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Business/Economy

A closer look at the value of Alaska’s seafood industry

Fishing boats travel in Nushagak Bay on July 12, 2016. (Molly Dischner / The Bristol Bay Times)

Alaska's fishing fleet of 9,400 vessels would span nearly 71 miles if lined up from bow to stern.

And Alaska's fishing industry catches and processes enough seafood each year to feed every person on the planet one serving, or a serving for each American every day for more than a month.

Those are just a few of the fish facts highlighted in the annual "Economic Value of Alaska's Seafood Industry" report compiled by the McDowell Group for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

The report breaks down the numbers of fishermen, processors, species caught, values and more by region.

Here are some highlights:

– The Alaska fishing industry employs about 56,800 workers, more than half of whom are commercial fishermen.

– Thirty-six percent of Alaska resident fishermen live in Southcentral Alaska — home to Anchorage, Homer, Kenai and Cordova — more than in any other region.

– Most of Alaska's fishing boats are between 23 and 49 feet in length.

– Southeast Alaska residents own the most fishing vessels, at nearly 2,700, and they also own more fish quota shares than any other region.

– Seafood processing is the largest manufacturing sector in Alaska, accounting for 72 percent of manufacturing employment, according to the report. Processing includes 169 shore-based plants, 73 catcher-processors and more than a dozen floating processors.

– At Kodiak, seafood accounts for nearly 40 percent of all jobs, and 48 percent of all processing workers are year-round residents, the highest percentage in the state.

– Salmon accounts for the greatest economic impact in terms of jobs, value and income, with pollock a close second. Alaska pollock is the largest single-species U.S. fishery by volume.

– Seafood is by far Alaska's top export – more than 2 billion pounds went to 105 countries in 2016, valued at more than $3 billion. Exports account for about two-thirds of the sales value, with the rest going to U.S. markets.

– Alaska provided 44 percent of the world's supply of pollock in 2016, 14 percent of the world's salmon, 16 percent of the global supply of cod and 29 percent of the global supply of crab.

– Since statehood in 1959, Alaska's seafood industry has harvested nearly 170 billion pounds of seafood. The largest harvest was in 2015, topping 6 billion pounds.

– Of the numerous fishery taxes and fees, 40 percent goes to state coffers ($58 million in 2016), and 31 percent goes to local governments where the fish was landed.

Sign-up for electric monitoring system

The deadline to sign up to use electronic monitoring systems next year instead of human observers to track catches is fast approaching. It applies to boats using longline and pot gear, but preference is given to vessels that are between 40 and 60 feet in length.

"If you don't get in by the Nov. 1 deadline, you will not be eligible," said Malcolm Milne, president of the Homer-based North Pacific Fisheries Association, which for several years has helped develop the electronic monitoring system in Alaska.

In trials, the video cameras proved they could track and identify more than 95 percent of the species required for fishery management decisions, and by many accounts, the system is easy to use.

"Once your boat is wired, you just turn the cameras on and they record everything coming over the rails," Milne said. "When the set is done, the camera is off, and at the end of your trip, you mail in the hard drive to be reviewed. It took a trip or two to get used to the system, but after that you don't even realize it's there."

Also easy, he said, is signing up, which takes about 10 minutes.

"Anyone who is participating in the observer program already has a user name and password. You can go online and click on a button to opt in to EM, and after a couple of quick questions, you're done," he said.

Even better, the electronic monitoring systems come at no cost to users.

"It all comes out of the 1.25 percent North Pacific observer fee, so we are paying indirectly, but there is no additional cost for having the electronic monitoring installed," Milne said.

So far about 110 longline and pot boats have signed on to the program, which will only cover as many boats as funding allows.

Register before Nov. 1 by phone at 1-855-747-6377 or online at the Observer Declare and Deploy System.

Knowing where your crab comes from

Bering Sea crab fisheries opened Oct. 15, and eager markets await the first deliveries of snow, Tanner and red king crab.

While national surveys show that most Americans want to know where their foods come from, they won't know when it comes to Alaska crab.

Customers can easily tell at retail counters where their salmon, cod and other fish choices was caught, and if the fish is wild or farmed. That's due to Country of Origin Labeling laws, which went into effect more than a decade ago. But the laws do not apply to seafood that has been "processed," no matter how minimally.

"There is an exemption in the COOL laws for products that are cooked or otherwise altered – steamed, canned, things like that – and since crab are required to be cooked right after delivery, they are not included," said Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, a harvester group that catches 70 percent of the Bering Sea crab quota.

"When a consumer goes into a grocery store, they don't know if the crab comes from Russia or Newfoundland or Alaska. We think that American consumers will prefer Alaskan product and there are good reasons for that," he added.

The push to exclude products that are canned, pouched, smoked or steamed stemmed from a push by the U.S. tuna fleet.

"All we wanted to do was carve out crab, but they had a much more powerful lobby than we did," Jacobsen said.

Some crabbers think the public has a right to know, especially since some of the crab imported into the U.S. from Russia is illegally caught. In past years, an estimated 40 percent of king crab sold in world markets was from pirated Russian harvests. Jacobsen said the situation has improved but the crab import data can be deceiving.

"There is still poached crab going into China and Korea and then finding its way into the U.S. But there is no way to tell if it's legal or not because there is no traceability requirement," he said.

Crabbers have taken their case directly to U.S. buyers and retailers, and several, including HyVee and Publix, only source their crab from Alaska. Meanwhile, Jacobsen said the push to get U.S. labeling on Alaska crab will continue.

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