Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Bering Sea Fisheries


April 1, 2018

All across the bering sea, changes in the regional ecosystem have become an issue that has had far reaching effects – ocean acidification, stratification and low oxygen zones have all been problems affecting not just the oceans, but the fish in them. And in 2018, those issues are expected to continue playing a part in what’s been a gradual evolution in the behavior of fish and how bering sea fisheries and other stakeholders adjust to those changes.

Under the effects of climate change, Alaska is warming at nearly twice the rate as the continental United States, according to a federal report that was publicly released in August 2017. And as the atmosphere and oceans warm, the volume and extent of snow and ice lessen, sea levels rise and weather patterns change. Research shows that the ocean’s rapidly changing chemistry and physical conditions have for years affected commercial fisheries by shifting the distribution and abundance of marine species and ecosystems.

Over eight days in mid-February alone, nearly a third of the sea ice covering the bering sea off Alaska’s west coast disappeared, according to the National Weather Service.

Fish and shellfish are directly impacted by changes in temperature and oxygen levels because not only do the changes affect their migration, spawning and feeding patterns, but also their overall number, and where they’re distributed throughout the area. Changes in temperature, oxygen levels and food availability can also affect the behavior of fish predators.

The bering sea, which covers more than two million square miles as a northern extension of the Pacific Ocean, is bordered in the east by Alaska; in the west by Russia and the Kamchatka Peninsula; in the south by the Aleutian Islands.

Commercial fish species found in the sea include six species of Pacific salmon, Alaska pollock, Pacific cod, Pacific halibut, yellowfin sole, Pacific Ocean perch and sablefish. Red king crab are also among the type of shellfish found.

Times have been somewhat difficult for cod fishermen over the past year-plus, due in large part to environmental factors, as a drastic decline in fish stock has taken its toll. The decline led to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council last December lowering its Pacific cod total allowable catch (TAC) in the bering sea fishery to 188,136 metric tons for 2018, a decrease of 16 percent from last year’s 239,000 metric tons.

A stock assessment for Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska led to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which oversees all federal fisheries between three and 200 miles off the Alaska coast, to conduct a workshop on the topic of ecosystem management in early February.

The one-day ecosystem research workshop in Seattle was an opportunity for stakeholders to discuss, among other things, potential impacts of climate change on the region’s ecosystems and managed fisheries, and efforts at the regional, national, and international levels to “understand, anticipate and respond” to the changes.

Representatives with Blue North Fisheries declined to comment for this article, and fish transporter Coastal Fisheries did not respond to multiple requests for remarks, but one person who was asked about the state of the bering sea fishing industry, Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum trade association, said that companies are definitely looking at what’s going on.

“The industry as a whole is paying very close attention to the various sustainability and certification programs and how changes in those programs may affect the North Pacific fisheries,” Woodley told Fishermen’s News. “Sound science, predictable funding for robust stock assessments/fishery surveys are the cornerstone of the North Pacific fisheries.”

“There appears to be a lot of change going on in the Gulf of Alaska and bering sea right now,” Woodley continued. “We need the science, stock assessments, and surveys to help us figure out what is going on.”

The cod shortage has led to an apparent increase in pollock demand. As in an action related to its decrease in the cod quota in Anchorage last December, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at the meeting, increased the bering sea pollock quota to 1.345 million metric tons for 2018, up from 1.34 million mt in 2017.

About three million tons of Alaska pollock are typically caught each year in the North Pacific Ocean – 1.5 million tons annually from US fisheries in the bering sea – making Alaska pollock the world’s second most important fish species in terms of total catch.

But even with this being the case, Bob Desautel, co-founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Seattle-based vessel operator and ship management company Global Seas, told Fishermen’s News that pollock needs to be pushed more by the industry.

“We need to educate and promote wild Alaskan pollock to the consumer,” he said. “Mainly, to educate the public on what a great sustainable fish caught by USA fishermen that wild Alaskan pollock is, and it’s a cousin of cod.”

“Catches have remained stable and very, very good for numerous years,” Desautel said. “The industry harvests wild Alaskan pollock in very efficient and low bycatch methods with built-in-USA vessels and people.”

Another matter that’s being kept an eye on during 2018 is halibut levels.

The bering sea Shelf is prime breeding and nursery territory for youthful halibut, but surveys have indicated downturns in the numbers of young halibut in the sea shelf and throughout the Pacific Ocean.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission, an intergovernmental organization made up of six appointed members from the US and Canada, discussed harvest cuts during its most recent annual meeting on Jan. 26, but after sparring over where the catch reductions should be made, no agreement could be reached, therefore the IPHC decided to let the catch limits adopted in 2017 remain in place for 2018.

The total allowable commercial catch limit for fisheries in the regulatory area is set at 2,402 metric tons (mt), equivalent to nearly 5.3 million pounds.

IPHC scientists have said that annual survey results from 2017 showed halibut numbers were down 23 percent from the previous summer, and the total weight was down 10 percent.

The surveys, conducted from May through September each year at about 1,500 stations from the outer bering sea to the Oregon Coast, show that the reason behind the drop is a lack of younger fish entering the fishery.

“In 2018, and especially projecting out to 2019, we are moving out of a fishery that is dominated by those relatively good recruitments starting in 1999 and extending to 2005,” IPHC senior scientist Ian Stewart explained. “We see an increasing number of relatively poor recruitments stemming from at least 2009 and 2010.”

Things aren’t all bad for bering sea fisheries, however. Also at its December meeting, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council rose stocks for Atka mackerel in the bering sea and Aleutian Islands, with the quota set at 71,000 metric tons in 2018, a sizable jump over the 65,000-mt limit of 2017. In addition, the bering sea fishery yellowfin sole quota was left unchanged at 154,000 metric tons.

Atka mackerel and yellowfin sole are shipped mainly to Asia.

What affects the environment and the fisheries also affects other components in the chain, including builders and maintainers of commercial fishing vessels. On the fishing vessel front, just one company contacted by Fishermen’s News, Elliott Bay Design Group, confirmed that it is contemplating future projects.

“EBDG has proactively looked at the laid up OSV fleet and sees potential for (Pacific) Northwest Fishermen,” company Vice President of Sales & Marketing Christina Villiott said. “We have examined the challenges in converting a 260-foot OSV into a vessel to support the Amendment 80 fleet,” referring to the Fishery Management Council 2008 allocation rule.

“We are unable to share company names at this point,” she said, but added that Elliott Bay Design Group has been consistently working with its fishing vessel clients to upgrade and maintain their vessels.

“Our clients,” she said, “have found that their boats are still working well due to a consistent maintenance plan.”

So, although environmental factors may cause either short- or long-term trends that alter the industry in new and unexpected ways, Desautel of Global Seas said that the key to keeping business brisk is promoting the product.

“One thing we need to carry on about is fishermen, to everyone in our seafood industry, need to be fish ambassadors,” Desautel told Fishermen’s News. “The more we can spread the word, the more people will eat seafood.”


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