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Big harvest, small payoff for Alaska's 2015 salmon fishing season

Alaska's 2015 salmon season produced the second-largest harvest ever, but rock-bottom prices yielded the lowest payout to fishermen since 2006. That will cut into the tax base of Alaska's coastal communities as well as the state, which collects half of all fish-landing taxes.

Preliminary tallies from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game show that the statewide salmon catch topped 263 million fish — the 2013 record is 273 million — with a dockside value of $414 million, a 28 percent decrease from last year.

The salmon dollar values don't include postseason bonuses or price adjustments. Using ex-vessel dockside figures also chronically undervalues the Alaska salmon fishery, because what is paid at the docks represents only 40 percent of the fishery's value.

"First wholesale prices are a better indicator," said Andy Wink, a fisheries economist with the Juneau-based McDowell Group. "That is typically defined as the value of the product when it leaves Alaska."

The most valuable salmon fishing region — and one of just three regions to show an uptick — was Prince William Sound. The total catch was valued at $118 million, compared to $104 million a season ago. A record pink salmon haul of more than 98 million fish pushed the region to the top spot.

Bristol Bay ranked second in terms of salmon fishery value at nearly $95 million. But due to 50-cents-a-pound reds, that's down from $196 million.

Southeast Alaska also experienced a huge salmon value decrease to just over $89 million, a $58 million drop.

Kodiak, at $37 million, dropped from $46 million last season.

Cook Inlet and the Alaska Peninsula fishermen both hauled in $30 million worth of salmon this summer. For the Inlet, that was a drop of $7 million; conversely, it was nearly a $3 million increase at the Peninsula. The only other Alaska region to see a boost in salmon values was Norton Sound at $1.9 million, up slightly from last year.

The value of the Kuskokwim region's salmon fishery was just $870,000, compared to $2.2 million; it was $2.7 million at the Yukon, down slightly, and $826,000 at Kotzebue, a drop from nearly $3 million last season.

Below are the average 2015 Alaska dock prices per salmon species, with last year's prices in parentheses:

• Chinook: $3.01 ($4.07);

• Sockeye: 71 cents ($1.37);

• Coho: 65 cents ($1.15);

• Pink: 20 cents (30 cents);

• Chum: 48 cents (60 cents).

Flushed drugs harm fish

The U.S. health industry each year flushes thousands of tons of unused pharmaceuticals down sink drains and toilets. Now, the federal government is getting ready to turn off the spigot.

An investigative report by the Associated Press called "Health care industry sends tons of drugs into nation's wastewater system," revealed that few of the nation's hospitals or long-term care homes keep data on the drugs they dump. Some are incinerated, some goes to landfills, but most are flushed, without violating any regulations.

One thing is clear: traces of the medicines persist through wastewater treatment systems and are discharged into surface or ground waters.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the annual amount of waste pharmaceuticals flushed down sinks and toilets at more than 6,400 tons. Last year the EPA added pharmaceuticals to its list of "major pollutants of concern" and is now proposing to ban the flushing practice altogether. (http://water.epa.gov/scitech/swguidance/ppcp/)

Pharmaceuticals and another related culprit — personal-care products — began raising red flags in the mid-2000s when chemical traces were increasingly found in surface waters and sediments. In a first-ever nationwide assessment of 524 urban rivers done in 2008-09, the EPA found seven pharmaceuticals in fish tissue samples, mostly antihistamines and antidepressants. (http://water.epa.gov/scitech/cec/upload/cec_ppcp.pdf)

Alaska has begun some freshwater testing, too, with little data so far, said State Veterinarian Bob Gerlach. No marine sampling has been done.

"We have a small program with just two people so we rely on partners in the field to collect most of our samples," he added.

The public has until Dec. 18 to comment on the EPA plans to ban the flushing of pharmaceuticals down toilets and drains. (http://www2.epa.gov/hwgenerators)

Pollock or Alaska pollock?

The U.S. Senate last week unanimously passed the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act of 2015. It includes the international Port State Measures Act, which will bar suspected pirate fishing vessels and cargo ships from entering ports and offloading illegal catches. The bill now heads to the president's desk.

Also in Congress: Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Washington, introduced legislation to change the market name of "Alaska pollock" to "pollock." Under current FDA labeling standards, pollock caught in any part of the world can be labeled as "Alaska pollock."

"There's no reason why foreign-caught pollock should be disguised as Alaskan, especially given the significant management efforts we've taken in the North Pacific to create the most sustainable fishery in the world," Young said.

Elsewhere:

• Scott Kelley of Juneau has been named the new director of the Commercial Fisheries Division, replacing Jeff Regnart, who resigned earlier this month. Kelley is a 25-year Fish and Game veteran, and most recently coordinator for shellfish and groundfish fisheries in Southeast Alaska.

• Alexa Tonkovich has been named executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Tonkovich has been with the institute since 2009, most recently as International Program Director. Prior to that, she was Asia and emerging markets manager for the institute.

• United Fishermen of Alaska is seeking a new executive director to replace Julianne Curry, who is stepping down. UFA is the nation's largest commercial fishing trade group, representing 35 member groups.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist . Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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