Fish Factor: Fall fisheries are getting underway

Spot shrimp season opens on Oct. 1 for Southeast Alaska

As Alaska’s salmon season draws to a close, lots of fall fisheries are just getting underway from Ketchikan to the Bering Sea.

Southeast is one of Alaska’s busiest regions for fall fishing, especially for various kinds of shellfish. Nearly 400,000 pounds of sidestripe and pink shrimp are being hauled in by a few beam trawlers, and the season for spot shrimp opens Oct. 1. Usually about half a million pounds of the popular big spot shrimp are hauled up in local pots over several months.

Dungeness crab fishing also will reopen in Southeast in October, and up to 200 Southeast divers will head down for more than 1.7 million pounds of sea cucumbers starting Oct. 1.

A 140,000 pound sea cucumber fishery at Kodiak attracts around 20 divers, and smaller cuke catches in the 5,000- to 20,000-pound range also occur along the Alaska Peninsula, the Aleutians and Bering Sea.

Divers, who received about $4 per pound for their sea cucumber catches last year, are likely to get even higher prices. The cukes are considered a delicacy in Asian countries where they are served in many fresh, frozen and powered forms. (See more about the amazing health properties of sea cucumbers below.)

A decrease in supply due to a heat wave this summer in China killed most of that country’s production and market reports show that dried sea cucumbers from Japan were recently selling for $126.50 per pound.

Alaska longliners have taken 78 percent of the nearly 20-million-pound catch limit since the fishery began in mid-March, with less than four million pounds remaining. Seward, Homer and Kodiak were the top ports for halibut landings. For sablefish, fishermen have taken 61 percent of the nearly 26-million-pound quota with Seward, Sitka and Kodiak receiving the most deliveries. Both fisheries end on November 7.

Fishing for cod, rockfish, flounders, pollock and other whitefish continues in the Bering Sea. Pollock reopens in the Gulf of Alaska October 1.

Bering Sea crabbers will find out any day the fate of a red king crab fishery at Bristol Bay as well as the catches for snow crab and Tanners. Those fisheries open October 15.

Fall also marks the time for some of Alaska’s most important fish meetings. The industry will get a first peek at possible fish catches for next year when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meets October 1-9 in Anchorage. Comments on all agenda items are open through Sept. 28.

Finally, the state Board of Fisheries will meet October 15-19 at the Egan Center with an unusual lineup that includes a work session, Pacific cod issues and an open town hall meeting on Alaska hatcheries.

In its regular meeting cycle that begins in November, the board will address regulatory issues focused on state managed fisheries at Bristol Bay, the Alaska Peninsula, Chignik, the Aleutians and Bering Sea.

Bigger home for baby oysters

Alaska oyster growers at Kachemak Bay near Homer could more than triple their production if they had a new FLUPSY. That’s a floating upweller system used to grow millions of tiny oysters after they leave their nursery tanks.

It takes up to five years for oysters to grow from microscopic to slurpable size, and the outdated system is taking a big bite out of the potential.

Unlike other shellfish growing regions in Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound where farms are widely scattered, a dozen Kachemak Bay farmers used their closer proximity and formed a cooperative in 1988 to pool their resources and products. Since then, the Kachemak Shellfish Growers Cooperative and its non-profit mariculture arm have grown to share a facility on the Homer Spit for processing, marketing, slurping, shipping and most recently, culturing local oyster seed.

“We should be independent from seed to plate. We are doing that now,” said Marie Bader, cooperative president.

Roughly 3 million microscopic seed oysters are held in five 500-gallon nursery tanks where they feed constantly on algae for three months before transferring to the waters of Kachemak Bay. That’s where the FLUPSY comes in. The floating raft is run by a paddle wheel pump that provides a steady flow of water and algae to porous bins that hold the baby bivalves for a year.

“We no longer feed them when they go into the ocean. They depend on the water for their nutrients,” Bader explained.

The baby oysters are cleaned and graded throughout their year in the FLUPSY; when they reach fingernail size, they are sold to the farmers who grow them in floating lantern nets for at least two more years before they are marketable.

The Kachemak growers sold 150,000 dozen oysters last year. Orders online are advertised at $21 per dozen but sell locally for $14 to $16 at retail and “a bit less for restaurants,” Bader said. “At Pike’s Place Market in Seattle oysters are selling for $19-$20 a dozen, so it’s a pretty darn good value.”

The group also sells oyster seed at $40 to $45 per thousand to oyster growers in Alaska and elsewhere, where demand exceeds supply. As the Pacific Ocean acidifies, oyster growers in Washington, California and British Columbia have struggled to get larvae to grow into seed, the stage when shells form, and are turning to Alaska. Upgrading their nearly 20-year-old FLUPSY would help fill that need.

“Instead of three million, we might up it to 10 million, and we could space out the baby oysters more so they weren’t so congested in the few bins we have,” Bader said, adding that the FLUPSY is “on its last legs.”

“It’s been in salt water, it’s open to the elements, our workers have to boat over to Halibut Cove and are outside in rain and snow keeping that paddlewheel going in the middle of winter.  We need a new facility that is enclosed so that our workers are out of the elements and our seed is protected,” she added.

A new FLUPSY is on Homer’s 2019 capital improvement list for a total cost of $175,000. City manager Katie Koester called the co-op’s oyster businesses a “sparkling year-round addition” to Homer and said that “every cooler of oysters delivered to the dock represents $150 to the grower.”

Koester added that the local hatchery and new FLUPSY also can provide a great educational lab for high school and university students, who currently must travel to Seward for mariculture studies.

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Laine Welch of Kodiak has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry for print and broadcast since 1991. Visit her website at www.alaskafishradio.com.