An array of 19 new seafood products will compete for top honors at the annual Symphony of Seafood contest, and the crowd will choose the popular People’s Choice award.

The Symphony began nearly two decades ago as a way to celebrate innovation and introduce new Alaska seafood products. The event provides an even playing field for Alaska’s major seafood companies and small “mom and pops,” such as Tustamena Smokehouse in Kasilof with its salmon bacon.

“It is the most wonderful stuff. It doesn’t taste fishy; it just tastes like wonderful low-fat bacon,” said Jim Browning, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which hosts the Seafood Symphony.

Another small business entry is by Pickled Willy’s of Kodiak, with its pickled crab, salmon, ling cod and halibut. Kwik’Pak Fisheries at Emmonak has three entries of its smoked Yukon Keta. They will compete against such items as Sockeye Salmon Pinwheels by Ocean Beauty Seafoods and Sweet Potato Crunch Alaska Pollock Sticks by American Pride Seafoods.

The seafood entries will be judged by an expert panel in three categories: retail, food service and smoked. The judging takes place Feb. 2 at the Palace Ballroom in Seattle. All winners are kept secret until the Symphony returns to Alaska on Feb. 10, when they will be announced at a gala bash at the Anchorage Hilton grand ball room. Attendees get to sample and vote on all the seafood items and select the crowd’s favorite.

Last year’s Symphony grand prize winner was Trident Seafoods for its Wild Alaskan Smoked & Peppered Sockeye. Top winners receive a free trip and booth space in March at one of the nation’s biggest events, the international Boston Seafood Show.

Fishing boat first

Alaska Ship and Dry Dock in Ketchikan is set to build its first big fishing boat, a 136-foot, all-steel catcher-processor for Alaska Longline Company of Petersburg. The company operates three vessels in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska targeting sablefish, cod and turbot.

ASD began building ships 12 years ago and has constructed several ferries and an Exxon fuel barge. Now, the ship yard is courting the commercial fishing fleets in the Bering Sea.

“We’ve really never had the capacity to build modern steel vessels in the state of Alaska, so those fleets have always turned to yards in the Pacific Northwest, said Doug Ward, ASD director of development

“They are good yards and very competitive, and to be able to compete in that market and actually land one of the projects early in this fleet rebuild program is a great opportunity for our company and for Ketchikan,” he told KRBD.

Ward credits changes to federal laws in 2010 that now allow American vessel owners to upgrade and modernize their fleets.

“Previously, they were unable to add new capacity,” he said.

Ward said over the past year there has been a lot of speculation about who would build the first fishing vessel, and what kind it would be.

“There are four major fleets in the Bering Sea ground fishing fleet, and it looks like the longliners are making the first moves to replace or modernize their vessels,” he said, adding that the boat will be out on the water next year.

Ward said the boat rebuilding effort will occur over the next 10 to 20 years, and provide hundreds of millions of dollars in ship building, conversion and repair work for west coast ship yards. The move to build large fishing boats in-state follows the lead of Western Alaska vessel owners, who plan to homeport their Bering Sea boats in Seward instead of Seattle.

Tanner time

This winter has been cold even by Alaska standards, and icy winds delayed the start of the Tanner crab season at Kodiak, Chignik and along the Alaska Peninsula. Small boat fleets are now pulling pots in the fishery that will produce 3.3 million pounds of bairdi Tanners, the larger cousin of snow crab.

Chignik has 27 boats on the grounds, the Alaska Peninsula has 58, and 63 signed on to fish for Tanners at Kodiak, down from 80 vessels last year. Managers said the drop might be due to a lower catch quota (900,000 pounds), and the district closest to town was not open to Tanner fishing.

“That makes it a bit more difficult for the smaller boats to participate in this fishery,” said Nick Sagalkin, regional manager at ADF&G in Kodiak.

Still, the fishery is going at a good clip and most of the Kodiak crab should be caught within a week, even faster along the Peninsula.

The Tanner crab is reportedly fetching between $2.50 and $3 per pound at the docks. That will bring the value to nearly $10 million for the westward fishing regions.

Seafood is tops

Alaska exports topped the $5 billion mark for the first time in 2011, thanks in great part to seafood.

According to a state press release, Alaska’s seafood exports posted the largest year-to-year increase of nearly 34 percent, to $2.4 billion.

Mineral ore exports rose 31.4 percent to $1.7 billion. Exports of refined petroleum products more than tripled in value to $73.2 million, and coal exports increased 14.6 percent to $27.3 million. Precious metals rose 28.3 percent to $243.4 million.

For the first time, China emerged in 2011 as the top market for Alaska exports The remaining top 10 markets are Japan, South Korea, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, the Netherlands, Australia and Finland.

Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around the state. Laine lives in Kodiak.

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