The problems for Alaska’s commercial fishing industry – once the state’s largest employer but now second to tourism – are growing by the day.
Seafood News today reported the lastest survey by Changing Tastes – a Massachusetts-based consultancy that analyzes market trends for the Culinary Institute of America, Chick-fil-a and many others– shows American consumers “have no strong established preference for farmed or wild fish.”
“A majority of U.S. consumers now consider both wild-capture and aquaculture to be acceptable ways of producing fish and seafood,” the story said. “(But) 80 percent of consumers are concerned about overfishing…while 67 percent are concerned about the environmental impacts of aquaculture.”
Alaska salmon are returning to their natal streams in numbers never before witnessed in the north. The catch this year topped 200 million for a record fourth time in the decade, and the decadal average annual harvest of about 167.5 million is more than three times larger than in 1970s.
But the numbers are meaningless if prospective buyers are being led to believe wild fish numbers are falling because of climate change.
And Times readers happen to be a near-perfect fit for the demographic – young, urban, liberal and affluent – to which Alaska has tried to market “wild-caught” salmon as a premium product healthier, environmentally more responsible, and tastier than farmed salmon.
Meanwhile, the environmentally friendly aspect has been under fire from aquaculturists shifting production from ocean net-pens, which when improperly sighted can cause environmental problems, to land-based recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS).
Superior Fresh, a RAS operation in Wisconsin, late last year rolled out “A Better Ocean in Your Backyard” campaign that promised salmon “healthy, delicious, and without the same contaminants you’d find in the wild. And we did it sustainably to boot.”
This pitch from Superior and even bigger players in the RAS business threatens the position of Alaska salmon as a “premium” product with a premium price, and that in turn leads to serious problems for Alaska salmon processors buying fish in the 49th state.
The 2019 season ended with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in September crowing about how a Bristol Bay fishery with a a “value of $306.5 million of all salmon species ranks first in the history of the fishery and was 248 percent (above) the 20-year average.”
Bristol Bay fishermen were then celebrating a catch of 55.2 million sockeye salmon that accounted for about 46 percent of the value of a statewide catch worth almost $207 million. Alaska’s main, premium-market fish, sockeyes from all regions of the state combined accounted for only 27 percent of the catch but 64 percent of the total value, according to Fish and Game.
The season looked like nothing but good news until earlier this month when the word finally got out that processors already faced with tough competition from the farmers had over-paid and over-bought sockeye, and are now in financial trouble.
John Fiorillo, a reporter for an online tradesite Intrafish, wrote of the “weakening, frail condition of Alaska’s salmon processing industry” in a story headlined “The shakeout has begun: Alaska salmon processors struggle to survive.”
Regionally, the market problems appear especially large for commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet, where the state Board of Fisheries is now considering shifting some of the salmon harvest from the problem-plagued commercial fishery to a stable sport fishery with growth potential that helps support the state’s booming tourism industry.
Commercial fishermen working the Inlet are certain to continue to harvest most of the fish that return to the big body of water at the doorstep of the state’s largest city for the simple reason that anglers and Alaska-resident-only dipnetters lack the harvest capacity to capture the millions of fish surplus to spawning needs.
But commercial fishermen appear on the verge of losing the chokehold they once held on management decisions. And any shift of catch by the Fish Board, which sets state management policy, would come on top of the other problems already plaguing the Inlet’s commercial fishermen.
A paper authored by the United Cook Inlet Drifters Associaton, the region’s most powerful commercial fishing lobby, says “the absence of the sockeye salmon over 6 pounds has taken Cook Inlet out of the premium market.
On top of that, harvests have been shifting toward August when UCIDA says the “sockeye harvest no longer (is) graded #1. Now it’s mostly #2 and dog-food grades. Annually, the August sockeye component costs the industry in excess of $2 million” in lost revenue.
The good news there is that the demand for salmon-based dog food is growing.
“Not only is salmon a rich source of animal-based protein, but it also contains an abundance of omega-3 fatty acids. In addition to providing your dog with a concentrated source of energy and lean protein, salmon also supports his skin and coat. The essential fatty acids found in salmon may also help your dog’s body absorb and utilize certain fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. For all of these reasons, you should consider switching your dog to a salmon-based dog food.”
The bad news in this good news is that no one is going to pay premium prices for salmon to be used as dog food. Nor are the Inlet’s commercial fishermen likely to have many fish to sell this year with state salmon managers predicting one of the weakest returns of sockeye in years.