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Tiny chum salmon bycatch shocks Bering Sea commercial pollock fishery

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman

The Bering Sea pollock season keeps rolling along, at a faster pace, and with far fewer chum salmon bycatch than last year.

"We really haven't had a chum bycatch issue this year. We were shocked," said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, representing pollock boats delivering to shore plants and motherships.

Trawlers caught just 7,060 non-chinook salmon, mainly chums, through Aug. 17, compared to 114,324 last year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Salmon bycatch is a hot issue in western Alaska, with commercial and subsistence salmon fishermen criticizing the pollock fleet when salmon harvests decline. That's led to rules that could cause pollock fishing to close early because of chinook salmon bycatch, with similar restrictions likely on the way for chums.

The total B season pollock harvest stood at 485,060 metric tons Aug. 17, some 75 tons ahead of last year aat the same time.

Paine called the current season "not bad," adding, "anything is better than last year." Fish-finding problems frustrated catcher vessels, especially boats delivering shoreside.

They often returned to town with partial loads, and even suspended operations while awaiting better fishing, Paine said.

But last year's longer B-season wasn't just about spread-out pollock not schooling up for the convenience of the fishing fleet. It was also a matter of simple math, given a much larger quota and weekly catch rates that have remained about the same, according to Krista Milani, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist in Unalaska.

Last year's quota for both A and B seasons was nearly 50 percent greater than the prior year, at 1,266,400 metric tons of pollock, with 92 percent of the quota actually caught by all sectors. With a smaller quota of 813,000 metric tons in 2010, the fisheries service reported a 100 percent harvest.

The inshore catcher boats fell 10 percent short of their total allocation last year, but still landed far more pollock than the year before. In 2011, the inshore sector's 90 percent harvest was 519,095 metric tons, while, by contrast, the 2010 harvest rate of 99 percent was significantly smaller by weight, at 351,685 metric tons.

But even with a faster pace and a somewhat smaller quota this year, a lot of pollock remained unharvested, from a total B season quota of 628,560 metric tons as of Aug. 17.

The 2012 total pollock quota in both seasons for all sectors including catcher vessels, factory trawlers and motherships is 1.21 million metric tons, down from last year's 1.267 metric tons.

The pollock fishery in the Bering Sea has an annual value of about $1 billion, including about $300 million earned by catcher boats, Paine said.

In the mothership sector, Joe Bersch, general manager of Premier Pacific Seafoods, also said he was pleased with low chum salmon bycatch. The company owns two pollock mothership floating processors, Excellence and Ocean Phoenix.

The Excellence was temporarily sidelined this summer because of an ammonia leak that caused the evacuation of the crew during an offload in Unalaska, but eventually returned to pollock fishing.

The Excellence had finished its Bering Sea pollock B season and returned to Seattle to prepare for hake fishing off the coast of Washington state. The Excellence transferred its remaining Alaska pollock quota to the Ocean Phoenix, its sister mothership, Bersh said.

As for next year's pollock fishery, a report based on the annual Bering Sea sonar and trawl fisheries surveys should be released in mid-September, said Jim Ianelli, a fisheries service scientist in Seattle.

The bottom trawl surveys were conducted by the chartered fishing boats Alaska Knight and Aldebaron, while the sonar survey was conducted by the federal research vessel Oscar Dyson, he said.

This article was originally published by The Bristol Bay Times and is reprinted here with permission. Jim Paulin can be reached at jpaulin(at)reportalaska.com