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PUBLISHED: 4:02 PM on Wednesday, January 23, 2008
The dead of winter - when Alaska's largest fisheries get underway
Because salmon is at the heart of Alaska's fisheries, many people regard summer as "the fishing season."

But it is at this time of year - the dead of winter - when Alaska's largest fisheries get underway. January 1, boats using hook and line, pot and jig gear begin plying the icy waters of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea for cod, rockfish and other groundfish. January 20 trawlers take to the seas to target Alaska pollock, the world's largest food fishery.

Late February or early March sees the start of the 8-month halibut and sablefish (black cod) seasons. March also marks the start of Alaska's roe herring circuit, usually at Sitka Sound, followed by fisheries for several months all the way to Norton Sound.

Although wild king salmon are available nearly year around thanks to Southeast trollers, mid May marks the official start and hoopla of Alaska's salmon season with the runs of kings and reds at Copper River. That's followed by mid-October openers for Bering Sea crab fisheries. And so it goes. Close to 5 billion pounds of fish and shellfish cross Alaska's docks each year, valued at over $1 billion.

Tanner crab, too - As the winter snow crab fishery in the Bering Sea kicks into high gear, crabbers and processors last week compromised on a $1.58/pound base price, down four cents from the original asking price.

"Obviously, more will be paid when the crab is sold," said Greg White, negotiator for the crabbers' Inter Cooperative Exchange (ICE) which represents about 70 percent of the king and snow crab caught in the Bering Sea.

The 2008 snow crab quota is 63 million pounds, nearly double last year's catch.

"We think there was a better price to be had, but like the processors, we're eager to go fishing and get the crab caught," White said.

Alaska crabbers want to get the jump on the giant Eastern Canada fishery, which begins in April and produces nearly 200 million pounds of snow crab into U.S. and overseas markets. Alaska provides roughly 10 percent of the world's snow crab.

Kodiak crabbers can drop pots for bairdi Tanner crab starting each year in mid January. At an average weight of 2.5 - 3 pounds, bairdi is the larger cousin of the better known opilio Tanners, or snow crab. Kodiak's quota dipped this year to just a half million pounds of bairdi crab, but strong year classes will enter the fishery in the near future.

"We're seeing strong pulses that are very wide spread, not just around Kodiak, but further south along the Peninsula and at Chignik as well. So it's very promising for fisheries a couple of years down the road," said fishery manager Nick Sagalkin.

Managers said high prices for pot cod means less interest in the local crab fishery, and fewer than 50 boats could participate. Nearly all of the bairdi crab is sold to Japan, which is a very discerning market.

"The key to the bairdi market in Japan is that when it is clean and large and bright colored, it's a wonderful premium crab product and people are very excited to get it," said industry expert John Sackton of www.seafood.com .

Managers said most of the Kodiak crab has been looking really good in recent years. That's not the case for Bering Sea bairdi, which has seen a mix of sizes and off-colors since the fishery reopened in 2005 after a seven year closure. The catch has been ratcheting upwards to five million pounds this year.

"It is like a developmental fishery. When the Japanese first heard it was open again everyone was excited because they had visions of what they had ten years ago. That didn't material and there's been a lot of variability," Sackton said. "So far the growing conditions in the Bering Sea have not been totally ideal, so the stock is still kind of feeling its way."

Still, Bering Sea crabbers are averaging $1.62 a pound for bairdi, up from $1.29 last year. Kodiak crabbers averaged $1.78 a pound last year, up from $1.40 in 2006. If the crab is still looking good, Sackton predicts it will find a ready market.

"I think there is very good prospects for crab of top quality. That's the key - and if the Kodiak crab is bright and clean, it will be a high value premium crab."

An economic squeeze is taking its toll on the seafood trade but demand at home and abroad is keeping business afloat.

Wholesale prices for all commodities saw a nine percent increase last year. High energy costs are expected to fuel another three percent rise in consumer prices in 2008.

Wholesale fish prices gained 11 percent last year, with flounder and cod prices up more than 20 percent, pollock up nearly 7 percent and halibut up almost 6 percent. Conversely, crab prices dropped by nearly 13.5 percent. Fresh fish saw the biggest gains at retail counters, up nearly 6 percent, thanks to sales of salmon, halibut and groundfish.

Frozen seafood prices saw a 3.6 percent increase last year, compared to just .2 percent in 2006. The USDA predicts that overall, seafood prices will advance 3.5 percent this year.

A nose dive in the value of the U.S. dollar will continue to be a big factor in the fish business, Talley said. At year's end the dollar depreciated six percent against the Chinese yuan and five percent against the Euro. Economist Gunnar Knapp at the University of Alaska/Anchorage said for now, that is playing in our favor.

"It's good news when the dollar drops - it strengthens foreign demand for seafood and will help increase buyer interest and bid up the price for those markets," Knapp said.

The same wisdom does not apply to Japan, still one of Alaska's most important seafood customers. Economists predict the value of the dollar will be up 2 percent against the Japanese yen this year.

According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans spent 48 percent of their food budget eating out nearly six times each week. Restaurants expect a 3 percent increase in food prices, down from 4.5 percent in 2007.

Chefs predict several seafood favorites will retain or gain popularity. The Food Marketing Institute showed that at retail grocery stores, 73 percent feature fresh seafood and 53 percent have sushi stations. Stores are also featuring more seafood offerings for take out and prepared meals for home consumption.


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