Ron Rogness, GAPP Economic and Industry Advisor , December 20, 2022
Surveys Show Wild Alaska Pollock Stocks Healthy Resulting in Larger Quotas for 2023
Recently, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) took the penultimate step in the annual quota-setting process and set their recommended 2023 Total Allowable Catches (TACs) for Wild Alaska Pollock and other groundfish in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI) and the Gulf of Alaska (GOA). These recommendations now go to the Secretary of Commerce for final approval. The Council’s decisions are based on recommendations for the Acceptable Biological Catches (ABCs) provided by governmental and independent scientists on the Groundfish Plan Teams and the Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee.
The good news is that the responsible management of the U.S. Alaska Pollock resources off Alaska by the Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), along with favorable environmental conditions for Wild Alaska Pollock, have resulted in stocks in both the Gulf of Alaska and the Eastern Bering Sea (EBS) that are healthy and increasing. In fact, as was noted in a recent Seafood.com article, the biomass (total tonnage of fish) for Wild Alaska Pollock in the Eastern Bering Sea is estimated to be of record size. All this has resulted in quota increases for Wild Alaska Pollock for the 2023 fishing year. For the Eastern Bering Sea, the Council increased the TAC from 1.111 million metric tons in 2022 to 1.3 million metric tons in 2023. Likewise, the Council increased the TAC in the GOA from 141,117 metric tons to 156,578 metric tons.
The cumulative TACs for all groundfish fisheries managed under the Fishery Management Plan are capped at two million metric tons in the Eastern Bering Sea. The 2023 Eastern Bering Sea ABC for Wild Alaska Pollock, the amount of catch that could safely be harvested, is 1.910 million metric tons. There would be very little TAC for the other groundfish species at that level. With industry input, the Council set the TAC where it did to enable other groundfish fisheries to harvest their TACs. The scientists also provide next year’s forecast at the December meeting, and the outlook for 2024 is also positive. While it will be adjusted based on input from next year’s fishery and surveys, the scientists are forecasting that the ABC in the Eastern Bering Sea will be 2.275 million metric tons, an almost 20% increase from the 2023 number.
Another positive is the anticipated size of the fish in next year’s fishery. One- or two-year classes often dominate Wild Alaska Pollock stocks. The 2022 surveys and fishery data showed that most biomass spawned in 2018. Next year, these fish will be five years old and near-optimal size for processing. Thus, one can expect improved yields in 2023 and likely even higher yields in 2024.
This quota news highlights just how critical the surveys conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service are for the industry and the resource. Scientists now concede that they underestimated the size of the Eastern Bering Sea biomass last year when they did not have the full suite of surveys to incorporate into their scientific model due to COVID-related restrictions. In the absence of new survey information, the scientists chose to be more conservative in their ABC recommendations, resulting in a lower quota in 2021.
Finally, we also know that Wild Alaska Pollock stocks are cyclical. If history is any guide, natural and fishing mortality will reduce the 2018-year class over the next few years. We expect to see another large year class take its place and mature into the fishery in the second half of this decade and it is possible we could see a subsequent decrease in the quota as that transition takes place. It will be important to note that irrespective of what occurs, the fishery managers will act appropriately to ensure supplies of Wild Alaska Pollock for future generations.