night with death threats and overall bad behavior.

Most outstanding fishing town – Once again, no town highlights its local fisheries and supports its future fishermen like Sitka.

Most earth friendly fishing town – Kodiak, which now generates nearly 100% of its electricity from wind and hydropower. Kodiak also turns its fish wastes into oils and meals at a ‘gurry’ plant owned by local processors.

Best fish gadgets:  SCraMP iPhone app with vessel stability indicators. It’s free. (www.vesseldynamics.com) E-Stop switches that prevent winch injuries.

Biggest fish blunder – Former governor Parnell naming Pebble Mine flak Ben Mohr as his fisheries adviser.

Best up and coming fish pols – Forrest Dunbar, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

Scariest fish story: ocean acidification.

Best fish to kids project: The fabulous Fish to Schools Resource Guide by the Sitka Conservation Society.

Best fish ambassadors – Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI)

Worst global fish story – Illegal, Undocumented and Unreported (IUU) catches by fish pirates – up to 20% of the global fish harvest.

Best fish news site: Seafood.com

Best fish watchers:  Cook Inlet Keeper, RiversWithout Borders

Best fish-crats –Duncan Fields, NPFMC; Nick Sagalkin, new ADF&G Westward region supervisor

Best fish writers: Margie Bauman, Molly Dischner, Jim Paulin

Best fish economist: Andy Wink, McDowell Group

Worst, most awful, unacceptable, no good, very bad fish story – Giving six million pounds of halibut as bycatch to Bering Sea trawlers in the two billion pound flatfish fisheries (not pollock), and leaving just 370,000 pounds for the small boat fishermen at St. Paul, a 70% reduction for the upcoming halibut season. The halibut bycatch levels, which are set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, have not been changed for the flatfish fisheries in 20 years. Meanwhile, halibut catches for commercial and sport users have been slashed every year for a decade due to stock depletion and slow growing fish.

Biggest fish story of 2014 – Mark Begich’s defeat in November meant losing one of Alaska’s most fish savvy US senators, as well as the loss of the chair of the Fisheries/Oceans/USCG committee and an Alaskan seat on Appropriations, where all those federal dollars get doled out.