Story last updated at 8/12/2009 - 1:16 pm
There's still quite a bit of fishing to go, but it appears likely that Alaska's 2009 salmon season will come up way short of the forecast.
The statewide harvest was projected to reach 175 million fish, up 20 percent over last year. The boost stemmed from an anticipated 34 percent higher catch of pink salmon to 113 million fish. But so far, that hasn't panned out.
The biggest shortfall stems from an apparent run failure at one of the prime pink producing regions - Prince William Sound - where hatchery returns by last week were a total bust. Up to 40 million humpies were projected to be taken there this summer; through the first week of August, the catch was just 3.9 million fish.
"We should know in the next week or 10 days," said Geron Bruce, assistant director of the state commercial fisheries division. "If we don't see something then, it's going to start looking really bleak. The wild pink salmon runs to Prince William Sound are also coming back weak."
Good pink salmon catches were coming in at Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula, but another big producer - Southeast - was also off to a slow start. The total statewide harvest of pinks through August 7 had reached 37 million fish.
Catches of the big money fish - sockeye salmon - already topped 40 million, thanks to the huge haul of 30 million reds at Bristol Bay. Red salmon harvests in most other regions have been disappointing, but the total catch of nearly 40.7 million reds has surpassed the pre-season forecast of 38 million.
Chum harvests are also running behind, with Southeast producing only about half of what was expected. The chum catch had reached 12.2 million so far, out of a projected 18.5 million fish. Bruce said except for Norton Sound, chum runs out west have been pretty good.
"The Kuskokwim runs were generally good across the board and cohos are still to come," Bruce said. "The Yukon has had a decent summer chum run, although it is not quite what we expected it to be. On a bright note, there's more market interest there."
The bulk of the coho catches are still to come throughout the state. The harvest so far had reached 1.3 million out of a projected 4.6 million silvers, a slight increase from last year. King salmon catches of 272,000 are slightly above the forecast of 249,000, mostly from Southeast (190,000 kings).
Through early August the statewide salmon catch had reached 91.5 million fish. Bruce agreed it's a stretch that the 2009 harvest will reach the projected 175 million.
"Of that, 113 million was pinks. Subtract the Prince William Sound portion and it knocks it back to 70 to 80 million fish," he said. "But it's still kind of up in the air. The next couple of weeks will tell the tale."
All of Alaska's Pacific cod fisheries are the next to merit an eco-label by the international Marine Stewardship Council. The bright blue MSC label assures customers that their seafood purchases come from fisheries that are managed for sustainability, and are friendly to the environment. (www.msc.org)
"We're within a month or two of completion. This will be posted by the MSC on their public comment section this week," said Jim Browning, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation which has spearheaded the labeling effort along with industry stakeholders.
The MSC program provides a way for consumers to support and reward responsibly managed fisheries. A chain-of-custody certification assures traceability of the seafood product from deck to dinner plate. Fisheries undergo a rigorous third party before obtaining the label; the process can be costly and take several years. But in today's planet conscious climate, eco-labels are becoming a part of doing business. Wal-Mart, for example, will only source seafoods bearing the MSC guarantee and more companies around the world have followed suit.
And they are willing to pay more for it, Browning said.
"Depending on the market, people are certainly seeing a premium. But more importantly, it's not so much will you pay me more for certified cod - it's we won't take it unless it's certified."
A portion of the Bering Sea freezer/longline fleet, owned by Bering Sea Select, obtained the MSC label for its cod catches in 2006 on its own dime. Now the eco-guarantee will apply to all Alaska cod fisheries, assuming all goes according to plan.
"It includes four gear types: longline, trawl, pot and jig fisheries in both the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska. each sector is looked at separately, so it's eight separate certifications," Browning said.
The MSC cod certification process has taken three years and cost $240,000, paid for with federal funding and industry stakeholders.
Alaska's P-Cod will be in good company - salmon, pollock, halibut and sablefish already bear the MSC label, and crab and flatfish are in the pipeline.
"Right now the industry tells us it's the most bang for the buck as far as global recognition and control of certified products," Browning said.
Seven seafood companies are among Alaska's top employers, according the Dept. of Labor's annual Top 100 list for 2008.
Trident Seafoods ranked No. 6 and led all other seafood companies in terms of putting people to work. Trident is the largest employer in three of Alaska's 29 boroughs and census areas - Aleutians East, Dillingham and Kodiak. Its largest plant is at Akutan.
UniSea in Dutch Harbor, came in at No. 30, and was the top employer in the Aleutians West census area. Icicle Seafoods ranked No. 32 and had the most workers in two regions - Dillingham and Petersburg, its home base. Westward Seafoods in Dutch Harbor came in at No. 37; Peter Pan ranked No. 40, with its largest operation at King Cove. Ocean Beauty was No. 45, and North Pacific Seafoods ranked No. 71 - both listed Kodiak as their Alaska headquarters.
Coming in at No. 1 for the state's largest private employer was Providence Health & Services with more than 4,000 workers. Wal-Mart, including its Sam's Club, ranked second and Carrs/Safeway was third. Labor analysts pegged the number of private sector employees last year at 76,400 workers. The average annual wage of the top 100 employers was $54,377.
Find more info in the terrific Alaska Economic Trends publication at http://Labor.state.ak.us.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around Alaska. Welch lives in Kodiak.