Story last updated at 12/12/2012 - 3:22 pm
Ask an Alaskan what community is home to the most commercial fishermen and they will respond Kodiak or Dutch Harbor, or maybe Petersburg or Bristol Bay.
Wrong! Anchorage ranks No. 1 for total fishing participation, with 994 permit holders and another 1,216 crew license holders who fish year round. The Anchorage-based fishermen brought home an estimated $52 million from the fishing grounds last year. The Mat-Su Valley with 396 permit holders and 420 fishing crew also is home to more harvesters than many coastal regions.
Those are just a few of the latest "fish facts" compiled by United Fishermen of Alaska, which profiles the jobs and business taxes generated in 2011 by seafood harvesting and processing in 18 Alaska communities.
By far, most commercial fishing operations in Alaska are small LLCs or family businesses, and each fishing boat is like an individual store front. Alaska's harbors can be likened to a "mall in a marina."
UFA is "alarmed" at the lack of public awareness about the economic contributions of the Alaska's seafood industry, said president Arni Thomson of Anchorage.
"Out of sight, out of mind. Commercial fishing and seafood processing is increasingly forgotten in discussions about the relative importance of Alaska industries among policy makers and the public," Thomson said.
Often forgotten (or unknown) is that all of the fish bucks don't just benefit the towns where the catches come in. The taxes generated by fish crossing the docks is split 50/50 between the town or borough, the rest goes into the general fund to be distributed at the whim of the Alaska legislature. In fact, the seafood industry is second only to oil/gas in the dollars it provides to the state general fund. State coffers received more than $25 million in its share of fisheries business and landing taxes last year.
Speaking of the docks - that brings up another big misconception that badly devalues the economic impact of the seafood industry.
When people talk about the value of a fishery, they commonly refer to its "ex-vessel value," the price paid to fishermen at the docks prior to the seafood being processed. This represents only half of the value after the catch is processed, boxed and shipped to markets - called the "first wholesale value."
Speaking of shipping to markets: Seafood is by far Alaska's top export, accounting for nearly half of the state's total exports. The seafood exports were valued at $5.2 billion last year, a 24 percent increase from 2010. Find the Alaska community fishing facts at : www.ufa-fish.org .
Bait and switch - Halibut scientists use more than 300,000 pounds of chum salmon as bait when they do annual stock surveys each summer. The bait, which is procured from local ports, is staged at more than 1,200 survey stations stretching between Oregon and the Bering Sea with the help of up 15 chartered fishing boats.
Bait is one of the most expensive parts of the project, and increasing chum prices have pushed up the processed/frozen cost to nearly a half million dollars. Last year that prompted a study using less pricey fish that might work just as well - herring, pink salmon and Alaska pollock.
"We found that herring was the worst so we dropped that, and pinks performed about the same as chum salmon," said Bruce Leaman, director of the International Pacific Halibut Commission which staffs the surveys.
In tests this summer, pollock and pink salmon baits were on hooks alongside chums at every survey area. The results were mixed, Leaman said.
"In the Gulf of Alaska, in general the pollock caught more halibut and less bycatch, but that wasn't the case in the Bering Sea. We didn't see the same results everywhere," he said.
The testing showed some clear linkages between bait and catches, Leaman added, but said they aren't consistent enough to draw good conclusions."
Halibut scientists will repeat the bait experiment next year, and for now chum salmon will remain the bait of choice.
"We may have a recommendation for the Commission in 2014 in terms of a change to the bait," Leaman said, "but that remains to be seen."
Frankenflop - Attempts to get genetically modified (GM) salmon approved for U.S. dinner plates are having trouble staying afloat. The Associated Press reports that Aquabounty, the Massachusetts-based company that has tweaked Atlantic salmon to grow twice as fast as normal, is on its last legs financially.
At issue is the more than two decades it has taken to try and get the nod from the Food and Drug Administration. Two years ago the FDA concluded the GM salmon was safe to eat but it has yet to approve the so called Frankenfish. The agency is still working on an environmental impact report which could take years to conclude.
Aquabounty has burned through $67 million so far and has put all of its investments in the Frankenfish basket. CEO Ron Stotish said the company only has enough money to survive until January. He blames the stall on "partisan bickering and people who oppose new technology."
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's fishing industry since 1988. She lives in Kodiak.