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Fish Factor

Alaska Produces Over Half Of All U.S. Seafood
By Laine Welch


October 11, 2005

October is National Seafood Month - a distinction proclaimed by Congress 20 years ago to recognize one of the nation's oldest and most important industries. Nationwide, the seafood industry directly employs more than 250,000 people and contributes roughly $62 billion each year to the U.S. economy.
jpg Laine Welch

Alaska deserves special merit, as it produces over half of all U.S. Seafood - more than all the other states combined. The seafood industry is Alaska's number one private employer, and each year generates revenues second only to oil. For 15 years in a row, Dutch Harbor has ranked as the nation's #1 port for seafood landings, with more than 900 million pounds crossing those docks.

Americans continue to eat more seafood with consumption topping 16 pounds per person in 2003, up four percent from the previous year. America's seafood favorites have remained largely the same - the top five are shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish. Unfortunately, most of America's seafood comes from imports, which now account for 78 percent of U.S. consumption.

America's 16 pounds pales in comparison to what is eaten in other parts of the world. Federal figures from 2002 show that the Japanese, for example, eat about 146 pounds of seafood per person each year. Residents of Greenland each eat 186 pounds, and more than 200 pounds per person is enjoyed in Iceland. The country with the lowest per capita seafood consumption is Afghanistan at zero. Where in the world is the most seafood eaten? The South Pacific islands of Tokelau, where each person eats more than 440 pounds every year.

MORE DEMAND FOR ALASKA OYSTERS - One region's misfortune could be a market boom for another. Louisiana's oyster industry, which provides more than 40 percent of U.S. production, was devastated by recent hurricanes and it will be several years before the region is back in business. Likewise, oysters from the East coast of the U.S. (which account for 25 percent) are plagued with disease and pollution problems. That means more buyers will be looking to Alaska.

"Our problem is growing enough oysters to fill the existing demand, and it's sure to increase due to the problems in those areas," said Rodger Painter, director of the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association and owner of Tenass Pass Shellfish Company on Prince of Wales Island.

Alaska has about 60 shellfish farms, although less than half are in full production. Painter said the market value for oysters last year was about $1 million, and he expects production to triple over the next ten years.

"Demand for Alaska oysters from the East Coast has been pretty strong and has allowed us to move quite a bit of product, despite our high prices. Certainly the disappearance of supplies from the Gulf will affect those markets, so it's bound to have a pretty good impact on where we're establishing market footholds and should provide opportunities for new growers," Painter said.

Oysters are sold by the dozen, and Alaska's are pricey, ringing in at a wholesale cost of about $5.50/dozen. That compares to $3.50 for West Coast oysters, and just 60-cents a dozen for most Louisiana product, although some "branded" oysters from that region can sell for closer to $2/dozen. Unlike Louisiana oysters, most of which are pasteurized in jars or frozen, Alaska oysters are destined for the premier, raw half shell market said George Overpeck, president of the Kachemak Bay Shellfish Growers Cooperative.

Overpeck said the Co-op's 13 farms produce 40,000 dozen each year and will continue to send most of their oysters to well-established Alaska customers. He added: "But we have planted larger crops through 2008 and we do expect a boom in coming years."

Both growers said the Alaska product "sells itself" once buyers experience the taste and texture. That stems from the clean, cold waters, and in part, from the way they are grown. "Most of ours are raised in suspended culture so they are in the water all the time, feeding and growing fatter. The amount of fat in the animal makes a big difference in taste. Oysters grown on a beach are exposed at low tide, the sun beats down, the wind blows and it rains on them. So they put more energy into creating a tough shell to protect themselves," said Painter. "You get a much different product - it's like comparing a Copper River king with a pink salmon."

On a related note: the annual meeting of the Alaskan Shellfish Growers Association will be held November 4-5 at the North Pacific Fishery Observer Training Center in Anchorage.

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BOAT NEEDED FOR OCTOPUS STUDY - What gear works best for an octopus fishery is the focus of a study starting next month out of Dutch Harbor. State and Sea Grant biologists will test three modifications to the tunnel entrances in the large pots used for Pacific cod and crab fisheries. "Octopuses basically can squeeze into anything that's bigger than their beak. We want to see which is best for capturing them while decreasing takes of those other species," said ADF&G's Karla Bush.

The study will target giant Pacific octopus, which are a short-lived (five to six years), fast growing species which can gain up to one percent of their body weight each day. The average dressed weight (meaning guts removed) is 35 pounds. Most octopus are used as halibut bait, but more are being sold as food to Asian markets. At a dock price of 90-cents a pound, there is lots of interest in a directed fishery in state waters and Bush said plenty of idled pots are standing by.

"With the new rationalized crab plan there are lots of pots sitting on the beach. So we want to come up with low cost modifications where fishermen can convert them without having to spend a lot of money on new gear," she said.

The abundance of octopus in Alaska waters isn't well known, but there appear to be a lot of them, and they are very clever. "Some people believe that once an octopus is caught in a pot, it remembers and won't be recaptured. Others think they have learned to take advantage of all the cod and baited gear as an easy food source, and if they are released, they'll continue to get into the pots," Bush said.

ADF&G is soliciting bids for a 90 foot or larger vessel with crew and groundfish pots for a week long octopus gear and tagging study which will occur in November. Deadline to bid is October 25. Contact Karla Bush at (907) 581-1239.

Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her Fish Factor column appears weekly in over a dozen papers and websites. Her Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations across Alaska.


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