ILWACO — Demonstrating links between ocean health and the economy, the definitive annual federal report on U.S. fisheries released last week showed a plunge in some West Coast catches in 2015.
Washington state’s total commercial catch in 2015 was 363 million pounds valued at $274.2 million, a decline of 35 percent by volume and 23.5 percent by value from 2014, according to “Fisheries of the United States 2015,” published last week by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
But all was not gloom and doom: For example, West Coast landings of shrimp and albacore tuna were up, despite the warmer and less-nutritious waters associated with the ocean heat wave dubbed the Blob. This patch of warm water off the Pacific Northwest began forming in 2013 and persisted for two years before temporarily dissipating.
Oregon’s commercial landings also were down, falling to about 195.5 million pounds last year, 33 percent less than in 2014. That catch was sold for $115.7 million, 26.6 percent less than 2014.
How ports compare
Ports on the U.S. Pacific mainland experienced downturns in 2015 compared to 2014.
The ports of Ilwaco and Chinook reported landings of 15 million pounds in 2015, down 44.5 percent from 2014 and less than half 2013’s total. Ilwaco/Chinook 2015 landings were the lowest since at least 2010 and dropped the ports out of the U.S. top-50 list.
Astoria was the mainland West Coast’s largest fishing port in 2015, with landings of 92 million pounds, down 24.6 percent from 2014. Westport was second, with 84 million pounds in 2015 landings, off 16 percent from 2014. Newport was in third place, with 65 million tons in 2015, 47.6 percent less than 2014.
As recently as 2012, Astoria area ports’ percentage of the nationwide catch was 1.764 percent. From there, it slid to 1.6 percent in 2013, 1.3 in 2014 and 0.947 last year. Total poundage landed last year was the lowest since at least 2010. Landings were down 46 percent in 2015 since peaking in 2012. Last year’s catch also had the lowest value since 2010 and was 24 percent less than in 2013.
Landings in the lower 48 states are dwarfed by Alaska. Dutch Harbor, Alaska continues to be the nation’s biggest fishing port, with 787 million pounds in 2015, up from 762 million in 2014.
Oysters are among Pacific County’s most important economic sectors; the county accounts for most oyster production on the U.S. Pacific Coast.
NMFS’s report issued last week doesn’t provide detailed state-by-state breakdowns for aquaculture industries. The most recent detailed census of aquaculture in 2013 counted 125 shellfish farms — growing oysters and clams — in Washington producing $149.3 million in sales, compared to 174 farms generating $63.7 million in sales in 2005. Oregon’s 17 shellfish farms generated $10.5 million in sales in 2013, compared to 21 farms and $11.6 million in sales in 2005.
The Pacific Coast region as a whole produced 5 million pounds of oysters in 2015, 18 percent of the U.S. total. The nationwide average ex-vessel price per pound of oyster meat was $7.76 in 2015, 10.2 percent more than in 2014 and 60 percent better than 2013.
Without identifying where in the U.S. they were grown, the 2013 census said producers of Pacific oysters generated $86.7 million in sales, including $5 million in oyster seed sales. Eighty producers generated $24.4 million in sales of Manilla clams, largely a West Coast product.
Dungeness crab landings were 23.9 million pounds in 2015 valued at $112 million — a decrease of almost 30.6 million pounds (56 percent) and $97.5 million (almost 47 percent) compared with 2014. Washington landings of 15 million pounds (down more than 22 percent from 2014) led all states with almost 62 percent of the total landings. Alaska landings were 3.6 million pounds (down nearly 33 percent) or 15 percent of the total landings. California landings were 3.1 million pounds (down almost 83 percent) and Oregon landings were 2.3 million pounds (down nearly 81 percent).
The average ex-vessel price per pound for Dungeness crab was $4.68 in 2015, compared with $3.84 in 2014.
Shrimp are an increasingly important commercial species on the West Coast. In 2015, Oregon had landings of 53.3 million pounds (up 3 percent compared with 2014); Washington had landings of over 42.3 million pounds (up 35 percent); and California, nearly 8.9 million pounds (down 7 percent).
Once the largest fishery on the West Coast, the commercial salmon catch in Washington and Oregon is a small fraction of what it once was. Here are the latest details:
Washington salmon landings were 20.6 million pounds valued at $26.8 million — a decrease of 7 million pounds (25 percent) and over $11.3 million (almost 30 percent) compared with 2014. The biennial fishery for pink salmon went from 6,000 pounds in 2014 to nearly 2.8 million pounds in 2015. Washington landings of chum salmon were 9.5 million (down 16 percent); followed by Chinook, 7.3 million pounds (down less than 1 percent); coho, 582,000 pounds (down almost 88 percent); and sockeye, 399,000 pounds (down more than 90 percent).
The average ex-vessel price per pound for all species in Washington decreased from $1.38 in 2014 to $1.30 in 2015.
Oregon salmon landings were more than 3.1 million pounds valued at $11.8 million — a decrease of over 3.2 million pounds (51 percent) and almost $8.3 million (41 percent) compared with 2014. Chinook salmon landings were 2.9 million pounds valued at $11.5 million; coho landings were 184,000 pounds valued at $281,000; sockeye landings were 7,000 pounds valued at $15,000; pink landings were less than 500 pounds valued at less than $500; and chum landings were less than 500 pounds valued at less than $500.
The average ex-vessel price per pound for Chinook salmon in Oregon increased from $3.79 in 2014 to
$3.94 in 2015.
Landings of Pacific cod were 699.1 million pounds — a decrease of about 3 percent from almost 717.5 million in 2014. Pacific hake (whiting) landings were 333.3 million pounds (down 42 percent) valued at over $25.2 million (down 57 percent) compared to 2014.
Landings of rockfishes were 47.9 million pounds (up more than 21 percent) and valued at over $19.2 million (up 14 percent) compared to 2014.
Pacific sardines collapsed in 2015. The catch was 8.4 million pounds, down from 51.1 million in 2014 and a recent annual average of 131.65 million pounds. The sardine fishery is now closed indefinitely.
Washington’s recreational catch was much bigger in 2015 than 2014, with an estimated harvest of about 2.6 million pounds, more than four times as much as in 2014. Oregon’s catch also increased, but not by as much — over 2.8 million pounds in 2015, compared to a little more than 2 million pounds in 2014. Much of the increase was in the form of albacore tuna, with a coast-wide increase to 2.2 million pounds in 2015, up from 698,000 pounds in 2014.
West Coast sports fishermen made 4 million trips in 2015 and caught a total of over 14 million fish. The Pacific Northwest accounts for only a small fraction of sports fishing in the Pacific Ocean. Almost 92 percent of the trips were made in California, followed by 5 percent in Oregon and more than 3 percent in Washington.
For fishermen based around the mouth of the Columbia River, 2015 was the year of the Blob, a persistent expanse of warm water that began in the Gulf of Alaska in 2013 and moved south in 2014. It brought tropical and subtropical strangers to Oregon and Washington’s chilly waters: moonfish, swordfish and even several very hypothermic olive Ridley turtles.
The Blob, a name coined by Washington state climatologist Nick Bond, persisted off the Oregon and Washington coasts throughout 2015, helped out by the arrival of El Niño conditions. For sockeye and summer-run Chinook migrating back to the Columbia River that summer, it proved deadly.
Drought, believed to be related to the unusually warm water off the coast, meant low-flowing, uncomfortably warm rivers and streams for the returning salmon. Coho returns to the Columbia River that fall were the lowest in 25 years, according to NOAA, while the impacts on young salmon that migrated to the ocean that spring and summer will not be known for several more years.
And then there was the largest and most widespread harmful algal bloom NOAA believes has ever been recorded.
Fisheries biologists noted high levels of the naturally occurring marine toxin domoic acid in razor clams and, ultimately, shut down popular razor clam digs in both Oregon and Washington. When the toxin was later seen in Dungeness crab at unsafely high levels, fishery managers closed or severely limited the lucrative crab fisheries in California, Oregon and Washington.
Fishermen and fishing communities in all three states are still feeling the effects. Domoic acid levels continued to fluctuate into 2016, delaying the start of the Dungeness crab season this year in Oregon and Washington. And razor clam digs in both states were closed again recently because of high levels of the toxin.
But in fishing, an activity always at the mercy of a host of constantly shifting factors, there’s usually some good mixed in with the uncertain: One big persistent problem that plagued 2015 could be finally going away.
As recent storms have swept through the area, churning up the ocean, the Blob “appears to be breaking down,” said Toby Garfield, director of environmental research at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.
And, as the Pacific Northwest leaves El Niño behind and enters La Niña conditions, strong upwelling and the more frequent storms associated with La Niña conditions could help keep large algal blooms and domoic acid scares at bay.
Such blooms are dependent on weather conditions, Garfield said, and it looks like the West Coast is returning to “more normal conditions. But, he added, “We won’t know until farther into the spring.”
—Reporting by Matt Winters and Katie Frankowicz