Seafood is by far Alaska's top export, and as it heads overseas, global politics play a big role in making sales sink or swim. That dynamic took center stage last week when Russia banned imports of foods for one year from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Norway and Australia in retaliation for sanctions imposed due to its aggressive actions in Ukraine.
It is a direct hit to Alaska, which last year exported nearly 20 million pounds of seafood to Russia, valued at more than $60 million. The primary product it hurts is pink and chum salmon roe; Russia is also a growing market for Alaska pollock surimi.
"After Japan, Russia is our largest market for salmon roe," explained Alexa Tonkovich, international program director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "Japan takes about $125 million worth of salmon roe, and Russia takes about $46 million (over 7 million pounds). The next closest market is China at $20 million. And if you don't have diversified markets for a product, you're in a less powerful negotiating position, and that impacts pricing."
Also in play -- the ban on Norwegian salmon means thousands of tons fish destined for Russia are displaced and have to find a home somewhere.
"And that is either the E.U., the U.S. or possibly China or Brazil," Tonkovich said, "and that impacts pricing for salmon overall."
Russia is Norway's third-biggest salmon buyer -- exports of farmed Atlantics in 2013 approached 300,000 tons, valued at $1.1 billion.
Russia's ban also takes a bite out of Alaska pollock surimi exports, valued at over $8 million in 2013. But that market is much more diversified than Alaska's salmon roe.
"There are good markets in Japan and Europe, and we see potential in Brazil for surimi products. So that may be a bit easier to absorb. The salmon roe is a pretty significant volume, so I see a greater impact for salmon than for pollock." Tonkovich said.
Frozen pink salmon also will be affected, said John Sackton, editor and publisher of Seafood News.
"In 2013, virtually no frozen pinks were sold to Russia, but in 2014 that jumped from less than $250,000 to $3.3 million," Sackton said.
Even before the ban, the troubled political climate had ASMI's international team planning new and expanding market opportunities for Alaska seafood. At this point, Tonkovich said, uncertainty rules the day.
"There is a bit of stress in the seafood industry right now," she said. "Things are in limbo, and it is hard to know how it will play out over time."
Polley wanna panel
The Mount Polley mine tailings disaster in British Columbia quickly prompted both Alaska U.S. senators to urge the State Department for more oversight on mining projects on trans-boundary rivers.
In letters last week to Secretary John Kerry, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich specifically referenced the KSM Mine being built less than 20 miles from Southeast Alaska's border. Plans call for KSM to be seven times larger than Mount Polley, and a similar accident could affect the Taku, Unuk and Stikine Rivers, all major salmon producers.
Murkowski and Begich are calling for a bilateral panel review on KSM and other planned mines that could affect Southeast fish and habitat, and for accelerated U.S. oversight before the B.C. projects are finally approved. The Red Chris mine is in a watershed that drains into the Stikine River near Wrangell; the Tulsequah Chief mine is in the Taku River watershed near Juneau. Meanwhile, Alaska state officials are defending mine regulators in Canada, saying their environmental protection measures are as strong as those in Alaska or the Lower 48. Department of Natural Resources large project permit coordinator Kyle Moselle told the Juneau Empire he believes "the environmental assessment process in Canada is thorough and rigorous." Moselle said the decision about whether Alaska will join the call for a panel review and increased U.S. oversight on the KSM mine will be made by DNR Commissioner Joe Balash, Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig. Moselle said he is reviewing the KSM mine proposal and will submit the state's comments by the Aug. 20 comment deadline.
It takes guts to talk fish
Candidates for Alaska governor will be in the nation's No. 3 fishing port next week to "talk fish" to a statewide audience. Gov. Sean Parnell, Byron Mallott and Bill Walker all were quick to confirm several months ago. Since 1990, Kodiak's Chamber of Commerce has hosted fisheries debates for Alaska governor and U.S. Senate candidates. The debate is limited to a single topic: the seafood industry. As always, the two-hour event will be broadcast live via the Alaska Public Radio Network and streamed by host station KMXT. Check your local radio listings. The "goober" debate (irreverently short for "gubernatorial") is set for Aug. 28 at the Kodiak High School world-class auditorium from 7 to 9 p.m.
Dungies do it!
Crabbers in Southeast Alaska just wrapped up their best summer Dungeness crab season ever. The total catch is pegged at 4 million pounds -- the largest summer harvest since 2002, and a 142 percent increase from 2013. That makes for a nice payday for 150 crabbers who averaged about $3 a pound, up 50 cents from last year. The summer catch adds up to at least $11 million at the docks, making it one of the highest on record. Likewise for Oregon crabbers. Oregon is the nation's leader for dungie deliveries, and that fishery also ended last week. Although the catch appeared to be below average at 14.5 million pounds, the ex-vessel value of nearly $50 million is the highest on record. Seafood.com's John Sackton said that the huge growth of live exports has fueled the dungie market, especially in a year with overall lower volume.
Alaska's most far-flung crab fishery got under way on Aug.15: golden king crab along the Aleutian Islands. It's the state's most stable crab fishery with a conservative harvest each year capped at just over 6 million pounds. The crabbers believe the catch could be higher but there have been few stock surveys due to distance. Starting this year, the fleet is working with managers to undertake the biggest survey ever done on the entire range of the golden crab stock -- an 800-mile span from Dutch Harbor to Atka. It will be several years before the data yields results but experts believe Aleutian goldens could soon overtake Bristol Bay as Alaska's largest king crab fishery.
Help is on the way for Washington state salmon whose migration is blocked by dams or environmental hazards. A company called Whooshh Innovations has come up with a literal fish cannon! Salmon swim into a tube and can be shot more than 500 feet into the air, landing safely in waters upstream. A test run is under way at the Roza Dam 10 miles north of Yakima, with more planned.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at email@example.com.