The lure of reaching a statewide radio audience once again is attracting a full slate of political hopefuls to Kodiak for its popular fisheries debate.
On Wednesday, five candidates for U.S. Senate will travel to the nation's No. 2 fishing port to share their ideas on Alaska's seafood industry.
"It's a great service to Kodiak, to our fishing communities and to Alaska in general," said Trevor Brown, director of the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce, host of the event. "Fishing is the state's largest private-sector employer. I think the candidates realize the importance of the fishing industry."
Since 1990, the Kodiak debates have been an election year staple for candidates running for governor and Congress, and they've gotten 100 percent participation.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Joe Miller on the Libertarian ticket, Democrat Ray Metcalf and independents Margaret Stock and Breck Craig plan to be there.
The moderator is Alaska Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. Panelists are Julie Matweyou of Alaska Sea Grant; Julie Bonney, director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank; and Jeff Stephen, director of the United Fishermen's Marketing Association.
Nearly 85 percent of the seafood poundage that crosses the Alaska docks comes from waters managed by Congress and the federal government, meaning from 3 to 200 miles offshore.
The fisheries debate, set for 7-9 p.m. at the Kodiak High School auditorium, will be broadcast and live-streamed from host station KMXT/Kodiak and provided statewide via the Alaska Public Radio Network. Tune in at www.kmxt.org.
Crabbers get crabby
Bering Sea crabbers got the bad news they expected — low catch quotas and a canceled Tanner fishery for the 2016-17 season. State managers announced last week that the catch for Bristol Bay red king crab will be just shy of 8.5 million pounds, down 15 percent.
For Bering Sea snow crab, the harvest limit was slashed nearly in half to 21.5 million pounds, the lowest in 45 years. Last year, 40.6 million pounds were harvested, and the previous season saw nearly 68 million pounds.
An even bigger hit to the crab industry will come from the closure of the bairdi Tanner crab fishery, which had been growing steadily and hit 20 million pounds last season. Biologists said too few female crabs were seen during summer surveys to safely open the fishery.
Some crabbers believe the Tanners are still out there but have moved from the standard survey regions. A small blue king crab fishery at St. Matthew Island also was closed for the season.
"Whatever problems are causing poor recruitment of snow crab are impacting other crab species as well," said market expert John Sackton. The Bering Sea crab fisheries open Oct. 15.
No urchin searchin’
Divers could pull millions of pounds of sea urchins from Alaska waters each October but the fishery draws little interest. The urchins are valued for their uni, or roe, used widely in sushi rolls and Asian dishes.
Southeast Alaska allows for a 3 million-pound red urchin take, down from 7 million pounds in the 1990s, when as many as 150 divers would be on the grounds. Today's harvest is closer to 300,000 pounds, taken by five to 10 divers, said Phil Doherty, director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association in Ketchikan. Sea otters, quality issues and a huge dump of Russian roe over the past decade decimated the local fishery.
"There was a problem in extracting the roe and packaging it up and getting it over to the markets," Doherty explained. "It's a fresh product and by the time it arrived in Japan, they weren't real happy with the quality of the roe."
The softball-size red urchins pay 35 cents to 55 cents at the dock. Green sea urchins found around Kodiak Island pay well over $1 a pound but no fishery has occurred there for 15 years.
Harvests peaked in 1988 at around 150,000 pounds, taken by a dozen boats, tapering off to just 27,000 pounds by the late 1990s, said Nat Nichols, area manager at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak. He agrees that the bottom fell out of the Alaska uni market.
"It's a real high-end market," Nichols said. "They're looking for not only live urchins with high-quality roe but also really pretty urchins with no broken spines and things like that. It was difficult — and not profitable — to try and move urchins out of Kodiak in October."
With a few exceptions, Alaska's 2016 salmon season was tough on buyers and sellers. But having fewer fish available means wild salmon are moving well at home and abroad, and efforts to ramp up sales next year are beginning, said Robin Samuelson, president of Ocean Beauty Seafoods, which has operated in Alaska since 1910.
"Our freezers will be empty by spring and we will be processing and buying very aggressively throughout the state," Samuelson said, referring to the company's processing plants in Petersburg, Excursion Inlet near Juneau, Cordova, Kodiak and Bristol Bay.
Ocean Beauty is closing its Union Street facility in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood and moving.
"We've outgrown that facility and are experiencing substantial growth, and we are looking for a larger building that can accommodate that," Samuelson said.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.