Alaska fishermen find farmed salmon a formidable foe

Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- When Dick Jacobsen was a kid, his family had to abandon his home village of Squaw Harbor on Unga Island along the south Alaska Peninsula. The island's industries had dried up, the people had fled and finally the school closed.

Now Jacobsen, a Sand Point resident and mayor of the Aleutians East Borough, is trying to save other towns in the region.

And that means saving the commercial salmon industry.

''I've been a fisherman all my life,'' he said. ''I started fishing with my dad when I was 6. We can't exist on what we're doing anymore.''

Salmon fishing, a bedrock Alaska industry for more than a century, is withering.

The numbers have been tallied from last summer's harvest, and they are bittersweet. Although the state remains blessed with scads of salmon -- nearly 175 million fish were landed last summer -- fishermen took home only $216 million for them, less than half what they got 15 years ago.

Alaska once was king in world salmon markets, accounting for nearly one in every two fish available. Now, in just over a decade, it has slipped to fewer than one in five fish. Foreign salmon farms, which barely existed 20 years ago, rule now.

Alaska's salmon all return in erratic droves during three or four summer months, forcing most of the catch to be frozen or canned and sometimes compromising quality. The salmon farms can churn out controlled supplies of fresh fish all year long. That has won favor from restaurants and grocers in the key markets of Japan, the United States and Europe.

Alaska fishermen are struggling to pay for fuel, crewmen and grub out of their season's catches. At Bristol Bay, the average boat used to gross $100,000 for a month's work. Last summer the average slipped to about $22,500 before expenses.

Debts are going bad. The Alaska Division of Investments, which makes loans to fishermen for boats and state fishing permits, has received 309 applications to extend loans, up 52 percent from last year.

The downturn in the industry in Alaska is happening at a time when global demand for salmon is exploding. Last year the world consumed 3.7 billion pounds of salmon, triple the amount of 20 years earlier. The salmon farms have won almost all of the new demand.

Although no one is seriously talking about legalizing salmon farms, other big ideas are in play to reform the Alaska industry so that at least some can continue to make a living. They include lifting the ban on fish traps, buying out some fishermen and finding novel new ways to catch and market wild salmon at lower cost.

Regardless, Alaska's salmon heyday might be over.

''The wild industry is now a follower, and it will never be anything but a follower from now on,'' according to James Anderson, a University of Rhode Island natural resources economist.

Gov. Tony Knowles declared an economic disaster for Bristol Bay and other Western Alaska salmon provinces last summer and recently sent a letter to President Bush asking for the same sort of federal aid an agricultural state might get in a drought.

Fish farmers now make more than three times as much salmon as Alaska catches. Seafood industry watchers say farmers who raise salmon in hundreds of ocean net pens along the coasts of Chile, Norway, Scotland, Canada and even of Washington and Maine have glutted markets with cheap fish, creating record low wholesale prices.

That's a big reason why Bristol Bay fishermen took home only 40 cents a pound for their catch last summer, the lowest price since 1975. In 1988, the fish paid up to $2.40 a pound at the dock, making an average six-pound sockeye worth more than a barrel of Alaska crude oil.

The historic theme of Alaska salmon management has been to spread the considerable wealth of salmon fishing to as many Alaskans as possible and prevent concentration of the industry in the hands of a few, usually Outside companies.

One of the biggest in a series of key decisions came when Alaska became a state in 1959. It immediately banned fish traps -- massive corrals that netted migratory salmon with great efficiency. The traps dominated the catch in many areas, angering fishermen whose boats were idled and who saw the trap as a tool of the big San Francisco and Seattle canning companies.

The ban solidified the current structure of Alaska's salmon industry: Thousands of small boats racing around, each a small business with crewmen to pay, food, gear and insurance to buy and loans to pay off.

Thousands more Alaska fishermen stretch their nets from beaches.

To ensure everybody gets salmon, intricate state regulations limit boat and net size and ban some equipment that would let fishermen catch more fish faster.

''Some folks have jumped to the conclusion that Alaska can't beat the salmon farmers, so it should join them. That's bunk,'' Brad Warren, editor of the trade journal Pacific Fishing.

The problem is, the Alaska industry and state officials never had to compete before the farms came along, he said. So the industry was shaped too much to meet social goals, making it highly inefficient.

As it stands, some parts of the salmon business are competing better than others.

Alaska's coast supports not one salmon fishery but many, from Ketchikan to Cordova, Cook Inlet to Kodiak, Chignik to False Pass, Bristol Bay to Nome. Each has its own focus, its own group of fishermen and packers, its own markets and its own problems. Farmed fish and inefficiency aggravate them all to varying extents.

Farmed salmon hits places like Bristol Bay and Chignik the hardest, as the high-value red salmon from these areas compete most directly with farmed in the vital Japanese market. An exception is the Copper River fishery based in Cordova, where fishermen have marketed their May king and red runs into an enthusiastic first-of-the-season cult following in the Lower 48.

Doing nothing is not an option for the industry or the state, said Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who led recent strategy sessions on saving the salmon business.

''The economy of coastal Alaska is very dependent on commercial fisheries,'' she said. ''It's a big deal.''

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