By Laine Welch
January 08, 2008
But it is at this time of year - the dead of winter - when Alaska's largest fisheries get underway. On January 1, boats using hook and line, pot and jig gear begin plying the icy waters of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea for cod, rockfish and other groundfish. Then on January 20th trawlers take to the seas to target Alaska pollock, the world's largest food fishery.
Late February or early March sees the start of the eight month halibut and sablefish (black cod) seasons. March also marks the start of Alaska's roe herring circuit, usually at Sitka Sound, followed by fisheries for several months all the way to Norton Sound.
And although wild king salmon
are available nearly year round thanks to Southeast trollers,
mid May marks the 'official' start and hoopla of Alaska's salmon
season with the runs of kings and reds at Copper River. Salmon
fisheries from Ketchikan to Kotzebue take center stage all summer
and into the fall. That's followed by mid-October openers for
Bering Sea crab fisheries. And so it goes. Close to 5 billion
pounds of fish and shellfish cross Alaska's docks each year,
valued at over $1 one billion.
"Obviously, more will be paid when the crab is sold," said Greg White, negotiator for the crabbers' Inter Cooperative Exchange (ICE) which represents about 70% of the king and snow crab caught in the Bering Sea.
The 2008 snow crab quota is 63 million pounds, nearly double last year's catch.
"We think there was a better price to be had, but like the processors, we're eager to go fishing and get the crab caught," White said.
Alaska crabbers want to get
the jump on the giant Eastern Canada fishery, which begins in
April and produces nearly 200 million pounds of snow crab into
U.S. and overseas markets. Alaska provides roughly 10 percent
of the world's snow crab.
"We're seeing strong pulses that are very wide spread, not just around Kodiak, but further south along the Peninsula and at Chignik as well. So it's very promising for fisheries a couple of years down the road," said fishery manager Nick Sagalkin.
Managers said high prices for
pot cod means less interest in the local crab fishery, and fewer
than 50 boats could participate. Nearly all of the bairdi crab
is sold to Japan, which is a very discerning market.
Managers said most of the Kodiak crab has been looking really good in recent years. That's not the case for Bering Sea bairdi, which has seen a mix of sizes and off-colors since the fishery reopened in 2005 after a seven year closure. The catch has been ratcheting upwards to five million pounds this year.
"It is like a developmental fishery. When the Japanese first heard it was open again everyone was excited because they had visions of what they had ten years ago. That didn't material and there's been a lot of variability," Sackton said. "So far the growing conditions in the Bering Sea have not been totally ideal, so the stock is still kind of feeling its way."
Still, Bering Sea crabbers are averaging $1.62 a pound for bairdi, up from $1.29 last year. Kodiak crabbers averaged $1.78 a pound last year, up from $1.40 in 2006. If the crab is still looking good, Sackton predicts it will find a ready market.
"It's not something that's
really sold that much under its own name in the US market because
it hasn't been available in big quantities. So it tends to be
a specialized market. But I think there is very good prospects
for crab of top quality. That's the key and if the Kodiak
crab is bright and clean, it will be a high value premium crab."
An economic squeeze is taking its toll on the seafood trade but demand at home and abroad is keeping business afloat. But profits this year may be another story, as the U.S. economy flirts with recession, said Seafood Trend's Ken Talley. Dwindling supplies of some favorites could force steep price increases for seafood compared to competing proteins, like chicken and beef.
Wholesale prices for all commodities saw a nine percent increase last year. High energy costs are expected to fuel another three percent rise in consumer prices in 2008.
Wholesale fish prices gained 11 percent last year, with flounder and cod prices up more than 20 percent, pollock up nearly 7 percent and halibut up almost 6 percent. Conversely, crab prices dropped by nearly 13.5 percent. Fresh fish saw the biggest gains at retail counters, up nearly 6 percent, thanks to sales of salmon, halibut and groundfish.
Frozen seafood prices saw a 3.6 percent increase last year, compared to just two tenths of a percent in 2006. The USDA predicts that overall, seafood prices will advance 3.5 percent this year.
A nose dive in the value of the U.S. dollar will continue to be a big factor in the fish business, Talley said. At year's end the dollar depreciated six percent against the Chinese yuan and five percent against the Euro. Economist Gunnar Knapp at the Univ. of Alaska/Anchorage said for now, that is playing in our favor.
"It's good news when the dollar drops it strengthens foreign demand for seafood and will help increase buyer interest and bid up the price for those markets," Knapp said.
The same wisdom does not apply to Japan, still one of Alaska's most important seafood customers. Economists predict the value of the dollar will be up two percent against the Japanese yen this year.
Other fish items of interest:
According to the National Restaurant
Association, Americans spent 48 percent of their food budget
eating out nearly six times each week. Restaurants expect a 3
percent increase in food prices, down from 4.5 percent in 2007.
Chefs predict several seafood favorites will retain or gain popularity.
The Food Marketing Institute showed that at retail grocery stores,
73 percent feature fresh seafood and 53 percent have sushi stations.
Stores are also featuring more seafood offerings for take out
and prepared meals for home consumption.
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]alaska.com
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