Laine Welch: Halibut quota up for debate; Senators fight Frankenfish

Laine Welch

Will Alaska's halibut catches be cut again next year? That's the big question as the industry braces for the International Pacific Halibut Commission's interim meeting this week in Seattle.

By all accounts, there appear to be lots of halibut in Alaska waters, but their unusually slow growth rates have forced down catches for nearly a decade. The Alaska total this year was about 22 million pounds.

Also up for review by the commission:

Twenty-two fishermen from remote communities in the mid-Aleutians (Area 4A) are asking to increase their halibut catch to about half a million pounds. From the same region is a proposal to allow retention of halibut taken as bycatch in sablefish pot gear. Another proposal asks for mandatory length requirements for all halibut caught by sport charters.

The IPHC meets Dec. 4-5 at its offices in Seattle. Go to for more information.

Stock steady

The 2014 catches for Alaska's largest fisheries will also be decided in December. Based on summer trawl surveys, the Bering Sea appears to be holding steady.

"Most of them were a slight uptick or a slight downtick. So we are not expecting major changes," said Jane DiCosimo, senior plan coordinator with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Anchorage.

That's likely to mean an Alaska pollock catch of close to three billion pounds and half a billion pounds of Pacific cod.

Setting TACs, or Total Allowable Catches, requires going through a months-long process of federal advisory and public comment postings. For Alaska fish scientists, it means estimating biomasses, catches and dozens of data sets that are gathered into November. DiCosimo, a veteran of the mid-Atlantic council process, called the North Pacific's ability to "crank out" sound quotas "unique in the nation."

"It's complicated, but it's designed to be able to use the summer survey information and the catch data practically up until the stock assessment is run. And that is unusual for the country," she said. "I think we are in a unique and lucky situation where we have such (staff) resources devoted to being able to fish on the most current biomass data."

Also unique is the number of stock assessment surveys done in Alaska -- for 23 separate species in both the Bering Sea/Aleutians and the Gulf.

More than 80 percent of Alaska's seafood landings come from federal waters. Alaska provides more than half the nation's wild seafood. The NPFMC meets Dec. 9-17 at the Anchorage Hilton.

Fish savvy in senate

Alaska's two U.S. senators make a great tag team when it comes to watching out for our fishing industry.

Last week the federal government officially declared in a letter to Sen. Murkowski that "American managed fisheries do not require third-party certification to demonstrate responsible and sustainable practices."

That put to rest the blow-back caused by the government's practice of ignoring its own rules, and instead leaving it to private, Outside groups to decide if Alaska's fisheries are well managed.

In September, Murkowski introduced legislation after learning that, according to the rules of the General Services Administration, the National Park Service required that all food concessions "only offer fish/seafood identified as 'Best Choices' or 'Good Alternatives' on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch List or certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (or equivalent program).

That left out Alaska salmon because the industry has opted not to participate in high-priced, eco-labeling programs.

The GSA has changed its rules to say: Where seafood options are offered, provide those procured from responsibly managed, sustainable healthy fisheries.

The revision puts Alaska salmon back on the "buy list" for the U.S. Park Service, the military and other federal food programs.

Phony fish eggs

Sens. Begich and Murkowski have been relentless in their objections to federal approval of genetically modified Atlantic salmon, dubbed Frankenfish. The fish are man-made by AquaBounty in the U.S. and Canada, and grow three times faster than normal salmon. The salmon would be the first GM animal ever approved for human consumption.

Last week Begich blasted Canada's approval of the sale of genetically modified salmon eggs for cultivation in Panama, where AquaBounty hopes to launch its Frankenfish production lines. The Canadian government acknowledged that the GM fish could present a high risk to wild Atlantic salmon in the event of an escape, and that there would be no immediate sale or consumption of GM salmon eggs in Canada.

"If it's not good for Canada, authorities there should not permit the production and distribution of this engineered life form elsewhere," Begich said in a press release. "I will continue to object to the introduction and production of Frankenfish and will seek the closure of U.S. transportation routes to shipments of millions of eggs to Panama to prevent their accidental release due to handling mishaps or accidents."

Bay blooper

The 2014 forecast for Bristol Bay sockeye has been revised downward by state managers because of a database error. The new forecast calls for a harvest of 16.86 million fish in Bristol Bay and 1.06 million fish in the South Peninsula fisheries -- about 620,000 fish less than the initial estimate. The biggest cuts are in the Nushagak District.

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

Laine Welch