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.
“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.