Alaska fishermen and processors provide 65 percent of the nation’s wild seafood, and 95 percent of the wild salmon. The industry puts more people to work in the state than oil and gas, mining, timber, and tourism combined.
Alaska’s diverse fishing fleet of nearly 10,000 vessels is made up mostly of boats under 50 feet. Each is a small business that supports several families. For towns like Kodiak, Cordova, Homer, Petersburg and Sitka, where 500 to 700 vessels are based, boats are the majority of the downtown storefronts.
Here are my annual Fishing Picks and Pans – a no holds barred look back at the best and worst fish stories of 2017 in no particular order, and my choice for the biggest fish story of the year:
Best fishing career builders: University of Alaska, Southeast for on-the-go iPad training for fishery technicians, boat hydraulics, electronics, vessel repairs and more. Kodiak College merits honorable mention for the same program.
Biggest industry potential: Seaweeds. Kelp alone is a $5 billion global industry. Gov. Bill Walker will unveil a statewide mariculture plan in March, aimed at producing more seaweeds and shellfish. The U.S. Department of Energy already is eyeing Alaska for biofuels from macroalgae.
Biggest fish break: Electronic monitoring systems are replacing fishery observers on small boats to track what’s coming and going over the rails.
Best fish entrepreneurs: Salmon Sisters of Homer, Claire Neaton and Emma Teal Laukitis — even Xtra Tuffs came calling for the sisters’ flair on its boots!
Best fish visionaries: Tidal Vision of Juneau for its list of Alaska crab-shell-based filters, fabrics and an eye-popping list of other products that continues to grow.
Best fish legislators: Rep. Louise Stutes, (R-Kodiak) and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins (D-Sitka)
Best fish knowledge sharers: Alaska Sea Grant and its Marine Advisory Agents
Best fish giver: Sea Share for donating more than 225 million fish servings to needy Americans since 1994. The program began as a bycatch-to-foodbanks effort by Bering Sea fishermen and processors.
Trickiest fish conundrum: Protecting transboundary waters shared by Southeast Alaska and British Columbia. More than a half dozen huge mines are operating or being built directly upstream in British Columbia; some straddle headwaters of the panhandle’s most important salmon rivers.
Most earth friendly fishing town: Kodiak, for generating nearly 100 percent of its electricity from wind and hydropower, and for turning its fish gurry into oils and meals at a plant owned by local processors.
Biggest WTFish? More than 70 percent of active fishing permit holders call Alaska home, but most of the gross earnings go out of state. In 2015 Alaska fishing residents and crew grossed more than $602 million at the docks, while 6,580 Washington-based fishermen took home more than $904 million.
Scariest immediate fish threat: Warming water temperatures that are throwing fish behaviors and diets out of whack.
Scariest imminent fish threat: Ocean acidification — the corrosion of shells and skeletons in sea creatures is already documented in the Pacific Northwest.
Best fish ambassadors: The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute for helping to make the Alaska the number-1 seafood brand on U.S. restaurant menus. Seafood sales are Alaska’s top export by far, topping $3 billion. ASMI, funded primarily by the industry, promotes Alaska seafood in more than 120 countries.
Most counterproductive fish cut: Alaska legislators zeroing out the $1 million state ASMI budget in FY18. In contrast, Norway’s Seafood Council, funded by a tax on seafood exports, has a $55 million federal marketing budget.
Best daily fish news sites: Seafoodnews and SeafoodSource
Town that best promotes fishing futures: Sitka for training young fishermen, marketing local catches, fish quality studies and supporting buy-in options for new entries. The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association helps lead Sitka’s investment in future fishing careers.
Best fish watchers: Cook Inletkeeper, Trustees for Alaska
Most encouraging fish talks: The Stand for Salmon and United Fishermen of Alaska educational outreach on the push to update salmon habitat and permitting laws for the first time since statehood (1959).
Most unacceptable fish story: Nearly 60 million gallons of detergents, road run-off, human wastes, pharmaceuticals and other Anchorage effluent being legally piped into Cook Inlet every day, thanks to decades-long waivers from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Best fish economist: Andy Wink, formerly a senior seafood analyst with the McDowell Group and now launching his own business, Wink Research & Consulting
Best at going to bat for their fishery: The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, funded and operated by the bay’s roughly 1,800 driftnet fishermen
Best fish mainstream move: Trident’s Fork and Fin food truck that is taking the message to the streets that the underloved Alaska pollock (a.k.a. “cod’s cousin”) is what’s for dinner (and lunch).
Most ill-timed fish story: U.S. Navy war games held again in May as Alaska’s salmon season gets underway. The area covers 60,000 square miles off the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. The Navy is reportedly considering moving the training exercises to September.
Biggest fish unknown: Every Alaskan benefits from higher fish prices. Half of the taxes from all fish landings go into the state general fund and are distributed at the whim of the Alaska Legislature.
Biggest fish pipe dream: Pebble Mine — “Wrong mine/Wrong place.”
Best fish booster: Alaska Symphony of Seafood by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. For 25 years the foundation has showcased new Alaska seafood products with a level playing field for the major processors and mom and pop operations. A new category highlights items made from byproducts, including pet treats and salmon skin wallets. (Teaser: the 2018 Symphony winners will be announced at a gala soiree in Juneau in February.)
Best veteran fish writers: Margie Bauman, Jim Paulin
Best new fish writer: Elizabeth Earl
Best fish mixer: Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle, which has topped the half-century mark and continues to grow each year.
Saddest fish story: King salmon returns to Southeast Alaska at their lowest levels since the 1970s.
Town that celebrates its fish best: Cordova. Helicopters and hand delivered salmon herald the salmon season’s kick-off along with chefs and media tours, restaurant revels, and the First Fish delivered to elders.
Town that celebrates its fish least: Kodiak. Fishing starts Jan. 1. No shout outs. Halibut opens in March, salmon in June. No “first of the season fish” featured on Kodiak menus.
Most important fish study: Turning the Tide, which offers hope and guidelines for Alaska’s next generation of commercial fishermen.
Fish story of the year: The cod crash in the Gulf of Alaska, where annual surveys showed stocks of one of Alaska’s largest fisheries are down by more than 80 percent. The cod shortfall, blamed on warm waters over an extended period, is expected to last for three or more years. Alaska typically produces about 20 percent of global cod catches.