Laine Welch: Alaska fisheries year in review

Laine Welch

Alaska's seafood industry worked hard this year to ramp up its message to policy makers, especially those from Railbelt regions who tend to overlook the industry's economic significance.

How important is the seafood industry to Alaska and the nation? At a glance: Nearly 60 percent of all U.S. seafood landings come from Alaska and 96 percent of all wild-caught salmon. Seafood is by far Alaska's No. 1 export, valued $2.4 billion last year. Alaska ranks 9th in the world in terms of global seafood production.

The seafood industry is second only to Big Oil in revenues it generates to Alaska's general fund each year, and it provides more Alaska jobs than oil/gas, mining, tourism and timber combined.

Here are fishing notables from 2012 in no particular order:

• High winds, frigid temperatures and a record ice pack put the brakes on Alaska's winter fisheries; ice forced the snow crab fleet to extend its season into June.

• The U.S. became the first country to put catch quotas on every fish/shellfish species it manages in waters from three to 200 miles from shore. For Alaska, that means 80 percent of the total annual catch.

• The first Bering Sea-sized fishing boat built in-state got under way at Alaska Ship and Dry Dock in Ketchikan -- a 136-foot, all steel catcher processor for Alaska Longline Company of Petersburg.

• The world's first portable floating dry dock was launched at Allen Marine in Sitka; the modular dock can stretch to 160 feet and handle vessels up to 1,000 tons.

• Western Alaska CDQ group vessel owners started making plans to homeport their big Bering Sea boats in Seward instead of Seattle.

• For the first time, China emerged as the top market for Alaska exports, led by seafood.

• Halibut catch limits declined again by 20 percent and the outlook is for a similar reduction in 2013. Since 2004, the Pacific halibut commercial catch has been trimmed 224 percent.

• Governor Sean Parnell changed the mission statement of the state Department of Natural Resources and removed the word "conserve."

• Alaska's salmon season came up short, topping 123 million fish, 7 percent shy of projections.

• It took a quarter of a century but fishery managers finally began putting the brakes on the 5 million pounds of halibut taken as bycatch by trawl and longline fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska.

• Soccer balls, motorcycles and mounds of buoys and Styrofoam began washing ashore in Alaska from the massive 2011 tsunami in Japan. The worst is yet to come but it remains a head scratcher as to who picks up the debris and the tab. At least 750,000 tons of debris is expected to hit Alaska's coastline.

• Another head scratcher: Growing populations of sea otters continued feasting on Southeast Alaska's stocks of sea cucumbers, crabs, urchins and clams. Estimates peg commercial fishing losses from the otters at $30 million since 1995.

• Dutch Harbor-Unalaska held onto the title of the nation's top fishing port for seafood landings.

• The no show by Alaska Chinook salmon merited a federal disaster declaration for the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Kenai Rivers.

• Despite outpourings of opposition from Congress and constituents, the Food and Drug Administration gave a "clean bill of health" to genetically tweaked salmon.

• The "graying of the fleet" continued in Alaska. State data showed that 45 percent of all Alaska permit holders were between the ages 45 and 60 with an average age of 47.

2012 Fish Picks and Pans

• Best Fish Samaritans: UFA's Alaska Fishing Industry Relief Mission (AFIRM)

• Fondest fish farewell: Ray Riutta, leaving the helm of ASMI after 10 years

• Biggest fishing change: The expanded observer program that includes coverage of small vessels and the 2,000-plus halibut longline fleet.

• Worst fish omission -- tens of thousands of pages of documents on the proposed Pebble mine -- but no images to be found anywhere of what the mine area might look like?

• Most savvy fishing town: No town promotes its salmon better and with more pride than Cordova.

• Least savvy fishing town: No town promotes or celebrates its fisheries less than Kodiak.

• Best Alaska fishing icons: Bering Sea crabbers

• Biggest fish fiasco: NMFS sea lion BiOp blunders

• Best hungry fish feeders: Sea Share, Ocean Beauty

• Biggest fish blunder: Setting a precedent by removing 11 miles of salmon streams to accommodate a coal mine at Upper Cook Inlet

• Scariest story: Ocean acidification

• Best home spirit fish move: CDQ boats home porting in Alaska

• Best fish bash: Symphony of Seafood

• Biggest consumer fish snub: No labeling will be required for genetically modified salmon. To be sure you are getting the real thing and not a manmade mutant look for the Alaska or wild salmon label!

• Best seafood advocate: Ray RaLonde, Alaska Sea Grant aquaculture specialist

• Trickiest fishing conundrum: What to do about sea otters in Southeast Alaska

• Biggest fish WTF? Millions of pounds of halibut tossed as bycatch (by law) while sport and commercial catches get clipped well below their bottom lines.

• Biggest fish story of 2012: Alaska's disappearing chinook salmon and the anguish and heartbreak, not to mention economic hardship it has caused for so many.

This year marks the 22nd year for this weekly column that focuses on Alaska's seafood industry. It began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in over 20 newspapers and websites. A daily spinoff -- Fish Radio -- airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. The goal of both is to make people aware of the economic, social and cultural importance of Alaska's seafood industry, and to inspire more Alaskans to join its ranks.

Laine welch