DJ Summers

NOAA rejects nomination for Aleutian Islands sanctuary

Editor's note: this article has been updated to reflect that PEER did circulate a draft petition to local and tribal organizations but did not receive their support, clarify the alleged mischaracterization of the Aleutians Island sanctuary opposition, and clarify Steiner's quote on American taxpayers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejected a nomination to establish the Aleutian Islands National Marine Sanctuary on Jan. 23. Washington, D.C. conservation group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, submitted the nomination to the administration on Dec. 22, 2014. The Washington group concerns itself with protecting the mammals, sea birds, and submersed marine life in the entire Aleutians archipelago from overfishing, marine transportation, and oil and gas development. In 2014, President Barack Obama extended a moratorium on oil and gas leasing in Bristol Bay, and PEER is concerned the area might be reopened later if no permanent federal intervention takes place. The sanctuary would have encompassed all federal waters 200 miles north and south of the Aleutian Islands, including parts of the western Gulf of Alaska and southeast Bering Sea, putting restrictions on oil and gas leasing and transportation. It called for preservation of existing fisheries management, which means no new restrictions to commercial fishing, but also that no additional fishing opportunity would be allowed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, explains in their response letter to PEER that they rejected the nomination based on a lack of support or consultation from involved communities. “When [Office of National Marine Sanctuaries] considers this aspect of a nomination, we are not looking for unanimous support from all potential interests, but rather representative support from a diverse cross section of the community,” wrote Daniel Basta, the director of Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the branch of NOAA that reviews sanctuary nominations. The nomination was ill-received by Alaskans in the Aleutian Islands due in large part to the possibility of negative impacts on the commercial fishing industry, on which many Aleutian Islands communities rely for their economic health, from both directed fisheries and processing. The Aleutians East Borough, or AEB, received $3.2 million in 2014 from raw fish tax, according to a January assembly meeting report. AEB representatives said they had not been consulted about the marine sanctuary by PEER and only learned about it after its submission to NOAA. “We’ve never been invited to participate in any meetings or offer any comments on the effects it would have,” said Stanley Mack, mayor of the AEB. Mack’s concerns are less about the sanctuary proposal itself than the interpretations that might come later down the line necessitating fishing restrictions for conservation purposes. As it stood, the sanctuary nomination only made restrictions on bottom trawlers, cutting off all trawling west of 170 degrees west longitude, an area already largely cut off for Steller sea lion preservation. AEB natural resources director Ernie Weiss confirmed that several stakeholders including Frank Kelty, natural resource analyst for Unalaska, were in the process of preparing a white paper opposing the nomination to be presented to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council during their upcoming February meeting. Retired University of Alaska professor and marine biologist Richard Steiner helped draft PEER’s nomination request. He says the sanctuary intended to save the exact fisheries the AEB is worried about by limiting damaging environmental impacts. Steiner acknowledged that the AEB and other communities were left out of the process due to anticipated opposition, but said PEER did have the support of contact dozens of other local and tribal organizations in the Aleutians, including all tribes within the Alaska Intertribal Council, and had the support of Pat Pletnikoff, the mayor of St. George. Contacting opposing parties for comment, he says, would have done nothing to change their minds. Steiner says the appearance of unanimous local opposition total area closure was an intentional mischaracterization of the issue by Alaska politicians and NOAA regional administrators. Alaska Rep. Bryce Edgmon introduced a bill on Jan. 21 opposing the nomination, which was signed by Alaska Speaker of the House Mike Chenault. Regardless of support, Steiner believes the national conservation interests should supersede the local opposition. “I get that the small communities involved get disproportionate representation,” said Steiner. “But there are 300 million other American citizens who co-own and co-manage these federal waters who deserve a say in how they are managed, who are taxed for federal management.” The nomination, Steiner said, was a way to test the waters in Alaska regarding an Aleutians reserve. Since NOAA rejected the Aleutians nomination, Steiner is looking to presidential authority to hopefully establish something similar to the 1980 Alaska National Lands Interest Conservation Act, created from a Carter administration federal monument designation in 1977, which reserved over 100 million acres of Alaska land as federal national parks. The designation is needed, Steiner says, because Alaska marine ecosystems will always be held under the thumb of local interests without foresight for the ecosystem or consideration for the potential tourism dollars national parks and monuments bring. “It’s clear that there will never be a marine sanctuary in Alaska,” Steiner said. “NOAA is deferring exclusively to local parochial interests. A lot of people look at the ocean as some magical black box that revenue comes out of, regardless of the effects to the ecosystem. We’re hoping that the president will be bold and declare the area a national monument. ” Steiner’s hope has proven well founded over the last week. The nomination takes place in the larger political arena of a Republican Congress bucking against unilateral executive actions. President Barack Obama proposed on Jan. 25 to set 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, aside as wilderness, effectively halting any oil development. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young all drafted letters of disapproval. They declared the ANWR expansion a war on Alaska interests that undermines the state’s right to determine land usage, effectively turning the nation’s largest state into the nation’s largest national park instead. On Jan. 27, Obama also designated 9.8 million acres of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas as a marine sanctuary, halting oil and gas leasing in those areas as well as ANWR. In 2014, Obama used his power under the Antiquities Act to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine Sanctuary, established by President George W. Bush, from 87,000 square miles to more than 490,000 square miles, closing the area to a small amount of commercial tuna fishery. Only days before the ANWR designation, on Jan. 22, Young introduced H.R. 330 to the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would restrict the president’s authority to independently create national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Theodore Roosevelt created the Antiquities Act specifically to make national parks without congressional oversight. Young’s bill would make the designation process congressional instead of executive. The president will undoubtedly veto such legislation. Without the congressional support to override a veto, Young says he will try to negate Obama’s ANWR expansion by denying funding through House appropriations. “We’ll put in our appropriations bills that no money will be spent on implementation of the preservation of the coastal plain,” said Young in a telephone interview Journal. Young says the offshore Chukchi and Beaufort sea designation worries him more, as he has less control over their leasing and appropriations, but that he will certainly halt any future executive designations for the Aleutians through appropriations denial. “First of all, who are these people [PEER]?” Young said. “They’re not Alaskans. That designation would be devastating to the fishing industry and to our communities.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Aleutians marine sanctuary rejected by NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejected a nomination to establish the Aleutian Islands National Marine Sanctuary on Jan. 23. Washington, D.C. conservation group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility submitted the nomination to the administration on Dec. 22, 2014. If nominated and designated, the sanctuary would have encompassed federal waters from three to 200 miles north and south of the Aleutian Islands, including parts of the western Gulf of Alaska and southeast Bering Sea, and subjected them to conservation measures potentially including restrictions on commercial fishing, marine transportation, and oil and gas development. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, explains in their response letter that they rejected the nomination based on a lack of support from involved communities. “When [Office of National Marine Sanctuaries] considers this aspect of a nomination, we are not looking for unanimous support from all potential interests, but rather representative support from a diverse cross section of the community,” wrote Daniel Basta, the director of Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the branch of NOAA who reviews sanctuary nominations. The nomination was ill-received by Alaskans due in large part to the implications on the commercial fishing industry, on which Aleutian Islands communities almost entirely rely for their economic health. Aleutians East Borough representatives said they had not been consulted about the marine sanctuary by PEER and learned about it after its submission. “We’ve never been invited to participate in any meetings or offer any comments on the effects it would have,” said Stanley Mack, mayor of the Aleutians East Borough, or AEB. AEB natural resources director Ernie Weiss confirmed that several stakeholders including Frank Kelty, natural resource analyst for Unalaska, were in the process of preparing a whitepaper opposing the nomination. The paper was to be presented to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council during their upcoming February meeting. Alaska Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D – Dillingham) introduced a bill on Jan. 21 opposing the nomination, which was signed by Alaska Speaker of the House Mike Chenault. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Commerce Dept. suggests bump for Bering Sea halibut

Bering Sea halibut bycatch reforms are still in the works, but the U.S. Department of Commerce has recommended a stopgap measure on behalf of the small boat fishermen most injured by sinking allocations. The U.S. Department of Commerce has responded to the letter sent Dec. 18, 2014, by the six Alaskan members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council asking for an emergency 33 percent reduction in Bering Sea halibut bycatch limits. The department’s Jan. 20 response recommends that the International Pacific Halibut Commission increase the quota for regulatory Area 4CDE from its 2015 projections, based on an appeal to socioeconomic crisis aversion and ongoing efforts to voluntarily reduce halibut bycatch by the groundfish fleet. According to Glenn Merrill, assistant Alaska Region administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the 33 percent emergency reduction is still under consideration. Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Eileen Sobeck sent the letter to Bruce Leaman, executive director of the IPHC, the joint U.S.-Canadian panel that governs the Pacific halibut fishery and assigns quotas. Sobeck does not make any mention of the requested 33 percent bycatch reduction across the entire Bering Sea. For now, the Department of Commerce recommends that the commission “provide adequate harvest opportunities for the IPHC Area 4CDE (Bering Sea).” The letter does not say what defines “adequate” and will leave that to the commission. Area 4CDE’s allocation would be 960,000 pounds if the 33 percent reduction were put in place, according to estimates by IPHC scientists. Quotas for the area have been dropping. The current projected 2015 harvest for Area 4CDE, is 520,000 pounds, a 60 percent cut from 1.29 million pounds in 2014 and a 73 percent cut from 1.93 million pounds in 2013. Since the IPHC interim meeting in December, the commission has raised the 2015 Area 4CDE projection from the original 370,000 pounds. The IPHC will meet Jan. 26-30 in Vancouver, British Columbia, to set quotas for the halibut fishery and discuss management concerns. Unlike the North Pacific council, the commission can set allocations in excess of biological recommendations, or “blue line,” which recommends a drastic cut in allocations for Area 4CDE, the regions surrounding the Pribilof Islands. At the IPHC interim meeting in December, staff scientists presented the “blue-line” projection that calls for a coastwide catch of about 25.02 million pounds, and total fishery removals of 38.72 million pounds. The coastwide catch figure includes commercial wastage but not the sport fishery; in 2014, the comparable blue-line recommendation called for a coastwide catch of 24.45 million pounds, but the commission ultimately opted to set the limit slightly higher, at 27.52 million pounds. Alaska’s portion of the blue-line projection would be about 19.32 million pounds, compared to about 19.7 million pounds in 2014. The projection called for a charter catch, including wastage, of about 790,000 pounds in Southeast and 1.89 million pounds in Southcentral. The commercial catch would be about 3.4 million pounds in Southeast, 7.81 million pounds in Southcentral, 1.35 million pounds in 4A, 720,000 pounds in 4B (Aleutians) and 370,000 pounds in 4CDE (Pribilof Islands). The Bering Sea is home to lucrative groundfish fisheries, which take a halibut as accidental catch in pursuit of their directed fish, known as bycatch and have limits of such halibut take totaling more than 8 million pounds. The groundfish fishery includes both pollock and flatfish species targeted by midwater and bottom trawl gear, respectively. At the current projected harvest level, commission biologists estimate that 93 percent of all halibut removals in the Bering Sea would be from bycatch, not the directed halibut fishery. Sobeck explains in the letter that the socioeconomic impact of the projected 4CDE allocation led her to make the recommendation. “The potential reductions in the Area 4CDE catch limit will have substantial negative impacts, primarily on the remote coastal communities within Area 4CDE,” Sobeck wrote. “The halibut fishery is an essential socioeconomic resource for the residents, communities, and fishing businesses throughout the North Pacific, and Area 4CDE in particular.” At a 2014 halibut price of $6.15 per pound, the current allocation projection would be worth $3.2 million, compared to the $7.2 million the 2014 catch netted. If the 33 percent reduction prediction of 960,000 pounds is adopted, the increase could be worth about $2.7 million more than the current proposed allocation. Sobeck argues that raising Area 4CDE’s allocation would not likely have a negative effect on halibut stocks considering both the limited size relative to the overall halibut removals, the ongoing efforts of the Bering Sea trawl fleet to reduce their bycatch through voluntary measures and the pending North Pacific council action in June to reduce bycatch limits by as much as 35 percent. The North Pacific groundfish trawl fleet recently applied for an exempted fishing permit that would allow for deck sorting, which would reduce bycatch mortality. The groundfish fleet is also making more extensive use halibut excluders in their trawl nets, inter-vessel communications, and voluntary rolling hotspot closures. Much of the public comment against moving a bycatch reduction into regulation was from the trawlers, who claim they’ve been able to reduce their halibut bycatch up to 10 percent through purely voluntary measures. Halibut stocks have been in decline for the last decade but leveled out in the last few years, according to commission scientist Ian Stewart. The North Pacific council members’ emergency request asked that the Department of Commerce make their intentions known before the January commission meeting so that it could make an informed decision. This response will provide a bandage for the area of greatest concern until the North Pacific council meets in June. Bering Sea bycatch has been an ongoing concern for Pacific fisheries. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council governs halibut bycatch quotas while the commission governs quotas to the directed fishery. Bycatch limits for the Bering Sea have remained unchanged for 20 years, and the decline in legally harvestable halibut makes the bycatch significantly larger than the directed halibut fishery. A proposal to make an emergency reduction in halibut bycatch was introduced to the North Pacific council in its December meeting, but the motion failed on a tie vote, with five members voting against, the five Alaskans present voting in favor, and Ed Dersham of Anchorage absent for health reasons. Dersham was the sixth council member, representing a majority of the 11 voting members, who signed the letter to Sobeck requesting the emergency cut in bycatch limits. The IPHC will also consider a proposal from the Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association to consider lowering the 32-inch limit to 30 inches, based on a 2013 study of halibut size and removals the commission requested of its staff in 2013 with possible regulatory changes in mind. According to the report, the directed halibut fishery discarded 8.7 million pounds of undersized halibut in 2013, an estimated 16 percent of which died. Lowering the size would decrease waste by as much as 58 percent, potentially reducing halibut mortality from 1.35 million pounds to 580,000 pounds.  DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Aleut Corp and Adak finally receive access to pollock quota

Things have been rough for the western Aleutians town of Adak over the last decade, but the pollock season beginning Jan. 26 will finally make the town some money. After being passed over for Community Development Quota, suffering the closure of its Naval air base, then held under the thumb of Steller sea lion restrictions that essentially closed the Aleutian Islands subarea to pollock fishing, the Aleut Corp. and Adak will be able to harvest the 17,400 metric tons, or 38.3 million pounds, of pollock quota they were allotted 10 years ago by the late Sen. Ted Stevens. The Adak Cod Cooperative, which leases the processing plant from the Aleut Corp., is currently looking for business partners to offset the leasing costs.  “It’s going to take one or two years to really shake out the trauma that we’ve been through,” said Clem Tillion, a lobbyist for the Aleut Corp., one of 12 Alaska Native regional corporations who own lands and finances under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The company owns the pollock quota as well as the building that houses Adak’s fish processing plant. The total pollock allocation for the western Aleutian Islands subarea is 19,000 metric tons, or mt, which has been unfished due to the Steller sea lion restrictions. At 35 cents per pound ex-vessel price, that amounts to $14.9 million. Of the 19,000-mt allocation for the Aleutians subarea, 15,500 mt of that was reserved for the Aleut Corp., and 1,900 mt for Adak. The remainder is the incidental catch allowance for other fisheries. “There’s a lot of building left to do in the aftermath of the sea lion fiasco, which was bull to begin with,” Tillion said. Adak’s economic health has swung into dark times since its better days as a Bering Sea Naval base. The U.S. Navy was the town’s income for half a century until it withdrew in 1999, leaving Adak without much revenue stream. Similar coastal towns are issued Community Development Quota amounting to 10 percent of all Bering Sea harvests, but the program began in 1991 when Adak was still a Naval base, so the town received no quota. Stevens pushed for the Aleut Corp. to receive a pollock allocation in 2004, stipulating that the revenue must be used for Adak’s economic development and not outsourced to outside processors or crew. However, Steller sea lion protections put in place after 2004 made the quota practically useless and most of the 19,000 mt were reallocated to the Bering Sea each year. Additional protections for the Steller sea lion, whose main food sources are Pacific cod, Atka mackerel, and pollock, were the justification for the National Marine Fisheries Service to close a western Aleutian Islands area half the size of Texas to any cod or mackerel fishing in 2010. The State of Alaska and a coalition of fishing groups sued, and a federal judge found in 2012 that NMFS violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not producing an environmental impact statement, or EIS, to support the action. The restrictions were allowed to stand as the court-ordered EIS was prepared, a process that was completed last year when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted a new suite of measures allowing more fishing in the Aleutians, including the Aleut Corp. quota. A finding of no jeopardy or adverse modification under the Endangered Species Act for the new measures allows the Aleut Corp. to fish its pollock quota, making this the first time the it and Adak will be able to fish or lease their combined 17,400 mt of pollock. Success hinges on getting the Adak’s processing facility operational and profitable. Icicle Seafoods sold Adak’s processing plant in mid-2013, just two years after purchasing it, citing regulatory and Pacific cod uncertainty and as reason. The company’s business made up 30 percent to 40 percent of the town’s tax revenue. To keep from losing the plant entirely, Adak invested $2 million to buy Icicle’s equipment at auction and recently sold it to newly formed Adak Cod Cooperative LLC owned by Bristol Bay salmon processors Joe Kelso and John Lorance, owners of Ekuk Fisheries. Adak is currently hurrying to reroof the plant.  According to Tillion, the challenge ahead is finding boats to actually get the pollock, as well as marketing effectively for fishermen to use Adak’s processing plant. Because they’d been unable to fish their pollock allocation since receiving it, Adak-based pollock fishermen are scarce. Currently, Aleut Corp. has half their quota leased to a crab fisherman who’s looking for willing pollock outfits. “We have the right to go shopping,” said Tillion. “Who we have to harvest it, I don’t know.” To make revenue, Tillion says plant will consider opening shop for several different sources including Pacific cod, roe, and crab, once they complete an expensive roof repair. The plant will have to fight for market share with other Aleutian Islands processing centers like Dutch Harbor, so diversifying their capabilities and emphasizing convenient access will be key to finding steady customers. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Utah-based group pushing to transfer federal land to states

Doug Heaton, executive director of the American Lands Council, says he has a plan for Alaska to take control of federally owned lands within the state’s borders. Speaking at the Jan. 9 Meet Alaska event, an annual gathering hosted by the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, Heaton laid out a legal argument for the passage of federal lands into state control and implored the audience to do what several western Lower 48 states have done and sign his petition. The federal government controls more than 60 percent of Alaska land, and Heaton’s argument says that land should’ve been given to the state 60 year ago after entry into the union. Heaton’s case rests on an appeal to the Federal Property and Territory Clause in Article IV, Section III of the U.S. Constitution, giving the federal government the power to “dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” Predictably, this passage has been the subject of lengthy debate and has several dominant interpretations, ranging from pro-federal to pro-state. Essentially, Heaton’ argues that “dispose of” means “get rid of,” and that the U.S. government hasn’t lived up to the deal. According to Heaton, when Alaska was admitted to the union as a state in 1959, the enabling act mentioned no such transfer of public lands into state hands, leaving the majority in Congressional control. By contrast, Hawaii’s 1959 enabling act put public lands into state ownership; Hawaii’s lands are now less than 1 percent federally controlled. Heaton cites historical cases for examples of successful public land transfer in the past under similar circumstances. In 1828, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, all recently admitted states, petitioned the federal government for disposal of public lands, and after some court battling, received them. Historically and economically, Alaska has many commonalities with the large western states in the Lower 48, including lengthy territorial status, vast potentiality for natural resource development, and expansive borders. A wide disparity exists between eastern and western states in terms of land management, where western refers to the Intermountain West, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest states and eastern describes the Great Plains and everything eastward. Where less than 10 percent of eastern lands are federally controlled, over 50 percent of the western state lands are under federal management. In Heaton’s mind, the potential economic benefits to putting millions of acres into state ownership far outweighs the benefits of the system of national parks and federal natural resource leasing options under large federal control. Alaska is no stranger to legal scuffles over federally managed land. Rep. Don Young has been a longtime opponent of federal control of Alaska lands and vied several times to limit the authority of federal bodies over state-owned property. Last year, two court decisions established the National Parks Service’s supremacy over Alaska-controlled rivers that run through federal lands. Other groups like the Alaska Coalition actively lobby to add more lands into Congressional control by adding acreage to federal wildlife and resource reserves, arguing that protecting the Alaska natural resources through national parks trumps private economic development. The American Lands Council has its home in southern Utah, a state that has been at the forefront of a battle to wrest public lands into state domain for years. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Subsistence board to define 'hook' after new Kenai rules

The Federal Subsistence Board will meet from Jan. 21-23 in Anchorage to discuss several proposals for both isolated and statewide legislative changes to Alaska federal subsistence fishery laws. Only two of the proposed eight consensus items on the board’s January agenda received the support of each of the advisory bodies that comprise the Federal Subsistence Board. The first would define the federal definition of “hook” for subsistence fisheries. The second would ban the use of seines and gillnets in the Klawock River/Lake drainage area until sockeye runs recover. The Southcentral Regional Advisory Council proposed the hook measure, which would create a federal definition of “hook” as a “single shanked fish hook with a single eye constructed with one or more points with or without barbs.” There is no current federal definition for “hook.” Because subsistence is federally managed, the Southcentral council is afraid a new state regulation requiring barbless hooks under certain conditions on the Kenai River may eventually end up applying to them as federal regulations mirror state rules unless specifically amended in the federal rules. According to the discussion of the proposal: “If this proposal is adopted, it would maintain Federally qualified subsistence users’ ability to select the type of fishing hooks, with or without barbs, they want to use. Once a definition of hook is in federal regulation, Federally qualified subsistence users will not have to be concerned if the State of Alaska changes the definition of a hook or restricts other fisheries to the use of barbless hooks.” In 2014, the Alaska Board of Fisheries adopted a measure to limit the lower Kenai River chinook sport fishery to barbless hooks if the late run size is below 22,5000 salmon. Many federal subsistence fisheries allow for fishing with hooks. Studies indicate that barbless hooks do reduce the efficiency of the angler, but their effect on fish mortality is still uncertain. According to one study conducted by the California Department of Fish and Game in 2010, use of barbless hooks reduces angler efficiency by 11 percent to 24 percent, resulting in anglers fishing longer in order to achieve their bag limits, or reducing their harvest. For conservation purposes this is a desirable characteristic with low runs and catch-and-release sport fishing. For subsistence fisheries, where efficiency of harvest is the explicit goal, barbless hooks would simply reduce the amount of food on the table. All regional advisory boards and the Office of Subsistence Management supported the proposal. The second proposal with unanimous support, introduced by the Southeast Regional Advisory Council, would forbid the use of seines and gillnets in the federally-managed Klawock River and Klawock Lake subsistence fisheries in July and August. The proposal would not affect the state subsistence fishery in the same area; the Craig Fish and Game Advisory Committee also submitted proposals to the Alaska Board of Fisheries requesting similar action within the state managed fishery that will meet in February. The restrictions aim for conservation. According to the Southeast council, the sockeye escapement along the Klawock River has been low since 2011, when Klawock River weir count crashed from 22,739 in 2010 to 4,755 in 2011. The majority of subsistence fishing is being done in lower parts of the river where sockeye wait to hurdle the first upriver waterfall. Seines and gillnets present a serious threat of overharvest, the council says. The council estimates that a ban would protect 64 to 97 percent of the sockeye return once they have entered the river. The council thinks it can balance the need for a healthy subsistence fishery with conservation necessities. There are other methods than seines and gillnets, and the regulation doesn’t have to be permanent. “Restricting seines and gillnets will not create an undue burden as federally qualified subsistence users can fish with other legal gear types during these months,” the council said. “Klawock River sockeye returns can be easily monitored with the POWHA weir. Should sockeye escapements improve over time, the Federal Subsistence Board could easily reinstitute use of these gear types in federal waters through the special action and regulatory process.” The Office of Subsistence Management supported the proposal. Both the state and federal government govern Alaska subsistence fisheries. The Federal Subsistence Board is made up of the regional directors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Forest Service. All subsistence use of federal public lands and waters falls under their jurisdiction. The board takes its cues from advisory boards of tribal and subsistence representatives from ten different Alaska regions as well as the Office of Subsistence Management. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Cotten receives unanimous support for ADFG commissioner

Alaska Department of Fish and Game interim Commissioner Sam Cotten has cleared one of the last hurdles for permanent appointment after a Jan. 14 meeting of the joint boards of Fisheries and Game. Gov. Bill Walker’s new administration and Cotten are now realigning department staff in order to fit with a policy of a public involvement and federal cooperation. After being sworn in, Walker asked for the resignations of several public employees, including then-ADFG commissioner Cora Campbell, and Walker appointed Cotten to serve on an interim basis. The joint board voted unanimously to forward Cotten’s application to Walker. Under Alaska statute, the joint board is required to submit a list of qualified nominees to the governor, who can ask for additional candidates and must eventually select a commissioner. The governor’s selection must then be confirmed by the Legislature. This year, the only qualified nominee’s name to make it to Walker’s desk will be Cotten’s. Roland Maw, Zachary Hill, Matt Moore, and Greg Woods also submitted their resumes for consideration, but none made it to the interview portion of the joint board meeting. Woods withdrew his name prior to the meeting. The joint board reviewed the applications of the remaining four in their meeting, each in turn voting on whether or not to advance each applicant to a joint board interview. Hill and Moore each received unanimous votes against moving to the interview stage; Maw's vote failed on a tie with the Board of Game voting unanimously to advance him and the Board of Fisheries voting unanimously against him. [Editor's note: this paragraph has been updated from the print edition to reflect the split vote on Maw's candidacy.] The board cited concern with a lack of public administration experience or institutional knowledge from each of the three. Hill and Moore come from academic background rather than public management. Maw currently serves as executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association and has public service with various Alaska management bodies including the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission and the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee. Cotten passed the initial interview recommendation with a unanimous vote. He had broad support from both boards for his breadth of experience in Alaska public management as well as his track record as acting commissioner over the last six weeks. The interim commissioner outlined his priorities and plans during the interview process. The two most pressing concerns for Alaska fish and wildlife involve Alaska’s shriveled budget and to improve the department’s ability to function alongside federal agencies and agendas. The most common points involved focusing on a science-based rather than economic-based approach to resource management, a desire to have more public involvement within the department’s decision-making process, and a need to find new ways to cooperate with the U.S. government for subsistence governance. Cotten says the science and conservation measures, when necessary, should trump commercial concerns, as in the case of declining chinook salmon runs or the issues regarding commercial halibut fishing. Cooperation with the federal government will be key for resource management, and Cotten made mention of the availability to the ADFG of federal funds as a softener for Alaska budget cuts. He also hopes to find ways to mitigate the dual management of Alaska subsistence communities, a system that receives scrutiny for its conflicting interests and methods. Cotten told the joint board that he plans to use his seat on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service and others to secure more opportunities for Alaskans, notably in securing more access for Alaska commercial fishermen, who only make up a small percentage of the commercial groundfish harvesters. On Jan. 13, Cotten also announced Charlie Swanton, who has acted as director of the Division of Sport Fish since 2007, as an ADFG deputy commissioner and as Alaska’s commissioner for the Pacific Salmon Commission. This appointment aligns with the commissioner’s plan to invest in ADFG staff organization that favors knowledge of federal systems in order to advance Alaska interests where possible. Swanton’s experience with the Pacific Salmon Treaty should come in handy dealing with commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries for the species in Alaska. Deputy Director Thomas Brookover has been named as acting director of Sport Fish Division. The ADFG has also decided to replace their habitat division director, Randy Bates, who was asked to tender his letter of resignation when Walker entered office. The administration has not yet named Bates’ replacement. According to the Associated Press, Cotten said the ADFG’s area management plans did not align with Walker’s administrative emphasis on transparency and public input before plan creation and revision. DJ Summers can be reach at [email protected]

NOAA disperses final $13M for 2012 king salmon disaster

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Jan. 12 the approval of a second round of disaster funds for research and to be distributed to fishermen who were negatively impacted by the chinook salmon fishery disasters in 2012; $13 million of the total $20.8 million will be paid out to a variety of sport and commercial users. “We are relieved that this second round of fisheries disaster funds has been approved, and look forward to getting direct payments to affected recreational and commercial businesses,” said Alaska National Marine Fisheries Service regional administrator Jim Balsiger. “Funds slated for salmon disaster research and restoration will help mitigate future fishery failures and impacts.”   This grant will distribute $4.5 million to the recreational fishing sector and related businesses for loss of income, $6.4 million for salmon research in the Yukon/Kuskokwim region, $1.1 million for research in the Cook Inlet, and $700,000 to salmon buyers in the Cook Inlet area. In 2012, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared federal fishery disasters for the 2012 Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, the 2010-12 Yukon River king salmon runs and 2011-12 Kuskokwim king runs.  In 2014, Congress appropriated $75 million for those disasters and others throughout the country. Since February, the federal fishery managers have been working with the state and others to develop a plan for distributing Alaska’s appropriation of $20.8 million, $7.8 million of which was distributed to commercial salmon fishermen in August 2014. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration collaborates with the State of Alaska to determine which groups will be eligible to receive the grant money. Cook Inlet, Yukon and Kuskokwim commercial fishermen received payments last fall as the first part of the fishery disaster relief funding. The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Aug. 18, 2014, that $7.8 million of the $20.8 million appropriated for the 2012 disaster declarations for Cook Inlet, Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers salmon returns would be used for direct aid payments. Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission administered the grant and make the payments to eligible fishermen with $3.2 million intended for Yukon-Kuskokwim region fishermen, and $4.6 million for Cook Inlet fishermen. Eligible Cook Inlet fishermen received a $2,000 fixed payment, plus a percentage based on their landings history from 2007 to 2011, according to NMFS spokeswoman Julie Speegle. According to information provided by the NMFS, an estimated 443 permit holders from Cook Inlet’s East Side setnet fishery were  eligible to apply for payments, as will an additional 96 Northern District fishermen. Yukon River fishermen received an estimated $4,952, with 631 permit holders eligible to apply, Speegle wrote in an email. That accounts for about $3.1 million of the total $3.2 million for Yukon and Kuskokwim permit holders. An estimated 489 Kuskokwim River fishermen were eligible for $165 payments, Speegle wrote at the time. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]    

Halibut bodies to meet amid growing bycatch concerns

Few fish have to swim through more red tape than the Pacific halibut. Halibut has been governed by two regulatory bodies for more than 40 years, and 2015 will hopefully see an increase in mutual understanding between the two, as well as a welcome public display of cooperation. At a joint meeting Feb. 5 in Seattle, the two bodies that control the halibut fishery — the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission — will review processes of mutual interest, including collection issues relating to stock assessment, bycatch assessment, mortality accounting framework, and abundance-based bycatch limit considerations. The meeting, sandwiched within one of the North Pacific council’s five regular yearly meetings, will be the first time the bodies sit together to discuss halibut controls and will occur following the IPHC annual meeting Jan. 26-30 in Vancouver, British Columbia. That IPHC annual meeting will take place against the backdrop of an emergency request sent to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Dec. 18, 2014, by the six Alaskan members of the North Pacific council including Department of Fish and Game interim Commissioner Sam Cotten seeking a 33 percent reduction in the 2015 halibut bycatch limits for the Bering Sea groundfish fishery. The groundfish fishery includes both pollock and flatfish species targeted by midwater and bottom trawl gear, respectively. Small boat halibut fishermen in the regulatory Area 4CDE, the Pribilof Islands, are the core of the issue. The current projected harvest for Area 4CDE, is just 370,000 pounds in 2015, a 71 percent cut from 1.29 million pounds in 2014. At that harvest level, IPHC biologists estimate that 93 percent of all halibut removals in the Bering Sea would be from bycatch, not the directed fishery. Should the 33 percent cut in halibut bycatch be approved, the directed halibut fishery would have access to about 960,000 pounds. At $6.14 per pound, the National Marine Fisheries Service ex-vessel price for 2014 halibut, this is a potential difference of $3.6 million dollars for the 4CDE halibut market, which can make or break the small economies of Pribilof Island fishing communities. The council is currently working on measures to reduce halibut bycatch limits by as much as 35 percent in the Bering Sea, but final action won’t be taken until its June meeting in Sitka. The council hopes the Secretary of Commerce will make its plan to make emergency reductions known before the IPHC sets halibut quotas at their January meeting. “We understand that the Secretary may not be able to act until the final IPHC catch limits are approved at its January 26-30 annual meeting, but we implore you to begin development of such emergency regulations such that the IPHC is assured of the Secretary’s intent,” the Alaska members wrote. The draft agenda for the Feb. 5 meeting lays out several items for discussion, but key points mostly involve trying to understand each other’s processes and survey methods. The IPHC dates back to a 1923 treaty between the U.S. and Canada and is regulated by the Halibut Act; the North Pacific council is one of eight such regional bodies created under the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act. The IPHC sets annual harvest quotas for the directed commercial and sport fisheries and the North Pacific council establishes halibut bycatch limits in the fishery management plans for the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. Glenn Merrill, the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region assistant administrator who routinely sits as the federal voting member on the North Pacific council, and IPHC Executive Director Bruce Leaman will review stock assessment models, including bycatch and allocation determination, and discuss improvements on discard mortality estimates. The two bodies will also discuss the North Pacific council’s Bering Sea proposed bycatch limit reductions of up to 35 percent scheduled to be voted on in June and the possibility for abundance-based bycatch limits, a heated topic in the current halibut fishery as commercial harvests have been reduced while bycatch limits have not. Industry opinion of halibut management is mixed, depending on which group receives a favorable slice of the halibut pie. The trawl industry has strong representation at the North Pacific council while the IPHC sets the halibut catch for mostly small boat halibut fishermen from Northern California to the Aleutian Islands. The differing responsibilities for the two bodies means their interests are sometimes misaligned interests where halibut is concerned. Bob Alverson, one of three U.S. commissioners on the IPHC and the executive director of the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners Association, compares the two bodies to “prickly pears trying to kiss,” but North Pacific council Executive Director Chris Oliver said the reality is simply a lack of time and effort to sit down and have a discussion about common goals and practices. “It isn’t that there’s bad blood between the two groups,” said Oliver. “It’s that there hasn’t really been any blood at all.” Leaman said the meeting is as much for the public as the two bodies. He thinks the public doesn’t see what is really a healthy amount of interplay between the two regarding cooperation through the National Marine Fisheries Service and information exchange. Industry needs some assurance that the council and commission are collaborating to address current concerns. “Right now, the biggest thing is to see if the two councils can be complimentary in the subject of bycatch reduction,” said Leaman. “The council has some Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands halibut reductions on their agenda, and that’s something we at the commission have been concerned about for a long time. There’s not a lot of clarity about what processes are followed by both bodies. Essentially, we’re trying to see if we can get together and develop a ‘lingua franca’ (common language).” General industry consensus is that the halibut co-management would benefit from an update and a more open line of communication. The IPHC was founded 53 years before passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the market growth and biological ramifications that resulted. The challenges of halibut governance come from all angles. The U.S. federal fisheries areas are defined by different boundaries than the areas governed the IPHC, which includes the Canadian coast. The governing bodies run under separate playbooks: the North Pacific council operates under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and is bound by other laws such as the Administrative Procedures Act and the National Environmental Policy Act that result in a slow-moving regulatory process, while the commission actions are much more streamlined. The Canadian government has also been able to act more swiftly to curb halibut bycatch along its coast and annually expresses its frustration that American counterparts have not. With only the single fishery to oversee, the IPHC can make changes much more quickly than the North Pacific council, which has a vast array of fisheries to govern and takes two or more years to come to move some regulations into action. One example of the IPHC ability to move quickly was the 2010 establishment of a 37-inch size limit for charter-caught halibut in Southeast Alaska. After years of the council failing to develop management measures to hold the sport harvest within its allocations, the IPHC took matters into its own hands to curtail the charter take. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce accepted the size limit, and a subsequent lawsuit by the charter industry challenging the limit was dismissed in federal court based on the IPHC’s authority to take such actions. Both bodies rely on the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, for regulation enforcement, including on-board observer programs for bycatch and discard tallying and directed catch accounting. IPHC surveys determine abundance levels, which are used by staff biologists to propose the annual harvest quotas in the various regulatory areas. The North Pacific council has also established the split between commercial and charter fisheries, and recommends charter management measures on an annual basis to the IPHC. Bering Sea halibut bycatch limits set by the North Pacific council have been in place for more than 20 years and do not shift with the exploitable biomass like IPHC halibut quotas. In 2012, the North Pacific council reduced Gulf of Alaska halibut bycatch limits by 15 percent phased in over three years beginning in 2014. Over the last decade, the commercially exploitable halibut biomass (32 inches and longer) has declined, though IPHC scientist Ian Stewart said the stock decline is leveling out. As the number of legal-sized halibut decline, the amount taken by Bering Sea trawlers as bycatch account for a growing portion of the total removals, negatively impacting the actual halibut fishermen. “I don’t think it was ever envisioned that the bycatch numbers for the trawl fleet would cork off the directed fisheries,” Alverson said. “The commission is looking over their shoulder at the council for bycatch, and there’s got to be some sharing of this conservation issue.” The exploration of setting bycatch limits based on abundance in the same way as the directed harvest is on the agenda, but Leaman said that possibility is too far off to affect the current halibut situation. “We want to examine whether or not it makes sense,” he said. “We’re not sure whether it’s the right thing or not. The pro is that everyone floats with the abundance and shares the species equally. But you need to have some index of abundance, and it’s not clear our current model is sufficient.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Chinook research funding a casualty of Walker budget cuts

Gov. Bill Walker’s plans for Alaska involve a lot of budget cutting, and a vital research project for king salmon is on the slab. As petroleum prices dive and Alaska finances look grim, the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative is one of many items Walker cut from former Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposed capital budget, potentially halting several ongoing programs and complicating an Alaska fishery regulatory item. Parnell introduced the $30 million initiative into his budget in 2012 to study declining Alaska chinook salmon stocks. Parnell’s plan gave an initial $10 million to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, and was to include an additional $20 million over the subsequent four years for a total $30 million, five-year effort. To date, the state has given $15 million of the planned $30 million in two payments of $7.5 million. Parnell had proposed $5 million in the fiscal year 2016 budget. State legislators from rural districts have a stake in continuing the research on chinook runs. Subsistence communities in the Yukon and Kuskokwim river valleys use 85 percent of the salmon subsistence allocations, and the commercial revenue from other salmon species has been an important offset to fewer kings. State Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, says he definitely plans to lobby for the chinook research money to be put back in the budget. Others are doubtful that the state has another $15 million to spare. Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, said through his office that he doesn’t plan on fighting to get the money back considering the fiscal climate. “It’s a big ticket item,” said Dunleavy spokesman John Wood. “I don’t see us fighting to get that put back in. It’s a lot of money. We’re just in dire financial times.” Until the state Legislature decides on a final budget and Walker approves it, the research will continue as planned with existing funds. Ed Jones, who oversees the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative for ADFG, says the department has only spent about half the allocated $15 million from the last three years and should have plenty to see them through their current project schedule. “The $30 million over five years is still the game plan,” said Jones. “We have enough money to weather the storm another year. Next year at this time, if we don’t see any more money, then that’s when the alarm bells will be going off. But we’re not there yet. We have a cushion for now.” Most of the supplies and plans for the 2016 fiscal year’s chinook initiative have already been secured or are in the process of being secured. More than 30 projects will go into the water from the Yukon River to Southeast Alaska. ADFG will tag juvenile salmon in the Kenai River and continue on adult mark-recapture programs in the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Nushagak rivers. ADFG has already ordered boats and tags and has begun hiring crew. The uncertainty will kick in depending on the final fiscal year 2016 budget, which takes effect July 1. If ADFG doesn’t see a continuation of the chinook initiative funding, directors will have to pull resources off most projects and focus on the three biggest chinook runs: the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Nushagak. ADFG has only recently been able to undertake the best available research on the three western Alaska rivers using chinook initiative funds. Up to this point, surveys of salmon swimming upriver have been made mostly with weirs and sonar, which lack accuracy and efficiency due to river breadth and chinook behavioral patterns. The most accurate method is an expensive and labor-intensive mark-recapture system, where researchers tag downriver salmon and measure the percentage of marked salmon upriver later in the season. This research could prove critical for clarifying the chinook decline causes and effects, which remain complex and shadowy after a jarring seven-year decline. It also could effect a proposed action by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. At its December meeting, the council reviewed several options to reduce chinook and chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. One alternative includes lowering the pollock fleet’s bycatch allocation in “years of low abundance,” the definition of which would rely heavily on an abundance index from the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Nushagak Unalakleet rivers. Up to this point, that kind of science hasn’t been used in determining Bering Sea bycatch limits, which worries the commercial fishing industry. Most public comment on this option expressed anxiety about imprecise science and untested methods. If the chinook initiative money doesn’t come through and the abundance indices suffer in quality and scope, the three-river index’s credibility could be undermined. [UPDATED] However, the run reconstruction of the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Unalakleet rivers required by the council's December proposal will remain a top priority for the ADFG, regardless of cuts made to the research initiative.  Furthermore, the cuts could put existing projects under the chinook initiative’s scope and dwindle its resources. Parnell’s administration rerouted $2.5 million of the first two planned $10 million chinook initiative payments to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough for salmon drainage studies, for a two-year total of $15 million to ADFG and $5 million to Mat-Su Borough. The $5 million for Susitna salmon will run out in 2016. The chinook initiative will take over responsibility Susitna drainage studies, spreading thin what would already potentially be a slashed operation schedule. Jones of ADFG is hopeful about some or all of the money making its way back into the budget, considering the amount of focus the ADFG has put on the chinook initiative since its inception. When the Parnell administration began the payments, it emphasized that king salmon should be ADFG’s number one priority. The department did prioritize, and now worries that some of those efforts could be wasted. The amount of time needed for certain studies exceeds the three-year window the chinook initiative opened for the ADFG. In-river surveys are instant, but marine survival studies of juvenile salmon require long timelines and the resources to back them up. The causes behind king salmon declines are unknown, and a large-looming unknown factor could be what happens while the salmon mature in the open ocean between spawning and their return to natal streams. “You get pushback (from staff),” Jones said. “A lot of these projects, you need a decade to really establish a good time frame, and they’re skeptical about anything ever being long enough term to do what it’s supposed to do.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Strong forecasts, busy regulatory year ahead for fisheries

The coming year should prove a lucrative year for Alaska fisheries, even in the face of the doom and gloom surrounding the chinook salmon declines and a sketchy halibut situation. The largest volume fishery, pollock, and the most valuable fishery, salmon, both have positive forecasts and large projected harvests; escapements for Alaska’s iconic king salmon were largely achieved in 2014; and various regulatory bodies have a full schedule to deal with both hurting and flourishing stocks. Pollock quotas rise Pollock is largest fishery in the country and 43 percent of the Alaska fishery volume, so the more pollock biomass, the merrier, and this year looks promising. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated in 2014 that the Bering Sea pollock biomass has grown by as much as 60 percent. Increased biomass doesn’t always mean an increased fishing quota, especially in the Bering Sea, where the total groundfish harvest is capped at 2 million metric tons. But the pollock quota still looks positive for the fleet with a 2015 allocation of 1.325 million metric tons in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. This is an increase from 1.26 million metric tons in 2014 and the largest total allowable catch, or TAC, since 2007, when the Bering Sea pollock TAC topped 1.39 million metric tons. In the Gulf of Alaska, or GOA, the pollock TAC was set for 193,809 metric tons, the largest GOA pollock TAC since 1986. This is a nearly 90 percent increase from the 10-year average GOA pollock TAC and part of a steady rise in the Gulf pollock TAC since 2010. Strong salmon season forecast Salmon, Alaska’s most valuable fishery, looks at a sunny 2015 prediction. Bristol Bay, home to nearly half the salmon take for Alaska, will see a record return for sockeye salmon. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, forecast that Bristol Bay sockeyes will swarm in Bristol Bay with more than 54 million fish, enough to both meet escapement goals and provide a commercial take of nearly 40 million sockeyes. This is 41 percent larger than the previous 10-year run average. Pink salmon in Southeast Alaska will also have what the ADFG classifies an “excellent” year in 2015. The Southeast Alaska salmon will have 2015 harvest of 58 million fish, one of the 10 biggest years since 1960 and well above the 10-year average of 41 million. Pink salmon are the largest portion of the salmon take in Alaska fisheries and run strong every other year. 2013 had the strongest salmon year on record because of the 219 million pinks harvested in Alaska waters, 89.2 million of which came from Southeast at a $124 million value. Though the decline of Alaska king salmon numbers is alarming and well-documented, there’s a bright spot for chinook in 2015. In accordance with an international treaty with Canada, the minimum Yukon River chinook salmon escapement goal of 42,000 was met for just the second time in the last seven years as more than 64,000 kings made it past the sonar counter at Eagle. A record number and ex-vessel value for coho in the Upper Yukon, which may continue into the 2015 season, offset the 2014 Yukon River season’s poor chinook salmon showings. The commercial harvest for coho clocked 103,325 salmon in the Lower Yukon and 104,638 in the Upper Yukon, both more than 50,000 over the 2013 harvest. The Upper Yukon ex-vessel price jumped from 17 cents per pound to 38 cents per pound. The 2015 Upper Cook Inlet salmon forecast is a mixed bag of potential commercial cuts and an average run forecast. The forecast says 5.8 million sockeye salmon overall and 3.7 million for the harvest. In 2014, sockeye setnetters in the Upper Cook Inlet were restricted in the name of conserving the weak Kenai River chinook runs; a 4.9 million commercial sockeye harvest was predicted, but actual catch came in at 2.6 million. The conversation around saving the chinook salmon has only intensified and its implications grown more far-reaching. Conservation measures won’t be relaxed anytime soon, and the battle between sportfishing and commercial fishing over salmon will continue with that fact in mind, especially with a proposed ballot measure that would ban setnets from Cook Inlet. If lower king numbers rule the Upper Cook Inlet fishery allocations again in 2015, commercial setnetters and sport fishermen on the Kenai River will face similar restrictions as they did last year. Upcoming meetings focus on halibut, salmon, Southeast The groundfish trawl fleets targeting pollock, cod and other flatfish will also face potential changes in bycatch regulations for both salmon and halibut. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission are reviewing measures to drastically cut the Bering Sea pollock fleet’s bycatch limits for both species in upcoming meetings in January, February, and June. The six-member Alaska majority of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets bycatch limits, sent a letter on Dec. 18 asking the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for an emergency 33 percent reduction for Bering Sea halibut bycatch limits. The directed halibut fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands face severe economic hardship due to the Bering Sea groundfish trawlers taking a massive amount of available halibut as bycatch in pursuit of other species. Halibut bycatch regulations do not shift with rising halibut abundance, so the directed fisheries and bycatch must fight for percentages of the same catch. The original motion to lower halibut bycatch failed on a tie in the council’s December meeting, prompting the letter with a majority of the council’s signatures. The Feb. 2-10 North Pacific council meeting in Seattle will undoubtedly have the halibut issue high on their agenda as well as a fishery management plan for salmon bycatch in the same area. The council amended several options in December to lower the king and chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. They will revisit in February and June. The International Pacific Halibut Commission, which determines the allowable harvest of halibut, has a January meeting from Jan. 26 to Jan. 30. The Department of Commerce’s response to the North Pacific council’s emergency request should factor highly into what the commission does with halibut allocations for the directed fisheries. The Board of Fisheries will meet to discuss Southeast and Yakutat crab, shrimp, and shellfish at their Jan. 21-27 meeting in Wrangell, and discuss Southeast and Yakutat finfish, including salmon and herring, at its meeting Feb. 23-March 3 meeting in Sitka. MSA reauthorization An amended Magnuson-Stevens Act will be considered for reauthorization in the 114th Congress in 2015. The act, or MSA, was first passed in 1976 and governs all federal fisheries in the U.S. Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young, beginning his 22nd term in office, will take the lead in passing the reauthorization on the House side. The MSA was tweaked in 2014 working sessions to allow for more equitable treatment of the fisheries it governs, including requests for more subsistence and sportfishing representation. In May 2014, Young added amendments to the MSA proposing that a subsistence member be added to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees nearly all fishing in federal Alaska waters. The proposal has seen mixed reaction so far, as the council currently has six Alaska delegates out of 11 voting seats. Non-Alaska seats might resent one more Alaskan vote on the council. Fishing industry stakeholders from the Pacific Northwest have previously called for more representation from their region to offset the Alaska majority. Other possible amendments introduced in both the House and Senate versions have included lowering catch limits, discontinuing a publicly viewable weekly bycatch tally, allowing the regional fishery management councils to set allocations outside the Scientific and Statistical Committee’s currently binding decisions, and substituting electronic monitoring in lieu of the current observer program, which places humans on fishing vessel for monitoring purposes. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska council members seek emergency halibut bycatch cut

After a motion failed at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council by a single vote with an Alaska delegate absent, another effort is underway to reduce halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea in the face of rapidly sinking catch limits for the directed fisheries. Interim Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten and the other five Alaska members of the North Pacific council signed a letter to National Marine Fisheries Service Assistant Administrator Eileen Sobeck on Dec. 18 asking for an emergency reduction in Bering Sea halibut bycatch. If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, the emergency order would lower the halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands by 33 percent in 2015. The current projected harvest for Area 4CDE, the regulatory areas surrounding the Pribilof Islands, is just 370,000 pounds in 2015, a 71 percent cut from 1.29 million pounds in 2014. At that level of harvest, biologists with the International Pacific Halibut Commission, or IPHC, estimate that 93 percent of all halibut removals in the Bering Sea would be from bycatch, not the directed fishery. Should the 33 percent cut in halibut bycatch be approved, the directed halibut fishery would have access to about 960,000 pounds. “We understand that the Secretary may not be able to act until the final IPHC catch limits are approved at its January 26-30 annual meeting, but we implore you to begin development of such emergency regulations such that the IPHC is assured of the Secretary’s intent,” the Alaska members wrote. The council is currently working on measures to reduce halibut bycatch limits by as much as 35 percent in the Bering Sea, but final action won’t be taken until its June meeting in Sitka. “We believe the provisions for an emergency rule under Section 305(c) of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act have been met,” the Alaska council delegation wrote to Sobeck. “The proposed action to reduce the 2015 BSAI halibut PSC limit is a reasonable response to a special circumstance where inaction will result in substantial and irrevocable harm to a fishery and group of communities.” Alaska council member Duncan Fields sponsored the original motion at the Dec. 13 North Pacific council meeting. Alaskan members Fields, chair Dan Hull, David Long, Simon Kinneen and Cotten voted yes. NMFS Alaska Region Assistant Administrator Glenn Merrill joined the four members from the Pacific Northwest voting no, leaving the motion to fail in a 5-5 tie. Ed Dersham of Anchorage, the recreational fishing representative on the council, was absent following kidney transplant surgery and had no alternate to fill his position, as alternates are only provided for state and federal seats. The letter sent to the Secretary of Commerce, however, has his signature along with the other five Alaska voters representing a majority of the 11 voting council seats. Bob Alverson, one of three U.S. members of the International Pacific Halibut Commission and manager of the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owner’s Association, said the original motion should have passed, even considering Dersham’s absence. He was surprised by Merrill’s lack of support for the measure. Merrill was sitting as an alternate for Jim Balsiger, the National Marine and Fisheries Service Alaska Region administrator. Merrill cited procedural issues for the “no” vote, explaining that NMFS will tie a vote in instances where they might want more time to examine the issue. Balsiger was not able to vote on the motion because his wife, Heather McCarty, represents the halibut fishermen on St. Paul Island directly impacted by the action. Those halibut fishermen are relieved that the council found a way to bounce back from their failed motion. Jeff Kauffman, vice president of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, spoke at length to the council during public commentary in support of the original measure. CBSFA is the Community Development Quota group for St. Paul, which is allocated a portion of the Bering Sea halibut harvest.  “We’re not trying to agitate anybody or rile anybody up,” said Kauffman. “At this point it’s just about survival. I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction. We kind of went it alone at first and now we have council help.” Alverson agrees that the health of small boat halibut fisheries is at stake. Some Bering Sea halibut quota holders in his organization would not be able to break even on transport costs to the Bering Sea under the projected 2015 quotas. Though pleased at the Alaska delegates’ decision and action, Alverson notes that the emergency action has hurdles to clear before it creates any changes. “I would liken this to a minority report, which the council has a similar procedure for,” said Alverson. “I don’t want to diminish it. It’s a brave act on the part of the Alaskans and Sam Cotten. But it’s going to be an uphill battle. The Seattle factory trawlers have a significant presence in Washington, D.C.” The Seattle trawler industry feels like it’s already paid its due in terms of bycatch reduction. At the council’s June meeting, the council asked the trawl fleets to take voluntary measures to reduce their halibut bycatch by 10 percent. The vessels did what they could to reduce bycatch and were surprised by the original emergency reduction proposal, which they felt an unnecessary step towards regulation. The larger fleets reduced their bycatch by more than the requested 10 percent, but even voluntary measures by the trawl fleet in 2015 may not be enough to sustain a directed halibut fishery in Area 4CDE, which surrounds the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea.  “While industry appears to have met this target,” the Alaska members wrote to Sobeck, “the effort resulting in limited success due to the areas in which bycatch was reduced having little effect on area 4CDE FCEY (fishery constant exploitation yield).” The emergency request feeds rivalry between big Seattle fishers and the small boat Alaskan fishers in an unyielding, hard capped fishery of two million metric tons in the Bering Sea. For emergency action to take place, it must meet a specific set of criteria outlined in the national standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, including a biological specification of a fishery being in trouble. Some trawlers feel this emergency action isn’t about conserving the fish, but conserving Alaska fishermen at the expense of a valuable industry. “If they would’ve asked to lower the overall bycatch instead of lowering the bycatch and reallocating more to themselves, (the motion) would’ve had more credit,” said Brent Paine of Untied Catcher Boats, who represent large trawlers which fish Alaska and Pacific Northwest waters. “This isn’t a biological emergency. This is an economic hardship.” Paine has sympathy for the small boat fishermen, but said an emergency order scares him in regards to the future of fisheries management. Part of the issue, he says, is that because of an international treaty with Canada, halibut aren’t governed adequately or efficiently. Two separate bodies govern halibut catch: the North Pacific council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which overwhelmingly represents small boat fishers. The IPHC sets the annual harvests for the directed halibut fisheries and the council manages halibut bycatch, which is set in regulatory stone and does not shift with halibut abundance. Therefore, when halibut abundance declines, bycatch accounts for a larger share of removals at the expense of the directed fisheries. Paine believes the IPHC, fearful for its fishermen’s economic chances, is leaning on the council in order to protect its own with this emergency reduction. Paine and the trawl industry prefer a voluntary approach to the problem. “I’m troubled by (the emergency letter),” he said. “We were thinking about working with the council. We keep proving we can manage ourselves if they give us the tools. You can either do this with a carrot or a stick. We prefer the carrot approach. It’s better than just whacking everybody with a 33 percent reduction across the line.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Young to take lead on Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization

Alaska’s fishing interests will still be well represented in Washington, D.C., despite a recent shuffling of the legislative deck after former Sen. Mark Begich lost his reelection bid and his chairmanship of a key Senate subcommittee.  Though Begich is gone, longtime Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young will take the lead for the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in the 114th Congress and continue on the House Natural Resources Committee. Begich was chair of the Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, and as one of his final acts introduced a reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA, the law governing federal fisheries. The House Committee on Natural Resources will be restructured in the 114th Congress; all ocean-related issues will be heard in the Water and Power Subcommittee and redubbed the Water, Power, and Oceans Subcommittee, whose membership will be finalized in January. House members can chair only on subcommittee, and Young will retain his chairmanship of Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. All pending legislation expires at the end of the current Congress, however, and any MSA bill will have to be reintroduced in the new Congress. Although not the chair of the committee, spokesman Matthew Shuckerow said Young will introduce the MSA in the new Congress. “He’s excited to make this a priority,” Shuckerow said. Republican Dan Sullivan defeated Begich in the 2014 midterm elections, and while he has been assigned to the Commerce Committee, he won’t have the seniority to chair a Senate subcommittee. The act, or MSA, was first passed in 1976, and most recently updated in 2006. Now it’s up for reauthorization, with amendments likely. As a longtime Alaska representative, Young has more history with fisheries than his recently elected Senate counterpart and seen much of the most important Alaska fisheries legislation pushed through Congress. In the 1970s on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, he worked on the 200-mile fishing limit, or exclusive economic zone, which was critical to ending foreign fishing off Alaska’s coast. Begich had a solid reputation for good relationships with fishing interests: he vocally opposed the Pebble Mine, opposed a farm-raised and genetically-modified salmon, pushed for federal ocean monitoring for the effects of climate change and ocean acidification on lucrative species, passed legislation working towards a federal crackdown on illegal fishing, and had the endorsement of several commercial fishing trade groups like United Fishermen of Alaska. Sullivan, though formerly Alaska’s Natural Resource commissioner under former Gov. Parnell, has less working experience with the commercial fishing industry and less clout. Begich used this point to the best of his advantage in a Kodiak debate with Sullivan to challenge his opponent’s devotion to Alaska’s largest private sector employer, with some 70,000 fishermen and support industry employees. Subcommittee assignments will be announced after the new Congress convenes. Young chaired the House Department of Natural Resources in the 104th, 105th, and 106th Congresses, and serves as its ranking Republican member since 2007, a year after Congress last reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Act. In 2013, Young pushed the Port States Measures Agreement Act of 2014, which placed extensive limitations on foreign fishing vessels in an effort to combat illegal, unregulated, and undeclared fish from entering the U.S. market. In May 2014, Young added amendments to the MSA asking for greater subsistence representation in the federal management of Alaska fisheries, proposing that a subsistence member be added to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees nearly all fishing in federal Alaska waters. The proposal has seen mixed approval so far, as the council currently has six Alaska delegates out of 11 voting seats. Non-Alaska seats might resent one more Alaskan vote on the council. DJ Summers can be reached [email protected]

Emergency halibut bycatch request

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and five members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council sent a signed letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce on Dec. 18 asking for an emergency reduction in Bering Sea and Aleutian Island halibut bycatch. If undertaken by the Secretary of Commerce and NOAA, the emergency order would lower the halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands by 33 percent in 2015. The International Pacific Halibut Commission projected that 93 percent of the halibut in the BSAI would be taken as bycatch by groundfish trawlers in 2015, leaving the directed fisheries in areas 4CDE with very little to stay afloat. The emergency reduction would set the 4CDE catch limit to 0.96 million pounds, up from the projected 2015 catch limit of 0.37 million pounds, though lower than the 2014 limit of 1.29 million pounds. The action comes on the heels of a failed measure at a Dec. 13 NPFMC meeting.  Council member Duncan Fields proposed the original emergency order, which failed on a 5-5 tie. Ed Dersham, an Alaska sportfishing delegate and likely tiebreaker, was absent due for medical reasons and could not vote. Dersham was able to sign the NOAA emergency request along with the other council members who voted in favor of the original NPFMC motion. ADFG commissioner Sam Cotten, David Long, Ed Dersham, NPFMC chairman Dan Hull, Duncan Fields, and Simon Kinneen signed the NOAA emergency request. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Emergency halibut action fails on tie with Dersham absent

With one council member absent, an emergency action proposal to reduce Bering Sea halibut bycatch limits for 2015 failed on a tie vote by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council Dec. 13. The failed motion, introduced by council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak, would have lowered the 2015 Bering Sea halibut bycatch limit by 33 percent from the current limit of more than 10 million pounds allocated between the pollock and bottom trawl fleets. Voting against the proposal in the 5-5 vote were members John Henderschedt and Craig Cross of Seattle, Roy Hyder of Oregon, Bill Tweit of Washington state and National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region Assistant Administrator Glenn Merrill. Alaskan members Fields, Dan Hull, David Long, Simon Kinneen and interim Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten voted yes. Ed Dersham of Anchorage, the recreational fishing representative on the council, was absent for health reasons and had no alternate to fill his position. Central Bering Sea Fisherman’s Association consultant Heather McCarty believes Dersham may have been the one vote needed to pass the motion. McCarty represents the Community Development Quota organization for St. Paul, whose residents receive halibut quota and are facing a near-total closure of their fishery in 2015. “It’s speculation, of course,” McCarty said about whether Dersham would have supplied a winning vote. But the general feeling was that the sport fishing representative would have been more amenable to an action that more directly benefits small boat fishermen rather than the larger trawl industry. The 2014 halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea, or Area 4, was 6.13 million pounds, 65 percent of the total halibut bycatch allocation. From the Bering Sea to the Northern California coast, total halibut bycatch was more than 9 million pounds in 2014 compared to 7.89 million pounds in 2013. “The Bering Sea trawl fleet can go another 20 percent over in 2015,” Fields said. “They go on with their business with no incentives, no sanctions, and no penalties for catching as much as they caught in 2014.” Halibut catch is governed by two separate bodies, the North Pacific council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission. The IPHC sets the annual harvests for the directed halibut fisheries and the council manages halibut bycatch, which is set in regulatory stone and does not shift with halibut abundance. The pollock fleet receives a halibut bycatch allocation of 900 metric tons, or nearly 2 million pounds; the non-pollock trawl fleet receives a halibut bycatch allocation of 3,675 metric tons, or nearly 8.1 million pounds. Combined, the pollock and non-pollock trawl fleets harvest more than 1.5 million metric tons of fish each year. Central Bering Sea Fisherman’s Association Vice President Jeff Kauffman said the directed fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, or BSAI, have been harder and harder pressed to make ends meet as the trawl fleets get more and more of the halibut as bycatch as a percentage of the total removals. In 2014, directed BSAI halibut fisheries accounted for only 20 percent of halibut removals. He projects that the directed fisheries would get as little as 7 percent of the halibut if the International Pacific Halibut Commission adopts the recommended 2015 halibut blue line. According to Peggy Parker, executive director of the Halibut Association of North America, 66 percent of the 2014 halibut removals were bycatch instead of the directed fisheries in the subareas known as Area 4CDE, which surround the Pribilof Islands.  “Halibut bycatch is assigned in an unsustainable way,” Parker told the council during public testimony. “Unlike all other bycatch, halibut is set in regulation, not tied to halibut abundance.” At the council’s June meeting, the council asked the trawl fleets to take voluntary measures to reduce their halibut bycatch by 10 percent. The vessels did what they could to reduce bycatch and were surprised by the emergency reduction proposal. “I don’t believe this meets the action requirements for emergency criteria,” said Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, which represents six of the large trawl companies focused on pollock. “I’m a little disappointed with comments about the Bering Sea needing to ‘wake up.’ We’ve been concerned about halibut in the Bering Sea for a long time. The industry did reduce their bycatch through voluntary measures.” From 2009 to 2013, the average halibut bycatch mortality rate for the At-Sea Processors Association was 0.45 halibut for every metric ton of pollock. Their 2014 mortality rate was 0.18 per metric ton. The average 2009 to 2013 halibut bycatch mortality was 172 metric tons, or about 379,000 pounds; in 2014 halibut bycatch decreased to 80 metric tons in 2014, or about 176,000 pounds, a 54 percent reduction. Representatives from the Seafood Cooperative, an organization representing the non-pollock, bottom trawl fleet, reduced their halibut bycatch as well. Jason Anderson commented that industry followed the voluntary bycatch directive and shouldn’t be further managed.  “We’ve done what you asked us to do,” said Anderson. “Overall, our bycatch is about 1,100 metric tons less than in 2013.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Council tightens charter halibut rules after 2014 overages

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council passed tighter restrictions for the 2015 charter halibut fisheries in Southeast and the central Gulf of Alaska. The changes approved Dec. 11 will retain the two-fish daily bag limit for the central Gulf, or Area 3A, fished out of Southcentral ports and Kodiak, with the first of any size and second not to exceed 29 inches while adding a new rule prohibiting trips on the Thursday of every week between June 15 and Aug. 31. Charters will be limited to one trip per day and anglers limited to five fish per year. The halibut charter fishery in Southeast, or Area 2C, will have a one-fish daily bag limit with a reverse slot limit of 40 inches or shorter and 80 inches or longer, an increase from the 2014 slot limit of 44-76. Halibut between 40 inches and 80 inches are required to be released carefully to the ocean. Both management measures exist under the catch sharing plan that went into effect in 2014, which divides the halibut harvest as a percentage between sport and commercial sectors and also allows charter vessels to lease halibut quota from the commercial fleet. The new management measures are an attempt to keep charter fisheries within their allocations, which has been a problem in Southeast where the charter sector exceeded its allocation by a combined 3.7 million pounds from 2004 to 2010. In 2014, the charter fleet exceeded their allocations in both 3A and 2C, prompting the North Pacific council to propose the new measures to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Under the catch sharing plan, charter management is determined on an annual basis each December based on prior year performance and abundance estimates. The council forwards its recommendations, which are then considered for approval by the IPHC when it meets each January. In 2014, the charter measures failed to hold the fleet within its allocations despite projections that they would be kept in line with trip limits and the reduced size for the second fish in Area 3A. Both Southcentral and Southeast charter sectors fished past their allotment. Total charter removals for 2014, which include release mortality for certain fish, are estimated by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at 875,572 pounds of halibut in Southeast and 2.17 million pounds in Southcentral. The charter allocation for 2C was 761,000 pounds and 1.76 million pounds for 3A. Southeast exceeded 2014 harvest specifications by 110,000 pounds, and Southcentral exceeded by 413,000 pounds. According to the IPHC’s Ian Stewart, halibut stock has declined since 1990 but stabilized in the last few years. Public comment leaned toward fear of lost charter clientele and lost revenue in the face of decreasing allocations. Andy Mezirow of Seward’s Crackerjack Sportfishing Charters and advisor for the 3A charter boats said in public comment the new management measures were premature and could be more accommodating. “We keep losing. In 2012 we were 27 percent under the 3A allocation,” said Mezirow. “They left a million pounds in the water. Under the 2014 catch plan, we got restricted to two fish, no fish for crew or captain, and our quota dropped from 3.5 million (in 2013) to 1.76 million.” Heath Hilyard, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization and member of the council advisory panel, said the new measures are simply the best of the worst options for charter halibut fishermen already faced with declining quotas. “I don’t want to be cavalier and say that we’re happy about it,” Hillyard said. “It’s just the least bad of the options we have, under allocation we have. It could be worse.” Hillyard said that Southcentral is only now coming into the kind of restrictions 2C has had for years, but may be affected differently. Southcentral’s more homogenous fisheries might be negatively impacted where Southeast’s more diverse fisheries with multiple target species have found ways to compensate for decreased halibut options. As more Alaskans will be forced to fish unguided by the new Southcentral restrictions, Hillyard says the charter industry will rely on angry Alaska anglers to force the issue. “As an industry, we’re not going to go after that,” he said. “We’re hoping Alaska residents will get fed up with the allocations and press to fix the issue.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Harvest quotas set for 2015; pots for sablefish pondered

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously to approve the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska groundfish allocations for 2015. Bering Sea quotas The Eastern Bering Sea pollock total allowable catch, or TAC, for 2015 will be 1.325 million pounds, a 4.4 percent increase from 2014’s 1.267 million pound allocation. Bering Sea Pacific cod will be allotted 246,822 metric tons, down only 75 metric tons from the 2014 TAC. With pollock and cod totaling about 1.57 million metric tons, all other groundfish species make up the remainder of the limit of 2 million metric tons, or more than 4.4 billion pounds, for all species in the Bering Sea. A metric ton is 2,204 pounds. In the zero sum game of the cap, increases for one species necessarily lead to decreases in others. Yellowfin sole took 17 percent cut from 184,000 metric tons in 2014 to 152,750 metric tons in 2015. The Northern rock sole TAC dropped 39 percent from 85,000 metric tons in 2014 to 52,000 metric tons in 2015. The council also raised the Pacific Ocean perch TAC by 690 metric tons, from 32,122 in 2014 to 32,812 in 2015. Public comment veered toward acceptance of a bad situation; everybody was equally unhappy with a hard-capped, static allocation. Some feel the biomass is sufficiently teeming in the Bering Sea to raise the 2 million metric ton hard cap in place. Fishermen’s Finest’s regulatory affairs officer Susan Robinson said the Amendment 80 fleet, which targets non-pollock groundfish with bottom trawl gear, is leaving money in the ocean. “This is the most difficult TAC we’ve ever experienced,” Robinson said in public comment. “Only because we know there’s no better alternative. We have a luxury problem (of too many fish) in the North Pacific. I don’t think we’re on an even keel.” Gulf of Alaska quotas The total Gulf of Alaska TACs for all species increased 6.9 percent from 2014 to 2015. In 2014, the TAC was 499,274 metric tons. In 2015, that will climb to 536,158 metric tons. The council raised the overall GOA pollock TAC 12 percent from 174,976 metric tons in 2014 to 199,151 metric tons in 2015. Pacific cod was increased 14 percent from 64,738 metric tons in 2014 to 75,202 metric tons in 2015.  Pacific Ocean perch had an 8.1 percent increase from 10,309 metric tons in 2014 to 21,012 metric tons in 2015. Shallow-water flatfish will climb 4.8 percent to 35,381 metric tons in 2015 from 33,679 metric tons in 2014. Unlike the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska does not have an annual hard cap for all species. Pots for the blackcod fishery? The council unanimously passed a request for further review on the possibility of allowing pots into the largely hook-and-line sablefish, or black cod, fishery in the Gulf of Alaska. Whales snack heavily on hook-and-line boats’ sablefish as crews reel in their loaded gear, raising catch per unit of effort and fishing costs. Pots would potentially limit whale predation with added bonuses of reducing incidental seabird takes and lessening the possibility of halibut bycatch through the use of halibut excluders and escape rings. As clean and whale-free as pot fishing can be, many fishermen commented on a few fears, namely gear conflict, consolidation, and the expense of outfitting their ships with heavy-duty hydraulics. Some voiced that pot fishing would become the dominant method of sablefish fishing if allowed. Refitting their boats with pot gear would be expensive, and hauling in pot gear from a small hook and line skiff could potentially be dangerous. Possibly catching a hook-and-line groundline on a pot or pot string could mean untold amounts of lost gear. To mitigate some of these issues, the council would require pots to be sufficiently marked with buoys, submitted to an electronic database when entering the water, and forbidden to be left unmoved for more than four or seven days. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

GCI buys ACS wireless business

Alaska Communications System Group Inc., has agreed to sell its wireless subscriber business to General Communications Inc. for $300 million in cash. Alaska Communications will also sell its 33 percent share of the Alaska Wireless Network to GCI. The transition will take place the first quarter of 2015. Both companies stressed that customers will experience no service interruption. “We are pleased to reach these agreements that allow each company to pursue its own strategy,” said Alaska Communications President and CEO Anand Vadapalli and GCI President and CEO Ron Duncan in a joint statement issued Dec. 4. “We are committed to a seamless service transition for wireless customers. Alaskans will continue to benefit from a vibrant competitive market for wireless services.” According to ACS’s and GCI’s 2014 third quarter reports, GCI will add 109,000 wireless customers to increase their subscriber base to about 253,000, which is somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent of the Alaska wireless market. Also on Dec. 4, GCI announced a $75 million, unsecured investment by private equity firm Searchlight and that the company CEO Eric Zinterhofer was named to its board of directors. “Searchlight is thrilled to make this investment in GCI, as we hold CEO Ron Duncan and his team in high regard,” Zinterhofer said in a formal statement. “The catalyst for our investment, namely the announced purchase of certain wireless assets of Alaska Communications Systems Group, Inc., is an important milestone for the company.” The transition plays to Alaska Communications’ existing structure and strengths in broadband services according to ACS Chief Financial Officer Wayne Graham, who said broadband profit margin can be 50 percent or higher. Vadapalli hopes that focusing on broadband with the addition of managed IT solutions will raise company margins without affecting market positioning. “It’s the right price,” Vadapalli said. “All our progress with our wireline is clouded by our overhang from being in the wireless industry.” The transition has labor costs. Over time, 150 to 200 wireless-related ACS jobs will be lost, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the workforce. Vadapalli says ACS will offer some employees voluntary leave severance packages, while others will be offered lateral position changes within the company. The focus on broadband and IT will create management and engineering positions. GCI will gain 150 jobs. ACS currently controls 20 percent of the Alaska broadband market. Their main competitor is GCI. Both companies’ executives say they have no plans on lowering their broadband prices and delving into a price war. Alaska Communications has recently secured contracts as the broadband provider for the State of Alaska, an in-state federal agency, and a regional health consortium. ACS once attracted investors with a dividend payout program, but suspended dividends in November of 2012 in the face of their massive debt, which at one point amounted to more than $560 million. The company’s board of directors has yet to decide whether it will reinstate dividends. GCI shares were trading for about $11.90 per share on Dec. 8, off from the 52-week high of $12.50 and from a price of $12.22 per share after the deal was announced. ACS shares, which traded at more than $5 per share before it eliminated the dividend, were trading at $1.77 on Dec. 8, down from $1.99 after the deal was announced and off the 52-week high of $2.70. Vadapalli says say that the increased free cash flow from debt payoff should yield lucrative options for investors, and that ACS expects share prices to rise due to exiting the hyper-competitive wireless arena. The company typically reinvests $35 million to $40 million in capital investment. Now that ACS has no low-margin, high-competition wireless services to stress about, executives say they will only pour that capital into projects and strategies that meet a high return threshold. ACS and GCI launched the Alaska Wireless Network in July 2013, intending the combination of their wireless networks to compete more effectively with national carriers AT&T, which accounts for roughly 50 percent of the current Alaska wireless market, and Verizon, which entered the market in September. ACS has been aggressive about tackling its debt and has paid down $125 million in the last since 2012 with cash from its dividend elimination and about $100 million from GCI in the original Alaska Wireless Network transaction. After taxes, fees, and price adjustments, the $300 million from the GCI sale will be whittled down to $250 million, every penny of which Vadapalli said will go towards paying down ACS’s remaining $415 million in debt. With only $165 million of debt, ACS will have a net leverage ratio of 3.1. This is lower than the broadband industry average of 3.4, which ACS says should loosen up more investment dollars for broadband and IT management. “The more debt you have, the more interest you’re paying,” Vadapalli said. “It ties up capital. For the last three years, our bill on interest alone was extraordinarily high. We were like a family that maxed out its credit card and only makes payments on the interest.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

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