Bering Sea Pacific cod A season could be shortest yet

News   09/01/2018 - Nguyễn Trí Tín

The first season for trawl-caught Pacific cod in the Bering Sea starts Jan. 20 and participants are already wondering if it will be the shortest on record.

Although the A season for trawlers lasts until April 1, last year’s A season ended Feb. 23, the earliest in recent memory. The “A” season allocation is 74% of the annual total allowable catch (TAC). It is the most valuable of the three seasons because of roe content and quality of meat. 

Most years, the A season for trawlers ends the third week in March or later. 

But this year will likely be earlier, for at least two reasons. First, the overall Pacific cod TAC for the Bering Sea is 17% less than last year’s: 188,136 metric tons compared to 223,704t for last year. 

Second, the cod TAC in the Gulf of Alaska is down 80%, which will severely restrict the fleet there, and may send some of those vessels west to the Unimak Pass cod grounds.

There are 116 trawl vessels licensed to fish the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands for cod. Last year, 62 of those licenses were not active in the fishery. The 54 vessels that were active marked the highest participation in the history of the fishery. Since 2009, the trend of participation in Bering Sea trawl-caught cod fishery has steadily grown from 31 vessels to last year’s 54.

Of the 62 licenses that did not fish Pacific cod in 2017, 46 are active in other fisheries and 16 show no participation in any fishery. Since 2009, the number of latent licenses has varied between 14 and 18. It is unclear how many are truly latent (no fishing will be conducted under them) and how many may be ready to fish this year. 

Regardless of how short the A season for P-cod will be this year, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) has recognized that participation in the fishery is growing and are concerned that delivery behavior may be shifting from shore-based plants to off-shore catcher/processors (CPs). At their December meeting, the council adopted a purpose and needs statement, the first step in adopting management tools to limit participation and offshore deliveries.

According to the discussion paper before the council at its December meeting, the number of vessels delivering at sea has risen from five in 2015 to 10 in 2016, and then 17 in 2017.  At the same time, the number of catcher-processors who are acting as mother vessels and purchasing fish increased from two in 2015 to eight in both 2016 and 2017.

That growth in offshore deliveries isn’t as steep as it looks because four of the vessels delivering offshore last year were vessels committed to a shore-based floating processor that underwent extensive refitting and, unable to take deliveries of its four-vessel cod fleet, asked the offshore CPs to accept deliveries for one year only.  

Not surprisingly, the increase in pounds delivered to the offshore sector last year compared to 2016 nearly equaled the decrease in deliveries to the shore-based sector between 2016 and 2017. 

However, the clear growth in participation and the potential for a decrease in shore-based deliveries got the attention of the council, in part because of the economic boost shore-based deliveries bring to remote communities and the state revenue from fish tax that is shared by communities. 

Thus, the NPFMC agreed to set a control date of Dec. 31, 2017 for eligibility in any future management action. An analysis of three preliminary alternatives will be presented to the NPFMC at their June meeting in Kodiak. However, even with a control date, there is nothing to prevent more vessels selling to catcher processors this season, even if limits are placed in the future.

The council’s challenge will be to achieve the competing goals of protecting the shore-based plants and their communities’ economy while providing a modest expansion of the market for the fishermen to sell their catch to the Amendment 80 catcher-processors.  

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