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PUBLISHED: 3:53 PM on Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Alaska salmon could get boost if West Coast fisheries close
Alaska salmon could get a boost if West Coast fisheries are called off this summer. Federal managers will decide next month if salmon fisheries in Oregon and California should be shut down completely. Washington might dodge the bullet, but that remains to be seen. It would mark the first time ever that the traditional salmon season - which runs from April through mid-November - was canceled.

The crisis stems from major declines in salmon returning to the Pacific coast to spawn in their home waters. Most scientists point to 'broad scale ocean survival problems' as the primary cause for the coast wide salmon collapse. Others blame faulty fresh water management and pollution.

According to the Seafood.com news site, the shut down will jeopardize the livelihoods of nearly 1,000 commercial fishermen. The closures also will kill recreational salmon fishing for millions of anglers.

While the West Coast pain is likely to prompt a gain in interest and prices for Alaska king salmon, and to a lesser degree, coho, it does raise a few red flags. Planet conscious buyers believe they are doing the right thing by not purchasing Pacific salmon because it is endangered - and to them, that includes Alaska.

"It's amazing how many times we get asked - 'aren't your fish endangered?'

There's a lot of confusion out there in the market place, particularly when they hear reports about all the fish in the oceans will be gone in a few years. We have a real challenge explaining to people that there is no shortage of fish in Alaska," said Ray Riutta, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI).

Another unknown facing Alaska seafood is the impact of the worsening U.S. economy. After nearly two decades of low food inflation, prices for staples such as bread, milk, eggs, and flour have surged in the past year at double-digit rates, the fastest rate since 1990.

Several factors contribute to higher food prices, analysts say, but none more than record prices for oil, which last week topped $110 a barrel. Food accounts for about 13 percent of household spending compared with about 4 percent for gas.

"It's the biggest risk we face economically, and it might be the thing that does us in," Rich Yamarone, director of Argus Research Corp. told the Boston Globe.

As Americans tighten their belts, will it take a bite out of Alaska seafood sales?

"I don't think we will be priced out of the market but there are definitely concerns," Riutta said. "Restaurants are feeling the pinch and a lot of Alaska seafood is consumed at the restaurant trade. It's kind of hard to predict at this point."

ASMI has been very successful at increasing the value of Alaska seafood at home and around the world, but Riutta admits it is a very expensive protein - especially when compared to cheaper farmed fish.

"We've certainly got our work cut out for us to try and hold on to the prices we've managed to achieve over the past few years," he said. More than half of our nation's seafood catch comes from Alaska. As the U.S. dollar tanks to its lowest value ever - less than 72-cents last weekend - Alaska seafood sales could get a boost from overseas where currencies are soaring. "We all need to realize that about half of our seafood goes into the export markets, especially Europe," Riutta said. The value of the Euro recently topped $1.50 against the U.S. dollar in world trading markets. The Alaska seafood brand provides some powerful to European buyers, who lead the world in "eco-purchases." "Our sustainability message about Alaska's well managed fisheries will be front and center in our marketing campaigns. Alaska's also scores high for food safety. Buyers breathe a sigh of relief knowing Alaska seafood is healthy and safe," Riutta added. However, getting those messages across is likely to be much more difficult due to a trimmed budget. ASMI, which is the state's lone seafood marketing arm, has requested a $250,000 increase to its budget, but that was slashed last week by state lawmakers. "The governor's request was to boost the ASMI budget to $750,000 but that's been gutted by the House, led by Mike Kelley from Fairbanks," said industry watchdog Bob Tkacz. "ASMI is currently getting $500,000 from the state in direct marketing assistance. That compares to the Alaska Travel Industry Association getting in the neighborhood of $5 million for marketing help," Tkacz said. The budget cut means ASMI will cut all TV advertising and scale back other Alaska seafood promotions both at home and abroad. Currently, the seafood industry contributes about $7 million each year to marketing outreach.

Big dip in AK salmon catch - State fishery managers are projecting a statewide salmon catch of just over 137 million fish for Alaska this year, down from 212 million in 2007. The drop stems from big pink salmon shortfalls in prime regions.

Here's a sketch of the forecasts for the five species caught in Alaska - the catch for Chinook salmon (kings) is pegged at 672,000, up 110,000 from last year. For coho (silvers) the projected catch of 4.4 million is up 21 percent. More than half of the cohos will be caught in Southeast Alaska. A potential statewide chum harvest of 18.7 million fish falls within the top ten chum harvests since statehood. For sockeye salmon (reds), another huge harvest of 47.1 million fish is projected. Nearly 30 million of the reds will come from Bristol Bay. In contrast, Alaska's two largest pink salmon producers - Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound - are expected to have only modest returns this summer. State managers project a catch of 66.4 million pinks, down by more than half from last's year haul of 144 million humpies, and the lowest pink salmon catch since 1992


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