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Tomorrow’s fishery

 

atlantic sapphire 2

The October status of the salmon fishery of the future/Atlantic Sapphire photo

While fisheries biologists in the north are hard at work crunching numbers in an effort to develop their best guess at how many salmon will return to Alaska next year, Atlantic Sapphire is getting ready to load it first 800,000 salmon eggs into a massive, onshore “Bluehouse” in Florida.

 

A “successful 90-day, on site hatchery trial has validated water quality and local conditions,” the Norwegian company said in a report to shareholders in mid-November.

The company is expecting to be producing 10,000 tons of salmon annually by the second quarter of 2020, and envisions eventual expansion to 90,000 tons per year.

The implications for Alaska commercial salmon fisheries are significant, but those who suggest the growing competition warrants some serious discussion as to how the 49th state retains value in its salmon resources are generally vilified as commercial fishery haters.

Alaskans like to believe their wild salmon are easily marketable as superior to those raised on farms, but it was farmed salmon that led a big boom in  sales in Japan – home to some discerning fish consumers – because the farmed fish were safer to eat.

“To capitalize on salmon’s popularity, efforts to culture the fish are (now) starting in various parts of Japan,” NHK Newsline from Tokyo reported in October. “In August, Kotoura Town in Tottori Prefecture started shipping silver salmon grown at an onshore facility.”

Japanese onshore production is so far small, but the 90,000 tons Atlantic Sapphire plans is massive.

“Between 1978 and 2003, the Bristol Bay sockeye harvest averaged 62,000 metric tons (mt), and ranged from a low of 26,000 mt to a high of 110,000 mt,” according to a report written by Alaska fisheries economist Gunnar Knapp, who first started warning about the farmed fish challenge to Alaska salmon more than a decade ago.

“In 1980, total world salmon supply was less than 550,000 tons, of which 98 percent was wild,” he wrote in a 2004 report. “By 2001 world supply had more than quadrupled to more than 2.2 million tons, 62 percent of which was farmed.”

The percentage of farmed salmon in the marketplace is now up over 70 percent, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and steadily growing thanks to projects like that in Florida.

Atlantic  Sapphire’s start-up production of 10,000 tons will about equal the average sockeye salmon harvest in Cook Inlet, the waterway at the doorstep of the state’s largest city.

And if the company’s massive, U.S. recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) proves successful, the company’s Homestead, Fla., operation is expected to be a model for others.

RAS is the hot topic in global aquaculture these days. A company called Pure Salmon announced only a month ago that it was investing $162 million to build the “Soul of Japan,” a state-of-the-art, land-based salmon farm in that country.

“Pure Salmon will use RAS technology in its land-based farms, a proven and scalable method of aquaculture,” reported Far Eastern Agriculture. “With further planned rollouts of large-scale facilities of 10,000 tonnes or 20,000 tonnes production per annum in the US, Europe, China and around the world, Pure Salmon’s launch is seen to generate hundreds of local jobs and helping solve the global fish shortage in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Practical realities

The advantages to processors of salmon farms, whether onshore or off, are hard to ignore. The farms provide a reliable supply of fish on a year-round basis, instead of an unknown number of fish seasonally.

Year-round operations mean dealing with a limited-size staff of full-time employees instead of trying to annually round-up a large staff of seasonal employees. Because farmed salmon can be harvested to very specific sizes, it is easier to create computer run processing lines.

LeRoy Seafood, a Norwegian company, opened the world’s first fully automated salmon fish processing plant in the Netherlands earlier this year, Salmon Business reported.

Meanwhile, Norway’s Cermaq AS is building what it calls the world’s first “Smart Factory” for salmon processing north of the Arctic Circle. Its new 86,000-square-foot plant at Storskjæret on the island of Vandve will take fish processing out of the hands of people and put it under the control of machines.

Every major salmon processor is now in the farmed fish business because it’s where the future of the industry is headed. There will always be a market for Alaska salmon, of course, no matter what happens with farming.

But the question is what that market will look like.

Alaska salmon is already a niche product. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has tried to push “the superiority of wild Alaska fish, much the same as producers of free range meats market their fare,” as Sitka writer Will Swagel observed in Alaska Business Monthly magazine. 

“And, much the same as free range meats, wild fish have a firmer texture than fish raised in crowded pens. The Alaska fish are also free of the antibiotics needed to cope with diseases that can arise from that crowding and of the dyes farmed salmon receive to make their flesh a desirable bright red color.”

The problem is that farmed fish are winning blind-tasting competitions, RAS systems eliminate the need for antibiotics and free farmers from criticism about escaped salmon, and the fish are usually not dyed.

“In both wild and farm-raised salmon, that red color comes from pigmenting compounds called carotenoids, which are found in crustaceans, algae and other naturally occurring sources,” writes Mahita Gajanan at Time. “While wild salmon get their color by eating shrimp and krill, farm-raised salmon generally have carotenoids added to their feed, either through natural ingredients like ground-up crustaceans or synthetic forms created in a lab.”

Which salmon are healthier – wild or farmed – is open to debate, but debating it is largely irrelevant at this time in that the farmed salmon have taken over the market and are only expanding their presence.

Because of their market dominance, farmed salmon exert a strong influence on the price of wild-caught fish. That isn’t going to change. And as farming increases, there is going to be less pressure on processors to negotiate with Alaska fishermen on price, although the state’s female wild salmon remain highly valuable for their roe.

The value of roe in pink and chum salmon can top the value of the fish. Farmed fish are generally harvested before they reach sexual maturity.

Alaska has also been exploring new markets for salmon in Asia, but those are not the premium markets to which the state once tried to market wild salmon as healthier and better for the environment.

Improving aquaculture took some of the steam out of that pitch. Diversified salmon processors involved with ASMI, wild salmon and farmed salmon did more to steer marketing campaigns toward the current idea that all salmon is good but Alaska salmon is better.

How much longer that sales pitch will work is questionable.

“Inside the BluehouseTM, the water is continuously purified to remain crystal clear by a state of the art filtration system. Furthermore, the fish are free to swim against strong currents, as they do in the wild,” Atlantic Sapphire says in its marketing. 

“Atlantic Sapphire salmon will never have contact with sea lice or be exposed to wild fish diseases. This allows them to grow strong and healthy in a humane way.

“The waste generated in our BluehouseTM is used as fertilizer and creation of renewable energy in the form of biogas.”

The best Alaska could hope for is that RAS technology fails, but that looks unlikely. The other alternative, as suggested by Knapp, is innovation in Alaska fisheries.

The problem with that idea is that innovation usually means more efficient harvesting to get more value out of the fish, and more efficient harvesting is likely to mean a reduction in the number of fishermen as happened in the state’s Panhandle where a permit buyback program was organized.

Downsizing works well for the fishermen who remain, and maybe for those bought out, but the overall impacts on the state’s economy can be problematic. The same can be said for increasingly automated processing likely to make it into Alaska fish processing operations in the future.

All of this raises questions about how Alaska can get maximum value out of its salmon resource going forward, but the state seems so mired in opposition to the idea of change in anything that even talking about the problem is difficult.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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11 replies »

  1. Jeremiah: As to a drop in the bucket, I couldn’t agree more.

    Sadly, too, it’s a drop in the bucket that consumes an inordinate amount of time for the Board of Fisheries and tends to lead many of those in the state’s population center to view commercial fishermen as greedy bastards.

    I’m sure such fishermen must exist because people like that exist in every other business, but I’ve only ever met one fisherman who fits the bill. All of the other commercial fishermen I’ve known in Alaska over the years were hardworking people trying to make a living in a tough business that looks to be getting tougher by the year.

    I’d hate to be trying to negotiate price with processors as they become ever more entrenched in the salmon farming business. Note Icicles purchase by Cooke Seafood which has described itself as “a vertically-integrated aquaculture corporation.” https://www.cookeseafood.com/divisions/cooke-aquaculture/

    That company’s deep involvement with farmed fish can only drive down its demand for Alaska wild salmon. Simply put, Cooke doesn’t need them as much as a company dependent on wild salmon for business survival.

    Couple weaker demand with huge supply in those years when we get monster runs, and all one can see is downward pressure on prices. Commercial fishermen are headed for a market meat grinder similar to that which shredded journalism businesses.

    When someone produces your product cheaper and faster, you’re in trouble.

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  2. Not much sympathy for the commercial fisheries here in AK. They have been wielding an outsized influence on fishing in AK where sportsman fishing has had no/none-existent voice on the fishery board. They have stripped a local recreation to one that is onerous and poor harvesting. The state’s Fish and Game have become commercial fishery’s tool. Everything from halibut fishing, crabbing, to salmon fishing have left sports fishermen scrapping the bottom of the barrel. Commercial fishermen don’t get cited and prosecuted as often and as severely as sports fishermen because the state has become so dependent from the fees they charge commercial fisheries. They rely on commercial fishery to fatten the state’s coffer and demand all Alaskans to comply with their onerous and harsh rules on sports fishing. When things go wrong, tons of fishes are wasted by commericical fishery. Even dipnetting, a time when family can finally stock up on fishes once a year now have to vie with commercial fishermen on the short 3 weeks they can harvest for the family. Commercial fishery have wielded the greedy government of Alaska as its enforcer and tool; like Jack Smothers, I will be amused to see how technology finally deliver some justice for Alaskans. I am all for farmed salmon. It will relieve the pressure on wild salmons all over.

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    • Iain: I’ve got to defend commercial fishermen here because I’m not sure they will.

      They’ve used the political system of democracy to defend their financial interests. The system is built to work that way.

      The problem is not so much what they have done as what other fishermen HAVE NOT done. Sport fishermen and personal-use dipnetters have a small voice in the process because instead of engaging politically they have expected government to take care of them.

      Subsistence fishermen managed to gain a bigger voice thanks to federal legislation and legal actions. Without that, they would be in the same position as sportfishermen and dipnetters.

      Alaska needs a vibrant commercial fishery. It is the only working economy in most of the rural area of the state. But the Fish Board also needs to start managing for economic value, and in some places – like Cook Inlet – that likley means putting more fish in the sport fishery and possibly the dipnet fishery.

      About the latter, unfortunately, we don’t know. No one has looked at it’s economic value to all Alaskans. It certainly has economic value to all of us who fill our freezers. Beyond that, it’s an unknown.

      Having driven the Sterling Highway during dipnet season and seen lines of cars heading south, I’d personally love to know how much they spend per pound on their salmon. It might be that the fishery generates a bigger economic bang than a cheap-ass like me thinks.

      I figure my Kenai sockeye work out to something like $1 to $1.25 per pound figuring mileage at 30 cents a mile and investments in a limited amount of gear over the years. Great deal for me and my family. Not such a great deal for the state.

      Even unguided, non-resident anglers were spending $213.24 per day back in 2007, the last time the state looked at the economics. A limit of Kenai sockeye at that rate equals about $64. That’s about $9 to $10 per pound before one corrects for inflation, and it is money spent here in Alaska.

      The legitimate complaint here isn’t that the Board listens to commercial fishermen or fails to listen to other fishermen. It should listen to everyone. But it should also factor the best economic interests of all Alaskans (most of whom don’t fish) into its deliberations, and it doesn’t even attempt to do that.

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      • Most commercial fishermen don’t even know what dipnetting is. The AK seafood industry is incredibly expansive and diverse. There’s a myopic perspective that the comm. fish. industry somehow revolves around Cook Inlet and the Kenia River for sportfishermen weekend worriors in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley. I undurstand there’s issues there, but it’s a drop in the bucket for the industry as a whole. Great article by the way

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      • Craig,unless you get company time off,it costs you one HELL of alot more than that.
        Try a factor of 10+in my case.It just doesnt pencil out,I sorely miss the days of having a smorgasbord of seafood delight.
        From fall albacore to big gulf scallops,and one yr (‘95)even Midway Island swordfish
        Dave Mc

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    • The biggest problem is that the sports fish sector is not organized. Almost all commercial gear groups are organized into an association or other entity, hire executive directors and have the funds and time to attend BOF meetings and lobby for their interests. They have a large presence at Fisheries meetings, a budget that allows them to stay through the meeting and use their influence productively. There are well over twenty of such organizations, with UFA, their umbrella association that has great influence with Alaska’s legislature. Sport users, except for but one organization, KRSA, do not have the same financial commitment in their fisheries as do commercial fishers who own CFEC permits , a vessel and gear, Sport fishers have day jobs that prevent them from over night travel and no organization to fund or represent them. As a result most of the time, commercial
      fishing interests carry the day and sports interests are overwhelmed.
      And some BOF members simply count the numbers of those who attend meetings and vote based on how many favor or oppose regulatory proposals. Combine that with an administration that stacks the Board with members favorable to the commercial sector and injects itself into the process, and nobody should should be surprised how things turn out. Hopefully with a new governor there will be some balance restored to the process.

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  3. I love how we (fishy salesmen) look for ways to poke holes in farmed fishies, no matter what. Like the whole dye (or lack thereof) issue in farmed fishies, yet at the same time the fishy salesmen try to exploit the ‘white kings’ that naturally occur by selling them at a higher price than regular ol’ fashioned red kings…
    Watching the fishy farming take over the AK fishing schick is mildly amusing. The times, they be a changin’…
    Cheers!

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    • Those white kings are not naturally occurring where you are located, Jack. And they (white kings) are rare enough that they can be exploited, since some SE salmon eaters prefer them-my wife being one. Their presentation is lacking IMO, as they look anemic to me. The market had always discounted those kings and it only made sense for SE fishermen to market them differently. Are you suggesting that the dyeing of farmed salmon is somehow related, here?
      Alaska Fisherman’s Journal did a taste experiment about 20 years ago that was designed to see if Copper River Kings were as good as they were priced and they even threw in a white king along with a couple of SE red kings. The competitors all were similar in size (around 30 lbs as I remember) and they were all cooked the same way. CR came out on top but there was no Yukon River king to compare as they were not available at that early Spring date.

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  4. “Hatchery fish are generally harvested before achieving sexual maturity”. Where does this quote come from?
    In PWS, the commercial fleet is usually confined to terminal harvest areas or sub-districts, so they are harvesting mostly hatchery fish. If the “wild” run is strong, general districts, are then opened. The hatchery/wild salmon returning to native streams & hatchery terminal areas, in PWS, are 95-98% mature, when harvested. The salmon do not return to PWS, until they are ready to spawn.
    On another note:
    The quality of salmon roe harvested in PWS, is very high. The majority is sold to Japan, China & Russia (BTW, the sanctions do not work). The Chinese buy the roe, and turn around and sell it to the Russians.
    Our country is a babe in the woods, compared to Chinese business tactics.

    Like

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