FISH FACTOR: Shutdown stalls crab fleet; state shellfish farms need seeds
Kodiak’s waterfront is bedecked with hundreds of “7 by’s” as boats stack their pots and gear up for the big crab fisheries in the Bering Sea.
The Bristol Bay red king crab season is set to open on October 15, with a harvest of 8.6 million pounds, similar to last year. A reopened tanner crab fishery will produce a three million pound catch; the numbers for Bering Sea snow crab, Alaska’s largest crab fishery, is about 54 million pounds.
The fisheries are set to open on schedule, said Heather Fitch, regional manager for Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Dutch Harbor. However, due to the government shutdown, the season could be stalled because crabbers won’t know how much each boat can catch. The Bering Sea crab fisheries operate under a catch share system and the federal number crunchers who compute who gets what are off the job.
Nearly 500 eligible vessels and companies have applied for 2013/2014 crab quota, said market expert John Sackton. Furthermore, the crab fishery depends on a share matching system between the harvesters and processors. That cannot be determined until the exact amounts of quota for each shareholder is determined by NOAA Fisheries.
The agency “does not have the manpower” to process applications and issue federal fishing licenses, said Alaska region director Jim Balsiger at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Anchorage. Balsiger said he was appealing to the Commerce Department to make personnel available.
Alaska’s red king crab fishery is “highly dependent on year-end sales to Japan, and this crab has to be landed, processed and shipped generally by the third week in November. If the season is delayed even by a week, that could impact the ability to fulfill the Japanese orders,” Sackton said.
Shellfish learn ‘n slurp
Shellfish growers will gather in Ketchikan later this month to update the state of Alaska’s mariculture industry. There are 69 shellfish farm sites in Alaska so far; 28 are operational, growing mostly oysters with sales topping a half million dollars last year.
Dominating the growers’ agenda this year is the seed crisis for future crops.
“The crisis is caused by ocean acidification in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon and Washington, where farmers get the predominant amount of seed for shellfish aquaculture on the west coast,” said Ray Ralonde, a Sea Grant aquaculture specialist in Alaska for over 35 years. “The upwelling of deeper water is more acidic, and because of that the larvae and juvenile seed can’t develop shells.”
“It has happened at a terrible time, because we are really on the cusp of moving ahead in a hurry, especially since 2012 when we got appropriations for a revolving loan fund. We have the technologies, the brood stock, multiple species, decades of research and economic studies and the markets.”
Some Washington shellfish farmers are setting up shop in Hawaii where the oceans are less corrosive. Alaska also is starting to produce its own seed sources at facilities in Ketchikan, Homer and Seward.
Blue mussels are poised to be the next big thing in Alaska mariculture, based on the ongoing success of a demo project at Kachemak Bay near Homer. All of Alaska’s shellfish farms are located in the Central and Southeast regions. RaLonde said he is often asked about possibilities in Western Alaska.
The problem is it’s hard to work in an information vacuum, he said.
“With shellfish, temperature has an enormous impact on growth. We would have to do preliminary studies on focused locations to see what impact that would have on the ability to produce shellfish in a timely way,” he said.
It takes 18 months to two years for Southeast grown oysters to reach market size and up to four years at Kachemak Bay due to colder waters.
RaLonde will lead a daylong workshop on Oct. 24, followed by the famous shellfish feast that evening. The Alaska Shellfish Growers meetings are Oct. 25-26. All events are at the Cape Fox Lodge in Ketchikan. Questions? Contact [email protected].