Labor department: Farmed fish are sinking Alaska fishermen

Posted: Wednesday, October 15, 2003

KENAI - The number of commercial salmon fishermen plying Alaska waters has plummeted 37 percent in the last decade as cheaper farm-raised salmon flooded the market, the state labor department said.

As the farmed salmon industry enjoyed a meteoric rise, Alaska's wild salmon industry plunged, the department said in the October issue of its magazine, Alaska Economic Trends.

Farm-raised salmon represented only 1 percent of the world's production in 1980 but has since grown to represent three of every five fish, said labor economist Neal Gilbertsen.

The farmed salmon industry is expected to continue to be a powerful influence on prices even as Alaska continues a ban on salmon farms.

"With or without Alaska's participation, the industry will continue to grow, and farmed salmon will continue to dominate both world markets and prices," Gilbertsen said.

The analysis by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development shows how hard the state's fishing industry has struggled. Among its findings:

• The number of salmon fishermen fell from 10,487 in 1990 to 6,567 in 2002.

• The Alaska salmon harvest in 1990 was 302,600 metric tons valued at $559 million. It fell in 2002 to 238,000 metric tons valued at $130 million.

• State limited-entry fishing permits fell in value 84 percent during those years so that a generic salmon permit lost about $91,347.

"This loss of equity, which for self-employed fishermen is equivalent to retirement accounts, will continue to reverberate throughout the Alaska economy in coming years," Gilbertsen said.

The economic losses have ricocheted through coastal communities as fewer fishermen have caused a decline in crews and shore-based services. Monthly employment in the state's seafood processing industry fell from 11,200 in 1992 to 7,400 in 2002.

Chile and Canada are the two major suppliers to the U.S. market of farm-raised salmon. Canada is a partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement, which removed certain trade barriers, and Chile has fewer environmental regulations and cheap labor, the analysis showed.

"The fact that Canada is a NAFTA partner, and that the U.S. has just approved a bilateral free trade agreement with Chile, would seem to indicate that these imports will continue to grow," Gilbertsen said.

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