ADFG predicts uptick in sockeye run for Upper Cook Inlet


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A bearded seal rests on ice off the coast of Alaska in this June 21, 2011, photo by John Jansen of NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. On Dec. 21, the bearded seal and ringed seal were declared threatened by National Marine Fisheries Service based on projected loss of sea ice habitat.

Photo/John Jansen/Alaska Fisheries Science Center

Fishermen could catch a few extra sockeyes in Upper Cook Inlet waterways in 2013.

Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game announced its sockeye salmon forecast Dec. 27, projecting a total run of 6.7 million fish, and a harvest of 4.9 million for all users.

That’s up slightly compared to a 2012 harvest of 4.4 million, and about 1 million more than the 20-year average harvest of 3.8 million fish.

The projections are good news for Kenai and Kasilof Rivers, but not so hot for Northern District waterways.

The Kenai River forecast is down slightly compared to 2012. The prediction is for 4.4 million sockeyes in the Kenai, compared to a run of 4.7 million in 2012. That’s still above the 20-year average for the Kenai.

The sockeye run on the Kasilof River is expected to come in just less than a million fish at 903,000, about 200,000 more than last year.

Northern District systems Fish Creek and the Susitna River aren’t expected to be as strong.

The Susitna River forecast is for 363,000 fish compared to 443,000 in 2012.

The Fish Creek forecast is 61,000 fish, down from 84,000 in 2012. Fish Creek drains from Big Lake into the Cook Inlet at the Knik Arm.

Fish and Game Biologist Pat Shields said the Kenai forecast ties to a management plan, which Fish and Game will use in the summer to oversee the fisheries.

“This puts us in the middle tier for management next year,” Shields said.

Under the middle tier Kenai management, Shields said east side setnetters will have two closed windows on Tuesdays and Fridays after July 8, with some flexibility regarding the timing of the closures. It also means that there will be 12-hour openings on Mondays and Thursdays, with an additional 51 hours of fishing time allowed each week. And it sets an escapement goal of 1 million to 1.2 million sockeyes passing the Kenai River sonar.

The forecast also included projections for a few other river systems.

The Crescent River, on the west side of Cook Inlet, could see an increase, with 110,000 sockeye predicted to swim upstream compared to 89,000 last year. And about 872,000 fish are expected to return to unmonitored systems.

The Kenai, Kasilof and Crescent River predictions are all above escapement goals listed in the department’s forecast, while the Fish Creek estimate is within the escapement goal range. An escapement goal isn’t available for the Susitna River, because that river is gauged based on three different lake escapements: Larson Lake, Chelatna Lake and Judd Lake.

NOAA lists ringed, bearded seals

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, announced Dec. 21 that it was categorizing ringed and bearded seals as threatened.

The protections are based on declining sea ice, a primary habitat for the seals.

In U.S. waters, the listing impacts Arctic ringed seals and the Beringia distinct population segment, or DPS, of bearded seals, although other subspecies and distinct population segments were included.

There are no immediate restrictions for human activity as a result of the listing, but federally permitted activities in seal habitat — such as fishing or oil and gas development — could face additional scrutiny to protect the seals in the future.

“Our scientists undertook an extensive review of the best scientific and commercial data. They concluded that a significant decrease in sea ice is probable later this century and that these changes will likely cause these seal populations to decline,” wrote Jon Kurland, protected resources director for NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska region, in a statement announcing the decision. “We look forward to working with the State of Alaska, our Alaska Native co-management partners, and the public as we work toward designating critical habitat for these seals.”

The listing will go into affect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, or in late February. Now, NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comment to inform future critical habitat proposals for Arctic ringed seals and Beringia DPS bearded seals.

The NOAA Fisheries announcement said subsistence harvest of ice seals will not be affected.

Steller sea lions are listed as a threatened species, and have had critical habitat designated. Those protections have led to significantly reduced fishing for Atka mackerel and Pacific cod in the Aleutians.

The listing came on the last possible day under a court order. In November, the Alaska district court ordered NOAA to respond to a complaint by Dec. 21.

The listings were originally proposed in December 2010, with a period of public comment following. The administration extended its final determination from December 2011 to June 2012, but did not provide a determination at that time. The Center for Biological Diversity sued the National Marine Fisheries Service when that June deadline was not met.

The announcement drew criticism for the timing as well as the action.

“I believe that Alaska’s wildlife must be protected, but not by relying on overbroad, overreaching analysis that runs counter to the abundant seal populations we presently see,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski wrote in a statement about the designation. “There is something misguided about policy that is guaranteed to cause real economic impact on the horizon based on a hundred year hunch. No wonder NOAA decided to release this decision the Friday before Christmas, hoping it won’t register with Alaskans.”

According to a statement from Gov. Sean Parnell, the State of Alaska is considering legal challenges to the listings.

2013 Kodiak Pacific cod harvest down from 2012

Pot and jig vessels can catch a combined 13.58 million pounds of Pacific cod in the Kodiak area state-waters fishery this year, down from 2012, when the limit was 15.69 pounds.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the 2013 guideline harvest level, or GHL, Dec. 24. Each gear type will receive half of the GHL, or 6.79 million pounds.

The state fishery opens after the closure of the central Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod pot gear A-season federal fishery. For pot vessels, the opening comes seven days after the CGOA closure. Jig vessels will likely open 48 hours after the federal side closes, although the two can be open simultaneously if the federal fishery hasn’t closed by March 15.

The state fishery comes with a variety of restrictions, and participants must have a state-waters Pacific cod vessel registration. Vessels are limited to either 60 pots or five mechanical jigs. Also, pot vessels greater than 58 feet in length are limited to harvesting at most 50 percent of the pot vessel share of the GHL.

Senate approves NOAA Corps bill

A bill that would more closely align the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Corps obligations and benefits with other uniformed services passed the senate unanimously Dec. 20.

Corps members operate ships and aircrafts to enforce fisheries regulations and conduct other ocean-related duties.

“The men and women who make up the NOAA Corps are our eyes and ears on Alaska’s key frontlines – fisheries, ocean mapping and engineering,” wrote Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a statement.

Murkowski and Sen. Mark Begich co-sponsored the legislation with several other senators.

“In Alaska, oceans are key to our economic prosperity, from fishing to responsible oil and gas development to transportation of goods and people,” Begich wrote in a statement. “We rely on the NOAA Corps to chart shipping routes and survey fish populations. As we expand activity in the Arctic, we will rely on the Corps even more for baseline scientific research in that region. We need to attract the best and brightest young men and women to the Corps and ensure that we retain knowledgeable senior officers.”

The bill aims to improve recruiting and streamline procedures for moving up in rank, in addition to work at making benefits and obligations more similar.

The House has not yet passed similar legislation, which is necessary before any such bill becomes law.

Copper River Campus fined for asbestos violation

Copper River Campus LLC pled guilty to violating the federal Clean Air Act for negligently endangering others when it released asbestos into the air in Anchorage.

Copper River Campus is the corporate headquarters for Copper River Seafoods, located on East 5th Avenue in downtown Anchorage.

The company was told to pay a $70,000 fine and serve three years probation, and contract with an environmental consultant to comply with environmental laws and safety standards in the future.

According to a statement from U.S. prosecutors, the company purchased the building in 2009 knowing it had asbestos, and did not take the appropriate precautions when it began demolition and other work on the building.

Alaskans respond to genetically modified fish decision

Alaskans have been largely unsupportive of the Food and Drug Administration’s environmental assessment of genetically modified salmon.

The administration, or FDA, released an environmental assessment, or EA, with a preliminary finding that genetically modified salmon pose “no significant impact” to the environment or public health.

The fish under consideration are produced by Aqua Bounty and grow twice as fast as conventional salmon.

Alaska’s congressional delegation responded negatively to the announcement.

“I am concerned with the recent news that FDA is moving forward with the approval of genetically modified fish,” wrote Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a statement. “This is especially troubling as the agency is ignoring the opposition by salmon and fishing groups, as well as more than 300 environmental, consumer and health organizations.”

Rep. Don Young expressed a similar sentiment in his statement, referring to the modified salmon as “frankenfish.” At a minimum, Young wrote that he plans to reintroduce legislation that would require labeling genetically engineered salmon.

Sen. Mark Begich also released a statement questioning the FDA’s finding.

“I am also concerned that the FDA is continuing to disregard the will of Congress,” Begich said. “It seems incredibly irresponsible to be moving forward on Frankenfish before they’ve taken a step back, consulted with experts on marine fisheries, and considered the potential impacts more broadly.”

The FDA has not yet released a report on the potential impacts of genetically modified fish to the environment generally, something that was required under the 2007 FDA reauthorization.

The FDA is taking comment on the EA for 60 days from publication in the federal register, which was done Dec. 26.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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