Deadly fish virus detected; Officials say "no reason to panic"
October 25, 2011
“I would say the risk right now for Alaska salmon is low,” said Dr. Ted Meyers, a fish pathologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Meyers added that the state is “sort of in a holding pattern,” awaiting more information.
The West Coast fishing industry was stunned last week when Canadian scientists at Simon Fraser University detected Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) in two wild sockeye smolts at Rivers Inlet in northern British Columbia. ISA is harmless to humans, but it is the single most feared virus in the fish industry.
The highly contagious virus can quickly kill tens of millions of fish confined in net pens, as happened with Chile’s multi-billion dollar farmed salmon industry in 2007. Fish farms in Norway and Scotland also have suffered lethal ISA outbreaks. The big unknown is how vulnerable wild Pacific salmon and also herring might be.
Virus experts called the news “alarming” but cautioned that the tests results do not indicate how wide-ranging the virus is, and the results have not been confirmed by additional testing.
“Anytime ISA is present, there is potential for an outbreak,” said Jim Winton, a microbiologist at the USGS Western Fisheries Research Center in Washington. “The virus has great potential to mutate, which raises concerns about its impact on wild salmon.”
Neighboring U.S. senators want answers fast. Senators Murkowski and Begich of Alaska and Cantwell of Washington state have already asked Congress to require federal agencies to assess the ISA virus risks to Pacific fish and report back in six months.
King crab prices soar
A price of $9 a pound for Alaska red king crab reflects a “market frenzy seen only twice in the past,” said industry expert John Sackton of Seafood.com. He was referring to 1994 when the red king crab fishery at Bristol Bay was closed, and in 1999 when purchases for “millennium” celebrations led to a price surge.
The reduced Bering Sea harvest of red king crab to just eight million pounds has buyers scrambling for product, especially by Alaska’s number one customer: Japan. With a strong yen to dollar exchange rate, as much as 80% of the Bristol Bay king crab pack is likely to go to Japan.
The U.S. also has a big appetite for Alaska crab and those customers will likely enjoy the six million pounds of lower priced golden king crab caught around the Aleutian Islands, and the 2 million pounds of blue king crab from St. Matthew Island off Norton Sound.
“King crab is not differentiated in the US but it is in Japan, so the golden and blue kings will stay in the US,” Sackton said. “So the overall ratio for Alaska king crab between the US and Japan will be closer to 50/50.”
The Bristol Bay king crab fishery got underway on October 15. It usually wraps up by late November in order to make sales deadlines for the holidays.
The first thing fishermen want to know is the prices for their fish, but sometimes that can be tough to come by. Final sales for most of Alaska’s seafood are made long after a fishery closes, and settlements to fishermen may not be known for several months. But there is an easy way to find out how fish prices are tracking. The state Dept. of Revenue’s Tax Division compiles prices for every kind of fish and shellfish caught by Alaska fishermen by region. The prices are not in-season; they show a snapshot of the previous year and how fish prices are trending.
Here’s a sampler from 2010: Alaska halibut went from a low of $4.49 a pound on the Alaska Peninsula, to a high of $5.17 in the Cook Inlet region. The highest price average paid for sablefish was $5.97 at Juneau/Yakutat to a low of $5.46 at Ketchikan/Craig. Herring at Bristol Bay averaged 7 cents a pound last year to a high of 65-cents at Ketchikan. Octopus fetched 45 cents at Kodiak and a nickel a pound for squid. Gray cod got the lowest price at 13-cents at Petersburg/Wrangell to a high of 49-cents at Sitka/Pelican. Lingcod went for a low of 46 cents at Kodiak, up to $1.22 at Juneau.
Kodiak fishermen got the lowest price for Chinook salmon at just 64 cents per pound compared to $5.41 at Prince William Sound. Chums saw a low of 28 cents at Bristol Bay to a high of 86 cents at Sitka/ Pelican. Cohos fetched 50 cents a pound at the Alaska Peninsula and averaged $1.55 at Sitka. The lowest price for pinks was at Cook Inlet at 30 cents to a high of 44 cents at Kodiak, Petersburg and Wrangell. For sockeye salmon the lowest price was at Bristol Bay at $1.07; the high topped $2 a pound at the Prince William Sound region.
There are prices for 15 different kinds of rockfish on the list – the lowest paid was a dime paid at Kodiak for red banded rockfish to a high of $1.42 for thorny heads at Dutch Harbor The priciest Alaska seafood last year? Spot shrimp at $7.81delivered to Juneau/Yakutat, followed by Bristol Bay red king crab $7.42 a pound. The lowest valued were rex sole, flathead sole and arrowtooth flounder, each at 2 pennies per pound.
This year marks the 21st year for this weekly column that focuses on Alaska’s seafood industry. It began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites. A daily spin off – Fish Radio – airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. My goal is to make all people aware of the economic, social and cultural importance of Alaska’s fishing industry to our state, the nation and the world.