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Alaska Fish Factor: Bering Sea Fish Stocks Booming

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US - Bering Sea fish stocks are booming but its a mixed bag for groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska.

Lucy Towers thumbnail

Fishery managers will set 2017 catches this week for pollock, cod and other fisheries that comprise Alaska’s largest fish hauls that are taken from three to 200 miles from shore. More than 80 percent of Alaska’s seafood poundage come from those federally-managed waters, and by all accounts the Bering Sea fish stocks are in great shape.

“For the Bering Sea, just about every catch is up,” said Diana Stram, Bering Sea groundfish plan coordinator for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

There are 22 different species under the Council’s purview, along with non-targeted species like sharks, octopus and squid. For the nation’s largest food fishery - Bering Sea pollock - the stock is so robust, catches could safely double to nearly three million metric tons, or more than six billion pounds! But the catch will remain nearer to this year’s harvest of half that, Stram said, due to a strict cap applied to all fish removals across the board.

“That means the sum of all the catches in the Bering Sea cannot exceed two million metric tons,” she explained.

With all stocks so healthy, catch setting becomes a tradeoff among the varying species, Stram said.

The Council also sets bycatch levels for the fisheries, which makes catch setting even more constraining.

“For the Bering Sea, it is really going to be a tradeoff between halibut bycatch in the flatfish fisheries with the increases in pollock and other species,” Stram said.

The halibut bycatch limit for Bering Sea groundfish fisheries for 2016 and 207 is nearly 7.75 million pounds.

Looking ahead, Stram said fish scientists are concerned about impacts from warming ocean conditions for the third straight year, with both Bering Sea surface and bottom temperatures registering the highest temperatures in 35 years.

Federal data show a 2016 mean surface temperature of 49.1 degrees compared to an average of 43.5 degrees over the time-series. The mean bottom temperature in the Bering Sea was just below 40 degrees, compared to an average of 36.3 degrees.

Warming oceans are being blamed for a big decline in Gulf of Alaska pollock catches for next year.

“Overall, it will be about a 20 percent Gulf-wide decrease,” said Jim Armstrong, Plan Coordinator for Gulf groundfish. “If you add up all the catches, the whole thing is down by about 60,000 tons, with 50,000 tons coming from pollock and a 10,000 ton decrease from cod.”

The downturn in pollock is particularly troublesome because recent harvests have been sustained by a single strong year class from 2012.

“We have zooplankton that in cold years have a lot more lipids (fats) and are more nutritionally valuable to pollock, and we need those cold years to create big year classes,” Armstrong said. “Based on this year’s survey, it doesn’t appear it is being followed by even an average year class.”

The 2017 pollock catch will likely be around 200,000 metric tons and cod in the 150,000 ton range.
Alaska managers oversee 25 fish stocks in the Gulf, which add up to nearly 130 different fish types when various complexes, such as rockfish, are broken out.

One bright spot next year is black cod, or sablefish - catches will increase in all four Gulf fishing regions and in the Bering Sea.

The North Pacific Council meets December 6 through 14 at the Anchorage Hilton. All sessions are streamed live on the web.

Halibut falls flat - The Pacific halibut stock appears to have stabilized, but that isn’t likely to equate to higher catches in 2017.

That was a take home message last week when International Pacific Halibut Commission staff unveiled summer survey results showing that the overall stock abundance declined a bit, and the bulk of the fish remain small for their ages.

But the fact that halibut removals have remained relatively stable over three years is encouraging news for a stock that was on a downward trend for nearly two decades.

IPHC biologist Ian Stewart described the Pacific halibut fishery as being “fully subscribed” among diverse users.

“Today across the entire coast, 60 percent of the removals from the halibut stock are coming from directed fishery landings, about 17 percent are coming from both recreation and from mortality due to bycatch in non-halibut fisheries, and about three percent each are coming from wastage and personal use and subsistence,” Stewart said.

Another survey finding - notable drops in halibut bycatch across all regions.

“We’ve seen a substantial reduction in bycatch from almost nine million pounds in 2014 to about seven million pounds in 2016,” he said.

That is little comfort to halibut fishermen who could see a 12.6 percent coastwide (US/Canada) drop in catches next year, from 29.89 million pounds to 26.13 million pounds.

For Southeast Alaska, the catch could decrease by 17.4 percent to 3.24 million pounds. For the Central Gulf, a 0.8 percent drop to 7.28 million pounds is projected.

The Western Gulf could see a 17.4 percent increase just over three million pounds. Catch estimates for Bering Sea halibut fishing regions show a 1.8% increase, according to data from the Juneau-based Halibut Coalition.

Stewart stressed that the preliminary catch estimates are not recommendations, but show outcomes based on scientific rolls of the dice.

“We produce the entire decision table which is a risk analysis, and it’s up to the commissioners to do risk management and make the appropriate decisions,” Stewart said.

The IPHC will make final decisions at its annual meeting January 23-27 in Vancouver. Comments and proposals on 2017 catch limits will be accepted through December 31. The halibut fishery will reopen in March.

Mariculture momentum - Alaska advocates are wasting no time forming guidelines to expand homegrown shellfish and seaweeds into a multi-billion dollar mariculture industry.

“We’re not talking about fish farming when we talk about mariculture. We’re talking about shellfish and aquatic plants – also wild fishery enhancement and aquatic farming restoration,” said Julie Decker, co-chair of Governor Walker’s Mariculture Task Force Initiative created by Administrative Order in February. Walker said he believes the industry is a viable means to diversify the state’s economy in a field where Alaska already dominates: seafood.

Decker, who also is director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, believes mariculture could jump from its current $1 million value to growers to $1 billion within 30 years. Currently, there are 56 shellfish farmers in Alaska producing primarily oysters.

Based on AFDF and Oceans Alaska/Ketchikan data, if just three-tenths of one percent of Alaska’s 35,000 miles of coastline was developed for oysters, it could produce 1.3 billion oysters at 50 cents each, adding up to $650 million a year,

Alaska also aims to cash in on the $12 billion global seaweed market by growing seaweeds, especially kelp. Sea Grant already has six pilot projects in the water in parts of the Gulf. Another effort is helping existing farmers become more efficient and profitable by planting kelp crops, which can provide a steady cash flow while they are waiting up to three years for their shellfish crops to ripen.

“You can stagger your planting and lengthen your season from three to six months or more – they only take about 90 days to grow,” Decker said.

Seaweeds also act as a climate cleaner, absorbing excess carbon, nitrogen and phosphates from the ocean.

And one day seaweed might replace oil as Alaska’s top energy resource engine. The U.S. Dept. of Energy is looking at seaweed as a source for biofuels and has its eyes on Alaska.

Applications for aquatic farms are accepted by the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game each year from Jan. 1-April 30.

All of Alaska’s mariculture happenings will be open to the public at the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association annual meeting Dec. 9-10 in Anchorage., and sign up to receive updates from Alaska’s Mariculture Task Force at the ADF&G home page.

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