Alaska's Boom in Salmon Means Bust for Fishermen


Pity the fishers of Alaska salmon. They are pulling in so many sockeyes, chinooks, and pinks, they wish a few would get away.

Alaska has taken in record numbers of salmon in five of the past six years. Such a boom would be the envy of competitors in Scandinavia, British Columbia, or Washington State, where salmon runs are depleted. But here it means low prices, shuttered fish processing plants, and a flood of red ink that totaled $50 million for the industry last year - a key part of the state's economy.

For Alaskan fishermen, the enemy is more than just a glut of salmon from their own waters. The boom comes at a time when competition is growing from salmon farms in Norway, Chile, British Columbia, and elsewhere. Farmed salmon production, minimal in 1980, now accounts for more than 40 percent of the world supply. Add this to Alaska's recent fecundity and world salmon production has increased by about two-thirds since 1985.

The boom is making many local fishermen go bust.

"I know several boats that aren't even going to fish this year. They're going to tie up their boats," says Lester Cole of Juneau, who has fished Alaskan waters for 35 years.

Last year, nearly 220 million salmon were caught in Alaska waters, a record. Back in 1972, the catch was only 20 million.

As catches have gone up, prices have plummeted. Especially hard hit are plentiful pink salmon, which are usually canned. Prices that peaked at nearly 80 cents a pound in 1988 crashed to 15 cents in the past three years.

Even the more-prized species are affected. Prices for Alaskan sockeyes, also called reds, exceeded $2 a pound in 1988. Last year the fish fetched less than half of that.

Gov. Tony Knowles (D) has set up a task force to avert a salmon-industry crisis this summer. And the US Department of Agriculture pledged last month to buy up to $14 million in this year's pink salmon harvest to use in programs to feed the nation's school children, elderly, and poor.

To be sure, farmed salmon has some advantages over wild and hatchery fish. Grown to market specifications, it can be provided fresh year-round, unlike Alaska's salmon, which is sold fresh only in season.

Even Alaska's once-dependable Japanese market - long the destination for half of Alaska's salmon - is being eroded by farmed producers.

But don't expect Alaskans to hop on the farming bandwagon. The subject is taboo here, and farmed salmon are considered unnatural and even unpatriotic. One state law forbids fin-fish farming, another law mandates that any imported farmed salmon sold here be identified as such. A favorite bumper sticker declares: "Real Fish Don't Eat Pellets."

Some Alaskans blame the salmon glut on the state's vast network of productive hatcheries. But hatcheries account for fewer than 1 in 5 salmon harvested here, and even the purely wild runs are brimming.

Southwestern Alaska's Bristol Bay, site of the world's largest natural sockeye run, last year produced a record harvest of about 45 million fish. This year's harvest is forecast to be strong, although not as high.

This year's return of Copper River sockeye, considered to be the world's tastiest salmon, is also booming. The season forecast had predicted 1.2 million of the market-premium fish, but now officials expect the number to be twice that.

Why not let the salmon run for a year? Wildlife officials say this would be much worse in the long run. If too many fish return to spawning lakes and streams, they will deplete the oxygen and food sources there and trigger ecological imbalances.

So state officials in recent years have sought new uses for their largess. Food banks in the state give salmon to the needy, and authorities are using more salmon in meals for prison inmates, school children, and state ferry passengers.

Large companies and mom-and-pop operations have begun the search for a product with broader appeal. One Juneau couple has come up with "Alaskabits," a substitute for bacon bits. A company owned by Alaska Tlingit Indians sells "hams" made of chum salmon. Another company has begun packing light and flaky pink salmon in a shelf-stable foil pouch, avoiding tin cans.

This strategy, presenting Alaska salmon as an alternative to other protein sources, may be the best solution, state officials say.

"Farmed salmon is not our competition. It's poultry and beef and pork," says Donna Parker, a fisheries specialist with the Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development. "To go after farmed salmon for 1 percent of the market is ridiculous. We need to go after the big guys."

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