Southeast's salmon and halibut fishermen are optimistic about the year ahead.
Prices for the traditional high-value species - chinook and coho - improved significantly in 2004. Halibut prices continue to hover at record highs.
Though a new country-of-origin law, improved prices, generous harvest quotas and empty cold storage buildings in late 2004 don't guarantee good prices in 2005, "we're fairly optimistic," said Ken Duckett, executive director of United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters.
"Things are looking up for salmon," said Chris McDowell, a seafood industry analyst for Juneau's McDowell Group.
However, that doesn't mean it's all smooth sailing for Southeast's wild fisheries in 2005.
The new year may set the stage for possible development of offshore fish farms in the United States' exclusive economic zone (EEZ), three to 200 miles offshore.
Canada has opened black cod farms in British Columbia and plans new fish farms on the Skeena River and elsewhere on the province's North Coast bordering Southeast Alaska. Elsewhere in the world, aquaculture companies say they are making progress in farming halibut.
Though Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski has petitioned the U.S. commerce secretary to place a five-year moratorium on U.S. offshore fish farms until studies are completed on their environmental and economic impacts, a bill authorizing those farms is wending its way to Congress.
An early draft of the bill acquired by the Empire indicates the U.S. Commerce Department would consult with regional fishery management councils before issuing offshore permits but provides no authority over the farms to the councils.
State officials will host town hall meetings in late February to seek input from Alaskans on how to protect their fishing industry given the worldwide growth of fish farms. Juneau's meeting is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 23 at the Baranof Hotel.
One important way to evaluate the health of a fishing fleet is by participation by its permit holders.
Participation in the power-troll fleet is very high, due to prices for the more lucrative species, and there's plenty of interest in buying troll permits, McDowell said.
Low participation in the Southeast seine fleet - about 40 percent to 50 percent of those holding permits - is a reflection of continued low prices for canned salmon.
"Market conditions for canned salmon are showing signs of life," said McDowell. "Whether that will translate to ex-vessel prices is the question."
Southeast gillnetters are showing better participation than the seiners but also have had a tough few years because of declining prices for chum salmon.
"Most of the world's (roe) supply came from Japan and our prices were buoyed by low production there for a few years," McDowell said.
"We hope that we saw the bottom in 2002, as far as prices are concerned," Duckett said.
Out of necessity, Southeast gillnetters and other fishermen are diversifying away from salmon. Many of them are shrimping, crabbing, running dive trips and longlining for the more lucrative black cod and halibut, Duckett said.
Unlike elsewhere in Alaska where the halibut quota will decline, the halibut quota for Southeast is expected to increase about 4 percent in 2005. In contrast, the black cod quota was reduced about 5 percent.
That will hurt black cod permit holders, said Cora Crome, executive director of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association. The reason for the reduced quota: a really strong age group of black cod from 1997 is moving out of the fishery and younger age classes aren't rated as well.
Salmon harvest quotas will be released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in about a month.
"It's being worked on right now," said Mike Plotnick, a Fish and Game commercial fisheries research analyst.
Duckett said he expects salmon quotas to go down a little bit, but that's to be expected since 2004 was a record year for returns.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@ juneauempire.com.
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