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Laine Welch: Shutdown could stall crab season

Laine Welch

Kodiak's waterfront is bedecked with hundreds of "7-bys," the big, heavy crab pots, as boats stack their gear for major fisheries in the Bering Sea.

The Bristol Bay red king crab season is set to open Oct. 15, with a harvest of 8.6 million pounds, similar to last year. A reopened Tanner crab fishery will produce a 3 million-pound catch; the numbers for Bering Sea snow crab, Alaska's largest crab fishery, will be out next week.

The fisheries are set to open on schedule, said Heather Fitch, regional manager for ADF&G at Dutch Harbor. However, due to the federal government shutdown, the season could be stalled because crabbers won't know how much they can catch. The Bering Sea crab fisheries operate under a catch share system and federal workers who compute the shares are off the job.

Nearly 500 eligible vessels and companies have applied for 2013/2014 crab quotas, said market expert John Sackton. Furthermore, the crab fishery depends on a share-matching system between harvesters and processors. That can't be determined until the exact amounts of quota for each shareholder are determined by federal regulators.

The agency lacks the manpower to process applications and issue federal fishing licenses, said Alaska region director Jim Balsiger at the North Pacific council meeting this week in Anchorage. Balsiger said he was appealing to the federal Commerce Department to make personnel available.

Alaska's red king crab fishery is "highly dependent on year-end sales to Japan, and this crab has to be landed, processed and shipped generally by the third week in November. If the season is delayed even by a week, that could impact the ability to fulfill the Japanese orders," Sackton said.



STATE OF OUR SHELLFISH

Shellfish growers will gather in Ketchikan later this month to update the state of Alaska's mariculture industry. There are 69 shellfish farms in Alaska, 28 are operational, growing mostly oysters with sales topping a half-million dollars last year.

Dominating the growers' agenda this year is a seed crisis.

"The crisis is caused by ocean acidification in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon and Washington, where farmers get the predominant amount of seed for shellfish aquaculture on the West Coast," said Ray RaLonde, a Sea Grant aquaculture specialist in Alaska for more than 35 years. "The upwelling of deeper water is more acidic, and because of that the larvae and juvenile seed can't develop shells."

Some Washington shellfish farmers are setting up in Hawaii, where the ocean is less corrosive. Alaska also is starting to produce its own seeds at facilities in Ketchikan, Homer and Seward.

Blue mussels are poised to be the next big thing in Alaska mariculture, based on the ongoing success of a demo project at Kachemak Bay near Homer. All of Alaska's shellfish farms are in the Central and Southeast regions. RaLonde said he is often asked about possibilities in Western Alaska.

"With shellfish," he said, "temperature has an enormous impact on growth. We would have to do preliminary studies on focused locations to see what impact that would have on the ability to produce shellfish" in a reasonable time.

It takes 18 months to two years for Southeast-grown oysters to reach market size and up to four years in Kachemak Bay, where the water is colder.

RaLonde will lead a daylong workshop on Oct. 24, followed by the famous shellfish feast that evening. The Alaska Shellfish Growers meetings are Oct. 25 and 26. All events are at the Cape Fox Lodge in Ketchikan. For questions, contact ray.ralonde@alaska.edu.



FISH WATCH

Some fisheries underway in October include the dive fisheries in Southeast Alaska (sea cucumbers, geoduck clams), along with spot prawns and Dungeness crab. There's no red king crab fishery at the Panhandle again this year due to low stock numbers.

Alaska's halibut fleet has taken 86 percent of its 22 million-pound catch limit, with just more than 3 million pounds remaining.

For sablefish, the catch was at 83 percent of the 28 million-pound quota. Both fisheries end on Nov. 7.

Only a handful of pot boats were fishing for cod in the Gulf, compared to 35 vessels last year. Fishermen cited low prices and high expenses for the lack of interest. Most said there just aren't any cod out there.

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


Laine Welch
Fisheries