Southeast Alaska's purse seine fishery may hit a significant turning point in 2005.
A vote expected late this year by the 400-plus permit holders in the fleet could shrink the size of the already reduced fleet to as low as 180 boats.
The idea is to maintain the profitability of the fleet, proponents say.
The region's purse seiners, who have suffered mightily from the plunging value of pink salmon and decreased value of chums in recent years, are watching for yet another potentially significant development this year.
Prices for pinks have increased somewhat.
"It may be a real positive sign," said Bill Davidson, a Sitka commercial fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Part of the apparent price increase could be due to the fact that a new market niche for seiners - frozen pink salmon - has been opened. Most of the frozen product is shipped to Asia, where it is stuffed into pouches or fashioned into burgers, said Glenn Haight, a fisheries development specialist for the Alaska Department of Commerce.
It hasn't hurt seiners either that this year the pinks came early and stayed late in Southeast Alaska, with healthy runs in the salmon-rich waters of the northern Panhandle near Sitka and in Chatham and Icy straits.
"It's been the best fishing I've seen," said Henry Webb, a crew member on the Owyhee, owned by Juneau seiner Scott McAllister, as the crew prepared Wednesday to leave Auke Bay for a few more days of fishing in Chatham Strait.
The Southeast purse seine pink salmon harvest, which has already exceeded 51 million fish, is winding up soon and will likely be in the top 10 harvests since record-keeping began in 1892.
Though regional seafood processors such as Ocean Beauty warn that it is still too early to tell how the summer pink salmon season really went, recent prices averaging between 10 and 12 cents per pound showed a slight improvement over previous years.
"Time will tell whether there is (really) an improved price," said David Forbush, general manager of the Excursion Inlet plant.
"I'm not aware of anyone selling canned salmon this year," Forbush added. "We've had large volumes (of pink salmon). We will see if the market can absorb them."
The improved salmon price index recorded by the state has made purse seiners a little more optimistic about their future.
The Southeast Alaska fishery could be worth $40 million this year, and that's a 20 percent improvement from last year, said Rob Zuanich, executive director of the Alaska Seine Boat Owners Association based in Juneau.
But there isn't enough seafood processing capacity in Southeast Alaska to absorb all the fish, he said.
"The thing that sticks out in my mind is that we still seem to have a lack of processing capacity for the types of runs that we have had these last five years," Zuanich said.
The pink salmon harvest could have been another 5 million to 10 million fish this summer if the processing capacity had been there, Zuanich said.
On the flip side, half the fleet's active permit holders stopped fishing in the last two few years, according to Fish and Game statistics.
Though the fishery includes about 419 purse seine permit holders, only 237 participated this year, Davidson said.
He said the fishery is becoming more efficient, and smaller boats are dropping out with the larger boats at 58 feet staying in and handling the larger volumes of fish.
"There's a social aspect to these changes," Haight said, noting that many fishermen in small communities, including Kake, Angoon and Hoonah, are giving up and selling their permits.
A number of Southeast Alaska seiners believe that the fleet needs to become even smaller to remain profitable.
Fishermen have no control over the price they get for their fish but they can reduce their effort to fit today's shrunken economy, McAllister said.
"It's not just farmed salmon we are competing against," he added. "Protein is cheap in the world today."
The Alaska Seine Boat Owners Association's goal is to develop a self-imposed 3 percent tax on Southeast Alaska seiners that would help pay for a buyback of 236 purse seine permits. That would leave a total of about 180 permits in the regional fleet, Zuanich said.
About 237 boats participated in this summer's Southeast seine fishery, up about 20 boats from last year, according to Fish and Game records.
McAllister said the fleet needs fewer boats - not more. Having more boats will just dilute the prosperity of the fishery as a whole, he said.
Zuanich said if fishermen approve the buyback program, some of the permits would be held in trust, in case the pink and chum salmon fishery becomes more profitable. "We hope it gets better," he said.
The buyback would have to be approved by two-thirds of the region's seine permit holders as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service.
It also requires matching funds from Congress. The fleet was unable to meet a match level previously proposed by Congress.
Zuanich said he is confident that the congressional bill will get amended this year and that the buyback program will go to a referendum vote by the seiners before the 2006 fishing season.
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