Laine Welch : Compendium of facts spotlights Alaska commercial fishing

FisheriesDecember 8, 2012 

Ask an Alaskan what community is home to the most commercial fishermen and they will likely tell you Kodiak or Dutch Harbor, Petersburg or Bristol Bay.

Wrong! Anchorage ranks No. 1 for total fishing participation, with 994 permit holders and another 1,216 crew license holders who fish year-round. Anchorage-based fishermen brought home an estimated $52 million last year. The Mat-Su area, with 396 permit holders and 420 fishing crew, also is home to more harvesters than many coastal regions.

Those are just a few of the latest "fish facts" compiled by United Fishermen of Alaska, which details the jobs and business taxes generated in 2011 by seafood harvesting and processing in 18 Alaska communities.

By far, most commercial fishing operations in Alaska are small "limited liability" corporations or family businesses, making each fishing boat like an individual storefront.

UFA is alarmed at the lack of public awareness about the economic contributions of Alaska's seafood industry, said president Arni Thomson of Anchorage.

"Out of sight, out of mind. Commercial fishing and seafood processing is increasingly forgotten in discussions about the relative importance of Alaska industries among policymakers and the public," Thomson said.

Often forgotten (or unknown) is that all the fish bucks don't just benefit the towns where the catches come in. Taxes generated by fish crossing the docks are split 50/50 between town or borough, the rest going into Alaska's general fund to be spent at the discretion of the Alaska Legislature. In fact, the seafood industry is second only to oil and gas in the dollars it provides to the general fund. The state took in more than $25 million as its share of fisheries business and landing taxes last year.

There is another big misconception that badly devalues the economic contribution of the seafood industry.

When people talk about the value of a fishery, they commonly refer to its "ex-vessel value," the price paid to fishermen at the docks before the catch is being processed. This represents only half the value after the catch is processed, boxed and shipped to markets -- called the "first wholesale value."

Seafood is by far Alaska's top export, accounting for nearly half of the state's total exports. Our seafood exports were valued at $5.2 billion last year, a 24 percent increase from 2010.

BAIT AND SWITCH

Halibut scientists use more than 300,000 pounds of chum salmon as bait for annual stock surveys each summer. The bait is procured from local ports and staged at more than 1,200 survey stations stretching from Oregon to the Bering Sea with the help of up to 15 chartered fishing boats.

Bait is one of the most expensive parts of the project and increasing chum prices have pushed up the processed/frozen cost to nearly half a million dollars. Last year that prompted a study using less pricey fish that might work just as well -- herring, pink salmon and pollock.

"We found that herring was the worst, so we dropped that, and pinks performed about the same as chum salmon," said Bruce Leaman, director of the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which staffs the surveys. In tests this summer, pollock and pink salmon baits were on hooks alongside chums at every survey area. The results were mixed, Leaman said.

"In the Gulf of Alaska, in general, the pollock caught more halibut and less bycatch but that wasn't the case in the Bering Sea. We didn't see the same results everywhere," he said.

The testing showed some clear links between bait and catches, Leaman added, but he said they aren't consistent enough to draw good conclusions.

Halibut scientists will repeat the bait experiment next year. For now, chum salmon will remain the bait of choice.


Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact msfish@alaska.com.

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