Alaska longliners may begin to feel the pain that salmon fishermen have been suffering for years.
British Columbia fish farmers are gearing up to raise black cod, raising the specter of Alaska's wild catch going head-to-head in the marketplace with fish raised in pens. It may not matter to consumers that farmed fish are pumped full of antibiotics or that their flesh is laced with more PCBs and toxins than wild fish. If the price is right, shoppers will buy farmed fish.
And if black cod farmers flood the market as salmon growers have, prices will plunge and Alaska longliners will have a much tougher time surviving. While global market forces are often far beyond the control of Alaska's seafood industry, some steps can be taken to limit the damage.
One major difference between black cod, or sablefish, and salmon is that the former can be caught three-quarters of the year, rather than mostly just during the summer months. The limited season for fresh salmon gave farmers an edge in the marketplace because they can offer pen-raised fish all year long. Already, wild black cod is better positioned to compete with its farmed counterpart. But extending the sablefish season should be considered and soon.
Sablefish farmers are still working so that their fish will satisfy the discriminating palates of Japanese and Hong Kong consumers. They're tough customers and Alaska has done well to produce the high-quality black cod that satisfies them. Maintaining those exacting standards is going to be essential as farmers work to match them.
The wild black cod industry and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute face a continuing uphill battle in educating consumers about seafood. Already, ASMI battles for a place in the market with a fraction of the money that its counterparts in other countries have. Gov. Frank Murkowski and the Alaska Legislature deserve credit for supporting recent changes in ASMI's funding structure and its board to better protect its future income and make the board more effective. Although the Legislature does not give ASMI funding, the marketing organization did receive $6.5 million for the next two years from the governor's salmon revitalization funding and the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board. Support from state leaders needs to be maintained as the industry faces its new market threats.
But perhaps most importantly, Alaska's congressional delegation, state lawmakers and the governor need to initiate a focused effort to prevent black cod farming from developing in this country. The U.S. National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration is conducting research on black cod farming and has supported the introduction of offshore aquaculture. Not only would farmed American black cod make the market tougher, it could threaten Alaska's wild stocks. Black cod are big migrators, with some stocks traveling from California to as far north as the Aleutian Islands. Just as salmon farming has posed problems for wild stocks, damage by farming to sablefish populations will likely take its toll on Alaska catches.
Black cod farmers are working hard to launch their industry and the U.S. should not wait until the sablefish industry is at full strength before it takes action. Alaska has already gone through the fish-farming nightmare with salmon. It needs to do whatever it can to prevent a similar scenario with black cod.
Juneau Empire - July 11
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