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Alaska Fish Factor: countdown to salmon season

Rob Fletcher
Rob Fletcher
07 May 2017, at 1:00am

Alaskas salmon season officially gets underway in less than two weeks. The first fishery for sockeye and king salmon is set for May 18 at Copper River and the town of Cordova is buzzing, said Christa Hoover, executive director of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.

“The mood changes at the start of May with all the folks back in town and boats going in and out of the water,” she said.

Enthusiasm among the fleet of more than 500 drift gillnetters has not been dampened by a reduced harvest projection. Fishery managers expect a Copper River salmon catch this season of just 889,000 sockeyes, 4,000 kings and 207,000 coho salmon.

“Regardless of the forecast from one year to the next, fishermen just want to have their nets in the water. It’s what they do and they are ready to go,” Hoover said.

The marketing group, which is funded and operated by local salmon fishermen, is again working with Alaska Airlines to whisk away the first catches to awaiting retailers and restaurants in Seattle. Every year, images of airline pilots carrying the famous “first fish” off the plane make headlines around the world and add to the media hoopla surrounding the Copper River catches. The salmon are first hand delivered to three chefs who have a cook off on the Sea/Tac airport tarmac. The dishes are served to airline guests who select a winner.

The Cordova group also use the opportunity to promote the fact that Copper River salmon isn’t just a “May event,” Hoover said.

“We do a lot of outreach to help people understand that there are five months of wild Alaska salmon coming out of Cordova, especially with cohos into the fall,” she explained, adding that they also are broadening their salmon messages to build more awareness and appeal for the entire Prince William Sound fishery.

Alaska’s total salmon catch for 2017 is pegged at 204 million fish, nearly one million more than were taken last year.

The breakdown for the five species calls for a sockeye salmon harvest of nearly 41 million, a decrease of 12 million reds from last year. Coho catches should increase slightly to nearly 5 million; for chums, a catch of nearly 17 million is an increase of more than one million fish. The projected statewide take of pink salmon is 142 million, an increase of nearly 103 million humpies over last year. For Chinook salmon, the forecast calls for a catch of 80,000 in regions outside of Southeast Alaska, where the harvest is determined by a treaty with Canada. The all-gear Chinook catch for Southeast in 2017 is 209,700 fish, 146,000 fewer than last year.

Pass on pinks

Alaska salmon fishermen hoping for relief funds from last year’s failed pink salmon fishery appear to be out of luck. The pink fishery, the worst in over 40 years, was officially declared a failure in January by former US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, setting the stage for fishermen and other stakeholders at Kodiak, Prince William Sound and Lower Cook Inlet to seek disaster assistance from the federal government.

The monetary assistance, however, was not included in last week’s huge $1 trillion-plus spending bill approved by Congress to keep the government operating through September. The bill also did not include disaster relief funds for West Coast salmon and crab fisheries. Congress could choose to appropriate the money separately, but chances of that happening are slim.

Antibiotics turn off

For 20 years, the movement to use the “power of the purse” to promote and reward sustainably managed fisheries has set a global standard for seafood purchases. Today, it’s nearly impossible for a company to do business without being officially certified as a source for earth-friendly seafood.

This month another global effort was launched that uses the same strategy to promote new standards for the use of antibiotics in seafood and other animal products.

The Michigan-based National Sanitation Foundation International has tested food products for health and safety since 1944. Its new Raised Without Antibiotics certification program will provide independent verification of claims made on food packages that they are antibiotic-free, including seafood, meats, dairy, eggs, even leather and certain supplements.

The campaign follows a NSF survey last year that showed nearly 60 percent of consumers prefer products that are free from antibiotics.

That’s backed up by the NPD Group, a market tracker that operates in 20 countries, interviews 12 million consumers each year and monitors purchase data from more than 165,000 stores. The Group said that consumers are demanding “free from” foods with fewer additives, especially antibiotics, growth hormones, tweaked genes, and they are reading labels like never before.

Antibiotics are widely used in the farmed fish industry, most notably in Chile (the largest importer to the US), which has come under fire for using more than one million pounds of antibiotics to ward off a fish virus, according to the National Service of Fisheries and Aquaculture. What’s worse, Intrafish reported that 50 Chilean salmon companies refused to disclose the amount and type of antibiotics they used, saying “such disclosure would threaten their business competitiveness.”

In contrast, Norway, the world’s biggest farmed salmon producer, uses about 2,100 pounds of antibiotics, mostly to combat fish lice. Sea lice are the farmed Atlantic salmon industry’s most expensive problem, costing around $550 million in lost output each year.

“Free from” food labeling requirements and guidelines generally apply to products raised in a controlled environment,” said Jeremy Woodrow, Communications Director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

“Salmon in Alaska hatcheries may also receive antibiotics on occasion, but there have been no detectable levels of antibiotics found by the time the salmon are harvested in the ocean.”

NSF International is now seeking companies to sign on to its Raised Without Antibiotics campaign, saying: “Without an independent protocol and certification process, customers have not been able to verify claims made by marketers – until now.”

Good idea grants

Gulf of Alaska groundfish are at the forefront for “innovation” grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Fisheries Innovation Fund. The Fund is a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Walton Family Foundation.

The grants, totaling $650,000, aim to support projects that help sustain fishermen and coastal communities, promote safety, and support fishery conservation and management. While the Gulf is selected as a target area, the Innovation Fund will consider proposals in all US fisheries, both commercial and recreational.

Successful projects should include approaches that promote full utilization of catches and minimize bycatch, develop markets, research and training, and “improve the quality, quantity and timeliness of fisheries-dependent data used for science, management and fishermen’s business purposes,” according to a NFWF statement.

Alaska groups and communities have obtained several Innovation grants in recent years. They include Sitka’s Fisheries Trust Network that aims to acquire and keep catch quotas local, the Alaska Marine Conservation Council’s “Every Halibut Counts” project that promotes gentle release methods, and the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization for its sport sector catch share project. The Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association and the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association also have received grants to test electronic monitoring systems.

Pre-proposals are due May 25 and invitations for full proposals will be sent on June 29. Full proposals are due on August 31 and the NFWF will announce award winners by November 17. Find more information and applications  here