Although the federal Gulf of Alaska pollock season opens on Jan. 20, fishermen have decided to stand down for two weeks in the hopes of harvesting higher-quality fish and roe later in the season.
Fishermen hope that this self-imposed delay will push the fishery back to when the pollock are aggregating in preparation for spawning higher in the Shelikof Strait, said Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank.
“As the fish move in to spawn, the catch rates are better, the fish grade is better, roe quality is better,” she said.
Fish quality tends to be better as they aggregate to spawn before they expend a large amount of energy.
She said pollock tend to be “spawned out” by mid-March. Roe quality and production increase if the fish are harvested before then.
Additionally, the more pollock congregate to spawn, the less salmon bycatch fishermen typically harvest.
If pollock fishermen harvest too much Chinook salmon bycatch — fish that are not targeted — and hit the cap on how many can be caught, the fishery will be shut down.
This year’s total allowable catch in the central Gulf of Alaska is 2.3% lower than last year. The number is based on stock assessments.
This season’s central Gulf of Alaska total allowable catch is 48,000 metric tons, or 105.8 million pounds.
This change was decided as the pollock seasonal allocations were consolidated for the first time.
In June 2019, the North Pacific Management Council voted to combine the four pollock seasons— two in spring and two in fall — to just two seasons: one that runs from Jan. 20 to May 31, and another that runs from Sept. 1 to Nov. 1.
“The purpose of this action is to reduce operational and management inefficiencies in the Western and Central GOA trawl catcher vessel pollock (fishery),” said the council in a newsletter.
Combining the seasons means that the annual harvest quotas are larger each season, making it easier for federal management to track the harvests.
Lastly, fewer seasons also mean a more efficient fishery with fewer “starts and stops,” Bonney said.
The change was highly controversial, with critics concerned that participation would increase as the fishery became more efficient. They were also worried that bycatch levels would be higher in the spring than in the fall.
As with other fishery participants, many pollock fishermen are worried about how the fishery will unfold during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and whether there will be an outbreak in the processing plants.
If an employee at the seafood processing plants contracts the virus, any close contact is required to quarantine for two weeks, which would mean a decreased work force, Bonney said.
“Everybody is very concerned about how the whole thing will play out,” she said.