Bering and Aleutian Fisheries


April 1, 2019

The Alaska pollock fishery, which contributes 57 percent by volume of the 5.9 billion pounds of seafood caught on average in Alaska each year, is as strong as ever. Photo by Susie Zagorski.

Seafood harvesters of crab and groundfish in the stormy waters of the bering sea and Aleutian Islands, where average temperatures were warmer than usual, were close to or caught all of their seasonal allocations by early March, in some cases because of increased participation.

The weather has been pretty warm, and Western Alaska has been hit by some crazy storms, said Miranda Westphal, area management biologist for groundfish and shellfish at Dutch Harbor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Not that the weather deterred the Pacific cod fleet, whose 37 vessels in state waters ended their harvest on Feb. 24 having taken their full allocation of 31,922,600 pounds of P-cod.

Another 17 vessels were registered and still fishing in an open subdistrict of the Aleutian Islands for a quote of 14,078,500 pounds, but their harvest was confidential because only one processor was on the grounds.

In the snow crab fisheries, up to 21 million pounds, or a total of 78 percent of that allocation have been harvested, leaving another five million pounds of snow crab to go, with some 60 vessels working on that 27,581,000-pound quota, and in the Western bering sea, 73 percent of the Tanner crab allocation of 2,439,000 pounds was taken, Westphal said. Normally there are some 65 to 70 vessels in that snow crab fishery and more may join them, as well as the 31 vessels registered for the Tanner crab fishery, she said.

In the eastern Aleutians district, 100 percent of the 3.4 million pound quota of golden king crab was harvested and in the western district, with a quota of 2.2 million pounds, one boat was still fishing, with 56,000 pounds left to harvest in early March, said seafood industry veteran Frank Kelty. Kelty is now the mayor of Unalaska, which lies 800 miles southwest of Anchorage in the heart of the North Pacific/Bering Sea fisheries. Usually the season would go much longer at least in the western district, where they longline pots for golden king crab, he said.

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One tanner crab fishery was still open west of St. Paul, with 600,000 pounds of a 1.7 million-pound allowable catch still remaining to harvest.

Kelty noted that the same vessels harvesting snow crab are also fishing tanner crab, and that some of those vessels had already caught their allocation.

The fact that there are now ice issues for the third or fourth year in a row is also a contributor to the speed of this year's harvest. Several years ago, when heavy ice made it impossible to deliver some seafood catches to designated harbors the industry went to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to work through the hoops of getting product delivered elsewhere, but since then sea ice issues have not prevented delivery to those ports.

A lot of the fleet has been fishing south and west of St. Matthew Island, finding "beautiful, big snow crab," he said. "In a heavy ice year, you couldn't go that far north," he said.

"They are getting maybe 180 crab per pot, 1.4 live weight (on average) and good, clean product," he said.

Prices are also pretty good, a definite improvement because of the lower volume.

The Alaska pollock fishery has also been going well since Jan. 20. with 282,000 metric tons, or about 46 percent of the A season quota harvested through Feb. 3, just a little ahead of that period in 2018, Kelty said,

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Overall the pollock fishery is as strong as ever, with the pollock being a good size, up to 800 grams per fish, so they have been making a lot of fillets, he said. The Chinook salmon bycatch in that fishery is up to about 9,000 fish, compared with 5,600 kings taken in the same time frame a year ago, but harvesters are still well under their cap, he said.

The state waters Pacific cod fishery has closed for 60 feet and under boats. About 37 boats had harvested some 32 million pounds of P-cod through the end of February. There was more effort in that fishery coming in from fishermen in the Gulf of Alaska, because of the greatly reduced total allowable catch for the Gulf this year, he said.

The Alaska seafood Marketing Association, Alaska's official seafood marketing arm, noted in its presentation to the state House Fisheries Committee in late February that by harvest volume Alaska pollock contributes 57 percent of the 5.9 billion pounds of seafood caught on average in Alaska each year. Pacific cod represents another 12 percent. Flatfish, rockfish and Atka mackerel another 14 percent and halibut and sablefish, and crab another 1 percent each, with salmon also represented 14 percent. Other miscellaneous species comprised the other 1 percent. In terms of ex-vessel value, however, ASMI spokesman Jeremy Woodrow told legislators that salmon provided 34 percent of the $1.9 billion in value, followed by Alaska pollock, 22 percent; crab, plus halibut and sablefish, 12 percent each, Pacific cod, 11 percent; flatfish, rockfish and Atka Mackerel, 8 percent, and other species, 1 percent.

Tariff issues between the US and China also played into seafood values, Woodrow noted, including a 25 percent tariff on Alaska seafood exports to China implemented on July 6, 2018.

Most major Alaska seafood products, including frozen finfish roe and more were included under that tariff, although fresh salmon, herring and fish oil were exempt. The short-term impact of those tariffs would like increase the cost of Alaska seafood to Chinese consumers, and if the tariff stays in place, it could impact demand and consumer sentiment in China for Alaska seafood, he said. Products reprocessed and re-exported are not included in that tariff, he said.

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A 10 percent tariff imposed on Alaska seafood imports from China to the US exclude some salmon, cod and Alaska pollock products, but could increase the cost of Alaska seafood products to U.S. companies and domestic consumers, he said. A 25 percent increase on that tariff slated to go into effect on March 1 has not, however, gone into effect, and Woodrow said "we are hopeful that negotiations will continue between the two countries and that a balanced trade agreement will be met."

Still, the long-term impact of this import tariff could slow US consumption of our own seafood because prices could increase, and companies may eventually look elsewhere for reprocessing, he said.

bering sea fisheries meanwhile are also dealing with changing weather patterns, which are being monitored and studied by a number of researchers.

A new study published in February looks at productivity of fisheries in the future impacted by climate change and concludes that Gulf of Alaska and Eastern bering sea fisheries will see an overall 2 percent average loss of maximum sustained yield.

"For the Eastern bering sea, that's a 5,000 metric ton loss per decade for 1930-2010," said Malin Pinsky, an associate professor at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, NJ, which collaborated in the study with the University of California Santa Barbara, NOAA Fisheries in Seattle, and the University of Washington. "The important point in my view is that these are changes that have already happened to our fisheries. We're headed into a future where these impacts just become stronger.

"While acclimation is important," Pinsky said, "our calculations should already account for this response since we are looking at long-term changes. We're already seeing many of these fish shift north into colder waters, like the northern bering sea, which increases the distance that fishing boats have to travel."

The overall study evaluated 235 populations of 124 marine species from oceans around the world, including 20 in the Gulf of Alaska and 13 in the Eastern bering sea, from Alaska pollock, Pacific cod, rockfish, and other groundfish to red king crab.

"We were very surprised to see how strongly populations have already responded," said Chris Free, of the UCSB Sustainable Fisheries Group, "and the huge regional differences, with some regions who have seen enormous losses while others have achieved a slight gain. Free, who participated in the study as a doctoral student at Rutgers, said this project is finished, but researchers still have a lot of questions they would like answered about the mechanisms of these changes, to help them better refine fisheries management to account for the changes.

Researchers are also interested in developing tropical countries experiencing more fishery management challenges from rapid warming and people who depend on seafood as a source of protein, Free said.

Researchers concluded that the most pronounced impact from warming ocean waters was in the Sea of Japan the Kurishio Current and East China Sea, while the Baltic Sea was one of the overall climate winners.

The study found that changes in temperature affected some species more than others. Furthermore, the results add to results that show that historical overfishing can amplify negative effects of climate change, they said.

The study does not account for other climate-driven environmental stressors, such as ocean acidification, which can also lead to a decline in marine populations, they said.

In the eastern Aleutians, the entire 3.4 million pound quota of golden king crab was harvested and in the western district the quota was almost met by early March. Photo courtesy of NOAA.


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