Picks and Pans: The best and worst in the 2021 seafood industry

Among the picks: Cordova as a fishing town that celebrates the industry and Cordova Times reporter Margaret Bauman as a top fisheries reporter

From left: Matt Doucett, Gerald McCune and Shae Bowman load loose fishing nets into a shipping container for recycling. (Oct. 3, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
From left, Matt Doucett, Gerald McCune and Shae Bowman load loose fishing nets into a shipping container for recycling. (Oct. 3, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Since 1991 the weekly Fish Factor column has highlighted Alaska’s seafood industry with its annual “Picks and Pans — a no-holds-barred look back at some of the year’s best and worst happenings, and my choice for the year’s biggest fish story. Here are the choices for 2021, in no particular order:

  • Most business potential: Seaweed mariculture. The market value of U.S. seaweed is pegged at $41 billion by 2031. Driving the demand is increased use in pharmaceuticals, health supplements, as a natural thickening agent and in animal feeds.
  • Best fish invention: Lightweight, collapsible slinky pots for catching black cod that solve the problem of whales stripping as much as 75% of the pricey fish from longline hooks.
  • Biggest fish booster: The COVID-19 pandemic continues to push record sales of all seafood with no end in sight. Pre-pandemic, most Americans only ate fish and shellfish at restaurants. Now they are buying seafood to cook at home; online sales also have soared and are expected to grow.
  • Best fish fighters: Representatives Sarah Vance of Homer, Kevin McCabe of Big Lake, Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka. They’ve put partisan politics aside to protect Alaska’s fishery resources.
  • Best fish knowledge builders: Alaska Sea Grant.
  • Best fish feeder: Sea Share, with over 250 million fish servings to U.S. food bank networks since 1994.
  • Loudest fish sucking sound: The bulk of Alaska’s catches and revenues go to Washington state residents who in 2020 took home a 0.78 share of the $981 million dockside value of all groundfish caught in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. Seattle is home port to about 300 fishing vessels and all but 74 make their livings in Alaska.
  • Most wasted fish opportunity: Not utilizing the 3 billion pounds of fish heads, skins, oils, innards, shells, etc. that are discarded after processing. Using such “wastes” could add an additional $700 million or more each year in value to Alaska. Cod skins, for example, produce about 11% collagen; nearly 20% for salmon skins. Speaking of which …
  • Biggest fish WTF? Icelandic company Kerecis received a third six-figure grant from the U.S. Defense Department to create bandages from intact cod skins. The collagen and omega-3 fatty acids promote regrowth of healthy human tissue.
  • Most earth-friendly fishing town: Kodiak, for generating nearly 100 percent of its electricity from wind and hydropower, and for turning its fish wastes into oils, meal and fertilizer.
  • Best little-known fish fact: Alaska’s commercial fisheries division budget also pays for the management of subsistence and personal use fisheries.
  • Best Alaska ocean watchers: Alaska Ocean Observing System – sea ice, water temperatures, ocean acidification levels, AOOS tracks it all.
  • Best daily fish news sites: SeafoodNews.com, Undercurrent News and SeafoodSource.
  • Best healthy fish watchers: Cook Inletkeeper, SalmonState.
  • Best mainstream fish pushers: Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers (GAPP).
  • Best fishcrat: Sam Rabung, ADF&G director of the commercial fisheries division.
  • Fish head scratcher: Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle? University of Alaska’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in Fairbanks? How much budget is spent on getting scientists/students to and from the far away sea life they are studying?
  • Best go to bat for their fishery: Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, funded by a 1% tax on fishermen’s catches. Partnerships with Seattle’s new Kraken hockey team, Bambino’s Baby Food and snazzy, non-stop annual promotions at targeted U.S. regions push the “brand.”
  • Worst ongoing fish inequity: The U.S. continues to buy millions of pounds of seafood from Russia while that country has banned purchases of U.S. seafood since 2014. Russian seafood imports to the U.S. since than have increased by nearly 175%.  
  • Best fish planet advocate: Net Your Problem by Nicole Baker-Loke which has so far facilitated the recycling of more than 1 million pounds of Alaska fishing nets and gear from Southeast to Dutch Harbor. The plastic gear is remade into pellets and fibers and turned into new products.
  • Biggest fish fakes: Plant-based seafoods such as “vegan shrimp” and “Toona.” Also, after nearly three decades of roadblocks, five tons of genetically modified salmon (Frankenfish) was sold by restaurant supplier Samuels and Son Seafood of Philadelphia. Up next — fish fillets grown in labs from their own cells will hit U.S. markets in 2022. The growers tout cell-grown seafood as having no environmental pollutants such as mercury or microplastics, with a longer shelf life and no genetic engineering.
  • Best AK fish writers: Elizabeth Earl for Alaska Journal of Commerce, and Margaret Bauman for The Cordova Times and Fishermen’s News.
  • Worst fish travesty: Cuts to commercial, sport and subsistence catches, while millions of halibut get dumped as bycatch in bottom trawl fisheries. Alaska can’t lay claim to having the “world’s most sustainably managed fisheries” until it gets its bycatch act in order.
  • Best fish assists: Every one of the biologists across the state at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
  • Best building future fishermen: Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka. Crew apprenticeships, fishing loans with pay-back based on catches, collaborative research are some ALFA initiatives for young fishing entrants.
  • Fishing towns that celebrate their fishing industry the most: Sitka and Cordova.
  • Fishing town that celebrates its fishing industry the least: Kodiak.
  • Best fish boosters: Alaska’s salmon hatcheries.
  • Baddest fish idea: Over 1 million acres opened to oil/gas lease sales at Lower Cook Inlet, one of the most widely used areas for tourism, sport fishing and commercial fishing.
  • Does fish best with least: TheAlaska Seafood Marketing Institute promotes wild-caught fish/shellfish in the U.S. and around the world with zero funding from the state. In contrast, Norway backs its seafood marketing with over $50 million from a small tax on exports.
  • Best fish life savers: Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA).
  • Most disliked fish moniker: The term “fisher” is a well-intentioned attempt to be gender neutral. Nearly all fishermen hate it. “Harvester” is a good fit.
  • Best fish boost for babies: New federal dietary guidelines for the first time recommend that babies be introduced to seafood starting at 6 months old because of the health benefits.
  • Biggest fish health failure: U.S. baby food makers who provide ZERO seafood offerings (see above).
  • Most inaccurate fish gaffe: “Official” trade data from the U.S. Trade Representative that still lists “petroleum and coal” as Alaska’s top export. Seafood has been Alaska’s top export by far for decades but the word does not appear anywhere on the trade list. Alaska’s other “top manufacturing exports” are transportation equipment, computer and electronic products and machinery. Top agricultural items are plant and livestock products, feeds and grains, beef and veal. Who knew?
  • Best fish breaking ranks: The new Peter Pan Seafood set a pricing record in mid-May by offering $12.60/lb. for sockeyes and $19.60/lb. for Chinook at Copper River. Peter Pan and Silver Bay set a base sockeye price at $1.25 at the start of the Bristol Bay fishery. Fishermen typically wait weeks or months before knowing what they will be paid for their catch. Tough way to run a business.
  • Most ominous fish sign: Since 2010 Alaska salmon have been getting smaller. That’s based on 60 years of measurements from 12.5 million salmon across Alaska, excluding pinks. Chinook have shrunk the most averaging an 8% decline, followed by reductions of 3.3% in cohos, 2.4% in chums and 2.1% for sockeyes.
  • Best fish recyclers: Grundens is using recycled plastics from old fishing nets in its rugged wear — the first batch contained fibers from recycled Cordova nets. Grundéns also is using 100% biodegradable packaging. OBI Seafoods, which operates 10 Alaska processing plants, also is using 100% recyclable packaging on all of its canned salmon brands.
  • Best nonstop fish entrepreneurs: Tidal Vision’s new creation Tidal-Tex is replacing metals and chemicals commonly dosed on carpets, clothing, furniture, mattresses, mops, etc. The all-natural liquid protectant is derived from chitosan, a biopolymer found in crab shells. Leigh Fibers, one of the nation’s largest and oldest textile manufacturers, is now using Tidal-Tex, whose origins come from Alaska crab shells sourced at St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea.
  • Biggest fish story for 2021: Returnsof Chinook and chum salmon to the Yukon River were so low that local residents were not allowed to catch a single fish for their subsistence needs.While Chinook numbers have been declining for years, people fear the sudden loss of the more reliable chums is “the canary in the coal mine.”

“All of those who have a stake or interest in the Bering Sea should be paying attention to what’s happening within the Yukon River to figure out what’s going on with the salmon. We are experiencing and witnessing a devastating subsistence fishery. And we really don’t know why,” said Vivian Korthuis, head of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents. “This is a warning shot that we have been anticipating. And we want answers as to why it is the way it is.”