Bering Sea pollock fishery wraps about 2020 with difficult B season

Published on
November 9, 2020

A rough B season for Alaska pollock in the Bering Sea drew to a close with at least part of the total allowable catch (TAC) left in the water. Final numbers were not in yet, but industry insiders estimate fleets left around 5 to 6 percent of the 757,651 metric tons allotted for the B season, which runs from 10 June to 31 October.

Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.-based Global Seas, which runs four trawlers that fish for Bering Sea pollock, found smaller pollock on the grounds, which contributed to the difficult season, according to the company’s co-founder and CEO, Bob Desautel.

“This year was a total, all-out grind. Some companies left a little fish in the water, others left quite a bit of fish. And then you couple that with the low recovery rate due to high fishmeal rates and the smaller fish, and it didn’t help the bottom line,” Desautel told SeafoodSource.

B season struggles took the fishery by surprise after the A season, which runs from 20 January to 30 April, went smoothly, according to United Catcher Boat Executive Director Brent Paine.

“The A season was just a great fishery. There were high concentrations of fish, the size was good, the roe percentage was better than it had been in recent years. People just didn’t expect that the B season was going to be as difficult as it was, coming off a good A season,” Paine said.

The total allowable catch (TAC) for both the A and B seasons this year in the Bering Sea was set at 1.42 million metric tons, a tick up from 2019’s 1.39 million last year and 1.34 million in 2018.

But despite a higher TAC this year, the poor B season pushed preliminary year-on-year totals of all product forms down in 2020. After nearly 200,000 metric tons of surimi turned in last season, 2020 sat at just 173,821 metric tons at the beginning of the week, according to figures provided by the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers (GAPP). Pin-bone-out (PBO) fillets dropped from 133,530 metric tons last year to just over 100,000 this season, and the 50,000 metric tons of deep-skinned fillets was eight metric tons short of the 2019 production.

The abundance of smaller fish, however, meant lower value fishmeal levels were about steady year-on-year, holding near 70 million metric tons.

There is a bright side to high numbers of smaller fish, if not immediate, according to Desautel, who has been involved with the Bering Sea pollock fishery for 40 years.

Desautel predicted next A season, when larger fish school up to spawn, should provide a solid bottom line, while the 2021 B season could see similar struggles to this season, when the large numbers of two- to three-year-old fish seen this season will still be shy of ideal weights.

He pointed out that pollock grow about 75 to 100 grams a year, and that puts this season’s influx of 300-gram fish still on the edge of 400 grams, when processors can start making a higher-value product.

“Then in [2022], we should start seeing some of those fish enter into the fishery above the 400-gram range and we’ll be off to the races,” Desautel said, adding that the “ultimate fish” for the Bering Sea fleet is 600 to 900 grams.

Paine added that it was not just small fish size that made this B season a rough go. COVID-19 precautions held up the beginning of the season and complicated logistics throughout, while bycatch issues hindered fishing.

“There was a continual amount of chinook salmon that we were avoiding, and chum salmon as well. And then the sablefish bycatch, primarily in the inshore fishery, was up significantly,” Paine told SeafoodSource.

GAPP CEO Craig Morris also pointed to Russian military exercises that spooked fishermen, causing many to leave the grounds and miss valuable fishing time.

However, Morris said he was not overly concerned about the failure to harvest the entire TAC.

“Such shortfalls are not unprecedented. In 2011, dispersed fish in the B season resulted in a failure to harvest the full TAC. The following year, the full quota was harvested. Similarly, we have no reason to doubt the full quota for wild Alaska pollock will be harvested in 2021,” Morris said.

Photo courtesy of Global Seas

Contributing Editor reporting from Seattle, USA

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