How fisheries are run in the Pacific Northeast - part 1

Samuel Stone By: Samuel Stone
Date posted: 9 November 2016

Alaskan Seafood: a visit to learn how fisheries are run in the Pacific northeast.
In July this year, I took an amazing opportunity to learn more about the Alaskan seafood industry and travelled with a team of UK and European commercial seafood representatives to visit some key fishing ports in the region.

We at the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) assess a number of fisheries from this region within our Good Fish Guide so we are familiar with these fisheries on paper, but nothing beats talking to those in the industry and fishery managers in the flesh to get a better understanding of how these fisheries are run - the products of which are increasingly being consumed in the UK.

Ever eaten tinned salmon? How about fish fingers or pollock or wild caught fresh salmon from the supermarket? If you have, then there’s a very good chance it was caught in Alaska. Seafood

Seafood is a big deal in Alaska

We first arrived in Seattle where many of the Alaskan seafood companies have offices, and one of my first observations was that seafood is a big deal over here. It’s not just the cars that are big over here, their fisheries are amongst the largest in the world.

Our first meetings were with some of the largest seafood companies in the country, several of which are vertically integrated and own large (30-60m), modern vessels which catch and process their seafood at sea. These large scale operations can sound concerning, but the scale of operation has actually meant that these fleets are able to invest in technologies and develop practices which are industry leading in terms of sustainability. Some years ago for example, the O’Hara Corporation took the initiative of deploying their own scientific observers on board their vessels at their own cost to collect better data. Not the first time I would hear it during the trip, but the view of the company was very much that ‘data was their ally’. Whilst the observers are now Federal Government fisheries observers on-board, they are still paid for by the industry, a stark contrast to the situation in the UK.
Whilst in Seattle we also managed a visit to the famous Pike Place Fish Market (Photo below).

It seems this place is as much a tourist attraction as other parts of Seattle eg. the birth place of Jimi Hendrix or the very first Starbucks, which our ‘cab’ driver proudly showed us. As you might be able to see in the photo below, the market has made a name for itself for not only the produce it sells, but the uniquely skilled staff who accurately throw / lob / football pass fish from the ice to the sales staff to weigh when purchased. This combined with a fun and vocal comradery usually only seen and heard at sporting events, made this fish market really stand out. It was great to see so many staff enjoying their jobs and proud of their workplace.

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The famous fish throw caught on camera in Pike place Fish Market, Seattle

From Seattle, we made our way north into Alaska through the many islands and peninsulas of southwest Alaska visiting the regional fishing ports of Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau and Excursion Inlet (essentially a town based around a large salmon factory) which all receive and process a huge amount of wild caught Pacific salmon, in addition to other species like Pacific halibut and sablefish (otherwise known as black cod or ‘black gold’) and king crab. In these regional towns, it was clear there was another vibrant and progressive side to Alaska’s fisheries to the large scale ‘processing at sea’ vessels we’d been introduced to in Seattle. That is the smaller scale sector. A huge amount of the fish was being caught by much smaller vessels which were often family-run businesses. We were able to chat with a few families on their boats whilst in port (or at the local pub after hours) who were more than happy to talk about their work in these beautiful surroundings. I was surprised at just how approachable the people were.

A lot of towns and communities are entirely dependent on the salmon fisheries, with everything revolving around when the fish show up. It was easy to see why when I learnt that the total salmon catch is roughly the same size as half of the UK total annual catch of fish across all species.

The salmon season

I hadn’t fully appreciated the true seasonal nature of the salmon fisheries here and the marked differences between the various salmon species. There are five different salmon species that are caught in the region:

King  
Coho  
Sockeye  
Pink  
Chum  

These species migrate at slightly different times throughout the season to return to their home river to spawn. All the salmon species undergo quite a large physical transformation as they move from saltwater into ever fresher water. The salmon migration occurs between March and November with various peaks throughout this period depending on the species and year.

The influx of salmon at peak times during the season is so large that the seafood companies need to process the fish very quickly into a format which can be either readily sold fresh or stored for later consumption eg. tinned, smoked or frozen. This is what has driven the hugely popular tinned Pacific salmon products which you can find in supermarkets the world over.

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Chum salmon freshly unloaded and ready to be processed. Their mottled purple colouring is part of their physical transformation as they approach fresh water.

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Handline caught fresh king salmon caught further out to sea before their physical transformation.

I next head out to see some salmon purse seine fishing in action and then on to meet the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game to learn more about how these fisheries are managed, and then on to see a salmon hatchery to better understand the enhanced salmon fishery.

I am fast becoming a salmon aficionado…