Troubles in the Alaska salmon industry are bad and getting worse. It's both important and timely that a legislative task force has been empaneled to study policy changes that might provide relief. Their report will be anticipated eagerly.
Alaska's salmon fortunes have been eclipsed dramatically in world markets. Less than a decade ago, Alaska was the world leader in salmon production. Today it sells a fraction of the amounts going to market from foreign farmed salmon producers.
Harvest value in Alaska has declined precipitously from the peak of $768 million in 1988: Last year's catch was worth $216 million, while this year's is projected to reach only $130 million.
That's still a lot of fish and a lot of employment, but the trendlines are all bad. A lot of boats aren't going in the water at all, and a lot of others are losing money when they do. To walk around the harbor and boatyards of Dillingham in Bristol Bay, for instance, is to fear for the future of an industry that's been the mainstay of the region for more than a century. And Bristol Bay isn't the only region in trouble.
Legislators did well to create and fund the panel, and legislative leaders chose well for its membership. Senate President Rick Halford and House Speaker Brian Porter tabbed a balanced and respected panel of 11 members. State Sen. Ben Stevens, who was a fisherman far longer than he's been a politician, will lead the group. Rep. Gary Stevens of Kodiak, one of the nation's major fishing ports, will serve as vice chairman. Other task force members represent Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, the Aleutians, Bristol Bay and Seattle-based fish packers. All are savvy to fish policy, fish politics and the vicissitudes of the fish business.
The biggest issue is competing with farmed salmon, which now dominates the market. Alaska long ago made the decision to ban fin-fish farming, and there has been no serious move to reverse the policy. The question, then, is how to compete and win anyway -- especially when every year brings new incursions of farmed fish into markets Alaska formerly dominated. There's still a big niche for Alaska salmon; the issue is making it bigger.
Thanks to effective fishery management, Alaska's salmon runs are still generally strong. The problem lies more with swiftly changing world markets and competition than with the health of the runs. Succeeding despite the changes surely will require better strategy, quality control, marketing and coordination -- not easy to accomplish in the traditionally competitive, rough-and-tumble world of salmon fishing. The task force, whose report is due Jan. 31, has a big and important job.
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