YEAR IN REVIEW: Federal agenda dominated by halibut bycatch concerns

  • Providing more fish for halibut fishermen by cutting bycatch was at the heart of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council agenda all year, with emergency allocations sought for the central Bering Sea, cuts in allowable bycatch approved and continuing work for a bycatch management plan for the Gulf of Alaska. AP Photo/James Poulson/Daily Sitka Sentinal

Halibut dominated the federal fisheries process in 2015, with each sector fighting over reduced allocations.

Directed halibut fishermen in the North Pacific have watched their quotas drop while the trawl industry prosecuting Bering Sea groundfish has had a relatively static bycatch limit for 20 years. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council governs bycatch while the International Pacific Halibut Commission governs directed removals, and the two have not coordinated on the decline in harvestable halibut biomass.

To remedy the situation, the six Alaskan members of the North Pacific council made an emergency request to the Department of Commerce December 2014 asking for an reduction of 33 percent of the trawl fleet’s bycatch limit.

The Department of Commerce, in turn, requested that the IPHC make an emergency allocation to Central Bering Sea fishermen that exceeded the staff recommendation. The commission agreed, setting the Central Bering Sea harvest limit at 1.285 million pounds of halibut, well above the recommended limit but at the minimum Bering Sea fishermen said they need to survive.

At its June meeting, the North Pacific council took a further step and slashed the Bering Sea and Aleutians Islands trawl fleet’s bycatch limits by 25 percent overall. The council discussed further halibut saving measures the rest of the year.

In the Gulf of Alaska, the council is still reviewing a plan to address bycatch in Gulf trawl fisheries. Around the Gulf, charter angler guides have received yet another tightening of rules.

Halibut anglers in Southcentral Alaska, also known as Area 3A, will have the same amount of fish to catch as in 2015, but be allowed to keep fewer. Anglers can only catch four per year instead of the five they were allowed in 2015, though the council authorized a two-fish daily bag limit with a size limit on one fish.

Weekly daylong closures, which the council first added last year, will be held on Wednesdays for the entire Southcentral area.

In Southeast Alaska, anglers in 2016 will be allowed only one fish per trip

either shorter than 42 inches or longer than 80 inches. Southeast guided angler quota rose to 847,000 pounds, about 80,000 pounds more than last year. These charter rules mirror those of 2015.

2. Lots of salmon, but underweight and late

Unknown factors collaborated to bring the second-largest harvest on record for Alaska salmon, but one that arrived late in many areas and with a trend of underweight fish.

Statewide, the commercial salmon harvest of all species was 247 million fish, greater than the 2015 harvest projection of 220 million and the 2005-14 average of 179 million fish. This year’s harvest was the second highest since 1994, following only 2013, when the harvest was 273 million fish.

Bristol Bay sockeye led in value with an immense but oddly timed run of sub-average-sized fish, while a bumper pink salmon harvest in the Prince William Sound matched exactly an inexplicable lag of Southeast pink salmon runs. Meanwhile, the international salmon market contended with price forces that included the U.S. dollar’s relative strength, Russian import bans, farmed fish and oversupply from the 2014 harvest.

In Bristol Bay and in key Southcentral rivers, the run timing for sockeyes was oddly late. By the season’s July 4 midpoint, Bristol Bay biologists saw no sign the harvest would reach close to 37.6 million forecast, only to see a record rally that put the total harvest near 36.7 million, which is second only to 2014 in the last 20 years.

While acknowledging wide margin of sampling error, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Steve Moffitt said the average weight for a Cordova sockeye in 2015 was 5.07 pounds. The historical average, he said, is closer to 6 pounds.

Kenai area commercial management biologist Pat Shields said he expects this year’s sockeye size to be smaller than average as well. Geoff Spalinger, the Kodiak area commercial fishery biologist, said the average weight for Kodiak sockeye was a half-pound below the historical average at 4.7 pounds.

The average Bristol Bay sockeye weight was 5.12 pounds, smaller than the historical average and the 2014 average of 5.92 pounds.

3. Setnet ban in judges’ hands

Alaska Supreme Court judges have still not ruled on a ballot initiative that would remove an entire class of fishermen from one of the state’s largest salmon fisheries.

The initiative, proposed by the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance led by Bob Penney, would ban setnet gear in urban areas, almost exclusively impacting Cook Inlet East Side setnetters where 735 setnet permits are registered alongside a large guided angler industry. More than 80 percent of the commercial permits are held by Alaska residents.

The Alaska Supreme Court heard arguments in August from the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance and the State of Alaska; the state is arguing the measure is unconstitutional as a prohibited allocation of a resource. The judges have yet to issue decision.

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott certified the ballot initiative after the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance submitted 43,000 signatures in support of the measure in August.

The issue has been at court since it the initiative was filed in late 2013; then-Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell rejected it in January 2014 as an allocative measure, which is prohibited by the Alaska Constitution.

AFCA appealed and won a reversal in Superior Court that allowed it to begin collecting signatures.

The State of Alaska is appealing the lower court decision, calling the initiative an unconstitutional reallocation of salmon from one user group of fishermen to another, though not an explicit one. AFCA argues the constitutional definition of allocation should be applied literally according to a particular legal precedent.

4. A good Board of Fisheries member is hard to find

The seven-person Alaska Board of Fisheries had a rough time filling one of its seats early in 2015, and the nominee has yet to be confirmed by the Legislature.

Bob Mumford, a former Board of Game member, was appointed to the position on May 20 by Gov. Bill Walker after a merry-go-round of forced retirements, criminal charges, and lobbying efforts juggled three prior appointees in and out of the running.

Board chair Karl Johnstone was up for reappointment this year, but Walker told Johnstone his name would not be submitted to the Legislature for reappointment in light of an unsavory Department of Fish and Game commissioner vetting process in January. Johnstone resigned in response, and vice chair Tom Kluberton, a Talkeetna lodge owner, took his place.

During a joint board commissioner interview, the Board of Fisheries members voted unanimously, without comment, against forwarding Roland Maw’s name to the governor for consideration, while the Board of Game voted unanimously in favor.

When Johnstone resigned, Walker then appointed Maw, a longtime Kenai Peninsula resident, commercial fisherman and former executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, but without properly vetting his past.

Maw withdrew his name from consideration Feb. 20 just one month into the confirmation process during the 2015 Legislative session. He was charged with illegally obtaining resident fishing and hunting permits in Montana shortly thereafter.

Walker then appointed Robert Ruffner, who was targeted for defeat by an intense lobbying effort by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association seeking to frame him as sympathetic to commercial fishing interests. Ruffner failed to be confirmed by the joint Legislature by a 30-29 vote, leading to Mumford’s appointment, which is still subject to confirmation.

According to former Boards and Commissions Director Karen Gillis, Walker was ready to name Roberta “Bobbi” Quintavell to the seat despite her lack of fisheries experience and Gillis resigned her job in protest before Mumford was named.

5. The Blob

A patch of warmer than average water in the Gulf of Alaska raised concerns in 2015 as biologists tied it to several upsetting trends in the region’s fisheries.

Warmer and drier climates in the western U.S. combined with natural Pacific Ocean currents to cause a patch of water stretching along the West Coast and into the North Pacific with an average surface temperature of 2 degrees centigrade, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than the historical mean.

Researchers and fishermen haven’t positively connected anything sinister to the warm water, but there was no lack of troubling episodes in the Gulf of Alaska. In the summer of 2015, dead whales cropped up near Kodiak, Chignik, Katmai, Seldovia, and False Pass, along with dead sea lions in Dutch Harbor and Amalik Bay. Dead puffins and other seabirds abound along the Gulf, as well as washes of dead bait fish including sand lances and herring.

Biologists suggested the small fish and late runs of sockeye salmon around Alaska could be linked to the warmer water. Warm water is conducive to certain types of algae, that crept into the Gulf of Alaska from farther south.

Updated: 
12/16/2015 - 1:54pm