Processors see signs of pandemic recovery

ADF&G: 2021 commercial salmon harvest valued at $643.9M

Alaska’s year-round seafood industry is rebounding slowly from the novel coronavirus pandemic, buoyed by larger harvests in some areas, higher seafood prices and a resumed demand for seafood.

All that, plus fewer outbreaks of COVID-19 after the winter surge, has resulted in recovery of about 42% of the jobs the industry lost at the peak of the 2020 summer season, state economists report in the November edition of Alaska Economic Trends.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 nationwide resulted in limited service at or closure of numerous restaurants and food service dining facilities, including cafeterias serving education facilities and in the tourism industry, all of which caused decreased or cancelled seafood orders. The pandemic also impacted the way supply chains operated and made transporting and housing workers far more challenging, the Trends report said.

In a separate report published on Monday, Nov. 1, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its preliminary harvest and value figures for the 2021 Alaska commercial salmon fishery, noting that the all-species harvest was valued at approximately $643.9 million, a big boost from $295.2 million in 2020. A total of 233.8 million fish were harvested, a greater than 98% increase over the 2020 harvest of 116.8 million fish.

Sockeyes accounted for about 56% of the total value at $361.4 million and 245 of the harvest at just under 57 million fish. Pink salmon were about 28% of the value at $178.8 million and 69% of the harvest with under 61 million fish. Chums accounted for nearly 10% of the value at $62.7 million and about 6% of the harvest at 12.8 million fish. Cohos comprised approximately 4% of the value at $23.9 million and 1% of the harvest at 2.7 million fish. The Chinook harvest was estimated to be just over 265,000 fish with an estimated preliminary exvessel value of $17.1 million. The exvessel price is the price paid to harvesters.

While individual fisheries may be seasonal, Alaska’s seafood processing industry operates year-round, to clean, fillet, package, can or freeze species ranging from salmon in the summer to crab, Pollock, cod and other groundfish in the winter, employing some 23,000 people in the processing sector. In most cases processors provide food and housing for these employees, which has proven challenging given the need for increased sanitization and social distancing and medical staff, should any employees test positive for the virus. For every Alaskan working in processing facilities, there are three others from outside the state hired by processors. Almost half work in Southwest Alaska, home of the Bristol Bay and Bering Sea fisheries. The Gulf Coast is the next largest region with some 5,200 workers, and another 3,200 work at processing facilities in Southeast Alaska.

However, while Bristol Bay produced a bountiful harvest, other areas, including Southeast Alaska, had smaller catches.

Meanwhile, the seafood industry spent some $70 million in 2020 on pandemic mitigation. Costs ranged from quarantining in hotels and testing employees before they started work to facility modifications, increased transportation costs cleaning and personal protective gear. Those efforts notwithstanding, processors still had to contend with outbreaks and with closures to deep-clean facilities.

Since vaccines had not been approved yet last November, the focus was on quarantines, masking and frequent testing.

As of late October, 663 COVID-19 cases, or 5% of total Alaska cases, were documented among seafood workers. In one of the largest processing facility outbreaks in July of 2020, three-fourths of all employees at Copper River Seafoods’ facility in Anchorage tested positive. It is worth noting, the Trends article said, that most Copper River Seafoods employees are Alaskans working in an urban rather than a remote facility.

The largest outbreaks to date this year occurred just before vaccines became widely available. The virus spread just as the Pollock season began in the Aleutians, forcing Trident and UniSea to shutter two of the state’s largest processing facilities near the end of January. From late January through early March of this year 713 COVID cases were recorded among seafood workers, 552 of them in February alone.

Given the winter outbreaks, state health officials changed plans to offer nonresident seafood workers vaccine at their facilities, after which COVID cases among seafood workers declined dramatically. High percentages of vaccination rates, plus pandemic mitigation measures paid off with case counts in the seafood industry remaining comparatively low. While a plant in Cordova was shut down after an outbreak in July, seafood workers overall made up just about 1% of Alaska’s COVID cases during the 2021 salmon season, compared to 11% of all Alaska cases at the peak of summer processing in 2020.

When the pandemic spread in April 2020, the industry found itself down by 1,100 jobs since the previous year, and by July peak employment was down 21% from July 2019, but in the fall of 2020, employment was up by 11-18% over the previous year, before declining again in early 2021, the report said. There were fewer processing jobs in the first quarter of 2021, but again by summer job numbers rose 10-17% over those filled the previous summer.

The labor shortage in 2020 was broadly attributed to travel restrictions, reduced airline service, strict quarantine requirements and worker hesitancy.

While travel itself is no longer an issue and the availability of vaccines has stemmed the spread of the virus, the pandemic is still taking its toll, state labor economists said. As the national economy struggles to revive, seafood processors, like those in many other industries, are finding they have to compete for workers who may now have more options that they had previously.

While the 2021 commercial salmon season was robust overall, with sockeyes returning in greater numbers than in 2020, they were on average smaller fish. Bristol Bay harvests were down in most species except for those sockeyes.

On the bright side, the price of wild Alaska salmon rose especially or kings, as restaurants re-opened and global demand increased. And, for a brief time in July, the value of a Chinook salmon exceeded the price of a barrel of oil.