Alaska fishermen, processors talk about industry challenges

With daunting problems facing the Alaska economy and its seafood industry, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute heard from fishermen and processors at their annual meeting last week.

Having suffered one of the worst salmon seasons in recent history, especially the crash of several pink salmon runs which are looking at disaster declarations, as well as forces beyond the scope of ASMI and other groups, Alaskan fishermen are facing many marketing challenges, including with halibut.

Homer fish processor Billy Sullivan outlined some of those challenges in his presentation to the group.

“We are concerned about a developing situation in the Atlantic Coast of North America where Atlantic halibut is being caught in higher numbers each year, and because that fishery is year-round, it is edging out Alaska halibut markets, mostly on the East Coast, but even in large markets like Los Angeles,” Sullivan told the gathering.

He added that there have been increased harvests of halibut of all sizes in Russia, which can be marketed as Pacific halibut.

“Our concern focuses on Alaska halibut getting the distinct image it deserves.”

Sullivan said he would like ASMI staff to verify that all marketing, educational and point-of-purchase materials include the descriptor “Alaska” before “halibut.”

He added that this may already be occurring in many cases, but he would like to have it be universal and verified.

Another concern is the so-called “graying of the fleet,” where the next generation is not filling jobs of retiring participants at a sustainable rate. This not only applies to captains and permit holders, but also to seats on the ASMI halibut/sablefish committee, Sullivan said.

“We have three empty seats on the committee, and would like them to be filled with the best candidates, but want to include younger people. To that end, we would suggest that ASMI include a request for interest in operational and species committees at the ASMI booth at Fish Expo,” taking place in November in Seattle.

Alexa Tonkovich, executive director of ASMI, sounded optimistic at the meeting.

“We should not forget that we are lucky enough to promote the best seafood in the world. Globally, Alaska is one of the leaders in fisheries management and we have diverse and abundant fisheries,” she said.

However, she acknowledged the many challenges facing the industry, including the Russian import ban.

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.

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