Year in Review: Fisheries

Board shakeup, drifters win, sockeyes up as pinks, crab crash
  • Pink salmon missed the forecast in a major way in 2016, as just 39 million were caught compared to preseason estimates of 90 million. It was the worst harvest since 1977 and prompted calls from Gov. Bill Walker for a federal disaster declaration. (Photo/File/AP)

After a hectic fisheries year in 2015 involving felony charges, forced retirements and resignations, the 2016 Board of Fisheries confirmation cycle was mild, with few of last year’s inflamed arguments.

This board shakeup precedes the Board of Fisheries Upper Cook Inlet finfish meeting in early 2017, which is held once every three years and is highly charged by the conflicts between user groups.

The last two years took a toll on fisheries leadership, including one botched interview, one forced resignation, three failed nominations, a fistful of felony charges against one of those nominees, and two recent resignations — one by chairman Tom Kluberton who cited political burnout and stress, the other by Bob Mumford, coming before he even had the chance to be confirmed by the Legislature.

Unlike 2015, Board of Fisheries appointees had no trouble being confirmed in a rare occurrence for the Legislature.

In April 2016, the Legislature unanimously confirmed Al Cain, Israel Payton, and Robert Ruffner to the Board of Fisheries, replacing Mumford, Fritz Johnson and Kluberton.

Last year, Ruffner’s confirmation hearing went especially wrong after a sustained campaign by sportfishing groups to characterize him as holding commercial fishing sympathies.

The Legislature failed to confirm him on a 29-30 vote in 2015 but unanimously approved him in 2016.

No. 2: Drifters win lawsuit challenging Cook Inlet salmon management

A federal court tossed a North Pacific Fishery Management Council rule that will change the tenor of the upcoming Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting in February 2017.

A three judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with commercial fishing groups against a 2011 decision by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to remove several Alaska salmon fisheries from the federal fishery management plan, or FMP.

Industry group United Cook Inlet Drift Association filed the lawsuit in 2013 to repeal the council’s decision, which was officially Amendment 12 to the Alaska salmon FMP. The initial suit was rejected by U.S. Alaska District Court Judge Timothy Burgess. The 9th Circuit remanded the case back to Burgess with instructions to find for the plaintiffs.

Federal fisheries policymakers and state managers will now have to work together on a suitable FMP, which the council had hoped to rid itself of in 2011 by passing Amendment 12 in the first place.

In December 2011 the North Pacific council, one of eight councils that oversee fisheries in federal waters from three to 200 miles offshore, gave the Alaska Department of Fish and Game management authority of Cook Inlet, Prince William Sounds, and Alaska Peninsula salmon fisheries, removing the historic fisheries from the federal oversight. Only Southeast Alaska remained under direct federal oversight due to the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada.

No. 3: Another Bristol Bay bumper crop; salmon markets start to improve

For the third season in a row, the world’s largest sockeye salmon run featured above-average numbers, a late run, and sub-average prices for the fishermen.

Unlike last year, however, the fishermen’s pockets so far aren’t as empty in 2016, and the overall market outlook seems to have improved.

In terms of output, the summer of 2016’s 51.4 million fish run blew previous sockeye seasons out of the water, second only to last year’s run of 59 million.

Along with being an above average run, the 2016 Bristol Bay sockeye harvest surpassed ADFG forecasts. The 37.3 million sockeye salmon taken in the commercial harvest was 26 percent greater than the 29.5-million preseason forecast.

The 2016 season repeated that of 2015 not only in quantity, but also in run particulars that made last year’s harvest so strange, including late timing and smaller fish size.

The ex-vessel price for the salmon — what processors pay the fishermen — was above the final price for the 2015 season but still 25 percent below average. Processors paid 76 cents per pound for Bristol Bay sockeye.

The run’s volume drove the overall value. ADFG estimates the ex-vessel value at $156.2 million, which is 40 percent better than the 20-year average of $111 million.

A new market analysis had an optimistic outlook for the 2016 salmon season — and goes a long way in explaining why Bristol Bay sockeye salmon received a low dockside price for last year’s catch.

Juneau-based economics firm McDowell Group completed the report under contract from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

The report says processors simply had less capital to spread to fishermen in 2015, as they were beset by a host of negative market factors. Strong U.S. currency values lessened purchasing power for key foreign export markets, important export markets vanished, and massive supply caused led to a decrease in overall value.

No. 4: Pinks miss forecast in big way

Sockeye salmon mostly had a good year in 2016, but pink salmon performed miserably.

Around the state, biologists are unsure of what led to the lowest pink salmon harvest since the 1970s in a season that led Gov. Bill Walker to seek a disaster declaration from the federal government to bail out beleaguered pink fishermen.

“We caught 39 million pinks this year,” said Forrest Bowers, the Commercial Fisheries Division director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The department forecasted a harvest of 90 million pinks. Bowers said he had to comb records back to 1977 to find a year that bad.

In terms of overall value, pinks salmon pale beside sockeye, Alaska’s most valuable salmon species.

Walker, urged on by Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes, requested that U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker declare the season a disaster. This would pour millions in disaster relief funding for Kodiak, Prince William Sound, Lower Cook Inlet and Chignik, all areas with high dependence on pink salmon.

Prince William Sound is almost entirely hatchery-produced pink salmon while the other fisheries saw their wild pink salmon runs decline.

ADFG biologists note that inaccurate pink salmon forecasts are common. Unlike sockeye salmon, pink salmon have less predictable migration patterns and life cycles.

No. 5: Crab cut way back

Cuts and cancellations are causing anxiety for Alaska’s valuable crab fisheries, and even though prices will rise they will not likely make up for the sinking quota.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the 2016-17 bairdi, or Tanner, crab season on Oct. 5, following a 15 percent cut in the harvest quota for Bristol Bay red king crab and a 50 percent cut in the snow crab fishery.

Without intervention from the Alaska Board of Fisheries, requested by Tanner crab stakeholders, the millions of pounds and millions of dollars of bairdi will remain in the sea.

Last year, the fishery’s total ex-vessel value was $45.3 million.

Crab stocks are managed jointly between the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The North Pacific council sets the overfishing limits and annual catch limit for crab. ADFG then sets the total allowable catch, or TAC.

Tanner crab was one of two stocks the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration charted as having a declined biomass.

Always a costly product, the sharply reduced Alaska crab quota will surely raise prices, though nobody will know by how much until the season wraps up and processors set prices.

The average dockside price paid to fishermen for bairdi Tanner, snow crab, and Bristol Bay red king crab from 1985 to 2015 is $2.17, $1.37 and $5.08 per pound, respectively, and have been rising for snow and red king crab over the same timeline.

 

Updated: 
12/21/2016 - 1:20pm

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