Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 7:51 PM on Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Japan's disasters may pinch fishery

The Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery got off to a slow start with a four-hour, 40-minute opening March 31, one week later than last year, with a harvest of about 1,400 tons from a record quota of 19,490 tons.

Fishing was a bit better April 1, with an estimated catch of 5,700 tons, bringing the total to 7,100 tons. Managers were anticipating another opening Monday after processors had had a chance to clear out the previous catches.

Processors are not commenting on a possible price for the fish, but speculation is running from a possible small advance of around $150 per ton to fishermen not being paid anything until the market in Japan shakes out after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and buyers know they will be able to sell the product.

Japan is essentially the sole buyer for Alaska sac roe herring, and there was a considerable amount in cold storage prior to the fishery. In addition, a large portion of their seafood industry infrastructure was wiped out in the disaster, including some of their cold storage capacity.

Also, there is concern that the economy there will suffer a huge blow as the Japanese try to clean up and rebuild the area struck by the tsunami, putting luxury items like the various products made from herring roe out of reach for many.

The 2010 price for Sitka sac roe herring was $690 per ton.

Adding to the excitement of the opening was the near-rollover of the Homer-based fishing vessel Infinite Grace, who reportedly had wrapped up a big set and was getting ready to pump the fish out when the herring dove and pulled the boat over on her side. The situation was made worse when a stay holding the main boom in place broke as the vessel heeled over, adding the large boom and the seine block to the weight overboard.

They were apparently able to right themselves after a few minutes and get their net back with no injuries and without further incident.

For a dramatic video shot by Michael Hand, a crew member on the F/V Morning Star, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-X0zJPDL2g. There is some aerial footage here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aCfoBSSQxA.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is launching a tagging project to study sablefish, also known as black cod, in Prince William Sound.

The department caught, tagged and released 1,200 black cod and anticipates some of them will be caught by commercial and sport fishermen who will hopefully return the tags along with pertinent information.

The goal of the project is to determine to what extent black cod in the sound mix with stocks in the Gulf of Alaska, in order to decide whether ADF&G should be doing stock assessments or whether they can rely on surveys done by National Marine Fisheries Service on gulf stocks to set management goals.

While the vast majority of black cod caught in Alaska fall under federal management through the IFQ fishery, there is a limited state-waters fishery in Prince William Sound. The fishery is limited entry, and there are 52 boats registered for the 2011 season, which begins April 15 and runs through Aug. 31, with a Guideline Harvest Level of 242,000 pounds.

Although it is not managed under an IFQ system, which is not allowed under the Alaska Constitution, there are similarities. Half of the GHL is divided up evenly among the registered vessels, and the other half is divided up on a graduated scale according to vessel size.

Homer ADF&G Area Management Biologist Charlie Trowbridge called it a "shared quota approach," and said it was the first time such a management strategy had been used by the Board of Fisheries.

Managers had tried several things to keep from over-harvesting the resource before going to the current system, including trip limits and vessel size restrictions.

"Even with that, fishing ramped up to where we were down to 24 hours (per season) and still exceeding the GHL, and we ended up back in front of the Board of Fish," Trowbridge said. "This fishery, even though it's limited and has vessel size classes to restrict escalation of effort, it's occurred anyway."

Trowbridge said the permit holders had some say in designing the system.

The NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz, Calif., has had some tagged sablefish returned long after the tagging program was halted.

The SFSC study was conducted to track movement and growth of sablefish between 1981 and 1995. Over the last six months, commercial fishermen have recovered three of the tagged fish.

One of the fish was tagged in 1986, and traveled almost 600 miles from southern California to Eureka. During that time it grew from a length of 18 inches to 22 inches. Another fish was tagged near Morro Bay and recovered 20 years later within 15 miles of where it was released. This fish grew from 19 inches to 22 inches. The third fish was tagged off Coos Bay Oregon in 1991, and was recovered 19 years later off Morro Bay, a trip of more than 500 miles. This fish grew from 20 inches to 24 inches in length.

These recaptured fish were relatively small when initially captured and averaged less than one quarter of an inch in growth each year.

The center says the information will help scientists understand more about the life history and migratory characteristics of the species.

New information from a researcher at the University of Tokyo indicates that when the March 11 tsunami in Japan reached the city of Miyako in Iwate Prefecture, it reached a height of 37.9 meters, or more than 124 feet, nearly matching the Japanese record of 38.2 meters marked in the city of Ofunato in the prefecture in the 1896 Meiji Sanriku earthquake tsunami.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.