By WESLEY LOY
Anchorage Daily News
September 23, 2005
"For Alaska's salmon fisheries to become and remain profitable, we will have to find ways of catching salmon at lower cost and raising the quality and value of the harvests," the report says.
Former Alaska Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer and University of Alaska Anchorage economist Gunnar Knapp, a world salmon authority, authored the study. Ulmer and Knapp work for a UAA think tank, the Institute of Social and Economic Research.
The study notes that the salmon industry has begun to recover modestly from its low point in 2002, when the dockside value of the statewide catch dropped well below $200 million, the lowest tally in decades. Better marketing and new salmon products are part of the reason for the comeback.
But the Alaska industry still has big problems that must be addressed, the study says. Noting that Alaska's salmon fisheries are diverse, with different catching methods and varying degrees of economic health, the study says that generally the industry's costs are too high, with more boats than needed in some areas. Fishermen typically race one another for the available salmon, and that leads to bruised fish, lack of freshness and other quality problems.
And because fish farmers in countries such as Chile, Norway and Canada grow far more salmon than Alaska catches, prices for all salmon have dropped over the years because of abundant supply.
That's been good for consumers, who are eating more salmon than ever, but bad for commercial fishermen.
The study concludes that no state agency has clear authority for restructuring the salmon industry and that changes are likely to trigger clashes between economic and social goals. One example is the Chignik fishery, where efforts to convert the summer sockeye harvest there from a competitive to a cooperative fishery resulted in fewer boats on the water, major crew-job losses, hard feelings over how the revamped fishery operates and lawsuits that remain unresolved.
"It won't be easy to make changes in Alaska's salmon harvesting system," Ulmer and Knapp write. "Not everyone will benefit; some people could end up worse off. But the costs of doing nothing are also high. Thousands of Alaskans have already seen severe losses in fishing income and in boat and permit values, and many have had to quit fishing for salmon."
In the past few years, state and federal lawmakers and agencies have taken steps to revive the salmon industry. Gov. Frank Murkowski, a Republican, has directed distribution of $50 million in federal funds won by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to help struggling fishermen pay their bills, to boost seafood marketing and to encourage new products and technical innovation.
The state also revamped the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which promotes Alaska fish worldwide.
Participants in some fisheries also are looking to shrink their ranks through buyouts or other means, leaving more salmon value for those who remain.
Other developments include a spate of recent national and international media reports extolling the taste, texture and purity of wild salmon compared with farmed salmon.
Jerry McCune, a Copper River salmon gillnetter and president of the trade group Cordova District Fishermen United, said he believes the Ulmer-Knapp report is "a little outdated because things have changed quite a bit" and the need for restructuring has receded.
Sockeye and other salmon species have been abundant in most places this season, prices are up and the new marketing and product development efforts are working, McCune said.
"We're in a pretty good comeback. Fishermen have made money this season. I know they made money here," he said.
McCune, who serves on a state salmon restructuring panel and lobbies in Juneau on behalf of commercial fishermen, questioned the notion that the state lacks focus for making changes. He said the Legislature has addressed needs, such as granting local fishing groups taxing authority to pay for marketing.
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