Halibut bycatch comes center stage at workshop

Laine Welch

Brainstorming about halibut bycatch is the theme of a two-day workshop this week in Seattle. Topping the discussions: the methods used to collect bycatch numbers and the accuracy of the data.

Setting a precedent: the International Pacific Halibut Commission and North Pacific Fishery Management Council working together to reduce the estimated 10 million pounds of halibut taken as bycatch and discarded in Alaska's fisheries.

"As far as I know, this meeting represents a first-ever joint effort by the two bodies to meet together to discuss current "science" and/or research," said Duncan Fields of Kodiak, a member of the management council.

The council sets halibut bycatch limits in federal waters, which produce 80 percent of Alaska seafood landings. The halibut commission tracks and studies stocks and sets annual catch limits for commercial halibut fisheries in the U.S. and Canada.

It has been more than two decades since bycatch levels were soundly re-evaluated by the management council; two years ago, the halibut commission reconvened a task force to study how bycatch loss affects halibut stock assessments and fishery management.

Fields said he has "high hopes" for the joint meeting.

The North Pacific council plans to reduce halibut bycatch limits in Gulf of Alaska fisheries at its June meeting in Kodiak.

Alaska seafood is tops

The seafood industry provides the most jobs in Alaska -more than oil and gas, mining, timber and tourism combined - and seafood is Alaska's top export.

State numbers show that Alaska's total exports increased by more than 26 percent last year, with a value of $5.2 billion, the highest ever. Half that value came from seafood exports, a 35 percent increase over 2010.

Last year also marked the first year China ranked as the top importer of Alaska products, with seafood topping the list ($836 million). China was followed by Japan, Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, France, Thailand, Spain and Portugal. Europe accounted for more than 22 percent of Alaska seafood exports last year.

Other Alaska exports included mineral ores, which increased 31.7 percent to $1.8 billion; precious metals (primarily gold), were up 24.7 percent to $266.4 million. Forest products exports increased 1.9 percent to $119.3 million. Energy exports decreased 7.3 percent to $387.7 million.

Herring watch

Big roe herring shortfalls at Southeast have boosted fishing and buying interest at Kodiak. The fishery began April 15 and 25 to 35 boats are signed up to fish, compared to 17 last season, said James Jackson, a fishery manager at the department of fish and game in Kodiak. As many as seven major companies are buying fish, valued for its eggs, called roe.

"I think a lot of that has to do with the large harvest that did not get taken down in Sitka," Jackson said.

The Sitka herring fishery in late March produced less than half of its nearly 29,000-ton quota, and a small fishery at West Behm Canal was cancelled altogether. That boosts buyer interest in Kodiak's 5,355-ton herring harvest. Hopes are high that the fish will fetch more than the disappointing $200 a ton last year.

Unlike other Alaska regions where herring fisheries can be over in a few short openers, Kodiak's fishery can occur in up to 81 different sections around the island, and the fishery lasts through June.

Kodiak also is a "stopover" for boats heading to the state's largest herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay.

Alaska's herring fisheries will continue along the westward coast all the way to Norton Sound. The statewide fisheries bring more than $20 million to coastal communities.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact msfish@alaska.com.

Laine welch