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Ship to shore.


THE CONGREGATION OF FISH OFF THE SHORES OF Alaska supports one-sixth of the state's economy, employs 20,000 of its people, pays them more than the average wage, and still may be the least understood of Alaska's resources.

What's the difference between a Ketchikan troller and a Kodiak trawler? What can a Kachemak Bay shellfish farmer learn from a Bristol Bay gillnetter? How can an investor determine when the flatfish market will soar and the surimi market go flat? And how can fisheries managers set quotas that will be fair to both 500-foot surimi factory ships and 50-foot drag boats?

This primer to the Alaska commercial fish business is an introduction to this many-legged creature that is Alaska's largest private industry. The seafood business is too complex and ornery to be described well in one piece, or in one lifetime. This is only a sketch, merely the hallway light to a wing of Alaska's economic structure that is substantial and enduring, yet always under construction.

The seafood industry is Alaska's largest private employer, second only to defense employment. A report published last year that compiles and analyzes seafood industry economic data is the Alaska Seafood Industry Study, prepared by The McDowell Group of Juneau for the Alaska Seafood Industry Study Commission. It notes that seafood revenues produced nearly $600 million in payroll in 1987, a figure that was expected to have increased in 1988 and 1989. The average monthly wage is $2,582, slightly higher than the average wage for any other industry in the state.

The ex-vessel value of Alaska's seafood was estimated at $1.1 billion in 1987. Ex-vessel refers to the value of uncleaned fish sold by the harvester to the processor. The wholesale value of Alaska's seafood is estimated at about $3 billion.

Between $3.7 billion and $4.3 billion is invested in the fish business in Alaska. Half of this is invested in vessels and on-board equipment, 25 percent in permits and 25 percent in processing plants and equipment. Fishermen themselves spend about $190 million per year on goods and services in Alaska, and processors spend $90 million.

But the importance of Alaska's seafood industry to the state, and to the world, goes far beyond any economic assessment report. Alaska produces 46 percent of our nation's seafood, and 2 percent of the world's supply. If Alaska was an independent nation, it would be the world's 11th largest seafood supplier. Even so, only about 30 percent of the tonnage landed ends up as food or feed for the world's markets. The rest - skins, heads, bones and offal-has yet to become the profitable by-products that it potentially could be.


The fish business in Alaska has matured through three ages: early territorial days, the first 20 years of statehood and the age of Americanization. Salmon was Alaska's first commercial species, starting with the first canneries in 1878. By 1929, there were 159 canneries in Alaska, most of them owned by Seattle-based companies.

In those early days, Alaska's fisheries were managed federally from a distance. Fish traps were legal; canneries sometimes exploited their workers and overexploited the resource; and some fisheries were depleted.

Entrepreneurial creativity reigned supreme in those days. Some of the best legends and important technical history on which our fisheries are based came out of the territorial days of Alaska. And it was in these nascent days of the industry that Seattle established itself as the capital of the Alaska fishing industry.

Statehood brought hands-on fishery management of nearshore waters. For the first time, Alaskans were responsible for managing their own resource. During the first decades of statehood, the salmon resource plunged to an all-time low. Limited entry was instituted for salmon fishing, and other management programs were established for commercial fisheries within three miles of shore. By 1985, salmon harvests had rebounded to 147 million fish.

The third age of Alaska's fisheries began in 1976, when Congress passed the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act. This act established U.S. fisheries management control over all high-seas fisheries between 3 and 200 miles off shore. Americanization of those fisheries has followed; that is, foreign fishing has been phased out, and domestic fishing and processing has progressively increased.

Today, only a portion of bottomfish off the coast of Alaska is harvested by foreign fishermen. The rest, billions of pounds of pollock, cod, sablefish and other valuable species, are harvested by U.S. fishermen who either deliver their catch to shore or process at sea. Bottomfish contributes about 30 percent of the total ex-vessel value of seafood off Alaska. Salmon contributes 42 percent, shellfish 19 percent and halibut 6 percent.


Alaska's five species of salmon attract the most attention, earn the most money, and involve the most people. There are nearly 9,000 active salmon fishing permits. The 1988 total ex-vessel value of salmon was a record $742 million. Salmon is probably hardest of all the fisheries to put a finger on. There are 26 different salmon fisheries in 12 regions of the state, stretching from Dixon Entrance near the Canadian border to Point Hope in the Chukchi Sea.

King salmon, of course, are the largest and most valuable, averaging 19 pounds and bringing from 90 cents to $3 a pound. White king salmon primarily come from Southeast Alaska. It's light-colored meat is lower-priced but tastes just as good as red king salmon.

Sockeye, or red salmon, contribute the most value to the salmon fishery. Harvested throughout Alaska, red salmon average 6 pounds and usually are sold frozen or fresh. Few red salmon are canned any more.

Cohos, or silver salmon, are fished with every gear type in every district but are primarily targeted by the Southeast troll fleet. Most coho are frozen for smoking or for steaks.

Chum salmon average 8 pounds and are caught in every area by nearly every gear type. They usually are canned, though increasing amounts are smoked or sold fresh. Pink salmon are more numerous, lower in value, and more likely to end up in a can than any of the salmon species. Pink salmon recently have received attention from companies interested in enhancing their value. The popular, skinless, boneless, canned salmon made by Van Camp's uses pink salmon.

Halibut has been commercially fished in Alaska since the first Puget Sound longline schooners ventured north to Alaska in 1910. It's a complex fishery that is difficult to manage because, unlike most of Alaska's fish, halibut migrate in and out of U.S. waters. For this reason, they are managed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, a group of U.S., Canadian and Japanese fishery overseers who set quotas and policies for the fishery.

Halibut has had a spotted history in Alaska. Harvests peaked in 1962 at 75 million pounds but declined to 21 million pounds in the late 1970s. The 1989 harvest was 52 million pounds, valued at $65 million. But far from solving the halibut problem, the success of the fishery may be the cause of its own troubles.

As more boats join competition for the quota, seasons get shorter. Through the 1970s, the halibut fishery was harvested by a fleet of about 200 schooners, but the 1988 season saw 3,500 vessels. Last year there were 7,000 boats setting 40 to 60 skates of 1,800 feet, with individually baited hooks spaced every four feet. Each boat set 10 to 15 miles of gear during each of the 24-hour openings. This means enough longline is set in each 24-hour halibut opening to encircle circle the Earth two times.

The problems on the fishing grounds are enormous: Gear gets tangled and lost; crew members work hard and fast for 24 hours straight; the crowded grounds cause safety problems; and the market suffers from sudden gluts followed by long periods of scarcity. A limited-entry program designed to decrease the halibut fleet and extend the seasons, may be considered in the future.

Limited entry is also being considered for another deep-water fish, the blackcod, or sablefish, which despite its name is not related to the cod family. Blackcod is another longline fishery that has seen tremendous increases in fishing pressure in recent years. The most valuable of all the bottomfish fisheries off Alaska, the blackcod harvest supports the largest fleet (700 boats), feeds the most processors (25) and commands the highest ex-vessel value of all bottomfish off Alaska. Blackcod are fished in Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea, as well as down the Pacific Coast to Southern California.

The shellfish fisheries include king, Tanner, snow and Dungeness crab; shrimp; and scallops. About 3,800 skippers and crew pursue the valuable Alaskan shellfish. Crabs are caught in pots; scallops are harvested by dredges; shrimp are caught either in pots or trawls.

Shellfish farming is the only aquaculture activity allowed in Alaska. Oysters are the primary aquaculture crop - 10,000 pounds are harvested a week in Alaska. There are also mussel, oyster and kelp farms scattered around Southeast and Southcentral Alaska.

Herring is a valuable near-shore fishery that is divided into three elements. Seine boats target non-spawning herring for use as food or bait. Seiners and gillnetters both harvest the sac-roe fishery before spawning season, targeting nearly mature roe still inside the female. The roe-on-kelp fishery produces a small but growing harvest of kelp or seaweed on which herring have spawned. The kelp, coated with white herring eggs, is sold primarily on the Japanese market. The total ex-vessel value of the herring fishery is about $40 million per year.

Bottomfish have made a lot of headlines in the past few years. Bottomfish, or groundfish, includes pollock, cod, blackcod, perch, rockfish, Atka mackerel, squid and flatfish. The biomass is clearly dominated by pollock, which makes up 70 percent of the bottomfish mix.

Alaska's bottomfish boom has brought an explosion of domestic harvests since 1981, when most of the 1.5 million metric tons of bottomfish off Alaska were harvested by foreign fishermen. In 1988, U.S. fishermen harvested almost all of the 2.3 million metric tons of bottomfish taken off Alaska.

The most dramatic growth has been in the factory trawler fleet, the group of large-scale vessels geared to harvest and process fish at sea. Factory trawlers, each representing $30 million to $50 million in investment, have increased from just a few in 1984 to 53 in 1989. The largest factory trawler is the 680-foot Ocean Phoenix, owned by Pro-Fish International. The converted $70 million vessel previously was an American President Lines freighter.

Americanizing the bottomfish fishery has brought Alaska significant economic benefits, but most of the big companies involved are based Outside. The at-sea processing fleet, primarily based in Seattle, comes to Alaska to take fish. Although the vessel operators purchase fuel and other supplies and occasionally request shoreside assistance, they hire most of the fleet's workers and spend most of its money outside Alaska. Even the majority of shore-based plants in Kodiak and Dutch Harbor, the two primary bottomfish ports in Alaska, are owned or controlled by outside interests.

Flatfish is the newest of Alaska's fisheries and represents the last sizeable, untapped fish resource. Until three years ago, flatfish were not processed at all by local processors, but were taken only in joint-venture operations with foreign processors.

In 1987, some fishermen and processors began investigating the profit potential of the huge flatfish resource (387,500 metric tons of harvestable flatfish in the Gulf of Alaska; 751,600 in the Bering Sea). With a technical assistance grant from Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, Eagle Fisheries of Kodiak began full-scale commercial production of flatfish fillets in 1988. There are now 10 boats delivering flatfish to three shore plants in Kodiak. One plant processes more than one million pounds per month in peak seasons.



Alaska's fisheries are roaring into the new decade with a mix of hope and trepidation. A tangle of issues facing fishermen, processors and fishery managers will determine how the industry will fare in the 21st Century. Most of the decisions ahead will affect the health of the fish stocks, the ecological balance of major habitats, profitability, and the conduct of fishermen and processors.

For fishermen, there are three primary concerns. Salmon fishermen are worried about finfish aquaculture coming to Alaska. Already beat out of some markets by salmon farmed in Norway, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, Alaskan salmon fishermen don't want to see competition coming from their own back yards. Salmon producers have invested 10 years and millions of dollars to promote the mystique of wild Alaska salmon from the cold, pristine waters of the North. Many of them say they don't want to lose market share to Alaska-farmed Atlantic salmon, particularly if there is a chance that farmed salmon could contaminate or spread disease to wild stocks.

Fishermen everywhere are worried about by-catch. In nearly every fishery, a working net, longline or pot will come up with species other than the ones fishermen haul up crab, rockfish and other species in seine nets. Trawl nets targeting pollock or cod catch nearly everything in their path: halibut, crab, blackcod, salmon.

These not-targeted species are called by-catch. Each fishery intrudes on another in some way, and in 1989, the entire bottom trawl fishery in the Gulf of Alaska was shut down for the year on Sept. 2, because trawlers had harvested more than 2,000 tons of halibut as by-catch.

The most important by-catch in Alaska may be the Northern sea lion. Virtually every fishery in the state affects the sea lion's habitat, and their stocks have depleted seriously in the past few years. If the Northern sea lion is declared an endangered species, all fisheries that affect the mammal or its habitat-a major portion of Alaska's fisheries-could be shut down or curtailed.

Fishermen in Alaska are taking the by-catch issue seriously. The industry has strongly supported an on-board observer program for the trawl fleet that began this year to monitor catches and by-catch and to provide data to help fishermen avoid by-catch of all kinds. Gear modifications, fishing areas and harvesting methods are all being looked at to help to solve the by-catch problem.

The third issue of concern to fishermen-and to everyone in the fisheries-is stock assessment. For years, Southeast Alaska fishermen have feared that salmon that spawn in Southeast streams and rivers were being illegally intercepted on the high seas by foreign high-seas gillnetters.

Last year marked some milestone in the effort to halt high-seas salmon interception. Fishermen, federal agents and politicians joined forces to search for reliable data on how much salmon was being illegally caught and where it was being sold. Several salmon pirates were arrested, and the United States signed treaties with Japan, Korea, and Taiwan providing for better prevention of illegal high-seas salmon harvests. But how much these interceptions have affected the stocks of Southeast salmon isn't known.

Pollock stocks are the big concern in the Bering Sea. There, an area called the Donut Hole - a spread of international waters that lies between the 200-mile limits of the United States and the Soviet Union - is being heavily fished by foreign fishermen recently displaced from U.S. waters.

The present harvest of bottomfish from the Bering Sea is two million metric tons. It's estimated that an additional two million metric tons are harvested out of the Donut Hole every year. But there is no data collected in international waters. Harvest levels go unchecked, and nobody knows how much these high catches on the high seas affect the pollock stocks in U.S. waters. Meanwhile, the pollock resource in the Bering Sea, once thought to be vast and nearly unexploitable, is declining fast.

Fishermen and processors both are concerned with how the fish are used once they're delivered to shore or mothership. Full utilization of the fish has raised a lot of dander at recent meetings of the NorthPacific Fishery Management Council. The issue is one of the most complex - and intriguing - to come before the industry.

The council banned roe stripping, the practice of extracting roe from female fish and discarding the rest of the fish, including all males. Roe stripping was considered a gross waste of the resource. But pollock roe brings a higher price than fillets, surimi or blocks combined, and round-to-finished weight yields were 18 percent-as high as in surimi production. If roe strippers were using the same amount of the fish, and getting high prices for it, should it be considered waste?

The question of roe stripping has led the industry to consider its own definition of responsible use of fish. Right now processors use about 30 percent of the total fish. That means that in the Bering Sea alone, nearly 700,000 metric tons of fish material, including heads, viscera, skin, bone frames and non-fillet meat, is discarded every year.

One of the top priorities of fish producers in Alaska is to develop new uses for this discarded material and new ways to process it. Several plants already have included meal and oil production in their processing lines. One plant in Kodiak is looking into processing cod heads to recover valuable cod cheek meat.

Bottomfish generally aren't as big as salmon, so their skins may not be usable in wallets and belts, as salmon skins are now used. But there are myriad potential uses for the material now discarded by Alaska's seafood industry.

One of the industry's representatives in developing new uses for fish material is the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. Based in Anchorage, the industry-supported foundation now is investigating commercial production of fish hydrolysate, a high-quality, refined protein paste made by centrifuging fish waste.

The foundation also sponsors product development studies to create new uses for underdeveloped species and products. In April, the foundation will sponsor an international fish by-products symposium in Anchorage. Speakers from all over the world will share technology for producing valuable food, feed and medical products from the parts of fish now thrown away in Alaska.

The Alaskan fishing industry is a motley community of small-boat fishermen and mega-trawlers, of family set-netters and international trading companies. The seas around Alaska, and the rivers that feed them, serve up a full banquet of profits and problems to nearly everyone involved.

In the 1980s, the commercial fishing industry demonstrated its powerful capacity to harvest and process more fish than nature can provide. The 1990s will determine how well the industry can temper technology with responsibility and create profits from the sea's plenty that will last for centuries to come.

PHOTO : A fisherman handles blackcod harvested with longlining gear, a long series of hooks attached to a single line.

PHOTO : Processing line workers hand-fillet cod in Western Alaska. The seafood industry is Alaska's largest private employer.
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Title Annotation:includes glossary of fishing gear; Alaska's fishing industry
Author:Holmes, Krys
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:glossary
Date:Mar 1, 1990
Previous Article:Taxing tourists.
Next Article:Fates upon the waters.

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