Story last updated at 12/17/2008 - 3:45 pm
By the time you read this, Alaska's premier king crab fishery at Bristol Bay will be nearly done for the year, with just a handful of holdouts still pulling pots. Last Friday 11 crab boats were still out on the grounds, out of a total fleet of 77, three more than last year said Forrest Bowers, area manager at Dutch Harbor.
The crabbers had taken nearly all of the their 18 million pound catch limit, with "400,000 pounds "remaining on the IFQ tag," Bowers said, adding that pot lifts were a bit lighter this year.
"It's running around 23 legal crab per pot lift, compared to 28 last year, and 34 in 2006," he said. The crab are bigger, and overall the catch is looking good.
"The average weight has been about 6.6 pounds per crab, a little bit above average," Bowers said. "In general, the processors and fishermen have been really happy with the shell condition and meat fill, so that's been good."
Also good, crab prices.
" We're seeing $5/lb on the fish tickets," Bowers said. That compares to an average base of $4.19/lb last year. Post season adjustments based on crab sales will likely push that price higher.
The price boost stems from buying interest from Japan - Alaska's #1 red king crab customer - combined with reduced deliveries from Russia. Japan purchased nearly 65percent of the Bristol Bay king crab pack, said Ken Talley of Seafood Trend. That's good news as the U.S. economy continues to tank. China appears to be an export market in the making, Talley said. Exports of king crab to Hong Kong, for example, have soared this year to nearly 100,000 pounds.
Bowers called this year's Bristol Bay crab fishery "uneventful."
"Since 2005 for red king crab there haven't been any injuries or major accidents, like vessel sinkings in the crab fishery. The industry is able to go out and prosecute the fishery efficiently and take care of the business at hand."
Golden king and Tanner crab fisheries are ongoing in the Bering Sea, and Dutch Harbor is gearing up for the snow crab fleet next month. Prices for golden crab are ranging from $3 to $3.75; the base price for Tanners jumped from $1.25-$1.65.
Here comes herring
Catch numbers are trickling in for 2009 herring fisheries. The spring herring are valued primarily for their eggs, or roe, nearly all of which goes to Japan. Ten percent of roe as a percent of body weight is the industry standard; anything above usually fetches a higher price.
Alaska's herring fisheries begin at Sitka Sound, where the '09 catch may see a boost to 15,308 tons, an increase of 800 tons from 2008. Sitka's fishery is limited to about 100 permit holders, who averaged $600/ton in '08, up from $475. The Sitka fishery can last just a few days and this year was valued at $9 million to fishermen.
Most Alaska regions enjoyed higher tonnage prices for roe herring, except for the state's biggest fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay. The catch there of 20,000 tons averaged $125/ton for seiners, $144/ton for setnetters. Unfortunately, except for a small sac roe fishery at Norton Sound, a lack of buyers canceled herring fisheries from Security Cove to Port Clarence. Alaska's 2008 statewide herring sac roe harvest of 39,421 tons was valued at $13.2 million to fishermen.
Cook Inlet cashes in
Herring fishermen at Upper Cook Inlet take an entirely different approach to roe herring and get $2,000 per ton!
"Here on the east side the fish are sold in the food bait fishery. The halibut and king salmon sport fisheries buy it for bait, and also the commercial fishermen use it for halibut bait," explained Jeff Fox, area management biologist at ADF&G in Soldotna.
Between 15-20 small setnet operators take part in the herring fishery, catching from 15 to 30 tons a year. Fox said the herring are caught about a week before they are ripe.
"They prefer the green herring because it stays on the hook better. So that's why it commands a better price than for the sac roe."
Fishermen and processors sell the fresh herring in buckets for $1/lb; if it's packaged and frozen, it can fetch up to $12 for seven fish. Fox said demand for herring bait far exceeds the supply.
"Right now people bring in fish from other places and break it up into smaller quantities and package it for the sport industry. If we caught 50 tons, that probably wouldn't be necessary," Fox said.
"Years ago they would buy herring from Dutch Harbor or Kodiak; now they buy it from Canada, thaw it and repackage it for sale."
So, at $2,000 per ton, why aren't more Cook Inlet fishermen going after roe herring? It's very labor intensive in tough weather, Fox said. The fish come through in smaller numbers and the fishery lasts about a month.
"It's cold, it's windy and it's a lot of work," he said.
Seafood marketers have their work cut out for them, as cash strapped Americans cut back on eating out and on home food costs. Packaged Facts, a New York-based research group that tracks national food trends, predicts that U.S. seafood consumption will drop below 16 pounds per person by next year, then rebound in 2010. Each American ate 16.3 pounds of fish and shellfish last year, a 1.2 percent decline from 2006.
Packaged Facts said the U.S. recession is hurting sales of both fresh and frozen seafood at foodservice, where most fish is eaten, and at retail outlets. The declines in sales of higher priced seafoods could boost sales of canned fish and other lower priced products.
PF said seafood marketers can reverse the downward trend by emphasizing the health benefits of seafood. Also, the 'sustainability' message is gaining momentum with more consumers who are concerned with overfishing and environmentally harmful fishing methods.
That gives Alaska seafood an advantage, said Ray Riutta , director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
"Our sustainability message will be front and center in our marketing campaigns over the next couple of years," he said. Equally as important, Riutta said the Alaska seafood brand scores high for food safety.
'The fact that it comes from Alaska - buyers breathe a sigh of relief because they know it's safe."
America's seafood favorites have remained largely the same for the past 10 years. Shrimp is the #1 favorite, followed by canned tuna, salmon, pollock and tilapia. Salmon has shown the strongest gains of all seafood, with each American eating 2.2 pounds on average last year.