Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 1:33 PM on Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bering Sea crab fleet still trying to wait out the ice

By Cristy Fry

The ice in the Bering Sea continues to cause huge problems for the opilio crab fishery which is set to close in just over a month, with almost one-third of the 89 million pound quota still in the water.

A majority of the fleet has been tied up in Dutch Harbor waiting for the ice to be pushed north, but a continuing air flow from the north may make that wait fairly long.

A Homer-based boat recently reported spending four days pushing through the ice from St. Paul harbor in the Pribilof Islands to clear, ice-free waters to the south, at the time a distance of about 85 miles, on the way to join the rest of the fleet in Dutch Harbor.

Dutch Harbor is 238 miles from St. Paul.

The main problem, besides not being able to get into St. Paul harbor to deliver, is that the ice is covering most of the Bering Shelf, where the fishing grounds are.

National Weather Service ice forecaster Kathleen Cole said the ice was expected to push back north about 35 miles over the weekend as a low pressure system moved into the area, but the gains may be short-lived, with the ice coming back down around 25 miles by today.

Cole said that there are a couple of other weather systems coming in that are included in the latest model, with southerly winds followed by northerly winds, so the ice dance will continue for the foreseeable future.

However, despite appearances, it is spring, and that will start factoring into the ice movement.

"We are gradually getting warmer temperatures with this, too, so the ice will retreat and come back, but should retreat more than come back. It will kind of do a stair-step," Cole said.

"It's two steps forward, one step back."

She said this will be an ongoing scenario through much of May, but by next week at least the edge of the fishing grounds may be reliably ice-free.

Some fishing groups have requested that the season be extended past the May 31 closure, a move that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is reluctant to make, as it may mean fishing on stocks that are beginning their summer molt. That also would make them less appealing to processors. However, it has not been completely ruled out.

Forecasting ice movements can be complicated. Cole said she has numerous tools in her box to keep track of the ice and its movements, including several different satellite sources that provide daily high-resolution real-time images, the most reliable being a visible image from NASA.

"That means that if it's dark I can't see it, or if it's cloudy I can't see it," she said. "But it's such high-resolution imagery that a lot of times you can see through the clouds if you adjust it right."

She also gets satellite-based radar images that do see through the clouds.

With the help of those images and the weather models used for marine and land-based forecasts, along with a new ice model from the Navy, Cole said she has numerous sources of information, but there are a number of things that can affect ice movement that require experience to understand.

"The thickness of the ice, concentration of the ice, roughness of the ice, currents, tides, winds, persistency of the winds, those are things that can't be modeled," she said. "We have guidance from models, and we add to that based on the knowledge that we've gained over the years."

For example, she said, "I have one source that is a good 'drift of ice' indicator, but it doesn't see ice melting and it doesn't see ice forming. And so it has real limitations at those times. So you take it for what you can and you adjust it."

Cole said this extreme year in the Bering Sea has added important knowledge.

"There are currents that we're finding around the Pribilofs that we've never really been able to see before, and boy, have they been moving the ice this year. It's really been amazing," she said.

The Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. is offering pre-season loans of up to $5,000 to fishermen to help with expenses prior to the season.

The program is open to residents of the 17 CDQ communities in the Bristol Bay district, and is intended for expenses such as boat storage, nets, insurance, fuel, repairs and other related items needed to get boats out on the grounds catching fish.

The boat owners need to detail how the money will be spent, and the processor they fish for must agree to withhold the amount borrowed plus a $25 fee, and repay the advance by July 20.

Applications and more information can be found at www.bbedc.com, or call (907) 842-4370.

The Vancouver Aquarium announced that its marine biologists have achieved an important breakthrough: breeding Arctic cod in captivity.

The effort has been for scientific, not aquaculture, purposes, according to a press statement.

"Rearing Arctic cod is a delicate and intensive process, and the early development stages are critical to the livelihood of the cod," siad Danny Kent, curator at the Vancouver Aquarium. "The Arctic cod larvae and eggs are extremely fragile and require meticulous and constant expert care to thrive. Successfully bringing the larvae to the juvenile stage could be a stepping stone to future research on this very important species."

Opportunities to study Arctic cod are extremely rare due to remote natural habitats that are not easily accessible by research teams. This is compounded by the high cost of traveling to the Arctic and the challenges of collecting the species; moreover, the extremely challenging water temperature and water quality conditions under which they have to be kept make rearing very difficult.

Arctic cod are related to Atlantic and Pacific cod which are commercially caught species. They are a key link in the Arctic food chain, and are a primary food source for iconic species such as narwhals, belugas and ringed seals, which polar bears depend upon for their survival. The health of Arctic cod populations is a clear indication of the overall health of the Arctic ecosystem.

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