Laine Welch: From sockeye to basketballs, the notable fishing news of 2013

Laine Welch

Alaska’s seafood industry worked hard again in 2013 to ramp up its message to policymakers, most of whom still tend to overlook the industry’s economic significance to the state and beyond. What is that message?

That “the industry” is made up of thousands of small businesses — the fishing boats that each supports one or several families.

That the seafood companies in coastal towns provide one of the state’s biggest tax bases. Together, fishing and processing provide more jobs in Alaska than oil and gas, mining, tourism and timber combined. Seafood is Alaska’s top export, far exceeding all other natural resources.

Here are some other “news notes” from 2013, in no particular order.

Thousands of tiny red king crab raised at the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center were released into island waters, marking the first time hatchery-raised Alaska crab have been introduced into the wild. Divers will return to the stocking site to see how well they survive.

Halibut fishermen were warned to expect a 21 percent coast-wide catch reduction next year. That quota has been slashed more than 70 percent over five years, the result, primarily, of slow growth rates for the fish.    

The Environmental Protection Agency concluded that developing one of the largest mines on earth at the headwaters of Bristol Bay would indeed put the world’s biggest sockeye salmon resource at risk. The agency will decide in early 2014 whether to use its authority to stop the issuance of Pebble Mine permits under the Clean Water Act.

Mining giant Anglo-American pulled out of the Pebble project, leaving Northern Dynasty of Canada as the sole owner. 

The first-ever salmon dip net fishery on the Lower Yukon River was a resounding success for 90 fishermen. The nets were allowed as a way to fish for a good run of chums while protecting the Yukon’s dwindling run of king salmon.

Harsh restrictions were imposed again on Kenai River sport and commercial fishermen because of continuing record low returns of king salmon. 

To find clues and solutions to the disappearing king salmon, Gov. Sean Parnell included $10 million in the state budget as a first installment of a five-year, $30 million research initiative focusing on 12 streams statewide. 

An oversupply of cod in world markets caused prices to drop to the point that many fishermen stayed in port. Going into 2014, reports suggest stronger demand and higher prices. Cod accounts for 11 percent of Alaska’s total fish landings. Most of it goes to China to be reprocessed.  

A Superior Court judge ruled that the state Department of Natural Resources violated its own rules by denying Alaskans’ their right to keep water in streams to protect wild salmon runs, in this case, at the location of a proposed Chuitna coal mine.

Basketballs and mounds of buoys, Styrofoam and other marine debris continued to wash ashore in Alaska from the massive 2011 tsunami in Japan. The worst is reportedly yet to come, and it remains unclearwhowill pick up both debris and the cost of cleanup. At least 750,000 tons of debris is expected to hit Alaska’s coastline.

Canada gave the go-ahead for AquaBounty, the company producing a genetically modified salmon, to commence commercial production of GMO eggs at a Prince Edward Island hatchery. That marks the first time any government has approved commercial production involving a GM food animal. That means Frankenfish is likely to be approved for sale by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, despite outpourings of opposition from constituents and a full on assault by Alaska’s congressional delegation. Next up: making sure the manmade salmon is labeled for consumers.

Bristol Bay had a lackluster sockeye fishery after the bulk of the red run came and went eight days early. Quality improvements really started paying off with a base price of $1.50 a pound, an increase of 50 cents.Bristol Bay remained Alaska’s most valuable salmon fishery, with sockeyes bringing in $138 million at the docks this summer.   

Brokers reported lots of interest in Bristol Bay driftnet salmon permits. The value has increased steadily since 2010, most recently topping $135,000. (That compares to $20,000 in 2002.)

Sea otters continued wreaking havoc for Southeast Alaska crabbers and divers.Many Dungeness fishermen have sold out and new entrants are buying permits at basement prices.  

Americans ate slightly less seafood in 2013: 14.6 pounds a person, compared to 15 pounds the year before. One bright note:  Each person ate just more than two pounds of salmon, a 3.5 percent increase.

Alaska’s 2013 salmon catch was one for the record books at nearly 270 million fish, powered by a mindboggling pink haul of 216 million humpies. The previous catch record of 221 million salmon was in 2005. The value of the 2013 catch ($691 million at the docks) is likely to set a record when all the numbers are officially tallied. 

Alaska’s coastal zone management program bit the dust when the Alaska Legislature failed to extend it. That leaves Alaska as the only coastal state in which citizens have no say on federal development decisions that could affect its 34,000 miles of coastline, more than all the other U.S. states combined.

This year marks the 23rd year for this weekly column, which began in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in more 20 newspapers and websites, including in the United Kingdom. 

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state or found at Contact her at


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