Prince William Sound topped all other Alaska regions for salmon catches last year -- but not by much.
Fishermen in the Sound squeaked by their colleagues in the Panhandle by just 44,000 fish to get the No. 1 ranking for the 2012 season. The tally: 34,390,000 salmon crossed the docks at PWS compared to 34,346,000 for Southeast.
For the second year running, Southeast Alaska beat out Bristol Bay for the most valuable salmon catch. According to preliminary numbers from the state, Southeast landings totaled $153 million at the docks, compared to $121 million at Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay can still lay claim to being home to Alaska's most valuable salmon fishery by far: sockeye, valued at $117 million. Alaska's second most valuable salmon catch in 2012 was chums in Southeast worth about $83 million ex-vessel.
Prince William Sound ranked third for salmon value at $111 million; Kodiak was number 4 with a salmon season worth $46 million. Cook Inlet's fishery rang in at $36 million; at the Alaska Peninsula the value was $17.5 million, $2 million for the Kuskokwim, just over $3 million at the Yukon, and the 2012 salmon season brought in less than $1 million to fishermen at Norton Sound and Kotzebue.
In all, 124 million salmon were caught in Alaska in 2012, the smallest volume since 1997, but third largest by value ($505 million) since 1992. It also marked the 25th year in a row that Alaska's salmon catch topped 100 million fish.
Pacific cod kicks off Alaska's commercial fisheries each January, but an anticipated glut in global supply pulled the bottom out of the market this year. When the dock price dropped a dime over the holidays to around $.25 a pound, fishermen wondered if they could even afford to head out.
Cod, which accounts for 11 percent of Alaska's total fish landings, is Kodiak's second largest fishery, after pollock. In 2011, 85 million pounds of cod fish crossed the Kodiak docks, valued at $30 million.
In the big picture, Kodiak is a small player, and this year its catch is facing a huge competing harvest of more than 1 million tons from Russian fleets in the Barents Sea, along with a cod comeback in the North Sea.
"There is simply an oversupply of cod in the world market," said John Whiddon, general manager at Pacific Seafoods in Kodiak. "And we also are competing against pollock and tilapia and Pangasius. And for the consumer, it all comes down to the fact that it is whitefish protein, and cod is just one component of that."
A portion of Kodiak's cod catch goes to the U.S. market as fresh or frozen fillets, but most goes to China to be reprocessed and packaged for markets around the world. Whiddon said Kodiak's remote location makes it tough to compete due to added freight costs.
"Right now the transportation cost to get the same cod from Russia to China is about half the price of the cost from Kodiak to China. So you have the high volume of cod coming out Russia, the lower cost to get it to China, and it makes it very, very difficult for us to compete."
Going into the 2013 season Whiddon said the worldwide first wholesale price for H&G cod to China was down 30 percent and "that would correspond with a reduction of the boat price here in town."
"We're off to a slow start. But before anyone gets truly alarmed, I think we need to wait and see how the cod market settles out," he cautioned.
"If the fish comes in slow from Russia, for example, then there will be a high demand for Alaska cod. The Chinese are also waiting to buy and seeing how prices play out.
For now, most Kodiak boats have begrudgingly set out for 27 to 28 cents a pound.
"My hope is that as we start to see the cod flow from all around the world, there might be adjustments to the price that will allow fishermen to make a margin, and on the buying side too," Whiddon added. "I want to emphasize that the prices paid in Kodiak for every species, but particularly for cod and pollock, are driven by global factors that are well beyond the control of any one entity here in town," said Whiddon, who is also a Kodiak City Council member. "Cod is a global commodity, so we are always reacting to the changes and adjustments in the world market, both on the buying and selling side."
Along with P-cod, lots more Alaska fisheries got under way with the start of the new year. Lingcod seasons opened in Southeast with a catch topping 300,000 pounds. Longliners and jiggers also set out for about 75,000 pounds of seven different kinds of rockfish. A few t pot shrimpers were still out on the water in Southeast, along with trollers targeting winter king salmon.
Tanner crab seasons open on January 15 around Kodiak Island with a 660,000 pound quota. The Bering Sea snow crab fleet heads out this month for a 66 million pound catch; they are concerned again about an early ice pack covering the crab grounds. Pollock, Alaska's largest fishery, begins on January 20, for trawlers in the Gulf and Bering Sea. Nearly 3 billion pounds of pollock will come from Alaska waters this year.
More salmon forecasts
The Upper Cook Inlet sockeye catch is projected at nearly five million fish for all users. The Copper River catch is pegged at 1.3 million sockeye salmon and just under 20,000 kings.
Halibut cuts -- Pacific halibut fishermen will know in a few weeks if they will face double digit cuts again in their catches again this year. The International Pacific Halibut Commission will announce the catch limits at its annual meeting Jan. 21-25 in Victoria, British Columbia.
The catches could be cut by 30 percent, meaning a coastwide harvest of just 22.7 million pounds for fisheries in California, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska. Alaska's share of the halibut catch would be 17.4 million pounds, down from about 25 million this year.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.