Fishing for ways to ensure there is life after oil boom

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Bruce Lewis has made a living from Alaska's ocean waters for nearly as long as he can remember. As early as the age of 9, he recalls, he was hand trolling for salmon from a little skiff, making as much as $100 on a good day.

His business has grown substantially since then. Today, he owns four well-equipped fishing boats and fishes as many as 300 days a year. Last year, he figures, he made $750,000 fishing for crab, salmon, herring, and halibut--although he hastens to add that much of the money was used to meet expenses or plowed back into his boats. ''I fish if there's something to fish,'' he says matter-of-factly.

There's certainly plenty to fish in Alaska. It has been estimated that 20 percent of the world's fisheries resources lie within the state's 200-mile limit. In 1981, the wholesale value of the year's catch--$1.5 billion--was more than double that of any other state, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Council.

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It is an industry that has grown rapidly in value in recent years--the wholesale value for the 1975 catch, for example, was just $293 million. As a renewable resource-based business, which is likely to be still growing when the state's oil boom is over, it is also an industry in which the state has taken a particular interest.

''Although everything else is quite minor (in terms of revenues to the state) in comparison to oil, oil will be here only for some finite amount of time and then it will be gone,'' says Ronald O. Skoog, commisssioner of the state's Department of Fish and Game, ''whereas fisheries and other renewable resources will be here ad infinitum and will some time provide a real economic base for Alaska.''

''The world market for fish is certainly an extensive one, and will become a more important one over time,'' he continues. ''As other fisheries are depleted, Alaska's will become more important.''

The state has adopted a careful management policy--restricting, in some cases , the number of licenses issued for fishing a certain species, and closely regulating the period during which fish may be caught. In addition, the state has spent some $80 million building 20 salmon fish hatcheries as part of its long-term efforts to bolster Alaska's salmon runs, which hit an all-time low of 22 million fish in 1974.

In the short term, however, Alaska's fishing industry is eyeing a potentially dismal year in salmon, which accounts for half of the industry's revenues. Although fisheries experts predict there will be a record run of salmon this year--about 135 million fish--some recently reported cases of botulism attributed to bad cans of Alaska salmon have cast a shadow over what was expected to be an excellent year.

Millions of cans of salmon have had to be recalled, at costs of up to $30 a case for salmon that must be sent back from Europe, a big Alaskan market. Those costs, combined with the costs of storing last year's canned salmon, place a heavy burden on the state's 1,000 fish processors, who traditionally rely on bank loans to start a canning season.

The Legislature is considering helping out the embattled industry with $100 million in loan guarantees to finance fish purchases. And the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, a state- and private-sector-funded organization, hopes to ease consumer hesitation about buying salmon by launching a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign, the largest ever undertaken for Alaskan seafood. Despite such aid, however, many industry insiders predict some of the state's smaller food processors will fold this season.

''It's a lot of misery for many people,'' says Sitka fish processor Tommy Thompson. ''It's going to hurt a lot of people. This is a highly volatile business. It's terribly risky.''

Although this is expected to be a hard year, in the long run fishing should continue to be a growth industry. Officials like Commissioner Skoog cite the abundance of ''bottom fish'' such as pollock within Alaska's 200-mile limit--fish which at present have little, if any, toehold in the US market. Because Alaskan fishermen prefer catches that fetch high prices, they have shown little interest in getting bottom fish locally, which are now pursued almost entirely by foreign fishermen with special permits.

Experts note, however, that the 3.1 billion pounds of bottom fish caught in 1977 alone had a wholesale value of $1.8 billion--a catch they predict will be sought by domestic fishermen as the world demand for protein increases.

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