The state Board of Fisheries’ decision last month to move the Southeast commercial shrimp pot fishery from a fall start to spring means there will be no harvest this year.
The Department of Fish and Game told the board that a spring harvest could help build up the region’s shrimp stocks, which are in decline, by taking fewer egg-laden shrimp than in the fall.
Wrangell shrimpers, however, are questioning the wisdom of the switch, which they said could hurt marketing efforts and reduce the value of the catch — with no clear benefit to the resource.
“It probably took a lot of fishermen by surprise,” said Otto Florschutz, who has been shrimp fishing out of Wrangell for more than 20 years. The shift eliminated this fall’s fishery.
Florschutz, who has shrimped in May in past years, said fall shrimp are hardier than springtime catches, resulting in a better product to take to market.
“For a lot of us who have developed markets … a lot of my markets are around the holidays,” particularly targeting Alaskans, said Chris Guggenbickler, who has fished for shrimp since 1983.
Guggenbickler was at the Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage when the members voted to move the Southeast shrimp season. “I was the main opponent,” he said.
Local fish and game advisory committees from Sitka and eastern Prince of Wales Island submitted proposals to the Board of Fisheries to move the fishery away from an October start.
The quality in the spring is a big issue, said Guggenbickler, of Wrangell’s advisory committee. “It doesn’t freeze well, it gets spots, there is leftover egg residue on there that’s got mud stuck in it that’s hard to wash out,” he told Petersburg public radio station KFSK last week.
“I just feel in the end the commercial fishery will have less value,” he said Saturday.
Florschutz also has developed his own markets, processing his catch on board and working with a Juneau distributor to sell much of his shrimp. Of the two dozen or so Wrangell shrimpers, many handle their own processing and marketing or sell to Sea Level Seafoods in town, he said.
The pot fishery goes after the larger, firmer spot shrimp, while the separate trawl fishery targets sidestripes and pinks.
In addition to quality concerns, Alaska shrimp caught in the spring will be going to market about the same time as catches in British Columbia, rather than keeping the fall market for Alaska, Guggenbickler said. A spring fishery also will conflict with locals who go out and harvest shrimp for personal use and subsistence needs, he said.
Though the shrimp pot fishery is open from Haines to the border south of Ketchikan, most of the activity is in central and southern Southeast, with Wrangell fishermen working in Districts 6, 7 and 8, north, west and south of town.
There about 100 permit holders in Southeast, Guggenbickler said, and while the season used to last five months, it has dropped down to just eight or nine days before fishermen reach the guideline harvest level.
The region-wide catch in recent years has been around half-a-million pounds. Over the past two decades, it’s averaged $2 million in ex-vessel value, KFSK reported.
The board was split on the change.
Israel Payton, of Wasilla, was convinced that the potential benefit for shrimp populations was worth it.
“Let’s play the long game on this one,” Payton said, as reported by KFSK. “I know it’s disruptive. I could be wrong on my vote on this, but I’m going to be in support of it. I think it’ll lead potentially to increased GHLs (guideline harvest levels) in the future, and that’s a good thing.”
Board member John Wood, of Willow, was not swayed by possible improvement in shrimp numbers.
“More likely than not I would imagine you would see some enhancement,” Wood said. “How much? Open for guessing. That does not outweigh almost a total disruption of a shrimp fishery that’s existed for a long, long time, has created its own niche and has created its own expertise in harvesting that product.”
The vote was 4-2 to approve the season shift, with Wood and Petersburg’s John Jensen voting no.