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Alaska Fish Factor: Sockeye the Exception in Rough Salmon Season

17 October 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.

US - It was a rough salmon season at most Alaska regions this summer, with Bristol Bay being the big exception. While sockeye catches exceeded expectations, all other species came up short. But salmon stakeholders can take heart that the fish is moving swimmingly to market.

“The demand is there. The world still recognizes that this is the best place to go for the highest quality salmon, including pinks,” said Tyson Fick, Communications Director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

“Sales have been brisk this fall,” added Tom Sunderland, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Ocean Beauty Seafoods. “We expect inventories to be low as we head into next season, and that should create some good market opportunities going forward.”

For pink salmon, Alaska’s shortfall would seem to be made up for by Russia’s huge 200 million humpy haul this summer. But rather than competing with Russian product, most of that pink pack will stay at home.

“The good news is there’s been a push for many years to keep Russian seafood in Russia. So there will be a large portion of that catch taken up in their domestic market,” explained Fick. “We will still see pink salmon going through China and into other markets that are competitive with Alaska fish, but it has potential to hold our space and not get traded out for other species like farmed salmon.”

Alaska pinks and other seafood products are still being hammered by Russia’s ongoing embargo of all products from the US, as well as other nations that two years ago objected to its strong arm actions in the Ukraine. Russia typically bought over $100 million of Alaska seafood each year, mostly pink salmon roe and pollock.

“It also displaced a large amount of Norwegian farmed salmon at the same time because they were caught up in the embargo, so we had to meet them in other markets to move our product. It’s been a sort of musical chairs effect,” Fick added.

In short, overall and early on markets for Alaska wild salmon are looking good.

“More and more people are turned on to wild salmon because they’ve had the opportunity to try it, especially with the huge sockeye harvests, and then two out of four years being record harvests just a few years back,” Fick said. “We now have a larger target market to shoot for to introduce them to the good stuff.”

The public is invited to learn more about markets for Alaska salmon and all other species at ASMI’s “All Hands on Deck” meeting. October 25-27 at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage.

Crabbers hope for more - Bering Sea crabbers headed out on October 15 for a bleak season, with catch quotas slashed and no opener at all for bairdi Tanners. But they could catch a break this week from fishery managers who might allow pots to drop in one of two Tanner fishing districts.

“It’s going to be a tough year. We’ll likely see record prices for our crab but the quotas are so low it won’t make up for it,” said Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-cooperative Exchange, which represents 75 percent of the 90 boat crab fleet.

For Bristol Bay red king crab, the quota of eight million pounds is down 15 percent, snow crab was slashed by nearly half to 21 million pounds. And the bairdi Tanner crab fishery, which for several years has been on an upward tick and produced 20 million pounds last year, was closed due to low showings of female crabs during the summer surveys. That’s a huge disappointment, Jacobsen said, because the Tanners were really taking off at national restaurant and grocery chains.

“Our main effort was to differentiate bairdi and to educate the market that it wasn’t just a big snow crab. It is a distinct crab with a very unique flavor profile. The taste is preferable among Bering Sea fishermen over any other crab they catch,” Jacobsen explained.

When Tanner crab came back on the market four years ago after being closed for rebuilding, it quickly gained popularity and last year fetched a better poundage price than snow crab at $2.97 and $2.73, respectively.

“We saw the price differential increase and bairdi becoming a premium product in the marketplace and our efforts were really paying off. So it’s a huge set back not to have some bairdi available,” he added.

Customers will still clamor for Alaska crab, said ASMI’s Fick.

“It’s one of the most highly sought after seafood products in the world,” Fick said. “Anytime you see big reductions in the quota and conservative management to shut down the fisheries, it hurts butat the same time, it reflects the sustainable management that our whole program is built on.”

Meanwhile, the crabbers believe the Tanners are still out there but have moved from the standardized summer survey areas. They are pushing for a Tanner opener in one fishing area where numbers of female crabs were above a minimum threshold for a fishery.

“Biologically, there should’ve been a season in the western district and there is a slim possibility that we will see a fishery at some point in time this year,” said Jacobsen.

At a work session this week in Soldotna, the state Board of Fisheries may discuss a petition to do just that, said Mark Stichert, regional supervisor at the Department of Fish and Game office in Kodiak.

“They can deny the request and support the season closure; call for an analysis and make a determination on their own timeline; or transition the petition into a board generated proposal and take it up at one of their meetings already scheduled for this cycle,” Stichert explained. “Options 2 and 3 could still result in a fishery this year if that is the desire of the board.”

The combined Bering Sea crab fisheries last season were valued at nearly $245 million at the Alaska docks.

Cukes vs. otters - Sea cucumbers are the most valuable of Alaska’s dive fisheries, especially in Southeast. Annual October harvests there hover around one million pounds and attract nearly 200 divers, who will fetch between $4 to $5 a pound for their pickings.

The harvest used to approach two million pounds but sea otters have cleaned out cukes in many areas over the past decade.

“None of the areas have recovered. It’s not like the otters come in and move on and the population rebounds. The otters stay. We’ve lost on an annual basis between 500,000 to 600,000 pounds of product and the trend is downward,” said Phil Doherty, director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association (SARDFA) in Ketchikan.

Sea otters were wiped out by the fur trade at the turn of the 20th century and the state reintroduced about 400 animals to Southeast waters in the 1960s. Doherty pegs the otter population today at well over 30,000, based on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data, and added that they multiply at a rate of about 12 percent each year.

Kodiak is also seeing a big increase in sea otters but it’s not clear if they’re biting into the much smaller sea cucumber fishery. The harvest there is 140,000 pounds with 24 divers.

“We have a lot of talk by the fleet about the numbers of otters, even right here in the harbor, that no one remembers seeing years ago,” said Nat Nichols, area manager at the Dept. of Fish and Game in Kodiak. He added that there are reports of otters eating sea cucumbers, Dungeness and Tanner crabs, but nothing yet shows the animals are a cause of any stock declines.

The state’s otter management hands are tied as the animals are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. Otters can be hunted by Alaska natives and Doherty said about 1,500 were taken last year.

“Provisions within the Act allow Alaska natives to harvest sea otters, but they can’t just sell the pelts on the fur market. They have to turn it into a native handicraft. So it’s one otter at a time,” he said.
Economists estimate otters have eaten more than $30 million of Southeast crab, cukes, urchins and clams since 1995.

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