With so many salmon fisheries occurring across Alaska each year, why all the hoopla about Bristol Bay?
Sum it up in a single word: sockeye.
"The sockeye resource at Bristol Bay is unique because of its size," said Andy Wink, senior seafood analyst at the Juneau-based McDowell Group. "Typically, it's 35 to 40 percent of the global sockeye supply, and it is a huge chunk of Alaska's overall salmon value. Preliminary data for 2016 show about 38 percent of Alaska's total salmon value came out of Bristol Bay."
The size of the Bristol Bay harvest means it has a big impact on salmon prices elsewhere.
"In 2015, when the base price was 50 cents at Bristol Bay and they had a large harvest, coho prices came way down and sockeye in other areas came down quite a bit too," Wink explained. "It's a market-moving fishery and that is why it affects so many other Alaska fishermen — even if they don't fish in the bay."
But that is where a problem arises.
About 44 percent of Bristol Bay's roughly 1,600 active driftnet permit holders don't chill their fish.
"That has big ramifications for the overall value of the resource," Wink said. "How much of that value is being left on the table by not chilling?"
Major processors have put the fleet on notice that they won't buy from "dry boats" starting in 2018. That's due to a big shift over several years in what's being sent to markets.
The bulk of the Bristol Bay sockeye this year was flown out fresh, either in headed-and-gutted (H&G) form or as fillets, and not put into lower-value cans. Two decades ago, up to 75 percent of the Bristol Bay sockeye catch was canned; today, it's closer to 25 percent.
"The growth in the Bristol Bay fishery is coming out of fillets and H&G, particularly in the domestic market. But to capitalize on that, the fishery and the processors really need to deliver a quality product," Wink said. "Fishermen who close that chilling gap will be the ones who are going to be taken care of more by the processors because that's who is feeding their growth."
Improving fish quality is the mission of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, a nonprofit operated for 12 years by drift fishermen and funded by a 1 percent tax on their catches.
"Lots of people would love to refrigerate but feel their vessel isn't worth the investment, and the cost for a new vessel is pushing $400,000," said Mike Friccero of Kodiak, association president and 35-year Bristol Bay veteran. "The fleet is aging and some guys don't see the long-term payback for that big investment. So a lot of people are still sitting on the fence."
A refrigerated sea water (RSW) system is $30,000 and installation requires hydraulic overhauls, fish hold modifications and other renovations.
"It's like saying, what's the cost of remodeling your kitchen?" Friccero said. "My answer is, it depends on who you're married to."
He added that 35 Bristol Bay boats have been shipped to Seattle for renovations this year, many for adding refrigeration.
"It's very hard to get that work done in Bristol Bay and people are building warehouses for anticipated boat improvements to do indoors in the winter," Friccero said.
In the long run, he believes it's worth it.
"The premium for chilling and good handling is as much as 25 cents a pound," Friccero said. "I think the tide is changing and we are trying to find ways to get traction to make a difference with better fish quality. It's the most important thing we have."
The preliminary ex-vessel (dockside) value of Bristol Bay sockeye increased 66 percent in 2016 to more than $153 million due to a price increase and strong harvest.
Protecting cod from pilfering whales
Gulf of Alaska longliners targeting sablefish (black cod) will get protection from hook-robbing whales by being able to fish with pots starting next year.
Pots strung together on longlines have been used in the Bering Sea to protect sablefish catches from killer whales since 2008. An analysis by North Pacific Fishery Management Council staff in 2013 showed that when killer whales were present when gear was retrieved, whales removed 54 percent to 72 percent of the sablefish from hooks.
At prices ranging from $4 to $9 a pound, depending on fish size, "getting whaled" results in a bad pay day for fishermen.
"A study in the western Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea on six vessels a few years ago estimated an additional $980 per vessel per day for additional fuel, food and costs for lost time because of sablefish loss. Estimated fuel costs associated with those sets were 82 percent higher," said Rachel Baker, a fisheries management specialist at NOAA Fisheries in Juneau.
Total estimated sablefish catch removals by killer whales during 1995-2016 ranged from 1,235 tons to 2,450 tons in Western Alaska, according to council documents.
Sperm whales are sablefish pirates in the Gulf, where an estimated 651 to 1,204 tons of sablefish have been taken between 2001 and 2016, according to NOAA.
The new gear can be used throughout the Gulf, with some added protections to prevent conflicts between pots and longlines in the eastern portion.
Sablefish and halibut fisheries occur at the same time and many longliners hold quota shares of each. In that case, Baker said, fishermen catching legal halibut in pots can retain it.
"The council thought it was important," he said, "to reduce discards and promote efficiency in fishing."
Many fishermen who want to switch to pot gear may be stymied by the cost. Buying pots and making the necessary vessel conversions could cost as much as $100,000.
"So we're likely to have limited numbers of fishermen switching to pot gear right away and possibly even down the road," Baker said, "… due to the costs and the infeasibility of using pot gear on smaller vessels."
The new rules go into effect next March and will be reviewed after three years.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.