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Home-grown Alaska salmon return dropped in 2011

Editor's note: In Sunday's paper, an archive Laine Welch column ran by mistake. This is the correct version.

Home-grown salmon -- don't ever refer to them as farmed -- are Alaska's largest commercial crop. Farmed fish are crammed into pens or cages until they're ready for market, Alaska salmon begin their lives in one of 35 hatcheries and are released as fingerlings to the sea. When the fish return, they become a huge part of Alaska's total salmon catch.

The state's annual report on its fisheries enhancement programs shows that last year hatchery returns and harvests were down by more than half from 2010, when a record 77 million hatchery salmon were caught. That added up to a whopping 49 percent of Alaska's total salmon catch. At $168 million, it represented 34 percent of the fishery's dockside value.

By comparison, last year 33 million hatchery salmon, or 20 percent of the state harvest, were caught by commercial fishermen. The 2011 catch rang in at $109 million, 18 percent of total dockside value.

Statewide, the hatchery program is credited with contributing 53 percent of chums, 26 percent of cohos, 21 percent of pinks, 16 percent of kings and 6 percent of sockeyes to the 2011 commercial harvest.

Prince William Sound is Alaska's largest region for hatchery production. Hatchery fish account for 73 percent of the Sound's salmon catch last summer. The breakdown of hatchery contributions was: 84 percent of chums, 75 percent of pinks and 50 percent of both sockeyes and cohos. Combined, the salmon were valued at $59 million, 57 percent of the value of the entire Sound salmon fishery.

Southeast ranks second for hatchery production. Hatcheries accounted for 10 percent of the Panhandle's salmon catch: 75 percent of chums, 29 percent of cohos, 22 percent of kings, 13 percent of sockeyes and 1 percent of pinks. The Southeast hatchery catch was valued at $43 million, 21 percent of the commercial fishery's value.

Kodiak's hatcheries accounted for 7 percent of the region's total salmon catch: 37 percent of the chums, 34 percent of cohos, 21 percent of the sockeyes and 4 percent of the pinks. Hatchery fish contributed $6 million to the Kodiak fishery, 14 percent of the total value.

In Cook Inlet, 2 percent of the total sockeye catch came from hatcheries, valued at just under $1 million, or 2 percent of dockside value.

In 2011, hatchery operators collected nearly 2 billion eggs and released more than 1.5 billion juvenile fish. This year more than 54 million hatchery-produced salmon are expected to return to Alaska.

Ironically, Alaska spends $20 million a year on fish feed for its 35 salmon hatcheries -- feed made primarily from South American anchovies. At the same time, the tons of fish feed produced by Alaska seafood companies is sold to aquaculture operations in Asia.

Fishing boats wanted

The call is out for commercial longline vessels to help with annual halibut stock assessments. The surveys, which occur from June through August, have been conducted by fishery scientists since 1998 in waters from southern Oregon to the Bering Sea.

"We have a total of 1,274 stations coastwide, and the coast is divided into 27 regions that the vessels are able to bid on," explained Claude Dykstra, survey program manager with the International Pacific Halibut Commission. "We generally have from 11 to 14 boats working for us in a summer."

The IPHC hires the vessel and crew to fish for halibut, along with two halibut samplers to collect various data on the stocks. Dykstra said with running time and weather, each trip takes 22 to 34 days overall.

The standard charter rate for most areas in the Gulf of Alaska down to Oregon is $60,000 to $75,000 per region. The regions in the western Aleutians and Bering Sea incur more costs, so rates there are about $120,000. Each vessel can bid to do from one to three regions over the summer.

Boats also receive 10 percent of the value of legal-sized halibut sold at auction.

"They have to clean the fish like they normally do on a commercial trip. So they get that compensation for the extra work involved," Dykstra said. "The other 90 percent is used to offset the costs of the program to the Halibut Commission. The ultimate goal is to have the survey program be cost-neutral."

Another pilot project in Southeast Alaska seeks a longline vessel to participate in a "whisker hook" study aimed at reducing the take of rockfish on halibut hooks. Dykstra said the project is driven by observations of hook modifications in sport fishing for bass or walleye that use a "lock spring" across the mouth or gap of the hook.

"It's like a piece of wire that's springy and as the animal goes to bite it, it needs a certain amount of pressure to overcome that springiness and actually get hooked by the hook. The theory is a rockfish won't get captured, but a halibut that is biting harder will, thereby reducing rockfish bycatch," Dykstra explained.

Bids for the halibut stock assessments and the rockfish whisker hook project must be mailed or faxed to the IPHC office in Seattle by noon (PDT) on March 16.

Fishing less deadly

Deaths on the job in Alaska have always been higher than the rest of the nation. It's not surprising considering the extreme weather and work conditions, and the challenges of getting around a state where 82 percent of communities are not accessible by road.

Workplace fatalities are measured by the number of deaths per 100,000 workers. In its March edition of Economic Trends, the state labor department shows that Alaska's workplace deaths have continued to decline, even as overall employment increased 31 percent from 1992 to 2010.

Historically, Alaska's highest fatality rates have been in flying and fishing. During that period, air taxi and helicopter services accounted for 13 percent of work deaths, compared to 1 percent nationally.

For seafood harvesting, there have been 275 deaths in the past 18 years, or 30 percent of the total. However, Alaska's fishing industry has dramatically improved its safety record, with on-the-job fatalities falling from 12 in 1992 to five in 2010. The labor department credits laws requiring safety training and equipment for the drop in fishing deaths, along with a move toward management programs that slow the pace of fisheries.

In fact, just 10 percent of job fatalities were from fishing in 2010, compared to 18 percent for aircraft pilots. Construction, mining, and oil and gas deaths accounted for 26 percent of workplace fatalities that year.



By LAINE WELCH