Fish Factor: Fisheries debate draws full slate of candidates
Fish on! The lure of reaching a statewide radio audience has once again attracted a full slate of political hopefuls to Kodiak for its popular fisheries debate.
On Wednesday, five candidates for U.S. Senate traveled to the nation's No. 2 fishing port to share their knowledge and ideas on a single topic: Alaska's seafood industry.
"It's a great service to Kodiak, to our fishing communities and to Alaska in general," said Trevor Brown, director of the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce, host of the event. "Fishing is the state's largest private sector employer. I think the candidates realize the importance of the fishing industry and that its viability is very important to Alaska."
Since 1990, the Kodiak debates have been an election year tradition for candidates vying both for Alaska governor and Congress, and have always gotten 100 percent participation.
Candidates facing off included Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Joe Miller on the Libertarian ticket, Democrat Ray Metcalf and Margaret Stock and Breck Craig, both who are running as Independents.
Debate moderator was Alaska Sen. Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak); panelists posing questions were Julie Matweyou of Alaska Sea Grant, Julie Bonney, director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, and Jeff Stephen, director of the United Fishermen's Marketing Association.
Alaska's fisheries are an important part of any sitting U.S. Senator's oversight, as nearly 85 percent of the seafood poundage that crosses the Alaska docks comes from waters managed and funded by Congress and the federal government, meaning from three to 200 miles from shore.
The debate was broadcast via the Alaska Public Radio Network. at www.kmxt.org.
Bad crab news
Bering Sea crabbers got the bad news they expected — low catch quotas and a canceled Tanner fishery for the 2016/17 season. State managers announced last week that the catch for Bristol Bay red king crab will be just shy of 8.5 million pounds, down 15 percent from last year.
For Bering Sea snow crab, the harvest limit was slashed nearly in half to 21.5 million pounds, the lowest catch in 45 years. Last year the total take was 40.6 million pounds, and it was nearly 68 million pounds the previous season.
An even bigger hit to the crab industry will come from the closure of the bairdi Tanner crab fishery, which had been growing steadily and produced 20 million pounds last season. Biologists said not enough female crabs were seen during summer surveys to reach a minimum threshold needed to open the fishery.
Crabbers believe the Tanners are still out there, but have relocated from the standard survey regions. The small blue king crab fishery at St. Matthew Island also was closed for the season.
"With the bairdi Tanner fishery closed and no opening at St. Matt's and with the cut backs — whatever problems are causing poor recruitment of snow crab are impacting other crab species as well," said market expert John Sackton. The Bering Sea crab fisheries open Oct. 15.
No urchin searchin'
Divers could pull up millions of pounds of sea urchins from Alaska waters each October, but the fishery draws little interest. The urchins are valued for their uni, or roe, used widely in sushi rolls and Asian dishes.
Southeast Alaska allows for a 3 million pound red urchin take, down from 7 million pounds in the 1990s when 150 divers would be on the grounds. The actual harvest today is closer to 300,000 pounds taken by five to 10 divers, said Phil Doherty, director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association in Ketchikan. It was quality problems, otters and a huge dump of Russian roe over the past decade pretty much did the local fishery in.
"There was a problem in extracting the roe and packaging it up and getting it over to the markets," Doherty explained. "It's a fresh product and by the time it arrived in Japan, they weren't real happy with the quality of the roe."
The softball sized red urchins pay between 35 to 55 cents at the docks. Green sea urchins found around Kodiak Island pay well over $1 a pound, but no fishery has occurred there for 15 years.
Harvests peaked in 1988 at around 150,000 pounds taken by a dozen boats, then tapered off to just 27,000 pounds by the late 1990s, said Nat Nichols, area manager at Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak. He agrees that the bottom fell out of the Alaska uni market.
"It's a real high end market," Nichols said. "They're looking for not only live urchins with high quality roe, but also really pretty urchins with no broken spines and things like that. It was difficult and not profitable to try and move urchins out of Kodiak in October.
Meanwhile, the ISF Trading Company in Portland, Maine lists live, whole green sea urchins at $4 a pound, and fresh uni at $10 for quarter pound trays.
With a few exceptions, Alaska's 2016 salmon season was tough on both buyers and sellers. But having less fish available for market means wild salmon is moving well through sales channels at home and abroad, and plans are already underway for ramping up sales for next year, said Robin Samuelson, president of Ocean Beauty Seafoods which has operated in Alaska since 1910.
"Our freezers will be empty by spring and we will be processing and buying very aggressively throughout the state," Samuelson said, referring to the company's six processing plants in Petersburg, Excursion Inlet near Juneau, Cordova, Kodiak and Bristol Bay.
That's contrary to recent rumors on the docks that Ocean Beauty is closing up shop, likely stemming from a big move being planned at its major office headquarters near Seattle.
"We are closing our Union Street facility in Ballard and moving north," Samuelson explained, adding that it also houses a plant where value added processing is done. "We've outgrown that facility and are experiencing substantial growth, and we are looking for a larger building that can accommodate that.
"We are always looking for more opportunities," Samuelson said. "We know how much fishermen rely on us and we will be working with them for years to come."