Crabbers Stunned as State Opens Crab Harvest
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Sea Cucumbers

Background

The commercial species of sea cucumber harvested in Southeast Alaska is the red or California sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus). It is a common species distributed from Mexico to Southeast Alaska and has been observed at least as far west and north as Cook Inlet and Kodiak Island. It occupies a broad range of subtidal habitats from nearshore shallows to over 100 fathoms. The sea cucumber’s primary food is detritus which it ingests along with significant amounts of fine substrate. P. californicus is generally found in locations with hard substrate types and moderate current and not in locations with mud bottoms or in areas subject to substantial freshwater or glacial runoff. The abundance of sea cucumbers in Southeast Alaska is greatest in the southern and western portions of the region, and generally in protected bays and inlets.

Fishery Development and History

The first experimental fishing permits for sea cucumbers were requested in 1981. One or two permits were issued each year between 1981 and 1986, with only one vessel reporting landings during this period. These initial fisheries were based in Ketchikan and later in Sitka. Over the years, a management strategy has been developed that establishes harvest quotas based on stock assessment surveys, and commercially harvests those quotas for specific areas in every third year out of a three-year rotation. Initially, the fishery had no established season, however since 1990, the season has begun in October until the guideline harvest levels (GHL) have been taken. Historical harvests, values, and effort levels since 1986 are reported in Table 2.
Most of the vessels pioneering this fishery were small skiffs of limited range and capability operating in the vicinity of either Ketchikan or Sitka, mostly as a day fishery. Larger vessels with two divers and a crewman with living quarters and the capability of transporting product and divers during typical fall and winter weather conditions are now the norm. Harvest is conducted by scuba or hookah diving gear usually at depths of 30 to 60 feet. The number of hours each diver can work each day depends on the maximum working depths and may be as little as three or four hours. Harvesting consists of collecting sea cucumbers by hand in large mesh bags and then transporting the filled bags to the tendering vessels.
Processing is currently conducted in a two-step process. Initial preservation of sea cucumbers takes place on the fishing grounds. Sea cucumbers are eviscerated by a process called “poking,” where a knife is used to make an inch long puncture in the body wall of the animal. Drained sea cucumbers are then placed in totes and transported to the processing facility where they are processed immediately or held for up to two days under refrigeration. Sea cucumbers were purchased by the bucket in the early years of the fishery, but are now sold exclusively by drained weight. Holding times for the eviscerated, densely packed sea cucumbers is limited by their rapid decomposition even when refrigerated.
Processing at the plant consists of separating the muscle bundles from the skin with a scraper or knife. The two major products from this fishery are the longitudinal and transverse muscle bundles or meat, and the skins. Skins are processed by cooking or boiling to a specific texture and drying the product. The dried skins are a preferred item in upscale oriental cuisine. Sea cucumbers harvested in Southeast Alaska are processed in Craig, Juneau, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka, British Columbia and the state of Washington.
Effort in the sea cucumber fishery increased to a maximum of 413 divers during the 1995–1996 season. This high number can be attributed to high prices the previous year along with anticipation that the fishery would be limited by the CFEC. Beginning July 1, 1996 the CFEC imposed a moratorium into Southeast dive fisheries that limited the number of divers able to participate in the sea cucumber fishery to 472. The CFEC moratorium ended July 1, 2000 with a maximum of 436 limited entry permits authorized. For the 2006–2007 season 388 permits were available in the fishery. The GHL has ranged from 0.9 million to 1.6 million pounds (drained weight) over the past 10-years (Table 2).
From 2003–2007, based on input from SARDFA, ADF&G surveyed and added ten new areas to the commercial fishery rotation. In 2003–2004, the three new areas increased the available GHL by 515,200 pounds. In 2004–2005 another three new areas added 84,300 pounds to the GHL. In 2005–2006 two new areas added 166,100 pounds to the GHL. In 2006–2007 two new areas were added and two existing areas were increased in size, adding 186,065 pounds to the GHL. In general the poundages added when new areas have come on line have more than offset decreases due a variety of other factors and have therefore provided for overall growth of the fishery.

Management Strategy and Regulation Development

The fishery expanded rapidly in the late 1980s, and in 1989 the fishery exceeded the ability of the ADF&G to manage by the permit system. The department closed the fishery in May 1990 and reopened it in October 1990 following development of the Southeast Alaska Sea Cucumber Commercial Fisheries Management Plan (5 AAC 38.140). This plan seeks to protect subsistence opportunities in the vicinity of communities, provides unharvested areas for research purposes, and provides for sustainable commercial fishing. To protect subsistence opportunities, the cucumber management plan established 18 areas closed to commercial fishing (5 AAC 38.140 (k)). There are also provisions to prevent the use of diving gear in the subsistence (5 AAC 02.020 (1)) and personal use (5 AAC 77.010 (l)(3)) fisheries in those areas. Annual commercial fishery guideline harvest levels are 6.4% of the total sea cucumber biomass annually, taken on a three-year rotational basis (i.e. 19.2% on a three-year basis). Three-year rotational-area fisheries have the advantage of lowering overall departmental assessment survey and management costs.
The original Sea Cucumber Management Plan of 1990 provided a season beginning on October 1 with two 48-hour openings per week. In 1993 the BOF changed the season opening to November. In order to extend the season length, weekly fishing periods were reduced to seven daylight hours on Mondays in November, plus four additional daylight hours on Tuesdays from December through March. The Management Plan was again amended by the BOF in 1997 by restoring the October season, while providing for weekly fishing periods of seven daylight hours on Mondays in October, plus an additional four daylight hours on Tuesdays from November through March. In the Management Plan, to slow the pace of the fishery, there are additional provisions that limit the numbers of divers per vessel to two, provide trip limits of 2,000 pounds per person per fishing period, and that limit gear to scuba, surface-supplied systems, or snorkels.
In January of 2000 the open weekly fishing period was again modified by the BOF, providing for a Monday, 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and Tuesday 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. opening beginning in October. The BOF also modified gear to allow the use of enhanced air nitrox of ≤40% oxygen with the balance consisting of nitrogen.
The time series of stock assessment data was used to evaluate sea cucumber population response to harvest under the current management plan. Preliminary analysis reveals highly diverse response among management units. Although changes in mean density, mean weight, and biomass are apparent in many areas, variability makes detection of statistically significant differences difficult. In general, a majority of areas open to commercial harvest have decreased in mean density, increased in mean weight, and decreased in biomass. However, in several surveyed areas which have remained closed to commercial harvest, decreases have also been observed in density, weight, and biomass. Stock assessment studies in these unharvested areas indicates that populations can respond to environmental variables in addition to exploitation. Overall, based on trends observed in stock assessment data, ADF&G does not have serious concerns about the sustainability of harvests for this species.
During the January 2003 Board of Fisheries meeting the only significant changes were modifications to closed areas in Districts 2, 3 and 10 (5 AAC 38.140 (k)(1)(B), (k)(2)(A) and (k)(6).
During the January 2006 Board of Fisheries meeting, regulations were established changing the definitions of closed areas in sections 3A and 3B (5 AAC 38.140 (k)(3)(A and B)) and eliminated the district 112 closure (5 AAC 38.140 (k)(9).

2004–2005 Sea Cucumber Commercial Harvest Season

The 2004–2005 season opened by emergency order beginning October 4–5, 2004, with weekly fishing periods of seven hours on Mondays and four hours on Tuesdays. A GHL of 1,381,200 pounds was available in 16 separate areas within Districts 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 12, and 13 (Figure 4; Tables 26 and 27). Total harvest was 1,374,532 pounds of sea cucumbers (including overages) by 194 divers (Tables 26 and 27). The first area to close was Revillagigedo Channel and Felice Strait (Subdistrict 101-23) following the second opening week. Other areas opened on a weekly basis until GHLs had been harvested, with the last two areas closing after the November 29–30 fishing period. The season was opened for 9 weeks, with openings provided on 18 days. The maximum number of divers in any weekly fishing period for the entire region was 194, and participation decreased following the first four weeks of the fishery after 70 percent of the available had been harvested (Tables 28 and 29). Fishery managers reduced the days or hours areas were open as needed to maintain harvests within the area GHLs (Tables 30 and 31). Commercially harvested sea cucumbers averaged 0.49 pounds (224.8 gms) across all areas that were sampled areas in the region. The number of divers was the lowest number since the 1991–1992 season. Exvessel price was the second highest at $2.12 per pound (Table 2). The fishery exvessel value was around $2.9 million, the second highest to date, resulting in average earnings of $15,000 for the 194 divers who participated in the fishery.
Tebenkof Bay, a formerly productive area that had supported a harvest of up to 395,000 pounds in 1992–1993 season, was not opened this season. A substantial population decline was documented based on stock assessment surveys. The decline was apparently due to sea otter predation. The decrease in the regional GHL was partially offset by an increase in GHL of 84,300 pounds associated with three new areas added to the fishery.

2005–2006 Sea Cucumber Commercial Harvest Season

The 2005–2006 season opened by emergency order beginning October 3–4, 2005 with weekly fishing periods of seven hours on Mondays and four hours on Tuesdays. A total GHL of 1,451,750 pounds was provided in 18 areas within Districts 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, and 14 (Figure 5; Tables 32 and 33). The original GHL of 1,475,800 pounds from surveys was reduced by 24,050 pounds to account for a portion of the Excursion Inlet and Homeshore Area that was located within the Glacier Bay National Park boundaries. Total harvest was 1,437,731 pounds of sea cucumbers (including overages) by 198 divers throughout Southeast Alaska (Tables 32 and 33). The Gravina Island area (subdistrict 101-29) was only opened for 6 hours on October 3, 32,500 pounds of the 35,000 pound GHL was harvested, and the fishery was closed for the season. Other areas were opened until GHLs were harvested until as late as December 13. The season was concluded after 11 weekly fishing periods and up to 23 days in the final two areas. The maximum number of divers in any one weekly fishing period was 197 with decreased participation during the second and fourth openings due to poor weather (Tables 34 and 35). Fishery managers took action to deviate from the standard 11 hours per week in 14 out of 18 areas in consideration of expected effort levels as GHLs were approached. Hours each area was open on a weekly basis are shown in Tables 36 and 37. Commercially harvested sea cucumbers averaged 0.49 pounds (221.9 gms) in fisheries sampled. At the time this was the sixth highest GHL on record with three new areas contributing 166,100 pounds to the GHL. Exvessel value was $2,878,199 based on $2.00 per pound. Eleven processors purchased product for the season. This was the third highest exvessel value since the sea cucumber fishery originated and resulted in average earnings of around $14,500 for 198 divers.

2006–2007 Sea Cucumber Commercial Harvest Season

The 2006–2007 season opened by emergency order beginning October 2–3, 2006 with weekly fishing periods of seven hours on Mondays and four hours on Tuesdays. The total GHL for the season was 1,598,700 pounds in 17 areas within Districts 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 12, and 13 (Figure 6; Tables 38 and 39.) The total regional harvest for the season was 1,597,287 pounds (including overages) by 174 divers. The maximum number of divers in any one weekly fishing period was 154 during the third week of the fishery, with the typical pattern of declining effort levels as the season progressed (Tables 40 and 41). The season concluded after just one weekly fishing period of 11 hours in the Percy Islands area (subdistrict 101-25) and extended until the December 25-26 fishing period in the Chatham Strait and Kelp Bay area (subdistricts 112-11, 112-21, and 112-22). The season extended for a total of 13 consecutive weekly fishing periods and 26 days. Fishing hours for each area by week are presented in Tables 42 and 43. Hours were decreased below the standard 11 hours per week in 7 of the 17 areas in consideration of expected harvest rates and effort levels to stay within the established GHLs. The department discontinued port sampling of sea cucumbers for average weights for the 2006–2007 season, and will instead rely on sampling of each area during the pre-season stock assessment surveys to monitor any trends in average weights. The GHL in 2006–2007 was 1,598,700 pounds, the third highest of record. The average price was $1.97 per pound for the season. Seven processors purchased product this season compared with eleven processors during the previous season. The fishery exvessel value of $3,127,024 was the highest to date for the sea cucumber fishery, and resulted in average earnings of about $18,000 per diver.


Table 2–Southeast Alaska commercial sea cucumber harvest, effort, price, exvessel value, and season length, 1986–87 through 2006–07 seasons.

 

Season

 Guideline
Harvest
Level

 

Total
Pounds
Landedb

Average
Price
per
Poundc

 

Estimated
Exvessel
Value

Number
of
Permits
(Divers)

 

Number
of
Landings

 

Total
Days
Open

Average
Pounds
per
Permit

Average
Earnings
per
Permit

1986–87

34,043

34,043

$0.21

$7,149

7

44

27

4,863

$1,021

1987–88

65,056

65,056

$0.22

$14,589

11

143

57

5,914

$1,326

1988–89

801,405

801,105

$0.37

$295,754

57

921

237

14,054

$5,189

1989–90

2,318,305

2,317,465

$0.54

$1,246,920

203

2,260

210

11,416

$6,142

1990–91

704,491

803,784

$0.74

$597,433

142

889

81

5,660

$4,207

1991–92

839,160

873,649

$0.72

$625,748

187

706

41

4,672

$3,346

1992–93

1,100,440

1,249,621

$0.90

$1,126,693

240

1,003

22

5,207

$4,695

1993–94

799,235

964,343

$1.04

$998,096

320

949

17

3,014

$3,119

1994–95

1,351,000

1,320,390

$1.56

$2,055,963

260

1,377

42

5,078

$7,908

1995–96

1,157,500

1,209,405

$1.17

$1,418,594

413

1,462

20

2,928

$3,435

1996–97

939,300

909,789

$1.29

$1,169,256

294

1,234

14

3,095

$3,977

1997–98

892,410

893,893

$1.66

$1,487,830

225

973

17

3,973

$6,613

1998–99

1,026,345

1,055,572

$1.55

$1,635,932

219

971

10

4,820

$7,470

1999–00

1,580,000

1,569,626

$1.95

$3,060,824

200

1,378

30

7,848

$15,304

2000–01

1,122,500

1,154,371

$2.23

$2,577,302

220

913

14

5,247

$11,715

2001–02

1,425,200

1,434,684

$1.75

$2,516,384

235

1,200

18

6,105

$10,708

2002–03

1,576,700

1,637,221

$1.26

$2,060,411

201

1,313

40

8,145

$10,251

2003–04

1,637,700

1,690,214

$1.47

$2,491,323

195

1,293

24

8,668

$12,776

2004–05

1,381,200

1,373,645

$2.12

$2,905,286

194

1,139

26

7,081

$14,976

2005–06

1,451,750d

1,436,393

$2.00

$2,878,199

198

1,414

33

7,255

$14,541

2006–07

1,598,700

1,584,072

$1.97

$3,127,024

174

1,231

31

9,104

$17,971

a   Season is October 1 through September 30.  Landings before this season are at low levels and are confidential.
b    Shown are pounds landed by divers and do not include forfeited pounds over the trip limits or  pounds confiscated.  All pounds are shown in annual tables.
c   Price is seasonal average as reported on fish tickets. 1986–2007 prices were reported for 97% of total pounds landed.
d    GHL was reduced from 1,475,800 inseason after removal of poundage within Glacier Bay National Park.

Table 2 – Registration Area A (Southeast Alaska) commercial sea cucumber harvest, effort, and value, 1986-87 through 2008-09.


Seasona

Guideline Harvest Level (lb)

Total Harvest (lb)

Average Price / lbb

Estimated Exvessel Valueb

Number of Divers

Number of Landings

Average lb / Diver

Average Earnings / Diverb

2007-08d

1,384,300

1,418,305

$2.66

$3,774,428

179

1,260

7,923

$21,086

2008-09

1,122,100