By LAINE WELCH
October 03, 2010
Or that if you put Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon catch nose to tail, it would reach 14,000 miles, from Alaska to Australia and back!
Everyone went away from the United Fishermen of Alaska’s ‘Fisheries Day’ last week with new understandings and appreciation for the seafood industry and its importance to the state’s economy.
UFA comprises 37 diverse member groups from skiffs to floating processors, making it the largest fisheries trade organization in the nation. Fisheries Day was the brainchild of new president Arni Thomson, and targeted especially to Anchorage and other rail belt policy makers. To them, he says, seafood is an invisible industry.
“People just don’t get it. The fishing industry puts more people to work than oil and gas, mining, timber and tourism combined. And it is second only to Big Oil in revenues to state coffers,” Thomson said.
The invitation-only Fisheries Day attracted a good mix of about 60 bureaucrats, businesses, politicos and industry insiders to the Anchorage Clarion. The day began with a short tribute and moment of silence to honor Ted Stevens. Then each person stood and introduced him/herself – a sampler: Mayors of Seward and Valdez (disappointingly, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan didn’t show but sent an aide); managers of the Kenai and Lake & Peninsula Boroughs, Rep. Bill Stoltze, aides for Reps. Cherisse Miller and Les Gara, Rep. Alan Austerman, a member of the Japanese consulate, the Resource Development Council, Economic Development Corp., fisheries legend Clem Tillion, Board of Fisheries members, CDQ groups, state Chamber of Commerce, Samson Tug & Barge, TOTE, and ADF&G Commissioner Denby Lloyd. The line up of presentations began with an overview of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, the state’s lone fish marketing arm.
“Our sole purpose is to increase the value of Alaska seafood,” said ASMI spokesman Naresh Shrestha. “We sell a brand. And right now the Alaska Brand is #2 in the U.S., after Oreo Cookies.”
Following came short presentations by UFA members who described the fisheries and communities of their regions.
“Diversification is the key to a good fishing business, and we have that in Southeast with so many different fisheries and gear types,” said Dale Kelley, director of Alaska Trollers Association who gave an overview of the Pan Handle. Southeast Alaska makes up nearly 20% of the state’s total ex-vessel (dockside) value, Kelley said.
“This will be the most valuable year ever for Prince William Sound,” said Rochelle van den Broek, director of the 300-member Cordova District Fishermen United.
“It’s more than $100 million, double last year,” she added, referring to the 2010 salmon season.
Van den Broek said 30% of Alaska’s total salmon catch this year will come from Prince William Sound, “and 20 million pounds is shipped out through Anchorage.”
Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association director Gary explained how fishermen pay a 2% tax to support primarily sockeye stocking projects for the region. The group also works on ‘flow controls’ that prevent fish from getting upstream to spawn. “We’ve had to break up beaver dams in the Susitna region that are blocking systems
Greg Kessler of Tacoma-based TOTE (Totem Ocean Trailers Express) said fish is one of their biggest southbound components for its 2,000 trailers.
“Most of our items are for northbound markets - cars, retail goods … We have little south bound cargo - only household items and return dunnage, like pallets. Fish gives TOTE a stream of revenue we wouldn’t otherwise have,” Kessler said.
“Freight costs are reduced 10 cents per pound because of our seafood exports,” added Glenn Reed, head of Pacific Seafood Processors Association. The volumes and frequencies of seafood shipments by air also reduce costs, he added.
“We are in the health food business and we are globally recognized as being the last well managed, wild capture fishery,” Reed said. “What we look to you policy makers for is support, especially for research funding. Good science is why our fisheries are so successful and so sustainable.
Bob Waldrop, director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, refers to each of the 1,875 permit holders in the Bay as “small business owners.” He said 962 of the Bristol Bay permit holders and crew live in Anchorage, and earned $9.3 million last year.
“That is likely to be up to $12 million this year,” Waldrop said.
Edward Poulsen of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers gave an overview of the crab fisheries five years into the catch share plan. The crab fishery is one of the few that provides complete labor data to state and federal number crunchers. He said 15% of the crab quota is now owned by more than 80 new entries into the fisheries.
Skip Winfree of 10th & M Seafoods in Anchorage talked about “how much fun it has been” to raise his family in the industry. 10th & M started as a mink farm in 1938 and is now one of Alaska’s largest shippers of perishable goods. Winfree said the biggest retail boosters for his business have been “increased tourism, FedEx and the Internet.”
A lot of that seafood comes from Kodiak, home to 27 different fisheries that operate year round, pointed out Bruce Schactler, fisherman and ASMI international marketing guru.
“Kodiak has a resident seafood processing workforce, and groundfish keeps them working all year. Then there are all the transportation and support services - the multiplier really adds up fast when you’re on an island,” Schactler said.
“The industry brings over $200 million into Anchorage every year,” he added. “It’s a big deal. We’re not tourists.”
Of Alaska’s 27 census areas, the Anchorage Municipality and the Mat–Su Borough are among the most active in commercial fishing, according to Glenn Haight, a Sea Grant Fisheries Business Specialist. Salmon is the most widely fisheries species for residents; by far, most fish in Bristol Bay.
As people drifted out after Fisheries Day every one of them - even the industry veterans - could be heard commenting on the new things they had learned about Alaska’s seafood industry.
“We hit a home run,” said UFA’s Thomson.
SeaAlliance is the fishing industry’s biggest foray into the world of social media, making a splash on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
“Alaska’s fisheries have a great story to tell for the rest of the country and the world in terms of how to maintain sustainable, economically viable fisheries, and the communities that depend on those fisheries,” said Dave Benton, director of the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance, producer of SeaAlliance.
Both Alliances refer to themselves as a community that believes in science-based management, and projects that promote good stewardship, healthy oceans and sustainable fisheries, Benton said.
“For many years we have been working with more traditional media to get that message out. It became apparent during the 2008 election cycle that social media was becoming the vehicle of choice for a lot of people, and if you wanted to tell your story you had to engage in that venue,” Benton said.
SeaAlliance was quietly launched on Facebook this summer and now has more than 1,700 fans. The project is using a phased approach – first by engaging Alaska fishing people and communities; then reaching out to media as “a source to help them educate the world,” and ultimately becoming a national voice.
“ Eventually, we will reach out across the country to get our messages out, and engage the public in the national debate about what is going on with the oceans and how to take care of them,” Benton said. “But do it in a way that allows for fisheries dependent communities to thrive. That is really our goal.”
SeaAlliance aims to give people the facts, Benton said, “then they can make up their own minds.”
Fishery managers released the 2011 catch quotas on Friday. As expected, the numbers are down for Bristol Bay red king crab: 14.8 million pounds, compared to 17 million pounds last year.
Crabbers were surprised by an unexpected boost in the snow crab catch to 54.28 million pounds, up from 45 million last season.
“In a word, we’re appreciative,” said Edward Poulsen, spokesman for Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. “We firmly support ADF&G in the management of our crab fisheries, including their TAC setting authority.”
St. Matthew Island will open again for 1.6 million pounds of blue king crabs . The abundance of mature males increased 28%, according to researchers. Conversely, no king crab fishing will occur around the Pribilof Islands, where too much uncertainty remains about the status of those stocks.
Similarly, and somewhat surprisingly, the Bering Sea Tanner crab fishery will not open during the 2010/2011 fishing season. Poulsen called the closure disappointing, but agreed the stocks need to rebound before more fishing occurs.
“There's a lot going on with this one that isn't too easy to explain. Bottom line, it went down just as fast as it went up. There is recruitment coming in the future though,” Poulsen said.
In all, look for crab to be a pricey product, predicts market analyst John Sackton, editor of Seafood.com.
“ I think crab is going to be a real premium product this year, and only enough to supply the highest end markets,” Sackton said.
October is National Seafood Month, a distinction proclaimed by Congress nearly a quarter century ago to recognize one of our nation’s oldest industries. Alaska deserves special merit during Seafood Month, as it produces more than 60% of our nation’s seafood – more than all the other states combined.