Alaska fisheries report decent sales overall despite rising costs

Strong prices for crab, salmon and Pacific cod made for healthy year

Posted: Monday, December 29, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Alaska's lucrative seafood industry appears to have done very well overall in 2008, despite the increased cost of doing business, with sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Veteran commercial fisherman and seafood industry analyst Chris McDowell said he expected the total value paid to harvesters for all seafood taken in Alaska to be around the five-year average of $1.4 billion, down slightly from $1.6 billion in 2007. Part of that decline was driven by pollock prices, he said, but "we had a pretty decent year overall," he said.

With much final data on the fisheries still being compiled, strong prices for much of the year for salmon, crab and Pacific cod made for a healthy year.

A recent decline in prices paid for Pacific cod, due to world market conditions, was balanced by strong prices for the first three quarters of 2008, McDowell said. Prices for sablefish, also known as black cod, grew steadily. Halibut prices dropped back a bit from record levels last year, but remained strong.

Salmon seiners in Prince William Sound had a huge pink salmon season, while Copper River driftnetters saw a slow year for both sockeyes and kings. Prices for Southeast Alaska herring were up quite a bit, and halibut prices.

The Lower Yukon, deprived of any commercial king salmon fishery this year, harvested about 200,000 chums, not nearly enough to meet market demand and not anywhere close to what fisheries biologists predicted they would get, said Jack Schultheis, general manager for Kwik'Pak Fisheries. To keep fishermen from taking any kings incidentally, state biologists forbid any commercial chinook salmon harvests.

During the fall chum fishery, sonar indicated incorrectly that there weren't enough chums to harvest commercially and still allow for adequate escapement, he said. "They had to shut down 25 days in August at the peak of the fall run."

Biologists had projected a commercial harvest of 300,000 to 500,000 chums, but harvesters netted only about 200,000 chums - 20 percent of the projected harvest.

"Normally in the last five years, the whole fishery was worth $3 million to $4 million; this year fishermen made about $1 million," Schultheis said.

Halibut and sablefish typically comprise 18 percent to 20 percent of the overall value of Alaska fisheries.

The five-year average prices for major fisheries, based on 2002-2007 statistics, were $520 million for Pacific cod and Pollock, $320 million for salmon of all species, $264 million for halibut and sablefish, $175 million for shellfish and $132 million for other ground fish, McDowell said. The preliminary overall value for the 2008 harvest was $409 million, compared to $416 million in 2007.

Prior to 2007, there was a 10-year stretch where the combined fisheries didn't make the $400 million mark, and 2008 appears to be the second highest value in 13 years, McDowell said.

Paul MacGregor, a Seattle-based attorney who represents the groundfish industry, said demand and prices were strong for groundfish, with cod probably leading the way. MacGregor noted that groundfish is a good source of inexpensive protein and that high demand should continue.

Julie Bonney, of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank in Kodiak, said fuel costs were a negative, but was optimistic with prices up for groundfish and salmon. A pilot program for rockfish also went well, she said.

Jeff Stephan, director of the United Fishermen's Marketing Association in Kodiak, said high fuel prices had a significant effect on the region's fisheries economy, but prices for salmon, halibut and Pacific cod "were robust enough to make up for the significant amount of gross products sucked off the top for fish prices."

Stephan said fuel prices in Kodiak generally go up immediately with the rise in price of oil and never seem to drop as oil declines.

"It affects the competitiveness of the community overall and competitiveness of businesses and households," he said. "People feel like they are kind of maintaining."

Major frustrations for the salmon industry in 2008 came in Bristol Bay, where the bulk of the millions of sockeyes swimming north came in at once, forcing processors to limit the volume of reds they would take within certain time periods.

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