The Bering Sea crab fleet hits the grounds this week with the Bristol Bay red king crab quota the only one not taking a significant hit, while the quota for the bread-and-butter opilio crab season is down 25 percent, and the St. Matthew Island blue king crab quota is down 31 percent.
As expected, the bairdi tanner season and Pribilof blue and red king crab seasons will remain closed again this year.
The Bristol Bay red king crab quota remains virtually unchanged from last year at 7.8 million pounds, which is a leveling off from a steep decline in recent years, with the 2011 quota falling 47 percent from the previous year.
The opilio crab quota of 66.3 million pounds is a bit of a yo-yo, having surged 64 percent last season to 88.9 million pounds from the 2010 quota of 54.3 million pounds.
The most dramatic rise and fall of the opilio quota in recent memory took place in the late 1990s, when it rose from 65.7 million pounds in 1996 to 243.3 million pounds in 1998, then fell to a shocking 33.6 million pounds in 2000. The quota then wavered between 19 and 35 million pounds until it began its present climb in 2008.
The drop in the St. Matthew Island blue king crab quota to 1.6 million pounds from 2.4 million pounds last season also reflects a rocky history. The fishery hit its peak in 1983 with a quota of 9.4 million pounds, then was closed after an apparent stock collapse after the 1998-1999 season, and remained closed until 2009-2010.
The Bering Sea crab fisheries all open at noon Oct. 15; however, most boats wait until January to head to the opilio grounds.
Last year’s severe ice conditions in the Bering Sea wreaked havoc on the fleet and their gear, and fishermen have been warned that this year could see a repeat of that scenario.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game extended last year’s opilio crab season for 15 days at the request of fishermen struggling to fill the largest quota since implementation of the IFQ program in 2005, which saw the fleet reduced from about 290 boats to about 80 boats. The fleet was given until June 15 to fish last season, and was able to land 97 percent of the quota.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission is collecting information from fishermen about what is called “mushy halibut syndrome,” a condition that has been affecting halibut in the Gulf of Alaska.
This condition, which has been variously described as mushy or jelly-like, has become more frequently reported by recreational and commercial halibut fishermen in certain parts of Southcentral Alaska, especially in 2011 and 2012.
This is not a new phenomenon, with observations being noted as early as 1989. Recent analysis of flesh samples by the State of Alaska’s Fish Pathology Lab noted that fish with the condition have large areas of body tissue which are flaccid or jelly-like. The fillets may ooze water and are mushy when cooked. While the cause of the condition is unknown, it is thought to be the result of nutritional deficiencies.
The “mushy” syndrome is different from “chalky” halibut, which does not generally alter the pre-cooked texture of the flesh, but can be seen in the coloration of the fillets.
The IPHC is interested in learning about the geographical and seasonal occurrence of the mushy condition in Pacific halibut. To accomplish this, they are asking fishermen to submit information on the following:
1.Date/location/depth of capture (e.g., bay, strait, direction and distance off a certain headland, etc.)
2.Size and sex (if known) of fish
3.Stomach contents – did you notice what types of food were in the stomach?
4.Activity – sport, commercial, or subsistence fishing
5.How many of the halibut you (or your vessel, if more appropriate) caught that day had the mushy halibut syndrome? How many did not?
6.Disposition of the mushy halibut – did you keep the fish for your use, or discard the fish, either at sea or on shore?
7.How many non-mushy halibut did you catch and how many did you release during the day you caught the mushy halibut?
While commercial halibut fishermen are not going to be filleting the fish, it is still reasonably possible to determine if a fish is mushy by comparing it to fish of similar size. The mushy fish have much less body mass, look comparably skinny, especially in the tail area, and when bent between head and tail the skin forms distinct ripples that indicate loose flesh, while the non-mushy fish are noticeably more firm, robust and filled out.
Experienced fishermen should be able to spot the mushy fish after a few comparisons.
The condition seems to appear mostly in smaller fish, generally those under 20 pounds.
The IPHC asks fishermen to submit the above information by sending an email to the IPHC staff through the “contact” link at the IPHC website, www.iphc.int/home.html, and include any photos.
The IPHC plans to share information on the occurrence of mushy halibut with other agencies, but all personal information will be kept confidential.
While less than a month of the halibut season remains, with this year’s season closing November 7, there is still 12 percent of the quota remaining statewide, and 13 percent, or 1.5 million pounds, in Area 3A, where the condition is most prevalent, and it is something that fishermen can put in the logbook for spring.
Additional information can be found at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/species/disease/pdfs/fishdiseases/mushy_halibut_syndrome.pdf.
Cristy Fry has commercial fished in Homer since 1978. She also designs and builds gear for the industry. She currently longlines for halibut and gillnets salmon in upper Cook Inlet aboard the F/V Realist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.