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Dutch Harbor Remains Nation's Top Port In Terms Of Volume For 23rd Year

Hope McKenney

Dutch Harbor has been named the nation's top fishing port in terms of volume of seafood landed for the 23rd consecutive year. And the Aleutians East Borough — which includes Akutan, False Pass, Sand Point and King Cove — rose from third to second place.

That's according to an annual report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released earlier this month on the status of U.S. fisheries in 2019.

Frank Kelty currently works as a contractor with the City of Unalaska, updating officials on fisheries issues and revenue projections. He was also mayor of the island community for 13 years before retiring in late 2019

According to Kelty, NOAA's annual reports are a bit dated — we're just now getting data from 2019 when we're halfway through 2021. But even so, he said, the reports provide an important snapshot of fishing seasons, how production is going and the value of landings being processed.

"It's a good tool to point out the importance of what goes on in this community, the high volume of product that's produced here and the importance of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor to the seafood industry not just in Alaska, but in the nation as a whole," Kelty said. 

According to the federal report, Dutch Harbor landed 763 million pounds of seafood in 2019, valued at $190 million.  That's the same weight as 2018 and about $8 million more in value. 

(And what does 763 million pounds in seafood look like exactly? Well, it's equivalent to roughly 50,000 pretty big elephants or roughly 1,000 Boeing 747 jets.)

The majority of that volume in 2019 — 93% — is from Alaska pollock, which goes into products like fish sandwiches, fish sticks and sushi. 

But while the number of fish landed in Dutch Harbor is far greater than any other port in the country, the Aleutian community remains in third place in terms of dollar value — topped by New Bedford, Mass., in first place and Naknek in second. 

That's because of the lower-value seafood landed on the island, according to Kelty. 

"The pollock fishery is the largest fishery in the nation," he said. "But the value is very low compared to lobster, scallops, Alaska king crab and things like that." 

Kelty moved to Unalaska to fish for crab in the Bering Sea and spent about 50 years on the island. He said that Unalaska keeping its spot as a top port in the nation is a testament to the health of the seafood industry in the Aleutians. But, he cautioned: Things can change quickly.

"I was here when we had the red king crab collapse," he said. "We went from one year of 130 million pounds, down to 30 million and then no season after that — and that was just in a two-year timeframe. So things can happen."

The seafood industry is the only major economic engine of Unalaska. And as the climate changes, water temperatures rise and some species migrate further north, Kelty said, it could be bad for a shore-based operation like Unalaska. 

"It's definitely something that we have to keep our eye on," he said. "But it's nice to have this snapshot from the federal government that shows us what's been going on and the timeline that it lays out over the years."

In total, U.S. fishermen landed 9.3 billion pounds of seafood valued at $5.5 billion in 2019. Sixty percent was caught in Alaska.

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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