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Bering Sea cod fishery opens 2020 in Alaska

Alaska’s seafood industry is “open for business” starting Jan. 1, when some of the biggest fisheries get underway long before the start of the first salmon runs in mid-May.

Cod begins it all in the Bering Sea, which has a 305.5-million-pound catch quota, down about a million pounds from 2019. Less than 6 million pounds of codfish will come out of the Gulf.

A 400,000 Tanner crab fishery at Kodiak starting on Jan. 15 will be helpful to a town whose economic bottom line will be badly battered by the Gulf cod crash.

But it will be the opening of Alaska pollock on Jan. 20 that will keep Kodiak’s processing workforce on the job, along with many other Gulf and Bering Sea communities.

The Gulf of Alaska pollock catch took a slide to about 250 million pounds, a drop of more than 57 million pounds from 2019. Conversely, the Bering Sea will produce over 3 billion pounds of Alaska pollock this year, a 2% increase.

Mid-January is also around the time when Bering Sea crabbers will get serious about pulling up snow crab. That quota is nearly 34 million pounds, a 24% increase from last season.

Southeast Alaska crabbers will drop pots for golden king crab and Tanner crab on Feb. 17. In recent years, those harvests have been in the 76,000- and 1 million-pound range, respectively.

Halibut fisheries will open to more than 2,000 Alaska longliners in March. Catches will be announced by the International Pacific Halibut Commission in early February.

Also coming in the spring: roe herring fisheries with some jaw-dropping harvests. At Sitka Sound, a catch quota of 25,824 tons is double the limit from 2019, when the fishery was called off for the first time in decades due to the small size of the fish. Managers predict heftier herring next spring, saying the forecast 2020 age 4 herring population is “extremely high.”

“The 2020 forecast is larger than the estimated 2019 mature biomass of 130,738 tons and is greater than any forecast previously estimated for Sitka Sound herring,” said a statement from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

At Alaska’s biggest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay, a whopping 38,749 ton harvest is forecast.

Up next for the state Board of Fisheries is Kodiak, where it will meet Jan. 11-14. The seven-member board sets the rules for subsistence, commercial, sport and personal-use fisheries and takes up issues by region every three years. Thirty-six Kodiak proposals are on the docket.

Murkowski: Name it or no sale

Makers of genetically modified fish have changed their tune now that labeling their product is about to become law.

In a $1.4 trillion appropriations bill passed by Congress two weeks ago to avoid another government shutdown, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski slipped in a rider that will require “a clear, text-based label” that tells customers they are buying “genetically engineered” fish.

The manmade fish, first created in 1989 by Massachusetts-based Aqua Bounty Technologies, replaces a growth hormone gene in Atlantic salmon with one from a Pacific chinook, and combines it with antifreeze proteins from an ocean pout, giving it the ability to survive in near-freezing waters. The tweak enables the genetically modified salmon to grow year-round, nearly three times faster than normal fish. The salmon are grown at a land-based facility in Indiana.

Aquaculture technicians Zed Leath and Michael Schneider take a sample of Atlantic salmon raised at AquaBounty Farms Indiana, a commercial fish farm in Albany, Ind., on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The labeling rule is a final hurdle for AquaBounty to sell its salmon in the U.S. The push has been two decades in the making; with approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2015, the AquAdvantage fish now is set to go to market by late 2020.

AquaBounty called Murkowski’s push for labeling “vague” and “unnecessary” and said it was a “misguided attempt to single out a small, innovative company to protect special interests,” adding in a release that the rider only benefits “Chilean and Norwegian companies that currently export more Atlantic salmon to the U.S. than any American company produces.” That’s a change of tune from October, when AquaBounty embraced the “Frankenfish” name at a conference in Washington, D.C., likening it to Frankenstein’s monster in the Mary Shelley book written in 1817, and calling opponents an “uneducated mob” that “didn’t understand the benefits of the science.” Back then, company CEO Sylvia Wulf applauded the push for labeling.

"We think that’s really good news for us. The market will be awash in so many bioengineered products, customers won’t focus on our fish,” Wulf said at the time, adding “buyers are already lined up to get it.”

Nearly 2 million Americans opposed the FDA’s approval of the genetically modified fish and 60 major grocery chains with 9,000 locations pledged not to sell it, including Safeway, Kroger and Target.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Woodrow, director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said it’s just another type of farmed fish.

"Honestly, here at ASMI we see that as just another farmed seafood product, and we’ve been competing against farmed salmon in the marketplace for several decades now. Wild, natural, sustainable — those are attributes that really only apply to Alaska salmon, wild-harvested salmon and that sets us apart in the marketplace, and those are the attributes that we’ll continue to sell to customers.”

In a touch of irony, while AquaBounty plans to expand its sales to China and South America, it has no plans to pitch its genetically modified fish to Europe because of “their anti-GM leanings.”

Bristol Bay goes galactic

The famed Nushagak and Mulchatna Rivers are now named in the cosmos as an intergalactic star and exoplanet (an exoplanet is a planet that’s outside our solar system).

The International Astronomical Union chose the names that were submitted by Ivory Adajar, a Bristol Bay fisherman and member of the Curyung Tribal Council. Adajar’s winning entries topped a field of nearly 900 entries in the competition and were announced in Paris on Dec. 17.

Ivory Adajar won a competition to name an intergalactic star and exoplanet, Dec. 2019. (Photo provided by Ivory Adajar)

She chose the name Nushagak for a star and Mulchatna for an exoplanet, Adajar said, “after earth’s greatest wild salmon river ecosystems that resemble the nature of the exoplanet’s orbit,” she told the Cordova Times, adding, “Our wild salmon are known for their wiggly, eccentric paths out to the ocean and back to fresh water. We might not have this natural habitat and rich fisheries in the future but we can have the star and exoplanet in honor of Alaska’s rich salmon culture and heritage.”

“After winning this great honor,” she added, “I plan to use it as a platform to help educate youth and others about our beautiful starry sky above and the rich natural ecology of our Earth below.”

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