Nushugak Sockeye Run On Track; Processors Better Prepared in Bristol Bay This Year
SEAFOODNEWS.COM by Peggy Parker – June 29, 2018
While the nation celebrates its 242nd birthday next week, Bristol Bay celebrates a much longer period of sockeye salmon returning to the five river systems and dozens of interior Alaska lakes. And for the past 120 years, about half the time since we declared independence, Bristol Bay’s commercial fishery has been sending sockeye to outside markets.
This week Bristol Bay’s Nushagak River system is pulsing with red salmon now and appears to be on track with last year’s all-time record-breaking run. The state’s forecasted harvest for that system, which is made up of the Wood and Igushik rivers as well as the Nushagak, is 18.5 million sockeye, another record if it’s realized. Early returns have it exactly at last year’s level at this time.
Most of the 1,500-vessel Bristol Bay fleet is on the Nushagak run now, providing an opportunity for the ten major buyer/processors a chance to work out any kinks in a complicated and stress-tested process to get 30- to 60-million sockeyes to the market in a ten-day, two weeks if they’re lucky, time frame.
“When the district’s river systems start firing off, you hope they don’t all fire off at one time,” said Norm Van Vactor, the CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and one of the most experienced fleet and plant managers in the Bay.
“Every year is slightly different, but you generally saw fisheries starting up river system by river system, with Egegek kicking first, then a couple of days later, Naknek; then almost by the clock 20 days later, Nushagak would kick in. A week after that Kvichak and then somewhere in the mix you’d see Ugashik,” Van Vactor remembered.
That step-wise process worked out well for processors who could direct their fleet of tenders to the different areas to buy fish without the pressure of all the fish coming at once.
“Now what’s going on this year, with the benefits of that second boat at the Port Moller Test Fishery and the genetic signals of Nushagak sockeye coming in, the industry was prepared,” Van Vactor said.
Even with all the planning pre-season, including signing the tenders for 30- or 60-day contracts, knowing how much fish the company will buy (this year it exceeds the state’s forecast by a few million fish) and knowing down to the pound how much will be processed into different product forms and how much will leave the bay by air versus boat, Bristol Bay processors have to be ready for anything.
Choreographing the tender fleet is key to meeting plant goals. The tides in Bristol Bay are eighth highest in the world, which means a lot of water moves in and out every six hours. Two high tides a day and two low tides a day require fleet managers to make critical decisions for each of their boats, and rely on skippers who know the grounds well. A bad calculation can mean a loaded tender sits idle for a full tide cycle before delivering to the plant.
That’s why the fishing fleet, the tenders, and the plants live and breathe through the radio schedule.
“We have 8 calls a day,” Van Vactor explained. “It’s a huge part of the logistical production of getting fish to market.
“You’ve really got to do things around the tide,” he said. It may be instinctual to wait for a boat to be full before pulling it back to the plant, but Van Vactor said that doesn’t work here.
“Frankly, if boats aren’t full you need to get that tender back to the plant and empty it so you can get it right back out and keep buying. If you don’t, and the weather kicks up, you’ll have tenders sheltering behind a sand bar where they’ll get the crap beat out of them, then deliver poor quality fish.”
Van Vactor was Peter Pan’s plant and fleet manager for 37 years and has seen most of the challenges inherent in the Bristol Bay fishery.
“Most companies have a day watch and night watch on the radio. I could never do that,” he said. “There’s always little nuances and inflections.
“A tender captain might tell me ‘My water doesn’t seem to be chilling as fast as it should be, but I’m just fine!’ Right away that tells me we’ve got a compressor problem.
“If you have a tender problem, you need to deal with it right away. I made a practice of sleeping by the radio mike during the season,” he said.
While the basics of Bristol Bay remain the same — millions of sockeye are caught in a short time — some key components have changed. At least three major plants in Bristol Bay are now managed by women, a change that’s happened only in recent years.
In the last decade, more product is being flown out of the Bay rather than transported by water. In 2006, the number of companies that used air or air and sea transport rather than just sea transport was about 50:50. Last year, about two-thirds of processors used air or air and sea transport. More fish are sent to the fresh market every year.
“For some companies the fresh program ties into their whole buying scheme,” Van Vactor pointed out. “They might have the tender capacity to buy 300,000 lb. and half that could be flown out.”
In the Bay as in other places in Alaska, the size of sockeyes has dropped from 6.7 lbs average in 2001 to last year’s 5.4 lb. average.
This year’s season is shaping up to be similar to last year’s but with forecasted drops in the Naknek, Egegik, and Ugashik runs while increases in Wood, Igushik, with a slight drop in the Nushagak add up to a forecasted harvest is 37.6 million sockeye.
When challenges do occur, for instance last year with more fish coming in than expected, several plants were on limit for days in a row. When that happens, or disaster of another sort strikes, the plants lend a hand if possible.
“Companies here are fierce competitors but yet because we operate in rural Alaska and off the road system, we have to watch each other’s back and help out where we can,” Van Vactor said.
“When I get that phone call at 1 in the morning, someone is hurt and they need to borrow the company helicopter to medivac them, or I have a spare pump someone needs, you go out of your way to help them out.
“After years of helping out, I was involved in a plant fire in Dillingham at the peak of the season one year. Our power plant was down for 4 days. I had 2 million lbs of fish scattered on tenders. I made those phone calls, calling for help at 1 in the morning, and the companies did help. They handled everything I had in transit.”
“There always comes a time, if you’re in this business long enough,” Van Vactor said. “You hope you can reach someone, and hope that their memories are long.”
KCAW by Emily Kwong – June 25, 2018
Over 200 fishermen and supporters gathered at Eliason Harbor on Sunday with signs and voice raised. They made a direct appeal to President Donald Trump to get involved with Pacific Salmon Treaty negotiations. Alaskan fishermen fear the state will agree to another cut to their king salmon allocation with Canada.
Poor salmon runs result in low harvests, disaster request
Peninsula Clarion by Elizabeth Earl – June 29, 2018
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game counts sockeye returning to the Copper River using a sonar at Miles Lake.
Poor salmon returns across the Gulf of Alaska are putting commercial fishing catches far behind the average and prompting a request for a disaster declaration.
Researchers Map Global Fishing Patterns From 1869 to 2015
SEAFOODNEWS.COM – June 27, 2018
Researchers at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Maine and Antarctic Studies have mapped the scale and patterns of change in global marine fishing for the last century and a half.
Led by Reg Watson, Professor of Fisheries and Ecological Modelling at the University, the study takes a look at global marine fishing from 1869 to 2015. The data was able to not only document entire catch by country and associated fishing gear, but also estimate the illegal, unreported and discarded catch.
“Compared to the previous blurry maps, the new techniques have provided a sharp image of the fishing patterns providing valuable wild-caught seafoods,” Watson explained.
For Watson, the data dating back to 1869 is “invaluable to get an all-inclusive overview and see how things have changed over time.” For instance, the researchers were able to discover that prior to the 1900s, Canada, the United States and Japan were all key fishing countries. However, Japan, Russia and Peru have been leading the pack since the 1950s. The data also revealed that more bottom-dwelling fish were caught prior to 1900 and that the “expansion of valued landings of tuna, shrimp and squid” didn’t happen until recent years.
“Much can be learnt from looking at historical patterns of fishing, and they can help inform decisions vital to maintaining the marine resources and their environments that mankind depends on,” said Watson.
Unexplained sockeye dropoff shuts down Yakutat fishery
Juneau Empire by Kevin Gullufsen – June 29, 2018
Small town’s economy leans on set net fishery, whose previously healthy wild runs are now the worst ever
Add Yakutat’s wild sockeye run to a growing list of struggling Alaska salmon stocks.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game shut down set net fishermen in the Yakutat District on Thursday after fishery managers determined less than 10 percent of the historical average have returned. Weirs on the Situk River have counted only 1,700 returning sockeye this year. That’s down from an average of 20,000.
WSI seeking entries for “Women in Seafood” video contest
Seafood Source by Chris Chase – June 27, 2018
The International Association for Women in the Seafood Industry (WSI) is actively seeking entries for its “women in seafood” video contest.
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