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Bering Sea pollock fleet ends season very near quota

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

The last active members of the Bering Sea pollock fleet hung up their gear Nov. 1, marking the close of the B season. The fleet harvested 99.6 percent of their 1,180,000 metric ton quota this year, with a significant drop in bycatch from last year.

Most of the 103-vessel fleet was done early, with only a small portion of vessels fishing through October. The Coastal Villages Region Fund’s 341-foot catcher-processor, Northern Hawk, pulled into Seattle on Sept. 7.

The Community Development Quota (CDQ) group was very pleased with their safe and successful season, said Coastal Village Region Fund project manager Dawson Hoover. An early finish meant more time at home for their fishermen, Hoover said, an improvement over last year’s long and challenging season.

Of the four fleet categories – CDQ groups, catcher-processors, motherships and catcher vessels – the catcher vessels represent the largest haul with a harvest of 525,301 tons in 2012. All four groups were within 99 or 99.5 percent of their quota, said National Marine Fisheries Service in-season manager Josh Keaton.

“In most years they get right on the number like they did this year,” Keaton said. “Last year they had difficulty finding fish aggregated.”

Even with last year’s challenges, the fleet was still within 94 to 96 percent of their quota that year, Keaton said.

In the A season, an ice edge complicated early 2012 pollock efforts.

“(The fleet) really got concentrated,” Keaton said. “They still harvested their A season quota, it just took them a little bit longer and they had to struggle finding fish among the ice.”

While the B season didn’t pose the ice problems of the earlier efforts, herring bycatch caused the fisheries service to impose unusual management restrictions in October.

While most of the fleet was finished fishing by that date, they had reached the limit of allowable herring bycatch. NMFS closed a northern block of the fishing grounds, located northwest of St. Paul Island and just south of St. Lawrence Island.

“We haven’t done a closure like that in a very long time,” Keaton said. “They were actively trying to stay away from (the herring) but in the end they were unable to.”

Salmon bycatch stayed well below established limits, with 11,079 Chinook bycatch recorded. The pollock fishery has 100 percent observer coverage, Keaton said, making his department confident in the accuracy of their bycatch numbers.

Last year’s Bering Sea Chinook bycatch was 25,000, still below the management limit of 60,000.

Keaton credits successful incentive programs for the season’s low bycatch numbers, a self-regulatory measure the fleet uses to reward vessels with less other-species interception.

Daily tracking of bycatch hotspots also helps keep numbers low, he said. Though there are no limits at this time to bycatch of other salmon species, those numbers are tracked as well. That lack of limit is an issue being reconsidered by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.

“Chum salmon rates were low,” Keaton said, “especially compared with last year, where they did have problems with chum salmon.”

This year’s non-Chinook salmon bycatch totaled up at 22,213, which was mostly chum salmon. That’s higher than the king numbers but a far cry from last year’s 155,209 non-Chinook salmon interception. Year-to-year changes in those numbers aren’t uncommon, however, as 2010 brought in only 14,423 in non-Chinook salmon bycatch.

Pollock market prices are expected to stay in the average range for recent years, hovering around $1 per pound. Alaska’s Bering Sea pollock fishery is the largest by volume fishery in the United States.

The preceding report was first published by The Bristol Bay Times and is republished here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at) reportalaska.com.