Fish Factor by Laine Welch

November 7, 2020

The number of boots on deck in Alaska has declined and most fisheries have lost jobs over the past five years. Overall, Alaska’s harvesting sector ticked downward by 848 jobs from 2015 through 2019. 


A snapshot of fish harvesting jobs is featured in the November edition of Alaska Economic Trends by the state Dept. of Labor. The findings show that after hitting a peak of 8,501 harvesters in 2015, fishing jobs then fell to around 8,000 for the next two years before dropping again in 2018 to about 7,600.


In 2019, average monthly fishing employment was 7,653 and the industry added just 33 fishing jobs all year, reflecting growth of about 0.4 percent.


Estimated gross earnings in 2019 totaled over $1.7 billion, of which only about $660 million went to permit holders who were Alaska residents; the bulk went to fishermen who call Washington home.


Alaska’s salmon fisheries, which represent the most workers on deck, added 93 harvesters in 2019 but remained below the five year average of 4,472 jobs.


Crab harvesting followed a similar trend, gaining 26 jobs in 2019 but remaining below the fishery’s five-year average by 21 jobs. That drop is the largest in percent terms by species since 2015: a loss of nearly a quarter of that workforce.


Halibut harvesting gained just three jobs last year at 1,071, hovering below its five-year average by 28 fishing jobs, a 2.6 percent decline.


Sablefish (black cod) was the only other category to add jobs over the five years by 22, settling in at a yearly average of 646 black cod fishermen.


Two fisheries lost jobs last year – herring and groundfish, which has dropped fishing participants nearly every year since 2015. Kodiak, for example, is one of Alaska’s top groundfish ports, and lost one-fifth of its harvester jobs (162) over five years, due in great part to reduced fishing of cod.


By region, the Yukon Delta shed the largest share of fishing jobs due to poor salmon seasons. Last year’s 170 Yukon fishing participants was a 55 percent drop from 2015.


Bristol Bay lost just 11 fishing jobs over five years, a decline of 0.7 percent.


Four regions - Southeast, Southcentral, Kodiak and the Aleutians - added jobs last year but haven’t regained their 2015 highs. 


Harvester jobs are tricky to calculate because fishermen are considered self-employed. Labor economists infer jobs in a given month from fish landings, and because fishing permits are tied to specific gears and boat sizes, they can roughly estimate how many people are on the job averaged across a year.


The November Trends also features processing seafood in Alaska during a pandemic and the state’s deflation statistics. “Alaska’s economy began to shut down in March due to COVID-19 and remains weak…of all the nation’s consumer price indexes generated at the state or city level, Alaska’s is the only one showing consistent overall deflation this year. The reasons aren’t yet clear, and it will take time to know whether it’s a temporary aberration, especially if the economy rebounds with any vigor,” wrote DOL economist Neal Fried.


Offshore fish farms advance - Two U.S. regions have been selected as Aquaculture Opportunity Areas (AOAs) as part of the Trump Administration’s executive order in May “Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth” in waters from three to 200 miles offshore.


The two regions are in the Gulf of Mexico and off Southern California and are the first of 10 sites that NOAA’s Aquaculture Program is tasked with identifying over the next five years. 


The AOAs will use existing infrastructure, such as docks, processing plants, and transportation routes in selected regions to create new sustainable economic opportunities,

said Danielle Blacklock, director of NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Aquaculture, at a recent SeafoodSource webinar. 


“We’re looking for places that are appropriate in multiple different ways – they need to be appropriate environmentally or ecologically, meaning that areas have the right kind of current flow, the right depth, but they also need to be appropriate socially so we’re looking to minimize user conflict,” Blacklock explained. “We’re not going to be in shipping lanes and we’re looking to stay out of traditional fishing grounds. And we’re also trying to make sure that they are economically appropriate, meaning that they are close enough to a port that landing their harvest is not too much of a challenge.”


There is no predetermined size for an AOA and they could vary depending on what species of fish, shellfish and seaweeds are being grown.  And while the areas are planned for waters that fall under federal jurisdiction, Blacklock said NOAA hopes to also collaborate with states for opportunities in their regions.


The state of Washington got onboard with NOAA Aquaculture a few years ago and it helped drive shellfish development on the west coast, said Paul Doremus, Chief Operating Officer for NOAA Fisheries. He believes that could have some appeal for Alaska, which has banned fish farming since the 1980s.


“There is a very vibrant mariculture industry in Alaska and an enormous amount of interest in seaweed production and various mollusks and shellfish,” Doremus said. “This also is a path to diversifying the seafood sector and something that a lot of folks in Alaska are very excited about. They are not excited about finfish so that is unlikely to happen.”


The public can comment through December 22 on the Aquaculture Opportunity Areas being selected; a national listening session is scheduled for November 19 from 1-3p.m. ET


Kodiak awaits Tanners, hauls in Dungies - There was some slim hope that a small Tanner crab fishery could occur in January for westward region crabbers, which includes Kodiak, Chignik and the South Peninsula.


The summer survey indicated there might be enough mature male crabs to sustain a small 2021 fishery. But after crunching all the data, it was not meant to be.


Crabbers are in a gap year between a 2013 Tanner year class that’s pretty much tapped out while awaiting a 2018 cohort that’s the biggest ever, said Nat Nichols, regional manager at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game office in Kodiak.


“We're fully between the two big groups of crab that we've been watching for the last couple years.   Last year, we had a fishery on the 2013 group but they were coming up on seven years old at that point, so they were pretty much aging out of the population,” Nichols said. “For the 2018 group, it typically takes about four years to get them to legal size, so the expectation that a lot of them were going to be legal in 2020 was very low. The upshot is that this 2018 group seems to be surviving well and it’s very widespread. If they continue to do that, we could certainly see a meaningful chunk of that group getting legal next year, and then the year after that looks even better.” 


Nichols agreed that fewer cod fish throughout the westward region could account for the steady uptick in Tanners.


“I don't think it can hurt,” he said. “There's just a lot fewer mouths out there trying to eat a crab dinner right now.”     


Meanwhile, Kodiak just wrapped up its best Dungeness crab fishery in 30 years with a catch nearing 3 million pounds for 29 boats. At the Alaska Peninsula a fleet of 16 boats saw good hauls at 1.4 million pounds, and three boats took over a half million pounds at Chignik. That added up to a total take of 2.13 million animals.


The one downer was the Dungeness price.  The crabs, which weigh just over two pounds on average, reportedly fetched $1.85 a pound at Kodiak and $1.75 further west, down from more than $3 in previous seasons.


Upper Inlet salmon wrap – State fishery managers are calling the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery harvest and value “historically low.” The commercial harvest of roughly 1.2 million salmon was 65% less than the recent 10-year average harvest of 3.2 million fish.


A season summary by the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game said that the estimated ex-vessel (dock side) value of all salmon species is approximately $5.2 million, the worst on record, and about 81% less than the previous 10-year average annual value of $27.0 million.


While all five species of Pacific salmon are found in the UCI, sockeye account for nearly 93% of the total value to fishermen during the past 20 years.


The 2020 total run forecast for sockeye salmon was 4.3 million, and the actual run came in at 4.4 million fish. Salmon escapements to UCI streams were mostly above or within established ranges for sockeye, chum and coho salmon, but were poor for Chinook salmon.

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