It’s that time of year when Alaska’s fishery meetings kick into high gear.
The industry will get a first glimpse of potential 2015 halibut catches when the International Pacific Halibut Commission convenes Dec. 2-3 in Seattle. It’s been a wait-and-see attitude among fish circles: Will Alaska’s catch limits again be reduced, down already 70 percent over a decade to just 16 million pounds? Or has the Pacific halibut stock started to rebound as some of the science indicates?
Alaska is poised for some big fish stories next year, based on predictions trickling in from state and federal managers.
For the state (and nation’s) largest fishery — Alaska pollock — the Eastern Bering Sea stock has more than doubled its 10-year average to top nine million tons, or 20 billion pounds.
And the stock is healthy and growing, according to annual surveys.
“It is one of the most stunning fisheries management successes on the planet,” said global market expert John Sackton about pollock numbers released by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. He said Alaska pollock represents 40 percent of global whitefish production.
Commercial fishing jobs grew last year to a level not seen since the year 2000, according to the State Department of Labor. Driven primarily by an increased salmon harvest — notably from the record run of pinks — fishing jobs grew by nearly 2.5 percent last year. That brought the annual monthly average to 8,400 jobs, just 400 shy of the record more than a decade ago.
Seafood harvesting and processing jobs are a focus of the November Alaska Economic Trends, which breaks down the numbers by region. Some highlights:
Alaska claimed the nation’s top three fishing ports for seafood catches last year, and wild salmon landings – 95 percent from Alaska – topped one billion pounds. It’s an all-time record and a 70 percent increase from 2012.
That’s according to the annual Fisheries of the United States report for 2013, just released by NOAA Fisheries.
Dutch Harbor topped the list for landings for the 17th year running with 753 million pounds of fish crossing the docks last year, valued at nearly $200 million. The Aleutian Islands region ranked second for landings, thanks to the big Trident plant at Akutan; Kodiak ranked third for both seafood landings and value.
For the 14th year in a row, New Bedford, Mass. had the highest valued catch at $380 million. That’s due mostly to pricey sea scallops, which accounted for more than 80 percent of New Bedford’s 130 million pound landings.
The Bering Sea crab fleet now stands at 77 vessels — a far cry from the nearly 250 boats before the fishery downsized to catch shares in 2005. Fewer boats means less hands on deck, and — as with so many others — the Bering Sea crabbers are “graying” and need to recruit young entrants to sustain the iconic fisheries. To do so, shareholders have devised a way to give captains and crews first crack at available crab.
The Bering Sea crab fleet now stands at 77 vessels; a far cry from the nearly 250 boats before the fishery downsized to catch shares in 2005. Fewer boats mean less hands on deck, and as with many others, the Bering Sea crabbers are “graying” and need to recruit young entrants to sustain the iconic fisheries. To do so, shareholders have devised a way to give captains and crews first crack at available crab.
A ballot measure to protect salmon in Southwest hasn’t grabbed as many headlines as pot and campaign politics. Ballot Measure 4, sponsored by the group Bristol Bay Forever, asks voters to give the Alaska Legislature final say on any large oil, gas and mining projects in the 36,000 square miles of the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve.
The initiative does three significant things to the existing reserve, said Dick Mylius, a former state director for the Division of Mining, Land, and Water.
“It adds large-scale metallic mines to things requiring legislative approval, it broadens the geographic area to include the entire drainage including uplands, and it also applies to state, private and federal lands within the reserve,” Mylius said at a recent forum hosted by Alaska Common Ground in Dillingham.
I must admit that U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan achieved something I have been trying to accomplish as a fisheries writer for more than a quarter of a century: he gave long legs to media stories about Alaska’s fisheries and, more importantly, attracted unparalleled recognition of the seafood industry nationwide.
How did that come about for a fractious industry that bemoans a la comedian Rodney Dangerfield — “I don’t get no respect?”
When Sullivan’s campaign announced he would not attend a traditional Kodiak fisheries debate scheduled with all U.S. Senate candidates in late May, he said it was due to a military obligation. Then, after winning the August primary, and despite months of advance notice, Sullivan’s campaign abruptly brushed off a fisheries face-off against incumbent Sen. Mark Begich set for Oct. 1. Dan had no other commitment, his manager said, his travel schedule was just “too busy.”
Alaska’s conservative management, combined with the grace of Mother Nature, is swelling the abundance of two of the state’s largest and most important fisheries.
Bering Sea crab scientists and stakeholders met last week to discuss the outlook for Alaska’s biggest crab fisheries that open Oct. 15. The take away was that the stocks of red king crab, bairdi Tanners and snow crab all showed big increases in mature size classes, based on data from the annual summer surveys. (Only mature male crabs cans be retained in Alaska’s crab fisheries.)
The lure of reaching a statewide audience was too much for U.S. Senate hopeful Dan Sullivan to pass up. He will be at the Oct. 1 Kodiak fisheries debate after all.
Sullivan was able to reshuffle a packed travel schedule to fit in the fisheries event, said Ben Sparks, campaign manager. Sullivan initially was going to be in Bethel on a multi-day swing through Southwest Alaska during the time of the Kodiak event.
“Dan recognizes the importance of Alaska’s fisheries, and our campaign has rescheduled our southwest swing to ensure that Dan could make the debate. He looks forward to a healthy exchange of ideas with Mark Begich on the future of Alaska’s fisheries, and is excited to attend the debate in Kodiak,” his campaign said in a prepared statement.
Since 1990, the fisheries debates have been an election year tradition and have always attracted 100 percent participation by leading candidates. The debates are limited to one topic: Alaska’s seafood industry.