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Fish Factor

Alaska's premier king crab fishery underway October 15th
By Laine Welch


September 22, 2008

Fall signals the start of Alaska's premier king crab fishery at Bristol Bay, and reduced supplies mean crabbers are betting on higher prices.

Fishery managers will announce the catch quotas for king and snow crab at the end of September, but they indicated last week that the harvests levels will remain about the same as last season.

"The news after the (state and federal) crab plan team meeting in Seattle is that whatever changes take place in opilio (snow crab) and red king crab quotas for the coming year, they are likely to be minor," said market expert John Sackton of

If predictions hold true, that means catches would be in the ballpark of roughly 20 million pounds of red kings and 63 million pounds of snow crab for the 2008/09 season. There will be no blue king crab fishery at St. Matthew Island, despite earlier indications that it would open for the first time in a decade.

Meanwhile, the basic economic tenet of supply and demand will be the big price driver for crab lovers. U.S. buyers are tightening their belts due to the sluggish economy, but that's not the case for Alaska's #1 customer: Japan. Market analyst Ken Talley of Seafood Trend said demand for Alaska king crab is strong in Japan, and that should be reflected in higher prices.

Through June, imports of frozen crab into Japan had fallen 27% from the previous year to 9.3 million pounds. That pushed up wholesale prices by 41.5% per pound on average compared to last year, Talley said. If the king crab supply remains down in the Russian Far East fisheries this fall (which traditionally imports 90% of its king crab to Japan), Japan could be an aggressive buyer of Alaskan king crab.

In the U.S. retail sales are key to the king crab market, and with reduced supplies, prices have increased over the last year by nearly 40% for imported product. Talley said some major U.S. buyers may forego king crab until after the prime holiday sales season when prices may soften. The U.S. market wants king crab, but will only pay so much for it - and American buyers can expect stiff competition from both Japan and Europe.

Last year Bering Sea (Bristol Bay) crabbers averaged about $4.45 a pound for red king crab. Alaska competes with Russia and Norway in world king crab markets, and fishermen there also are negotiating for higher prices this year. Alaska's fishery gets underway on October 15th.

Frankenfoods coming to a store near you

Along with farmed fish, Alaska salmon will soon face more competition - from FrankenFish. Last week the Food and Drug Administration officially proposed regulations that will allow genetically modified fish and animals on America's dinner plates.

The FDA has been reviewing "transgenic" animals and animal products since the early 1990s but had never formally or publicly clarified the approval process for bringing them to the marketplace. Genetic engineering is already widely used in agriculture to produce higher-yielding or disease-resistant crops. But it will mark the first time that modified animals are Ok'd for human consumption.

Dubbed "Frankenfoods" by detractors, the process involves changing a creature's genes or switching them with other animals for a specific purpose. In normal salmon, for example, the gene that controls the production of growth hormone is activated by light, so the fish usually grow only during the sunny summer months. But by attaching part of a specific gene from an ocean pout, the end product is salmon that make growth hormone all year round.

Two companies - AquaBounty and A/F Protein - have produced genetically modified salmon that grow 10 to 30 times faster than normal fish. Both are eagerly waiting for the nod by the FDA to ship the salmon to U.S. markets.

No fish or animals have been approved yet for human consumption, but the agency is reviewing about 50 applications. Along with salmon, they include chickens that lay healthier eggs, cows that are immune to mad cow disease, pigs with organs that can be transplanted into humans without being rejected - even hypoallergenic dogs and cats.

The genetically modified foods will be regulated in the same way as veterinary drugs, meaning they'll undergo a safety review process. But no matter how they are modified, you won't know it -- no labeling will be required that informs consumers that an animal has been genetically altered. The FDA will take public comments until Nov. 18 before finalizing the 'frankenfoods' regulations.

Trash tells all!

Last Saturday marked the 23rd annual International Coastal Cleanup day championed by the Ocean Conservancy. Unlike other marine litter-thons, volunteers not only clean up trash from beaches, oceans, lakes and rivers - they also record everything they find. The cleanup provides the only global snapshot of trash in world waters and identifies its sources.

Last April on Earth Day, for example, nearly 400,000 volunteers scoured 33,000 miles of shoreline in 76 countries and in 45 U.S. states. In all, they picked up 6 million pounds of trash in just one day. Then, the Ocean Conservancy cataloged the trash into more than 7 million items. It revealed a general carelessness about what's being tossed into the water. Nearly 60 percent of the trash was related to food wrappings and beverage containers, also cups, plates and plastic eating utensils. Balloon bits and strings, tires, wires and building materials were also plentiful. A whopping 33 percent of the ocean trash came from smokers. Beach combers and divers collected 2.3 million cigarette butts, filters and cigar tips. Just over 6 percent of the trash collected came from fishing gear.

Results of the Ocean Conservancy Cleanup counts are presented in an annual report, which is the most comprehensive collection of marine debris data in the world. A recent Gallup poll showed that nearly 80% of those surveyed said they have made lifestyle changes to protect oceans and the environment.


Laine Welch has been writing about Alaska's seafood industry since 1991. Her Fish Factor column appears each week in nearly 20 papers and websites. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 30 stations in Alaska. This article is protected by copyright and may not be reprinted or distributed without permission. Visit or contact


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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska

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