Business/Economy

North Pacific Fishery Management Council sets 2022 catch limits

Fisheries are driven by numbers, and there will be more ups than downs in 2022 catches for Alaska fishermen based on poundages set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The NPFMC is a federal advisory panel that has the herculean task of managing six fishery management plans (FMPs) covering 140-plus species within 47 stocks and stock complexes, including setting annual bycatch limits. Their jurisdiction includes waters from 3 to 200 miles offshore, where more than 60% of Alaska’s fish catches by volume are harvested.

A .78 share of the value of those fisheries goes to nonresidents, nearly all from Washington state.

Seattle is home port to nearly 300 fishing vessels and all but 74 make their living in Alaska.

Back to the numbers for some hallmark species:

For Pacific cod in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, the catch for next year was increased by 20% to just over 330.5 million pounds.

Cod catches in federal waters of the Gulf of Alaska was increased by nearly 40% to 54 million pounds.

Also getting huge hikes is the so called “head and gut” fleet of 19 Seattle-based bottom trawlers that have been making headlines for their annual takes/tossings of more than 4 million pounds of halibut bycatch (which comes off the top of all other users). The big boats, which include seven owned by Western Alaska Native groups, target flounders, cod, perch and Atka mackerel. All but one were upped by 20% or more. Their most important catch, yellowfin sole, was increased 25% to 550 million pounds.

Pollock catches in the Gulf of Alaska were increased to nearly 310.5 million pounds, a nearly 26% boost.

On the downside, the world’s largest food fishery – Bering Sea pollock – will be reduced by 19% next year to 2.4 billion pounds.

All combined, Alaska’s state/federal fisheries produce two-thirds of the U.S. seafood harvest and Alaska is home to nine of the top 20 U.S. fishing ports by value. If it were a country, Alaska would rank 8th for wild harvests on a global scale.

The 2022 catches must be approved by the U.S. Commerce Department which almost always rubber stamps the NPFMC recommendations.

Fishermen enhance science - Over 100 Alaska fishermen signed on for a Skipper Science program that lets them share what they know and see out on the water. The pilot program started in June and uses a free phone app for logging real time observations.

“Basically, it worked and fishermen are very well equipped to be a big part of the science and the research going on so we can better understand and manage our fisheries,” said Lindsey Bloom, director of SalmonState’s Salmon Habitat Information Program (SHIP), which partnered with the St. Paul Island tribal government to run the “citizen scientist” project.

The app is an offshoot of an Indigenous Sentinels Network started nearly 20 years ago at St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs to monitor wildlife and environmental conditions in the Bering Sea.

“There is a vast body of deep knowledge that fishermen hold from their experiences on the water, indigenous and non-indigenous fishermen alike, that they’re using for decision-making and risk evaluation. And we have very much underutilized that knowledge for years and years, especially here in the North Pacific,” said Lauren Divine, Director of Ecosystem Conservation for St. Paul’s tribal government at the launch of the Skipper Science program.

A results report showed that nearly 1,700 fishermen also shared their views on ways a changing climate is affecting Alaska’s waters and habitats. Sixty-one percent said they are very or somewhat concerned about impacts to fisheries.

“There’s not a fisherman out on the water who has not experienced abruptly changing conditions as a result of a changing climate,” Bloom said. “We have consistently heard that in terms of what people are feeling are the threats to their businesses and bottom lines -- climate is in the top two or three.” Nineteen diverse industry members, processors and fishing groups sponsored the science project and helped get the word out, and Bloom said it has support from fishery managers.

“Absolutely. We were strongly encouraged and supported by staff at NOAA and they are pretty enthusiastic about this, and hopefully at the state level as well,” she said.

Bloom is hopeful that fishermen might eventually get paid to collect and provide data.

“I think there are incredible efficiencies to be gained. When you have all these small boats out on the water day in and day out, why not use them to measure and report on what’s happening,” she said.

Divine added that local knowledge and experiences enhance the science provided by drones, satellites, ships and other high tech devices.

“Fishermen’s input gets lost in the process and they don’t have the clout like large companies to influence decision-making,” she said. “This is a real actionable way to gather the best science, using local and traditional knowledge that provides context for all of those numbers and data and tells a story to make the case for responsible and sustainable fishery management policies.”

Fish the Skipper Science report and sign on for next year at skipperscience.org.

Lights save salmon - Low cost LED lights can help chinook salmon escape trawl nets. A 2020 study by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center showed that LEDs are very effective in directing chinook salmon to escape windows in trawl nets targeting Pacific hake, the largest groundfish fishery on the West Coast. which typically produces over 500 million pounds a year. The study showed that chinook salmon are much more likely to exit the nets where lights are placed — 86 percent of escaped salmon used the LED-framed openings without losing the targeted catch. “Our data and video observations indicate that at deeper, darker depths where trawl nets go, light from the LEDs are enhancing the salmon’s ability to perceive the escape areas and the areas outside the nets,” said Mark Lomeli, lead researcher at the PSMFC.

Lomeli added that the lights have also proven effective at reducing bycatch of eulachon (Pacific smelt) and juvenile rockfish and flatfish in the shrimp trawl fishery off Oregon. “We also think the LEDs could be used in other fisheries — for example, in the pollock midwater trawl fishery in Alaska — to reduce chinook salmon bycatch,” Lomeli added in a NOAA release about the project. “Many fishermen are aware of this technology and use it if they think chinook bycatch will be an issue. It’s easy to use, relatively cheap, and widely available. You can easily clip the lights to the webbing of the net around the escape openings. With these research results in hand, the lights are on the shelf for them when they need them. We think these LEDs are low-hanging fruit for contributing to the recovery of this species and can also play an important role in the stability of this fishery.” Lomeli said.

This video shows chinook quickly escaping a trawl net in the hake fishery.

Laine Welch | Fish Factor

Kodiak-based Laine Welch writes Fish Factor, a weekly roundup of news and opinion about Alaska's commercial fishing industry that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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