Last Wednesday marked the start of Lent, a time of fasting, soul searching and repentance for hundreds of millions of Christians around the world. And what the burst in holiday sales from Thanksgiving to Christmas means to retailers, Lent means to the seafood industry.
The 40-day Lenten season, which this year runs from March 5 to Easter Sunday on April 20, dates back to the fourth century, and it has been customary to forgo meat ever since. While nearly all seafood enjoys a surge of interest during Lent, the most traditional items served are the so-called "whitefish" species of cod, pollock, flounder and halibut.
Food Services of America reports that Ash Wednesday is the busiest day of the year for frozen seafood sales, and the six weeks following is the top selling season for the entire year. (Ash Wednesday is so called from the ritual of placing ashes from burned palm branches on the forehead to symbolize "that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.")
Overall, Americans ate more seafood during Lent in 2013 than in previous years, according to Nation's Restaurant News. GrubHub, the nation's top online and mobile food-ordering company, which works with nearly 30,000 restaurants in 600 cities, said the number of people eating fish on Fridays during Lent has increased by 20 percent since 2011.
The Filet-O-Fish sandwich, launched by McDonald's on Good Friday, is made with Alaska pollock. Its sales top 300 million a year. Nearly 25 percent of the sandwiches are sold during Lent.
No matter what the seafood favorite, the long Lenten season is good news for Alaska, which provides nearly 60 percent of wild seafood to U.S. restaurants and grocery stores.
Alaska longliners are ready to haul in the year's first fresh halibut with the March 8 start of the fishery. The catch of roughly 19 million pounds will be down about 11 percent.
Sablefish, or black cod, also opens on March 8. That quota was reduced by 10 percent this year to just under 34 million pounds.
Less fish could bump up dock prices, but it will take a week or so for markets to settle out. Buyer resistance to the high-priced fish came into play last year and sales started off slowly.
The first fresh landings last year fetched $5.25 to $5.75 a pound at major ports, then dropped about a dollar in the first week. Likewise, starting sablefish prices were down by 40 percent, ranging from $3 to $5 across five sizes.
Last year's average Alaska fish prices were $5.06 a pound for halibut and $2.84 a pound for sablefish. That compares to $5.87 and $4.11 in 2012. Alaska fishermen provide more than 95 percent of U.S. halibut and more than 70 percent of the sablefish.
The upcoming roe herring harvest at Sitka Sound has been clipped to 16,333 tons, about 1,200 fewer tons than announced in December. State managers are already set to start aerial surveys for signs of the roe herring run. Herring managers also think the warm spring means the fish might show early at Togiak in Bristol Bay. That is Alaska's largest herring fishery, with a catch this year of nearly 28,000 tons.
A push is gaining steam to use all of the herring, not just the female roe, instead of grinding it into fish meal. In Norway, herring is sold smoked, canned, pickled and more. Fishermen there get 47 cents a pound for their catch; that compares to $100 a ton at Togiak. A McDowell Group report showed that if male herring from Togiak and Kodiak fisheries were made into frozen fillets, the wholesale value would approach $15 million.
Bring 'em back
Researchers at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center -- the Center is the research arm of NOAA Fisheries -- are tops at the work they do. Their science forms the basis for setting Alaska fish quotas, running observer programs, tightening bycatch limits, to name just a few. But ... the Alaska Fisheries Science Center is in Seattle.
Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford wants to bring those science jobs closer to their study subjects.
"There are other places in Southeast where some of these jobs could go, and there's also Kodiak, which has a big fishing industry where some of the jobs could go. We want to look at all of that," he said at a recent meeting.
Sanford has created a task force to learn how those science jobs might be brought back to Alaska. Attracting more federal jobs to Juneau is an Assembly priority, he said, along with lab technicians and research vessels.
"If we could move even a few to our own research centers in our own fisheries areas, I think it would be a big advantage to us," he said.
NOAA Fisheries has fewer than 200 researchers in Alaska, mostly in Juneau. The Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle lists more than 400 on the job. That's a long commute to and from the fishing grounds.
So how did the Center end up there in the first place?
"That is where the geographical distribution of the labor force developed around the time of statehood," NOAA spokesperson Julie Speegle told KTOO in Juneau, "and it's mostly just been maintained there."
The Assembly task force will publish its findings in six months.
Eileen Sobeck, the new director of NOAA Fisheries, will attend the ComFish trade show next month in Kodiak. U.S. Sen. Mark Begich is bringing Sobeck to the event; it will be her first trip to Alaska. www.comfishalaska.com
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FisheriesBy LAINE WELCH