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Kodiak man dives into scallop fishery

March 23, 2019
In this photo taken March 14, 2019, Tom Minio, the elder statesman of Kodiak's scallop fishery, poses in Kodiak, Alaska. With regards to scallops, Tom Minio could accurately be described as erudite. On a recent afternoon, Minio sat in the galley of his vessel, the Provider, explaining what makes the best product, while the metallic screeches of boat work drifted in from other parts of the vessel. "The market really loves the big stuff, which I don't understand. I don't like eating big scallops," he said. "It's just like old halibut, you know: the bigger they are, the older they are and the tougher they are." (Alistair Gardiner/Kodiak Daily Mirror via AP)

KODIAK, Alaska (AP) — With regards to scallops, Tom Minio could accurately be described as erudite.

On Thursday afternoon, Minio sat in the galley of his vessel, the Provider, explaining what makes the best product, while the metallic screeches of boat work drifted in from other parts of the vessel.

“The market really loves the big stuff, which I don’t understand. I don’t like eating big scallops,” he said. “It’s just like old halibut, you know: the bigger they are, the older they are and the tougher they are.”

Younger, smaller scallops, Minio said, “don’t look as impressive,” but are much sweeter and more succulent. For those in the industry, scallop size is referred to on a scale that indicates how many scallops make up a pound of meat.

“You get a big scallop like that — a 0/10,” Minio said, holding his hands in a circle to illustrate a circumference of several inches, “I mean, they look beautiful, but they’re old . I always tell everybody, buy the 20/30. But those fancy restaurants, they want real big ones and they’re willing to pay a lot more money for them.”

Mino said he tries to sell only 20/30s locally — if you order scallops at Henry’s or at the Kodiak Inn, chances are you’re eating product that Tom Minio caught.

Minio has been fishing scallops out of Kodiak for 40 years. He started when he was 18 years old and doesn’t know anyone who’s been doing it longer than he has. With a small number of limited entry permits available and the quota around Kodiak decreasing, other fishermen and vessels dropped out of the fishery — but Minio held on. During the most recent season, the Provider was the only vessel fishing scallops in the Kodiak fishery.

Minio initially came to Kodiak in the early 1970s as a teenager to fish crab. In 1979, Minio got onto a scallop boat in Seward.

“The guy who came with the boat into Seward wanted to take the trip off. And the skipper I was working with on a crabber at the time was an older scalloper,” Minio said. “He decided to take the boat out, and he took me and my dad along. That’s how we ended up on scallop boats. At the end of the season, they all took off crabbing again and I said, ‘I think I’ll stick around here’ and I’ve been doing it ever since.’”

Minio said he’s never been tempted into entering another fishery. Even with the current short seasons — the fishery was, in the 1980s and 1990s, open year-round — Minio said he makes enough money and has no inclinations to go into a different fishery.

Having arrived in Alaska with his father Pete, Minio still runs a family boat. Both his son, Thomas, and daughter, Bobbie, are among his eight-to-twelve person crew. His son is his first mate and runs the vessel when Minio takes time off, but he may not stay in scallop fishery forever.

“My son wants to run tugs and stuff, he’s been getting his license for that,” Minio said. “But my daughter, she said she’s going to retire when I retire, so we’ll see what happens.”

Minio explained that, given a combined GHL of 105,000 lbs for all the Kodiak areas that opened, the most recent season should have been short — but the vessel was plagued with mechanical issues. The work being done on the vessel Thursday was a clean-up job, following the replacement of several major pieces of equipment during the season.

“We had to tear all the old stuff out and cut in new stuff, so you’ve got weld spots all over and cut spots,” he said. “Now, we’re just cleaning it all up again and trying to get it back looking like a boat again, instead of looking like a bomb went off down there,”

Minio said that typically the maximum length of a scallop fishing trip is 20 days before they come back to deliver fish and spend a couple of days in the harbor. Given the low GHL, he said they should have been done fishing by the end of October — but this year, their last trip was at the end of January.

“Blowing our winches was one of our big problems,” he said, wearily. “We had to come back to Kodiak and order new winches — they came all the way from the East Coast, so by the time we got them here, got the new engine in for them . it was almost five weeks that we lost right there.”

After a trip to fish near Yakutat, the Provider returned to fish the areas around Kodiak — at which point the freezer system on board broke.

“It was just a lot of problems,” Minio said. “And, we just got done putting a lot of money into the winches before that — all brand new hydraulic systems and everything. But the system was overpowered and it ended up chewing up the new gears and winches.”

While the quota was so low that the mechanical issues didn’t impact the volume of the catch, the extended period over which the vessel was out meant higher cost of operations. Minio pointed out that it required paying fishery observers for several months more than they would otherwise have had to, because the Kodiak fishery has a 100 percent observer coverage regulation.

“Then we went out in January to fish the southeast side of Kodiak, the experimental area. We didn’t have much luck in that area,” Minio said.

The reopening of Kodiak’s southeast district was proposed to the Board of Fish last year by the Alaska Scallop Association, a partnership of three Kodiak-based scallop vessels, one of which is the Provider. The southeast district was closed in the early 1970s because of concerns over crab bycatch in the region. The ASA proposal stated, “since 1993 scallopers have been required at their own cost to carry observers 100 percent of the time . Using data from the observers, ADF&G and the Scallop Association are able to compile information on where potential crab ‘hot spots’ are and have fishermen avoid them.”

The organization argued that, since these regulations allow fishermen to keep bycatch levels within the allocated limits, the southeast area should be reopened for fishing. In March, the Board of Fish unanimously voted to reopen the district.

Minio said scallop fishing is a lot of testing the waters to find a cluster of scallops. The vessels will do 15-20 minute test tows and see what comes up in the gear. If it comes up empty, they’ll move over slightly and start again, moving across the area in a grid.

“If you start to get half a bushel or a bushel, you start working the area,” he said.

One thing that a layman may not consider is that scallops swim. Minio said they’ll return to areas that were highly productive one season to find nothing during the next.

“They get around pretty good,” Minio said. “They’ll drop off the edge, you know, they’ll go all the way down eighty or ninety fathoms and then come back up.”

For the newly opened southeast side, Minio took a small crew and started to find a couple of spots with scallops. Due to the machinery-failure delays, however, the Provider was fishing at the same time as a number of longliner vessels, which prompted the Provider to head back to port.

“We didn’t want to get in their way — especially a new area, a new fishery, we didn’t want to get in trouble. We just figured we’d hit it this next season,” Minio said. “It’s a big area, it’s going to take time to track them down.”

Next year, Minio said they’ll aim to fish the area before the longliners start fishing. He wasn’t expecting to immediately hit gold in the southeast area anyway — the last time an area reopened after several decades of closure, it took fishermen two full seasons before the area started to hit the GHL. Over the past few seasons, that area has becomes one of Kodiak’s most productive.

“It was the southwest side — they expanded that area this season and that area went really well. It was one of our best fishing areas,” Minio said.

During the recent season, the Provider hit the GHL of every area, except for the southeast area. Minio said, over six days, they managed to fish around 1,000 pounds of the 15,000 quota. In general, scallop abundance around Kodiak is down, According to Kodiak’s ADF&G area management biologist for shellfish, Nathaniel Nichols, GHLs have been low since 2014.

“Until 2014, Shelikof was at 105,000 pounds, so that was pretty big,” Nichols told KDM in 2018. “We had some concerns about the stock abundance over there, so we reduced it down to 25,000.”

Quota is down in other areas too — for example, in the Bristol Bay/Berring Sea area, GHL was set at just 7,500 pounds for the past season. Nichols said it had been set at 55,000 pounds for a number of years, until a parasitic outbreak hit much of the stock.

Minio said that the Provider harvested roughly 170,000 pounds of scallops over the whole season, but he’s optimistic that scallop stocks are bouncing back. Based on the abundance of scallops they observed while fishing this season, he said he expects that GHLs will increase again in a few years time.

“Fish and game will want to see it level for a few years before they start raising the quota back up,” he said, “Hopefully, if we see another good, promising year this year, they’ll start to put up the quota again.”

Although he couldn’t comment on future GHLs, Nichols confirmed that recent surveys, observer reports and anecdotes from fishermen all point toward growing abundance. In the fishery, these three lines of observation overlap — Minio takes ADF&G aboard the Provider to conduct the surveys.

“In May, we’re going to go and do another survey, but that’ll be for Southeast Alaska, down by Yakutat area,” he said.

This is one of the tasks Minio does during the off season. He said the pay he receives roughly allows them to break even for the trip, but participating in the survey is good for the fishery, so he’s more than happy to take part.

“Before, they were using state boats and, you know, a scallop boat just does better catching scallops than a boat that’s been rigged over just to try it,” he said.

The Provider is purely a scallop vessel.

“That’s all she does,” said Minio, explaining that not only is the vessel not permitted for any other fishery, the equipment aboard is really only suited for scallop fishing.

“She’s a freezer boat, so she can’t be tanked,” he said. “You would have to freeze everything that went down into the hold. She’s designed for stability for a freezer. The bottom of this boat is all completely cement. She’s really heavy on the bottom, which handles weather really nice, but you can’t fill it up with water.”

While there are two other vessels involved in the Scallop Association. Minio said, due to the low GHLs, it doesn’t make sense for all the vessel to be active in the fishery.

“Scallop prices are good, but if we didn’t get like 150,000 pounds for this boat a year, there’s no way we can survive,” he said.

Minio doesn’t deliver his product to a cannery — they do all the processing themselves. Yet another element of the scallop fishery, which makes it unusual among Alaska’s commercial fisheries is that the vast majority of the Provider’s catch stays in state. The scallop association sells it directly to restaurants and markets.

“90 percent of the stuff last year stayed in Alaska, mostly going to restaurants between here and Homer, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, a lot of southeast towns,” Minio said. “When you’re only getting 250-300,000 pounds of product, you can see why most of it would stay instate. It ain’t getting far with the amount we’ve been getting.”

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Information from: Kodiak (Alaska) Daily Mirror, http://www.kodiakdailymirror.com