Alaska still top fishing state: Salmon fisheries provide most jobs

Posted: Sunday, December 14, 2008

Alaska continues to hold its own as the nation's No. 1 fishing state, with salmon fisheries providing the most jobs. However, employment in the crab fishery has dropped substantially in part because that fishery was privatized, state economists say.

A report in the November issue of Alaska Economic Trends, published by the state Department of Labor, notes that in 2007 the overall harvest of Alaska seafood was third highest in value since statehood and the sixth largest in volume.

Despite depressed salmon markets in 1998 and from 2000 to 2003, Alaska fisheries have recovered in recent years. 2006 and 2007 brought record harvest values: $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion, said state labor economists Brigitta Windisch-Cole and Josh Warren.

The value of Alaska's 2007 harvest was 3.6 times the value of Massachusetts' harvest, the nation's No. 2 fishing state, they said.

For 2007, the latest year all complete figures are available, the average monthly fish harvesting job count was 7,260. At the peak of summer, the monthly job count rose to 20,137.

"Add the thousands of jobs the fisheries created in seafood processing, support service industries and government management, and the economic importance of fisheries to Alaska becomes even more clear," the economists said.

While employment in the salmon, halibut and sablefish fisheries were down slightly; the drop in jobs was most dramatic in the crab fleet, which generated only 418 jobs in 2007, a 40 percent decline from 692 jobs in 2002.

Economists said one reason for the decline is the crab rationalization program implemented in 2005 in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, home of the state's largest crab fishery in terms of volume.

Between 2003 and 2007, crab employment in those areas fell by 34 percent and peak month employment fell from 1,694 in 2003 to 584 in 2007, a 65 percent drop, the economists said.

As intended, the crab rationalization program reduced fleet size, and distributed individual share quotas to area fishermen based on their harvest history adjusted to the total annual harvest quota.

Salmon fisheries have traditionally provided the most jobs of all of the state's fisheries.

In 2007, salmon employment made a strong recovery from its low point in 2002, in volume and value. The 2007 overall salmon harvest of nearly 950 million pounds was Alaska's third-largest salmon harvest in 27 years and worth nearly $417 million.

That was the highest value in eight years and worth more than six times the value of the 2002 harvest.

Prices for different species of Alaska salmon fluctuate as global supply and demand shift emphasis, state economists said. Kings commanded the highest price per pound in 2007, while pinks commanded the lowest, a pattern for years.

Average harvest prices for all species except sockeye have kept up with inflation in the past seven years, they said.

Sockeye stock abundance helped to push up the total value of the Bristol Bay fishery in 2007. The catch was worth $109 million, or 26 percent of Alaska's total salmon harvest.

Bristol Bay draws more fishermen than any other fishery in Alaska, and includes fishers who hold 1,468 gillnet permits and 825 set net permits. Still, Bristol Bay's 2007 employment was down 19 percent in 2007 when compared to 2000.

Employment may further decline in the future due to a change in gear regulations, economists said.

Halibut and sablefish employment was down 66 jobs, or 4 percent in 2007, from the 2006 season. Economists said jobs in these fisheries have slowly eroded since 2000, with an overall decline of 200 jobs, or 11 percent.

Before 1995, halibut was a derby fishery, with short season openings, at times less than 24 hours long, drawing fierce competition. The individual fishing quota system implemented in 1995 resulted in volume-controlled long season fisheries. In 2007, the halibut harvest season ran from March 10 to Nov. 15.

Halibut and sablefish have also earned some of the highest per-pound prices of all fish species. The quota share system has forged fleet consolidation, partly due to the stacking of quota shares, which allow quota share owners to share effort and expense.

In 1992, some 3,452 vessels fished for halibut and 1,166 vessels targeted sablefish. By 2007, the fleet had dwindled to 1,211 boats fishing for halibut and 373 fishing for sablefish. Further consolidation could occur as IFQs are traded, the economists said.

While salmon generates more jobs than other fisheries, it is the groundfish fishery that commands the highest overall volume and value, with a relatively few very large vessels catching enormous amounts of fish, predominantly pollock, without a lot of manpower.

These harvests take place in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) region and the Gulf of Alaska.

For all this, the groundfish industry generated 1,182 jobs, compared to 3,759 jobs in the salmon fishery and 1,246 jobs in the halibut fishery.

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