The coming year should prove a lucrative year for Alaska fisheries, even in the face of the doom and gloom surrounding the chinook salmon declines and a sketchy halibut situation.
The largest volume fishery, pollock, and the most valuable fishery, salmon, both have positive forecasts and large projected harvests; escapements for Alaska’s iconic king salmon were largely achieved in 2014; and various regulatory bodies have a full schedule to deal with both hurting and flourishing stocks.
Pollock quotas rise
Pollock is largest fishery in the country and 43 percent of the Alaska fishery volume, so the more pollock biomass, the merrier, and this year looks promising. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated in 2014 that the Bering Sea pollock biomass has grown by as much as 60 percent.
Increased biomass doesn’t always mean an increased fishing quota, especially in the Bering Sea, where the total groundfish harvest is capped at 2 million metric tons. But the pollock quota still looks positive for the fleet with a 2015 allocation of 1.325 million metric tons in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.
This is an increase from 1.26 million metric tons in 2014 and the largest total allowable catch, or TAC, since 2007, when the Bering Sea pollock TAC topped 1.39 million metric tons.
In the Gulf of Alaska, or GOA, the pollock TAC was set for 193,809 metric tons, the largest GOA pollock TAC since 1986. This is a nearly 90 percent increase from the 10-year average GOA pollock TAC and part of a steady rise in the Gulf pollock TAC since 2010.
Strong salmon season forecast
Salmon, Alaska’s most valuable fishery, looks at a sunny 2015 prediction. Bristol Bay, home to nearly half the salmon take for Alaska, will see a record return for sockeye salmon.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, forecast that Bristol Bay sockeyes will swarm in Bristol Bay with more than 54 million fish, enough to both meet escapement goals and provide a commercial take of nearly 40 million sockeyes. This is 41 percent larger than the previous 10-year run average.
Pink salmon in Southeast Alaska will also have what the ADFG classifies an “excellent” year in 2015. The Southeast Alaska salmon will have 2015 harvest of 58 million fish, one of the 10 biggest years since 1960 and well above the 10-year average of 41 million.
Pink salmon are the largest portion of the salmon take in Alaska fisheries and run strong every other year. 2013 had the strongest salmon year on record because of the 219 million pinks harvested in Alaska waters, 89.2 million of which came from Southeast at a $124 million value.
Though the decline of Alaska king salmon numbers is alarming and well-documented, there’s a bright spot for chinook in 2015. In accordance with an international treaty with Canada, the minimum Yukon River chinook salmon escapement goal of 42,000 was met for just the second time in the last seven years as more than 64,000 kings made it past the sonar counter at Eagle.
A record number and ex-vessel value for coho in the Upper Yukon, which may continue into the 2015 season, offset the 2014 Yukon River season’s poor chinook salmon showings.
The commercial harvest for coho clocked 103,325 salmon in the Lower Yukon and 104,638 in the Upper Yukon, both more than 50,000 over the 2013 harvest. The Upper Yukon ex-vessel price jumped from 17 cents per pound to 38 cents per pound.
The 2015 Upper Cook Inlet salmon forecast is a mixed bag of potential commercial cuts and an average run forecast. The forecast says 5.8 million sockeye salmon overall and 3.7 million for the harvest.
In 2014, sockeye setnetters in the Upper Cook Inlet were restricted in the name of conserving the weak Kenai River chinook runs; a 4.9 million commercial sockeye harvest was predicted, but actual catch came in at 2.6 million.
The conversation around saving the chinook salmon has only intensified and its implications grown more far-reaching. Conservation measures won’t be relaxed anytime soon, and the battle between sportfishing and commercial fishing over salmon will continue with that fact in mind, especially with a proposed ballot measure that would ban setnets from Cook Inlet.
If lower king numbers rule the Upper Cook Inlet fishery allocations again in 2015, commercial setnetters and sport fishermen on the Kenai River will face similar restrictions as they did last year.
Upcoming meetings focus on halibut, salmon, Southeast
The groundfish trawl fleets targeting pollock, cod and other flatfish will also face potential changes in bycatch regulations for both salmon and halibut. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission are reviewing measures to drastically cut the Bering Sea pollock fleet’s bycatch limits for both species in upcoming meetings in January, February, and June.
The six-member Alaska majority of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets bycatch limits, sent a letter on Dec. 18 asking the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for an emergency 33 percent reduction for Bering Sea halibut bycatch limits.
The directed halibut fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands face severe economic hardship due to the Bering Sea groundfish trawlers taking a massive amount of available halibut as bycatch in pursuit of other species. Halibut bycatch regulations do not shift with rising halibut abundance, so the directed fisheries and bycatch must fight for percentages of the same catch.
The original motion to lower halibut bycatch failed on a tie in the council’s December meeting, prompting the letter with a majority of the council’s signatures. The Feb. 2-10 North Pacific council meeting in Seattle will undoubtedly have the halibut issue high on their agenda as well as a fishery management plan for salmon bycatch in the same area.
The council amended several options in December to lower the king and chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. They will revisit in February and June.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission, which determines the allowable harvest of halibut, has a January meeting from Jan. 26 to Jan. 30. The Department of Commerce’s response to the North Pacific council’s emergency request should factor highly into what the commission does with halibut allocations for the directed fisheries.
The Board of Fisheries will meet to discuss Southeast and Yakutat crab, shrimp, and shellfish at their Jan. 21-27 meeting in Wrangell, and discuss Southeast and Yakutat finfish, including salmon and herring, at its meeting Feb. 23-March 3 meeting in Sitka.
An amended Magnuson-Stevens Act will be considered for reauthorization in the 114th Congress in 2015. The act, or MSA, was first passed in 1976 and governs all federal fisheries in the U.S.
Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young, beginning his 22nd term in office, will take the lead in passing the reauthorization on the House side.
The MSA was tweaked in 2014 working sessions to allow for more equitable treatment of the fisheries it governs, including requests for more subsistence and sportfishing representation. In May 2014, Young added amendments to the MSA proposing that a subsistence member be added to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees nearly all fishing in federal Alaska waters.
The proposal has seen mixed reaction so far, as the council currently has six Alaska delegates out of 11 voting seats. Non-Alaska seats might resent one more Alaskan vote on the council. Fishing industry stakeholders from the Pacific Northwest have previously called for more representation from their region to offset the Alaska majority.
Other possible amendments introduced in both the House and Senate versions have included lowering catch limits, discontinuing a publicly viewable weekly bycatch tally, allowing the regional fishery management councils to set allocations outside the Scientific and Statistical Committee’s currently binding decisions, and substituting electronic monitoring in lieu of the current observer program, which places humans on fishing vessel for monitoring purposes.
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]