Stay home or go fishing? Homer fishermen grapple with cod decline

Dec 15, 2017

Pacific cod.
Credit Photo Courtesy of Holland Dotts & the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

Regulators voted to slash Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod allocations 80 percent earlier this month after a massive decline in stocks. That has fishermen and processors around the Gulf deciding what to do when the season kicks off on in January.

“It’s going to be a big deal to a bunch of us. I’m guessing we’re going to be looking for stuff to do by the end of February at the latest,” Alray Carroll said.

Carroll works as an engineer for Bering Marine Corporation in the summer, but during the winter months, he fishes for Pacific cod in state waters near Kachemak Bay.

Pacific cod is Alaska’s second largest fishery by volume, brining $186 million in 2015, and the fishery is open during a time when there’s not much else going on.

Once 2018’s total allowable catch of 13,000 metric tons has been landed, the season is over. That has some fishermen wondering if it might be better to just wait for other fisheries to open, but Carroll said he’s still plans on fishing.

“It won’t be any different. It’ll be just a little shorter. Last year we fished from December until April 8 or something like that. It was a long season,” Carroll said. “This one is going to be pretty fast and furious. I’m thinking federal pot quota will be caught in three weeks and state-water pot quota I don’t think it will last a month.”

Others aren’t so sure. Erik Velsko fishes for Pacific cod, but also targets halibut and sablefish, which usually ramp up in March. Velsko also uses his boat as a fish tender in the summer.

He said he may just wait for those fisheries, but halibut quotas are also expected to be on a downturn, which doesn’t leave much room for either halibut or sablefish to pick up the slack.

“So, yea it just may be a few lean years. We’ll just have to try to pick up as much longline quota as we can and maybe extend the tender contract, try to do whatever we can to maintain what we’ve been doing,” Velsko said. “I think we’re going to be well under what we’ve been bringing in for the last few years here.”

Others say next year’s quota doesn’t necessarily mean the season is doomed.

Mike McCune manages the Fish Factory, a Homer-based processor. McCune said he will keep the plant operating through February despite the decline.

“We don’t know where the fishing is going to be good, where it’s going to be poor,” he said. “The quota for the federal season is of course quite small. However, if the fishing is slow in other regions and relatively decent in our area, that will allow for us to stay busy longer than the 80-percent cut would indicate.”

The market may also compensate for the decline. Pacific cod hovered around 45 cents per pound in 2017. As for what prices might jump up to, McCune said that’s something he can’t predict.

“I’ve got no idea on that. If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably wouldn’t have to work for a living anymore,” he added.

McCune did say that he doesn’t expect prices to jump over $1 per pound because other cod fisheries around the U.S. and in other countries may stabilize prices.

But cod fishermen like Carroll say if prices jump up to 60 cents per pound, that may help carry them through the winter months.