After two lean years of Alaska Bering Sea pollock harvests, 2011 was supposed to be a return to normalcy with a quota set near the historic average at 1.25 million metric tons.
The season ended with a thud, though, as some 54,000 metric tons were left in the water following the “B” season that starts June 10 and ends Nov. 1. The shore-based catcher fleet reported difficulties finding the fish, poor catch rates and soaring encounters with both chinook and chum salmon bycatch as effort extended deeper into the fall.
The 2011 season was the first under new chinook salmon bycatch reduction measures, and while the pollock fleets finished well under the cap of 47,591, nearly 18,000 of about 25,000 chinooks were taken during the “B” season.
After taking between 13,000 and 46,000 chum salmon from 2008 to 2010, pollock boats caught about 180,000 chums in 2011.
Offshore catcher-processors represented by companies such as American Seafoods and Glacier Fish Co. offered far different fishing experiences in 2011 than the shore-based fleet, and reported few problems harvesting their allotments of the quota or with bycatch.
For instance, the Akutan catcher-vessel cooperative took 8,299 chinook salmon, or 77 percent of its bycatch allocation, while the catcher-processor cooperative ended up with 3,458 chinook, or 20 percent of its bycatch allocation. (Under the new chinook salmon measures, there is 100 percent observer coverage on all pollock vessels to ensure an accurate count.)
The pollock “A” season got under way Jan. 20 with a major emphasis on harvesting roe, or eggs, in late February when pollock typically prepare to spawn.
A second straight year of high pollock harvests hasn’t necessarily dampened prices for 2012. Pollock values for both fillet blocks and surimi are strengthening in the face of general shortages of whitefish in the market. Both Alaska and Russia left significant quantities of pollock uncaught last year, and large amounts of hake were left unharvested in Canada and the rest of the U.S. as well. This has led to shortages in many markets in Asia and Europe in the face of relatively strong demand.
Alaska pollock is one of the best understood fish stocks in the world, but by the end of last season, many skippers felt their fears had been confirmed about whether the scientists had raised the quota by too much, too fast after the harvest averaged about 831,000 metric tons in 2009 and 2010.
Some of those captains brought their concerns to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its December meeting in Anchorage and urged the members to take a conservative approach when setting the Bering Sea pollock harvest for 2012.
The council ultimately adopted a harvest of 1.2 million metric tons for 2012, some 50,000 fewer metric tons than 2011, and 20,000 metric tons less than the acceptable biological catch of 1.22 million metric tons.
Captains asking for fewer fish is a rare occurrence, a point that was driven home when Trident Seafoods — the largest seafood company operating in the state — also urged a lower quota of 1.08 million metric tons for 2012.
However, divides in opinion are anything but uncommon at the council and although the issue of pollock quota was no different, it did make for some strange bedfellows.
The captains were joined in their call for conservation by groups such as Oceana and Greenpeace, which have long sought to limit the pollock fishery to protect species such as Pacific salmon and Steller sea lions.
The four-member Pacific Northwest delegation, which typically votes as a block, was split evenly with Bill Tweit and John Henderschedt of Washington favoring a quota of 1.2 million metric tons while Dave Benson of Washington and Roy Hyder of Oregon sided with a quota of 1.08 million metric tons.
The six members of Alaska were also divided, coming down 4-2 in favor of the higher quota of 1.2 million metric tons.
Community Development Quota groups — six organizations representing 65 Western Alaska villages that receive 10 percent of the pollock harvest — were more unified with only Trident’s partner Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association supporting a lower harvest.
And the basis for advocating for either a harvest of 1.08 million metric tons or one of 1.2 million metric tons itself ultimately boiled down to a split in the opinion of the scientists who assess the status of Alaska pollock stocks.
Stock assessment author Jim Ianelli suggested classifying the 2008 age class of pollock as “average” rather than “above average” in the model used to estimate total biomass. (Pollock reach spawning maturity at age 3 to age 4.)
The Groundfish Plan Team and Scientific and Statistical Committee, the latter of which makes the official catch recommendations to the council, considered Ianelli’s suggestion but ultimately decided to continue classifying the 2008 class as above average based on three years of survey data measuring that age group.
Ianelli’s recommendation was based on a number of factors including interviews with skippers about fishing conditions in 2011, but heavy dependence on a single-year age class for the 2012 harvest was among the top reasons.
The 2011 quota relied upon the 2006 class for 50 percent of the harvest, an all-time record, and the 2012 quota will depend upon the 2008 age class for 37 percent of the harvest.
Ianelli noted in his assessment that strong age classes — as the 2006 and 2008 years are believed to be — have a tendency toward overestimation in the first few years they are surveyed.
But as Stephanie Madsen of At-Sea Processors noted after the meeting, the quota adopted by the council is a conservative approach with less than half of the overfishing limit of 2.47 million metric tons allowed to be taken in 2012.
“I think there’s a big difference between resource concerns and poor fishing conditions,” she said.
In the history of the Bering Sea pollock fishery dating back to the late 1960s when the pollock biomass exploded following a period of heavy whaling and Russian fleets mining out long-life groundfish species, there have been instances of overfishing based on heavy reliance on a few age classes.
The “donut hole” in international waters between Russia and the U.S., the area around Bogoslof Island west of Unalaska, and the Shelikof Strait between Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula were all once productive pollock fishing grounds that eventually crashed because of heavy fishing on a few age classes.
While there are certainly concerns among large sectors of the pollock industry about whether the scientists are right, Bering Sea pollock is not considered to be overfished or approaching an overfished condition.
And with all sectors reporting strong fishing during the “A” season during 2011, it may be until mid-summer before those worries are either eased or escalated.
If sketchy fishing continues in 2012 and more fish are left in the water after spending thousands of gallons of fuel trying to track them down, expect to see a few more skippers at the next council meeting when quotas are set for 2013.
Council member Benson of Washington has already decided whose opinions he’ll rely on if it comes to that.
“The Plan Team is relying on the model,” Benson said at the December council meeting. “Models have been wrong. All we have to do is look at halibut right now. My point is, information from fishermen who are out there day after day has value, and there’s no model built that can replace that knowledge and input. That’s why I prefer (Ianelli’s) recommendation, because he chose to go beat the bushes to get the answers for what the hell happened in the ‘B’ season.”