Business/Economy

Copper River salmon return may not be huge, but at least they're en route

After a long hard winter, Alaska's commercial salmon fishing season officially gets underway in less than two weeks.

The first big fishery for sockeye and king salmon is set for May 18 at Copper River, and the town of Cordova is buzzing, said Christa Hoover, executive director of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.

"The mood changes at the start of May with all the folks back in town and boats going in and out of the water," she said.

Enthusiasm among the fleet of more than 500 drift gillnetters has not been dampened by a reduced harvest projection. Fishery managers expect a Copper River salmon catch this season of just 889,000 sockeyes, 4,000 kings and 207,000 coho salmon.

"Regardless of the forecast from one year to the next, fishermen just want to have their nets in the water. It's what they do and they are ready to go," Hoover said.

The marketing group, funded and operated by local salmon fishermen, is again working with Alaska Airlines to whisk away the first catches to retailers and restaurants in Seattle.

Every year, images of airlines carrying the famous "first fish" off the plane make headlines around the world, adding to the hoopla surrounding the Copper River opener. Salmon are hand-delivered to three chefs who have a cookoff on the Sea-Tac airport tarmac.

The resulting dishes are served to airline guests, who select a winner.

The Cordova group also uses the opportunity to promote the fact that Copper River salmon isn't just a "May event," Hoover said.

"We do a lot of outreach to help people understand that there are five months of wild Alaska salmon coming out of Cordova, especially with cohos into the fall," she explained, adding they also are broadening their salmon messages to build more awareness and appeal for the Prince William Sound fishery.

Alaska's total commercial salmon catch for 2017 is projected to be 204 million fish, nearly 1 million more than last year, when the preseason projection was for just 161 million. Remember, too, that 2016 was a season in which the usually sizeable pink run was so abysmal a federal disaster declaration was issued in January.

The projection for the five salmon species:

  • Red salmon, nearly 41 million, a decrease of 12 million from last year.
  • Silver salmon, a slight increase to nearly 5 million.
  • Chums, a 1 million increase to nearly 17 million.
  • Pink salmon, a whopping increase of 103 million to 142 million fish.
  • King salmon, some 80,000 in regions outside of Southeast Alaska, where the harvest is determined by a treaty with Canada. The all-gear chinook catch for Southeast is projected to be 209,700 fish, 146,000 fewer than last year.

More pink salmon woes

Alaska salmon fishermen hoping for relief funds from last year's failed pink salmon fishery appear to be out of luck.

That pink fishery, the worst in over 40 years, was officially declared a failure in January by former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, setting the stage for fishermen and other stakeholders in Kodiak, the Sound and Lower Cook Inlet to seek disaster assistance from the federal government.

The monetary assistance, however, was not included in last week's huge $1 trillion-plus spending bill approved by Congress to keep the government operating through September. The bill also did not include disaster relief funds for West Coast salmon and crab fisheries. Congress could choose to appropriate the money separately, but the odds of that happening are slim.

Antibiotics turn off

For 20 years, the movement to use the "power of the purse" to promote and reward sustainably managed fisheries has set a global standard for seafood purchases. Today, it's nearly impossible for a company to do business without being officially certified as a source of "Earth-friendly" seafood.

This month another global effort was launched that uses the same strategy to promote new standards for the use of antibiotics in seafood and other animal products.

The Michigan-based National Sanitation Foundation International has tested food products for health and safety since 1944. Its new Raised Without Antibiotics certification program will provide independent verification of claims made on food packages that they are antibiotic-free, including seafood, meats, dairy, eggs, even leather and certain supplements.

The campaign follows a foundation survey last year that showed nearly 60 percent of consumers prefer products free of antibiotics.

That's backed up by a market tracker that operates in 20 countries, interviews 12 million consumers annually and monitors purchase data from more than 165,000 stores.

It says consumers are demanding foods with fewer additives, especially antibiotics, growth hormones and tweaked genes. And they're reading labels like never before.

Antibiotics are widely used in the farmed fish industry, notably in Chile (the largest exporter to the U.S.), which has come under fire for using more than 1 million pounds of antibiotics to ward off a fish virus, according to the National Service of Fisheries and Aquaculture.

What's worse, the commercial fishing website Intrafish reported 50 Chilean salmon companies refused to disclose the amount and type of antibiotics used.

By contrast, Norway, the world's biggest farmed salmon producer, uses about 2,100 pounds of antibiotics, mostly to combat fish lice. Sea lice are the farmed Atlantic salmon industry's most expensive problem, costing around $550 million in lost output each year.

" 'Free from' food labeling guidelines generally apply to products raised in a controlled environment," said Jeremy Woodrow, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

"Salmon in Alaska hatcheries may also receive antibiotics occasionally, but there have been no detectable levels of antibiotics found by the time the salmon are harvested in the ocean," he added.

Good idea grants

Gulf of Alaska groundfish are the subject of some "innovation" grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Fisheries Innovation Fund. The fund is a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Walton Family Foundation.

The grants, totaling $650,000, support projects that help sustain fishermen and coastal communities, promote safety, and support fishery conservation. Although the Gulf has been selected as a target area, the Innovation Fund will consider commercial and recreational proposals in all U.S. fisheries.

Successful projects should include approaches that promote full utilization of catches, minimal bycatch, developing markets, and better using data for fisheries management, according to a foundation statement.

Alaska groups and communities have obtained several Innovation grants in recent years.

  • Sitka’s Fisheries Trust Network, which aims to acquire and keep catch quotas local.
  • The Alaska Marine Conservation Council’s “Every Halibut Counts” project that promotes gentle release methods.
  • The Southeast Alaska Guides Organization for its sport sector catch share project.
  • The Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association and Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association for testing electronic monitoring systems.

Preproposals are due May 25 and invitations for full proposals will be sent June 29. Full proposals are due on Aug. 31 and the award winners will be announced by Nov. 17.

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