Adapt or die

adapt or die

Alaska needs to find ways to encourage innovation in the commercial fishing industry to head off declines in a struggling, one-time mainstay of the state economy, the former director of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute on Social and Economic Research (ISER) is warning.

Presenting at the International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade in Seattle this week, economist Gunnar Knapp, an expert on Alaska fisheries, warned that aquaculture is continuing its takeover of global markets and appears destined to push its technological advantage into the future.

“Aquaculture will be more able to take advantage of technology than wild fisheries,” he warned in a Power Point presentation aptly titled “The Future of the Seafood Industry.”

“We can’t predict – or maybe even imagine – the changes technological innovation may bring,” Knapp warned. “Self-driving smart fishing gear? Integrated algae-based open ocean aquaculture? Fully-automated seafood processing & distribution?”

Salmon farmers are already approaching the latter objective, which brings with it significant cost savings. Farmers are likely to dictate markets going forward with two-thirds of global seafood consumption expected to be farmed fish by 2030.

Knapp’s prognosis for ever-changing salmon markets is unlikely to sit well with 49th state commercial fishermen mired in the 20th Century, and his latest presentation is unlikely to win him any new fans in-state with his suggestion that Alaska needs to find better ways to harvest wild fish.

“Can’t we think of a better way to catch Bristol Bay wild salmon than gillnets?” he boldly asks. “Fish are bruised as they are caught in and removed from gillnets.”

Bristol Bay is Alaska’s most valuable wild salmon fishery. And Alaska fishermen there have been proactive in trying to improve gillnet salmon quality over the years. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) in 1986 established Alaska Seafood Quality Guidelines that called on fishermen to:

  • “Remove fish from gear gently;
  • “Do not handle fish by the tail;
  • “Do not throw, kick or step on fish;
  • “Protect fish from damage in shaft alley or any other part of the vessel.

“Note that pulling a fish by the tail stretches the backbone, breaking blood vessels
along the spine. Blood seeps into the surrounding tissue and forms a bruise that
cannot be seen until the salmon is filleted or split.
“No pughs, forks, picks, hooks or pumps which damage fish should be used.”

Better, not best

Over the years since, fishermen have increasingly followed those guidelines, and in recent years there has been a steady transition to ASMI recommended chilled sea water (CSW) cooling systems, often referred to simply as “slush ice,” on fishing boats to maintain the quality of salmon between initial harvest, tenders and the processing plant.

But handling remains far from perfect from a quality control standpoint. Some drift gillnetters still lack CSW and cooling fish is a problem in set gillnet fisheries.

“Burlap used to protect fish from exposure to sun and air (in those fisheries) should be washed in salt water after every use and should be replaced often,” ASMI suggests.

“Alaska salmon harvesting technologies haven’t changed since limited entry legislation established gear types 40-plus years ago,” Knapp noted. “No one thinks about finding a better way to catch Bristol Bay wild salmon.”

The latter is not quite true of all Alaska salmon, however. Cleaner, more efficient, more stock selective ways to harvest fish have been discussed over the year; the discussions just never went anywhere because of vested special interests.

Thirty years ago, Bob Penney of Anchorage, one of the founders of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, suggested eliminating the problem of king salmon interception in setnets off the mouth of the river by building a sockeye salmon fish trap 40 miles upriver.

The setnets, which fish primarily for Kenai and Kasilof rivers sockeye but catch king salmon from throughout Cook Inlet  plus sockeye and coho from elsewhere, would have been eliminated, and the setnet fishermen given shares in a cooperative that would have run the trap and distributed sockeye harvest profits among former setnetters based on their level of historic harvest.

The idea went down in flames, the least of its problems being the state’s statutory ban on fish traps which dates back to Statehood. Statehood founders wanted the traps banned to break the chokehold Seattle-based processors held on Alaska fisheries. Setnetters wanted the ban maintained because they feared, likely with some justification, that sport fishing interests would try to reduce any trap catches that paid former commercial fishermen for doing nothing.

Knapp noted these sorts of “disincentives for innovation” in Alaska, and the powerful political interests that seek always to maintain the status quo.

“Politics will (continue to) drive the extent to which the seafood industry is able to respond to future opportunities and challenges,” Knapp wrote. “My guess?
Globally, fish and aquaculture politics will gradually shift to enable fisheries
and aquaculture to better respond to future opportunities and challenges.”

Aquaculture has proven itself highly adaptable. Salmon aquaculture, for instance, is now moving onshore to avoid accusations that the net pens of marine fish farms lead to ocean pollution. On land, they are raising fish in filtered water and feeding them increasing amounts of carefully controlled vegetable protein and insects. 

Alaskan interests have pushed back against farmed fish by preaching the virtues of “wild salmon” as better than farmed fish, but it seems only a matter of time before that table gets turned.

Which would you rather eat? Salmon raised in clean, filtered water fed government-certified safe food or those that spent their life swimming around in the North Pacific “garbage patch” eating microplastics and who knows what else.


A changing world

Knapp put together something of a report card for wild fisheries versus aquaculture, and wild didn’t score so well.

Farmed fish scored  better for growth potential, production control, innovation and adaptability. About the only place Knapp rated wild fish higher was in terms of “more political power.”

But the political landscape is already changing. Commercial fishing interests still largely dictate fishing policy in Alaska, where fish farming is banned and processor-backed ocean ranching is on the increase despite possible threats to wild fish.

Nationally, however, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), once a major opponent of fish farming, says this:

“The rapid expansion of the aquaculture industry has not come without impacts. As a conservation organization, WWF is concerned about the negative effects the industry has had— and could continue to have—on the environment and society. We know that when done responsibly, aquaculture’s impact on wild fish populations, marine habitats, water quality and society can be significantly and measurably reduced.”

Instead of trying to end farming, WWF now says it is working with fish farmers, government and non-government entities and financial institutions to develop “measurable and performance-based standards for responsibly farmed seafood.”

And the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), which once tried to kill salmon farming in favor of Alaska’s ocean ranching with backing from the Packard Foundation, has also shifted its view. MBA is now talking about how “aquaculture can meet growing global demand,”  and warning against over-fishing in the wild. 

As if Alaska didn’t have enough problems, MBA’s “Seafood Watch” today says that “when good practices are used, it’s possible to farm seafood in a way that has very little impact to the environment. Such operations limit habitat damage, disease, escapes of farmed fish and the use of wild fish as feed.”

Worst yet, it suggests as the “Best Choice” for seafood consumers a long list of farmed salmon. Atlantic salmon from indoor recirculating tanks top the list, followed by marine, net-pen salmon from the Salten Aqua Group in Norway or from New Zealand. The only wild salmon making the “Best Choice” list are pinks and sockeyes from Washington state caught using “lift nets.”

Alaska salmon don’t even make it on the chart, but that’s better than the “Avoid” list which leans heavily toward Chilean and Scottish farmed salmon and wild salmon from Puget Sound.



















19 replies »

  1. Gunnar Knapp’s comments on Craig Medred’s blog posting:

    I want to offer some clarifications of what I did and did not say in my presentation. The presentation is posted online on my website at The best way to understand what I did and didn’t say is to read the presentation.

    Craig’s opening sentence (“Alaska needs to find ways to encourage innovation in the commercial fishing industry to head off declines in a struggling, one-time mainstay of the state economy. . . “) may imply to some readers that my presentation was specifically about Alaska, and/or that I characterized Alaska’s commercial fishing industry as “struggling.”

    In fact, my presentation was about the global seafood industry and the opportunities and challenges that the global seafood industry (both wild fisheries and aquaculture) will likely face in the future, particularly as a result of climate change and technological change. I only mentioned Alaska on 2 of the presentation’s 40 slides, and only in order to provide an example of how wild fishery regulations can prevent or slow innovation.

    It is Craig’s characterization—not mine—that Alaska’s commercial fisheries are “struggling.” I would personally argue that while some of Alaska’s many different fisheries are “struggling,” many others are thriving. Alaska’s commercial fisheries are far too big and diverse to characterize with any single word.

    Craig focuses much of his posting on some of the issues in Cook Inlet salmon fisheries. Note that for all the attention and debate it draws, Cook Inlet accounts for a relatively small share of Alaska’s total commercial salmon harvest—and salmon in turn are only one of four major Alaska fisheries (along with groundfish, crab and halibut). Cook Inlet commercial fisheries’ issues are complex and important—but they are not representative of those facing most Alaska commercial fisheries.

    Craig offers his own interpretation of how well Alaska commercial fisheries are doing (and likely to do) in responding to the evolving opportunities and challenges of the future. Personally, I am optimistic about the future of Alaska commercial fisheries, although I do believe that they will need to continue to change (in different ways, for different fisheries) in order to respond to evolving opportunities and challenges as the climate changes and technology rapidly advances.

    In my presentation, I wrote (referring to global wild fisheries, not just Alaska commercial fisheries): “Can wild fisheries survive future competition from aquaculture? YES. Wild fisheries will remain a huge and valuable resource. Growing demand will create new market opportunities. BUT the economic success of specific wild fisheries will depend upon management which enables sustainability, efficiency, innovation and market orientation throughout the supply chain.”

    Reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which different Alaska commercial fisheries are achieving—or are likely to be able to achieve—sustainability, efficiency, innovation and market orientation throughout the value chain. But regardless of what you think about these issues, what I hope my presentation will get people thinking about and talking about is the kinds of opportunities that climate change and technological change will pose for all our fisheries (not just commercial fisheries, but also sport, subsistence and personal use) in the future, and what we will need to do to take advantage of the opportunities and respond to the challenges.


    • thank you, Mr. Knapp. and the author of the article (that would be me) probably should have clarified that the “struggles” are in the salmon industry where Alaska now faces difficult and steadily growing competition from farmers who can produce salmon on a timely and steady basis.

      the fluctuating nature of wild fisheries alone makes for a market struggle. it’s a big part of the reason the major processors wrote that memo to Prince William Sound hatcheries back in 2010 saying:

      “We would like production to increase to 70 million in both even and odds years over the next five years, which would bring hatchery production to roughly 50 percent of that total.”

      a large and steady flow of fish through a processing plant maximizes efficiency, as you well know. the oscillating nature of our production now minimizes efficiency. from 2000-2009 the average statewide hatchery pinks returns were 32.6 million in even years and 55.9 million in odd years.

      the last few years we seem to be oscillating even more. the pink harvest fell to 39 million in 2016; shot up to 142 million last year, and now appears to be lagging again badly this year. there are some scientists who suggest our efforts to boost ocean production with salmon ranching might have done little more than magnify natural oscillations driven by the even-odd years numbers of voracious pinks.

      a 100-million-fish per year difference in pink returns plays havoc with processing efficiency.

      given all of this, i think “struggling” is a very characterization of where we are at with salmon most everywhere than Bristol Bay, which appears at least temporarily stable. but we pretty much own the ocean fisheries.

  2. Knapp is clueless. The most efficient way of harvesting wild salmon was figured out long ago. Fish traps. It allows you to accurately count and control escapement better than any method used currently. And it minimizes the cost of harvesting. Ban commercial gill nets, seining, sport fishing and dip netting for salmon. State run fish traps will catch all salmon. People and businesses will buy fish from the state.

    Also, stop using the North Pacific for free-range ranching of invasive hatchery humpies. It’s so ironic that Alaska is anti-fish farming, when hatchery pink ranching is the biggest salmon environmental disaster ever devised.

    • “In 2016, after FDA issued Import Alert 99-40, Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, which charged the U.S. Department of Agriculture with promulgating regulations regarding the labeling of food derived from “bioengineered” sources, which has implications for this Import Alert and the labeling of this product. At this time, the FDA’s Import Alert continues to remain in effect, meaning that AquaBounty cannot import AquAdvantage Salmon, including its eggs or any food from the salmon, into the U.S.”

      • While the Indiana facility is approved for production, the company is prohibited from importing the eggs necessary for producing genetically engineered (GE) salmon at the facility because of a requirement in FDA’s current appropriations law.

    • Not a supporter but, Trump? Come on.
      Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she opposes federal approval of genetically engineered salmon “for the health of both consumers and fisheries.” But there is no scientific evidence that suggests GE salmon will pose a significant risk to either.

      Murkowski claims GE salmon may “interbreed with the wild stocks, and thus perhaps destroy them.” But GE salmon have been rendered sterile — meaning they can’t interbreed with wild salmon stocks. Geographic and physical confinement measures also limit the likelihood that the GE fish will escape and survive.

      As for human consumption, scientists engineered GE salmon to grow faster than non-GE farm-raised salmon by inserting genes from two other fish into the genome of an Atlantic salmon. After these changes, the GE salmon remained nutritionally and physiologically comparable to non-GE salmon, according to Food and Drug Administration’s scientific assessments, so the agency deemed GE salmon “safe to eat.”

  3. “Can’t we think of a better way to catch Bristol Bay wild salmon than gillnets?”

    Now that made me laugh out loud! Yeah Gunnar, it is (was) called fish traps. You know, one of the reasons Alaska wanted OUT of federal control. Like, companies that were not based in AK hoovering simple minded salmon in the most efficient (they weren’t stupid) method known to man. Now go and figure how to make that fly, again. And if we just had to feed people without the obvious political problems, that’s what we would do as being the most ‘economical’ method. Sorry permit holders.

    Now, being a retired seiner…….

  4. Hmmm, sadly it will not be long before the Chinese roll in buying everything up. Well, at least they will put a sticker on it that says “processed” in Alaska with a nice American Flag.

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