January kicks off Alaska fishing

AK's biggest fisheries begin in January; forecasts for 2023 are coming in almost daily.

by | January 3, 2023

Filed Under Catch Updates | Forecasts

Lots of fishing and forecasts for 2023

Alaska fish harvests for 2023 are being revealed almost daily by state and federal managers, ranging from salmon to groundfish to crab and herring.

Here’s a sampler so far, with some added commentary:

The bulk of Alaska’s seafood by far is taken from fishing grounds ranging from three to 200 miles offshore that are managed by federal overseers. The volume taken from the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska includes more than two dozen types of groundfish, or whitefish, such as cod, pollock, rockfish, perch and other species and totals nearly 5.5 billion pounds for 2023.

 The fishing cycle begins each year on January 1, when fishermen drop pots and baited hooks for Pacific Cod.

That’s followed by pollock, the nation’s largest food fishery, starting on January 20. More than three billion pounds of pollock will be harvested by trawlers in Alaska waters in both 2023 and 2024. A state-water pollock fishery also occurs in Prince William Sound.

According to NOAA data, a nearly 80% “share” of the dockside value of ALL Alaska groundfish leaves the state, going  primarily to Washington. That includes departing value shares of .78 for all flatfish; .66 for Pacific cod; and a .89 share of the value for all pollock.

Fisheries for black rockfish and Pacific cod opened on January 1 in Southeast Alaska only for those using dinglebar troll gear, hand troll gear, and mechanical jigging machines.

A total of 325,000 pounds of rockfish can be taken and up to 1,250,000 pounds for P-cod. The fisheries remain open all year unless closed earlier by emergency order.

Tanner crab from the Gulf of Alaska

Winter crab fisheries gearing up

On January 15, a Tanner crab fishery opens at Kodiak and the westward region which now lays claim to being Alaska’s largest crab-producing area.  The combined 2023 harvest is 7.3 million pounds – 5.8 million pounds from Kodiak; 1.1 million pounds from the Alaska Peninsula and 400,000 pounds at Chignik. If the fishery comes in as expected, it will be the region’s largest crab fishery since 1986 with more than 3.32 million Tanners crossing the local docks. Crabbers in 2022 pocketed a record final price of $8.50 per pound for a 1.8 million pound catch.

Note: Tanner crab is always capitalized because it is named after discoverer Zera Luther Tanner, commander of the research vessel Albatross in the late 1800s.

In Southeast Alaska, Tanner and golden king crab fisheries open concurrently on February 12. The 2022 season produced just over 1.4 million pounds of Tanner crab which paid out at $6.64/lb on average at the docks.

For golden king crab, the Southeast 2022 catch came in at 74,000 pounds with average weights ranging from 6.4 to 8.2 pounds. Fishermen received a whopping $16.91 to $19.92/lb for each golden crab, far more than a barrel of Alaska oil.

Crabbers are also dropping pots for just under six million pounds of golden king crab at the Aleutian Islands and for nearly two million pounds of Tanner crab in the Bering Sea.

Zera Luther Tanner

Halibut watch

Halibut catch limits for 2023 will be revealed at the IPHC annual in-person meeting set for January 23-27 in Victoria, British Columbia. The coastwide catch limit for 2022 was 40.2 million pounds and removals were just 7% short of that total. That includes takes by commercial, sport, subsistence users and bycatch in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska waters.

Alaska’s 2022 commercial halibut fishery produced nearly 17.6 million pounds out of a 20.3 million pound catch limit. Prices remained sky-high during the nine month season, ranging from $6.66 – $7.92 per pound on average.

Fishermen holding shares of sablefish (black cod) caught 75% of their nearly 57 million pound quota in 2022. Dock prices averaged between $1.99 – $2.44 per pound.

Both the halibut and sablefish fisheries for roughly 2,000 Alaska quota shareholders open in early March.

Huge herring hauls again for 2023

Herring haul at Sitka Credit: SeafoodSource

Huge herring hauls are being projected again at Alaska’s largest producers: Sitka Sound and Togiak.

The 2023 allowable harvest at Sitka Sound, which usually begins in late March, is 30,124 short tons (60.25 million pounds). That is based on a herring biomass that managers project to be “among the highest observed over the past five decades.”

The 2022 Sitka fishery, which ran from March 26 to April 10, had the largest quota ever at 45,164 tons (90.32 million pounds). Twenty-eight of the 47 permit-holders participated in the Sitka roe herring fishery, taking 56% of the allowed harvest.

Togiak, home to Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery, could produce 57,419 tons in 2023 (nearly 115 million pounds), topping last year’s record forecast of 65,107 tons (over 130 million pounds). Only about 15,000 tons (30 million pounds) of that were taken last year by eight seiners who fetched $100 per ton.  

Alaska’s roe herring fishery was once very valuable, topping $60 million to fishermen in the late 1990s. But changing tastes by a single buyer – Japan – have steadily decreased the value to about $9 million in 2021. “It’s maybe the most extreme example of how a major Alaska industry could be dependent on an extremely specialized foreign market. And it is a stark contrast to the diverse buyers of other Alaska species,” said Gunnar Knapp, a retired University of Alaska fisheries economist.

In other parts of the world, herring are processed into many products, such as kippered (smoked), fillets, or pickled and served fried, broiled, grilled and steamed. But in Alaska, where the fishery targets females, the males that are taken as “bycatch” and the de-egged female carcasses are ground up for meal and sold to foreign fish farms, or simply discarded. A small portion is sold as bait.  Alaska herring not destined for human consumption runs as high as 88% each year

Salmon forecasts keep coming

The 2023 statewide Alaska salmon forecast will come out in early March, but many projections are posted already at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game commercial fisheries website. 

At Alaska’s bellwether fishery at Bristol Bay, state managers project a sockeye salmon catch of 37.8 million fish, well below the 2022 record harvest of 60.1 million reds. The University of Washington Alaska Salmon Program, however, predicts a smaller catch of 34.95 million sockeyes. Either way, it amounts to about 37% fewer sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay.

Kodiak’s 2023 pink salmon harvest is expected to be in the “strong” category at 26.2 million fish, compared to a catch of 15.5 million in 2022. Conversely, the Kodiak sockeye harvest is predicted to be “poor” at just under 1.8 million, down from nearly 2.4 million reds in 2022.

Chignik’s sockeye forecast also calls for a “weak” catch of under one million fish.

The Alaska Peninsula is projected to have a “strong” pink salmon harvest of nine million humpies.

At Southeast Alaska the pink salmon catch is predicted to be “weak,” coming in at 19 million fish.

And for those who think salmon fishing only occurs in the summer – trollers at Southeast are out on the water for Chinook salmon from October through March 15, or until a total of 45,000 king salmon are harvested.

Finally, the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) will address 38 proposals for Arctic/Yukon/Kuskokwim fisheries from January 14-18 at the Egan Center in Anchorage.  The board sets policy for state subsistence, commercial, sport and personal use fisheries.

Alaska groundfish catches for 2023/2024 in Bering Sea and Gulf of AK federal waters

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.


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