Fish Factor: Deal yourself a lesson in Alaska fisheries

A new card game teaches players how to identify wild Alaska sea critters and more. Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game
A new card game teaches players how to identify wild Alaska sea critters and more. Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Go fish!

A deck of clever playing cards is teaching people about one of Alaska’s most popular yet fragile fishing favorites: rockfish.

During games players can learn how to identify the 48 different kinds of rockfish found in Alaska waters and some, like rougheye, can live beyond 200 years.

“Shortraker, the 10 of diamonds, can live 157 years. Yelloweye live 118 years and are sexually mature at around 22 years. Black rockfish mature at six or seven years and can live to be 50 years,” said Andrew Olson, Alaska Department of Fish and Game groundfish and shellfish coordinator for the Southeast region, who helped design the deck.

Along with identification and biology, the cards also tell fishing rules for sport and commercial fishermen and alerts them about protective gear that will be required next year.

Rockfish brought up from waters deeper than 65 feet often suffer from decompression trauma due to their having unvented swim bladders and can literally turn inside out. In 2020, all saltwater anglers will be required to use ‘descender’ gear (the 2 of hearts) to resubmerge the fish.


“They must have a functioning deep-water release mechanism on board and all rockfish not harvested must be released at a depth of capture or at a depth of 100 feet,” Olson explained.

State managers wagered cards were a good way to get those messages directly into the hands of fishermen.

“When you go on boats there’s typically a deck of cards on board to keep people busy,” Olson said.

The cards come at a time when plans are underway to better align rockfish management between the sport and commercial sectors. In 2017 ADF&G began a statewide initiative to develop long-term strategies for rockfish with a focus on black rockfish and yelloweye.

“Historically, rockfish caught by sport anglers and commercial fishermen were managed differently by the sport fish and commercial fisheries divisions. This worked fine for decades, but changes in fishing pressure on different species, fish regimes and populations – including rockfish, salmon, halibut, and Pacific cod – have led to more alignment in management between the divisions. Because rockfish are known to be particularly vulnerable to exploitation, and harvests are believed to be increasing in recent years, proactive measures are needed,” wrote Riley Woodford in the December Alaska Fish and Wildlife News.

These changes are occurring along the entire Pacific coast, Woodford added, and state and federal agencies are collaborating on rockfish education efforts.

Thirty thousand decks of the rockfish playing cards were made by US Playing cards at a cost of about a dollar a piece. Artist Kellii Wood of Petersburg did the anatomy drawings and decorated the card backs, Olson said, and Ray Troll’s quirky artwork adorns the Jokers.

“One says Rockfish, Paper, Scissors with a picture of a yelloweye, and the other one looks like a black rockfish with “rock” highlighted because it has a guitar,” Olson said.

The cards have only been in circulation for a few weeks and he said the reaction has been very enthusiastic.

 “People have said they didn’t realize how old some of these rockfish are, how long it takes them to reach maturity; the fact that we have so many species in Alaska was, I think, shocking. Some folks have said they are using the cards to learn about a rockfish per day and get familiar with them,” Olson said. “It’s a fun and engaging way to interact with the public and express concerns we’re having with rockfish and where we’re making improvements.”

The rockfish cards are available for free at ADF&G offices at Kodiak. Anchorage, Homer, Douglas/Juneau headquarters, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell and Sitka.

Fishing for fees

Fewer Alaska fishermen are going after halibut and sablefish, based on the declining number of bills being sent out to those holding shares of the catch.

Eighteen hundred invoices went out to fishermen this month, down 30 from last year, and reflecting a decline from nearly 2,000 in 2015.

The bills, paid annually in those two fisheries since the year 2000, cover costs of the management, data collection and enforcement of any “limited access privilege” (LAP) fishery overseen by the federal government. They are based on a one to three percent tax assessed on dock prices averaged across the state.

This year the 3 percent fee for both halibut and sablefish (up from 2.8 percent) yielded $4.5 million in recovery costs. A sinking sablefish market brought down the value of the two fisheries, despite an uptick for halibut.

“The combined value of the halibut and sablefish fisheries this year was $150 million, which reflects a 7 percent decrease over last year’s value of $161 million,” said Carl Greene, Cost Recovery Fee Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries in Juneau.

The Alaska halibut harvest of 16.5 million pounds was valued at over $87 million. For sablefish a catch of 21 million pounds was worth about $63 million at the docks.

“The sablefish dock prices were down about 20 percent to average $2.96 down from $3.68 in 2018,” Greene said.

Conversely, the value of the halibut fishery was up 3 percent and dock prices remained stable.

“It was mainly due to the volume of the fishery,” he said. “The change in pounds went up by 4 percent this year and the halibut dock price held stable. It was $5.30 a pound versus $5.35 for 2018.”

Homer retained its title of Alaska’s top halibut port followed closely by Kodiak, Seward, Sitka and Petersburg.

The Bering Sea crab fisheries also operate under a catch share system and since 2005 have chipped in for coverage costs. NOAA Fisheries doesn’t track dock prices for Bering Sea crab, only the total value of the fishery.

The 2018/2019 season was valued at $178 million for 17 fishing co-op groups, a $14 million increase. Greene said crabbers paid a fee of just under two percent for fishery coverages, yielding $3 million.

Since 2016, nearly 20 big boats fishing for flatfish, pollock, cod and other groundfish in the Bering Sea, including vessels owned/operated by Western Alaska Community Development Quota (CDQ) groups, have been paying about $2 million in coverage costs, at a tax rate of less than one percent.

“The costs to enforce those fisheries is much less relative to the total value of the fishery, so it’s been under one percent since we started the program in 2016. There’s a lot fewer boats and entities to monitor,” Greene explained.

AK seafood snapshot

Alaska’s seafood industry is driven by over 9,000 fishing vessels including about 100 large catcher processors and 100 large shoreside plants.

Alaska is home to six of the nation’s top 10 ports by value and the industry generates more than $150 million in public revenue annually. Seafood accounts for the largest manufacturing sector in the state.

Those are some of industry updates compiled by the McDowell Group. Other findings: 

Alaska’s seafood industry puts 58,700 people to work and generates $2.1 billion in wages and $5.6 billion in economic output.

Alaska’s biggest catch is pollock and its most valuable is salmon.  

The volume of Alaska’s catches averaged 5.8 billion pounds for 2017 and 2018 with pollock contributing 58 percent, followed by salmon at 14 percent. Flatfish and rockfish comprised 13 percent of the catch volume and cod at 12 percent.

The dockside value of Alaska’s catches totaled $2 billion with salmon accounting for 33 percent of the value. Halibut, sablefish and crab combined for 24 percent, Alaska pollock was at 23 percent and cod accounted for 11 percent of the total harvest value.

Nearly 800 million pounds of over 40 species of flatfish, rockfish and Atka mackerel were caught in 2018 worth $440 million.

Eighty-five percent of Alaska’s seafood is sold frozen. Headed and gutted whole fish make up 41 percent of the value, with fillets at 20 percent. Only three percent of Alaska’s seafood goes into cans. 

About 80 percent of Alaska seafood is exported; export value fell 4 percent in 2018. 

Alaska’s 3.4 billion-pound pollock catch last year was worth $1.5 billion to fishermen last year. 

Alaska’s cod supplies are at a 20-year low and declining; red king crab harvests are at a 50-year low. Alaska accounts for just 10-15 percent of the global red king crab supply and less than 10 percent of snow crab supply.

The biggest uncertainties facing Alaska’s seafood industry: changing ocean conditions and ongoing trade disputes.