Cook Inlet fish wars escalate; halibut split finally gets OK
Politics dominated fisheries management discussions in 2013.
The Cook Inlet fish wars got especially heated, with sport advocates successfully removing a commercial member from the Board of Fisheries and calling for voters to approve a ban on setnetting.
Legislators voted 30-29 not to reappoint Bristol Bay setnetter Vince Webster to the Board of Fisheries after a campaign by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association that portrayed him as a problem with Cook Inlet fisheries.
Before voting against him, several lawmakers said they were sending a message to Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell and her biologists. But they confirmed the other board appointments — both from the sport side — including Tom Kluberton, who had served as Webster’s co-chair on the Upper Cook Inlet task force.
“It is disappointing, discouraging and disheartening when bad information or politics prevent a qualified Alaskan from serving our state,” Parnell said in a prepared statement after the vote.
A record-low return of late-run kings to the Kenai River didn’t help the fights later in the summer.
According to ADFG’s final estimate, the escapement for Kenai River kings was 15,395. That meant that sport and commercial users both faced restrictions, as ADFG tried to balance the need to provide fishing opportunity on abundant sockeye while conserving kings.
In November, the new Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, which includes KRSA founder Bob Penney as a supporter and founder, submitted an initiative to the state trying to ban setnetters in “urban” areas.
Although the language refers to several regions, Cook Inlet is the only place setnetters operate out of the listed communities, and founder Joe Connors said he certainly wanted to shut them down in an effort to conserve Kenai River king salmon.
In December, both the City of Kenai and the Kenai Peninsula Borough voted unanimously for resolutions opposing Penney’s effort to ban setnetters.
2. Halibut catch sharing plan approved
Another fish war, however, may have been snuffed out when the National Marine Fisheries Service announced in December that it would implement the new halibut catch sharing plan.
That was more than 20 years in the making, and the 2011 iteration was killed by the sheer number of comments, as well as substantive issues NMFS told the North Pacific Fishery Management Council must be addressed before the plan could be implemented.
Opponents flooded NMFS with comments again 2013, but the agency charged with implementing council fishery plans was able to respond to them all in time, in part by grouping comments on like topics.
The plan, or CSP, creates a combined catch limit, or CCL, for the commercial and charter sectors so that both bear the burden of conservation when the stock is doing poorly. The CSP was created by the North Pacific council, but the catch limit is determined annually by the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
The allocation for each sector is different in Area 2C, or Southeast Alaska, and Area 3A, or Southcentral, and varies with abundance. Generally, the charter sector takes a larger portion of the stock at times of low abundance.
The CSP also eliminated captain and crew fish for Area 3A, and created a mechanism for individual fishing quota holders to lease their quota to charter captains. That would enable charter captains to allow their clients to catch fish beyond those allowed in the management measures that are intended to keep effort to the charter portion of the CCL.
With a lower harvest outlook for 2014, Southcentral charter operators are likely to be limited to one trip per day, and clients will be limited to one fish of any size and a second 29 inches or less.
The “reverse slot limit” in Southeast, which saw an uptick in harvest for 2014, will be modified slightly to allow retention of fish 44 inches or smaller, or 76 inches or longer. That reverse slot limit in 2013 was for fish between 45 and 68 inches to be returned to the water.
For now, the Southcentral charter allocation may be 1.78 million fish, nearly 1 million pounds fewer than 2013. Southeast will be roughly similar at 760,000 pounds in 2014 compared to 788,000 in 2013.
3. Observer program launches
The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, also launched a revised marine observer program in 2013.
The new program placed observers on smaller fishing vessels that had been previously unobserved, but reduced the overall coverage on larger trawlers. Catcher-processors in the Gulf are now 100 percent observred.
In the new program, vessels belong to either the trip-selection or vessel-selection pool, or are part of the full-coverage program.
Certain trawlers, and pot and longline vessels longer than 57.5 are in the trip pool. They must log each trip, and are randomly chosen for coverage of one trip at a time.
Smaller vessels, those between 40 and 57.5 feet, belong in the vessel-selection pool, and are selected for 60 days of observer coverage at a time.
Industry participants expressed concerns about the program before it began. Some came to fruition — although NMFS allowed waivers for vessels that did not have space for an observer, some owners reported difficulties getting the waivers in time. A predicted loophole also was utilized. Vessels without an observer onboard did not have their deliveries to tenders observed, although deliveries to shoreside plants would have been.
Vessels also appeared to take different lengths of trips depending on whether or not an observer was onboard.
NMFS also worked on a pilot project to begin seeing how electronic monitoring performs. Industry groups also conducted EM test projects, and have said they’d like to find a way to observe vessels without needing a human onboard.
4. North Pacific council passes king cap
The North Pacific council also took another step toward bycatch reduction by passing a king salmon bycatch cap for Gulf of Alaska non-pollock trawlers.
Under the cap, the non-pollock, or bottom, trawl fleet is limited to 7,500 kings each year.
The cap includes an “uncertainty pool” that offers each sector a slight increase in the cap if they stay below it the year prior. That increase does not roll over beyond one year, and if a sector uses the wiggle room one year, the next year they will be kept to the hard cap.
In December, the council also agreed to a trailing amendment that allows the rockfish fleet to rollover a portion of its share of the cap each year.
The cap will likely be implemented in 2015.
The council is also looking at bycatch reduction tools, such as a catch share program, and approved an economic data collection program in October that will help provide baseline information about the Gulf fleet before any major changes set in.
5. New vessels on the grounds for freezer longline fleet
Work to rebuild the freezer longliner fleet began in 2013, in part as the result of an October 2012 NPFMC action that allowed for vessel replacement.
Two new longliners started fishing in the Bering Sea this year — Alaskan Leader Fisheries’ Northern Leader and Alaska Longline Co.’s Arctic Prowler started fishing this year.
Alaskan Leader Fisheries is jointly owned by the Alaska Leader Group of Lynden, Wash., and Dillingham-based Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. BBEDC is one of six Western Alaska Community Development Quota, or CDQ, groups that receive a 10 percent annual share of the Bering Sea harvests.
Petersburg-based Alaska Longline Co. also has CDQ connections as a partner with the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association.
The Arctic Prowler was built in Ketchikan at Alaska Ship and Drydock.
The Northern Leader, which will be home-ported in Kodiak, isn’t the result of a vessel replacement program, as its owners already possessed a license for a 184-foot vessel. But when it began fishing last spring, it represented a shift to a new, more efficient class of boats in the Bering Sea. The Northern Leader was built by Tacoma, Wash.-based J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp.
Molly Dischner can be reached at email@example.com.