Alaska Fish Factor

Survey finds 98% of Alaska, West Coast fishermen hurt by pandemic economy

The single biggest hit to fishermen from the COVID-19 virus is lower dock prices, according to Alaska and West Coast harvesters, and 98% said their businesses have been badly bashed by the pandemic.

That's based on survey results compiled by Ocean Strategies, a public relations firm that focuses on fisheries that helped profile the Pacific region for a larger federal study.

Nearly 400 fishermen responded to the short, confidential survey launched last November, said senior consultant Hannah Heimbuch of Kodiak.

"NOAA uses any information they collect on economics to report to Congress on how the industry is being impacted, the major trends they are seeing, and then that informs the decisions that Congress or other government agencies might make in response to those trends," she said.

In the survey, 82% said fishing is their primary source of income and 91% said their revenues have decreased by 15% to 100% since last January. A whopping 70% said they stopped fishing last year; 65% stopped for three months or less.

Just 18% reported being back to full fishing activity compared to 2019, and 63% said they did not see any change in the number of crew they employed.

The Alaska/West Coast responses are included in a comprehensive report released last week titled "Updated Impact Assessment of the COVID-19 Crisis on the U.S. Commercial Seafood and Recreational For-Hire/Charter Industries January-July 2020," intended to help businesses and communities "assess losses and inform long-term resilience strategies."

The easy-to-read report states that global COVID-19 protection measures that began last March contributed to an "almost-immediate" hit to seafood sales. The year started strongly with a 3% increase in fish landing revenues; however, they declined each month showing a 19% decrease in March and then a 45% decrease by July.

"This translates to a 29% decrease (in revenues) across those seven months, as compared to five-year averages and adjusted for inflation," the report said.

The damages are broken out by U.S. regions. A six-page snapshot for Alaska shows that total landings from January through August 2020 were 15% below 2019 levels, a drop of 695 million pounds from 4.74 billion pounds to 4.03 billion pounds.

The reductions were due to a 71% decline in harvest volume for herring, 45% for salmon, a decline of 18% for halibut, and 29% for Pacific cod compared to 2019 levels.

In contrast, crab, flatfish and rockfish harvests were up 3%, 4%, and 11%, respectively, compared with the 2015-2019 period.

The combination of lower catches and decreased fish prices from January through August pushed down the value of Alaska's catches by 30% from 2019 levels (a decline of $436 million, from $1.48 billion to $1.04 billion).

The largest decreases in value from 2019 included a 67% drop for herring, a 61% reduction in salmon, a 37% drop in halibut revenues, down 30% for cod, and a 17% decrease in the value of flatfish.

The two bright spots compared with the five year baseline were a 17% increase in crab revenues and a 6% increase for rockfish.

For the sports charter sector, "reports from the field suggest fishing was 'well below normal levels' throughout Alaska, with some in industry estimating between 30% to 50% losses for the season."

"In the coming months and years, scientists and economists will work to obtain a more complete picture of COVID-19's impact on U.S. seafood and the Blue Economy," said NOAA Fisheries' Chris Oliver. "It is our hope that this initial analysis provides a foundation that the industry researchers and planners can draw upon as they plan for the future."

Hatchery at risk

A push to close the Tutka Bay Hatchery in Kachemak Bay has drawn the ire of fishermen and residents far beyond that region. It is one of four hatcheries operated by the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, which produces primarily sockeye and pink salmon to enhance commercial, sport, subsistence and personal-use fisheries.

The draft of a review of the Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park Management Plan finds that the Tutka Bay Hatchery, which has been in operation since the late 1970s, is an "incompatible use" in the park. 

"The plan addresses appropriate management for state parks. We understand the financial concerns, but there are just several legal concerns that exist," said Monica Alvarez with the state Deptartment of Natural Resources at a public hearing in December.

"The fact that it's kind of authorized through a 20-year operating agreement; that is very long term, and the only thing that can be authorized in state parks are short-term permits. So, a 20-year term is a concern. The fact that the hatchery is operated primarily under cost-recovery is a concern," Alvarez told KBBI public radio in Homer.

The fact that within DNR the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation will be tasked with adopting a new plan has raised eyebrows. Ricky Gease, appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy as head of Alaska State Parks, was a former longtime director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and advocated strongly for the removal of the region's hatcheries, including Tutka Bay.

"Concerns related to the hatchery have nothing to do with Ricky Gease," Alvarez insisted. "They're largely legal in nature. They're concerns we've had for quite some time. Additionally, Ricky Gease is kind of recused from this process. And so he has not been part of any of the meetings associated with this management plan. He really has nothing to do with this effort."

However, Gease's comments and testimony from when he led the sportfishing group were incorporated into the new draft plan, KBBI pointed out.

State figures show that about 42,000 hatchery-produced salmon were caught in the Cook Inlet commercial fisheries in 2019, worth an estimated $331,000 to fishermen, or 1.6% of the total dockside value for the region.

According to the group Salmon Hatcheries for Alaska, closure of the Tutka Bay hatchery would eliminate 25 jobs, close the popular China Poot dipnet fishery, end sockeye stocking at several locations and starve both sockeye and pink salmon fisheries from Kachemak Bay to Resurrection Bay.

Meanwhile, Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, has pre-filed a bill that would declare the Tutka Bay hatchery an allowed activity within the state park.

Fishing updates

Jan. 1 was the start of cod and other groundfish fisheries and the nation's biggest catch - Alaska pollock - gets underway on Jan. 20. Over three billion pounds of pollock will come out of the Bering Sea.

Gulf fishermen, however, have chosen to delay their pollock start to Feb. 4 in hopes of hauling in higher-quality, schooled-up fish. That will add another 250 million pounds to Alaska's pollock harvest.

A pollock fishery opens at Prince William Sound on Jan. 20 with a nearly 5 million pound harvest

Trollers at Southeast are still fishing for Chinook salmon. That winter fishery ends March 15.

Divers are still tapping on a 1.7 million pound sea cucumber harvest; divers also continue fishing for over half a million pounds of giant geoduck clams.

A ling cod fishery also is underway in the Panhandle with an 856,000 pound catch limit.

Kodiak divers are still going down for sea cucumbers with a 130,000 pound harvest limit.

Crabbing continues in the Bering Sea for snow crab (40.5 million pounds), dairdi Tanners (2.1 million pounds) and golden king crab (6 million pounds).

Looking ahead: fisheries for golden king crab and Tanners will open in Southeast Alaska in mid-February. At Sitka Sound, a spring roe herring harvest of 33,304 tons is projected, although managers expect the catch will not top 20,000 tons.

At Alaska's largest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay, the catch in May is pegged at a whopping 42,639 tons. It remains to be seen if there will be any buyers for a roe product that has lost favor by Alaska's single customer, Japan.


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