Every year since 1991 Fish Factor has selected “picks and pans” for Alaska’s seafood industry — a no-holds-barred look back at some of the year’s best and worst fishing highlights, and my choice for the biggest fish story of the year. Here are the 2019 picks and pans, in no particular order.
Best fish scientist: Bob Foy, director of science and research at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center/Juneau. No one explains science better or with more passion.
Biggest new business potential: Mariculture. Alaska is acting on plans to grow a $100 million seaweed and shellfish industry in 20 years, and that could be far short of its potential. Along with food makers, the U.S. Energy Department has its sights on Alaska for biofuels from macroalgae.
Biggest fish sigh of relief: Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s backing off from taking 100 percent of raw fish taxes from fishing towns.
Biggest fish challenge: Getting whaled. Fishermen say they can lose 75 percent or more of their sablefish catches when whales strip their lines. Many have switched to pots, but most smaller boats can’t handle that heavy gear and hydraulics.
Best fish fighter: Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.
Best fish fact: Most fishing vessels are independent small businesses that support many families. Coastal harbors can be likened to malls in a marina!
Best fish knowledge builders: Alaska Sea Grant.
Best fish feeder of many: Sea Share, with over 220 million fish servings to U.S. food banks since 1994.
Trickiest fishing conundrum: Balancing sea otters versus crab and dive fisheries in Southeast Alaska.
Biggest fish missed opportunity: Using Alaska’s three billion pounds of fish heads, skins, guts and other “wastes” for nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, pet foods, etc. A report by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute shows using “specialty products” could be worth $700 million or more to the industry.
Most Earth-friendly fishing town: Kodiak, for generating nearly 100 percent of its electricity from wind and hydropower, and for turning its fish wastes into high-quality oils and meals instead of grinding it up and dumping it into the water, as in most Alaska fishing towns. (See above.)
Best fish helper: Rick Green, special assistant to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner.
Scariest fish stories: Ocean acidification and warming oceans.
Best fish economist: Garrett Evridge/McDowell Group, again. Weekly salmon reports, industry updates, always has the facts and figures.
Best fish mainstream push: Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers (GAPP) On a well-planned mission to make Alaska pollock (“cod’s smaller cousin”) the world’s favorite whitefish.
Best go to bat for their fishery: Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association; the fishermen-funded/operated group generated over $3 million in 2019 by a 1 percent tax on their catches to enhance/protect/promote their fishery. (Why other fishing regions don’t form state-sanctioned RSDAs is beyond me.)
Best blue economy motivators: Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association with its Alaska Ocean Cluster Initiative, Ocean Tuesday Virtual Speaker Series.
Biggest fish broadside: The continuing 25 percent trade tariffs on U.S. seafood products going to and from China.
Best “mom and pop” entrepreneurs: Barnacle Foods of Juneau – kelp salsas, pickles, hot sauce and jams!
Best eco-friendly fish expansion: Net Your Problem by Nicole Baker. One woman’s quest to mobilize AK to remove old fishing nets, lines and gear expanded from Dutch Harbor and Kodiak to Naknek, Dillingham, Haines, Petersburg and Juneau. The plastic gear is shipped to Europe and recycled into new products.
Biggest fish fake: Genetically modified salmon, or manmade “Frankenfish.”
Best emerging fish writer: Sarah Lapidus, Kodiak Daily Mirror.
Worst fish travesty: Cuts to commercial and sport halibut catches while bycatch rates (“non-directed commercial discard mortality”) remain fixed for trawl fisheries (6 million pounds in the Bering Sea). Time for those big, out of state fishing boats to share in halibut conservation.
Best fish assists: Staff at Alaska Department of Fish and Game and NOAA Fisheries/Alaska.
Best building future fishermen: Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka. Deckhand apprenticeships, electronic monitoring, outsmarting whales, fishing loan paybacks based on catches are just a few ALFA programs.
Best fish show-offs: Alaska Symphony of Seafood, hosted for 27 years by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation.
Best fish switch? Herring taken for roe pays $100 or so per ton in a fading Japanese market; herring used for food and bait can fetch over $2,000 per ton (while Alaska fishermen pay $1 per pound for bait herring from the East Coast.) Many are not even bothering to fish at Togiak this year. Time for a management shift?
Best fish boosters: Alaska’s salmon hatcheries.
Worst fish drag: The state dragging its feet on enabling a catch share plan for Gulf of Alaska trawlers to help them reduce their bycatch.
Best unheralded ADF&G treasure: Riley Woodford, editor of AK Fish and Wildlife News online magazine.
Biggest fish freak out: No cold pool in the Bering Sea for a second year. It used to serve as a fish barrier; now there’s nothing to stop more pollock, cod and halibut from heading north.
Best new fish town potential: Nome. Residents are getting newly accustomed to seeing far off lights at night from big fishing boats; research vessels dock at Nome before/after their new surveys in far north waters.
Biggest AK fish beneficiary: The state of Washington. Seattle is home port to about 300 fishing vessels and all but 74 make their fishing livings in Alaska. Of the 6.4 billion pounds landed in AK in 2017, nearly 4 billion pounds were taken by Washington residents. Of the $1.8 billion dockside value, $873 million went to Washington.
Best mainstream fish innovators: Trident Seafoods for its pollock protein noodles, Alaskan Leader Seafoods for its pop in the oven cod entrees.
Worst fish flim-flam: Pebble Partnership. Inadequate data, misuse of tribal and federal logos in promotions, ghostwritten hype for Gov. Dunleavy to pitch to investors. The release of Pebble’s final environmental impact statement is set for … wait for it — the peak of the 2020 Bristol Bay salmon run!
Baddest fish idea: Opening the Tongass National Forest to more roads and development. The Tongass produces 80% of the salmon caught in Southeast Alaska.
Biggest fish burn: Seafood without the sea! Fillets grown from fish muscle cells in laboratories.
Fish is best for babies: Pregnant moms who eat fish can boost their babies’ IQ by nearly 8 points, say leading dietary scientists. Worldwide studies revealed that pregnant moms can reduce risks of premature birth by 42% by eating seafood.
Worst fish threat no one thinks about: Fugitive dust blowing in the wind from mining projects.
Does fish best with least: Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. ASMI promotes Alaska seafood in 120 countries without receiving one penny from the state. A major competitor, Norway, backs its seafood with over $50 million from a small tax on exports.
Worst fish roll out: Derelict fishing boat law by the state Department of Administration that requires all vessels over 24 feet to be registered in person at a DMV. No one knew about the new law when it went into effect last January; most still don’t.
Best local fish backers: Alaskans Own/Sitka, Catch 49/Kodiak– Community Supported Fisheries programs that sell local fish to subscribers in and out of state.
Best fish payday: Bristol Bay fishermen earned a record $306 million payday, and that’s before final payments.
Most poorly planned fish payout: Due to flawed state and federal payout calculations, payouts of $38.5 million in disaster relief funds stemming from the 2016 pink salmon run failure are still not in hand for fishermen and communities.
Biggest fish story: The ongoing collapse of cod in the Gulf of Alaska and the closure of the fishery. At Kodiak, for example, where 40 percent of the Gulf cod crosses the docks, the value in 2018 dropped to $10 million, down from a $48 million five-year average. The hit to the tax base of Gulf fishing towns will be even worse for 2019. No one has a clue yet if the Gulf cod will recover from the multi-year assault of warm water and off kilter ocean chemistry.