Since December, a few intrepid Cook Inlet fishermen have been trying something new. They’ve been fishing for pollock in state waters using seine gear. It’s an experiment to determine the viability of establishing a future fishery in the area. KBBI’s Shady Grove Oliver spent a day aboard the Sea Prince to see how the experiment is working so far.
We set out from the Homer harbor before sunrise. The crew of the 58-foot Sea Prince organizes gear on deck under a flood light as we chug into Kachemak Bay.
And in the wheelhouse, Captain Rob Nelson is preparing for the first set. He’s not totally sure where or when to set the net.
“I guess, somebody’s got to start,” he said. “I mean it would be great if we knew exactly what to expect and how to gear up and everything. But, somebody’s got to go first I guess.”
The Sea Prince and another vessel, the Silver Streak, are the only two boats that have gone out so far. It’s a risky venture after all, to put time and money into something that might not pan out. And that’s the bare bones of this experimental fishery – to test the waters for potential and figure out the particulars along the way.
That’s one of the reasons Elisa Russ is on board today. She’s an assistant area management biologist for Fish and Game.
“Definitely that has been the impetus with having every single trip observed with a Department of Fish and Game observer on board to monitor the bycatch as well as the effectiveness of the gear and how the fishery is prosecuting,” Russ said.
Chinook bycatch has been a huge concern for fishermen and biologists alike. Since the fishery started in December, there have been 45 kings caught. Russ says all but two were released unharmed and those didn’t go to waste.
“And so, any that are caught and killed, which as I said was two, then I’m processing for sampling and taking genetic information from and then I’ve been donating them to the Homer Food Bank,” Russ said.
The majority of the bycatch has been herring, jellyfish, and the occasional Pacific cod. And numbers are lower than initially expected.
Captain Nelson says the other thing that’s been lower than expected is the fish.
“The fish are in the deep. This time of year they’re out in the deep hole so it’s kind of out of our reach unless they really come up,” he said. “So, you can see the potential; with a little deeper net you could go out and fish right out in the middle and probably catch some real volume doing that.”
The Sea prince can fish down to about 150 feet whereas the Silver Streak is limited to 75 feet.
And so far, the numbers reflect the net size. During the seven trips the boats completed in December, the Sea Prince caught more than 10 times the amount of pollock as the Silver Streak. And the combined total of 11,400 pounds was still only a fraction of the 220,000-pound GHL for 2014. To date, just over 30,000 pounds have been caught.
Captain Nelson says there’s good biomass, but lots of other contributing factors have come into play like tides, time of day, temperature, depth.
But he says the biggest challenge so far has actually been what to do with the fish once it’s caught.
“It just started slower. It’s one of those things where we figured we were going to be hot and heavy into it at the beginning and then market-wise it’s been a little slow,” Nelson said.
“They really need to diversify who they’ve been selling to. I think they’re hoping that with the opening of the trawl pollock fisheries – the big fisheries in the state for pollock – this will hopefully allow them more options for where to sell their fish,” Russ said. “Where the processors are buying larger volume from the pollock trawl fleet, that they can also perhaps sell a higher volume with less restrictions. I’m not sure if that’s how it will pan out.”
The majority has gone to the bait market at 30 to 40 cents per pound and he’s sold some to the South Korean fresh market as well.
Nelson plans to deliver today’s catch to The Auction Block in Homer. In the 10 hours we’re out fishing, they catch a grand total of 3,872 pounds. It’s not the most they’ve done and not the least.
With the sun well below the horizon, the Sea Prince stows its gear and heads back to town.
“We’re going to pull over to the dock where they’re going to unload us there. We’ll just crane up the totes and they’ll take them from there over to the facility and weigh them and then we’ll go from there and tie up,” Nelson said.
We head inside a warehouse where people are busy opening up the totes and throwing fish.
There’s also a surprise visitor. Beaver Nelson is the captain’s father, who’s come to see how his son fared today. He also sits on the Gulf of Alaska pollock work group. It was created to stimulate discussion about opening state waters to seining for the species.
Pollock is caught predominantly in the federal trawl fisheries. But he says recently, there’s been interest in new avenues.
“And there’s other areas [like] Sand Point, Kodiak, and King Cove,” he said. “Those areas are all interested in possibly seining for pollock also. So, this fishery is basically to determine if seining is a feasible way to capture pollock other than trawling. A safer way with possibly much less bycatch than trawling would involve.”
He says not only would it maximize use of a state resource, it would open up opportunities for fishermen concerned with the turn toward more restricted IFQ-type fisheries.
“If we had a state allocation, it wouldn’t be an IFQ thing,” he said. “It would be an allocation toward open-entry fishery to anyone who wanted to try it, could go do it.”
He says if the data collected during these initial trips is positive, he could see a fishery coming to fruition.
That data is the focus of biologist Elisa Russ’s last task of the evening. She heads over to a metal table, pulls out a pollock, a ruler, and a scale. She sticks the hook end of a scale through one of the heads.
“I am sampling the pollock. I’m going to do a random sample of 50 pollock from the catch today now that it’s all mixed up,” Russ said. “On all these fish, I’m going to take the length, the weight, the sex, the maturity condition, so if it’s a juvenile or if it’s sexually mature and where it’s at in its reproductive cycle.”
She pulls out a knife, swings it and chops open its head.
“I take out the pair of sagittal odaliths from these fish and that’s their earbones. We can tell their age from them. They’re kind of like a tree, they have rings on them,” Russ said. “We break them, burn them, cut them in half, toast them in an oven and that gives some contrast to the annuli, the age rings, and then we age them.”
This sampling will establish baseline data for the fishery. It will be taken into consideration by Fish and Game, the Board of Fish, and other stakeholders in determining where to go from here.
So, all in all, there’s still a lot up in the air. There are a lot of unknowns. It’s still a risk, but Captain Rob Nelson says, it’s worth it.
“Might not even be a profitable venture the first year, but it will be a start and you’ve got to start somewhere and we’ll know where to go from here,” he said. “But the first thing is to show that it can be done.”
He’s got until the end of February to do just that.