Alaska coastal communities will get a bit of an economic boost in 2021 from increased catches of Pacific cod.
The stock, which crashed after a multiyear heat wave starting in 2014 wiped out several year classes, appears to be rebounding throughout the Gulf of Alaska.
No cod fishery occurred at all this year in federally managed waters (from 3 to 200 miles out) where the bulk of the harvest is taken, and a catch of under 6 million pounds was allowed in state managed waters (out to 3 miles).
For 2021, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council set the federal cod catch at just over 38 million pounds and nearly 11.7 million pounds for the state. While it’s a bump up, managers caution that the stock remains very low.
“The state waters GHLs (guideline harvest levels) have gone up about two and half times since last year. While it’s good, we are still at a very low level of abundance, so that should be kept in mind,” said Nat Nichols, area groundfish manager for the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game at Kodiak.
“The model for at least the last year or two have predicted that 2020 would be the low point in abundance and then, based on assumptions of average natural mortality and average recruitment, the stock would begin rebounding beginning in 2021. The model and other indices are still seeing rebounds in cod numbers, not large dramatic rebounds, but steady incremental growth, which is good,” he added.
One reason cod numbers have ticked up, Nichols said, is because of the fishery reductions this year.
“Just by the function of leaving many, many thousands of tons of cod in the water you get more cod in the assessment,” he said.
The cod fishery in state waters is carved up based on the federal harvest guidelines for five regions: Kodiak, Cook Inlet, Chignik, Prince William Sound and the South Alaska Peninsula. That’s then broken up into shares for different fishing gears.
“For the most part, it’s pot and jig gear with pot gear generally taking more. The one exception is Prince William Sound where they have a longline fishery,” Nichols said, adding that each fishery has opening dates ranging from Jan. 1 into March.
Due to the COVID pandemic, fishery managers are making efforts to streamline the process of registering for the cod fishery. Nichols encourages fishermen to contact the Kodiak Fish and Game office with any questions. (907-486-1840)
More fishing updates for 2021 - In the Bering Sea, Pacific cod catches took a 21 percent cut to 245 million pounds. Likewise, the Bering Sea pollock catch for next year was reduced by 3.5% to 3 billion pounds. Gulf pollock catches were cut by 2.4% to about 250 million pounds.
Other forecasts call for Southeast Alaska’s pink salmon harvest next summer to be “average” at 28 million fish. Kodiak’s pink catch is pegged at a strong 22.5 million and an “excellent” catch of nearly 13 million humpies is projected at the South Alaska Peninsula.
Alaska’s largest herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay is projected to produce a harvest of 47,348 tons, the highest since 1993. The fish are valued for their roe and it remains to be seen if there will be any buyers, as the product goes to a single market, Japan, where low interest has seen prices plummet to as little as $50 per ton.
Meanwhile, trollers at Southeast Alaska are still out on the water pulling up Chinook salmon. Beam trawl and pot shrimping continues at the Panhandle, along with diving for sea cucumbers (1.7 million pounds) and geoduck clams.
Crabbing continues in the Bering Sea for golden kings and Tanners. Red king crab is about a wrap and fishing for snow crab will get underway next month.
More trade troubles - More trade inequities will bite into Alaska salmon, crab and other seafood in the coming year. That’s alongside the ongoing 38 percent average tariff paid for most U.S. seafood exported to China.
The newest hit is a 25 to 35 percent tariff imposed last month on $4 billion of U.S. goods, including salmon, that goes to the 27 countries that comprise the European Union. The dispute stems from a spat over U.S. subsidies being paid to Boeing and competing European AirBus aircraft.
“It is going to have an effect on our ability to get wild salmon into the European Union. With that kind of tariff, it’s going to make it pretty darn tough,” said Allen Kimball, head of global and domestic sales for Trident Seafoods.
In 2019, Alaska exported over $30.4 million in frozen salmon fillets to the EU, said Dan Lesh, fisheries economist with the McKinley Research Group.
“Of that, $13.2 million went to the United Kingdom, which is withdrawing from the European Union and announced it will not include the punitive tariff,” Lesh said.
“Smoked salmon exports also are subject to the additional tariff, but that is a minor export product to the EU27 - $341,000 in 2019, he added. “Those are the only two Alaska seafood products subject to additional tariffs under this Boeing/AirBus dispute.”
Also, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced that its food embargo on U.S. goods will be extended through 2021, according to the Moscow Times.
Russia stopped buying all foods from the U.S. and many other countries in 2014 over protests to its invasion of Ukraine. Since then, U.S. purchases of Russian seafood have continued to grow.
In 2019, Russia exported over 80 million pounds of seafood to the U.S. valued at nearly $700 million. Undercurrent News reports that is a 7.4% increase in volume and a nearly 20% increase in value over 2018. Most of the seafood is Russian-caught red king crab, snow crab and sockeye salmon.
According to U.S. trade data, so far this year Russia has sent 1.3 million pounds of frozen red king crab to the U.S. valued at $268 million, 3.7 million pounds of frozen snow crab valued at over $282 million and over one million pounds of sockeye salmon worth $3.4 million. All of the products enter the U.S. nearly duty free.
Meanwhile, SeafoodNews.com reports that Russian crabbers are upping the ante claiming they plan to catch almost 220 million pounds of mostly king and snow crab in 2021. By comparison, Alaska’s Bering Sea catch for golden and red king crab, Tanners and snow crab for the 2020/21 season totals under 50 million pounds.
Fish give-backs – American Seafoods since 1997 has donated nearly $2 million to over 100 Western Alaska communities to “make sure they benefit from the industry in their backyard.”
The company maintains a fleet of six vessels that fish primarily for Alaska pollock in the Bering Sea and hake in the North Pacific.
“It started because we recognize that our livelihoods and what the company is trying to do is really based on cooperation from the local Alaska communities. And this is about us supporting those communities that are helping us do what we do,” said Margery Schelling, vice president of marketing, strategy and innovation.
“It can be for food and fresh produce for shelter residents, safety equipment, or starting a food bank. We did a supportive pet companion program for senior citizens and individuals living with disabilities, even playground equipment. It’s really a grassroots program across Western Alaska supporting the needs of the community, as are recommended by the community,” Shelling explained.
Calls for donations go out twice a year that each total $45,000.
“As responsible citizens, supporting the well-being of Alaskan communities is a way of giving back. It’s as simple as that,” said American Seafoods president Inge Andreassen.
Another company, Alaskan Leader Fisheries, since 2009 has granted nearly $600,000 to nonprofit groups in Kodiak and Bristol Bay through its foundation. The company was founded in 2000 by six Kodiak fishing families who operate four freezer longliners, and was joined by the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. in 2007.
Grant recipients have included schools and educational programs, food banks, shelters, libraries, youth sports programs, museums, and recycling efforts.
“Our most important resource in rural Alaska is our people,” said Robin Samuelsen, CEO of BBEDC. “Many community efforts to provide the best possible opportunities for our families require financial support that is often difficult to find. These Alaskan Leader Foundation grants help provide the hope and community interaction necessary in facing the challenge of life in rural Alaska.”
Closer to shore, Sitka-based Alaskans Own has distributed over 533,000 donated seafood meals (302,000 pounds) to more than 100,000 needy families throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest this year and plans to continue doing so.
The donation program, an offshoot of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, was initially launched in March to address the sharp rise in food insecurity among local families due to the Covid pandemic. The need was increased when dismal salmon runs to many regions left family freezers empty.
“We honestly didn’t intend to create a seafood donation program this year,” said Alaskans Own founder and ALFA director, Linda Behnken. “It just organically happened when we realized that many of our neighbors were struggling to feed their families nutritious protein and our local fishermen were struggling to get a fair price for their catch due to COVID-19.”
The mix of frozen/portioned salmon, halibut, rockfish and more is donated by too many fishermen, processors, and suppliers to mention. Ditto the number of individuals, businesses and community partners who stepped up to assist with distribution logistics, including the Chignik Intertribal Coalition and the Armed Services YMCA of Alaska.
Alaskans Own is continuing its donations into 2021 and hopes to expand to more Alaskan communities. To help sustain the program, it’s offering a special Holiday Gift Box featuring a variety of local Sitka products. Check it out at www.alaskansown.com.