According to preliminary numbers, 2013 was a great year to be a fisherman and a bad year to be a pink salmon. Last year’s salmon harvest was Alaska’s largest ever, with more than 272 million fish caught, according to numbers from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Of those, 219 million were pink salmon, the smallest and most prolific of Alaska’s five salmon species.
The season is valued at an estimated $691 million, making it the second most profitable year ever, coming in behind 1988’s $724 million salmon harvest, according to ASMI’s numbers. David Harris, Juneau area management biologist for Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the pink salmon catch “really buoyed this year’s numbers,” despite “chinook numbers (being) down across the state, some worse than others.”
“Often you’ll have a super good return in one of the areas (of the state) but I think we had a pretty good return across all the areas,” he said. “What really drove the record harvest was the number of pink salmon.”
ASMI’s Tyson Fick said the big harvest year will give a financial boost to fishermen, and Alaska’s seafood industry as a whole.
“When more fish are around, fishermen make more, and there are more jobs,” Fick said.
Biology and economics drove 2013’s salmon harvest success, Fick said. The stars aligned for pink populations last year.
“It fell an odd numbered year, which are big years for pinks,” he said. The salmon harvest “goes up and down and up and down but there’s a general curve that we’re on the high end of historical harvests.”
Since the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, which greatly expanded Alaska’s fishable waters, fishermen have caught more and more each year, with a couple outliers, Fick said. For comparison, Alaska fishermen caught about 25 million salmon in 1976, he said.
Salmon have also gained cash value over time, he said. For the past 10 to 12 years, consumers have been willing to pay more and more each year for salmon, especially pinks.
Product diversification led to increased uses of the smallest salmon, Fick said.
“If you go back 10 years ago, 80 percent of pinks went into a can,” he said. “Now, it’s less than 50 percent.”
Now, pink salmon is often frozen, filleted and packaged into convenience meals. This added value has led to a heftier price tag on pink salmon, Fick said.
Marketing Alaska’s wild salmon over farmed varieties has also helped the industry make more and more money, Fick said.
“There’s also a commitment to improving quality that has happened,” he said.
Over the years, improved boat technology has helped fishermen refrigerate their catches more effectively, keeping the fish fresher.
“It’s as simple as ice,” Fick said.
According to ASMI’s numbers, Alaska’s salmon harvest was worth about $605 million in 2010; about $660 in 2011; and about $575 in 2012.
ADFG’s method of regulating the state’s fisheries based on fish population is what keeps Alaska’s seafood industry sustainable and growing, Fick said.
“That’s a real success story of what happens when you take the proper scientific based approach to fisheries management,” Fick said. “If the run return says fish less, we fish less. It’s a complex web.”
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.