Trio of Alaska ports lead nation in fish landings

Once again, Alaska claimed the top three fishing ports for landings last year.

"The Alaska port of Dutch Harbor continued to lead the nation with the most seafood landings – 761.8 million pounds, 87 percent of which was walleye pollock," said Dr. Richard Merrick in announcing the national rankings in the annual Fisheries of the U.S. report for 2014.

It's the 18th year in a row that Dutch Harbor has claimed the top spot for fish landings. Kodiak ranked second and the Aleutian Islands were third, thanks to Trident's plant at Akutan, the nation's largest seafood processing facility. In all, 13 Alaska communities made the top 50 list for landings: Alaska Peninsula (8), Naknek (10), Sitka (14), Ketchikan (15), Cordova (16), Petersburg (20), Bristol Bay (23), Seward (27), Kenai (34) and Juneau (45).

In terms of the value of all that seafood, Dutch Harbor was second at $191 million, coming in behind New Bedford, Massachusetts, for the 15th consecutive year. The relatively small 140 million pound catch at that New England port was worth nearly $330 million at the docks, due to the pricey Atlantic scallop fishery, with prices ranging from $12.50 to $14 a pound, according to the Portland (Maine) Press Herald.

Other highlights:

• Alaska led all states in total seafood landings of 5.7 billion pounds, valued at $1.7 billion.

• Alaska accounted for nearly 95 percent of all salmon landings, with West Coast states making up the rest.

• The Pacific halibut fishery accounted for all but 101,000 pounds of the 23.2 million pounds of domestic halibut landings last year. Average price to fishermen was $4.94 a pound, compared to $3.89 the previous year.

• Alaska has 150 processing plants employing nearly 11,000 people.

• Nearly half the world's seafood consumption comes from aquaculture; the U.S. ranks 14th in production.

• Americans ate 14.6 pounds of fish and shellfish last year, pretty much unchanged from the past several years.

The NOAA report also includes U.S. recreational marine fishing data and more.

Trawlers turn to pot

One of the tools being talked about to help trawlers reduce salmon and halibut bycatch is the opportunity to voluntarily convert to pot gear to catch Pacific cod. It's an option being discussed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council as it crafts a trawl bycatch reduction plan for the Gulf of Alaska.

"What the council is trying to do is give the fleet tools to fish in a way that is going to get less bycatch and thus keep the fisheries open longer, because the amount of bycatch that is taken can constrain a fishery," said Sam Cunningham, a council economist. "If you're not in a race for fish, one strategy would be to use pot gear instead of trawl gear."

Currently, if the Gulf trawl fleet takes 7,500 king salmon, or 3.8 million pounds of halibut, fisheries for cod, flounder and other groundfish are closed.

Cod is the only groundfish species included because it can be taken with both trawl and pot gear. Crafting protections and catch-accounting methods to ensure trawl converts would not infringe on catches designated to other gear types is a focus of the council, according to Cunningham.

"The trawl, hook and line, pot and jig sectors all have specific P-cod allocations," he said, "and we want to maintain that."

There are about 20 trawl catcher/processors and 70 catcher vessels operating in the Gulf of Alaska, many of them based in Kodiak, Sand Point and King Cove.

Calling all DGPS users

Mariners have until Nov. 16 to comment on plans to pull the plug on a GPS signal still counted on by many tugs, barges, ferries and fishing boats. Claiming declining usage, the federal government intends to shut down 62 Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) sites across the country on Jan. 15, leaving 22 sites available to users in coastal areas. Alaska has 15 sites, with six scheduled to close.

The system was brought on line in 1999 to supplement satellite-based GPS by providing better accuracy using land-based reference stations to transmit correction messages over radio-beacon frequencies.

"What we've discovered is that the technology for GPS satellites and receivers has increased so much, the need to have so many signals really isn't there anymore," said Petty Officer John Gallagher, who serves aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Spar, based in Kodiak. "A Federal Aviation Administration study in 2014 showed that GPS, without the differential antenna signal, achieved accuracy-of-position of less than 1 meter in most cases."

Lt. Commander Doug Jannusch, captain of the Spar, agreed. "We're out there in the Aleutians with our ship-positioning buoys, (seeing) very high accuracy not using differential antennas. If it's good enough for us, it's also sufficient for people to safely navigate waterways."

Others argue that's fine for open seas, but operating in harbors, fjords and other tight spots block the line of sight. Nearly all of the 36 comments posted so far on the Department of Transportation website expressed concerns about decommissioning.

"Our daily operation requires an accurate DGPS signal for position making in the narrow waterways of Southeast Alaska. This is especially important during times of inclement weather when standard piloting methods and RADAR become limited," wrote Wayne Carnes, captain of the High Speed Craft Fairweather. "My ship travels at 36 knots while carrying 250 passengers and 40 vehicles — so an accurate position is critical."

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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