How important is the seafood industry to Alaska and the nation? At a glance: nearly 60% of all U.S. seafood landings come from Alaska and 96% of all wild- caught salmon. Seafood is by far Alaskas #1 export, valued $2.4 billion last year. Alaska ranks 9th in the world in terms of global seafood production.
The seafood industry is second only to Big Oil in revenues it generates to Alaskas general fund each year, and it provides more Alaska jobs than oil/gas, mining, tourism and timber combined.
Here are some fishing notables from 2012, in no particular order, followed by my annual fish picks and pans:
High winds, frigid temperatures and a record ice pack put the brakes on Alaskas winter fisheries; ice forced the snow crab fleet to extend its season into June.
The US became the first country to put catch quotas on every fish/shellfish species it manages in waters from three to 200 miles from shore. For Alaska, that means 80% of the total annual catch.
The first Bering Sea-sized fishing boat built in-state got underway at Alaska Ship and Dry Dock in Ketchikan a 136 foot, all steel catcher processor for Alaska Longline Company of Petersburg. The worlds first portable floating dry dock was launched at Allen Marine in Sitka; the modular dock can stretch to 160 feet and handle vessels up to 1,000 tons.
Western Alaska CDQ group vessel owners started making plans to homeport their big Bering Sea boats in Seward instead of Seattle.
For the first time, China emerged as the top market for Alaska exports, led by seafood. Halibut catch limits declined again by 20% and the outlook is for a similar reduction in 2013. Since 2004, the Pacific halibut commercial catch has been trimmed 224%.
Pollock skins were cited as a new source for nano fibers that have a similar tissue structure to human organs and skin. Studies show that fish gelatin improves tissue cell growth better than mammalian gels. Governor Parnell changed the mission statement of the state Department of Natural Resources and removed the word conserve. He changed the Governors mission statement too.) It was news to the Alaska legislature which is supposed to approve such changes.
Bristol Bay fishermen continued to get improved grades for improving the quality of their salmon using a report card system and lots of ice.
The industry braced for new rules that will place observers aboard fishing boats smaller than 60 feet, and for the first time, include the 2,000+ halibut longline fleet. The expanded program begins in January. Alaskas salmon season came up short topping 123 million fish, 7% shy of projections. Chiles farmed salmon industry came back on track after fighting disease outbreaks for several years, and flooded markets with fish. Still, Alaskas wild catch held its own in world markets.
It took a quarter of a century, but fishery managers finally began putting the brakes on the 5 million pounds of halibut taken as bycatch by trawl and longline fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska. The North Pacific Council agreed to phase in a 15% reduction plan starting in 2014. The annual Gulf bycatch allotment exceeds the combined harvests for sport halibut fisheries in Southeast and South central Alaska.
Soccer balls, motorcycles and mounds of buoys and Styrofoam began washed ashore in Alaska from the massive 2011 tsunami in Japan. The worst is yet to come, but it remains a head scratcher as to who picks up both the debris and the tab. At least 750,000 tons of debris is expected to hit Alaskas coastline.
Another head scratcher: Growing populations of sea otters continued feasting on Southeast Alaskas stocks of sea cucumbers, crabs, urchins and clams. Estimates peg commercial fishing losses from the otters at $30 million since 1995. Trident Seafoods introduced 100% recyclable AquaSafe fish starting with its shipments of some of the first Copper River reds in mid May.
A first ever accounting of bycatch in US fisheries was unveiled by federal scientists, setting a baseline for the accidental takes of fish, marine mammals, and seabirds by fishing gear. The Southeast region of the U.S. (Gulf of Mexico) led all others with total fish bycatch, Alaska ranked second for fish bycatch and nearly last for marine mammals.
The state gave a $3 million show of support for UAF researchers to buy high tech buoys to measure ocean acidity levels in Alaska waters year round. Alaska fishermen will play an important role in the water sampling research.
More research backed the fact that the tiniest traces of copper in water affect a salmons sense of smell and changes their behavior. A University of Washington/NOAA project confirmed that as little as five parts of copper per billion made the salmon unable to detect predators and were attacked in a matter of seconds.
Dutch Harbor-Unalaska held onto the title of the nations top fishing port for seafood landings. Shrimp, canned tuna and salmon remained as Americas top seafood favorites; Alaska pollock bumped farmed tilapia for the #4 spot. Overall, Americans ate slightly less seafood at 15 pounds per person.
The no show by Alaska Chinook salmon merited a federal disaster declaration for the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Kenai Rivers. The State ramped up research for king salmon rehab statewide, and believe ocean factors are causing the salmon declines.
Despite outpourings of opposition from Congress and constituents, the Food and Drug Administration gave a clean bill of health to genetically tweaked salmon. That clears the way for Frankenfish to become the first scientifically altered animal approved for human consumption anywhere in the world. The 60 public comment period is going on now.
The graying of the fleet continued in Alaska. State data showed that 45 percent of all Alaska permit holders were between the ages 45 and 60, with an average age of 47.
A grassroots effort to bring back Alaskas coastal zone management program failed to get enough votes to get the measure on the ballot. Lieutenant Governor Treadwell certified the Bristol Bay Forever citizens initiative, which aims to protect wild salmon from any new, large-scale .mining in the Bristol Bay Region. Citizens have one year to gather 30,169 signatures to get the measure on the 2014 general election ballot.
Ever-savvy Copper River salmon producers launched a Locator App to help customers easily find the famous salmon at restaurants and markets across the nation. Bristol Bay salmon fishermen quickly followed suit and launched a locator app.
It was back to the drawing board for a widely criticized federal biological opinion on the impact of Western Aleutian fisheries on Steller sea lions. The opinion was used to justify closures of cod and Atka mackerel fisheries, although many felt the conclusions were not supported by the data. The BiOp .will be peer reviewed by the Center for Independent Experts, More local seafood started making its way to Alaskas school lunch trays with the help of a USDA funded Fish to Schools program launched at UAF.
2012 Fish Picks and Pans
Best Fish Samaritans: UFAs Alaska Fishing Industry Relief Mission (AFIRM)
Fondest fish farewell: Ray Riutta, leaving the helm of ASMI after 10 years
Best fish gadget: SCraMP app for iPhones a Small Craft Motion Program that tracks vessel stability
Biggest fishing change: The expanded observer program that includes coverage of small vessels and the 2,000+ halibut longline fleet.
Worst Fish omission: tens of thousands of pages of documents on the proposed Pebble Mine but no images to be found anywhere of what the mine area might look like?
Most savvy fishing town: No town promotes its salmon better and with more pride than Cordova.
Least savvy fishing town: No town promotes or celebrates its fisheries less than Kodiak.
Biggest fish adjustment: the expanded onboard observer program
Best Alaska fishing icons: Bering Sea crabbers
Biggest fish fiasco: NMFS sea lion BiOp blunders
Best hungry fish feeders: Sea Share, Ocean Beauty
Best fish to school boosters: GAPP, the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers
Biggest fish blunder: setting a precedent by removing 11 miles of salmon streams to accommodate a coal mine at Upper Cook Inlet Scariest fish story: ocean acidification
Best home spirit fish move: CDQ boats home porting in Alaska
Worst global fish story: Illegal, Undocumented and Unreported (IUU) catches by fish pirates. UN estimates say IUU catches amount to 20% of the global harvest.
Best fish advocates: Alaska Marine Conservation Council, Renewable Resources Foundation
Biggest fish mix up : Alaska spends $20 million on Peruvian fish feed for its 33 hatcheries while sending 200,000 tons of Alaska-made feeds to Asia.
Best fish bash: Symphony of Seafood
Biggest consumer fish snub: No labeling will be required for genetically modified salmon. to be sure you are getting the real thing and not a manmade mutant look for the Alaska or wild salmon label!
Best seafood advocate: Ray RaLonde, Alaska Sea Grant aquaculture specialist
Trickiest fishing conundrum: What to do about sea otters in Southeast Alaska
Best fish invention: NanoICE - created in Iceland, its a frigid slurry of ice fractions that immerses fish completely, and can be pumped into storage areas on fishing boats and in plants.
Biggest fish WTF? Millions of pounds of halibut tossed as bycatch (by law) while sport and commercial catches get clipped well below their bottom lines.
Biggest fish story of 2012 - Alaskas disappearing Chinook salmon and the anguish and heartbreak, not to mention economic hardship, it has caused for so many.
This year marks the 22nd year for this weekly column that focuses on Alaskas seafood industry. It began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites. A daily spin off Fish Radio airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. The goal of both is to make people aware of the economic, social and cultural importance of Alaskas seafood industry, and to inspire more Alaskans to join its ranks.