User conflicts over halibut, salmon on horizon for 2016

  • Setnetters in Cook Inlet are still awaiting a ruling from the Alaska Supreme Court deciding whether an initiative that would ban their gear from Kenai Peninsula beaches will be allowed to reach the ballot. If the Supreme Court sides with the initiative backers it will be on the August primary ballot. Photo/Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion

The year about to end saw the beginnings of some fisheries regulations and legal battles that will either resolve, or present further issues, in 2016.

Halibut has dominated the federal fisheries agenda for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees the Exclusive Economic Zone from three to 200 miles off the coast. Shrinking halibut stocks and dual management have collided to produce a fishery bitterly divided among bycatch users, directed users, and charter anglers struggling to make ends meet with fewer legally harvestable fish.

The council will enact or further review several measures to ease the situation and provide a more collaborative and holistic approach to halibut management.

A program for Recreational Quota Entities will be released for public review in 2016. Recreational Quota Entities, or RQEs, would purchase halibut quota from commercial halibut fishermen for the charter fleet to use. Currently charter operators may only lease quota.

Commercial concerns about raising the price of commercial quota, among others, prompted the council to tweak the RQE proposal. It will likely release it for public review at its February meeting in Portland or April meeting in Anchorage.

The council will also review a broader halibut management framework plan to smooth some of the difficulties it has managing the resource in tandem with the International Pacific Halibut Commission, a joint U.S.-Canadian body which sets quota limits for the directed halibut fishermen.

Among the most important points of the framework is a potential for biomass-based halibut bycatch limits. Currently, halibut bycatch limits for the flatfish trawlers in the Bering Sea are capped, and do not move with the abundance of legally harvestable halibut. The council will review methods for abundance based halibut limits in 2016.

In state fisheries, all eyes will be on the Supreme Court of Alaska to rule on a ballot initiative proposed by the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance.

The initiative 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. Alaska residents hold more than 80 percent of the commercial permits.

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 while the AFCA argues it is not allocative and simply bans a gear type. If allowed, the initiative could appear on the 2016 ballot and go into effect as early as 2017.

State fisheries managers and legislators will wish to avoid the messy Board of Fisheries confirmation fights of 2015. The board will look to the Legislature to confirm the most recent appointee to the seven-member board, Bob Mumford, during the 2016 Legislative session. Mumford was named by Gov. Bill Walker to fill the seat after his first two nominations didn’t make the cut, one withdrawing from the process and the second defeated by the Legislature.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers will keep a close eye on both the returns of chinook salmon, which have largely been in decline statewide over the past several years, and sockeye salmon, which showed eye-raising behavior in 2015 with late, large runs and below-average size.

To catch them in Bristol Bay, the state’s largest sockeye run, fishermen are asking for guarantees they’ll get paid more than in 2015. Bristol Bay fishermen signed a petition late in 2015 to ensure some kind of contract transparency for their dealings with processors.

In 2015, Bristol Bay fishermen were only paid 50 cents per pound, half the average rate, due to a confluence of market factors. Though that price is tied to a web of influences, fishermen often suspect processors’ prices.

Updated: 
12/22/2015 - 4:18pm

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