Bering Sea fish stocks are booming, but it's a mixed bag for groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska.
Fishery managers will set 2017 catches this week for pollock, cod and other fisheries that make up Alaska's largest fish hauls, which are taken from 3 to 200 miles offshore. More than 80 percent of Alaska's seafood comes from those federally managed waters, and by all accounts the Bering fish stocks are in great shape.
"For the Bering Sea, just about every catch is up," said Diana Stram, Bering groundfish plan coordinator for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Twenty-two species are under the council's purview, along with such nontargeted species as sharks, octopus and squid. For the nation's largest food fishery — Bering pollock — the stock is so robust that catches could safely double to nearly 6 billion pounds, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists who presented their data to the council last week.
But the allowable catch will remain close to this year's harvest, Stram said, due to a strict cap applied to all fish removals.
"The sum of all the catches in the Bering Sea cannot exceed 2 million metric tons," she explained.
With all stocks so healthy, catch-setting becomes a trade-off among the varying species, Stram said. The council also sets bycatch levels for the fisheries, another constraint.
"For the Bering Sea, it is really going to be a trade-off between halibut bycatch … with the increases in pollock and other species," Stram said.
The halibut bycatch limit for Bering groundfish fisheries for 2016 and 2017 is 7.75 million pounds. That's almost half the commercial allocation of nearly 20 million pounds for the entire state.
Looking ahead, Stram said fish scientists are concerned about impacts from warming ocean conditions for the third straight year, with both Bering surface and bottom temperatures higher than they've been in 35 years.
Federal data show a 2016 mean surface temperature of 49.1 degrees compared to an average of 43.5 degrees over the long term. The mean bottom temperature in the Bering was just below 40 degrees, compared to an average of 36.3 degrees.
Warming oceans are cited as a factor in what's shaping up as a big decline in the Gulf pollock catches next year.
"Overall, it will be about a 20 percent Gulf-wide decrease," said Jim Armstrong, plan coordinator for the Gulf's groundfish. "If you add up all the catches, the whole thing is down by about 60,000 tons (50,000 tons from pollock, 10,000 from cod)."
The pollock downturn is particularly troublesome because recent harvests have been sustained by a single strong year class from 2012.
"We have zooplankton that in cold years have a lot more lipids (fats) and are more nutritionally valuable to pollock, and we need those cold years to create big year classes," Armstrong said. "Based on this year's survey, it doesn't appear it is being followed by even an average year."
The 2017 pollock catch will likely be around 200,000 metric tons, with cod in the 150,000-ton range.
One bright spot next year is black cod, or sablefish, — catches will increase in all four Gulf fishing regions and in the Bering.
The North Pacific Council meets Tuesday through Dec. 14 at the Anchorage Hilton. All sessions are streamed live on the web.
Halibut falls flat
The Pacific Ocean halibut population appears to have stabilized, but that may not equate to higher catches.
That was a take-home message last week when International Pacific Halibut Commission staff unveiled summer survey results showing that the overall stock declined a bit, and most of the fish remain small for their ages.
But the fact that halibut catches have remained relatively stable the last three years is encouraging for a stock that was on a downward trend for nearly two decades.
Commission biologist Ian Stewart described the Pacific halibut fishery as being "fully subscribed" among diverse users.
About 60 percent of the removals from the halibut stock are coming from commercial fishing, with about 17 percent from recreation, 17 percent from bycatch in nonhalibut fisheries, and about 3 percent each coming from fish wasted, personal use and subsistence, Stewart said.
Another survey finding, he said, was declining halibut bycatch.
"We've seen a substantial reduction in bycatch from almost 9 million pounds in 2014 to about 7 million pounds in 2016," he said.
That is little comfort to halibut fishermen who could see a 12.6 percent coastwide (U.S. and Canada) drop in catches next year, from 29.9 million pounds to 26.1 million pounds, according to modeling and survey work funded by the International Halibut Commission.
For Southeast, the catch could decrease by 17.4 percent to 3.2 million pounds. For the Central Gulf, a 0.8 percent drop to 7.3 million pounds is projected.
The Western Gulf could see a 17.4 percent increase just over 3 million pounds. Catch estimates for Bering halibut fishing regions may show a 1.8 percent increase.
The IPHC will make final decisions at its annual meeting Jan. 23-27 in Victoria, British Columbia. Comments and proposals on 2017 catch limits will be accepted through Dec. 31. The halibut fishery reopens in March.
Alaska advocates are wasting no time forming guidelines to expand homegrown shellfish and seaweeds into a mariculture industry.
"We're not talking about fish farming when we talk about mariculture. We're talking about shellfish and aquatic plants," said Julie Decker, co-chair of Gov. Bill Walker's Mariculture Task Force Initiative created by administrative order in February. Walker said he believes the industry can help diversify the state's economy in a field Alaska already dominates: seafood.
Decker, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, believes mariculture could jump from its current $1 million value to growers to $1 billion within 30 years. Today there are 56 shellfish farmers in Alaska, most growing oysters.
Based on foundation and Oceans Alaska data, if just 0.3 percent of Alaska's 35,000 miles of coastline was developed for oysters, it could produce 1.3 billion oysters at 50 cents each, adding up to $650 million a year.
Alaska also aims to cash in on the $12 billion global seaweed market, especially with kelp. Alaska Sea Grant already has six pilot projects in parts of the Gulf. Another effort is helping existing farmers become more efficient and profitable by planting kelp crops, which can provide a steady cash flow while waiting up to three years for shellfish to mature.
"You can stagger your planting and lengthen your season from three to six months or more — they only take about 90 days to grow," Decker said.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy is looking at seaweed as a source for biofuels and has its eyes on Alaska.
Alaska's mariculture industry will be on display at the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association annual meeting Dec. 9-10 in Anchorage.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.