Alaska Fishing Industry author Laine Welch ends her weekly report after 3 decades

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This is my last fish column. The weekly report on Alaska’s fishing industry began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News. Since then, subscribers have grown to nearly 20 news outlets across Alaska and statewide.

The goal has always been to educate readers about the economic, social, and cultural importance of the fishing industry to all Alaskans.

Just an extra cent a pound at the docks means millions of dollars more for the treasury! Commercial fishing employs more people than any other private industry in Alaska and provides two-thirds of the country’s wild-caught seafood.

Over 31,000 fishermen trawl the waters each year on approximately 8,900 vessels ranging from small skiffs to large catcher processors reaching 300 feet. Most Alaskan fishing boats – 84% – are less than 50 feet. Each boat is a small showcase, an independent business that can support one or more families.

As I leave the Fischschlag after three decades, here are a few top thoughts.

I hope Alaska finds ways to keep more of its fishing revenue in the state. A 78 percent share of the $718 million value for all pollock, cod, flounder and other demersal fish caught in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska in 2020 went to non-resident vessels.

Fifty-two Alaskans own 31% of the snow crab quota share pool; 200 non-residents own 66%. 49 Alaskans own 28% of Bristol Bay’s red king crab quota; 181 non-residents own 70%.

Perhaps there is a way to allocate some of these catches to coastal towns, similar to the community’s quota program for western Alaskans. I’m just saying…

Likewise, I hope more salmon permits stay in Alaskan hands. For example, since Alaska began restricting access to salmon fisheries in 1975, residents of Bristol Bay communities now own less than a quarter of the region’s salmon permits. And over 60% of the gross profits from the Bay’s driftnet fishery leave the state.

My desire is to see more of every Alaskan fish fully utilized.

Almost every other protein industry around the world uses animals “from root to toe”. But in Alaska, the fish skins, heads, organs, shells, and undervalued species like bullhead and arrowtooth flounder are mostly discarded or ground up and disposed of.

These by-products could provide Alaska with a steady stream of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, cosmetic and myriad other industries.

For example, an Icelandic company called Kerecis recently received a third six-figure grant from the US Department of Defense to make cod skin bandages for the military. The collagen and omega-3 fatty acids in the skin provide barriers to infection and allow the human body to regrow its own healthy tissues.

I believe Alaska lags behind in terms of patented or trademarked “intellectual property” that comes from things like bioengineering, advanced analytics, decarbonized ships, robotics, and other advances in high-tech industries seen in other states and nations .

In Newfoundland, for example, robots that cut and peel snow crabs have received a US patent for the Canadian Center for Fisheries Innovation, and 10 are being granted for other countries.

The robot manufacturers believe the system will help solve labor issues in remote processing plants where it is difficult to recruit enough workers.

Commercial fishing was Alaska’s first industry and fueled the 1959 push for statehood. As Alaska Senator Ted Stevens often said, “Long after the last drop of oil is drained from our land, our fisheries will feed us.

It has been a privilege to be a voice for Alaska’s seafood industry and I will continue to be. Find fishing updates, prices, market trends and commentary on my new blog (in progress): www.alaskafish.news.

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