Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 8:03 PM on Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Prices for Pacific cod well below those of 2009

By Cristy Fry

The 2010 Pacific cod season in the central Gulf of Alaska has wrapped up in federal waters and moved into state waters, within 3 miles of shore, with meager participation out of the Homer Harbor.

The season opened Jan. 1 for fixed gear, pot/longline/jig, in federal waters, and Jan. 20 for trawlers. Mild winter weather and abundant fish conspired to finish off the federal season Jan. 31, only one day later than last season, in spite of a huge increase in quota over 2009.

The 2009 central Gulf of Alaska Total Allowable Catch, or TAC, experienced a fairly substantial drop from the previous year, falling 20 percent, from 28,426 metric tons to 23,641 metric tons. However, the 2010 TAC jumped dramatically, rising more than 43 percent to 33,986 metric tons. The TAC is expected to remain high for at least two more years.

That quota jump may have a round-about effect on participation by the pot fleet in Homer, as the market tries to absorb the extra product and deal with smaller fish, which drives down price and participation.

Smaller fish are a natural byproduct of the quota increase, according to Charlie Trowbridge, Homer area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"(NMFS) anticipated a lot of fish would be recruiting to the fishery, and it sure looks like it," he said. "That translates into price. They're not really excited about small fish. But when you've got a new recruit class moving into your fishery, that's what you get."

The price has fallen from 32 cents per pound before the trawlers started fishing, to 28 to 30 cents per pound.

Markets in western Alaska have fallen even farther, with cod fetching a split price: 18 cents for fish under 20 inches, and 28 cents for fish over 20 inches.

Prices in Homer in 2009 went as high as 60 cents for specialty markets and were generally in the 40-cent range most of the season.

Even though there are only six boats fishing out of the Homer Harbor, compared to nearly double that in some previous years, Trowbridge said the 4 million-pound-plus TAC for state waters in Cook Inlet may go more quickly than some anticipate, depending upon whether more boats enter the fishery and how quickly the fish move inshore. The fish have been fairly abundant since fishing began again Sept. 1.

"We had a pretty strong fall, so it could be a good spring," he said.

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association is laying the groundwork for a possible state and federal economic disaster declaration for the 2010 Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon season long before it even starts.

UCIDA had looked into a possible disaster declaration for the 2009 season after a harvest of 2.6 million sockeye, but was told by state officials that the harvest would need to be less than 2 million. UCIDA Executive Director Roland Maw figures that the harvest would not have to fall very short of the projected 2.3 million fish to make it into disaster territory. The 2009 harvest was projected to be 3 million fish.

Maw sent a letter to Gov. Sean Parnell's office requesting information on the criteria used to create the federal disaster declaration for the 2009 Yukon River chinook salmon season.

Maw said getting the criteria beforehand may help the process along.

"I want to see what those are before we get into the season," he said. "That may affect the kind of data that the (Kenai Peninsula) borough and city (of Kenai) and various user groups collect."

The poor harvest in 2000 qualified for a state disaster declaration, but did not do much on a practical level for the fishermen, according to Maw. He said the state offered "cheap loans," which he called an insult to the industry.

A federal disaster declaration would have more flexibility, including direct payments to fishermen, processors, cities and boroughs, as well as businesses affected by the loss of income, according to Maw.

In addition to the letter to the governor, which was copied to Alaska's congressional delegation and multiple other politicians and government agencies, Maw has requested a management outlook from the Sport Fish Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, something the commercial division does as a matter of course. A management outlook explains the strategy for limiting user groups depending upon in-season run strength.

Maw said fishermen are especially interested in what plans there may be for reducing the impact of the personal-use dipnet fishery, which has not been restricted in recent years even when the commercial fishery had been shut down completely.

The Kenai River dipnet fishery harvested a record 339,993 sockeyes in 2009, up from 234,109 sockeyes in 2008. The Kasilof River dipnet fishery came in at 73,035 sockeyes, up from 54,051 in 2008. Those numbers have a greater effect in a small run.

"Four hundred thousand fish out of a 5 or 6 million fish return is one thing, but 400,000 fish out of a less than 2 million fish return is quite something else," Maw said. "It's not just that the total numbers were up and that's having an impact, it also is an impact relative to the size of the return."

Maw also said that expecting only one user group to bear the full brunt of resource conservation causes problems in the community.

"If everyone is to share in the bounty, everyone shares the conservation burden in times of scarcity. And to not implement that causes a great deal of conflict in our community that I would just as soon do without."

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 realist468@gmail.com.