Alaska News

Laine Welch: Winter is Alaska's real fishing season

Salmon will always be the heart of Alaska's fisheries, and that's why most people think of summer as the fishing season. But that's not the case.

The heart of winter is when Alaska's largest fisheries get underway each year.

On Jan. 1, hundreds of boats with hook and line gear or pots begin plying the waters of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska for Pacific cod, rockfish and other groundfish. Then on Jan. 20 trawlers take to the seas to target Alaska pollock, the world's largest food fishery with annual harvests topping 3 billion pounds.

Crab boats will soon be out on the Bering Sea for snow crab, Alaska's largest crab fishery. Early March sees the start of the eight month long halibut and sablefish (black cod) seasons. March also marks the beginning of Alaska's roe herring circuit, usually at Sitka Sound, and those fisheries will continue for several months all the way up the coast to Norton Sound.

And although wild Alaska king salmon is available from Southeast trollers for all but two weeks of the year, mid-May is considered the "official" start of Alaska's salmon season, when the runs of kings and reds return home to the Copper River.

Salmon fisheries take center stage all summer and into the fall -- that means one of Alaska's highlights: red king crab at Bristol Bay in mid-October -- and so it goes through the end and start of each and every year. In all, more than 5 billion pounds of fish and shellfish crosses Alaska's docks each year and the industry puts more people to work than oil/gas, mining, timber and tourism combined.

Fish watch

Here are the 2015 catches for important groundfish species set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and the percentage of change from this year (courtesy of Deckboss):


Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands -- Pollock, 1.3 million tons, up 3.4 percent; Pacific cod, 250,000 tons, down 1.8 percent; yellowfin sole, 149,000 tons, down 19 percent; Atka mackerel, 54,500 tons, up 68.6 percent; Pacific Ocean perch, 32,000 tons, down 3.3 percent; sablefish, 3,135 tons, down 0.5 percent.

Gulf of Alaska -- Pollock, 199,151 tons, up 13.8 percent; Pacific cod, 75,202 tons, up 16.2 percent; Pacific Ocean perch, 21,012 tons, up 8.8 percent; sablefish, 10,522 tons, down 0.5 percent.

Crabbers in Southeast Alaska had their best Dungeness crab fishery ever in terms of both catch and value. The combined summer and fall harvest topped 5 million pounds, well above the 10-year average of 3.78 million pounds. The 137 participants in the fishery enjoyed an average price of nearly $3 a pound (compared to $2.49 last year), making the Dungie fishery worth $15 million at the Southeast docks.

Seafood traditions

For centuries seafood has taken a special place on holiday tables all over the world served up with meaning.

One of the oldest traditions stemming back to Roman times is the Feast of Seven Fishes, celebrated by Italian Catholics on Christmas Eve. The number seven is considered the perfect number in the Bible, and the feast symbolized the end of a monthlong fast from eating meat or dairy products during Advent. One of the most popular of the seven dishes eaten is bacalào or salted codfish, along with fried fish such as smelt and calamari.

Eating lutefisk is a Christmas tradition in Norway and Sweden that goes back to the days of the Vikings and is even more popular among Scandinavian Americans. It is made from dried white fish, usually cod, that is prepared with lye in a long series of water treatments until the fish becomes jelly-like.

Or as Garrison Keillor wrote in Lake Woebegone Days: "Each Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark."

Elsewhere, in Japan the consumption of prawns on New Year's is to ensure long life, and herring roe is for fertility. Feasting on pickled herring at midnight in Germany and Poland is done in hopes of bringing in a bountiful catch. And in China a fish is served whole, symbolizing a good beginning and end in the coming year.

One seafood that isn't so popular in the holiday celebrations is lobster -- because it swims backward.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail

Laine Welch

Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at