Laine Welch: Industry's jobs boost Alaska, but fleet is growing older

Laine Welch

The "graying of the fleet" continues as fewer young fishermen obtain permits for various Alaska fisheries. Data from 2011 show that 45 percent of all Alaska permit holders were between the ages 45 and 60, with an average of 47. That was roughly twice as many permit holders as there were between the ages of 30 and 44. Crew members were much younger, averaging about 21.

Those are just a few of the findings by the state Labor Department in its November issue of Economic Trends, which focuses on Alaska fishing and processing jobs. The harvesting sector also continued to grow, with the salmon and groundfish sectors each adding more than 200 jobs last year, while halibut, crab and herring fisheries all had drops in employment. Overall, the seafood industry provides more jobs in Alaska than the oil and gas, mining, timber and tourism industries combined.

Roughly 10,000 permit holders went fishing last year, along with more than 22,000 crew members. Salmon represents more than half of all fishing jobs here, and more than 60 percent of Alaska's total harvesting employment takes place from June through August. The salmon sector averaged more than 16,000 jobs a month during those months, 80 percent of total summer harvesting employment.

Three gear types accounted for almost 60 percent of harvesting jobs in the state in 2011: longliners, gillnetters and setnetters.

In terms of gender, 85 percent of fish harvesters last year were men.

Alaska remains the nation's leader for value of fisheries, responsible for nearly $2 billion of the $5.3 billion total.

Eat more seafood

The American diet includes the second lowest percentage of seafood in the world -- about 15 pounds per capita per year. That compares to 110 pounds of red meat and 73 pounds of poultry. The lack of essential nutrients from seafood (notably, omega 3 fatty acids) in the American diet causes tens of thousands of preventable deaths each year, according to health professionals.

"It has just been in the last few decades as we've industrialized our food supply that we've almost eradicated this nutrient from our diet. When you don't get it, all kinds of bad things start happening," said Randy Hartnell, a former Bristol Bay fishermen and creator of Vital Choice Seafoods.

U.S. nutritionists are starting to get serious about turning that deficit around.

"New federal dietary guidelines in 2010 promote eating seafood twice a week but unfortunately today Americans eat less than half of that," said Linda Cornish, director of the Seafood Foundation, a new nonprofit launched this month as part of the National Fisheries Institute.

The foundation will focus on building awareness of the health benefits of seafood to a wider population using a three-pronged approach.

"An education component teaching about the benefits of eating seafood; getting our moms, dads and children to understand the great taste seafood has to offer, and helping Americans understand how to incorporate seafood meals into their daily routine," Cornish said.

"The biggest obstacle will be to overcome the routine of the daily meal and the notion that fish is smelly and harder to prepare. When in fact fish is so easy and quick to prepare, you can get a meal on the table in well under 30 minutes."

The Seafood Foundation is forming partnerships with health organizations, seafood companies and industry stakeholders to help fund promotional campaigns like cooking demonstrations in supermarkets, hospitals and community centers.

ROV tops divers

Urchins, sea cucumbers and giant geoduck clams are some of Southeast Alaska's most lucrative, and dangerous, fisheries, with a value of about $8 million at the docks. Divers pluck the creatures from the sea floor, using long, hookah-like devices to receive air from boats on the surface. Now a new device from Norway could remove the dangers of diving.

A remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) called a Seabed Harvester has performed extremely well in some of northern Norway's most remote and frigid waters. According to World Fishing, during testing in January, the ROV harvested nearly two metric tons of urchins (4,400 pounds) in four days. The average take by divers was about 200 pounds a day.

The ROV is undergoing more testing with a goal of using it to harvest other species, including scallops and other crustaceans. Scientists said the device is gentle on the seabed and they expect a significant improvement in the harvest rate when operators become more experienced. The ROV also may be used to inspect seabed conditions and stocks over larger areas.

The research is financed by the Norwegian Seafood Research Fund.

Fish watch

Alaska pollock, the world's largest food fishery, could see an even bigger catch next year. Scientists are recommending a harvest of 1,375,000 metric tons for 2013, a 13 percent increase. That adds up to more than 3 billion pounds of pollock. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will set the catch limits for more than 25 fisheries under its purview at its Dec. 3-11 meeting at the Hilton Anchorage.

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

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