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Southeast Alaska Commercial Fisheries Update: October brings start of several fisheries
A commercial fishing boat sits in Tongass Narrows, docked next to the E.C. Philips and Son dock on Wednesday. Staff photo by Taylor Balkom

Daily News Staff Writer

In addition to notoriously bad weather, October brings the start of several commercial fisheries in Southeast Alaska.

Three of those are commercial dive harvest fisheries, focused on geoduck clams, sea cucumbers and sea urchins.

Others are the commercial pot shrimp fishery, and the winter commercial troll fishery for king salmon.

Sea urchins

The commercial dive harvest fishery for red sea urchins in Southeast Alaska has remained a niche operation during recent years, attracting an average of eight harvest divers per season for the past decade, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Nine harvest divers made regular landings during the 2016-17 season, making 114 landings with a total ex-vessel value (the amount paid to fishermen) of about $162,000, according to Bo Meredith, a Ketchikan-based assistant commercial fisheries management biologist with Fish and Game.

Participating divers will have a lot of sea urchin available again during the 2017-18 season that starts at 5 p.m. Sunday. The overall guideline harvest level from a total of 10 harvest areas in the inside water of southern Southeast Alaska is about 3.43 million pounds, according to Fish and Game. That’s down slightly from the 3.69 million pound GHL established for the 2016-17 season.

One difference between the previous and upcoming seasons is the closure of two urchin harvest areas west of Prince of Wales Island.

There will be no harvest opportunities at Central Dall Island (Subdistrict 104-20) and Tlevak Strait (103-40) during the next season, which will focus the effort on specific harvest areas in the inside water of Districts 1 and 2.

Meredith noted that the department had resurveyed the Central Dall Island area this past summer. The closure of the area — which once had a substantial GHL — was closed primarily due to predation by sea otters.

The sea urchin fishery is open from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.

The department will close areas when the actual harvest reaches the GHL set for those areas. However, given the low participation, closures are not anticipated.

“Last year, we didn't close an area,” Meredith said. “None of the areas reached their respective GHL.”

Logistics and skill levels are among the reasons that the commercial sea urchin fishery has remained slow in this region, which is the northern edge of the sea urchin range.

The quality of urchin roe varies greatly, and it takes skilled divers to consistently select urchins that possess higher quality roe. Then there’s the lengthy process of transporting the product to its primary markets in Asia.  

“The diver’s down at Duke Island and he's got to run back to town and process the roe and get in on a jet and sometimes that's days before it gets to (its market),” Meredith said.

By contrast, urchin harvesters in British Columbia have quicker access.

“You get it to Vancouver, you’re on an international jet that night or the next morning,” he said.

Pot shrimp

Also set to open on Sunday the pot fishery for shrimp. Scheduled to launch at 8 a.m. Sunday, the fishery has an overall guideline harvest level of  between 458,000 pounds and 552,000 pounds of shrimp available for harvest in a total of 16 fishing areas throughout Southeast Alaska, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The pot shrimp fishing areas will be open through Feb. 28 — but Fish and Game will close individual areas earlier if and when fishermen harvest the amounts of shrimp available in those given areas.

Many shrimping areas are harvested quickly. During the 2016-17 season, for example, fishermen landed almost all of the GHL for Section 13-C near Sitka in about five days, prompting the department to close the section to harvesting on Oct. 5.

Section 13-C has a reduced GHL this next season, prompting the department on Friday to announce that Section 13-C will be closed to harvesting at 4 p.m. Tuesday.

“Reported effort levels and previous seasons catch rates indicate that the 16,000-pound guideline harvest level for Section 13-C will be reached at the time of the closure,” according to the department’s announcement.

Most shrimp areas in southern Southeast Alaska are harvested relatively quickly as well. During the 2016-17 season, District 1 (Ketchikan area) and Section 3-A (off the west coast of Prince of Wales Island) closed on Oct. 13. Sections 3-B/C (west coast POW) closed on Oct. 14, and District 2 (southeast POW) closed on Oct, 23.

The commercial shrimp GHLs for the southern Southeast Alaska areas open during the 2017-18 season are as follows: District 1, 64,000 pounds; District 2, 30,000 pounds; Section3-A, 114,000 pounds; and Sections 3-B/C, 30,000 pounds.

Sea cucumbers

The commercial dive harvest fishery for sea cucumbers — a tube-like echinoderm also known as “cukes” — is set to start Monday with openings that run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in specific harvest areas in Southeast Alaska.

The cuke fishery has the largest participation of harvest divers in Southeast Alaska, with about 180 divers taking part each year during the past three to four years, according to Meredith.

They’ll have a total GHL of more than 1.23 million pounds of sea cucumbers available during the 2017-18 season.

In general, sea cucumber harvest areas are on a three-year rotation. This upcoming group of harvest areas had an overall GHL of about 1.08 million pounds when they were last harvested, Meredith said.

One reason for the boost in GHL for the upcoming 2017-18 season is the addition of an area in Boca de Quadra, which has a GHL of about 50,000 pounds.

Average prices for cukes have remained around $4 per pound in recent years. When last harvested three years ago, the upcoming harvest rotation produced an ex-vessel value of about $4.3 million, according to Meredith.

The sea cucumber fishery has a set rhythm, especially in the early weeks of the season. Most areas will open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Mondays, and then again from 8 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays.

Individual divers also have a ‘trip limit” of 2,000 pounds.

“They're allowed (to harvest) 2,000 pounds per week,” Meredith said. “So if they get to 2,000 by Monday at 3 p.m., they can take Tuesday off.”

The allowed harvest openings and trip limits can change over the course of the season, especially as individual areas near their department-established GHLs.

Geoduck clams

Commercial harvest divers will have a GHL of 559,000 pounds of geoduck clams when the 2017-18 season starts next week in Southeast Alaska.

The actual opening of individual areas each week depends upon their successful passage of testing for the toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.  In general, areas that pass the testing will be opened to harvesting from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thurdays.

‘Since about 2006, we’ve opened the fishery on Thursday for a one-day fishery ... if an area has enough GHL to allow it,” said Justin Breese, a Ketchikan-based assistant fishery management biologist with the department. “Then we shift it to a two-day fishery later in the season, usually sometime in between the Thanksgiving break and the January of the next year.”

The timing of the shift is typically based on a recommendation from the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association.

Most geoduck harvest areas are on two- or four-year rotations. Four years ago, the most recent time the most of the 2017-18 areas were harvested, the GHL was 583,000 pounds.

Diver participation has declined somewhat in recent years, slipping from the high 60s earlier this decade to approximately 55-60 in the current 2016-17 season that will conclude on Sunday.

Prices for the 2015-16 season averaged $5.28 per pound, with an estimated ex-vessel value for the fishery at $2.98 million, according to department information.

Breese didn’t anticipate seeing much change in the 2017-18 season.

“I anticipate that this fishery is going to be pretty similar to the past five to 10 years,” he said. I don't see any big changes in the fishery or the fleet over that time.”

Winter troll

The department announced that 2017-2018 winter troll fishery for king salmon in Southeast Alaska and Yakutat areas will open at 12:01 a.m. Oct. 11.

However, unlike previous seasons that were open through April 30 or until the fleet caught a predetermined number of king salmon, this season is being opened through Dec. 31, according to a department announcement.

“With ongoing concerns for Southeast Alaska wild chinook salmon stocks, the department will continue to closely monitor the stock composition of chinook salmon troll fisheries, managing to minimize the impact on wild (Southeast Alaska) chinook,” states the announcement. “The opportunity to harvest the winter troll GHL is being provided through Dec. 31 at this time.”

Fish and Game plans to issue a news release about potential opening dates for the late winter fishery — Jan. 1–April 30 —  in late December after evaluating the harvest from the Oct. 1-Dec. 31 early winter fishery.