Bering Sea crab and pollock stocks all appear to be on the upswing — good news for fishermen whose Alaska harvests are mainstays of the multibillion-dollar North Pacific seafood industry.
The improved outlook means some bigger harvests.
The Bristol Bay red king crab harvest that starts Wednesday has a catch limit that's 16 percent higher than in 2013. Other Bering Sea harvests unfolding in the months ahead for snow crab, blue king crab and tanner crab will have limits set from 26 percent to 480 percent higher than the previous seasons.
"These are some huge increases for us," said Mark Gleason, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, an industry group that represents much of the crab fleet. "We have a good fishery ahead of us."
The market outlook is more uncertain, however, with Russia also reaping big harvests of crab that pour into the U.S. and other countries that also buy Alaska crab, There also is plenty of other white fish around to compete with pollock, and that competition has pushed prices down substantially.
The crab and pollock stocks are assessed each year by biologists who conduct catch surveys across the fishing grounds. Their results shape estimates of the total tonnage of each species and help to determine the amounts that can be removed without overfishing.
The survey results can vary greatly from year to year, and that reflect changes in abundance but also may be influenced by the shifting distribution of a species. A survey net could come up empty one year in certain spot, and full next year as fish migrate into that area from other parts of the Bering Sea.
The biggest catch
For pollock, the nation's biggest seafood harvest by tonnage, preliminary survey results found stocks at the second-highest level since 1982, according to NOAA Fisheries, which conducts the fishery surveys.
The Bering Sea pollock is processed both at sea and on shore, and turned into fillets that end up as fish sandwiches, surimi paste used to make simulated seafood products, and many other products.
The pollock's abundance represents a big turnaround from 2009, when harvests were reduced by more than 40 percent over a two-year period after surveys indicated pollock were on the decline. Greenpeace activists said that federal fishery managers had not cut harvests far enough, and warned of a possible collapse of the largest fishery in North America.
Last year's pollock harvest was already set at a relatively high level, so the survey results are not expected to result in a big boost in the 2015 catch. But it is a good indicator that future harvests could remain strong.
The survey results also seem to reflect what fishermen are finding as they scoop up the pollock in trawl nets towed through the sea.
"All the way through the season, we had really good fish size and catches," said Bob Desautel, who owns five Seattle-based catcher boats that catch Bering Sea pollock for delivery to shore-side plants. Desautel said his crews also found large volumes of small fish that they avoided, so these stocks could mature for future harvests. The big disappointment was prices paid to the catcher boats for the summer season harvest. They were down about 20 percent compared to the prices paid back in 2010.
As for next year, "I would just say that I expect prices to remain depressed," Desautel said.
Four kinds of crabs
The crabbers who begin their harvest Wednesday set baited traps — known as pots — along the sea bottom. In a season that will stretch into the spring, they will haul in more than 90 million pounds of four different species.
Most of the catch will be snow crab. But the biggest harvest increase will be for tanner crab, which are larger than the snow crab and have a sweet meat that has gained a strong following in Asian markets.
"Historically, most of the tanner crab has gone to Japan. They have been willing to pay a price premium," said Gleason, the crabbers' association director.
The crab harvest will be hauled in by a fleet of 70 to 80 boats, each with portions of the overall quota that can be claimed over the course of the season. This is a big change from a decade ago when crews of a much larger crab fleet competed against one other for shares of the harvest, sometimes pushing the limits of safety.
The new catch share system was launched in 2005 amid fierce controversy, with critics saying that a public resource was vested into private hands amid a dramatic downsizing of the fleet.
Proponents say there have been many benefits, and fatalities at sea have plummeted.
"Crabbers are not dying from vessels capsizing or from falling overboard. They're dying of old age. And that's the way we want it," Gleason said.