The rules that govern our nation's fisheries are being retooled so it's reassuring that Congress isn't traveling in uncharted seas.
Over 80 percent of Alaska's fish landings hail come from federally managed waters, and the Magnuson-(Ted) Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the primary law ruling U.S. fisheries. The act is undergoing reauthorization for the first time in seven years.
First enacted in 1976, the MSA "Americanized" the fisheries by booting out foreign fleets to beyond 200 miles from our shores. It created the nation's eight fishery management councils, and its laws dictate everything from fishing and bycatch quotas, catch shares, observer coverage, habitat protection and so much more.
The MSA legislation is now in the lap of the Senate Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee chaired by Alaska Sen. Mark Begich.
"It's the big deal -- it really does dictate for generations to come the parameters for managing the fishing industry of this country," Begich said from his D.C. office after launching MSA "listening sessions" in Kodiak and Fairbanks and next month in Kenai.
The sessions are not designed as debates but to "put things on the table," he said.
"Both the positive and the negative, what's working and what's not. So at the end of the day, we can look at it in a broad perspective and determine where and if we need to make modifications," Begich added.
The main issues he's heard from Alaskans so far include the lack of mention of subsistence needs in the act, and the "need for balance" among commercial, sport and subsistence users. Topping them all, he said, is the need to have fishery decisions driven by good science.
"We hear over and over again -- make sure decisions continue to be driven by science and not just some political decision, or who has the majority on a board or a commission," he said.
Begich is working with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican on the Oceans Committee, to schedule listening sessions in D.C. and across the country.
"We want to make sure that we continue to develop fish policy that is not only good for Alaska but good for our nation," he added.
Begich expects the MSA to be reauthorized early next year. Send MSA comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Senators Begich and Murkowski and Rep. Young all have come out strongly against the Food and Drug Administration potentially giving a green light to genetically modified Atlantic salmon. The fish, tweaked to grow three times faster than normal, would be the first animal approved for human consumption. No labeling would be required to alert consumers they are purchasing a GMO fish. A ruling by the FDA is expected this fall.
"We are working double time to prevent that product from coming to the marketplace," Begich said. "I met with the White House two weeks ago and expressed concern that the FDA does not know what they are doing. They are going to introduce a product into the marketplace that could damage this country's seafood industry," Begich said, adding that at a minimum, the man-made fish needs to be labeled.
"It will be guilt by association. We already are hearing grumblings from major Alaska salmon customers in Canada and Europe. We cannot have this as part of this country's seafood industry," Begich fumed.
He cited a recent bipartisan victory with a Murkowski-sponsored GMO labeling requirement being added to the agriculture bill. The measure squeaked by on a 15-14 vote with Begich putting it over the top.
"We are going to keep skinning this cat any way we can," Begich said.
Wild salmon its own label
On Walmart's salmon diss: The nation's largest retailer has said it will not sell Alaska seafood if it is not labeled as "sustainably managed" by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council. The MSC spearheaded the sustainable seafood movement in 1997 showcasing the good management of Alaska's salmon industry as its first big "certification" success. More recently, the industry opted out of the MSC program believing the Alaska brand trumps a high-priced eco-logo.
"If I ask a consumer, do you want an MSC-labeled salmon or wild Alaska salmon, I can guarantee what they will say," Begich said.
He added: "Name me one other state that has sustainability written into its constitution. We are the role model, and the MSC used Alaska as its shining example of sustainable fishery management. We don't need to pay high logo and licensing fees to an organization in order to prove something that we already know."
Salmon sales snapshot
Salmon sales through April: Alaska's salmon is marketed in several forms such as fresh or frozen, fillets, roe and in cans. The state tracks sales by product, price, production and region and reports on it three times a year.
Here's a snapshot of the January through April wholesale compared to the same time last year:
The bulk of Alaska's salmon pack goes out frozen in headed and gutted form. Chinook prices bumped up 90 cents to nearly $4 per pound through April.
Frozen cohos averaged $2.54 per pound, a 30-cent increase. Frozen sockeyes slumped below $3 a pound, a drop of 31 cents on half the volume. Chum salmon prices dropped from $2 to $1 per pound on double the sales volume.
Prices for frozen sockeye fillets also fell below $6 per pound from January through April compared to an average $6.25 for the same time last year. Chum fillets dropped by more than a dollar to $3.20 a pound.
Sales of canned sockeye and pink salmon showed steady price increases.
Hold onto your hats for the price gains for Alaska salmon roe.
For pink salmon, average wholesale prices approached $12 per pound through April, nearly double last year. Coho roe ticked up from $9.90 to nearly $12 a pound.
For chum salmon, the average roe price topped $20 per pound, an increase of $5 from 2012.
Statewide salmon catch
Fish watch: The statewide salmon catch was nearing 50 million fish of a 179 million forecast. ... Bristol Bay's sockeye catch is likely to total a disappointing 14 million fish after the reds came and went eight days early. ... Alaska's first red king crab fishery kicked off last week with a half million pound quota. ... Southeast's Dungeness fishery will be closed a week earlier on Aug. 8 due to low catches. ... Halibut longliners have taken over half of their 22 million pound catch limit. For sablefish, 60 percent of the 28 million pound quota has been landed. ... The summer pollock fishery has reopened in the Bering Sea with a total catch this year projected at nearly 1 billion pounds. ... The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is searching for a new international program director. Deadline to apply is July 22. (www.alaskaseafood.org)