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Alaska Salmon Keep Boats and Businesses Afloat

Sustainability and commercial fishing


A rainsuit-clad seine boat fisherman.

© Bridget Besaw/TNC

As the summer’s commercial salmon fishing season begins in earnest, there are happenings in communities all throughout the state of Alaska that demonstrate how fishing means business.

“The boat yard gets busy. And we start to see new faces,” says Fritz Johnson, a Bristol Bay commercial salmon fisherman from Dillingham.

Boats return to the water. Crews mend nets. In the hardware stores, the net lofts, the harbors, and the streets there’s an undeniably quicker pace. And most people you meet have a singular mission: to get ready.

“Where streets were empty before, now they start bustling. And excitement for the season opener builds almost daily. It’s just electric,” says Kim Ryals, who directs the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association in Cordova.

The bustle is the norm in fishing ports like these on Alaska coasts, and for good reason. Alaska’s commercial salmon fishing fleet produces 95 percent of the nation’s wild Pacific salmon catch.

And those fish enter a marketplace that eagerly awaits their appearance. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) reports that its 2012 polling confirmed that consumers hold Alaska salmon in very high regard. Specifically, 43 percent of respondents said they were more likely to recommend “Alaska salmon” than any other protein source in the marketplace. (Only the more inclusive “Alaska seafood” ranked higher, at 45 percent. USDA prime sirloin came in third, at 38 percent.)

In order to maintain this favorable position in the marketplace, industry observers insist Alaska’s fishing fleet will need to improve on the significant gains it has already made in ensuring the salmon it delivers are of the highest quality. Secondarily, astute marketing campaigns to targeted consumer groups help to build demand.


Five Salmon Species Targeted

The state’s salmon fisheries produced a catch valued at $657 million in ex-vessel prices in 2011. That’s nearly a third of the state’s seafood ex-vessel value. These salmon fleets target five species of Pacific salmon across a far-flung geography and a diversity of gear types. Alaska salmon fisheries stretch along a remarkable extent of the state’s coastline and generate a widely distributed surge of economic activity each year.

Beginning in the Tongass of Southeast Alaska, the commercial salmon fisheries extend northward as far as Kotzebue and as far west as Unimak Island beyond the Alaska Peninsula.

ASMI reports salmon fisheries directly employed 38,300 workers in Alaska in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available. And these workers are distributed broadly across a vast region of rural Alaska: 160 towns in the state have at least one salmon harvester. In addition, the Alaska salmon fishery produces more secondary economic activity than other Alaska fisheries.

“Salmon fisheries have a higher economic multiplier within Alaska due to higher rates of Alaska resident involvement, more shore-side processing, great in-state purchases of goods and services in support of fishing operations, and the presence of salmon hatcheries, compared to Pollock, Pacific cod, flatfish, and crab fisheries,” according to a recent McDowell Group report commissioned by ASMI.

In short, salmon fisheries are closely linked to the state’s working waterfronts.

Average ex-vessel prices, or the price paid to the fisherman, have been steadily increasing in recent years, and last year was no exception. The 2012 average of eighty-seven cents per pound was up four cents from the year before. Price increases have been more notable among certain fisheries, including sockeye.

ASMI reports that the state’s sockeye harvest “generally accounts for 40 to 50 percent of the total ex-vessel value of Alaska salmon.” And last year, sockeye prices in Bristol Bay reached $1.50 per pound, a price not seen since the late 1980s. Copper River/Prince William Sound sockeye commanded an average price of $2.28 per pound last year and leads the state’s fishery in ex-vessel sockeye prices.

Bristol Bay accounts for a majority of the state’s sockeye harvest. Between 2005 and 2010, the Bay landed 67 percent of the state’s sockeye harvest and 50 percent of the global catch.


An aerial view of the Peter Pan Cannery in Dillingham, on the west side of Bristol Bay.

© Clark James Mishler/TNC

Largest Single Sector Employer

Commercial fishing employs more workers than any single sector of the Alaska economy. In 2011, the salmon fishery had an estimated commercial fishing workforce of 20,300, or 62 percent of the state’s commercial fishing industry, according to ASMI.

What explains the state’s robust salmon fisheries? The state of Alaska proudly promotes its track record of sustainability, as mandated in Article Eight of the state constitution. In calling for a “sustained yield,” the constitution states that natural resources such as fish shall “be utilized, developed and maintained on the sustained yield principle.”

The scientific management of salmon stocks has served the state well since statehood. The state’s salmon habitat is also relatively healthy and in some cases, nearly pristine. This is key to the health of the state’s salmon runs. Scientists agree on what salmon freshwater habitat requirements are.

Salmon return to Alaska waters each year, and the fleets pursue them after a long winter’s wait. When the Copper River fishing fleet returns from the fishing grounds, Ryals, of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association, will be welcoming them back to the harbor in Cordova.

“To see them come home stirs something.” Ryals says. “It feels almost celebratory.”

Dustin Solberg manages communications for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska from Cordova, Alaska.

This first appeared in the June 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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