Alaska export values jump

Increase of 13 percent seen in first half this year

Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2003

ANCHORAGE - The value of Alaska's exports rose roughly 13 percent during the first half of this year, signaling a sharp turnaround from the same period in 2002, according to the state Division of Trade and Development.

From January to June, the state's major industries exported roughly $1.15 billion worth of seafood, timber, fertilizer and other natural resources, the division reported. That compares with about $1.02 billion during the first half of 2002, when the value of exports showed a moderate decrease, the division said.

Though the data reflect only six months of activity and some of the increase in value may be attributed to higher prices, currency exchange rates and other factors, state officials said the latest figures are promising.

For all of 2002, there was no growth in the value of exports, said Patricia Eckert, a division trade specialist. Given the sharp rise in the first half, she said, exports are likely to finish this year on the plus side.

"This is a noteworthy increase," Eckert said. "We can't verify that it will hold through the whole year, but generally when you see an increase like that, by the end of the year, you'll still have an increase."

At about $670 million, fish products made up the largest portion of the state's total exports and the fishing industry logged a 9.1 percent increase in export revenue during the first half of the year, the division reported.

K.C. Dochtermann, director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's export program, said that while the increase in value is encouraging, it should not in itself be taken as a signal that the state's struggling fishing industry has taken a turn for the better.

"We're on the right track, but we have to look at other factors that could be playing into this," he said.

Without looking at other factors such as the total volume of fish being exported - and the percentage of it that was canned and frozen during last year - as well the strength of the U.S. dollar, the outlook for the industry may be skewed, he said.

"People like to see dollar signs, but you're not really getting the full picture," Dochtermann said. "Did the value of the fish actually increase, or is it just that we're sending more there this year?"

Natural gas and other energy exports ranked second in total exports during the first half of this year, totaling $126 million, the division reported. But that was 7.8 percent below the $136.6 million in product the industry exported during the first half of 2002, continuing a trend of steadily declining energy export values.

At the same time, Alaska exported more than $104 million of fertilizers during the first six months of the year, a 25.4 percent increase from the same period in 2002, the division reported.

That rise is attributable to higher prices even as production has fallen, said Lisa Parker, spokeswoman for the Agrium fertilizer plant in Nikiski.

The fertilizer factory, which converts Cook Inlet natural gas into ammonia and urea, recently announced plans to lay off 65 employees. Parker said it has been running at about 65 percent of its capacity.

But at the same time, global supply and demand trends have driven up the prices of its two main products. "Compared with the first six months of 2002, they have been significant increases," Parker said.

The value of wood product exports also rose sharply in the first half of the year, totaling $66.2 million, up from $44.1 million in 2002, the division reported.

Precious metals exports showed the most dramatic rise, coming in at $52.6 million compared with $13.9 million in 2002, according to the division's report.

Greg Wolf, director of World Trade Center Alaska, said most of that is attributable to a significant increase in gold mining activity, which has been picking up for the past several years.

Wolf, a former head of the state's Trade and Development Division, said the overall increase in export values is due largely to generally higher commodity prices, a weaker U.S. dollar and a continuing economic recovery among Alaska's Asian trading partners.

"At this point, I would feel pretty safe in saying we're going to end the year in the positive," Wolf said. "We'll probably end up the year at about $2.6 billion, which would be a nice healthy increase from $2.5 billion in 2002."

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