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Hooked on Data
How numbers guide Alaska’s commercial fisheries
By Isaac Stone Simonelli

laska fisheries run on data—data and the hard work of those in the Last Frontier’s seafood industry. Data inform every aspect of the management of the state’s fisheries, from policy decisions and regulations to how much fish can be caught in a season. Data also play a vital role in understanding the markets for Alaska’s various seafood products, as well as the economic impact of the sector.

The Alaska Constitution entrusts the Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) to “manage, protect, maintain, improve, and extend the fish, game, and aquatic plant resources of the state in the interest of the economy and general well-being of the state.” Given the weight of the responsibility, the department has developed a robust, data-driven method for managing the state’s fisheries, from sea cucumbers to salmon and everything in between.

“We collect assessment information for basically all of our fisheries so that we understand the status of the population, allowing us to operate under long-term sustainable management principles,” explains Bert Lewis, a regional supervisor for the Division of Commercial Fisheries at the ADF&G.

Each assessment program is designed to provide a basic count or an estimated biomass for a target species. The programs are based on an understanding of a species’ lifecycle and include what information needs be collected in the field, such as size, age, sex, and location the catch came from, Lewis says.

How to Count Fish
Fish counts and assessments are often made in the wild as well as at the processing plant, where it’s easier to collect age, sex, and length data—often referred to as “ASL” data.

For salmon, ADF&G conducts escapement counts using weirs, counting towers, sonar, and even aerial surveys depending on the species and location. These projects provide an assessment of the size of the spawning for discrete salmon stocks. How often surveys of salmon are done is dramatically different depending on the species and the region. Some of the more remote parts of the state might be visited once during peak spawning, while others see weekly surveys or hourly counts at sonar and counting tower projects.

Escapement goals are established target ranges for the number of salmon that need to escape from the harvest area to spawn each year, ensuring a sustainable population, explains Andrew Munro, a fisheries scientist at the ADF&G Commercial Fisheries Division.

“The biologist and the managers use the data, in some cases in near-real time, to open and close fisheries… during the season,” Munro says. “It’s also very good data for helping to… manage for maximum sustained yield, on average, over the long term.”

These data are collected by boots on the ground. More than 1,000 seasonal fisheries technicians gather data for the various assessment programs. In regions that produce a lot of salmon, such as Bristol Bay, technician teams can be as large as twenty-five people. The team lives in a bunkhouse and is prepared to dash out to a processing plant when a tender starts delivering fish. They then track the origin of the harvest and get data points on a subsample of the delivered fish based on a statistical method to ensure that the sample will provide an accurate representation of the catch, Lewis explains.

“Timely information allows you to maximize the harvests and associated economic benefit,” Lewis says. “A lot of times, there’s a very short window with access to the fish, and real-time data allows the department to identify harvestable surplus available beyond escapement needs.”

“Alaska set the gold standard for applications of fisheries science to guide management… We’re really held up as the model because of our sustainability mandate.”
Bert Lewis
Regional Supervisor
ADF&G Division of Commercial Fisheries
The data can also help scientists and policymakers understand long-term trends. “In Bristol Bay, we have over fifty years of consistent data collection on salmon populations. There are over 14 million lines of data of ASL information for salmon in the state—we’ve measured 14 million individual fish,” Lewis says.

“With that dataset, we have the capacity to really track long-term trends and salmon productivity and how it relates to changing climate, ocean conditions, marine environment, [and] harvest pressure, and it helps us understand, in a much broader context, the scientific status of these individual populations and salmon in the North Pacific as a whole.”

For example, these data allow the agency to identify changes in productivity or if salmon are returning smaller or younger and to determine if policies should change to adapt for it, explains Lewis.

Adding It Up
While the data collected are used in near-real time for making decisions about opening and closing fisheries, the data from all Alaska’s fisheries are also collected into an annually updated database. Harvest, escapement, and ASL data are then used to conduct analyses to establish escapement goals, which are the basis for Alaska’s sustainable salmon fisheries management. The data are also used to forecast the next season’s returns, which guides management and industry planning for the coming year.

The Commercial Operator’s Annual Report (COAR), created by ADF&G, is the bedrock for fisheries data in the Last Frontier. The department describes the report as “an operator’s accurate and complete summary of purchasing and processing activity for raw fishery resources purchased or processed in Alaska.”

“The COAR data is good for both ex-vessel and first wholesale,” says Dan Lesh, a seafood industry specialist at McKinley Research Group. “The processors say what they bought from fishermen—the volume and price—and then they also say what they produced and sold out of their network.”

Lesh says that COAR offers the best statewide look at Alaska fisheries. “The COAR data that we use for salmon is perfect,” Lesh says. “For pollock, it’s missing a lot of harvests.”

The gap in the data for pollock and some of the other fisheries is due to jurisdictional lines between state waters and federal waters. Federal fisheries data is collected by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries, which creates and distributes its own dataset and associated analyses.

By combining NOAA Fisheries data, which contains similar data points to COAR data, Lesh says it’s possible to create a more complete picture of what’s happening with Alaska’s fisheries.

Harvesting Other Streams
While COAR and NOAA Fisheries data is fundamental to understanding Alaska’s fisheries, they are only two of several important datasets created that give insight into Alaska’s fishing industry.

The ADF&G also collects data through a separate stream via fish tickets, which must be completed for all commercially harvested fish. There are ten types of fish ticket forms for various Alaska fisheries, though they all ask for the same basic information on top of fishery-specific information. This includes when fishing gear was deployed and when the harvest was delivered, the type of gear used, the region the fish came from, and the amount of fish, as well as identifying information for the harvester and first purchaser.

“For our fish ticket system, commercial harvests are required to be reported within twenty-four hours,” Lewis says. “So, in the commercial fisheries, we have very tight control and understanding of the harvest levels.”

The fish ticket data provides a particularly important window for viewing fisheries at the regional level.

Through ADF&G’s Commercial Fisheries Statistics and Data website, it’s possible to retrieve recent and historic data for various fisheries. This includes salmon, herring, groundfish, shellfish, dive fisheries, and aquatic farming, such as oysters.

The Alaska Department of Revenue also compiles an important dataset for understanding Alaska’s salmon fisheries, creating yet another stream for salmon-specific wholesale value and volumes. Unlike COAR data, this database is updated three times a year.

“It gives us more timely data,” says Andy Wink, the executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. “It tells us what actually sells, so we’re able to sort of see how well that product is moving.”

One of the most important datasets for understanding the economic impacts of Alaska seafood after wholesale is export data. While it is collected by the US Census Bureau, it can be downloaded from NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Science and Technology website.

Export data is updated monthly, resulting in a much shorter lag than many other relevant datasets, yet it also provides enough historical data to analyze long-term trends for value and volume. “The export data is great,” Wink says. “We can see where products are going, get a sense of its value, in the sense of what product forms are going to different markets.”

“Timely information allows you to maximize the harvests and associated economic benefit… A lot of times, there’s a very short window with access to the fish, and real-time data allows the department to identify harvestable surplus available beyond escapement needs.”
Bert Lewis
Regional Supervisor
ADF&G Division of Commercial Fisheries
Wink points out that there is a heavy emphasis on using data to identify the most valuable markets, what channels within those markets are most valuable, and what products are most in demand. “But you’re not always going to have data to answer those questions,” Wink says.
Eye on the Market
Datasets have their weaknesses, as well as their strengths. For an accurate analysis, people working with the data need to understand their limitations and look for ways to corroborate findings. While this cross-checking can occasionally be done with other datasets, McKinley Research Group has built its brand on combining data analysis with expert interviews.

“You’re just not that smart, just looking at the data,” says Lesh. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Without talking to experts, analysts might miss important stories being told in the data because they didn’t know what to look for, Lesh explains. Alaska’s fisheries and the markets based on them are too complex with too much variety to accurately describe without having the pulse of what’s happening in the field, beyond the numbers.

There is also some data that simply aren’t available. One of these data black holes for the fisheries industry is domestic consumption, says Lesh. There is production and harvest data from Alaska and federal-level export data, but very little on the domestic market.

“It’s interesting because, of course, it’s closer to home, but it’s less transparent because there’s not the extra data collected,” Lesh says. “We get a sense of it by looking at production data, and then subtracting exports and saying kind of roughly this is what’s staying domestically.”

Production minus exports doesn’t tell the whole story of domestic consumption, though, because a significant portion of exported seafood is processed abroad and shipped back to the United States.

“A lot of people want to know more about our domestic markets for seafood,” Lesh says. “It’s the most important market, probably on the whole, for our seafood and is certainly growing.”

While understanding the domestic market through what data is available is important, it’s also essential to not lose sight of what’s happening abroad. Those in the industry need to not only keep track of Alaska-specific data but also keep an eye on what’s happening with primary competitors.

As an example, Wink points toward Russian-caught salmon, pollock, and crab. “It’s important to understand how their supply and demand is looking. Are there opportunities in different markets? Is there going to be more competition in different markets?” Wink says.

“Most of the emphasis by the fishery management agencies is going to be placed on that scientific and biological data,” he adds, “but the dollars and cents are really important too.”

Gold Standard for Data
Both Lesh and Wink applaud ADF&G for the quality of the data it collects and provides to the public, saying that the information is essential to the work they do.

“Fish and Game does a way better job than most agencies in realizing that their data needs to get out to people to help make decisions rather than just kind of using it for their own purposes internally,” Lesh says.

The data collected about the fisheries themselves—as opposed to the markets—is foundational to what happens in the markets as well as the policy and regulatory decisions made by state and federal governments. “Alaska set the gold standard for applications of fisheries science to guide management,” Lewis says. “We’re really held up as the model because of our sustainability mandate.”

Lewis says that such an example is especially powerful when comparing Alaska’s fisheries to the many overfished fisheries across the world. “We’ve been able to maintain our fisheries because of its anchor to science, and the anchor to science is this individual fish data that we collect and spend a lot of money and time on,” Lewis says. “If you think about those 14 million lines of data that we have on salmon, the amount of time and money spent to collect that… There’s no other example like that in the world.”