Story last updated at 6/10/2009 - 1:35 pm
The summer survey of Bering Sea crab stocks just got underway - and a lot is riding on the results. Notably, the data collected over the next two months will dictate if Alaska's snow crab catch will be slashed this winter.
Federal fishery scientists have recommended a snow crab harvest limit at 16 million pounds, down from nearly 60 million pounds last year. Industry stakeholders had hoped for a similar catch level for the 2009/2010 season.
The decrease is not due to the snow crab stocks being in imminent danger of collapse; rather their numbers are not reaching a set target on time, as defined by a rebuilding plan. Snow crab stocks in the Bering Sea were classified as "overfished" in 1999, when estimates went from 290 million pounds to 25 million, seemingly in a single year. By law, fishery managers were required to devise a rebuilding plan with a time frame of 10 years.
"So the snow crab fishery has been managed under this rebuilding plan since 2000 and 2010 is the target date to accomplish that," explained Doug Pengilly, research coordinator for the westward region at ADF&G in Kodiak. (The state co-manages the Bering Sea crab fisheries with the feds.)
The snow crab biomass needs to reach 317 million pounds to be considered "rebuilt." It's estimated at 260 million pounds now. But at the current rate of fishing, the stocks won't reach the target on time.
"In May, the assessment biologists projected that if we were to try to achieve a 50 percent probability of being rebuilt (to 317 million pounds), the 2010 harvest may have to be in the order of 16 million pounds, rather than 50 million pounds," Pengilly said.
The results of the Bering Sea crab survey, will tell the tale.
"Part of this projection is based on a guess at what might be occurring in this survey, and that guess could be wrong," Pengilly said. "So the situation could change - for better or worse."
Snow crab, or opilio Tanner, is Alaska's largest crab fishery, valued last year at $100 million at the docks.
Togiak herring tanks
Alaska's biggest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay was a bit of a bust. The fishery began on May 16 and ended after 10 days of short openers, most lasting less than 30 minutes. "Every year is different, but this year was more different than most," said Tim Sands, regional fishery manager at ADF&G in Dillingham.
The Togiak herring were late, small and showed up all at once, Sand said, adding that the bulk "spawned and quickly left." Only about two days yielded the larger fish typical at Togiak, Sands said, and then average weights dropped off sharply.
In a déjà vu of last year's Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run, processers were unable to keep up with the peak of the herring catch, meaning lots of roe herring went unharvested.
"It was pretty disappointing to be on the fish and not able to take it," said Isaac Milligan aboard the F/V Gallant Girl. "But it was a fun fishery and it's a great boat and we did okay overall."
Managers estimated the seiners missed about 2,400 tons out of their 15,000 ton quota. Fishing also was scratchy for gillnetters who took 3,803 tons, or 60 percent of their herring quota.
Sands said he hadn't heard too much grumbling yet about the so-called foregone harvest.
"We didn't take all the quota so by definition that is foregone harvest. And it is all at the door of the processors - if they could have processed more they could have taken more," he said. "But on the other hand, if the processors that are coming here are barely making any money now, how are you going to make them bring in more capacity?"
Twenty-two seiners and 32 gillnetters participated in the Togiak Fishery this year, up slightly. Sands estimates the total Togiak herring harvest at 16,500, well below the 21,000 tons projected. The advance price is likely to average $125 per ton, similar to last year.
"With so much less fish taken, it might help the price, but on the down side, the roe percentage is much worse than we usually see," Sands said.
The herring are valued for their roe, which is a prized delicacy in Asian markets. The roe percentage for the Togiak fish barely topped the 10 percent baseline.
Kodiak kicks off
Kodiak's salmon fishery is set to begin on June 9 but early sockeye runs appear to be a bit behind schedule.
"We can't really tell if it's weak or not, but it seems to be about five days late," said regional manager Jeff Wadle.
The Kodiak forecast of 1.5 million reds is down from last year's catch of 1.8 million. Projections also call for a catch of 421,500 coho salmon and 623,000 chums. A bumper run of pink salmon is expected to boost Kodiak's catches to 22 million, compared to 8.7 million humpies last year. In all, the total 2009 Kodiak salmon harvest is pegged at 11.7 million fish.
Wadle said the increased pink catches might attract more fishing interest, which dwindled last year to just 227 participants, 45.6 percent of Kodiak's salmon permit holders (148 setnetters and 129 seiners).
"We won't really know if we have an increase in effort probably until July when pink salmon starts," Wadle explained. "I think the prices are going to be similar to last year, so we might see some increase in seiners this year, hopefully."
Kodiak pink salmon prices to fishermen last year averaged 30 cents a pound, up a dime from 2007. For sockeye, the average price was $1.17/lb (up from one dollar); the coho price was $1.11/lb (compared to 60 cents); and 47 cent for chums, which averaged 35 cents a pound in 2007.
Kodiak's salmon fishery was valued at $27.87 million at the docks last year, compared to the 10 year average of $24.32 million. Seiners accounted for 83% of the catch and averaged $164,644 per permit fished, compared to the 10 year average of $109,266. Kodiak set gillnetters accounted for 16.9 percent of the island's salmon harvest in 2008, with average earnings of $43,187 per fished permit. The 10 year average was $38,427 for setnetters.
The commercial fishermen of Bristol Bay set sail on their 125th season on June 7.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. She lives in Kodiak.