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Pod cod fishing dismal

September 28th, 2012 | Jim Paulin Print this article   Email this article  

The Pacific cod fishing in the Bering Sea has been slow enough to make some pot-cod boats quit and wait for red king crab to open next month.

"It was pretty bad. I've never given up on a cod season before, and I've given up on this one," said Bob Perkey, captain of the fishing vessel Ramblin' Rose. "It's not worth it financially to keep fishing."

Early results were only briefly promising, said deckhand Geno Holmes. "We were getting 40 to 70, and then it just dropped off cold. We were getting two, three, four fish in a pot," Holmes said, adding that his boat was earning 29 cents per pound of cod.

Pot cod boats use the same giant pots for both cod and crab, since a pot cod boat is a crab boat targeting finfish in between crab seasons. The metal pots trap fish and crab lured inside by baited jars of various seafoods including herring, and are about 7 feet wide by 7 feet long, three feet tall, and weigh hundreds of pounds.

While the cod were scarce, fishermen found plenty of octopus in their pots, and an abundance of octopus typically means a shortage of cod, Holmes said while the Ramblin' Rose was docked at the Carl E. Moses Boat Harbor in Unalaska

A local seafood plant official likewise reported pot-cod boats quitting early when normally they'd have fished right up until the beginning of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery on Oct. 15, according to Al Mendoza, of Unisea. He said some the boats that deliver to Unisea have stopped because of low cod numbers in their usual fishing grounds around Unimak Pass. But he added that several have headed to the area around the Pribilof Islands, and on Monday he hadn't heard how the fishing was up north.

Mendoza said Unisea was paying 35 cents a pound for cod 23 inches and longer, and 20 cents a pound for cod between 18 and 23 inches. The individual fish are a little smaller this year, he said. The pot-caught cod is processed mainly into fillets for the domestic market, he said.

The pot cod B season opened Sept. 1, and remains open until Dec. 31, managed by the federal National Marine Fisheries Service. The B season quota is 9,559 metric tons, and 1744 tons were delivered through Sunday by 13 boats, said NMFS biologist Krista Milani in Unalaska.

Catches have dropped off from 672 mt the first week to 567 mt in the second week ending Sept. 15, and last week's total was still unavailable Monday, she said. A pot cod boat's fishing trip is typically between three and four days, though sometimes as short as two days if the fishing is good and closer to town.

The regular fishing grounds around Unimak Pass and north of Unimak Island in the area known on nautical charts are less productive this year, she said.

"Most years they fish on the Slime Banks, but this year they're spread out a little more," she said.

The Bristol Bay red king crab season's quota is expected to be announced around Oct. 1, said biologist Heather Fitch of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska. She said 81 boats have pre-season registered, though probably a smaller number will actually go fishing, depending of the quota's size, she said.

Oct. 15 marks the start date of a new regulation enforced by the Coast Guard for commercial fishing boats, mandatory dockside safety exams. The safety issues are the same as in the voluntary safety examinations, according to Phil Harris of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Detachment in Unalaska, which will conduct the exams.

The Alaska State Trooper patrol vessel Stimson will be patrolling the crab grounds as usual next month.

Trooper Robin Morrisett in Unalaska said crabbing is safer under the rationalization program that ended the derby-style race for crab that made fishermen risk their lives in stormy weather for fear of losing out to

competitors. Now, with guaranteed quotas, they can wait out a storm without worrying about those financial consequences, he said.

But rationalization hasn't eliminated all avoidable risks from economic pressures, he said.

"It still sounds like the canneries are dictating when they want the crab to be there, so that's the only thing that would make it no so safe," Morrisett said.

In another crab enforcement issue, he said he's been watching the smaller-scale subsistence crab fishery in Unalaska Bay.

Morrisett said he'd like to have the distinction of being the first Alaska State Trooper to catch somebody stealing subsistence crab. Only one other trooper has come close, but that involved the theft of subsistence shrimp from a pot in Whittier, he said.

Subsistence crab theft is a local reality, he said.

"It definitely happens. I'm sure it happens," and subsistence fishermen who check their pots frequently see obvious signs of poaching, like when "they take the bait jar, and leave the pot. That happened this year," Morrisett said.

Some subsistence crabbers not only check their pots daily from their skiffs, but also lay them out in a neat pattern so they can tell if pots have been moved. Some make a point of setting pots where they monitor them the road while driving by.

The subsistence crabbers spend hundreds of dollars in fuel, bait and gear, and are annoyed by pulling a pre-plucked pot, he noted.

"Some people say, 'I wouldn't mind if they took my subsistence crab if they threw in a six-pack of beer, or refilled the bait jar," Morrisett said.

Sometimes the small subsistence pots reported as stolen have actually floated away, suspended by buoys designed to anchor heavier commercial pots. That's another reason people should write their phone numbers on the buoys, he said.

More than once he's called buoy phone numbers, with the response, "I haven't seen that pot in a long time. Where is it? I get that a lot," Morrisett said.


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