Government researchers have released data indicating that Alaska's Bering Sea pollock population remains low.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists in Seattle presented their preliminary findings to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council's Groundfish Plan Team, which is reviewing stock assessments prior to issuing a full report in November.
The pollock fishery in the eastern Bering is the nation's largest commercial fish harvest by weight, and it is Alaska's most valuable fishery, worth nearly $1 billion annually.
Low pollock numbers could mean another year of costly fishing reductions for the trawl fleet and the communities that hold a lucrative stake in the fishery. But next year's total allowable catch will not be set until after the North Pacific council reviews additional reports and takes public testimony. In December, the council will recommend next year's catch size to NOAA, which makes the final decision.
Long lauded for running a sustainable fishery, the pollock trawl fleet has come under increasing attack from environmentalists and some Western Alaska villages as pollock stocks have ebbed and the fleet's incidental take of king salmon -- called bycatch -- has trended up for much of the decade.
Environmentalists and some villages blamed the pollock fishery for this year's crash in Yukon River king salmon runs, which made it difficult for villagers to feed their families. Federal biologists said bycatch is probably just one of several factors in the crash.
Pollock population estimates have been declining for some time. Last year's spawning biomass was at the lowest level since 1980, and that led fishery managers to reduce the allowed catch by nearly 19 percent. The allowed catch has been reduced 46 percent since 2006, according to NOAA.
The total population count for 2009 is not yet known, but preliminary data indicate that it may be comparable to 2008, said Doug DeMaster, director of NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
Until all the survey results are in, "it's too close to call" whether the biomass is up or down this year, he said.
But at least one survey result looks bleak: NOAA's bottom trawl survey this summer netted 25 percent less pollock than predicted.
The surveys are indicating that there's not enough pollock out there to feed all of the wildlife that depend on the fish, especially fur seals and Steller sea lions, whose populations are declining, said Jon Warrenchuck, a Juneau-based scientist for Oceana, a conservation group.
Greenpeace has blamed overfishing for the pollock decline, and the group said Friday that the federal government needs to block certain areas of the ocean to fishermen.
DeMaster said Greenpeace is wrong about overfishing.
"The decreased biomass appears to be a cyclical fluctuation and is not a result of overfishing, which has caused problems in other fisheries worldwide," he said.
Contact Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK