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Alaska Fish Factor: Pink Salmon Fishermen Await Financial Relief

30 August 2016
 Alaska Fish Factor: Laine Welch Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry for print and broadcast since 1988. She also has worked ‘behind the counter’ in wholesale and retail seafood businesses in Alaska and Cape Cod, MA. Laine lives in Kodiak, Alaska. www.alaskafishradio.com

msfish@alaskan.com
 
 

US - Wheels are already in motion to provide two measures of relief for Alaska’s pink salmon industry, which is reeling from the lowest harvest since the late 1970s.

Representative Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) began the process last week to have the Walker Administration declare the pink salmon season a disaster, which would allow access to federal relief funds.

Pinks are Alaska’s highest volume salmon fishery and hundreds of fishermen depend on the fish to boost their overall catches and paychecks. So far the statewide harvest has reached just 36 million humpies out of a preseason forecast of 90 million. That compares to a catch of 190 million pinks last summer.

“This is the worst salmon year in nearly 40 years, and that’s huge,” she said. “It doesn’t just affect the fishermen – it’s a trickle-down effect on the cannery workers, the processors, and nearly all businesses in the community. It’s a disaster, there’s no other way to describe it.”

Stutes, who chairs the House fisheries committee and is known as a straight talker, said she has gotten very positive response from the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

“They are on it and already moving forward,” Stutes said.

At the same time, she is working with the Division of Investments to allow a “blanket pardon” of state-funded fishermen’s loan payments for this year.

“This would not be a forgiveness, but would add this year’s payment onto the end of the loan period and forgive the loan payment just for this year,” she explained.

The disaster declaration and the loan suspensions “go hand in hand,” Stutes said, “but don’t depend on each other.”

While visiting constituents in Kodiak, Cordova and Yakutat, Representative Stutes said that “literally people are in fear about making mortgage payments and paying their bills. They can’t claim unemployment because they are still employed. There is just no work.”

By week’s end she was awaiting word from Lt. Governor Mallott, who is the Administration’s fishery “point person,” to take the ball and run with it.

But Stutes said the process has already begun and her job is to make sure it keeps moving.

“I’m a squeaky wheel and this is crucial to the resident workers and to people in so many communities. I’ll keep the pressure on so things will move quickly.”

It won’t be the first time a salmon disaster has been declared in Alaska. In 2012, a disaster was declared due to fishery failures on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and in Cook Inlet due to low Chinook salmon returns for that season and in previous years.

Crab con - National surveys show clearly that most Americans want to know where their foods come from. Seafood lovers can easily tell at retail counters where their salmon and other fish choices come from, and if the fish is wild or farmed. That’s due to Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws, which went into effect a decade ago. But the laws do not apply to seafood that has been ‘processed,’ no matter how minimally.

A processed food item is defined as “a retail item derived from a covered commodity that has undergone specific processing resulting in a change in the character of the covered commodity.” Under this definition, “cooking (e.g. frying, broiling, grilled, boiling, steaming, baking, roasting)” is an example of a specific process that results in such a change, meaning those products are exempt from the COOL requirements.

“It was a surprise to all of us who worked very hard to get seafood included in all product forms,” said Mark Vinsel, executive administrator for United Fishermen of Alaska, which represents 35 fishing groups.

The Bering Sea king and snow crab fisheries have been hurt the most by the lack of labeling.
“Since all crab are required to be cooked right after delivery they are exempt,” said Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, a harvester group that catches 70 percent of the Bering Sea crab quota.

The push to exclude products such as canned, pouched or smoked fish and steamed crab, Jacobsen said, came from 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,” he said.

The crabbers believe the public has a right to know where their crab comes from and they have not backed down from the COOL battle.

“Right now when a consumer goes into a grocery store they don’t know if the crab comes from Russia or Newfoundland or Alaska,” Jacobsen said, “and we think that the American consumers will prefer Alaskan product, especially if there is a chance that much of the crab imported from Russia might be illegal.”

A McDowell Group analysis showed that almost 100 million pounds of pirated Russian crab entered the U.S. in 2013, valued at roughly $600 million. An estimated 40 percent of king crab sold in world markets was from illegal Russian harvests.

The situation has improved somewhat due to tighter international regulations, but Jacobsen said the outcomes are too soon to tell.

“There is still illegal crab going into China and Korea and 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,” Jacobsen explained.
Appeals so far to U.S. policy makers have fallen on deaf ears, so crabbers have gone directly to buyers and retailers. HyVee and Publix only source crab from Alaska and Jacobsen hopes more will follow suit.

Meanwhile, the push to get USA labeling on Alaska crab will continue.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It is a big issue to us and very important in the overall program of eliminating illegally caught crab that is imported into the U.S.”

Fishy jobs - Two high visibility fishery related organizations are recruiting for top jobs.

Alaska Sea Grant is seeking a Communications Manager to be based in either Anchorage or Fairbanks. The position oversees a team that works to create public awareness of Sea Grant’s projects, programs and outreach activities across the state. A good understanding of Alaska coastal communities and marine issues is a plus. The position will remain open until filled. Go to www.careers.alaska.edu for more info or to apply.

The second job covers broader terrain – executive director for the nonprofit Seafood Harvesters of America. The group provides a unified voice for U.S. fishermen from all regions. “We need a strong voice in Washington, DC and around the country to educate policy makers and the public about the value of our fisheries, the income, jobs and nutrition they provide and issues that concern commercial fishermen,” it states on its website. The location is flexible although it has traditionally been in Washington, DC. Deadline to apply is September 8.

Seafood champions wanted - The Obama Administration want to honor fishermen and coastal communities that are helping to preserve and protect America’s fishing industry and communities.

“This is your chance to nominate someone you know and admire for contributing to the ongoing recovery of America’s fishing industry and our fishing communities as a White House Champion of Change for Sustainable Seafood,” Obama wrote in a press release.

Nominees may include fishermen who are leaders in promoting sustainable fishing practices, seafood processors, purveyors, chefs and other business owners, community leaders and innovators in the field of mariculture. Visit www.whitehouse.gov/champions and select “Sustainable Seafood” as the theme. Deadline for nominations is September 9.

This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact msfish@alaskan.com

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