The local commercial dive fleet is sitting out yet another geoduck opening due to high levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning. The closures come at a time when geoduck prices are at all-time highs.
Last summer, some of the highest concentrations of paralytic shellfish toxins ever recorded were found in scientific samples collected around Ketchikan.
Problems with PSP extended into the fall and winter, when commercial divers harvest geoducks.
Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Association Executive Director Phil Dougherty says the dive fishery has been forced to sit out three straight openings this season due to PSP.
“It’s not unusual for Gravina to have high PSP levels. We’ve experienced that for many years now,” Doughtery says. “There are also a number of areas on the west coast of Prince of Wales which in the past it’d be unusual for us to get a hot reading of PSP and not be able to sell the geoducks that week. This year, we’ve had several areas on the west coast of Prince of Wales that tested hot.”
He says SARDFA had to retest in some Prince of Wales areas two to four times this winter before getting permission from the state to harvest.
Dougherty says Metlakatla divers haven’t been able to harvest on Annette all season.
He says divers have yet to wrap up harvests in the Vegas-Hotspur area as well as beds in the Percy Islands and South Gravina. Those spots have and continue to fail PSP tests, causing divers to sit out three straight weeks of openings.
Dougherty says the dive season has traditionally ended in late February or early March.
“The three areas that we are having problems with, they could pass PSP at any time and the fishery could end in March,” Dougherty says. “But, right now with the levels of PSP– and the fact is we aren’t seeing really the levels drop that much – we are concerned that we won’t be able to harvest out of those beds this year.”
Dougherty says the SARDFA Geoduck Committee has decided to continue testing for PSP through April. He says the committee meets again on April 6th. At that point, the committee will decide whether to extend the season any further.
Dougherty says PSP levels have traditionally been higher in warmer months. He says PSP levels have been between 150-300 micrograms per milliliter in harvest areas, which he says is considered fairly hot. In order to harvest, he says tests must come in at less than 80 micrograms per milliliter.
Even if PSP subside after April, he says many of the divers may not be available to harvest during the summer.
“A number of these divers also fish salmon during the summer time or do something else during the summer time,” he says.
He says the problem is Southeast Alaska divers are enjoying record high geoduck prices this season of $15 to $22 a pound.
“These prices this winter are the highest prices that Southeast Alaska divers have ever been paid for their geoduck clams,” he says.
The total guideline harvest level for geoducks was a little over 500,000 pounds this season. Of that, Dougherty says there are still about 170,000 pounds of geoduck that haven’t been harvested.
“We have the better part of $3 million worth of geoduck sitting in the water south of Ketchikan,” he says. “No one wants to leave those geoducks in the ground.”
Dougherty says Fish and Game changed how it manages the fishery this year, which could prove beneficial to the dive fleet.
Under the change, if divers don’t meet the GHL for a specific area, that poundage will now be added into a future GHL the next time divers harvest the same geoduck bed. That’s up until the time that Fish and Game reassesses the geoduck population in that area.
On the flip side, if divers over-harvest an area, then the amount of excess would be subtracted from a future GHL in that same area.
Under the previous management strategy, if divers did not harvest the entire GHL, the underage or overage would not be factored into future harvests.
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