SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Fish Factor

Home grown fishes, Salmon sales slip, Funds for injured fishermen
By Laine Welch


April 10, 2007

Don't ever refer to it as farming - but home grown fishes are the Alaska's largest agricultural crop. Instead, call it 'ocean ranching.'

Whereas farmed fish are grown in closed pens or cages until they're ready for market, Alaska fish ­ mostly salmon - are raised in hatcheries until they grow to fingerlings and are released to the sea. The fish feed and grow on the 'open range' until they return home to the 'ranch' to spawn.
Many Alaskans might be surprised that fish from hatcheries make up a huge portion of Alaska's annual salmon catches.

The state oversees operations at 30 privately run hatcheries, which raise a mix of all five Pacific salmon species. Two state-run hatcheries also produce steelhead and rainbow trout, arctic char and grayling for sport anglers. The state also oversees two federal Bureau of Indian affairs hatcheries as well as several streamside projects throughout Alaska.

According to the annual report on Alaska's salmon enhancement programs, nearly 1.5 billion baby salmon were released to the ocean last year, while 48 million returned to their home hatcheries.

Those fish accounted for about 20 percent of Alaska's total salmon catch last year - and at nearly $59 million, 21 percent of the harvest value.

Chums are by far the bumper crop for Alaska's hatcheries, making up 60 percent of fish production. For both pink and coho salmon, it's 20 percent, seven percent for kings and six percent for sockeye.

In some regions, ranched salmon make up most of the common property fishery. At Prince William Sound, for example, fish returning to five hatcheries comprise 73 percent of the annual harvest ­ 80 percent pinks, 75 percent chums, 49 percent coho and 38 percent sockeye salmon. The combined catches rang in at $19 million, 48 percent of the total PWS value.

In Southeast, enhanced salmon accounted for 36 percent of all fish harvested last year, worth $31 million, or 41percent of the total value. In Cook Inlet, 30 percent of the commercial salmon harvest came from local hatcheries, worth $6.5 million, or 44 percent of the harvest value. For Kodiak, the total was seven percent of the salmon catch, worth $2.5 million or 10% percent of the value.

More than 61 million salmon are expected to swim home to Alaska hatcheries in 2007 to be caught by local fishermen. Find the fascinating 2006 salmon enhancement report at .

Salmon sales slip

Japan is Alaska's most important seafood customer, but salmon exports to that country dropped 46 percent last year.

The sales slip is especially strong for fresh/frozen sockeye salmon. According to federal trade figures, sockeye exports to Japan last year were just 13,487 tons valued at $53 million. That reflects a drop of 62 percent in terms of both volume and value.

The shortfall, however, is being made up by sales elsewhere in the world, said KC Dochtermann, international program director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

"We were expecting it, knowing that some of the major producers were starting to turn away from Japan, and redirecting sockeye to the U.S. and Europe, specifically," "Sockeye salmon is probably hotter than anything right now in Europe. Wild is the word definitely," he added.

Dochtermann said a similar trend has also shifted the market for Alaska pollock.

"Traditionally, most of the fish went into Japan's surimi market, but today more pollock is being used more for fillets. That market is on fire and more pollock is going into the European market, especially Germany," he said.

The 'Alaska' brand name is a big selling point, and it sets wild seafood apart from farmed varieties. But Dochtermann cautions that it's a big world out there and aquaculture is expanding fast.

"Gone are the days when Alaska was the 800 pound gorilla of the salmon industry. We've gone from being the largest salmon producer on earth to the largest wild salmon producer on earth," he said.

Most seafood producers believe there is room enough for all, and that Alaska is likely to be best served by developing strong niche markets.

"Alaska's king, sockeye and coho salmon make up just 3.5 percent of the salmon on the planet. That's the same market share as Mercedes-Benz. We can create that same perception of value," said fisherman and industry analyst Mark Buckley of Kodiak.

ASMI's Dochtermann agrees. "We're not trying to get the mass market; we're trying to skim the cream off the top."

Funds for injured fishermen

Many fishermen are unaware that state funds are available to help pay medical bills for injuries or illnesses directly related to commercial fishing.

Qualified fishermen can receive up to $2,500 to defray medical costs, and in some cases, much more. The money comes from the Fishermen's Fund, created in 1951 to provide for the treatment and care of licensed Alaska fishermen.

"The fund is supported by 39 percent of the money derived from the sale of commercial fishing licenses, as well as a set fee fishermen pay for permits," explained Linda Crapo, a spokesperson for the state Dept. of Labor, division of workers' compensation.

"We struggle to let more fishermen know about it. The information is on the back of their licenses, but many miss it. We want them to know there is help available if they are not insured," Crapo added.

Currently, 17,772 resident and 5,088 non-resident Alaska fishermen are contributing to the Fishermen's Fund. The amount varies from year to year, but it usually includes several hundred thousand dollars.

Questions? Contact the Fishermen's Fund at 888-520-2766 or via email at The web site is: .


Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. 2007 marks the 16th year that she has been writing this weekly fisheries column. It now appears in nearly 20 newspapers and web outlets.
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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