Commercial seafood industry jobs declined just slightly for the 2021 season in Alaska, compared with a significant drop during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, state economists say in a new report from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Some harvests proved notably large, but those catches did not necessarily translate into more jobs, according to a report in the November issue of Alaska Economic Trends. While the pandemic was less of an obstacle last year than in 2020, restrictions and outbreaks continued to put a damper on the industry, noted state labor economist Joshua Warren. Biological and environmental changes were also ongoing issues for some areas and species.
The 2021 statewide salmon harvest proved to be the third highest on record, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), and nearly double 2020’s poundage. Similarly, the reported ex-vessel value was the third highest since the mid-1970s. The number of salmon harvesters was down by just 1%, aside from the drastic decline in the Yukon Delta, where the salmon fisheries in recent years have been collapsing.
Employment reclines were most noticeable in August and October of 2020. Less than a decade ago, it was typical for Alaska to have more than 16,000 fish harvesting jobs in August, but in August of 2021, there were fewer than 12,000 jobs, the report said.
Overall, the number of jobs in salmon harvesting dwarfs those in other fisheries, Warren noted. The annual average was 3,611 jobs, which does not convey the magnitude of the state’s salmon harvesting peak and extreme seasonality. While that peak was lower in 2021, July still showed employment of nearly 18,000 people. The low was April, with no jobs. The second-highest employment peak was just over 1,800 halibut harvesters or 10% of the salmon job peak.
Harvests of sablefish, also known as black cod, were the largest fishery pound-wise. While salmon is a higher-value fish and requires more harvesters to catch, if sablefish were combined with other groundfish species, its value would also top salmon, the report notes.
Most years, there is a mix of ups and downs in sablefish harvesting, but in 2021, five of the state’s seven regions for sablefish harvests lost jobs, including the loss of 300 jobs in September.
The rest of the groundfish category lies mostly in Pacific cod and walleye Pollock.
With nearly 60 % of other groundfish harvests in the Aleutians, an 18% drop in jobs there impacted the groundfish fisheries as a whole. The state’s Pacific cod harvests have yet to recover from “the blob” in the Gulf of Alaska in 2014, with fish stocks falling by over half by 2017, the report said. Unless the cod fishery rebounds, further job losses in the Aleutians and other regions are likely in future years, the report said.
Halibut fisheries in Southeast, Southcentral, and the Kodiak area meanwhile showed an increase in harvesting jobs for 2021. Statewide halibut harvesting employment rose from 858 to 888 jobs.
Crab harvesting jobs rose slightly in Southeast Alaska in 2021 and held steady in the Aleutians, while Southcentral Alaska’s small crab fishery lost some jobs.
Job losses with the closure of the red king crab and snow crab fisheries announced in October of 2022 will show up in that year’s data in the coming months, the report said.