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Vol. 13, No. 48 Week of November 30, 2008
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

AK-WA Connection 2008: Alaska touts sustainable fisheries

Gaining control of salmon fishery became important rallying cry for statehood, state’s fisheries provide international model

Susan Braund

For Alaska-Washington Connection

As Alaska prepares for its 50-year statehood celebrations in 2009, Alaskans are reminded of one of the rallying cries behind the statehood quest: to gain control of the salmon fishery. Fishing is intrinsic to the state’s identity.

“Alaska has one of the only state constitutions that specifically addresses state responsibility for prudent and sustained resource stewardship, for the material benefit of the people,” said Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) communications director Laura Fleming.

The vast fishery resources of Alaska are of tremendous importance to the economies of the state and the nation, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “These resources are self-renewing if properly managed . . . to maximize the production of seafood and economic benefits for generations to come.”

The state manages all salmon, shellfish and herring fisheries, while the federal government has management authority for the majority of groundfish fisheries, with some exceptions.

Sustainability, management and marketing

Alaska’s commercial fishing is year-round, covering an extensive geographic area that includes Southeast Alaska, Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet, Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.

Ensuring the long-term sustainability of the fisheries is a high resource management priority. Based on scientific research, including climatic, environmental and socioeconomic factors, Alaska establishes allowable catch and escapement levels to preserve the health and habitat of each individual species. Since 1959, the state of Alaska has taken a precautionary approach to fishing, setting firm harvest limits that prevent over-fishing.

“Millions upon millions of wild Alaska fish and shellfish are protected by one of the most stringent fisheries management systems in the world,” said Fleming. “It is regarded as a model of sustainable management that meets or exceeds internationally recognized criteria established by United Nations’ food and agricultural organization.”

A combination of fisheries management, investment in infrastructure and concentrated marketing efforts has worked well for Alaska’s fish markets. According to ASMI, the 2007 harvest was 2 1/2 million metric tons down slightly in volume while value increased.

According to ASMI, Alaska’s seafood harvest provides more than half of the national commercial harvest (not including aquaculture), and the Alaska pollock fishery is the largest food fishery in the world.

“Industry focus is on raising the economic value of the harvest,” said Fleming. “We have successfully repositioned as a market-driven food industry. The overall outlook is fairly positive.”

Alaska’s seafood branding effort has met with some success in the United States, becoming the second-most popular food brand on menus at the top 500 restaurant chains, according to ASMI, and in countries where Alaska actively promotes its brand, value has grown.

Alaska-Washington trade connection

Regional trade generates economic stability, sparks commerce and creates jobs. The mutually beneficial regional trading relationship that exists between Alaska and Washington State dates back more than a century to when businesses in the Puget Sound area provisioned miners during the Klondike gold rush.

“The economic relationship Alaska and the Puget Sound enjoys is enduring, expanding and evolving,” reads the third edition 2004 “Ties that Bind” report commissioned by the Tacoma-Pierce County and Greater Seattle Chambers of Commerce. The report periodically examines the economic ties between Puget Sound and Alaska.

“Alaska and Puget Sound remain strong, consistent trading partners and continue to enjoy one of the oldest Pacific Rim trading relationships. Puget Sound has long served as a preferred source of supply for basic products and as a distribution point for national and world marketing of Alaska goods . . . the economic relationship between the regions is growing stronger and deeper.”

The Alaska fishing industry is a critical link in the relationship. “Puget Sound’s distant-water fleet and seafood processing companies remain heavily reliant upon this rich North Pacific resource,” according to the 2004 report.

“The Alaska seafood and transportation sector businesses in Washington and Alaska are engaged in a fully committed effort to maximize profitability,” said Fleming. “Many of the big seafood companies and marine transport companies have headquarters in Seattle and more than one half of Alaska seafood harvest is exported, much of it from Washington.”

The Alaska-Puget Sound connection is a healthy example of interdependence. While Alaska is a storehouse of resources, the Puget Sound, known as the primary gateway to Alaska, provides goods and services. The partnership benefits industry, workers and residents in both states.

“Puget Sound and Alaska are more than just healthy trading partners,” concluded the report. “Together they help one another excel in the good times and weather the bad times. Each fills significant economic needs of the other.”

Economic outlook

Dr. Gunnar Knapp sees uncertainty in the seafood industry, for two reasons: credit and recession.

Knapp is a professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage and former director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute-funded Salmon Market Information Service. For many years, he has researched Alaska resources, particularly Alaska fisheries management and markets for Alaska seafood.

“At the moment, the global credit crisis is making it hard for some of the players in the seafood industry to get credit. Just the problem of getting credit, and knowing which customers have reliable credit, is causing a lot of worry and expense in the seafood industry . . . and each buying stage in the long seafood distribution chain needs credit to pay the next stage.

The bad economic news of the past few months is reversing what had been a fairly good time for the seafood industry with good market demand,” he said.

“A recession cuts back on buying demand, especially for higher-end products and restaurant meals. So the recession could result in lower demand and lower prices for the Alaska seafood industry.”

ASMI also identified some current industry challenges. They include:

price resistance factor (following strengthened prices, market pushes back) seasonality and consistency of supply fuel and energy costs global aquaculture development, and currency fluctuation, tariffs, trade barriers.

“Fishing is dependent on factors outside our control,” Fleming said. “And the fishery is limited; it can only increase product so much. Alaska produces only 2 percent of the world’s seafood, so we really can’t compete on commodity pricing. We just need to stay competitive, be alert and educate.

“There are no price guarantees in fishing. We can never be complacent, never rest. We need sustained effort to command the highest possible prices, continuing to innovate and deliver high- quality, value-added products, or we’ll lose ground.”

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