Fishermen had mixed year

Alaska fishermen had a mixed year in 2017, with prices up but product down in some crab fisheries, quota up but prices down in the halibut fishery, prices and catches up in the sablefish fishery, and most salmon fisheries seeing large catches.

The year’s first red king crab fishery, which takes place in Norton Sound through the sea ice, had a quota of 40,000 pounds, and paid a record $7.75 per pound.

The January opilio (snow) crab quota was down nearly 50 percent, at 21.97 million pounds. The drop in quota pushed the price to $8.30 per pound at the wholesale level in both the U.S. and Japan, up 50 percent.

That is despite Alaska providing only 10 percent of the global opilio supply, with the rest coming from eastern Canada and Russia.

There was a limited bairdi Tanner crab fishery in the Bering Sea this fall after being closed last year. The total allowable catch was 2.5 million pounds.

This fall’s Bristol Bay red king crab quota was 6.6 million pounds, down 22 percent, with fishing relatively slow but the crab large. Price negotiations have not been finalized yet, but last year fishermen were paid $10.89 per pound.

The halibut quota for Alaska was 22.62 million pounds, up 1.17 million pounds, most of that in Southeast, Area 2C, and the Central Gulf of Alaska, Area 3A, and Western Gulf of Alaska, Area 3B. Prices started in the $6-$7 per pound range, compared with as much as $7.25 per pound last year.

They held fairly steady until fall, when some buyers pulled out of Homer, dropping the price well below $5 per pound.

The sablefish quota was 22.6 million pounds, up from 17.9 million pounds. Two point six million pounds remained in the water, mainly in the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea.

However, the price was up 50 percent from last season, making the total fishery worth $97 million, with an average price of $4.84 per pound.

Salmon was the big winner for some areas, most notably the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery which saw a near-record return and the best price since the early 1990s.

The season started with a forecast of 40 million sockeye, although the run came in 42 percent above forecast and the harvest of 37.7 million fish was 37 percent above forecast, the second-largest on record.

The big buyers settled on a base price of $1.00 per pound, but most boats get a 10 cent per pound bonus for chilled fish.

The forecast for next year is a total run of 51 million.

Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishermen once again endured a below-average season, at least in terms of sockeye salmon, in spite of exceeding run forecasts.

The total run of sockeyes, which includes commercial, sport, personal use, subsistence, educational harvests and escapement, came in at approximately 4.6 million fish, 14 percent above forecast, with the main driver of the run, the Kenai River, coming in 700,000 above forecast.

However, the commercial harvest of 1.8 million sockeye was 18 percent below the 10-year average and the smallest harvest in the past 10 years.

The price for sockeye varied between processors and across the season, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates the average ex-vessel price to have been $1.86 per pound, for a value of $19.6 million.

Prince William Sound had a decent year, with a harvest of 48.73 million pink, 1.43 million sockeye, 5.42 million chum, 554,000 coho, and 13,600 Chinook salmon.

That compares to last season’s harvest of 19.1 million fish, with a disastrous total of 13.3 million pinks.

The estimated value of the combined commercial salmon harvest, including hatchery sales, was approximately $127.98 million.

Lower Cook Inlet had a decent salmon season, with a total harvest of 2.5 million fish; of those, 1.9 million were pinks.

That compares to a 2016 harvest of 434,311 salmon total, including 97,144 pinks.

The estimated ex-vessel value of the 2017 common property harvest of approximately $4.5 million was above the previous 10-year average annual ex-vessel value of $2.3 million.

The preliminary 2017 hatchery cost recovery ex-vessel value of $1.5 million was above the previous 10-year average of $1.2 million.

The Sitka Sound herring fishery rounded up 13,923 tons of herring with an average roe contend of 11.3 percent on average. That compares to 10,056 tons last season with an average roe content of 10.7 percent.

Prices were up as well, with a total ex-vessel value of $4.29 million, compared to $2.2 million in 2016.

The Togiak herring fishery saw increased participation, with 19 seiners, up from 17 in 2016, and 15 gillnetters, up from three last season.

The quota for seiners was down to 16,085 tons, from 20,148 tons in 2016, but the harvest was up slightly at 15,975 tons compared to 15,171 in 2016, when the fishery was cut short because of the harvest of too many fish age 6 and younger.

In spite of all the extra effort, gillnetters caught only a fraction of their 6,883 ton quota, hauling in only 1,428 tons. Bad weather played a significant role in the harvest.

Things are looking grim for next season for some fisheries, with significant cuts expected to be made to the halibut fishery, and an 80 percent cut to the Gulf of Alaska cod quota already announced.

The Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery is expected to be well below the 20-year average, but up slightly from this season.

The opilio crab quota is down again to 18.9 million pounds.

Togiak herring is expected to be up, with 16,829 tons for seiners and 7,212 tons for gillnetters.

Forecasts are not out yet for Prince William Sound salmon or Sitka herring.

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.

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