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Business/Economy

All systems are ‘go’ for near-shore Alaska fisheries, state officials say

All systems are go for keeping close tabs on fish and crab stocks in waters managed by the state, meaning out to three miles. While constraints from the coronavirus resulted in nearly all annual stock surveys being cut in deeper waters overseen by the federal government, it’s “closer to normal” closer to shore.

“While it’s not business as usual, we are conducting business in as close to normal fashion as we can,” said Forrest Bowers, deputy director of the commercial fisheries division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“We have kept all of our area offices open and all of our field projects in place to monitor salmon stocks around the state this summer, as well as our projects and support for other fisheries,” Bowers said, adding that Fish and Game has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic “very seriously” and has had strict protection plans in place since March.

The state surveys a wide range of fish and shellfish stocks each summer throughout waters in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, all the way up to the Arctic regions of Norton Sound for red king crab.

“We do all we can in support of the fisheries around the state because we recognize the importance to the people in Alaska and our primary objective is to keep our staff safe and protect the public as well,” Bowers added.

It’s good news for fishery biologists at Kodiak who are heading out for the summerlong Tanner crab survey throughout the westward region.

“We’ve modifying the schedule somewhat,” said Nat Nichols, area shellfish and groundfish manager at Fish and Game in Kodiak. “We’re doing two legs instead of five to minimize the number of times that the crew comes in. We also won’t be doing any of our normal ports of call into Sand Point, Dutch Harbor, King Cove, Chignik or Alitak.”

The crew and three scientists, usually totaling about 10, do the surveys aboard the state-owned, 95-foot stern trawler M/V Resolution and assess over 300 stations each year at a rate of eight to 10 per day.

“We came out of the shop two years ago 10 feet wider. So now we’re 95 by 36. It is a very capable platform,” Nichols said. “We tow a standard grid that has been fixed for years, and we’ve developed a really good time series since 1988.”

The annual survey gets some federal funding to assess weights and lengths of any groundfish such as cod, halibut, rockfish or pollock that are hauled up but the primary focus is Tanner crab. The team is tracking the largest recruitment of Tanners they’ve ever seen, estimated at a whopping 270 million crabs.

“By the time we see them in the survey they’re maybe the size of a quarter and about a year old, maybe year two even,” Nichols explained. “It’s typically about four years until we see them at legal size. Using that timing, we first saw these Tanner crab in 2018, so this group would be seen in a survey at a legal size in 2022 for a 2023 fishery.”

Lots of the crab appear to be growing faster than normal and Nichols said the bulk of the pack could be ready sooner.

“I think we could be seeing a good chunk, or at least the leading edge of them, legal in a 2021 survey. So that’s next summer for a 2022 fishery and it is not unlikely.”

Fishing updates -- Salmon fisheries are popping open across the state but catches are barely registering so far. At Copper River, after four dismal fishing periods since mid-May, managers have officially called it a bust with low catches of sockeyes and kings at 69,000 and 4,000 respectively.

“Most likely our next fishing period for sockeye will be in May 2021,” said Bill Webber of Paradigm Seafoods as he headed west to “the only game in town” - the Prince William Sound gillnet fisheries.

Meanwhile, the reduced Copper River catch fetched record prices for its first delivery of salted sockeye salmon roe. A batch of 36 boxes (11 pounds per box) sold on June 6 for between $47.75 to $51.43 per pound at Sendai Market depending on grade, reported SeafoodNews.com. That’s 36% higher than last year.

“Under the coronavirus situation, I was prepared for zero arrival, but local packers, technicians, and workers have carried a big risk of life to process the salmon roe. The price is a celebration and appreciation for their work,” a Sendai spokesman said. “In the midst of coronavirus pandemic, the demand for salted salmon roe for home consumption has increased and the carryover inventory from the previous season has already sold out. The sales environment is not bad, and we can expect good sales once the quantity and price become stable,” he added with an eye towards Bristol Bay.

Elsewhere, Kodiak crabbers were still pulling up Dungeness crab although prices had reportedly dropped by more than a dollar from last year’s average of $2.65/lb. That had several crabbers selling Tanners direct from the docks at $10 a pop.

Southeast Alaska’s summer Dungeness fishery opens on June 15. Last year’s catch of 4.2 million pounds was the best in a decade for 200 permit holders and combined summer and fall openers set a record for fishermen at $16.3 million.

Norton Sound opens for red king crab on June 15 for a 150,000 pound fishery; more will be taken during the winter season. A 5,000 ton herring food and bait fishery also is underway through June near Shaktoolik at Norton Sound.

A ling cod fishery is ongoing in parts of Southeast and divers are still bringing up geoduck clams.

A spawn on kelp pound fishery at Craig and Klawok yielded nearly 600,000 pounds of product for 147 pounders, the highest ever numbers for both. They won’t know the value of the unique delicacy until the fall.

Halibut landings were approaching five million pounds out of a nearly 17 million pound catch limit with Homer, Sitka and Kodiak the top ports for deliveries. For sablefish, the catch was pushing 10 million pounds out of a 32 million pound quota. Sitka was way ahead of all other ports for landings followed by Kodiak and Cordova.

Out in the Bering Sea, the nation’s largest food fishery – Alaska pollock – reopened for the B season on June 10. Fishing for cod also reopened in the Bering Sea that same day.

Marine economy outpaces others - A first ever analysis has measured the economic force of the nation’s marine economy, including contributions from recreation, commercial fishing, shipbuilding, seaports, beachfront hotels and other activities dependent on the oceans.

A team from NOAA, the Department of Commerce and the Bureau of Economic Analysis looked at 10 business sectors that work on the nation’s oceans, coasts and Great Lakes between the years 2014 and 2018.

Their report shows that the marine-related gross domestic product grew 5.8% from 2017 to 2018, and outpaced growth of the overall national economy over the five years of the study. The “ocean economy” contributed nearly $373 billion to the nation’s GDP in 2018 and “blue” businesses supported 2.3 million jobs.

In announcing the report last week, NOAA said: “The statistics clarify just how dependent America is on our waters,” adding, “It is nearly impossible for most Americans to go a single day without eating, wearing or using products that come from or through our coastal communities.”

Tourism and recreation, including sportfishing, topped the list of GDP contributors at $143 billion, followed distantly by national defense and offshore minerals. Commercial fishing and aquaculture ranked fifth at $13 billion to the GDP. Power generation, and research and education contributed a paltry $4 billion and $3 billion, respectively.

Marine industries “poised for growth” include offshore wind energy, marine robotics, aquaculture and ocean pharmaceuticals, NOAA said.

Now, for the first time, the U.S. has ocean data that can be compared with statistics on other U.S. industries and with the ocean economies of other nations, a bureau spokesperson said, adding that “businesses, policymakers, and coastal communities can use the data as a compass as they chart the way forward.”

The current report ranks sectors making the largest contributions to the nation’s gross domestic product:

• Tourism and recreation, including recreational fishing ($143 billion)

• National defense and public administration ($124 billion)

• Offshore minerals ($49 billion)

• Transportation and warehousing ($25 billion)

• Living resources, including commercial fishing and aquaculture ($13 billion)

• Ship and boat building ($9 billion)

• Power generation ($4 billion)

• Research and education ($3 billion)

• Construction ($2.5 billion)

• Professional and technical services ($31 million)

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