The pollock resource in the Bering Sea is doing very well, according to fishing industry officials and government scientists.
A small increase in the huge pollock quota was approved last week by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Anchorage.
The quota for 2014 is 1.267 million metric tons, an increase of about 20,000 metric tons, for the industrial fishery pursued by boats delivering onshore in Unalaska and Akutan and the Aleutians East Borough, and factory trawlers and motherships that process and freeze the pollock out at sea.
"If the pollock are schooled up, they should have no problem catching it," said Ed Richardson, economist for the At-Sea Processors Association, representing Bering Sea factory trawlers.
Schooled-up, or concentrated, pollock have been the case in the past two years, Richardson said. The pollock catch rates in 2012 and 2013 were the highest ever recorded in the fishery's history, he said.
The groundfish's performance in organizing themselves for the maximum convenience of the trawlers is a big change from the B season in August 2011, when they bedeviled fishermen in what Richardson called the "great pollock dispersal." However, the fleet eventually managed to catch more than 99 percent of the pollock, although it took longer, and some boats tied up for a few weeks until conditions improved. The pollock quota has been on the rise since 2010, Richardson said. Larger quotas were seen in the early 2000s, in the 1.4 million metric ton range, he said.
Richardson and federal fisheries scientist Mike Sigler both said that pollock born in 2008 are an extremely strong year class, of good size and population. Richardson said fishing boat captains know when the fish are looking good with just a quick glance, reporting "good fish" on vessel radios.
"Conditions look good for the pollock population," Sigler said.
Arctic Storm factory trawler lobbyist Donna Parker reported "absolutely fabulous" pollock fishing this year. "The catch rates are the highest we've ever seen," she told the council. That's good news for local governments that depend on fish taxes, the industry, and community development quota groups. "It will benefit everybody along the coast," she said.
Sigler said that when pollock populations reach extremely high levels, the result is cannibalism, not only with the big fish eating the little fish, but the stronger pollock consuming slower-swimming family members.
The pollock 'playground' is a vicious environment, Sigler said.
"You don't get beaten up on the playground, you get eaten up on the playground," Sigler said.
Sigler also reported that the Aleutian Island pollock are in very good condition.
The Aleutian Islands pollock quota of 19 million metric tons is owned by The Aleut Corp., but once again the fish will go unharvested because of restrictions aimed at protecting the endangered Steller sea lion.
Aleut Corp. lobbyist Clem Tillion said the allocation was given to the regional Native corporation to help develop the former naval air station into a civilian community. Tillion said he still hopes the restrictions will be relaxed, with pollock fishing perhaps starting in 2015. Pollock profits should go for repairs to harbor facilities, both the wood and concrete docks, he said.
Despite the ongoing pollock closure, Tillion was upbeat about Adak's commercial fishing economy, especially since new owners have taken over the former Icicle Seafoods cod plant.
"Everything's looking bright again," Tillion said. The processing plant is ramping up for cod fishing in January, and a large supply of refrigerated container vans have arrived on the island to transport the frozen fish, and more are on the way from Seattle via Samson Tug and Barge, he said.
Tillion said the cod plant is financed with $30 million from the new owners' sale of the Leader Creek salmon processor in Bristol Bay, which also funded a new hotel in the Ballard section of Seattle.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.