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Turns out Alaska sport fisheries top commercial in total value

Craig Medred
Tara Young photo

Two months after trumpeting federal success in boosting the value of U.S. commercial fisheries, while dissing the value of the nation's sport fisheries, the National Marine Fisheries Service has conceded it cooked the books. 

The original fisheries service report in April that led Laine Welch, the commercial fishing columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, to trumpet that "the debate over which sector -- commercial or recreational fishing -- provides the bigger economic punch can finally be put to rest.

"The annual 'Fisheries Economics of the U.S.' report by the Department of Commerce shows for once and for all that in terms of values, jobs, sales and incomes, the commercial sector far outscores recreational fishing."

Similar stories appeared across the country, but the fisheries services now admits the commercial values it reported were inflated by a lot of imported seafood -- including the farmed salmon Alaska commercial fishermen detest.

Global picture, not domestic

Under pressure from recreational fishing groups, the federal agency has admitted that what it painted as a domestic picture of commercial fisheries was in fact a global one. The agency refused to release a new report, but has altered its online report to make it possible to calculate the value for all the seafood sold commercially in this country or the value of domestic seafood sold in the U.S.

What those numbers show is that imports account for 53 percent of the "income impacts" of commercial seafood sales, 64 percent of the "sales impacts" and 66 percent of the "value-added impacts."

How much of that value is farmed salmon shipped into the U.S. is harder to determine, although the U.S. has become a major market for farmed fish imported from Norway and Chile. And those sales helped more than double the value of commercial seafood in this country.

"When imported seafood, which is not regulated or managed by the fisheries service, is removed from the equation, the corrected data show that the recreational fishing industry is actually $7.9 billion larger than the commercial fishing industry," reported TradeOnlyToday.com.

"Furthermore, the corrected data show that the domestic commercial fishing industry actually decreased by $2.3 billion in 2012."

A $2.3 billion loss in domestic commercial fishing value is not exactly a glowing endorsement for federal management.

TradeOnlyToday.com is Connecticut-based trade publication for boat manufacturers, dealers and retailers, marinas and boatyards, and various marine related service companies. It appears to circulate mainly to businesses catering to recreational interests, but the numbers as now revised by NMFS are hard to ignore.

They show that when it comes to U.S. domestic fisheries, the value of sport fisheries top commercial fisheries by more than $500 million in "income impacts," close to $8 billion in "sales impacts," and more than $4 billion in "value added impacts." 

“When seafood imports, industrial species, shellfish and fish that aren’t caught by recreational anglers are removed, recreational fishing generates $33.3 billion dollars more than their commercial counterparts while taking far fewer pounds of fish,” Ted Venker, conservation director for the Coastal Conservation Association told MarineTechnologyNews.com. “That is the apple-to-apples number that needs to be considered when we are talking about management decisions that impact domestic fisheries, and it is important that NOAA corrected the data.”

More halibut to commerical fishermen

The "Fisheries Economics of the U.S." report by the Department of Commerce was published, as many government reports are, to trumpet how the agency's management of ocean fisheries has benefited the U.S. economy, although not all of the agency's decisions seem well grounded economically.

In Alaska, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, an arm of the Department of Commerce, has taken halibut away from the charter halibut fishery and given it to the commercial long-line fishery even though authorities on fisheries economics believe that pound-for-pound the halibut are significantly more valuable in the recreational fishery.

A 333-page fisheries service analysis of that situation concluded the economics were too difficult for the federal agency to sort out. "Estimating the loss to the charter operator, let alone all other sectors, is complex," the report said. "Those losses may more than offset the gains to the commercial sector, but because of the limited information available and the assumptions that would be required, those estimates are not generated." 

Lacking any substantive information on economic value, or any pressure from the state of Alaska to obtain it, the agency decided the thing to do was cut charter catches to make mom-and-pop charter businesses "share the burden" of conservation.

On the national level, however, the agency has not seemed to lack for abilities in sorting complex data and drawing sweeping conclusions. Its 2012 report is a glowing endorsement of commercial fisheries.

After reading it, Welch concluded it proved that "unlike its sport counterparts, a (commercial) fisherman in Alaska is in fact supporting dozens of other U.S. jobs in retail, wholesale, distribution and import sectors. In short, the facts negate the argument that recreational fishing has a greater or more-direct economic impact than the commercial fishery."

Non-resident fishing licenses

The facts now appear to have shifted. Or maybe not. Maybe the recreational fisheries that encouraged 266,271 non-residents to buy sport fishing license the tune of almost $12 million in Alaska last year supported little economic activity. Maybe they didn't help support busy Ted Stevens International Airport by encouraging people to fly north on domestic airlines, didn't help fill Anchorage's many hotels, didn't fill restaurant seats in the state’s largest city, and didn't bring in shoppers.

And, of course, they didn't encourage Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops -- the nation's two biggest outdoor gear retailers -- to open big stores in the same year to engage in head-to-head retail warfare in Anchorage, creating about 400 new jobs. Of course they didn't.

Or maybe the problem is that sport fishing interests are supporting jobs in Alaska, whereas, as Welch notes, a commercial "fishermen in Alaska is in fact supporting dozens of other U.S. jobs."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com