By Laine Welch
December 03, 2007
Bristol Bay is Alaska's most valuable salmon fishery and nearly all of the catch is sockeye (reds). However, the fish fetch far less than reds from other Alaska regions, and most of the Bristol Bay salmon ends up cans. This year 62 percent of the 30 million sockeye salmon caught in the Bay went into cans, adding to an already oversupplied market. At a disappointing 62 cents a pound, the fishery was worth $106 million to Bay fishermen, down from $108 million in 2006.
"Right now the only way a seafood company can make money is if they own a can line. Because there are so many bad fish coming out of Bristol Bay, you can't possibly freeze them and make money on those fish," said Mark Buckley, a 30 year Bay fisherman and a board member of the region's newly formed Regional Seafood Development Association (RSDA).
Why the lower quality fish? Nearly 80 percent of the Bay boats are 'dry' -meaning they don't chill their fish.
"It's a no brainer. You can get up to ten cents a pound more if you deliver chilled fish. Bristol Bay is way, way behind the rest of the state," Buckley said.
The RSDA aims to start turning that around next summer. It was formed two years ago when 1,730 driftnet permit holders voted to pay a one percent tax on their salmon catches to fund the venture. They now have nearly $2 million in their coffers and the first goal is to chill every fish caught by the drift fleet - including the many older, smaller boats that can't accommodate or afford fancy refrigeration systems.
"Our solution in this case is ice. We can facilitate and partner with others to get ice delivered hopefully to the entire fleet," Buckley said.
Ultimately, the better quality product will attract more buyers who will compete for the fish.
"That is the only way we're going to raise our prices," Buckley said.
The RSDA views its efforts as a partnership between fishermen and processors, and Trident and Leader Creek Seafoods are participating, he said.
"We are a seafood development association, not a price negotiation association," Buckley emphasized. "We're not there to try and force the processors to pay us more money. We are here to partner with industry to raise the value of Bristol Bay salmon. The region is undergoing a lot of hardship due to the downturn in salmon prices. If we can raise the prices and value of the catch, we can all help turn that economy around."
The Bristol Bay RSDA five year strategic plan is posted at www.bbrsda.com . Bristol Bay is only the second of 12 potential Alaska regions that has embraced the RSDA concept, following Prince William Sound/Copper River.
The call is out for hundreds of workers for Alaska's biggest fisheries that begin in January -- pollock, cod and snow crab.
"It's the money making season in the seafood industry," said Nelson San Juan, a seafood employment specialist with the state Department of Labor in Anchorage.
Major seafood companies need workers at shore plants in Kodiak, King Cove, Dutch Harbor, False Pass and aboard the at-sea fleet. Most of the work will run into April and workers can then be deployed to other fisheries, such as roe herring at Togiak. San Juan added that more processors have told him they will be buying herring at Bristol Bay next spring.
Most of the seafood jobs are for cutting, canning or freezing fish. But it sets the stage for training and advancement into skilled jobs that pay decent wages and don't demand a college degree.
"Jobs like maintenance machinists, mechanics, refrigeration, electricians, quality control... There are lots of opportunities for Alaskans in the seafood industry and they may not realize it," said job specialist Laurie Fuglvog.
More seafood companies strive to promote from within, added San Juan.
"One thing I like about the seafood industry in is they have been promoting from within. They will announce job advancements in the company before they hire people from outside. And they all are very good at that," he said.
Hiring begins this week. For information, contact any local Job Service, call 800-473-0688 or go to www.jobs.alaska.gov .
Pay up time
Alaska fishermen who hold quota
shares of halibut and black cod (sablefish) pay a fee to the
federal government each year to cover costs of managing and enforcing
those fisheries. The fee, which can range from one to three
percent, is based on the dock price paid to fishermen and averaged
across the state.
"For halibut, the overall value is $172 million and about $62 million for black cod. That's $21 million lower than the 2006 halibut value and $13 million lower for black cod," Zuniga said.
The fish prices were higher across the board this year so why the lower values? NOAA Fisheries collects data only through September so the highest prices paid at the end of the season in mid-November are not included, said Acting Program Manager Jessie Gharrett. The prices are not based on fish ticket data, and the estimates are only applicable to determining the cost recovery fees, she said.
"We collect information only from shoreside processors and the value is applied to the total fishery harvest. Unfortunately, those processors do not receive all the fish harvested. There are catcher processors and others sell their catch on the dock. These persons are not required to report to us," Zuniga added.
Bills were mailed last week to 2,381 Alaska longliners, down from 2,500 last year. Deadline to pay is January 31st.
Information is a bit sketchier
for share holders of Bering Sea crab. Federal figures show the
total fishery value for crab for the 2005-2006 seasons was $127
million. Crabbers paid a 3 percent fee to the feds totaling
$3.9 million in fishery coverage costs.
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]alaska.com
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