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Fish Factor

Breathing a sigh of relief, Crabbers want more and Fish skin fashions
By Laine Welch


December 17, 2007
Monday AM

Fishermen are breathing a sigh of relief, knowing that the latest sea lion counts won't force more fishing closures - at least for the near future.

"At this point it looks like there will be no changes out on the water in terms of the current regulations for Steller sea lion mitigation before January 2010," said Doug DeMaster, director of the NOAA Fisheries Science lab in Juneau.

Western stocks of Steller sea lions were listed by the federal government in 1990 as a threatened species, following decades of population declines. That listing resulted in a complex patchwork of fishing closures in waters within three, 10 even 20 miles of sea lion haul outs, rookeries and other "critical habitat" regions.

From 2000 to 2004 the western stock increased by about four percent each year, the first positive turn around since the 1970s. Surveys this year showed sea lion numbers from Cape Saint Elias to the Aleutian Islands remained stable overall, with notable increases in some prime fishing regions.

"For the past three years sea lions have increased in the Central and Western Gulf by 13 percent and eight percent, respectively, and by three percent in the Eastern Aleutians," DeMaster said. "That's a positive sign, for sure."

"It's great news. These are important areas where most commercial fishing occurs for pollock, cod and Atka mackerel," said Donna Parker of Arctic Storm Fisheries.

DeMaster cautioned that it is too soon to tell if the positive numbers reflect a real trend.

"Because we do the sea lion counts every other year, 10 years would give us five points from start to end. And that's about what you need to have confidence that the trend is reliable," he said.

Scientists and the industry are working closely with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to complete a sea lion recovery plan and related documents by March of 2008. Under the Endangered Species Act, decisions must be based on what actions might jeopardize or adversely modify critical habitat of a listed species.

"There is general agreement that no single factor explains the decline or lack of robust recovery," DeMaster said.

Meanwhile, fishery managers must bear the burden of proof that sea lions and fisheries can co-exist and thrive while sharing the same marine environment.

Crabbers want more

Crabbers will get down to business next month when they drop pots for snow crab in the Bering Sea, and they hope the crab's popularity will help them fetch more for their catch. The crab fishery, Alaska's largest, officially opens in mid-October but the fleet of about 75 boats waits till mid-January to begin fishing in earnest

Crabbers last week set a minimum price of $1.62 a pound, said negotiator Greg White of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, which represents crabbers who catch 70 percent of the king and snow crab in the Bering Sea. That compares to an average price of $1.50 a pound last season for a fishery that produced 36 million pounds of snow crab.

"We've gotten mostly good response. Most processors have said $1.62 seems in the ball park," White said.
The 2008 catch quota is up significantly to nearly 57 million pounds, but markets appear ready to buy. According to Seafood Trend's Ken Talley, average wholesale prices for snow crab imports have gained 30.5 percent from a year ago and are holding steady. Supplies of competing crab, namely, Dungeness and king crab also are down and likely to remain so for some time.

By all accounts, Russia has put the brakes on all illegal crab fishing, meaning a big crimp in world supply. White said buying interest for snow crab has increased in Europe and in the U.S., and sales are starting to overshadow the more traditional Japanese market.

"Last year the Japanese did not buy much Alaska snow crab. That turned out to be a good thing because they were paying were considerably less than the U.S. market," said White.

Russia supplies roughly 150 million pounds of snow crab to world markets each year; another 200 million pounds comes from Eastern Canada. White said the Alaska increase to 57 million pounds is not enough to upset current market dynamics.

"In the context of world production, it's not a huge increase in supply of snow crab," he said.

What Alaska snow crab lacks in poundage is made up for by its rock star popularity, said market expert John Sackton of

"I don't think people in Alaska fully realize the tremendous impact the 'Deadliest Catch' program has had on both the consumption and knowledge of its crab," he said. "People who in the past had never given Alaska crab a second thought start spouting off facts and figures and talk about what the fishermen go through. It is truly an amazing phenomenon and has shaped the way people think about crab."

Fish skin fashions

Fish skins are becoming a 'haute' product for designer fashions and accessories. A Marie-B Collection of 'Funkifish' bikinis was launched in London this year, each fetching more than $300. A similar bikini ­ made from 15 tilapia skins - will cost you $75 in Thailand. The Bangkok Press said tilapia skins are being used for everything from key rings to couches.

The Scripps Howard News Service said Dior sold pink salmon shoes for $800 at a fashion show and Bottega Veneta featured a stingray clutch for $1,180. Givenchy had a small evening stingray purse on a silk cord for $1,620. The designers all hailed fish skin's softness, beauty, durability and versatility.

"It's a relatively new industry if you use the timeline of how leather was developed," said Stanley Major of Sea Leather Wear in Calgary, Canada.

Major sells mostly carp skins and lesser amounts of perch and salmon that come in a variety of textures and colors. The fish skins are tanned in Canada, a process that does not require the harsh lyes and acids needed to remove hair from animal skins.

"More people appreciate that, as well as turning something bound for the dump into designer fashions," Major said. Check out the fish skins at .


Kodiak-based Laine Welch has been reporting news of Alaska's seafood industry for print and radio for 20 years. Fish Factor appears in 15 newspapers and websites. Laine's Fish Radio programs air daily on more than 25 stations across Alaska.
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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Ketchikan, Alaska