Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 6:39 PM on Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gross earnings in fish harvesting up modestly, revealing industry's health

For the Homer News

Better than half the fish harvested in U.S. waters during 2010 were hauled aboard vessels plying Alaska waters, according to state fisheries data.

Approximately 4.35 billion pounds of seafood worth $1.6 billion accounted for 53 percent of the U.S. harvest last year, said Commissioner Click Bishop of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Writing in the department's latest issue of Alaska Economic Trends magazine, Bishop said, "Alaska's fisheries are among the most sustainable, best managed in the world."

In an article in the November 2011 issue, Department of Labor economists Josh Warren and Rob Kreiger provided an overview of employment in seafood harvesting, using data acquired from a variety of sources, including the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Labor Department's own surveys and industry research.

It is no surprise that harvesting is highly seasonal. The latest data shows that average monthly fish harvesting employment has declined steadily since 2005 (down 7.6 percent over that period), to an average of 6,915 per month last year. However, declining average monthly employment is not necessarily an indicator of industry weakness, Warren and Kreiger wrote.

"A better overall indicator of the harvesting industry's health is gross earnings, which grew modestly from 2005 to 2010," they said.

According to state figures, total earnings in the seven regions grew by about $284 million over the six-year stretch, from $959 million in 2005 to $1.24 billion in 2010. While monthly average harvesting employment declined from 7,486 in 2005 to 6,915 last year, employment during the peak months of June, July and August, declined at a slower rate than in off-peak months.

Looking at total harvest workforce — defined as "people involved at some point in the year, either as crew members or permit holders who actively fished" — year-by-year increases or decreases were modest. Overall harvest employment grew by 1,352 jobs between 2005 and 2010.

In detail, however, the regions performed differently. For instance, while the Aleutians and Pribilof Islands region led all others in gross earnings (nearly $500 million in 2010), the total number of jobs in that region has fallen by 158 permit holders and 110 crew since 2005.

Bristol Bay showed the greatest increase in harvesting employment among the various regions. Meanwhile, gross earnings there reached $169 million in 2010, a 72-percent increase over 2005, the authors said.

Gross earnings in the other regions in 2010 were as follows: Kodiak, $118 million; Northern, $4.2 million; Southcentral, $265 million; Southeast, $208 million; and Yukon Delta, $4.9 million.

Just over half of the harvesters working in Alaska's fisheries during 2010 worked in salmon (50.2 percent). Halibut drew 20.1 percent, while groundfish got 8.1 percent, sablefish 7.4 percent, crab 5.4 percent, herring 4.9 percent and miscellaneous shellfish 3.9 percent, according to the Trends article.

What is harvested must be processed, marketed and shipped, all businesses that contribute to Alaska's broader seafood industry. While the state has good figures for processing jobs, quantifying harvest employment's impact on the processing sector isn't easy because the methodologies are different, Kreiger said.

"They're difficult to tie together and it's hard to make a direct comparison," he said.

Kreiger did supply some processing employment data, however. The average annual employment was 8,700 in 2005, and 9,200 in 2010. The best year was 2006, when an annual average 9,300 people held processing jobs. In each year, July proved to be the peak month, only in this case, 2009 had the best July with 19,400 processing jobs. Approximately 18,800 workers held processing jobs in July 2010.

Harvest employment figures are not yet ready for 2011 and Kreiger declined to speculate how they might compare with the 2005-2010 period.

Meanwhile, in a Nov. 7 press release, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated the Alaska 2011 salmon harvest value at $603 million, making 2011 the third most valuable harvest since 1975, behind only 1988 and 2010. However, analysts expect the 2011 harvest value to surpass that of 2010 after final price-per-pound information is received next spring. (See Seawatch column, for more details.)

All species enjoyed high prices, the department said, but the overall harvest of 176 million salmon, the ninth largest haul since 1960, fell short of the 203 million predicted, the department said.

Hal Spence is a freelance writer in Homer.