Price of fish has big impact on Alaska economy

Why should every Alaskan budget watcher care about the price of fish?

Because when the price at the docks goes up by just one penny, it means more money for state coffers.

In 2017, for example, the average dock price per pound for all Alaska seafood was 41 cents. If the price had increased to 42-cents, it would have added nearly $2 million more from fisheries landing and business taxes.

That was one of the takeaways in an updated McDowell Group report presented last week at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s spring board meeting. It offers a good snapshot of the industry that spawned Alaska statehood and is now a seafood superpower. Here’s a sampler:

Alaska’s seafood industry puts 60,000 people to work and supports at least $150 million a year in taxes and fees.

More than 9,000 vessels are homeported in Alaska and deliver fish to 87 large shoreside processing plants.


Catches of nearly 6 billion pounds of seafood worth about $2 billion were the industry averages for 2016 and 2017. Pollock accounted for 57 percent of the volume caught and 22 percent of the value.

Salmon ranked second for volume at 14 percent, but was tops for Alaska seafood value at 34 percent. Cod catches were third and accounted for 11 percent of the value. Halibut, sablefish and crab each accounted for one percent of the total catch volume and 12 percent of the value.

The U.S. is usually the largest market for Alaska seafood, followed by China, Japan, South Korea and the European Union.

The export value over the past decade has averaged $3.3 billion, making seafood Alaska’s largest export leader by far. (By value, fishery products accounted for more than two-thirds of Alaska’s exports in the first quarter of 2017, according to the first quarter economic report by the state Dept. of Commerce.)

Alaska’s top exports are pollock surimi and fillets (a combined $845 million) and frozen sockeye salmon ($313 million).

Exports to China, which in 2018 comprised 32 percent of Alaska’s seafood sales and 23 percent of the value, dropped 20 percent due to ongoing trade spats with the Trump Administration.

That included a 54 percent drop in Alaska salmon sales, a 49 percent decrease for crab, and cod sales to China dropped 29 percent.

In another trade hit: Imports to the U.S. of fresh Atlantic halibut from Canada have nearly doubled since 2012 to 8.8 million pounds last year.

Looking at 2019, harvests of Alaska salmon, crab, halibut, sablefish and pollock are expected to increase, with declines for cod and rockfish catches.

The market outlook for salmon is “stable to strong” said fisheries economist Garrett Evridge, who presented the report.

“While there is optimism surrounding the harvest volume for the 2019 salmon season, we have been hearing reports of buyers pushing back against strong prices,” he said in an email message.

Get skinny

Those billions of fish skins tossed out each year could turn into a steady stream of more dollars for Alaska.

Most recently, fish skins are making international headlines for their proven ability to heal burns.

Last December tilapia skins treated the burnt paws of bears and mountain lions during the California wildfires. Earlier this year a tissue-like bandage created in Iceland from intact cod skins began use on burn patients in Europe and in the U.S.

The fish skin product is called Kerecis Omega 3 Burn Treatment and when it is grafted onto damaged tissue, it builds up the body’s own cells to rapidly regenerate healthy tissue.  Kerecis credits omega 3s for the healing power along with collagen.

Fish skins contain the type of collagen protein that makes up most parts of human skin and bodies. Most has traditionally come from livestock and is used in a wide array of products. But the more remarkable properties of fish skins have experts pegging the value of marine collagen for the nutraceutical, cosmetic, food and medical market at $620 million in 2018 and nearly $900 million by 2023.

Fish skins have extra appeal because they are available at a large scale and come with no religious constraints.

“They’re fish – not beef or pork. So, it satisfies kosher and halal dietary restrictions, said Cindy Bower, a former USDA food researcher at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks. Bower’s studies also showed that skins destined for collagen extraction can be stabilized with common drying agents to hold them prior to shipment and don’t need to be chilled.

Dan Lesh, a senior economist with the McDowell Group, said with catch volumes for Alaska pollock averaging over three billion pounds annually, that adds up to over 1.4 million pounds of skins, assuming a five percent yield. Skin yield percentages were similar for Pacific cod and in the 8 to 10 percent range for salmon.

Studies show that the fish skins are loaded with collagen. Nearly 20 percent was extracted from salmon skins and 11 percent from cod, according to a 2017 Portuguese study.

Alyeska Seafoods and one other processing company in Dutch Harbor have reportedly been extracting collagen from fish skins for decades for sale to the Japanese cosmetic industry.

And there’s this: fried salmon skins are becoming a snack rage in England.

A former chef created Sea Chips after diners called for more crispy salmon skins as garnishes on their meals. The chips come in three flavors and are being cranked out at 100,000 bags a week.

They are being sold at major retailers in Britain and the makers expect sales to top $1 million over the next 18 months with 10 percent going to ocean charities.

Don’t do drugs

Customer backlash has Chilean farmed salmon producers promising to reduce their use of antibiotics by half by 2025.

Members of the Chilean Salmon Marketing Council made the announcement last month at Seafood Expo North America in Boston. The group will work with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to secure a coveted better rating by that watchdog group.

Chile is the world’s second largest producer of farmed salmon after Norway and most of the farmed salmon that Americans buy comes from Chile. The country was court ordered three years ago to disclose its antibiotic use after 37 companies refused to give any details, saying it would pose a “competition and commercial risk.”

Chilean salmon farmers use florfenicol, a common veterinary antibiotic, to kill a bacteria that kills the fish that are grown in crowded net pens near coastlines.

The court case was filed by Oceana which showed that Chile was using more antibiotics than any other fish and livestock producers in the world — 950 grams to raise one ton of fish. In 2014, usage was 1.2 million pounds of antibiotics on two billion pounds of fish. In contrast, Norway uses just 0.17 grams per ton of salmon.

The Chilean marketing council said it plans to spend millions in its effort to win over wholesalers, retailers and food service companies with its new “Promise of Patagonia” campaign.

Meanwhile, U.S. salmon lovers can easily tell if the fish they are choosing is drug free.

Country of Origin Labeling laws (COOL) since 2009 require fish sold in the U.S. to be identified as to where it comes from and if it is wild or farmed.