Aquaculture for all

Alaska Fish Factor: Is Alaska Poised for a Big 2015?

Sustainability Economics Politics +4 more

US - Alaska is poised for some big fish stories next year based on predictions trickling in from state and federal managers.

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For the state’s (and nation’s) largest fishery - Alaska pollock - the Eastern Bering Sea stock has more than doubled its ten year average to top nine million tons, or 20 billion pounds. And the stock is healthy and growing, according to annual surveys.

“It is one of the most stunning fisheries management successes on the planet,” exclaimed global market expert John Sackton when the pollock numbers were released by the (Seattle-based) Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Alaska pollock represents 40 per cent of global whitefish production, he added.

Out of the nine million ton pollock biomass, a catch of 1.3 million tons is being recommended for next year, or about three billion pounds. Federal managers will set all groundfish harvests in early December.

From pollock to pinks – the state is projecting an “"excellent" catch of 58 million pink salmon next year in Southeast Alaska. That would be well above the 10-year average of 41 million, and would ranks among the top 10 harvests since 1960.

From pink to red - The world’s premier sockeye salmon fishery at Bristol Bay can expect the largest red run in two decades in 2015. Fish and Game predicts a run of 54 million reds and a harvest of 38 million fish, 10 million more than this year.

The 2014 run was 53 per cent higher than expected and fish forecasts always are variable and tough to peg, said Tim Sands, area manager at Dillingham. But, he added that all the data points to another big run.

“Everybody seems pretty optimistic about the return next year,” he told KDLG. “Everybody's looking at all the data in different ways, and they're all coming up with numbers around 50 million, total run. I think that shows that the run is healthy and sustainable.”

Also at Bristol Bay, the state’s largest herring fishery at Togiak is expecting a huge haul again next spring of 29,012 tons in the sac roe fishery, 4,000 tons more than this year.

Red king crab wrap - It took crabbers just four weeks to haul up the 9 million pound red king crab quota in this year’s Bristol Bay fishery. The season opened on October 15 and fish managers posted the catch at 100 per cent as of November 17.

The fishery was for the most part uneventful and the fleet was able to dodge some gnarly weather. The biggest crab concern came from an unexpected source, said Heather Fitch, regional manager at Dutch Harbor.

“We did have a scare with a lot of barnacles in the beginning of the season and a lot of sorting through the crab at sea. But the fishermen moved off those right away and then that scare went away,” Fitch said.

She called the numbers of heavily barnacled red king crab unusual.

“Typically, the fishery sees pretty clean shelled crab, so we’re not sure why. We need to look at the data,” Fitch said.

It’s likely nothing to worry about, said Bob Foy, director of the NOAA “crab lab” at Kodiak, adding that more of the crusty crabs have been showing up in annual surveys for the past two years.

“There is probably just a higher proportion of older shell crab,” Foy explained. “These are crab that are probably not molting every year and the fleet just happened to be working an area where they were aggregated.”

Crabs with barnacle-encrusted shells fetch a lower price because they are less appealing to customers. It also forces more sorting and handling on deck, which crabbers try to minimize to prevent harming the animals.

A fleet of 63 boats fished for red king crab this is year, which has been the standard for several years. The averaged 28 crab per pot, which Fitch called “pretty decent.”

Already half of the boats have switched to Tanner crab. That Bering Sea fishery took everyone by surprise when the catch was boosted to 15 million pounds, up from 1.5 million last season.

“Normally, when red king crab is over a few boats switch over. This year we’ve got 33 vessels that already switched over to the Eastern Bering Sea Tanner crab. That’s quite a few more boats than we’ve seen in the last number of years,” Fitch said.

Oceans amok! Making sure Alaska’s crab and other stocks remain healthy is the focus of an upcoming Ocean Acidification in Alaska workshop in Anchorage.

The informal, open event has attracted a who’s who of OA experts to share what is known today about the ocean’s changing chemistry and how it is corroding Alaska’s marine creatures.

In 2011 the state funded $2.7 million over three years to jump start an OA monitoring program in Alaska, and create an OA center at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks. The money also was used to fund monitoring systems and deploy them at four moorings in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.

What is known is that the effects of increasingly acidic oceans, which prevent creatures from growing skeletons and shells, are already visible, and it is happening faster in colder waters than anyone thought possible.

“Alaskans are used to lots of variability in fisheries – but you talk about ocean acidification and it terrifies people because it is such a big unknown as to what kinds of impacts it is going to have,” said Molly McCammon, executive director of the Alaska Ocean Observing System, host of the workshop.

“We want to highlight what we know today, and talk about how we prepare to adapt or mitigate it.”

State funding for Alaska’s OA program is set to expire next June, McCammon said, and national funding has been stalemated at about $6 million a year “with most being spent in other regions of the country.”

“We’ll be looking at how we can keep the state program going, where are the gaps in the program, how can we get additional funding and partners, and how we can keep this issue at the forefront of the public and legislators’ minds,” McCammon said.

The Ocean Acidification in Alaska workshop is set for December 2-3 at the Anchorage Marriott. Satellite listening stations for the workshop are being set up around the state. Get more info here.

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