Alaska geoduck biomass is down, but sea cucumbers on the upswing

This year, divers in Southeast Alaska will focus on a guideline harvest level of 523,500 pounds of geoducks and 1.75 million pounds for sea cucumbers, which is down from the 1.9 million-pound guideline harvest level (GHL) they saw in the 2019-2020 season.

Though the GHL appears to have come down from a year ago, the schedule of dive openings in areas that alternate every other year show that biomass is actually on the rise for cucumbers.

The GHL for the same harvest areas in the 2018-2019 season had been set at 1.48 million pounds. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game conducts population surveys every three years for sea cucumbers and stock assessments last year revealed strong young age-classes that will recruit into the fishery, according to Justin Breese, fisheries manager with ADF&G in Ketchikan.

“There were a lot of young cucumbers in that assessment,” he said.

The story isn’t quite as optimistic for geoducks. Though the GHLs vary, based on alternating harvest areas like cucumbers, some dive areas have seen heavy predation by sea otters and high levels of PSP.

“There were some areas lost because biomass fell down a bit,” Breese said. “There were some significant areas lost from that.”

As for the markets, COVID-19 hampered diving for geoducks last spring when live outlets shut down in China.

“But when the Chin[ese] market reopened, we fished through the summer, which was a first for the fishery,” Phil Doherty, co-executive director of Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association, in Ketchikan, said. “PSP levels were very low so we were able to fish on a consistent basis and eventually took most of the 700,000 GHL.”

This year, 50 divers are participating in the geoduck fishery, and 150 divers focusing their efforts on sea cucumbers.

Ex-vessel prices have been softer, Doherty reported, with an average of USD 4.25 (EUR 3.49) per pound, down from the USD 6.00 (EUR 4.94) per pound divers had seen in recent years.

“The market for cukes is more diverse than geoducks,” Doherty said. “So COVID-19, while a factor, is not as big a problem as in geoducks.”

Reporting by Charlie Ess

Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture


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