Business/Economy

Alaska fishing industry writer Laine Welch ends her weekly report after 3 decades

This is my last fish column. The weekly write-up about Alaska’s fishing industry began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News. Since then, subscribership has grown to nearly 20 news outlets across Alaska and nationally.

The goal always has been to make readers aware of the seafood industry’s economic, social and cultural importance to all Alaskans.

Just one extra penny per pound at the docks means millions of dollars more for state coffers! Commercial fishing puts more people to work than any other private industry in Alaska and provides two-thirds of the nation’s wild-caught seafood.

More than 31,000 fishermen are out on the waters each year on about 8,900 vessels, ranging from small skiffs to large catcher-processors topping 300 feet. Most of Alaska’s fishing boats — 84% — measure less than 50 feet. Each boat is a small storefront, an independent business that can support one or more families.

As I leave the fish beat after three decades, here are some top thoughts.

I hope that Alaska can find ways to keep more of its fishing revenues in the state. A 78% share of the $718 million value for all pollock, cod, flounders and other groundfish caught in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska in 2020 went to nonresident vessels.

Fifty-two Alaskans own 31% of the snow crab quota share pool; 200 nonresidents own 66%. Forty-nine Alaskans own 28% of the Bristol Bay red king crab quota; 181 nonresidents own 70%.

Maybe there’s a way that a portion of those catches could be allocated to coastal towns, similar to the community quota program for Western Alaskans. Just sayin’ ...

Likewise, I hope that more salmon permits remain in Alaskan hands. Since Alaska began limiting entry into salmon fisheries in 1975, residents of Bristol Bay communities, for example, now hold less than one-quarter of the region’s salmon permits. And more than 60% of gross earnings from the bay’s driftnet fishery leave the state.

My wish is to see more of every Alaska fish fully utilized.

Nearly all other protein industries around the world use animals “from the rooter to the tooter.” But in Alaska, the fish skins, heads, organs, shells and undervalued species like sculpin or arrowtooth flounder are mostly discarded or ground up and dumped.

Those byproducts could provide a steady Alaska revenue stream of hundreds of millions of dollars from the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, cosmetic and myriad other industries.

For example, an Icelandic company called Kerecis recently was given a third six-figure grant by the U.S. Defense Department to create bandages from cod skins for use by the military. The collagen and omega-3 in the skins provide infection barriers and enable the human body to regrow its own healthy tissues.

I believe Alaska is getting left behind in terms of patented or trademarked “intellectual properties” stemming from things like bioengineering, advanced analytics, decarbonized vessels, robotics and other high-tech industry advances seen in other states and nations.

In Newfoundland, for example, robots that cut and shuck snow crab nabbed a U.S. patent for the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation, and 10 are being issued for other countries.

The robot makers believe the system will help solve workforce problems in remote processing plants where it’s tough to recruit enough workers.

Commercial fishing was Alaska’s first industry and it drove the push to statehood in 1959. As Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens often said: Long after the last drop of oil is taken from our lands, our fisheries will sustain us.

It has been a privilege to be a voice for Alaska’s seafood industry, and I will continue to be. Find fishing updates, prices, market trends and comments at my new blog, still a work in progress: www.alaskafish.news.

Laine Welch | Fish Factor

Kodiak-based Laine Welch writes Fish Factor, a weekly roundup of news and opinion about Alaska's commercial fishing industry that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

Sponsored