Fish Factor: Alaska’s fishing industry workforce is nearly 60,000 strong

Seafood processing is the state’s largest manufacturing sector

Alaska’s fishing fleet of 9,400 vessels would span nearly 71 miles if lined up from bow to stern.

And Alaska’s fishing industry catches and processes enough seafood each year to feed every person on the planet one serving; or a serving for each American every day for more than a month.

Those are just a few of the fish facts highlighted in the annual “Economic value of Alaska’s seafood industry” report by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute compiled by the McDowell Group.

The report breaks down the numbers of fishermen, processors, species caught, values and more by region in a colorful, user-friendly way that can provide every Alaskan with a better understanding of the seafood industry, especially policy makers.

Here are some highlights:

The Alaska fishing industry employs nearly 60,000 workers, of which nearly half are fishermen.


Thirty-six percent of those fishermen live in south central Alaska towns such as Anchorage, Homer, Kenai and Cordova, more than any other region.

Most of Alaska’s fishing boats are between 23 and 32 feet in length.

Southeast Alaska residents own the most fishing vessels at nearly 2,700 and they also own more fish quota shares than any other region.

Seafood processing is the largest manufacturing sector in Alaska, accounting for 72 percent of manufacturing employment. Processing includes 169 shore-based plants, 73 catcher-processors and more than a dozen floating processors.

At Kodiak, fishing accounts for nearly 40 percent of all jobs; 48 percent of all processing workers are year-round residents, the highest number in the state.

Salmon accounts for the greatest economic impact in terms of jobs, value and income, with pollock a close second. Alaska pollock is the largest single species U.S. fishery by volume.

Seafood is by far Alaska’s top export — more than 2 billion pounds went to 105 countries in 2016, valued at over $3 billion. Exports account for about two-thirds of the sales value, with the rest going to U.S. markets.

Globally, Alaska pollock provided 44 of world supply in 2016, Alaska salmon provided 14 percent, cod at 16 percent and Alaska crab at 29 percent.

Since statehood in 1959, Alaska’s seafood industry has harvested nearly 170 billion pounds of seafood. The largest harvest ever was in 2015, topping six billion pounds.

Of the numerous fishery taxes and fees, 40 percent goes to state coffers and is distributed at the whim of the Alaska Legislature ($58 million in 2016), and 31 percent goes to local governments where the fish was landed.

Sign up time ticking

The deadline to sign up to use electronic monitoring systems next year instead of human observers to track catches is fast approaching. It applies to boats using longline and pot gear, but preference is given to vessels that are between 40 and 60 feet in length.

“If you don’t get in by the Nov. 1 deadline you will not be eligible,” said Malcolm Milne, president of the Homer-based North Pacific Fisheries Association, which for several years has helped develop the EM system in Alaska.

In trials the video cameras proved they could track and identify over 95 percent of the species required for fishery management decisions, and by all accounts, the system is easy to use.

“Once your boat is wired you just turn the cameras on and they record everything coming over the rails,” Milne explained. “When the set is done the camera is off and at the end of your trip you mail in the hard drive to be reviewed. It took a trip or two to get used to the system, but after that you don’t even realize it’s there.”

Also easy, he said, is the sign-up, which takes about 10 minutes.

“Anyone who is participating in the observer program already has a user name and password. You can go online and click on a button to opt in to EM and after a couple of quick questions you’re done,” he said.

Even better, the electronic monitoring systems come at no cost to users.

“It all comes out of the 1.25 percent North Pacific observer fee so we are paying indirectly, but there is no additional cost for having the electronic monitoring installed,” Milne said.

So far about 110 longline and pot boats have signed onto the EM program and the new program will only cover as many boats as funding allows.

Register by Nov. 1 with a phone call at 1-855-747-6377 or online at the Observer Declare and DeploySystem (ODD).

Crab con 

Bering Sea crab fisheries opened on Oct. 15 and eager markets await the first deliveries of snow, Tanner and red king crab.

While national surveys clearly show that most Americans want to know where their foods come from, they won’t have a clue when it comes to Alaska crab.

Customers can easily tell at retail counters where their salmon, cod and other fish choices was caught, and if the fish is wild or farmed. That’s due to Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws, which went into effect more than a decade ago. But the laws do not apply to seafood that has been ‘processed,’ no matter how minimally.

“There is an exemption in the COOL laws for products that are cooked or otherwise altered – steamed, canned, things like that – and since crab are required to be cooked right after delivery they are not included,” explained Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, a harvester group that catches 70 percent of the Bering Sea crab quota.

“When a consumer goes into a grocery store they don’t know if the crab comes from Russia or Newfoundland or Alaska,” he said. “We think that American consumers will prefer Alaskan product and there are good reasons for that.”

The push to exclude products that are canned, pouched, smoked or steamed stemmed from a big push by the U.S. tuna fleet.

“All we wanted to do was carve out crab, but they had a much more powerful lobby than we did,” Jacobsen said.

The crabbers believe the public has a right to know, especially since much of the crab imported into the U.S. from Russia is illegally caught. In past years, an estimated 40 percent of king crab sold in world markets was from pirated Russian harvests.  Jacobsen said the situation has improved but the crab import data can be deceiving.

“There is still poached crab going into China and Korea and then finding its way into the U.S. But there is no way to tell if it’s legal or not because there is no traceability requirement,” he explained.

Crabbers have taken their case directly to U.S. buyers and retailers and several, including HyVee and Publix, only source their crab from Alaska. Meanwhile, Jacobsen said the push to get U.S. labeling on Alaska crab will continue.

On a related note: Tanner crab is spelled with a capitol T because the species crab was discovered by and named after Lieutenant Zera Luther Tanner, commander of the research vessel Albatross which explored Alaska waters in the late 1800s.