ANCHORAGE - Alaska's commercial salmon industry can thrive only if it restructures, a University of Alaska Anchorage study concluded.
The industry, however, faces "fundamental obstacles" including lack of government leadership in making changes, the study said.
"For Alaska's salmon fisheries to become and remain profitable, we will have to find ways of catching salmon at lower cost and raising the quality and value of the harvests," the report said.
Former Alaska Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer and University of Alaska Anchorage economist Gunnar Knapp, a world salmon authority, authored the study. Ulmer and Knapp work for UAA's Institute of Social and Economic Research.
The study noted that the salmon industry has recovered modestly from its low point in 2002, when dockside value of the statewide catch dropped well below $200 million, the lowest tally in decades. Better marketing and new salmon products are part of the reason for the comeback.
Major problems in Alaska remain, the study said. Alaska's salmon fisheries are diverse, with different catching methods and varying degrees of economic health. The study said industry costs in general are too high, with more boats than needed in some areas.
Fishermen typically race one another for the available salmon, and that leads to bruised fish, lack of freshness and other quality problems.
Also, fish farmers in Chile, Norway and Canada grow far more salmon than Alaska catches, pushing down prices because of abundant supply.
The study concludes that no state agency has clear authority for restructuring the salmon industry and that changes are likely to trigger clashes between economic and social goals. One example is the Chignik fishery, where efforts to convert the summer sockeye harvest from a competitive to a cooperative fishery resulted in fewer boats on the water, job losses for crew, hard feelings over how the revamped fishery operates, and lawsuits.
"It won't be easy to make changes in Alaska's salmon harvesting system," Ulmer and Knapp wrote. "Not everyone will benefit; some people could end up worse off. But the costs of doing nothing are also high. Thousands of Alaskans have already seen severe losses in fishing income and in boat and permit values, and many have had to quit fishing for salmon."
State and federal lawmakers and agencies have tried to address problems.
Gov. Frank Murkowski has directed distribution of $50 million in federal funds won by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to help struggling fishermen pay their bills, to boost seafood marketing and to encourage new products and technical innovation.
The state also revamped the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which promotes Alaska fish worldwide.
Participants in some fisheries are looking to shrink their ranks through buyouts or other means.
Jerry McCune, a Copper River salmon gillnetter and president of Cordova District Fishermen United, said the Ulmer-Knapp report is "a little outdated because things have changed quite a bit" and the need for restructuring has receded.
Sockeye and other salmon species have been abundant in most places this season, prices are up and the new marketing and product development efforts are working, McCune said.
"We're in a pretty good comeback. Fishermen have made money this season. I know they made money here," he said, speaking from Cordova.
McCune, said the Legislature has addressed needs, such as granting local fishing groups taxing authority to pay for marketing.
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