The convergence of a trend noted in the WWF report – the build-up of plastics in the worlds’ oceans – and a globally heightened interest in RAS – a potential breakthrough technology of the future – could have serious, serious implications for the Alaska economy.
Most people reading this are unlikely at this time to recognize the meaning of RAS – recirculating aquaculture system. But in the fishing business, RAS is on its way to becoming one of those tech acronyms that become their own word.
GPS went live in 1989, and Magellan Industries hit the market with a handheld, GPS navigation device not long after. It took awhile for GPS to catch on. Loran C – a shore-based, long-range navigation system – remained the norm for mariners off the Alaska coast well into the mid-1990s, and it wasn’t finally shut down until 2015.
By then, GPS was everywhere, and journalists had stopped referring to it as satellite “tracking by the global positioning system (GPS)” and just wrote “GPS.” It had become an everyday word like “laser,” an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” or “taser,” an acronym for “Thomas A Swift’s electronic rifle,” or a bunch of other now common words from “care package” to “zip code” that began as acronyms.
“RAS Conference in Miami Attracting Strong Investor Interest” is how Undercurrent headlined the story, below which it featured Norwegian fish farmer Tone Bjornstad Hanstad quoting Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates:
“‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10,’ the Microsoft co-founder and former CEO said in his late 1995 book, adding: ‘Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.'”
Recirculating aquaculture systems are the technological answer to the biggest problem facing the salmon aquaculture industry today, the public relations storm of accusations that salmon farming threatens the environment.
There is also, unfortunately for Alaska fisheries, a food safety side to RAS that is valuable to the salmon farmers who long ago took over the global salmon market and now own 75 percent of it. And that food safety issue goes way beyond the parasites common in wild salmon, parasites that kept salmon sushi out of Japanese sushi bars until the Norwegians arrived with farmed fish.
Farmed salmon marketers have picked up on the fact that RAS salmon can be raised in clean, controlled, filtered water in today’s polluted world.
“They are grown without any antibiotics or pesticides ever. No contaminants or pollutants like you’ll find in the ocean” as Festival Foods, a Wisconsin supermarket chain, put it in pitching Superior Fresh salmon.
Though global bankers seem to be gambling on expensive, industrial-size RAS salmon farms, such as the one on which Atlantic Sapphire broke ground in Florida, operations like Superior Fresh might pose the biggest threat to Alaska salmon in the market place in an age when “locally grown” and “farm-to-table” have become buzz words in the grocery business.
Superior Fresh could prove to be the fish version of the craft-beer breweries that have overrun the U.S. in the past decade. Craft beer went from less than 1,500 breweries in 2007 to more than 6,000 by 2017, according to the Statista website.
Wild is better
Alaska commercial fishing interests have long taken solace in the idea that a “wild-caught” cachet will guarantee a premium for 49th state salmon in the marketplace, but that premise looks increasingly tenuous.
Or maybe it was always tenuous.
Wesley Loy, a one-time fisheries reporter at the Anchorage Daily News and now the editor of Pacific Fishing magazine, decades ago noted a possible downside to “wild.” His relatives back in the American Heartland didn’t see “wild” as a good thing, he said; they saw it as a bad thing.
They were conditioned to favor domestically grown fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and fish as cleaner and healthier than similar, unmonitored products from the wild.
Alaska wild was at its best when fish farms were being accused of selling a unhealthy product, but that has changed in recent years. Both the WWF and Monterey Bay Aquarium, which runs a well-known “Seafood Watch Program,” are now working with the farmers.
Seafood Watch once teamed with Alaska wild-salmon interests in an attack on farmed salmon. For reasons that are not clear, it changed its position in 2015, and not a single Alaska salmon is on the organization’s 2018 list of “Best Choice” salmon selections.
And now comes the WWF preaching about the badly polluted nature of the world’s ocean.
“Plastic pollution has been detected in all major marine environments worldwide, from
shorelines and surface waters down to the deepest parts of the ocean, including the bottom of the Mariana Trench,” says the WWF “Living Planet Report” for 2018.
Plastic pollution is today everywhere. There is no doubt about that. Volumes of microplastics and nanoplastics are accumulating in the North Pacific Ocean as in every other ocean, and salmon eat these plastics.
Canadian scientists concluded “juvenile salmon off the British Columbia coast would consume two to seven microplastic particles per day in its prey,” the website FishBio reported. “For those of us who enjoy eating Pacific salmon, this is a truly unsettling thought – the last thing we want is seafood riddled with plastic.”
Whether these salmon-ingested plastics pose any legitimate threat to human health, no one really knows. The risks could be nothing as with threats of salmon being contaminated with radiation from the disastrous meltdown at Japan’s Fukishima nuclear power plant in 2011.
But in these days of the-sky-is-falling environmental fears, even what isn’t can scare people away from certain foods, especially when hyped by the media – fake or otherwise.
“The entire Pacific Coast of the United States, Canada and Mexico has been contaminated with radioactive particles from Fukushima,” reported ZeroHedge.com. “And finally, it is being officially acknowledged. This is really happening…
“Of course, they claim that it is “safe” because the levels are low. USA Today emphasized the ridiculously minuscule dose of radiation that say, a swimmer would get at the beach – while admitted for the first time that those warning about the spreading radiation were, in fact, correct….(and) the linear thinking about ‘low levels’ ignores the mounting scientific evidence about cumulative exposure to radioactive isotopes and other toxins and free radicals.”
In this post-truth world of fake news where so many define facts solely by what they want to believe, it probably wouldn’t take much of a suggestion of danger to cause many to believe “wild” salmon are something to be avoided.
“Clean, filtered water” and “carefully monitored feed,” possibly even “government-certified feed,” could become big selling points for farmed fish going forward. Wegmans, a major supermarket chain in the Northeast, is already selling “EU Organic Salmon” while the U.S. government wrestles with the issue of organic certification for farmed and/or wild salmon.
“Wegmans seafood buyers are proud of the farmed salmon offered in our stores,” the company says on its website. “They work with aquaculture partners who rely on the latest-science so we can offer fresh, high-quality, great-tasting, environmentally compatible, and competitively priced salmon. All salmon sold at Wegmans meets or beats FDA (Food and Drug Administration) standards.”
Top dog to second fiddle?
There are legitimate reasons to worry “Alaska wild salmon” could go from a premium product to something less pretty quick, although the demand will be there for a long time at lower price points.
Asia-Pacific markets for canned salmon are projected to grow through 2024. China and India are seen as growth centers.
The problem for Alaska is that prices paid fishermen for the salmon stuffed into cans are a fraction of the prices paid fishermen for salmon to be sold fresh or “fresh-frozen,” and it now appears inevitable that Alaska salmon processors, who already ship large volumes of salmon to China for processing, will be forced to replace humans with machines to compete with the fish farmers already running highly automated plants.
Norwegian “producers are turning to lasers, automation and artificial intelligence to boost production and cut costs,” the BBC reported earlier this year.
“It’s not hard to imagine highly automated fish farms of the future, in which humans have very little to do,” reporter Chris Baraniuk wrote. And the technology doesn’t stop at the farm.
“Since the end of May 2018…Norwegian salmon producer Leroy has been operating a new highly automated salmon processing plant…(where) hardly any people are needed in the entire production area,” Eurofish magazine reported in its September/October issue.
“The slaughter and processing lines are almost fully automated. Self-propelled forklifts transport the finished products, and the huge amounts of data for traceability and analysis purposes are stored in the cloud.”
Automated head and gut (H&G) machines have already come to Alaska. Seattle-based Trident, the biggest processor in the Alaska seafood business, boasts how its “Kodiak facility was expanded in 2015 to include a new, fully-automated H&G production line for Alaska pollock and salmon.”
More automation is sure to follow. It will save processors from the headache of trying to recruit cheap labor from around the globe to work summer operations in remote parts of Alaska, but it will not be good for the small Alaska communities home to seasonal workers. Low-paid workers don’t do a lot to boost local economies on their own, but the money spent by their employers to house and feed them are a significant boost for those communities.
Meanwhile, the loss of processing jobs and the probable loss of effective income to commercial fishermen as salmon prices stay fixed in a market controlled by farmed fish portends big economic problems for the state’s now third largest industry behind oil and tourism.
Alaska’s response so far has been to ignore the wave of change on the horizon, oppose any attempts at innovation in salmon harvesting operations, and try harder to sell wild-caught salmon. When the automated processing equipment arrives, it will likely have been built by Iceland’s Martel, an industry leader, and the few people necessary and trained to run the equipment will probably come from Outside.
The economic return to the state will be small. The loss could be significant given how little the commercial fishing industry already contributes in state revenue.
The annual revenue the state collects from the fishing is near equal to what the oil industry pays in three weeks, according to the Department of Revenue, but more than a third of fisheries taxes go back to the industry to help it pay for hatcheries or marketing.
Deduct those kickbacks, and the annual revenue from fish equals about two weeks worth of state revenue from oil. What the state gets to keep doesn’t quite cover the cost of managing and policing the commercial fisheries, according to an ISER study.
Worse yet, most of the revenue the state keeps, and shares with municipalities, comes from a landing tax on each fishermen’s catch, which means that if the value of the fish go down the state and local communities gets less.
The picture going forward does not look good.
Not even the experts seem to have an answer as to what to do to maintain the value of Alaska salmon fisheries, but Gunnar Knapp, the retired director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has talked about the need for innovation.
Innovation, of course, starts with people talking about the problem, and as with so many Alaska issues, hardly anyone wants to talk about the problem. In this case, they’d much rather just argue over who gets to catch the fish.