Alaska’s largest newspaper is once again pushing – knowingly or unknowingly – the economic nonsense pitched by a mouthpiece for the state’s commercial fishing industry.
“One Alaska king salmon is worth the same as two barrels of oil right now,” read today’s headline on one of the top-5 “most read” stories in the Anchorage Daily News.
The claim is somewhat, sort of, maybe true under certain circumstances. The significance is meaningless or worse than meaningless.
The reality, according to state data, is that the entire, season-long catch of Chinook salmon in Alaska 2020 worth about as much as a half-day’s production of North Slope crude oil.
And the story beneath the ADN headline contains none of the context that would help a reader sort out any of what is going on here. It is pure propaganda aimed at putting a positive spin on the past fishing season:
“Seafood sales ‘are on fire’ in America’s supermarkets and one king salmon from Southeast Alaska is worth the same as two barrels of oil.
“That’s $116.16 for a troll-caught chinook salmon averaging 11 pounds at the docks vs. $115.48 for 2 barrels of oil at $57.74 per barrel on Feb. 3.
“As more COVID-conscious customers opted in 2020 for seafood’s proven health benefits, salmon powered sales at fresh seafood counters. Frozen and ‘on the shelf’ seafoods also set sales records, and online ordering tripled to top $1 billion.
It is hard to know where to begin to unpack the fish-hold full of fabrications here, but maybe it is easiest to start from the bottom and work up.
As Bloomberg reported back in January, the SARS-CoV-2 driven pandemic did spur a boom in the online sale of seafood, but it wasn’t because seafood sales were “on fire.” It was because restaurants were shut down.
“The (online/supermarket) seafood spending surge is an example of the hard-to-foresee ways the pandemic continues to displace and redirect consumer demand. Typically, an outsize share of Americans’ spending on seafood is at restaurants,” reporter Sarah Halzack wrote. “But with many white-tablecloth dining rooms closed or operating at reduced capacity during the pandemic, shoppers who perhaps rarely cooked seafood before have decided to put seared salmon, shrimp scampi and steamed lobsters on their own kitchen tables.
“For seafood producers, the increase in sales from households has been a help when many restaurants have shut down, but it hasn’t come close to filling the gap. Revenue at commercial fisheries fell 29 percent from their five-year average in the January through July period, according to a report by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries.”
As for that “salmon powered” $1 billion in online sales, the $1 billion is for all seafood – not just Alaska seafood. How much of the increase is Alaska seafood is unclear. The Food Institute noted that the sale of fresh finfish, some of which were salmon, rose 22 percent; shellfish sales increased 24.6 percent; and ‘all other’ sales were up 18 percent.
Alaska-caught salmon is usually frozen because of the risk of parasites. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) underlines the fact freezing kills any parasites embedded in the flesh of wild fish.
Farmed fish have no parasites, which is one of the reasons they dominate the sales of fresh fish. When the pandemic hit, the farmers quickly shifted their fish from restaurants to supermarkets and online sales.
Anne-Kristine Øen of the Norwegian Seafood Council at the start of the month told Fish Farmer magazine that overall sales of Norwegian seafood increased by 3 percent to NOK 7 billion ($827 million) despite a 4 percent drop in total sales.
“It has been a tough year for the hotel and restaurant segment with 200,000 restaurants [in the US] having to close their doors due to the pandemic,” Øen added. “This also means that US $200 billion in food money has shifted from the restaurant sector to the grocery sector….There has been a brutal decline for the hotel and restaurant segment, (but) we have seen a nice increase in sales of seafood in the grocery trade through 2020.”
According to federal officials, Alaska commercial fishermen also faced a near-brutal decline in business.
“Estimated landings revenue from January through August 2020 are 30 percent below 2019 levels (a decline of $436 million from $1.48 billion to $1.04 billion) and 35 percent below the 2015-2019 baseline period (a decline of $549 million from $1.59 billion),” according to a NOAA regional report for the state.
The report covered the heart of the Alaska fishing season in June, July and August, and it offered a pretty grim picture:
“The largest components of the decrease in value over this period include a 67 percent decline in the harvest value for herring, a 61 percent reduction in salmon, a 37 percent reduction in halibut revenues, a 30 percent decline in shoreside Pacific cod, and a 17 percent decrease in the value of flatfish compared with 2019 levels.
“Compared with the 2015-2019 baseline, salmon revenues are estimated to have declined by 58 percent, herring revenues decreased by 55 percent, halibut
revenues dropped 48 percent, Pacific cod at-sea was reduced by 45 percent, shoreside Pacific cod decreased by 41 percent, sablefish declined by 26 percent, while pollock at-sea and shoreside fell 16 percent and 15 percent, respectively, and flatfish declined by 4 percent.”
Dirty, little details
Now, as to that clickbait claim of Chinook salmon worth two barrels of oil, it might be true of a troll-caught, king from Southeast. That fish is a premium product; there are only a couple hundred thousand caught each year.
Last season those kings went for $5.65 per pound on average – 17 cents more per pound than the fabled Copper River kings that are usually the state’s most valuable salmon, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Cook Inlet kings averaged $3.53 per pound, Alaska Peninsula kings, 95 cents; Kodiak kings, 62 cents; and Bristol Bay kings, 50 cents. The average statewide price was $5.07 per pound.
This is the normal pricing structure. Fish and Game reports show prices for Copper River kings averaged $8.59 per pound in 2019 with Southeast kings going for $5.07, Cook Inlet kings for $3.54, Chignik kings for 80 cents, Kodiak kings for 60 cents and Bristol Bay kings for 50 cents. The statewide average was $4.48 per pound.
Where the ADN got the $10.56 per pound price necessary to boost the value of an 11-pound king to $116.16 is unknown because the story doesn’t say. Salmon prices at the dock are highly variable, so it’s certainly possible some fisherman somewhere did get that much for a fresh king. Some fishermen might actually have collected even more.
But the number isn’t representative of Alaska Chinook salmon prices. At the average price for 2020, an 11-pound king would have been worth on average $55.77; in 2019, $49.28; and in 2018, at the decade-long peak for Chinook prices – $65.99, according to state data.
So, during the pandemic when oil prices were low because of a global economic slowdown, the average Alaska Chinook (most of which are actually Canadian or Pacific Northwest Chinook intercepted on their way back to spawning grounds to the south) was worth about as much as a barrel of oil.
Which might mean something if it meant something.
The suggestion in the headline is, of course, obvious: Chinook salmon commercially caught in Alaska make a bigger contribution to the state economy than oil.
In the first place, commercial fishermen pay no royalty on their catch of Chinook or any other salmon, and the so-called raw-fish tax of 1 to 5 percent “on the price paid to commercial fishermen for the raw resource” nets the state less than $30 million per year, according to Department of Revenue records.
Almost none of that tax money comes from Chinook, which in 2020 comprised less than 5 percent of the value of the commercial catch, according to Fish and Game data. The total value of the Chinook catch was less than $15 million.
Before the pandemic, when Alaska tourism was operating at normal levels, it is probable tourist anglers spent more money than that in-state paying for the opportunity to fish for kings even though they often went home emptyhanded.
With a declining North Slope still pumping roughly 450,000 barrels of crude per day through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, one day’s production at $57.74 per barrel is worth approximately $26 million or almost twice the $14,336,776 the Alaska Chinook fishery was worth last year.
So here’s the valid comparison:
The entire, season-long catch of Chinook salmon in the Alaska commercial fishery last year was worth a half-day’s flow of oil through the pipeline, and the state of Alaska collected somewhere on the order of $450,000 in tax on the fish.
That is about 0.08 percent of the $534.4 million in oil and natural gas royalties the state expects to collect this year. Any comparison of king salmon and oil in the context of value to the Alaska economy or suggested value is nonsense.
In the ADN’s defense, the story was written not by a staff reporter but by Laine Welch, a writer who runs a Kodiak-based website called Fish Radio that is funded by the commercial fishing industry.
Still, the ADN did put its journalistic imprimatur on what it these days labels “a weekly roundup of news and opinion about Alaska’s commercial fishing industry.” The newspaper for years billed Welch’s fish report as a product produced by an ” independent Kodiak-based fisheries journalist,” but that was changed after it was pointed out that Welch is a mouthpiece for the state’s commercial fishing industry.
Whether the new label makes this clear to readers or not is hard to say. Welch, to her credit, is transparent about who funds her business. She lists her current sponsors as Ocean Beauty Seafoods, one of the state’s largest fish processors; Seafood Auction, an Ebay-style operation selling commercial seafood online; Alaska Boats and Permits, a company that traffics in fishing permits; GCI, the statewide telecommunications company; and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, a fishing industry-run organization that promotes the sale of Alaska’s commercially caught seafood.
ADN editor David Hulen has long been aware of the conflicts inherent in a business funded by the commercial fishing industry serving as the ADN’s fisheries reporter, but he excuses that as necessary.
In the past he explained that it was necessary because Alaska fishery issues are too complicated for a general assignment reporter to sort out, although the newspaper has regularly sent general assignment reporters to cover fishing stories.
Not to mention the bigger issue of who protects against Welch propagandizing if no one at the newspaper knows fisheries.
Then again, in today’s post-truth world of journalism maybe it doesn’t matter.
Somewhere it is possible there is a commercial troller who collected $116.16 for an 11-pound salmon, and thus the claim that one Alaska salmon is worth two barrels of oil is someone’s truth even if it’s not the truth, even if it holy misrepresents the truth.
And it did get people to click onto the ADN website, which is the prime imperative of many news operations today.