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Riding the waves of commercial fishing.

Waves triggered by the tumultuous events of 1991 continued to wash through Alaska's commercial fishing industry last year. But the waves' force was all but spent, and the fleet, instead of rocking violently as the waves passed, bobbed gently in their wake.

For the state-managed fisheries of salmon, herring and crab, 1992 was a year with no strikes or major price disputes, just quiet resignation that the high prices of the 1980s are over and marketing is critical to the well-being of the coastal fleet.

In the federal fisheries, 1992 will be remembered mostly as a year of final decisions -- mostly -- that capped nearly a decade of bitter and divisive discussion. The industry has all but completed its transformation from open-access, first-come-first-served fishing to a tightly controlled business accountable to many masters, from large trawlers to small communities.

A Decent Year for Salmon. Evidence of continued cooling in the Japanese economy bore itself out when salmon fishermen found prices were not as high as they had hoped. Japanese seafood consumers have less money and more choices than in recent years, and farmed salmon from Chile and Norway are making inroads into the market.

In Bristol Bay, where the sockeye run is so big it sets the base price for all five species of Pacific salmon, processors opened the season at $1 per pound -- up slightly from the post-strike prices of 1991 but below fishermen's expectations. A record run to the Egegik District fueled the fourth highest catch ever for the bay and boosted the total value of the catch to $191 million.

Cook Inlet had the most surprising season of 1992. Biologists had predicted an uneventful year, but the sockeyes flooded back in near-record numbers and the fleet earned $105 million. The mighty Kenai River is suffering from excess salmon escapements in the late 1980s, and the next several years are expected to be among the worst ever.

Kodiak fishermen had a good year, too, landing $38 million worth of reds and pinks, but Prince William Sound suffered another miserable year. Not only did pink salmon fetch just 18 cents a pound, but the run failed. Seiners there earned just $5 million, whereas a good year would net the fleet more than $20 million. Southeast Alaska fishermen saw half as many pinks as they did in 1991, landing 34 million.

The middling prices -- an average $1.28 for sockeyes and 16 cents for pinks -- were balanced by relatively good catches statewide, and 1992 will go into the record books as a decent year for Alaska fishermen. They shared $563 million and put 134 million salmon into the refrigerators, freezers and cans of processors.

Volatile Herring, Halibut. Herring fishermen also found prices dwindling last spring, but only partly due to the Japanese economy. Throughout the state, they caught small fish, which bring low prices. Altogether, they caught some $30 million worth. In Togiak, cold weather forced fishermen to wait three weeks to fish, and then they caught the quota in just 20 minutes.

Although halibut openings have shortened due to increased competition and declining stocks, at least fishermen enjoyed high prices. But stiff competition on the markets they once dominated brought prices down in 1992. Prices fell from over $2 to less than $1, and fishermen landed just $47 million worth -- down from almost $100 million in 1991.

The fresh market was submerged by Canadian fish caught under a new individual quota system, which allows boats to fish any time from April to October. The frozen market was flooded with cheap fish caught in Russian waters by huge trawl vessels. So dismal were their prospects that some Alaska fishermen elected not to fish.

Bumper Crab Crop. Crab continues to be the one shining light in state-managed fisheries, again fueled by the astounding catch of opilio, known by seafood shoppers everywhere as "snow crab." The Bering Sea yielded 316 million pounds, and at 60 cents a pound, crabbers took home $167 million. The bairdi crab harvest swelled to 29 million pounds in the Bering Sea, worth $48 million, eclipsing the king crab fisheries that brought only $24 million.

Including the smaller crab fisheries around the state, plus miscellaneous shellfish such as scallops and abalone, Alaska waters bore 374 million pounds of crab worth $252 million.

A Better Year Ahead? The coming year looks to be a mixed bag. The springtime herring harvest could be the highest on record, thanks to an enormous age class of herring just entering the fisheries this year. Herring markets in Japan are weakening, however, both because of the economy and because tastes and traditions are changing.

Salmon fishermen should prepare for another year of high production and meager prices. Preliminary forecasts by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game point to another big year for both sockeyes and pinks, either of which could use a small year to help reduce surpluses and build up market demand. Reds and pinks from Russia could also enter the markets in number this year, further depressing prices for Alaska fishermen.

Crab stocks will show a slight downturn on the Bering Sea, but strong domestic demand is expected to buoy prices.

Halibut populations continue their slow decline in the North Pacific, part of a natural cycle that has been observed for more than 100 years. Catches in 1993 should fall slightly, but fishermen looking for a bright side can hope prices increase as a balance.

Bottomfish Rise to the Top. The bottomfish industry virtually exploded to life in the 1980s in a mad race to "Americanize" the 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Companies built boats as fast as possible. The effect of this Big Bang on the Bering Sea was overcapitalization -- too many boats for the limited amount of fish available.

For the last several years the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has tried to keep the fleet under control, and while the effort was largely successful, there were many bloody noses and blackened eyes in the process.

For the biggest players in the North Pacific, the most difficult issue was that of "inshore allocations." Shoreside processors asked for a fixed percentage of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska harvest, arguing that an unhindered factory trawler fleet would put them out of business, and that as taxpaying Alaskans, they deserved a share of the ocean's bounty. Factory trawlers countered that the council should butt out and let competition sort out survival.

Late in 1991, the council agreed to create an inshore allocation, and in March, the secretary of labor came out in favor of the council. As expected, lawsuits were filed on behalf of the offshore fleet, but so far none has been successful. This year, factory trawlers were limited to 65 percent of the pollock. Another part of that same decision gives Bering Sea coastal communities 7.5 percent of the pollock harvest.

However, the inshore/offshore allocations are only a stop-gap measure and expire in 1995. By then, the council hopes to have a comprehensive management plan in place for all fisheries under its jurisdiction. The most likely is individual fishing quotas, or IFQs.

The factory trawler fleet currently numbers about 70 vessels, and if it was characterized as "overcapitalized" before, the term of choice in 1993 might be "underemployed." The major fishery, pollock, was once open year-round, but now is down to three months, and companies are being creative to keep their boats working.

Some fish for hake off the Oregon coast, although a shoreside allocation was enacted there, too. Some are working in Russian waters, or looking for opportunities in the Southern Hemisphere. Others have started processing salmon in Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay, a move lauded by seiners and gillnetters who want to see more competition for their product.

Sorting Out IFQ Issues. Another big issue nearly laid to rest in 1992 is that of IFQs for the halibut and sablefish (black cod) fleet. The council postponed final approval until its January 1993 meeting, when it will put finishing touches on the two plans and send them to Washington, D.C.

How the proposals will be received by the Clinton administration is a question. The new secretary of commerce may not hold the same economic philosophy as that espoused during the Reagan-Bush era, which held that it was fair to limit entry into the fisheries if -- and only if -- the permits were themselves transferable. A decision to that effect in the early 1980s killed the council's first attempt to limit the halibut fleet and eventually spawned the IFQ proposal.

That question should be resolved in 1993, and although the howls of protest that accompanied all IFQ discussions recently have quieted, opponents may gear up for another battle.

Luckily for the North Pacific council, groundfish stocks are relatively stable in both the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. Recent allocations showed minor changes for 1993. The Bering Sea pollock quota is 1.3 million metric tons, it has been for several years, while the gulf pollock quota rose some 25,000 tons. Pacific cod is the other major fishery, but a slight population drop forced a 10 percent cut in quota for 1993, to 56,700 tons.

Surimi processors, which include both factory trawlers and shoreside plants, have seen prices slide for their pollock-based material due to a worldwide surplus. Pacific cod fillets have dropped in price, too, as Atlantic cod stocks increase and fishing resumes in that region.
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Author:Gay, Joel
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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