Commentary

Clickbaiting

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.

Pandenomics

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.

Ninety percent of the shrimp is imported to the U.S., according to Infofish.org, an arm of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Few Alaska salmon are sold fresh.

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.

They don’t.

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.

Journalistic standards?

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.

 

22 replies »

  1. According to Mr. Medred, we all should share his taste for feedlot seafood rather than organically grown. His statement about feedlot salmon not having “parasites” must mean that the producer uses something to prevent parasite growth . I for one, consider wild caught seafood to be superior in taste and healthier than feedlot seafood. The fact that antibiotics, pesticides, and herbicides tend to be used either by design or inadvertently in the raising of the feedlot products is enough to turn me away from purchasing them.

    • Now, exactly where did Mr. Medred make that claim? The only salmon eaten in his house are wild caught and hopefully wild, though there is no telling where a hatchery fish might show up in Alaska these days.

      Now to correct your second error in this brief comment. The farmers, for better or worse, do not treat their salmon with anything to prevent them from being infected with tapeworms. They avoid this problem because the food they feed the fish is free of parasites.

      Wild salmon, on the other hand, are a secondary host for the broad tapeworm Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense. (https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/15/6/09-0132_article) This parasite is the reason you should either be sure to freeze your salmon or cook it thoroughly before eating.

      If you’re interested in more on this topic, here’s a good story on how Norwegian farmers created a market for salmon sushi in Japan by providing worm-free salmon and how salmon sushi then spread worldwide. The Japanese did not eat salmon sushi prior to the 1980s because they “considered Pacific salmon dangerous to consume raw because these wild fish were exposed to parasites.” https://www.norwayexports.no/news/norways-introduction-of-salmon-sushi-to-japan/

      There were good reasons for the Japanese to believe this before farmed salmon.

      As to the rest of your comment, I generally agree with you on feedlot products, and for that reason welcome the aquaculture move to growing salmon in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS). Raising fish in clean, filtered water eliminates the need for antibiotics and pesticides because the fish are swimming in clean, filtered water.

    • Darwin-
      You might want to scroll through some of the many articles available on RAS. Craig has written several. A few takeaways: The water used is filtered and pure. No contaminants or micro plastics. Some of the more innovative companies are switching to entirely land based feed. At harvest, the fish is on the cooling rack within minutes. The farmed fish are harvested much closer to their target market than those in Alaska. I am reading the break even for RAS is in the area of $1.70/pound. And their product is winning “blind” taste tests. Add it all up and you can see that the wild caught(for you Pink Ranchers out there) are at a serious disadvantage.

      • Rob,
        Just to clarify, humpy seining, is more about roe harvesting, although there is a canned market too.Like several fisheries,i.e:pollock,pacific cod ,herring, urchins and of course chums, the volume is in the meat, the value is in the roe.

  2. What a nonsensical rant about nothing. First, there was no mystery what fish was being highlighted. Any person who has a clue would have known the only salmon fishery at this time of year is the SE troll fishery. I have always assumed that Welch is writing primarily for fishermen, and those in the industry, or who follow the industry.

    Secondly, the price. No surprise there either. Winter trollers have received $10 or more for the last 10 or 12 years. No, it’s not some isolated one-off, though it probably is not the price paid by local processors, even in winter. These high priced fish are gutted, packed and shipped by the fisherman directly to stores and distributors.

    I saw nothing in the column that suggested salmon was replacing oil in sustaining the state of Alaska spending habits. What is suggested is that there is more of value in Alaska than just oil.

    I suppose on a slow news day you can rip apart anything you read. Maybe check out the ADN articles which come directly from the Alaska Journal of Commerce. I mean, the Alaska oil industry.

    • well, we clearly agree on a couple things here:

      1.) this is “probably not the price paid by local processors.” and, of course, it’s nowhere near the documented average price paid for Chinook last season. all of which would make it a rather significant reporting error. but never mind that.

      2.) “there is more of value in Alaska than just oil.” but sadly, until i actually looked at the big picture, i didn’t realize how little value there is to commercially caught king salmon. an entire season’s commercial catch of Chinook – AN ENTIRE SEASON’S – is worth a half-day’s flow of crude through the pipeline.

      as to what you “assumed” about Welch would appear to go back to that old problem with assuming things. that said, i might be able to buy your assumption if the story had appeared in some obscure fishing publication read by fishermen and industry insiders.

      but it didn’t. it appeared in the state’s largest mass circulation newspaper, and its online status would reflect that it was widely read by people who know little or nothing about the Alaska fishing business.

      they were all led to believe Chinook are more valuable than oil. they aren’t. they’re not even close. to even hint that Alaska Chinook are more valuable than oil is misleading in the extreme. that you think it’s fine for the state’s largest newspaper to mislead readers is OK by me. i would, in fact, happily defend your belief to believe whatever you want to believe. it’s one of the great things about this country.

      but i doubt there are many in this country who share your view that the job of journalists is to mislead readers. if a journalist wants to write about the economic value of Alaska Chinook in terms of a comparison to Alaska crude oil, he or she is obligated to present the whole picture, not just a tiny corner of the picture.

      • Craig,

        I might suggest that the empirical evidence shows that the job of journalists is to mislead readers. It ought not be that way, but it seems to be that is how the business is operated nowadays. Journalists who present information and allow the reader to make up their own mind is sadly and apparently a thing of the past.

        I saw a recent clickbait article titled “Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger gives up pro football for politics” that didn’t happen…at all, nothing even close to that happened. But because a lawyer in the impeachment trial of former President Trump misspoke, calling Brad Raffensperger Ben Roethlisberger we end up with misleading headlines and misleading journalism about an impeachment trail that was to remove an elected official from elected office that he no longer held.

      • Steve-O: I’ve long held the opinion that one should not blame conspiracy when simple incompetence easily explains. There is a lot of the latter these days.

      • Craig,
        You keep stating that an entire seasons commercial catch of chinook is less value than 1/2 days flow of crude through the pipeline. Comparing the gross sales or net income of fishing familes to corporations such as BP, Conoco Philips, Hillcorp and the doublecross company seems irrelevant. Maybe I am not seeing this correctly. And as a previous poster stated,welch’s columns are mostly read by people associated with the fishing industry, much like when you were outdoor editor at adn, I would assume that most of your writings were read by outdoor enthusiasts.

      • No less relevant and no more relevant than comparing the value of a Chinook to barrels of oil, and that’s the point. If you’re going to start playing this silly game in order to solicit clicks, you have an obligation to tell the whole story.

        My Labrador retriever is worth a lot more than two barrels of oil in the market, and to me he’s worth way, way more than his market value. So what? What exactly is the meaning of such a comparison?

        Nothing unless you’re trying to push some propaganda, like the idea that Chinook salmon are more valuable to Alaska than oil. They’re not.On an individual basis their value is high, but in the big scheme of Alaska economics, it’s a meaningless fact.

        As to the rest of it, the eyeballs needed to push a story into the top-5 most read at the ADN would indicate there were a lot more people than those in the fishing industry reading, which is not unusual. The ADN is a general circulation newspaper. The metrics when I worked there showed much of my reporting was read by non-outdoor enthusiasts.

        Then, again I admit I was usually writing to try to engage a general audience because that’s where the most eyeballs are to be found.

      • Craig,

        I never discount the power of incompetence, if it weren’t for incompetence most wouldn’t know what the word competence means…and I would bet dollars to donuts most don’t know what what the word competence means.

  3. Actually a lb of king (retail)is worth many times more than a lb of crude(wholesale)
    But I suppose we’d still have a hard time filling the pipeline even if we could find/grow enough of them

    • Water and soda have been more expensive than gas or crude oil by weight and/or volume for years and years. Go in to any gas station convenience store and buy a couple liters of water or soda and they will cost more than a gallon of gas.

      • Stev-O,
        Good points,but a qt of drinking water doesn’t have to cost anything(amortized cost of well,or muni hookup not withstanding).
        Why pay more?
        Soda?,dont touch it,unless its club soda in a garden fresh ice cold Mohito .
        The irony,is generally speaking,you couldnt have any of these items w/o a gallon of crude.

  4. No one who has followed Alaska’s economics at even a basic elementary level believes that the state’s fisheries contribute anywhere near as much to the state’s coffers as does the oil industry or the earnings from the PF. I read the piece in the ADN that has your panties in a bunch and interpreted it as a cutesy story that simply highlights the relative spike in the value of seafood, purely due to the result of Covid-restrictions on eating out. The article isn’t making any grandiose claims that King Salmon are going to save our bacon or that the seafood industry will supplant oil in the sum total of its value. Enough with the straw man arguments, please.

    • cutesy stories are the best kind of propaganda. this one wasn’t about highlighting the “relative spike in seafood value” because a.) it wasn’t much of spike as the story noted; and b.) most Alaskans don’t follow seafood markets. thus they wouldn’t know an uptick from a downtick.

      no, this little comparison of salmon to oil, which has been used before, was intended to further the myth of the economic significance of the commercial fishing industry to Alaska. that is why the story contained no hint of the “basic elementary level,” as you put it, at which the Alaska economy functions.

      at that level, Chinook harvests are barely a drop in the bucket. exactly how many Alaskans do you think know this? i consider myself pretty well informed on the Alaska economy, and i will freely admit that while i knew the Chinook contribution was small, i did not know the entire season’s commercial catch of Chinook – the entire season’s catch – had the value of about a half-day’s flow of crude through the pipeline.

      and sad to say, the total economic value of those fish would be – because of the limited supply – a drop in the bucket even if Alaska fishermen were getting the kind of money for them that the Kiwis do for their farmed king salmon: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-13/farmed-ora-king-salmon-is-the-wagyu-beef-of-the-seafood-world

  5. I remember when you could sell a Bristol Bay sockeye salmon to the cannery for more than the price of a barrel of oil, this contrived a king salmon costs as much as two barrels of oil is nonsense and should never have been printed in a newspaper…or right it wasn’t in a newspaper it was the ADN.

  6. I wonder how many barrels of oil a family in the bush would have to catch to feed themselves through the winter.

  7. Craig has a skill most journalist and most of the public do not.
    He knows how to critically compare things and analyze data.
    .
    On top of that he understands how to apply basic math to issues. (He can do story problems.)
    Another skill that is in danger of going extinct.

    He also has a really experienced BS detector.

    These are skills, critical to maintaining an advanced civilization, that we are failing to adequately teach to a critical mass of our citizens.
    A population without these skills is easily led down paths that will degrade civilization.

    There are examples in the news every day.

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