Alaskan fishermen suffer from abundance
August 20, 1996
From Correspondent Don Knapp
SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- It has been either feast or famine for Alaskan fishermen in recent years. This year it appears to be both feast and famine.
A near-record catch this summer follows last season's landmakr salmon harvest -- but prices on the dock are near all-time lows.
About 1.7 million cases of canned pink salmon, part of 1995's catch, are gathering dust in a Seattle warehouse. Market demand is slack at the same time that nets are coming up completely full.
Many fishermen have put their boats in dry dock rather than pull in pink salmon at the going rate of five to eight cents a pound.
"Is that the rock bottom? I don't think anyone can foresee it, but if it isn't, then this industry is finished," said fisherman Ross Mullins.
The salmon glut, however, has had little impact on supermarket prices. Regardless of the supply, retailers can pretty much set their own prices, says Vincent Curry of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.
Fishermen are not the only Alaskans being hit by the crisis of plenty.
The salmon boats support an entire onshore economy in Alaska that is boom or bust, depending on the fortunes of the fishermen.
"The fishermen are a classic example of when you have it, you spend it. And when they don't have it, everybody's affected by it," said fishing net maker Bonnie Pemberton.
Some try to cover low market prices with high volume catches, with the result that many fish unwanted by the canneries are dumped back into the sea dead.
Alaskan Sen. Frank Murkowski, a Republican, blames the low prices on salmon farms in other countries.
"Our competition comes from farm-raised salmon. ... It's going on in British Columbia, the Russian Far East and Norway. We don't allow farm-raised salmon in Alaska," said Murkowski.
The federal government will help sop up the flood of fish by buying about $14 million worth of canned and packaged salmon for school and senior citizen programs.
Fishermen are also looking for new markets on their own initiative, including positioning some salmon products as healthy alternatives to favorites like albacore tuna.
But in a time when fish runs on most western U.S. rivers continue to plummet, an embarrassment of riches in the form of so many pink salmon means economic hard times -- and possible catastrophe -- for Alaska's fishing fleet.
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