2020 Forecast: Bristol Bay still looks bright, but fishermen face cuts in cod, crab and halibut

  • Sockeye salmon are harvested at Popov Island in regulatory Area M near Sand Point in this file photo. The forecast for sockeye in the area for 2020 is positive once again, but many fisheries around the state are facing cuts based on poor recruitment that is being tied in some instances to abnormally warm water in the Gulf of Alaska over the past several years. (Photo/ Dan Joling/AP)

Judging by the forecasts, 2020 could be an eventful year in Alaska’s commercial fisheries.

Even though not all the forecasts and catch limits are rosy, there are some bright spots, such as an increased eastern Bering Sea snow crab total allowable catch and another promising forecast for Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. However, fishermen this winter are looking at tighter limits in some groundfish fisheries, particularly in the Gulf of Alaska.

Bristol Bay

Continuing its trend of the last few years, Bristol Bay’s salmon fishermen are looking at another bright forecast for 2020. Biologists are projecting a total inshore run of 46.6 million sockeye to return bay-wide, with a projected harvest of 36.91 million sockeye between the Bristol Bay and South Peninsula fisheries.

If the point forecast pans out, it will be 6 percent more than the recent 10-year average. It would about 10 million fish less than the 2019 inshore run of 56.5 million sockeye, which produced a harvest of 43 million sockeye. However, the forecast in 2019 was for 38.7 million sockeye; the actual run blew away the preseason forecast by mid-July.

All systems are projected to meet their escapement goals, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s preseason forecast. The Naknek-Kvichak District is forecasted to see a return of 19.97 million fish; the Egegik District, 10.75 million; the Ugashik District, 4.67 million; the Nushagak District, 12.63 million; and the Togiak District, 930,000 fish, according to Fish and Game.

Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries are a different story. Harvest limits were cut again this past year, this time by 12 percent, with recruitment looking poor and continued declines in the number of crabs available for harvest. The crab is a high-value one for the fleet, but biologists have pointed to environmental factors as a contributor to the decline.

Southeast

Commercial fishermen in Southeast Alaska are looking at a weak pink salmon forecast for 2020, with an estimated 12 million fish forecasted to be available for harvest. That’s close to the bottom of the “weak” range of ADFG percentile categories, which ranges from 11 million to 19 million fish and only about a third of the recent 10-year average of 35 million fish harvested.

It’s not entirely unexpected, with low numbers of juveniles detected in 2019. Biologists noted that pink salmon escapements in 2018, when fish would be laying eggs that would migrate out in 2019 and return in 2020, were very poor.

Chum returns, which are largely of hatchery origin, look varied as well. While the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association is forecasting a total return of more than 3.9 million between the early and late runs, a similar number to what returned in 2019, Southern Southeast Aquaculture Association’s is a little more than 2 million, less than half the 4.5 million forecasted to return in 2019.

Douglas Island Pink and Chum is predicting 1.98 million chum salmon to return, not even enough to meet DIPAC’s cost recovery requirements. After broodstock requirements, 1.7 million would be available for harvest, according to DIPAC’s forecast.

“If 100 percent of the 2020 midpoint forecast is achieved there would still be a shortfall on cost recovery revenue,” the DIPAC forecast states.

King salmon fishing opportunities have been increasingly restricted as well, with fewer kings returning and more needed to go upstream to meet the requirements of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada. The management strategy for Southeast kings is usually announced in the spring.

The unknowns: Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet

The 2020 salmon forecasts for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet have yet to be published. Prince William Sound saw a harvest of about 2.5 million sockeye, 49.3 million pink salmon and 5.3 million chum salmon in 2019, according to an ADFG season summary. The pink salmon harvest was smaller than the recent five odd-year average and about a quarter less than the forecasted harvest.

The Copper River district in particular did well for sockeye, harvesting 1.27 million sockeye, about 28 percent more than the recent 10-year average and with fish clocking in at an average of 5.5 pounds, the largest in the last five years.

Some of the reduced harvest may be due to environmental conditions this summer; Prince William Sound, like the rest of Alaska, saw record-high temperatures and record-low rainfall throughout much of July and August. As a result, pink salmon held in the marine waters and could not enter streams with flow too low to swim, and “significant prespawn mortality events were documented throughout PWS,” according to ADFG.

Cook Inlet’s forecast will likely come into discussion during the upcoming Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting, scheduled for Feb. 7-19, 2020, in Anchorage. Last year, the sockeye forecast fell slightly short of the projection, but commercial fishermen were restricted from fishing because of concerns about Kenai River king salmon passage, which was too poor to achieve escapement. As a consequence, commercial fishermen lost fishing time, and the Kenai River sockeye salmon goal was exceeded in 2019.

Groundfish

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council set harvest levels known as total allowable catch, or TAC, for various groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands at its meeting in December, largely going with the recommendations of the Scientific and Statistical Committee.

For the Gulf of Alaska, the pollock TAC is down by about 26,000 metric tons from 2019; sablefish are up by about 3,000 metric tons; and shallow-water flatfish are about level, up by about 1,500 metric tons.

The major hit in the Gulf of Alaska is for Pacific cod. Due to declining biomass and low recruitments, the federal-waters fishery will close for 2020 in the Gulf. In the state waters in Cook Inlet, the guideline harvest level is set at 454,513 pounds, with 85 percent allocated to pot gear, according to ADFG. Jig gear, which is allocated 15 percent, will open Jan. 1 in Cook Inlet; pot gear will open Feb. 1.

In Kodiak, the 2020 guideline harvest level, or GHL, in state-water cod fisheries is set at 1.52 million pounds, split equally between pot and jig gear. In Chignik, the 2020 GHL is set at 1.06 million pounds, with 90 percent allocated to pot gear; in the South Alaska Peninsula state-water fishery, the 2020 GHL is set at 2.12 million pounds, with 85 percent allocated to pots.

In the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, the TACs for Pacific cod are also slightly down, but the limit for pollock is up in the Eastern Bering Sea: from 1.39 million metric tons to 1.42 million metric tons. Pollock TACs are level in the Aleutian Islands and Bogoslof. The sablefish TACs are slightly up in both the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.

Halibut

The 2020 catch limits for Pacific halibut are one of the biggest question marks as 2019 closes. Recent survey data presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission did not offer much hope for fishermen who have been seeing cuts in their fisheries over the past few years as halibut biomass continues to drop.

The 2019 annual IPHC meeting brought a reprieve for fishermen, as the commission declined to lower catch limits despite data showing biomass declines in the stock, but this year’s data showed continued declining biomass, particularly in the Gulf of Alaska.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission will set final 2020 catch limits at its upcoming meeting in February in Anchorage. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council passed a set of recommendations for ways to reduce the take in the charter fleet to help stay within smaller allocations, but the commercial quotas have yet to be set.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
12/24/2019 - 1:24pm

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