The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Wolfgang Kurtz
LOG Editor 

Seward tops commercial fisheries

 

Wolfgang Kurtz | The Seward Phoenix LOG

With the departure of the Paragon, Homer-based fishing boat Silver Beach slips into an opening at Resurrection Bay Seafoods to offload a hold full of salmon. Traffic has been increasing as fishing vessels have been lining up at the three fish processing plants in the Seward area. With the start of the salmon harvest, heavy trade in halibut and black cod will start to slack off for awhile as vessels focus on that shorter season.

While Homer, Kodiak and Seward continue to compete for the top spot in commercial halibut landings this year, Seward has taken a big lead when sablefish is added into the mix. Commercial fishing vessels, called longliners, make waves for one of the three seaports when they've caught a full load, a round trip usually taking around a week. Between halibut and sablefish, commonly called black cod, Seward has more pounds of fish landed so far this season than Homer and Kodiak combined.

The Area 3A commercial halibut fishery started March 8 with a total harvest limit of 9.43 million pounds. Area 3A includes a big chunk of the northern Gulf of Alaska, stretching from the southwest tip of Kodiak Island east to Yakutat. Part of the halibut harvest limit, 1.78 million pounds, is set aside for the guided sport fishery which includes charters. Of the 7.3 million pound limit for commercial fisheries, 56 percent has already been caught.

According to Kit Durnil, general manager at Resurrection Bay Seafoods, fishing boats leaving Seward haven't really been dedicating trips to halibut, aiming for black cod instead. That kind of effort has moved the commercial fleet to 78 percent of the black cod limit in the Western Yakutat management area and to 68 percent of the catch limit in the Central Gulf. He says that, if momentum continues and quota limits for black cod and halibut are reached early in the season, he'll be looking at creative ways to stay fully occupied throughout the summer.

Regulatory bodies and agencies such as the International Pacific Halibut Commission define halibut catch limits and management areas. The IPHC, which generally holds sway over the species, also pays close attention to recommendations by the U.S. North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The IPHC and the NPFMC dictated a cut in the catch limit this year of almost a third and the prospect of less halibut available to markets has kept prices firm near last year's levels.

Durnil says that quota cuts include cuts in vessel caps, which are set to a maximum of 79,000 pounds of fish per boat over the season. He said that translates into a need to capture landings from a third more vessels to make up the difference. His season already got off to a slow start because the facility's docking area had to be dredged after last fall's flooding dumped gravel across the bottom of Resurrection Bay, making the water too shallow for vessels to approach. Another unmanageable Lowell Creek flooding episode this fall could cut the season short at the other end.

Rhonda Hubbard at J & R Fisheries told The LOG that there hasn't been much play in prices on the wholesale or retail side of the business. Durnil also notes that the extra effort to get the catch in early is pumping up availability, alleviating any initial pressure on wholesale markets. He says that poor fishing conditions caught boat operators by surprise during the last few weeks of the season in 2013 and they're getting ahead on the limit as a matter of prudence.

However, with the halibut season deadline of Nov. 9, the focus of many commercial operators will shift to salmon for the next few months. Copper River red salmon are now landing in Seward in quantity and the revenues from the largely hatchery spawned harvest, after being discounted by a Prince William Sound Aquaculture fee, are helping the bottom line of commercial vessels. The PWSAC hatcheries are also processing their cost recovery allotment of Copper River salmon through a Seward fish processor.

With only three months down and well over half of the catch limit for halibut and black cod already reached, there's little question that commercial quotas in Alaskan waters will be reached before the end of the season with Seward reaping a top 3 share among Alaskan ports. The big question is whether the season's catch will be enough to tide the market over until next March without prices hikes. Meanwhile, over the upcoming winter, agencies and competing user groups will continue to work toward a more equitable, or agreeable system for dividing up a resource already spread thin.

 

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