Fisheries job numbers down from last year

 F/V June Sea seining around Kodiak. 

The job count in Alaska was down 8.8% in October compared to the same month last year, continuing a trend that started last spring, according to a report released by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

The downward trend in job numbers began in April, which saw a decline of 13% from April 2019. Jobs dropped in May by 12% compared to the same month last year. 

Unemployment insurance claims also increased this month. During the second week of October, claims were significantly higher than the same time last year.

In October, leisure and hospitality jobs declined the most, with 9,600 fewer jobs than last October. The transportation, warehousing and utilities sector had 4,700 fewer jobs, a 20.7% decline. Additionally, oil and gas employment was down 3,000 jobs. 

Seafood processing, which saw costs increase and low salon harvests across the state, also saw jobs decline from last year. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several seafood processors along the Alaska coast have suffered periodic shutdowns following outbreaks among their workers. In Kodiak, a remote OBI Seafoods plant in Alitak closed to clean the facility and quarantine staff after 37 workers contracted the virus in late July.

An OBI plant in Seward also saw an outbreak in July with 100 cases. Whittier Seafood and the floating processor American Triumph, which is part of the American Seafood fleet, were also among those that had large COVID-19 outbreaks. 

Although seafood processing employment was initially up slightly from 2019, by April the state was already seeing decreases, with preliminary estimates recording 1,000 fewer jobs than the previous year. 

This trend continued throughout the summer, with 700 fewer jobs in June. Jobs peaked in July, but August, the season’s second-highest month, saw a decline of 2,000 jobs compared to the previous year, a drop of 13%. 

In addition to fewer jobs, seafood processors saw the costs of doing business increase dramatically as the industry was preparing for salmon season, the state’s highest-value and most labor-intensive species, according to the labor Department report.

Trident Seafoods, which has seafood processing facilities all over the state, saw costs skyrocket because of pandemic-related purchases. 

To date, the company has spent more than $10 million on COVID-19 mitigation measures, and that number will continue to grow as the pollock and cod seasons approach, Shannon Carroll, the associate director of public policy for Trident, wrote in an email. “We have not qualified for any specific COVID-19 relief programs, such as the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), but have received reimbursement for a small fraction of our health and safety workforce and community protection plan costs, as well as some COVID-19 testing support from state and community CARES Act-funded programs,” he said. 

Some companies also incurred costs due to the decline in commercial airline flights across the country. Many had to charter flights for their employees as some airlines folded, while others reduced the number of flights. 

In addition to costs incurred by the pandemic, prices across many fish species saw a decline as food-service establishments closed and the spending habits of consumers changed. 

Demand for seafood declined as restaurants closed and those that stayed opened rarely had fresh seafood on the menu, but the demand for the lower-cost frozen fillets at grocery stores increased as people stayed home and cooked more often, said the report. 

“Until people are eating out regularly again, demand for the product will remain reduced and more seafood will end up in grocery stores than usual,” said the report. 

According to the report, statistics are not yet available for jobs among fishermen, but the weak runs throughout the state suggest that job numbers will be weak. 

Although Kodiak had a successful salmon season compared to other communities, prices were lower than previous years. Participation was significantly lower than last year, which saw a decline of 45 participating permit holders compared to the 10-year average. This downturn reflects a declining trend in fisheries jobs that has been occurring since 2015, when the state saw a decade peak, according to the report. 

The salmon fishery represents the largest job sector, and although 93 jobs were added in 2019, the fishery remains below the five-year average of 4,472 jobs. The crab fishery also increased jobs in 2019, but still remains under the five-year average, losing one-quarter of its workforce since 2015, said the report. 

The report also showed that the groundfish fishery — excluding the sablefish — has taken the largest hit since 2015, losing jobs almost annually. The large sablefish fishery remains below its five-year average but has grown over the years, unlike other groundfish jobs. 

“Overall, the industry is down 848 jobs over the last five years, even though employment ticked up slightly in 2019 after an underwhelming 2018,” said the report. 

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