Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Today's Catch: Alaskan Appellation

By Chris Philips,
Managing Editor

Since before the fall of the Iron Curtain, the importation of crab illegally caught by Russia has been a serious problem. Russian illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) crab floods the US market, artificially increasing the US king crab supply and lowering prices for legally harvested product.

According to the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association, official US foreign trade and Russian harvest data suggest that one in three king crab sold in world markets in 2011 came from illegal Russian harvests. According to data from the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Russian Federal Fisheries Agency, in 2011 alone Russia harvested 98.2 million pounds IUU crab, compared with its legal harvest of 91 million lbs. and Alaska’s harvest of only 80 million lbs. In March of that year, NOAA law enforcement seized more than 240,000 pounds of illegal king crab at the Port of Seattle from a New York importer.

Not only does this IUU harvest affect the price of crab, the unregulated nature of the product leaves it vulnerable to quality control issues, which reflect back on the legally caught and marketed Alaska product. A consumer who purchases this unregulated product and is dissatisfied (or sickened) won’t know the product isn’t legal Alaska king crab.

Margaret Bauman calls our attention to another issue facing the Alaska seafood industry in describing Walmart’s seafood sales. Margie points out that wild-caught Pacific salmon on Walmart shelves, although certified by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), is labeled “product of China.” This salmon may or may not have been harvested, processed and stored in a responsible manner, but it competes with sustainably harvested Alaska product.

Perhaps Alaska should take a page from France’s playbook.

French culture revolves around good food and wine, and the French won’t stand for sub-par products, from fish, meat and poultry to wine and cheese. For centuries, France has used and enforced the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), which translates as “controlled designation of origin” and acts as federally enforced certification that an agricultural product indeed originates from a particular region. As early as 1411, Roquefort cheese was regulated by a parliamentary decree, and over the centuries laws have been passed to confirm the origin of wines and grapes.

AOC products are held to a rigorous set of clearly defined standards, and it’s illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled geographical indications if it does not comply with the criteria of the AOC. AOC products can be identified by a seal, which is printed on the label in wines, and with cheeses, on the rind. To prevent any possible misrepresentation, no part of an AOC name may be used on a label of a product not qualifying for that AOC.

Other countries have followed suit, including Italy, Spain and Portugal, and in the US we have American Viticultural Areas recognized by the Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

While the White House and the State Department might be comfortable with Vladimir Putin making our foreign policy decisions, the US seafood industry is under no obligation to let Russia and China take over our Alaskan seafood industry. Maybe it’s time for the State of Alaska to make its own controlled designation of origin. The Alaska brand should apply only to species harvested and processed by Alaska permitted and approved producers. The state’s lawmakers could pass a simple law, and Alaska’s Attorney General could enforce it. Any seafood not bearing the state-approved seal couldn’t use the term “Alaskan.” While this might not stop the flow of IUU seafood, it would offer consumers a trusted seal of quality backed by the state, and give Alaska’s commercial harvesters their own certification.

Bristol Bay Drift Gillnet, Southeast Seine Permit Prices Way Up

Just a year ago prices for Bristol Bay drift gillnet permits were way down, with sales in the $113,000 to $115,000 range, and in the spring of 2013, two of those permits sold for $92,000 and $93,000 respectively at Dock Street Brokers in Seattle.

But within the past week, another of those Bristol Bay drift gillnet permits sold for $130,000 and as of Sept. 23, the cheapest one out there was asking $135,000, said Dock Street broker Paul Piercey.  “Compared to last year, it’s way up,” he said.

Back in October of 2012, the brokerage sold one of those permits for $87,000, and in December, another for $85,000, but in January they started inching up to $90,000 and by April up to $94,000, Piercey said. “Then the reality of the dock price being $1.50 a pound for reds (sockeye salmon) pushed the price to $126,000 and it leapfrogged from $126,000 to $135,000,” he said.

Set netter permit values took a blow when they lost the ability to own and fish two permits in Bristol Bay. Piercey said he had expected more of the set netter permits would be on the market, but those that are available are selling in the $37,000 to $38,000 range.

Permits for Southeast Alaska seiners are also way up in the wake of the last buyback in 2012, some of them listing for more than $300,000, Piercey said. There are not many for sale, and when they become available, they are getting snapped up quickly.

In the spring of 2011, they were selling for $125,000, and then, just prior to the 2012 season, came the first buyback and prices went to the mid $200,000 level. By the fall of 2012 they were selling at $240,000, and after the first of the year, one sold right away for $300,000. The prices for those Southeast seine permits dropped back down to about  $250,000 and then climbed back up to $300,000, and right now the cheapest one out there is for $306,000, he said.

Pew Proposes Improved Standards for Offshore Drilling in the Arctic

A global research and public policy group is offering the Interior Department recommendations for world-class Arctic standards for oil and gas exploration, development and production.

Pew Charitable Trusts, the sole beneficiary of trusts established by the children of the founder of Sun Oil Company, made its recommendations in a 142-page document released on Sept. 23. The complete document – Arctic Standards: Recommendations on Oil Spill Prevention, Response and Safety, is online at
External reviewers of the document included Roy Robertson, project manager/preparedness monitor for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, which was established in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Among the recommendations is a call for vessels, drilling rigs and facilities to be built to withstand maximum ice forces and sea states that may be encountered. Another calls for equipment needed to control spills, such as relief rigs and well-control containment systems, to be designed for and located in Alaska’s Arctic, for ready deployment.

An oil spill in the Arctic Ocean would have a profoundly adverse impact on one of the world’s last relatively untouched marine ecosystems, the report said. The adverse conditions would impact multiple marine mammal species, migratory birds and more.

“We’ve been asking for long term comprehensive research and monitoring programs, so we have more information about the ecosystem and the impact drilling can have on it,” said Marilyn Heiman, US Arctic program director for Pew, and a former Alaska policy advisor for the Interior Department. “There is a need to protect important ecological and subsistence areas … to keep the ecosystem intact,” she said.

Pew also recommends seasonal drilling restrictions, to limit such work to summer months, when there is much more light and less ice. In this changing climate, even in summer months, however, there is potential for ice, dense fog, storms, high winds and waves, and freezing temperatures. Open waters in the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf of the United States generally extend from early July through the second week of October, about 106 days. The report recommends that drilling here should be limited to approximately 46 of those 106 days.

Preliminary Ex-Vessel Value for Bristol Bay Salmon Harvest is $141 Million

With the 2013 salmon season now about over, the preliminary harvest totals stand at 309,000 Chinook, 18,182,000 chum, 5,332,000 coho, 215,600,000 pink and 29,539,000 sockeye salmon—a total of 268,962,000 fish.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Commercial Fisheries estimates that for Bristol Bay alone, the preliminary ex-vessel value of the 16.6 million salmon of all species harvested is $141 million, which is 26 percent above the 20-year average and ranks 7th over that same period.

The approximately 19,000 Chinook salmon harvested in Bristol Bay in 2013 were 71 percent below the average harvest of 64,604 kings for the last 20 years, and the chum harvest of 872,000 fish was 10 percent below the 20-year average of 959,000 fish

The 2013 inshore Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run of 23 million fish ranked 15th over the last 20 years, and was 36 percent below the 36 million fish average run for the same period. In fact, this year’s sockeye run was 12 percent below the preseason inshore forecast of 26 million fish.

A further break-out of that $141 million total shows that the 15.3 million red salmon weighed an average of 6 pounds and fetched $1.50 a pound.  The 18,616 king salmon  weighed an average of 18.6 pounds and paid 77 cents a pound. The 871,558 chum salmon, weighing an average of 6.4 pounds, and the 1,584 humpies, weighing an average of 3.1 pounds, both fetched 30 cents a pound, and the 135,000 silver salmon, weighing an average of 6 pounds, were worth 80 cents a pound.

Lowrance’s Entry Into Pacific Cod Fishery Welcomed by Adak

A veteran processor of wild Alaska sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay is now getting ready to process Pacific cod in the Aleutians come January. 

Seattle’s John Lowrance, who built the reputation of Leader Creek Fisheries on its high quality harvest standards and state of the art filleting, freezing and packaging technology, sold the company he founded in 1999 in December of 2010 to the Canadian Fishing Co.

Now, as president of Adak Cod Cooperative, he has signed a 20-year lease with Aleut Fisheries LLC, a subsidiary of the Aleut Corp. a regional Alaska Native firm, to operate its fish processing plant at Adak.  The deal includes processing equipment, housing units, dock frontage and fueling services.  Lowrance said he is planning a number of renovations within the plant and hopes to begin producing fillets, mainly for domestic markets, in January. He expects to have 100-200 seasonal employees, he said.

Rudy Tsukada, president of Aleut Enterprise, of which Aleut Fisheries LLC is a wholly owned subsidiary, noted that keeping the plant in production is important to the local economy.  It plays a role in keeping essential air service and more, he said. When Icicle Seafoods, the former plant operator, came in, that opened up good jobs and people with families moved in. “A commercial operation is the life blood of the community,” he said.

“We are excited that we are not going to see a major interruption in the fish plant,” said Adak city manager Layton Lockett.  There was a fear, with as many ups and downs as the plant has had, of whether it would prove an attractive opportunity to someone, he said.

After Icicle’s departure, the city of Adak made a winning bid of $2.088 million on the plant equipment, opting to keep one cement truck and sold the rest for $2.03 million to the new coop. “We just wanted to keep the equipment on the island,” he said,

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

OPINION: Governor Parnell: Do the Right Thing for Our Salmon Habitat

By Rob Ernst

The administration of Alaska Governor Sean Parnell ruled in late July that a wild salmon stream in Cook Inlet was “suitable” for large-scale coal strip mining.

You read that right. In response to a petition from local Alaskans looking to protect salmon habitat from the proposed Chuitna coal strip mine, the Parnell Administration said “no.” This wasn’t an attempt to stop the coal mine; it simply asked the governor to prevent mining through salmon streams. For most Alaskans, that’s a no-brainer.

In his run for office, Governor Parnell promised Alaskans on numerous occasions he’d “never trade one resource for another.” At the time, I applauded that position. But the governor’s words belie his actions. Why? Because the technology does not exist to build a new salmon stream after it’s been mined down to 350 feet. If the coal company could miraculously build new salmon streams, wouldn’t it make a heck of a lot more money building fish streams in Oregon, Washington and California instead of strip mining Alaska’s streams to ship low grade coal to China?

It’s not a single decision that raises concerns over the governor’s blind eye toward salmon habitat protection, but rather, a host of decisions.

Earlier this year, for example, the Parnell Administration rejected a request from commercial fishermen and private property owners to provide public notice to Alaskans on permits that will destroy local salmon habitat. The governor’s rationale? It would be too burdensome to let us Alaskans participate in decisions affecting our salmon resources. In the meantime, the state takes an average of 7 days to rubber-stamp these fish habitat permits for big mining, oil and gas projects. In a later decision, the Parnell Administration refused to halt the long-term removal of salmon streams during mining operations.

Let’s not forget, the Parnell Administration played a central role killing our Alaska Coastal Management Program, which was the only law which gave Alaskans a meaningful voice in federal decisions affecting our coastal salmon habitat. Now, Alaska – which possesses more coastline than all the lower 48 states combined - is the only state where the federal government can issue permits impacting salmon habitat without the state having a real seat at the table.

Finally, there’s Alaska House Bill 77, introduced by the governor earlier this year. HB 77 is a grab bag of anti-salmon, anti-democracy provisions. Among other things, HB 77 grants new super powers to DNR, allowing the Commissioner to completely ignore Alaskan voices and bypass fish habitat rules when issuing permits. This provision is a massive concentration of government power at the expense of Alaskans, and it undermines our ability to help shape responsible resource decisions. Another provision strips away the rights of Alaskans to keep enough water in our streams to support salmon. A state court already found the Parnell Administration is illegally favoring out of stream uses for mining over instream flows for salmon, so instead of obeying the law and protecting salmon, the Parnell Administration now just wants to change the law. These are but a couple of the reasons why HB 77 is the most anti-salmon legislation to hit the streets since Frank Murkowski ran the show.

I grew up in Nikiski on the Kenai Peninsula and I’ve fished Cook Inlet my entire life. Regardless whether you fish commercially or for sport, personal use or subsistence, we all need to take care of our breadbasket – which is our salmon habitat. We know from painful experience that fisheries have virtually disappeared due to habitat impacts in Europe, New England and the Pacific Northwest. And we hear time and again that “Alaska has a world class permitting system.” But if you look closely, we’re experiencing the very same “death by a thousand cuts” phenomena that led to the demise of once-healthy fish runs across the globe.

In his recent letter to Wal-Mart, Governor Parnell said the right things:
“Alaska’s Constitution mandates that all fisheries must be managed under the principle of maximum sustained yield, for the conservation of our fish and their habitat and the maximum benefit of fishing families, communities, and businesses.”

Mr. Governor, saying the right thing and doing the right thing are two different things. So, do the right thing. Put the balance back into Alaska’s salmon habitat management. Let’s manage our fish habitat for the maximum benefit of all Alaskans. And that means no mining through wild Alaskan salmon streams and “no” on HB 77.

Rob Ernst is a lifelong commercial fisherman from Nikiski, and a Boardmember of Cook Inletkeeper, a community-based organization working to protect clean water and healthy salmon in the Cook Inlet watershed.

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