Pollock and salmon projected for big year in 2018

  • Pollock harvests are set to rise in 2018 as Pacific cod catches will decline dramatically in the Gulf of Alaska and to a lesser extent in the Bering Sea. Meanwhile the state’s largest sockeye salmon fishery in Bristol Bay is forecast to have another banner year. (Photo/File/AJOC)

Next year is looking like another big one for pollock in the Bering Sea and sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay. But times are tough for cod fishermen, especially in the Gulf of Alaska.

At its December meeting in Anchorage, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council increased the already huge Bering Sea pollock quota to 1.345 million metric tons for 2018, up from 1.34 million mt in 2017. That’s good news for the pollock-dependent community of Unalaska for local revenues and jobs.

Pollock is the fish that annually makes the Aleutian Islands community the nation’s No. 1 port in volume. For the 20th year in a row, Unalaska/Dutch Harbor was the nation’s top fish port with 770 million pounds of seafood landings in 2016, primarily pollock, which accounted for nearly 90 percent of that total, according to a Nov. 1 report from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In the Gulf of Alaska, the cod quota declined by 85 percent, from 64,442 metric tons in 2017 to 13,096 mt for 2018. That greatly impacts Kodiak, and King Cove and Sand Point in the Aleutians East Borough.

The Gulf pollock quota is also down significantly, from 208,595 metric tons, or mt, in 2017, to 166,228 mt in 2018.

Pacific cod also declined in the much larger Bering Sea fishery, from 239,000 metric tons this year to 188,136 mt for 2018. Cod trawlers are complaining of a race for fish, and some now want to restrict entry into the catcher vessel fishery.

Atka mackerel stocks are up in the Bering Sea, a commercially important species to the factory trawlers in the Amendment 80 bottom trawl fleet. The quota for the little striped fish was set at 65,000 mt in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands in 2017, but will see an increase in 2018 to 71,000 metric tons.

In another big Bering Sea fishery targeting rather small flatfish, the yellowfin sole quota is unchanged at 154,000 mt for the Amendment 80 boats. Atka mackerel and yellowfin sole are shipped mainly to Asian markets.

Cod crash

The Pacific cod quotas for 2018 are down in the Bering Sea, but the decline is not nearly as drastic as in the Gulf of Alaska, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

It’s the difference between a 16 percent drop in state waters in the Bering Sea, and an 80 percent decline in the Gulf’s nearshore fishery. State waters extend to three miles offshore.

Last season, 24 vessels 58 feet long or less fished for Pacific cod with pots in the Dutch Harbor subdistrict, where there’s no limit on the number of boats. Expect more when the season opens early next year, according to Miranda Westphal, of ADFG in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

“We’re expecting to see more boats fishing in the Aleutian Islands and Dutch Harbor subdistrict fisheries,” Westphal said.

The Dutch Harbor quota is 28.4 million pounds, and the Aleutian Islands’ is 12.8 million, for a total of about 41 million pounds in state waters, according to the Dec. 14 announcement.

That’s more than the entire 2018 Gulf-wide quota of 9.8 million pounds for small cod boats, an enormous drop from 48.4 million pounds in 2017.

ADFG Biologist Nathaniel Nichols in Kodiak said the cod crash is probably the worst in the history of relatively-recent state waters fisheries, which date back to the 1990s.

The alarming Gulf cod numbers prompted an outreach message to fishermen from the North Pacific council.

“The Pacific cod stock in the Gulf of Alaska has drastically declined. Scientific information suggests that this decline is the result of an unusually warm mass of water (the ‘blob’) that persisted from 2014 through 2016. The warm water increased the metabolism of cod while reducing available food, resulting in poor body condition and increased mortality,” according to the council.

“The warm water also impacted cod egg production and larval survival, greatly reducing recruitment during these years. The lower number of adult and juvenile cod will affect the population and fishery for several years to come. Management of Gulf of Alaska cod is now focused on maintaining the spawning stock and increasing the likelihood that the fishery will remain viable in the future. Accordingly, catch limits for Pacific cod were set at very low amounts for 2018 and 2019.”

The council sets the federal offshore quota, using the same information that determine state waters quotas.

Bristol Bay megaharvest?

Sockeye salmon gillnetters with boats and setnets are looking at another big year, with a Bristol Bay run forecast at 51.3 million sockeye and harvest levels of 37.6 million fish for the bay’s five commercial fishing districts, and another 1.5 million for the South Peninsula, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The catch is projected at 35 percent above the average recent 10-year average of 28.9 million fish.

One of the five districts, the Nushagak, near Dillingham, had a record-breaking year in 2017, with 12.3 million sockeye harvested from a run of 20 million fish, far exceeding the forecast of 8.4 million.

The fish flood swamped both Nushagak boats and buyers. Four boats, heavily laden with salmon, partially submerged during a storm. And the overwhelmed processors limited the size of salmon deliveries from boats, limiting fishermen’s incomes.

The Nushagak is projected as Bristol Bay’s biggest producer in 2018, with a run of 21.8 million and a catch of 18.5 million red salmon, a result again of the extremely productive 2013 brood year.

The second-biggest catch of 8.9 million fish is forecast for the Naknek-Kvichak District, in the Bristol Bay Borough, from a projected run of 16.6 million fish. In the Egegik District, the waters of Lake Becharof are expected to produce a run of 9.12 million, with 7.45 million to fishermen.

The Ugashik District run is prognosticated at 2.87 million fish, with a catch of 2.06 million. Togiak’s run is projected at 860,000 reds, with a harvest of 610,000.

These, of course, are just predictions, as the Nushagak’s stunning performance attested last year.

“Forecasting future salmon runs is inherently difficult and uncertain,” according to the authors, ADFG researchers Greg Buck and Katie Sechrist.

Jim Paulin can be reached at [email protected].

12/27/2017 - 10:30am