Fishing industry in crisis

Ideas to solve the fishing industry's woes include tariffs on farmed fish, price supports for U.S. salmon, a flashy marketing campaign and boat buybacks

Posted: Sunday, June 02, 2002

Since before the gold rush or the oil boom, Alaskans have made a living pulling fish from the water and shipping them off to feed the rest of the world.

And among all fish, salmon was king.

Now Alaska's salmon fishing industry is in a steep downturn, pounded by the shifting global economy and hampered, some say, by Alaska's own efforts to regulate the fishing industry so all of its fishermen can share the wealth.

Increased competition and plunging prices have closed processing plants, kept fishing boats tied up at docks and left workers without jobs. The consequences have rippled through the state's economy.

"What is at stake is the survival of a resource and an industry that is a fundamental foundation of our culture, our way of life, and our economic prosperity," Gov. Tony Knowles said last month at a "fish summit" called to discuss the crisis.

Alaska's abundant wild fish have been a crucial part of its history. Alaska Natives relied on seafood to survive, and control of commercial fishing by absentee business interests during territorial days drove Alaskans to seek statehood.

By the early 1980s Alaska supplied nearly half the world's salmon.

"People had to come to us to buy it," said Bob Thorstenson Jr., president of United Fishermen of Alaska, a trade association. "They lined up to buy it."

As recently as 2000, nearly one Alaskan in 12 made a living from commercial fishing - holding a fishing permit, a fishing crewman's license or a job in a processing plant.

But demand for salmon gave rise to "fish farms" where salmon are raised in pens. Abundant, cheaper farmed salmon proved to be tough competition for wild Alaska salmon. Two years ago, with farmed salmon firmly established in world markets, Alaska supplied just 19 percent of the global market. Last year's Alaska salmon harvest was worth about $220 million to fishermen, less than half of the harvest's average value in the early 1990s.

A strong U.S. dollar, a long recession in Japan, the state's major overseas market, and the declining cost of other protein foods have also hurt profits, and employment. Between 1995 and 2001, average monthly employment in seafood processing dropped from 10,400 jobs to 8,300.

The downturn has played out in places such as the Cook Inlet Processing fish-processing plant on Kodiak Island, a vast island at the edge of the Gulf of Alaska, about 250 miles south of Anchorage.

The plant was bought out by a rival processor and shut down last month, victim of a one-two punch - low salmon prices, plus restrictions on catching cod and pollock designed to protect the food supply of the endangered Steller sea lion.

Unlike other plants that employ college students for seasonal work, Cook Inlet Processing provided nearly year-round jobs. Many of its workers were immigrants from the Philippines, Korea, Thailand, Nicaragua and Guatemala. They worked 12-hour shifts for $8.45 an hour, with 10 cents an hour extra if they worked at night.

The plant marked its calendar by the fish that came in the door. From January through mid-March came gray cod, followed by rock sole, Dover sole and herring. Salmon season started in mid-June and lasted through September. Rock fish, pollock and more gray cod came through the door late in the year.

Working jobs such as the "slime line," using a spoon to clean fish carcasses of the blood that gutting machines miss, a husband and wife could $40,000 to $45,000 a year - enough to put down roots.

"They lived on the overtime," said production manager Tuck Bonney, sitting in the plant's empty lunchroom as a few workers trickled in to collect their final paychecks.

Caridad and Floro Rambac left $2-an-hour jobs in California to come to Alaska in 1975, and have worked in fish processing for most of the years since. They made enough to put their two children through Catholic school, but they still have eight years of payments left on their modest one-story home in a subdivision locals call the Aleutian homes, rows of prefabricated houses built for the Navy after World War II.

"We're going to try to find another cannery," Caridad said. But their prospects are slim.

"They said there are no guarantees," Floro said.

Cook Inlet Processing is the second plant on Kodiak Island to close in two years. Jobs at the remaining half-dozen plants are mostly filled, and Bonney estimates Kodiak can absorb 10 percent to 15 percent of the plant's laid-off workers.

"Most of them are going to have to leave town," he said.

At the same time, many Alaska salmon fishermen are leaving their boats at the dock. The state has issued more than 13,000 commercial salmon-fishing licenses, but industry officials expect fewer than 8,000 will be used this year.

Alaska is paying a price for a state-regulated fishing system that's inefficient by design. Salmon harvests are set up to spread profits among fishermen who use different techniques - those who fish from boats, for example, and those who stretch nets from shore. The state bans fish traps, restricts the size of fishing boats, and takes other measures to give more fishermen a piece of the action, without regard to efficiency or profitability.

"In effect, we give away our most important competitive advantage," said University of Alaska Anchorage economist Gunnar Knapp.

So far, though, there's no plan for solving the fishing crisis. Suggestions include tariffs on imported farmed fish, price supports for American salmon, a flashy marketing campaign for Alaska salmon and buybacks of fishing boats or permits, leaving those who remain with less competition.

But Alaskans can't even agree on whether to denounce farmed fish for what they say is its inferior taste and texture, or join fish farmers in a marketing campaign. Some fear anything negative said about farmed salmon will affect perceptions of Alaska salmon.

As the summer salmon season approaches, the only certainty is that fewer Alaskans will make a living from fish.

"There is no miracle cure on the horizon for this season," Knapp said.

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