Cod numbers crash according to federal water surveys
October 13th | Laine Welch
Numbers reflected 71 percent decline in Gulf cod catch
Fishing outlooks for some of Alaska's largest catches are running the gamut from celebratory (salmon) to relief (Bering Sea crab) to catastrophic (cod).
First the bad news. Stakeholders were stunned to learn that surveys (which determine yearly catches) yielded the lowest numbers ever for Pacific cod in the federally managed waters of the Gulf of Alaska, meaning from three to 200 miles offshore.
Seafood.com was the first to report the bad news as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting got underway last week in Anchorage.
Fisheries Biologist Steve Barbeaux of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle said the summer survey, done every other year, revealed that the cod year classes for 2012 and 2013 appeared to be "wiped out," and the data suggest recruitment failures through 2016.
Overall, the cod numbers reflected a 71 percent decline in Gulf cod abundance since 2015, and an 83 percent decline since 2013. The cod crash coincides with the record warm Gulf water temperatures in 2015, Barbeaux said.
Preliminary estimates indicate cod catches in the Gulf of Alaska next year could drop by 60-85 percent, although the data must undergo further analysis and could change when final decisions are made in December.
The 2017 Gulf cod harvest from federal waters was 150,000 metric tons (330 million pounds), which was down 20 percent from the previous year.
The cod crash will be felt in waters closer to shore as well.
"The state cod fishery harvest guidelines are based on the federal harvest level. So as that declines, the state harvests will decline as well," said Forrest Bowers, deputy director of the commercial fisheries division for the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game.
The state waters allowable cod harvest for 2017 is approximately 45 million pounds.
Pacific cod accounted for 12 percent of Alaska's fish harvests by volume in 2016, and 11 percent of the value. Alaska fishermen produce roughly 16 percent of the global cod catch.
The 2018 cod catches in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands fishery are expected to remain the same at nearly 527 million pounds.
Bering Sea crab breather
Crabbers breathed a big sigh of relief when they learned last week that they will be able to drop pots for snow crab, Tanners and red king crab at Bristol Bay when the fisheries open on Oct. 15. Dwindling stock numbers had cast doubts that the fisheries would open at all for the 2017/2018 season.
For snow crab, a catch just shy of 19 million pounds will be the lowest harvest level since 1971.
For bairdi Tanners, the larger cousins of snow crab, a small harvest of 2.5 million pounds will be allowed in the western fishing district, while the eastern region will remain closed. The Tanner fishery produced a catch of 20 million pounds two years ago.
The red king crab fishery at Bristol Bay also is a go, albeit with another reduced catch. Fishery managers have OK'd a harvest of 6.6 million pounds, down 22 percent from last year's take of 8.5 million pounds.
Although they would like to have access to more of the crab, crabbers were pleased with the "ongoing progress and dialogue" with fishery managers, said Tyson Fick, executive director of the trade group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.
"They will continue refining stock assessment and harvest strategies in a way that protects crab species for future generations while also allowing for more consistent fisheries in the future," Fick added.
Alaska's 2017 salmon season is being hailed as a 'banner year," which, except for Chinook, produced strong catches across the state. The preliminary harvest is just shy of 225 million fish.
"We were really pleased with how the salmon fishery went this year. The total harvest came in above the forecast and there were a number of all-time harvest records that were set," said state commercial fisheries Deputy Director Forrest Bowers.
The preliminary dockside value of nearly $700 million is a 67 percent increase over last season, and the third highest since 1975. The values will go even higher after post-season bonuses and other price adjustments are tallied.
It is the third year in a row that the statewide sockeye salmon harvest topped 50 million fish. Sockeyes accounted for 48 percent of the total salmon value, topping $326 million.
In terms of salmon sizes, Bowers said there were no surprises, unlike recent years where Bristol Bay sockeyes ran small and Kodiak pinks were porkers.
"Nothing stood out as an anomaly this year," Bowers added.
Still, the total weight of the big salmon catch topped 1 billion pounds for only the third time.
Other highlights: The pink salmon take of nearly 142 million ranks fourth in terms of poundage and accounted for 63 percent of the total harvest. The humpy value of $169 million was the third highest for fishermen.
Chum salmon set a record with a catch of 25.2 million fish (11 percent of the harvest), valued at over $128 million (19 percent of the value).
The coho catch of just over 5 million (2 percent of the harvest) rang in at nearly $38 million (6 percent of the value).
The Chinook salmon harvest of 251,141 fish has a preliminary value of $17.8 million.
Prices to fishermen increased for all but pinks compared to last season (in parentheses). Chinook averaged $5.86 per pound ($4.88); sockeyes fetched $1.13 ($1.05); cohos were at $1.19 ($1.17); chums at $0.66 ($0.61), and pink salmon averaged $0.32, compared to $0.34 a pound in 2016.
Fish hurricane help
SeaShare, seafood companies, freight transporters and cold storages partnered to donate and deliver 100,000 pounds (2 million servings) of salmon, pollock and other seafood to victims of Hurricanes Irma in Florida and Harvey in Texas and Louisiana.
SeaShare, a Seattle-based nonprofit, got its start over 20 years ago with a 'bycatch to food banks' program and has since coordinated shipments of more than 200 million seafood servings to hunger relief programs throughout the nation.
The group now wants to collect and send shelf-stable (non-refrigerated) seafood donations to ravaged Puerto Rico.
"SeaShare is actively seeking donations for our fellow Americans who are experiencing severe food, water, fuel and electricity shortages in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria," said Executive Director Jim Harmon.
Those able to donate cans or pouches of seafood should contact SeaShare at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at email@example.com.