Southeast Alaska’s fisheries are faring a lot like the weather and economy — which is to say wildly volatile — with catches of many species seeing spectacular or dismal results the past two years, due primarily to climate impacts and the COVID-19 pandemic, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday as the agency released two key annual reports.
Which is hardly news to Juneau and other Southeast Alaska communities, where trying to grasp the overall situation means somehow reconciling recent regional headlines like “Alaska commercial salmon harvest four times higher than last year” and “nearly $132 million allocated for Alaska fishery disasters.”
Or the preliminary 2022 Sitka Sound commercial herring sac roe harvest being the largest in history at the same time Seattle-based Trident Seafoods announcing it will not open its Wrangell processing plant for the third straight summer due to weak chum salmon returns.
“It’s very complicated in the big picture to see what’s going on,” said Lowell Fair, southeast regional supervisor for the commercial fisheries division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “There’s no pattern, even within species.”
Still, that’s been the situation for many years now for a variety of reasons, Fair said. But he and others involved in regional fisheries say the encouraging news is the coming year appears as if the situation will improve for many species and areas, even though broader problems such as inflation and supply chain issues will be factors.
“It’s a complete unknown, (but) my gut feeling is it’s going to be better than forecast, at least for pink salmon,” said Max Worhatch, executive director of the United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters.
He said he also just finished his halibut Individual Fishing Quota and got a record price exceeding $8 a pound for his boat’s catch, and is about to head out again prospecting for Dungeness crabs.
“I think the market conditions are really good, but I don’t know if the (catch) numbers will be as good as they’ve been the past few years,” Worhatch said.
Fair agreed the situation for pink salmon overall seems to be improving since “last year’s return was better than we expected and that was contrary to the previous several years when it was worse than expected.” But the regional variances remain, with southern Southeast Alaska faring better than in more northern and outer areas includingJuneau.
It’s a characterization applicable to salmon in general in Southeast Alaska, Fair said.
“For salmon in general it was much better than it was the year before when it seemed all species were down,” he said. “Last year wasn’t a big improvement, but it was better than the year before.”
Likewise, the COVID-19 pandemic took a heavy toll on fishing activity in 2020, but considerably less so last year and the expectation is isn’t won‘t be a factor in terms of activity this year.
“I wouldn’t think so,” Worhatch said. “Last year it wasn’t even much of a thing either.”
Inflation and supply issues, however, remain impediments for some. Worhatch said inflation is proving a mixed blessing as it is the likely reason for the record habit prices he received, but he also has to pay more for everything from fuel to boat equipment to food.
Also, he said supply chain issues “have been a really big deal” for a lot of fishers, although so far it isn‘t affecting him.
“I’ve been doing it for 30 years, so I have a lot of stuff,” Worhatch said.
NOAA’s Status of the Stocks report for 2021 highlighting efforts to rebuild and recover U.S. fisheries, plus the agency’s Fisheries of the United States report 2020 focusing on economic impacts of fisheries, were discussed Thursday by agency leaders in a teleconference from Washington, D.C. The volatility experienced by Southeast Alaska officials and fishers was largely reflected in statewide results that played a prominent role in the reports.
Dutch Harbor was among the foremost national headline items as it was named the top fishing port by volume of seafood landed in the United States for the 24th consecutive year in 2020. Also among the good news highlights was catches of some Alaska species including snow and Dungeness crabs were up significantly compared to the last report.
But there were also significant declines in catches of king crab, chum salmon, Pacific cod and Alaska pollock. While climate change – which can introduce invasive species and drive native species to other waters – was a factor, NOAA officials also cited COVID-19 factors.
“In Alaska there were significant declines in landings across several species and there are many issues that contributed to the decline,” Michael Liddel, NOAA’s branch chief for commercial fishery statistics, stated in an email interview.
“Climate impacts and species distribution changes have significant impacts, however…there were also significant COVID-19 related impacts, including border and travel restrictions, that limited the availability of workers.”
The following were cited by Liddel as significant changes for species caught in Alaska, based on the 2020 report:
— Alaska pollock “only” declined 3.6% from 2019 and was 3.4% below the five-year average. “However, given the size of the fishery, that decrease represented a decline of 122 million pounds,” Liddel noted.
— Pacific cod was down 18% from 2019 and 37% from the five-year average.
— Chum salmon declined 60%, 60% off of the five-year average.
— King crab declined 21% from 2019 and was 35% below the five-year average
— Snow crab was up 23%, continuing an upward trend and returning to the five-year average
—Dungeness crab was up 52% from 2019, representing a five-year high.
According to the 2021 Status of the Stocks report, U.S. fisheries held steady with more than 90% of stocks not subject to overfishing, and 80% with population sizes sufficient to be considered not overfished. The number of stocks on the overfishing list held steady at 26, and the number of overfished stocks slightly increased to 51, up from 49.
“Data also reveals that in 2020, seafood landings in the U.S. were down 10% – likely due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic – and overall seafood consumption had slightly decreased from the previous year, to 19 pounds per person,” a summary of the report states.
NOAA officials also unveiled an interactive web portal that allows searching agency data for single or multiple years, species and states/regions. Another online tool introduced in April allows improved tracking of the location and movement of marine fish and invertebrate species in U.S. waters, which may be shifting in response to changing ocean conditions.
The annual report and links to the new online tools are available at www.noaa.gov/news-release/us-fish-stocks-continue-era-of-rebuilding-and-recovery.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com.