Winter fishing seasons begin, snow crab ramps up early

The federal Bering Sea pollock A season opened Jan. 20, marking the start of the largest fishery in the U.S.

This year, fishermen in federal waters will have access to 1.267 million metric tons of pollock in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, or BSAI, and 162,351 metric tons in the Gulf of Alaska.

Those total allowable catches, or TACs, are an increase compared to 2013, when fishermen had access to 1.247 million tons in the BSAI and 110,272 metric tons in the Gulf.

The most recent stock assessments showed stronger pollock recruitment than had been seen in recent years.

According to a National Marine Fisheries Service report, the Aleutian Islands portion of the TAC will be reallocated to the Bering Sea. Pollock fishing in the Aleutian Islands has been severely limited in recent years due to Steller sea lion protections.

Pollock prices for much of last year were in the low teens in cents per pound, although trawlers in the Gulf successfully asked for more toward the end of the year, getting 15.5 cents per pound. The 2014 pollock harvest in the Bering Sea converts to nearly 2.8 billion pounds.

Despite the low prices, that fishery makes up a large portion of the Alaska commercial catch by volume — in 2011, it was about 51 percent of the catch, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

There’s another change in the pollock fishery this year.

The 2013 version of the American Fisheries Society Common and Scientific Names of Fishes has a new scientific name for walleye pollock — Gadus chalcogrammus, instead of the old Theragra chalcogramma.

That means it has the same genus as cod, which is meant to better reflect its evolutionary lineage.

According to an explanation from James Orr and Duane Stevenson at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, the change comes after genetic studies showed that pollock has the same lineage as Atlantic, Greenland and Pacific cod, although it is more closely related to Atlantic cod than the other species. Arctic and Polar cod do not share the Gadus genus.

Pollock, however, remains the common name of the fish. Labeling it as cod will be considered incorrect, according to NOAA. The Pacific cod fishery is also now underway.

This year, the TAC for that fishery was split between the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.

The federal Pacific cod TAC is 245,897 metric tons in the Bering Sea and 6,997 metric tons in the Aleutian Islands.

That’s less than a combined TAC for the two areas of 260,000 metric tons in 2013.

Hook and line catcher processors started fishing in early January, and took 6,949 metric tons in the first few weeks of the fishery, and are capped at 56,108 mt for the A season.

For trawlers, the Pacific cod A season opened Jan. 20, with caps of 37,079 mt for trawl catcher vessels, 3,911 mt for catcher-processors, and 22,786 mt for the Amendment 80, or bottom trawl, cooperatives.

In Adak, Adak Cod Cooperative is expected to start processing Pacific cod this year at the local processing facility, as well.

In December, the company announced an effort to hire locally, and Jan. 15 held a hiring event in Anchorage, looking for individuals who could begin work in the processing plant Feb. 1.

Other BSAI and GOA groundfish fisheries also begin in January, including Atka mackerel, flathead sole and rock sole, and yellowfin sole.

State waters and parallel seasons for the groundfish fisheries are also getting going.

The catch limits were set by the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council in December. The council manages fisheries from 3 to 200 miles offshore from Alaska. Groundfish catches in the Bering Sea are limited to a total combined 2 million metric tons.

Snow crab starts early

While fishermen have just started targeting groundfish, other fisheries started early.

The Bering Sea snow crab fishery opens in October each year, although it was slightly delayed by the government shutdown this year, but typically fishing doesn’t begin until Jan. 15.

According to a Jan. 21 report from NOAA Fisheries, 13.8 million pounds were caught in the individual fishing quota fishery by that date, out of a 48.58 million pound allocation. That’s about 28 percent of the TAC for the season, taken in 126 landings.

“They actually started fishing in December, which is very atypical,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Heather Fitch, out of Dutch Harbor.

Fitch said about 10 to 15 vessels headed out for crab early, and that an influx of vessels were expected to start fishing later in January.

The boats fishing in December and January haven’t encountered any sea ice issues, Fitch said.

So far this season, the snow crab price has ranged from $2 per pound to $2.16 per pound, based on fish tickets, Fitch said. Last year, the final price was about $2.02. Those numbers don’t include post-season adjustments, or catcher processors, however, Fitch noted, and are just ADFG’s estimates.

11/15/2016 - 3:32pm