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PUBLISHED: 4:04 PM on Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Pink salmon big catch of 2007 season
Catches are still trickling in but Alaska's 2007 salmon harvest is already one for the record books.

As of Sept. 7 the total tally had topped 200 million fish, making it the 5th largest salmon harvest in history. Preseason forecasts pegged the 2007 harvest at 180 million fish, up 21 percent from the previous year.

Powering the 2007 season: pinks.

Strong runs throughout the Gulf produced hefty hauls in the primary production regions of Southeast Alaska, Kodiak and especially Prince William Sound, where the catch topped 60 million pinks to set an all time record. The statewide harvest of roughly 135 million pink salmon (compared to 73 million last year) ranks second to the largest catch of 161 million pink salmon taken in 2005.

Alaska's sockeye salmon harvest of 47 million ranks at #8 since the turn of the last century. Nearly 30 million of the total red take came from Bristol Bay.

"It's the fourth year in a row that the Alaska sockeye catch has topped 40 million. That's only happened 14 times in the history of the state," said market analyst Chris McDowell. Alaska's largest sockeye salmon catch was 64 million taken in 1993.

"Sockeye and pinks big are the big success stories for this season. Chinook, coho and chum salmon (runs) weren't as strong as we were expecting, but there were still pretty good harvests," said Geron Bruce, assistant state director of commercial fisheries.

Chum salmon catches might reach 16 million, out of a projected 25 million fish. For Chinook (king) salmon, a statewide harvest of 498,000 is well below the forecast of 789,000 fish.

Bruce said cohos are still coming in, but those runs have been a bit disappointing statewide. The total take so far of 2.6 million silvers is down by nearly half of the preseason projected catch.

State number crunchers are busy calculating the value of Alaska's 2007 salmon season, but it's safe to say it will continue on its upward trend.

The higher catches and an uptick in salmon prices across the board will boost the dockside value above last year's $346 million for a harvest of 141 million fish.

Bruce said all signs point to continuing bountiful catches throughout Alaska.

"We're in the highest period of sustained commercial salmon harvests in Alaska history, and it's continuing. That's the key thing," he said.

Alaska's all time record salmon catch was 221 million fish taken in 2005.

Health care and fishermen

Alaska commercial fishermen face added burdens when it comes to getting good health care coverage.

A study by the United Fishermen of Alaska reveals that Alaska fishermen are nearly four times more likely than other residents to work or live in a community without a hospital, and are less likely to carry medical insurance.

"Some don't even have a clinic, and few have a hospital. That means Alaska fishermen have the added burden of travel costs added to the costs of getting the medical treatments they need," said UFA executive director Mark Vinsel who compiled the health care study. "We think that Alaska fishermen are among the most underserved demographics in the state."

Alaska residents are further challenged because the state is served by far fewer private insurance companies that offer individual or small business medical coverage than other states. Alaska also has the highest health care costs in the nation.

The UFA study reveals that when it comes to health issues, fishermen are good candidates for coverage.

"All the health insurance providers ask first if people use tobacco or if they are obese. Most fishermen don't smoke compared to the general population and they are lean, hard working people. In the competitive insurance market place, it may be a bargain to provide coverage," Vinsel said. He added that injuries at sea are covered by the Alaska Fishermen's Fund, with some limitations.

UFA is also concerned that lack of access to affordable health care will force young people to opt out of fishing.

"Lack of health insurance is a significant barrier to entry for the next generation of commercial fishermen. As the fleet continues to 'gray', there is ultimately a threat to domestic seafood harvests and communities that depend on fishing businesses," said UFA President Joe Childers.

Alaska provides more than half of all U.S. seafood landings, and that needs to be maintained and protected.

"If there are not people to harvest these fish, the seafood balance of trade will be affected dramatically," echoed Vinsel.

UFA will refine its preliminary health care data and work with other national fishing groups and elected state and federal officials to further the cause.

Meanwhile, Vinsel said some fishermen might find relief from a bill introduced to the Alaska legislature last session by Senator Hollis French of Anchorage.

Fishing trends

A look back over 11 years shows some telling trends for Alaska's halibut and sablefish (black cod) fisheries.

Since 1994 both fisheries have operated under a system that gives Individual Fishing Quotas of the catch to Alaska longliners based on their historical participation.

Each year federal managers provide a Report to the Fleet, now dubbed the 'Pacific Halibut-Sablefish IFQ Report.' The latest gives an overview through 2005.

At a glance the report shows that quota shares have consolidated into the hands of fewer persons than those who received shares initially, although most of the quota remains in Alaskan hands.

There are far fewer boats out on the water, however. In 1993, a fleet of 3,393 vessels fished for halibut, compared to 1,276 in 2005, a drop of 62 percent.

For sablefish, the number of boats went from 969 to 378, down 61 percent.

Homer has ranked as the #1 port for landings for eight of the past 11 years. Kodiak claimed the lead three times but has mostly kept a lock on the #2 spot.

Seward has remained the top Alaska port for sablefish landings, with Sitka and Dutch Harbor going back and forth for number two.

The report shows that 300 harvesters have taken loans through the North Pacific Loan Program, which each year provides $5 million to help fund newcomers into the IFQ fisheries. Of those loans, 181 were from Alaska.

They'll need all the financial help they can get. Industry reports show quota shares of sablefish fetching up to $16 per pound in prime fishing regions (Southeast Alaska and the Central Gulf). And get this: halibut shares are selling for up to $26 per pound.

The average dock price paid to fishermen in 2006 for halibut was $3.71 a pound, up 70 cents from the previous year. For sablefish, the price was $2.45, up 35 cents.

Both fisheries begin in March and end in mid-November.


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