Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 8:53 PM on Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Northern Dynasty looks to sell Pebble stake

Speculation about how the Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster will effect the price of Alaska salmon has been rampant, and no one seems to have the answer until the season actually starts. However, a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle seems to point in the direction of increased demand that is a result not only of the disaster but also of an industry that was already in "terminal decline."

The article lays out how the Japanese fishing industry had been losing ground well before the tsunami, and imports had been rising precipitously. One formerly robust fishing port, Kesennuma, had seen traffic decline 90 percent over the past 20 years, even before its harbor, fishing vessels and processing plants were destroyed. Kesennuma was among Japan's top 10 fishing ports.

The number of Japanese fishermen has dropped from more than a million after World War II to about 200,000 before the disaster. Hiring of crew from Indonesia is common, as young people from generations of fishing families seek a more "modern" way to make a living.

Fears of radioactive contamination of Japanese fish stocks threaten to hasten the demise of the industry and increase the need for imported fish. The Chronicle reports one fisherman swinging nearly 40 miles out to sea to stay clear of the damaged nuclear plant while bringing fish to market in order to reassure customers.

The Japanese eat more fish per capita than any other developed nation in the world, consuming 128 pounds per person annually, compared with an average of 38 pounds worldwide. Americans consume about 16 pounds of seafood each per year.

"We're the biggest fish lovers among the major industrial nations and the number one consumer," said Masayuki Komatsu, a professor at Tokyo's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies specializing in ocean and marine resources. "It's like water and air to us."

The earthquake and tsunami affected the fishing industry disproportionately, causing the most damage on the northeast coast where the harbors and processing plants were located. In Kesennuma, the wave knocked some trawlers into a fuel storage tank, spewing fuel which then caught fire and gutted the town.

Even if companies have the money to rebuild, residents are reportedly spooked, reluctant to return to an area where they no longer feel safe.

And in the 3-5 years that it takes to put the industry back together, in a town where pre-earthquake employment saw 85 percent of residents in commercial fishing related jobs, those residents may find other careers, making it even harder for the nation to avoid importing seafood products.

Another factor that will come into play in the price, if not demand, for fish sold to Japan, is the exchange rate between the yen and the dollar. For a variety of reasons, the yen is the strongest it has been since World War II, and the dollar is relatively weak. That means that the dollar amount paid to fishermen by the Japanese will be high, since it will take more dollars to equal a yen. While that dollar might not buy much in Japan, it will still be worth the same amount in Alaska.

Fish buyers generally do not tip their hand about what they're offering fishermen until much closer to the season, so the first real indication of the season's salmon prices will be the Copper River king and sockeye salmon season, which opens May 12.

Thirty-three boats participated in the first commercial pot shrimp opening in Prince William Sound, catching 10,000 pounds of spot shrimp over a five-day period that began April 19.

The quota for the season is 52,760 pounds, so another opener is underway, ending at 8 p.m. Friday.

The pot fishery in the Sound is on a bit of a rebound, this being the second season in as many years after being closed since 1991. That year there was a harvest of 17,000 pounds of the large spot shrimp (prawns) and 280 pounds of the smaller coonstripe shrimp. Fifteen vessels participated in that fishery. The peak was in 1986, when 80 vessels caught 268,000 pounds of spot shrimp and 3,700 pounds of coonstripes.

There is a 20-pot limit, and gear can only be hauled between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Last year, 155 boats registered to fish, but only 68 participated. The fishery was marred by gale-force winds during the first opening, and by enforcement writing tickets for numerous violations, including no crewmember licenses, pots without a biodegradable twine escape panel, and no vessel license sticker.

There is also a non-commercial pot shrimp fishery in the Sound, for personal use, sport and subsistence fishermen, which gets 60 percent of the quota.

European fish farmers and breeders have joined the fight against the potential FDA approval of genetically modified salmon in the U.S.

GM salmon, patented by the U.S. biotech company Aqua-Bounty, grow to market size in half the time of Atlantic salmon, which are widely used in salmon farming. The FDA is considering approving the fish for sale in U.S. supermarkets without requiring that they be labeled as genetically modified.

Norwegian salmon farmers in particular are concerned that the introduction of unlabeled GM fish into the market will send the market into a tailspin because consumers will have no way of telling if that is what they are buying. The GM fish could boost supply and torpedo demand at the same time.

Norwegian salmon farmers were the largest producer of farmed salmon last year, churning out 945,000 tons. That's eight times more than second-place Great Britain, and 53 times more than the U.S.

The FDA could approve the fish for U.S. markets as early as this summer if it waives a major environmental study, which would put the fish on shelves in 2013.

The Alaska congressional delegation has sponsored two bills, one that would ban the fish outright, and one that would require appropriate labeling.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.