Laine Welch: Boats are needed to help with expanded halibut surveys

FisheriesMarch 16, 2013 

Halibut scientists plan to expand the yearly Pacific stock assessments by 30 percent next summer, adding 390 survey stations to the existing 1,300 already in use from Oregon to the Bering Sea.

Since 1998 the halibut surveys, which occur from June through October, have been conducted in a depth range of 20 to 275 fathoms, where most of the fishing was taking place. But that's been changing in recent years, said Claude Dykstra, survey manager for the International Pacific Halibut Commission:

"We're seeing the catch coming out of the deeper areas, particularly out in Area 4, the Unalaska region, out through the Aleutians and on into the Bering Sea, and we've seen shallower water captures being pulled out of various areas as well. Those are probably more concentrated in waters of Area 2B (Washington and B.C.), and a little bit in the Central and Western Gulf."

Dykstra said surveys in 2014 will be added in the zero- to 20-fathom range and 275- to 400-fathom range starting next summer. Fifteen stations also will be added at northern California.

"There is evidence of more fish coming out of that area than was previously understood. So we will be pushing south this year," Dykstra said. "It's always exciting to see what is going to come up in an area you haven't fished before."

The expanded stock assessments mean at least five more boats are needed to help with the surveys, adding to the dozen already being used. Dykstra said attracting fishing vessels poses a challenge.

"Finding boats and a crew that are experienced in fixed gear is one challenge. A lot of the fleet is moving to snap gear and that is currently not standardized to our survey," he explained. "Another challenge is that a lot of these guys diversify their operations to maximize their boat usage, and as they move off of their sablefish or halibut quota, they move into salmon fisheries in the summer. So there's some competition there in getting the work."

Any commercial fishing vessels from 57 to 120 feet can apply for the job, but the skipper and crew must fish using standardized skates and longline gear.

Each charter region takes about three weeks of fishing and boats can bid for up to three survey regions, Dykstra said. Vessels also get 10 percent of the halibut sales and 50 percent from any other fish retained and sold. Vessels bid for which of the 27 regions they want to survey, and typical payouts range from $70,000 to $120,000, depending on the survey regions.

"It also provides an opportunity for boats struggling with the big halibut quota cuts to halibut and gives them another few months of work," Dykstra said. "They can come back from year to year and their experience goes a long way in helping us with our data."

The 2013 halibut fishery begins Saturday with an Alaska catch limit of 23 million pounds. Get more information about the halibut surveys at iphc.int.

Big chill in the Bay

Bristol Bay salmon fishermen are advancing their goal of boosting the quality of their fish. That was the drive six years ago when the roughly 1,800 member drift fleet formed its own regional seafood association and voted to fund it with a 1 percent tax on their salmon landings. So far, that has yielded more than $1 million a year.

The group partnered with bay processors and targeted a primary mission: getting more ice to the fleets. The joint effort has definitely paid off.

The annual processor survey for 2012, compiled by Northern Economics Inc., showed the driftnet fleet chilled 53 percent of its salmon catch prior to delivery, an increase from just 24 percent in 2008. Since then, the drift fleet has reduced its portion of unchilled salmon overall from 76 percent of the catch to 41 percent -- a 54 percent reduction. The 2012 season also marked the first year in history when combined drift and setnet fleets delivered more than half of their raw harvest in chilled form to tenders or processors.

The processor survey also showed more boats are fishing in Bristol Bay. The fleet size increased 12 percent last year to 1,530 vessels, the largest year-to-year increase over four years.

Alaska has lots of great salmon fisheries, and you might wonder why so much attention gets focused on Bristol Bay. The answer can be summed up in two words: sockeye salmon.

Bristol Bay's rivers are home to the largest red salmon runs in the world, and the fishery is Alaska's single most valuable salmon fishery, typically producing nearly one-third of the state's total salmon earnings. Last summer, for example, the Bristol Bay sockeye catch of 20.5 million fish was valued at $118 million at the docks; ranking a distant second for reds was Prince William Sound's at 3.6 million fish worth about $42 million. Bristol Bay also has the most fishermen, with more than 2,800 permit holders.

Find a link to the 2012 Processor Survey at alaskafishradio.com.

Money watch

Global exchange rates refer to a currency's purchasing power. When the dollar is strong, foreign goods are less expensive, and it boosts buying of imported goods. But the reverse is true: If a country's currency is weak against the dollar, it is more expensive for them to buy U.S. products. That's the case today, and it could cut into purchases by some of Alaska's most important seafood customers overseas. The Japanese yen is down 20 percent from this time last year; likewise, the euro (the currency for 17 of 27 European nations) is also weak, valued at about 70 cents per U.S. dollar.

Pollock products

McDonald's new Fish McBites failed to hook enough diners to get the fast-food chain's U.S. sales growing. The McBites, made from Alaska pollock, were the first new Happy Meal item in a decade. McDonald's has shown declines in sales three times in the past five months.

The Alaska pollock industry is launching another new Made in America product: omega-3 supplements by American Marine Ingredients, a subsidiary of American Seafoods Company. The item is called 54° North Omega 3 with Vitamin D3.


Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state.

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