KODIAK — Alaska’s pollock fleet has skedaddled to stay clear of a big chum salmon run headed to the Yukon River.

To prevent chum bycatch, the Bering Sea fleet agreed last week to add another 1,000 square nautical miles of fishing grounds to its no-trawl zones. That brings the total closed area to 5,000 square nautical miles, an area larger than the state of Connecticut.

The pollock fleet can respond quickly to closures because all boats work cooperatively, in real time, and report bycatch encounters as they happen (or not) out on the fishing grounds. The system is dubbed “rolling hot spots.”

“It doesn’t have a set of coordinates to it. Fish end up in places you can’t predict. We look at where bycatch occurs and we close an amount of an area,” said John Gruver of United Catcher Boats. “It’s a mobile system of closures that covers pollock fishing grounds east of 168 degrees.”

Through its Inter-cooperative Salmon Agreement, the 100-boat pollock fleet allows an independent company called Sea State to review federal observer data during fishing, and has the authority to close fishing grounds with high levels of salmon. Areas are adjusted twice a week, Gruver said.

The cooperative agreement to not fish in a 5,000-square-mile area is being honored by the entire Bering Sea pollock fleet, including vessels owned and operated by Western Alaska CDQ groups. Alaska pollock is the nation’s largest fishery.

New life for Kodiak lakes

Sockeye salmon are set to get a new lease on life in some of Kodiak’s biggest producing systems. The governor’s budget gives $720,000 to fund enrichment of Karluk Lake, home to the island’s first commercial sockeye fishery, and its two sister systems, Frazier and Spiridon Lakes.

Catches there historically topped 2 million reds, but the stocks have dwindled drastically in the past two decades. The state money gives biologists a chance to bring them back by enriching the lakes from the bottom up.

“What we are proposing is to add phosphorous and nitrogen in limited amounts to the three systems to enable strong productivity at the bottom of the food chain, which is phytoplankton and algae. Those life forms then feed the zooplankton and small (fish), which in turn are the main food for sockeye and other fish in the lakes,” explained Gary Byrne, operations/production manager with Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association, which will monitor the lakes over the next few years.

The nutrients are air-dropped on the lakes in a process similar to crop dusting. A similar project was done on the same systems in the mid-1980s with great success.

Byrne said better escapement plans combined with the infusions of nutrients should result in the red runs at Karluk and its sister lakes becoming self-sustaining in about five years.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where we are stuck funding this forever,” Byrne said. “This is a bridge to sustainability that the sockeye can provide if we can just get the right number of them into the system.”

The lake enrichment project will begin next May.

Summer means dungies

Summer also means pulling up pots of Dungeness crab throughout Southeast Alaska and around Kodiak Island. Dungeness, which are named for a town of the same name in Washington, are one of the Pacific’s most important crab fisheries and have been fished commercially in Alaska since the 1960s.

About 7 million to 8 million pounds of dungies come out of the state’s summer and fall fisheries; about 1 million pounds from Kodiak and the bulk from Southeast.

“The fishery is very cyclic,” said Adam Messmer, a state crab biologist in Juneau. “Last year and the year before it was around 3 million pounds, then it was 4 (million) and 5 million. The highest catch was 7 million pounds in the 2002-2003 season.”

Unlike other Alaska crab fisheries, where annual surveys are used to assess the stocks, managers use “three S” management for Dungeness: size, sex and seasons.

“That means there is a specific size allowed to be taken, which is 6.5 inches, and only the males can be taken during a specified season of May through December,” explained Wayne Donaldson, regional manager at ADF&G in Kodiak.

Fifteen to 20 boats are dropping pots for dungies this summer around Kodiak. For Southeast, 114 boats are targeting the crab, down from 129 last this summer.

“I think one of the driving factors is the price of salmon,” Messmer said. “A lot of guys have both dungie permits and seine or gillnet permits, and a lot went and hit gillnetting instead of doing dungies.”

Dock prices for Dungeness crab are on a nice upswing, averaging $2.20 per pound, compared to $1.60 last year. At Kodiak, all dungies are cooked and sold in sections because of domoic acid levels — the cause of paralytic shellfish poisoning — in the crab viscera. Not so in Southeast, where the Dungeness can go into the more lucrative whole crab market.

The Dungeness crab fishery was valued at more than $10 million at the Southeast docks last year, and $2 million for Kodiak.

Alaska gets good grades

Our nation’s fisheries got improved marks last year, according to NOAA Fisheries’ 14th annual Status of U.S. Fisheries report to Congress. The report documents efforts to end overfishing and rebuild the nation’s fisheries.

For 2010, the agency reviewed 5,281 individual stocks and stock complexes currently managed within 462 federal fishery management plans nationwide. The report concludes that 84 percent of the 253 fish stocks evaluated were not subject to overfishing. Three stocks from the Northeast — Georges Bank haddock, Atlantic pollock and spiny dogfish — were deemed rebuilt to healthy levels last year, bringing to 21 the number of rebuilt fisheries since 2000.

Alaska again topped the list for having no stocks threatened by overfishing. Overfishing is defined as occurring when the rate of removal from a stock is too high.

Blue king crab at the Pribilofs and Tanner crab in the Southern Bering Sea are listed as “overfished,” which includes stock declines due to mortality, disease, natural population cycles and environmental changes. Federal managers and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council oversee 63 stocks or complexes in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.

Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry since 1988.

Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets.

Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around the state. Laine lives in Kodiak.

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