Alaska Air Cargo’s presentation was one of the highlights of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s All Hands on Deck meeting in Anchorage last week.

The Seattle-based airline is a lifeline for Alaskans and their businesses for moving people and things in and out of the freeway-challenged state to the Lower 48 and overseas.

When the company announced last year that its five combis, combination freight and passenger planes, would be put out of service and replaced with three full-time freighters, many Alaskans who rely on the air service to run their time-sensitive seafood businesses were anxious about how the transition would affect their ability to move fish.

“There’s been a little misunderstanding about what the combis can actually do,” said Shannon Stevens, regional cargo sales manager.

Beginning Feb. 18, she reports, cargo capacity in and out of Alaska will increase 20 percent with the arrival of the last converted Boeing 737-700 freighter.

These planes each carry a dedicated 40,000 pounds of cargo, compared to the 10,000 to 15,000 pounds on each combi. The airline is also joining with Virgin America to add cargo to more of their flights across the Lower 48 — up to 30 flights from 20, each with a 4,000-pound carrying capacity.

Stevens says the company will be looking for feedback from communities because it “will have great capacity to react to openers. Dillingham/King Salmon reliability will increase.” The airline has also added direct service from Kodiak to Seattle twice a week.

Alaska Air Cargo moves more than 170 million pounds of cargo annually — including seafood — and operates the most extensive air cargo operation on the U.S. West Coast of any passenger airline.

That’s all excellent news for Alaska’s salmon fleets because their bumper year was another highlight of the Anchorage meeting. The ability to move product quickly is relatively new to the most remote fishing grounds, which once relied exclusively on the canning process to preserve their product so far from the market.

Salmon Committee Member Melanie Brown urged industry stakeholders to take advantage of increased capacity and technology breakthroughs to promote full utilization of the fish. She shared a photo of smoked salmon wing tips available at Coastal Cold Storage in Petersburg, Alaska.

But in almost every other sector, committee members and ASMI leadership noted downturns and tough times ahead. The International Pacific Halibut Commission meeting revealed a significant reduction in halibut biomass, which is likely to lead to a quota reduction for next year with little hope of recovery in the short term.

The Whitefish Committee speculated cuts to Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Pacific cod quotas could be 15 to 25 percent for next year. In the Gulf of Alaska it could be slashed in half. Though global stocks of cod are in a lull for now, industry leaders don’t see this dearth of cod as an opportunity to maximize on price, as buyers are more likely to shift to other whitefish species as the wholesale price rises.

“There’s no way you’re going to increase your prices enough to offset the cut in quota,” said Committee Member Tim Meixner of Alaskan Leader Seafoods.

The Shellfish Committee discussed similar circumstances of low Bering Sea king crab inventory. The market remains strong, but rising prices challenge the consumer’s dedication to product loyalty.

Cod quotas are expected to be announced this week at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council Meeting in Anchorage.

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Jessica Hathaway is the former editor in chief of National Fisherman.

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