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Alaska: Energy and Making the Big Catch

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted June 19, 2017

Mounted on the conference room wall of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s Washington, D.C., office is the one that didn’t get away – “Walter,” a 63-pound King salmon that the senator fished out of the Kenai River in her home state a few years ago. In a video tour of her office, Murkowski says just about everyone who comes to visit her in D.C. wants their photo snapped with “Walter” in the background.

King salmon is king in Alaska.

Download: Alaska, King Salmon is King

This time of year, sport fishermen, tourists, Native Americans and others are checking charts and tables that track salmon “runs,” when King (also known as Chinook) salmon  – as well as Sockeye, Coho, Pink and Dog salmon – make their way from the oceans to freshwater spawning areas inland.

Murkowski’s “Walter” is a whopper. Yet, the King salmon people fish for rarely weigh less than 30 pounds, so your rod and especially the line you’re using better be up to the task. That’s where energy comes in – one of countless ways oil and natural gas are helpful parts of our work and play every day.

Thermoplastics in most fishing lines make them strong and durable. Imagine trying to tell family and friends you had your own “Walter” on the line, but the line snapped and he got away (insert loud guffaws).  Molecules separated from natural gas and petroleum and then bonded together produce a line that can withstand the weight and resistance of a bad boy the size of “Walter” and haul him out of the water.

King Salmon
(Spawning King salmon, illustration by Timothy Knepp, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Most salmon fishermen use a spinning rod and reel, often with a “spinner,” a rotating, shiny lure that imitates the movements of smaller fish that King salmon lunch on. Most rods are made of carbon fibers derived from petroleum or fiberglass – the latter a concoction of chemicals that may be melted in a natural gas-fired furnace. Rods have grips made of cork but they also may be made of plastic, made from petroleum-based chemicals.

Pink Salmon
(Spawning Pink salmon, illustration by Timothy Knepp, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Fishermen from across the country flock to Alaska in the summer for a firsthand taste of a fresh Alaska salmon filet. There’s plenty of opportunity. This time of year it’s daylight about 19 hours on the Kenai Peninsula, for example, and Alaskans are known to work a regular, eight-hour day before putting in another “day” of fishing. Tourists help the state economy, spending roughly $652 million on fishing each year.

Sokeye Salmon
(Spawning Sockeye salmon, illustration by Timothy Knepp, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Charters and competitions are some of the major activities that have visitors hooked. Events like Anchorage’s Salmon Derby and others across the state bring in crowds of tourists who are looking to either partake in the competition or simply want to grab a bite to eat and watch. If competition isn’t your style, and you’d rather fish on your own terms, hop on a charter and follow your guide to some of the hottest fishing spots in the country – such as the Kenai and the inlets near Juneau, the state capital.

Infographic: Alaska Weigh the Line Salmon Fishing

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

Commercially speaking, no ordinary boat will do for hauling in enough salmon to satisfy growing market demand – mostly pinks and Sockeye. Although the style of vessels varies, they’re all impressively large and require a lot of energy. Bringing in a metric ton of North American salmon requires about 235 gallons of fuel, a data point that swells when you consider that Alaska commercial fishermen harvested more than 293,000 tons of salmon last year.

Infographic: Alaska Gas Powered Fishing Boats

Beyond the boat, to catch and export U.S. salmon to markets across the country and world, commercial fishermen put their trust in gill net mesh made from nylon. Nylon, a petroleum polymer, is woven together to provide the proper tool to catch salmon in large quantities.

A Net Profit

Salmon exporting is a massive economic driver for Alaska. This is clear at seafood counters across the nation that display the state’s name by the fish they sell. It’s synonymous with a fresh and quality product. In fact, Pacific salmon is one of the top two fish exports in the United States. Not impressed yet? Feast your eyes on this stat: Alaska’s salmon industry accounts for 18,400 full-time equivalent jobs, according to a 2015 report for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, and $845 million in labor income – wages, salaries, bonuses and benefit payments. That’s a significant chunk of the overall workforce in a state whose population is less than 1 million.

It’s About The Eating

In the end, it’s mostly about the meal. It doesn’t get much better than firing up the propane grill and cooking some fresh-caught salmon on a summer night. Again, with plenty of daylight to go around, Alaska offers a perfect setting for friends and family to gather over great food. And energy brings it to your table.

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Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.