The Bering Sea opilio crab season appears to be on track to be wrapped up in an average amount of time, despite tales from fishermen still on the grounds and returning crew members about very slow fishing or multitudes of undersized crab.
Deckhands reporting back to Homer have told stories of fishing on a 30-crab-per-pot average, which would not even cover fuel expenses with crab that average less than one and a half pounds each.
Others have talked about pulling pots stuffed with more than 1,000 crabs, but after sorting out the undersized having only 150 keepers left.Last season there was hardly any sorting necessary.
A legal-sized opilio is 3.1 inches across, but the industry standard is 4 inches. Processors prefer not to buy the smaller crab because of marketing constraints.
Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands assistant area management biologist with the Department of Fish and Game, Chuck Trebesch, said that in spite of the stories, the season is right on track. As of last Friday, 56 percent of the 66.3 million pound quota had been landed.
"That's pretty good," he said.
However, the quota is down 25 percent from last season.
As far as the small crab issue goes, Trebesch said that they will not know the extent of the problem until after the season is over and reports from on-board observers are analyzed.
However, in the end the small crab could end up being a boon to the quota next year if they survive their trip out of the water, into the frigid air, and back to the water.
While ice has not wreaked the havoc it did last year and was expected to this year, St. Paul harbor in the Pribilof Islands is currently iced in, and resulted in the Coast Guard having to airlift an ailing crewman from the 180 foot fishing vessel Baranof last week.
"Due to icing conditions in St. Paul Harbor and the Baranof's inability to enter the harbor, the helicopter medevac was determined to be the safest and quickest means to get the fisherman to needed medical care," the Coast Guard said.
Trebesch said that they do not have numbers yet on how much gear has been lost to the ice, as those are also tallied post-season, but those numbers are not expected to approach the 800-plus pots lost last season.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is once again opening the commercial spot shrimp fishery in Prince William Sound, in spite of difficulties catching the quota since the fishery re-opened in 2010 after being closed since 1991.
The 2010 season fell 10,000 pounds short of a 55,000 pound quota; in 2011, the quota was 52,760 pounds, and in the first 5-day opening 33 boats caught 10,000 pounds. Another opening was announced for April 29, and it took until the end of July to finish out the quota. Last year 40 percent of the quota was left in the water.
However, different areas are open in different years.
The number of pots per boat that will be allowed this year will be announced after ADF&G sees how many boats register for the fishery.
The deadline to register for the 2013 fishery is 5:00 p.m. April 1.
Alaska Congressman Don Young has introduced legislation that would prohibit the Secretary of Interior and the Secretary of Commerce from authorizing commercial finfish aquaculture operations in the federal Exclusive Economic Zone, from 3 to 200 miles from shore, unless specifically authorized by Congress.
"If not properly managed, farmed fish can be a significant threat to the health of Alaska's wild stocks and the health of our oceans," Young said. "Alaska's seafood industry is one of the largest employers in the state, and today's legislation will preserve Congress' prerogative to determine what type of aquaculture programs should and should not be conducted in our waters and those adjacent to our waters."
Congress has never authorized open ocean aquaculture or provided a legislative framework for managing finfish farms in the EEZ, in spite of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration drawing up a 10-year plan in 2007 that had stated goals such as "By the end of 2007, develop policies, guidelines and protocols for use in the review of proposed marine aquaculture facilities by NOAA regional and program offices under current NOAA mandates."
The most recent activity on the NOAA aquaculture website involves funding opportunities for creating biofuels from algea:
"As part of the Energy Department's efforts to develop transportation fuels that don't rely on petroleum, they announced on January 16 up to $10 million available this year to help unlock the potential of biofuels made from algae. The funding will support projects aimed at boosting the productivity of algae and increasing the efficiency of algae harvesting technologies."
NOAA drew fire from commercial fishermen when it began aggressively promoting aquaculture in federal waters, saying that spending taxpayer dollars to create a system that would lower prices for wild-caught products was inherently unfair.
However, the spotty nature of the project appears to have diminished the immediate threat. Three separate bills submitted to Congress in 2004, 2007 and 2009 failed to produce the regulatory framework, failing to even move out of committee.
NOAA says that it has a commitment to developing sustainable aquaculture, although its definition of "sustainable" is not found in any of its literature.
Cristy Fry has commercial fished in Homer since 1978. She can be reached at email@example.com.