Fish Factor: There’s a whole lot of fishing going on

Makena O'Toole grabs a live Tanner crab from a tote on the F/V Regalia while selling them to customers in the Cordova Boat Harbor on Thursday, March 7, 2019. Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times

Wow, there is a lot of fishing going on across Alaska!

Salmon is the heart of Alaska’s seafood industry, but winter is when the fishing action really begins.

Hundreds of boats are out on the water on the first day of each new year, beginning a predictable rhythm for the seafood industry as millions of pounds of fish begin to cross the docks around the clock at Alaska’s working waterfronts.

Here’s a sampler:

  • Alaska Pollock, the nation’s largest food fishery, opens to trawl fishing on Jan. 20.
  • A Tanner crab fishery opens on Jan. 15 at Kodiak, Chignik and the South Peninsula with a combined catch of 1.8 million pounds.
  • Tanner crab and golden king crab fisheries open in Southeast Alaska on Feb. 11. A Tanner crab fishery also opens in Prince William Sound on March 1.
  • Bering Sea crabbers are fishing for Tanners and golden king crab and will start dropping pots for snow crab this month.
  • Southeast divers are wrapping up a nearly 1.9-million-pound sea cucumber harvest; divers also are still digging up giant geoduck clams in some regions.
  • Trollers are pulling up Chinook salmon in a fishery that will close on March 15. They’ve taken 6,219 winter kings so far, each valued at $122.43.

Halibut watch

Pacific halibut catches for 2022 will be announced at the annual International Pacific Halibut Commission meeting held online Jan. 24-28, and fishermen are hoping for another year of increased catches when the fishery opens in early March.

Last year’s coastwide catch limit was 39 million pounds for fisheries spanning from California and British Columbia to the far reaches of the Bering Sea.

Alaska always gets the lion’s share and in 2021 fishermen holding shares of the catch took 93% of their 18.5-million-pound limit by the time the fishery closed on Dec. 7, one month longer than usual. Homer, Seward, Kodiak and Juneau and Sitka were top ports for halibut landings.

The average price paid to Alaska fishermen for halibut in 2021 was $6.40/lb. bringing the fishery value to $109,129,240, according to NOAA data. That compares to a 2020 dock price of $4.12/lb. and a fishery value of $61,778,449.

COVID cans Ketchikan

The COVID-19 pandemic derailed the AK Board of Fisheries meeting that was to meet in-person from Jan. 4-15 in Ketchikan.

The Board oversees management of Alaska commercial, sport, subsistence and personal use fisheries in state waters out to 3 miles.

The meeting, set to address 157 Southeast and Yakutat fishery issues, has been “postponed to a future date and location to be determined” according to Doug Vincent-Lang, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner in a press release.

“Cases in Southeast are increasing in almost every community. With the rise in cases post the holiday season, already key staff have contracted COVID-19 and are unable to participate. In addition, the nation and Alaska are facing serious transportation difficulties as weather and the pandemic are seriously hampering travel in the near-term,” Glenn Haight, BOF Executive Director said in the announcement.

Adding to the challenge is the resignation of newest BOF member, Indy Walton of Soldotna, whom Gov. Mike Dunleavy appointed last September. Walton named “medical issues and his busy business schedule as considerations in his decision.”

Walton was named to the BOF by Dunleavy nearly three months beyond a legal deadline, and he was not yet approved by the Alaska Legislature. He has fished for salmon commercially for nearly 40 years at Kodiak and Bristol Bay and also owns a fishing lodge on the Kvichak River.

Nominations for Walton’s seat will be accepted until Dunleavy names his appointment, said deputy director of communications Jeff Turner. The appointee must then be approved by the Legislature.

Good global outlook

“A Rising Tide” for seafood sales is predicted by the Export-Import Bank of the U.S. (EXIM) in a report that outlines performance and opportunities.

Driving the push is people worldwide recognize the health benefits of seafood, said Jane Lemons, Business Development Specialist for the Office of Small Business at EXIM, an independent federal agency whose mission is “to support American jobs by facilitating U.S. exports.”

Seafood consumption is now growing faster than beef, chicken, and pork; in 2018, the global per capita average was 45.2 pounds per year, and it’s predicted to reach 47.4 pounds in 2030.

As populations — and popularity — continue to grow, EXIM projects global seafood sales will reach nearly $140 billion by 2027 (compared to $113.2 billion in 2020).

Fisheries based in the U.S. exported $4.5 billion in seafood products totaling nearly three billion pounds in 2020.

(Of that, 2.2 billion pounds came from Alaska. Seafood has been Alaska’s top export for decades averaging $3.3 billion annually — over half of the state’s total annual export value.)

Top international buyers of U.S. seafood in 2020 included Canada, China and Japan. The bestselling products were live lobster, Alaska Pollock surimi, frozen fillets and roe, and frozen sockeye salmon.

“As the world continues to emerge from the pandemic and consumer demand continues to evolve, the potential remains for increased export sales in the future,” Lemons wrote. China, for example, cannot meet the demand of its 1.4 billion people and “this misalignment will only increase as years go by, offering substantial opportunities for export sales.”

Southern European countries such as Spain, Italy, and France are excellent trade partners because, in addition to their high consumption rates, they are also Europe’s major processing nations and re-export to other destinations.

“Fisheries would be wise to consider well located trade hubs, including Hong Kong, which re-exported over 40% of all agricultural products, or the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, which act as a gateway to the rest of mainland Europe,” Lemons said.

She also touted Canada as the United States’ largest export market for agricultural and related products, including fish and seafood.

“The U.S.-Canada open trade border provides opportunities for cross-border collaboration between businesses, and as a result, the two countries maintain the world’s largest bilateral trading relationship,” the EXIM report said.