More commercial fishers in the Norton Sound will be catching cod rather than crab this summer, as an unusual fishing season for the region gets underway.
Last Monday [June 15th] marked the opening of the Norton Sound Red King Crab commercial summer season. A day that normally sees dozens of fishing boats in the water near the Port of Nome, instead saw no one put in their crab pots.
Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s (ADF&G’s) area manager for the Norton Sound, Jim Menard, said as of opening day, zero commercial crabbers had signed up to fish for the 140,000-pound quota.
Part of the reason is that the regional Red King crab stocks appear to be in trouble. Earlier this year Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation urged ADF&G to close the fishery.
Tyler Rhodes, the Chief Operating Officer [COO] for NSEDC says they’re providing a different opportunity for regional fishers this season.
“There’s been an avenue that makes it easier for fishermen and CDQ communities to pursue cod. And so, especially with the downturn in the crab fishery, we’ve been seeking that as an alternative species for fishermen to pursue, just to preserve some opportunity for them to get out and fish.”
According to Rhodes there are currently six Nome-based fishers signed up to sell their catches in the Norton Sound and none will be fishing for crab. NSEDC has set aside 220,000 pounds of cod which they will purchase from local fishers this summer.
“So we have a history of purchasing cod from fishermen, but that’s primarily been associated with the halibut fishery in past years. So, while fishermen are fishing for halibut they often will encounter and catch cod. And the regulations allow them to retain a certain percentage of cod compared to the amount of halibut they’re delivering; and we’ve historically purchased that from fishermen, but it hasn’t been in really large amounts to date.”
For that reason, Rhodes admits that it’s unclear how much cod Norton Sound Seafood Plant, under NSEDC, will receive from local fishermen and how quickly the plant will be able to process those fish.
It is certain that at least one fisherman will be catching and delivering cod to NSSP.
“The difference between cod fishing and crab fishing is pretty significant. Cod fishing, they’re going to give us 70-something-cents a pound; I don’t think we have an actual price yet, whereas crab is $7 a pound…”
Phil Pryzmont of Nome is not new to cod fishing, he’s spent about 12 years fishing for the flaky-white fillet all over Alaska. However, during this time of year, Pryzmont would normally be catching Norton Sound Red King crab in the Nome area, rather than cod. According to Pryzmont, so far, he is the only one out fishing for cod, but he does expect a few more boats will join him.
Without crab as an option, he won’t’ be able to make ends meet financially this fishing season, but Pryzmont says he’s glad he can at least still fish and make some money this year.
“We’ve been seeing the cod for a long time, and at least some of us have wanted to have a fishery here. We have really nice cod, big fish, significantly bigger than the ones I fish in Kodiak and fewer parasites also which is also a nice thing. So, the lack of crab quota is … it’s bad in its way but at least it’s kind of an impetus to get started on another fishery, that definitely has some potential here.”
As of last week, Pryzmont said he had not seen any cod migrate up to the Nome area yet. However, he’s already switched his crab pots over to cod pots and started setting them as he does not have to let them soak like crab pots. Pryzmont says he’ll continue to check for the bottom-feeding fish periodically this week until they arrive.
Both Pryzmont and Rhodes seem confident that the quota of 220,000 pounds of cod will be met this season. For more information on COVID-19 regulations for commercial fishermen in the Norton Sound region, go to NSEDC’s website under their publications tab.
Image at top: Fishing vessels at the Nome harbor in 2014. Photo from Matthew Smith, KNOM.