FISH FACTOR: Processors pony up to fund herring surveys as budget cuts bite
Cuts affecting Alaska’s fisheries will be spread across all regions and species, depending on the final budget that is approved by state legislators.
As it stands now, the total commercial fisheries budget for fiscal year 2017 from all state and federal funding sources is about $64 million, a drop of $10 million over two years.
“With cuts of that magnitude, everything is on the table,” said Scott Kelley, director of the Commercial Fisheries Division at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Last year 109 fishery projects were axed, and another 65 are on the cut list for the upcoming fiscal year that begins on July 1, Kelley said. They include a golden king crab observer project and coho salmon evaluation plans in the Southeast region, a major salmon stock assessment program near Nome, numerous salmon enhancement pilot projects, crab research at Chignik, reduced time on the Nushagak River and loss of counting towers at Bristol Bay, cutbacks at the genetics lab and positions left unfilled at fish headquarters in Juneau, to name a few.
“That’s just a flavor of what we are talking about. Once the governor signs off on a budget and the dust settles, we will know our allocations from all funding sources,” Kelley said.
Some relief has come from funds generated by fees on purchases of limited entry permits and crew licenses, and Kelley credits industry members for stepping up to the plate.
That was clearly the case at Togiak in Bristol Bay, where the state’s largest herring fishery is underway. When swarms of fish arrived on April 17, the earliest date ever, everyone was caught off guard. But with all herring management budgets zeroed out last year (except for Sitka Sound), there was little money for flyovers to assess the run.
“We have a threshold biomass we are supposed to document before we open the fishery, and that requires flying and looking at the area,” said Tim Sands, area management biologist at Dillingham.
The processors “immediately shook the bushes,” to come up with money to fly herring surveys, Sands said, with Silver Bay, Trident, North Pacific and Icicle Seafoods each contributing $2,500. That will provide for about 10 flights during the fishery, down by more than half.
The lack of flying time has meant missed opportunities for fishermen further west at Good News Bay and Security Cove, as no surveys mean the fishery cannot be opened.
Sands is worried that the zeroed herring budget means managers won’t be able to produce a forecast for next year’s herring run at Togiak, due to a lack of flying and fish sampling.
“In order to forecast we need two things: biomass estimates from aerial surveys, and samples to run our age structure analysis models.” Sands explained. “This year’s data gap will cycle through our whole population estimate for at least eight years. It’s very problematic.”
Along with marijuana, mariculture is in line to be one of Alaska’s most profitable new industries and plans call for it to get moving fast.
The Alaska Mariculture Task Force Mariculture, created by Gov. Bill Walker’s Administrative Order in February, will hold its first meeting soon and fill out agency and public seats on the 11-member panel.
“The state has a different mindset now about diversifying the economy, and looking at developing resources that weren’t as prominent in the past when we had a lot of oil money around,” said Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation.
AFDF believes mariculture could be a $1 billion industry in Alaska in 30 years.
There are 56 sea farms operating in Alaska now, with sales topping $1 million for the first time last year. Oysters by far make up the main crop — one that could easily be supplemented with seaweeds.
“It’s an excellent cash crop for aquatic farmers because you grow it, you harvest it, you sell it. Every year you’ve got some cash flow, which is really difficult for shellfish farmers because they have to wait three to five years with various shellfish, or up to 10 years with geoducks, to start seeing a return on your investment. So seaweed can play a really big role,” Decker said.
Seaweeds are some of the fastest growing plants in the world. Kelp, for example, grows up to 9 feet to 12 feet in just three months.
Seaweed prices depend on what it is being used for and where it is grown. Growers in Maine, for example, fetch 50 to 60 cents a pound for edible grades; their rock weed crop brings in $20 million a year. Chile estimates a kelp industry would bring in $540 million annually. Japan’s $2 billion nori industry is one of the world’s most valuable crops.
Demand for seaweeds has soared over the past 50 years, far outstripping wild supplies, says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The task force will brainstorm a statewide strategic plan, and one area of focus will be Western Alaska. Decker said some village groups are backing data collection on possible growing sites, processing and transportation options and community interest.
“I believe there is a lot of potential out there that we haven’t even recognized yet,” Decker said.
Walker wants the mariculture task force plan on his desk by March 1, 2018.
Outwitting fish swiping killer whales…fights aboard 300 foot factory trawlers…falling overboard…waves in the wheelhouse — a new book titled “Chronicles of a Bering Sea Captain” captures five decades of crabbing, trawling and longlining in the Bering Sea.
The motivation for the book came from a health scare 20 years ago at sea, said author Jake Jacobsen.
“The thought struck me that I have six kids and they know very little about what I have done out at sea, and I wanted to leave some stories for them,” he said in a phone interview.
Jacobsen began jotting down stories in fits and starts, put it down for about a decade, and became inspired again last fall when he came upon old notebooks and photos. He wrote furiously for three months and two weeks ago Chronicles was released on Amazon.com.
One of Jacobsen’s favorite stories describes trying to outwit killer whales from robbing fish from longline hooks.
“You try and develop strategies,” he said with a laugh. “You cut your line, anchor it off, run away for a while and stop the engines and then come back. The whales leave sentries around at your strings, and then they call each other. So you can’t get very far hauling gear again because here come the whales.”
In writing the book, Jacobsen said he wanted to correct some misconceptions people might have about fishing the Bering Sea.
“When I tell stories about staying up for three days in a row and working until we’re just exhausted, we are not talking about decimating the resource,” he said. “We are talking about a fishery that takes a small percentage of the stock, and it is all controlled by the best science available. In Alaska we are very proud of the sustainable seafood programs we have.”