Elizabeth Earl

Researchers identify widespread parasite in Alaska scallops

A lot of Alaska’s scallops are sick, and scientists are trying to figure out why. Alaska’s scallop fishery is a small one; in recent years it has included four boats, with just one operating in Kamishak Bay in Lower Cook Inlet. The rest operate out of Kodiak on grounds stretching from Yakutat to the Bering Sea. Most scallop beds straddle the three-nautical mile line between state and federal management areas, and the permit system is attached to vessels rather than to individuals, restricting the entire fishery to nine vessels total under the federal system. Together, their 10-year average landing poundage of shucked meats is about 383,000 pounds, for total value of about $4 million, according to a report submitted to the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council by its Scallop Plan Team. But in recent years, the fishermen have had to start tossing a lot back. When they pull them up, a lot show signs of degraded meat with brown spots and a stringy texture and will occasionally slip off the shells at the processor. The condition, called “weak meats,” results in a lot of waste in the scallop fishery, as processors aren’t interested in buying scallops with weak meats. “Weak meats are a very general term for the adductor muscles … being of a very low quality, very easy to tear,” said Quinn Smith, the Southeast Region fishery management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in a report to the council on April 5. “High prevalence in 2014, 2015 was somewhere on the order of half of all scallops shucked couldn’t be marketed. That was much higher than the fleet had ever seen before.” In response to increasing reports of infected scallops, ADFG observers on board scallop fishing vessels began collecting samples for evaluation. The observers took samples primarily from one area in 2014 and then spread to statewide sampling in 2015 to get an idea of how widespread the infection is. ADFG pathology labs turned about 82.2 percent of the scallops sent in with the presence of the parasite, called an apicomplexan parasite. The condition doesn’t seem to be harmful to humans, only to scallop meat quality, and not all scallops infected show the symptoms — it depends on the intensity of the infection, according to the pathology report. However, similar parasites in other scallop populations have caused trouble before. ADFG’s pathology report mentions that a similar parasite was found in Icelandic scallops and Atlantic sea scallops from the Atlantic waters of Canada and the U.S. No commercial fishing has been allowed on Iceland’s scallop stocks since 2003 because of concerns about the stock, and a 2015 paper published in the scientific journal PLOS One asserts that there is a strong correlation between the presence of the pathogen and mortality and sexual reproduction in the stocks, causing further decline. Intensity varies across the seven registration areas of Alaska, from very prevalent in the Bering Sea and Shelikof Strait near Kodiak to much less prevalent in the Yakutat area, Quinn said. Scallop catches have been declining somewhat, with more effort required to catch the same poundage. Some areas are doing better than others, with areas like Yakutat holding fairly steady while Shelikof Strait is much lower than it has been in the past, Quinn said in his report. However, ADFG staff don’t know enough yet to pin down whether the presence of the parasite is what’s causing declines. “Is this the explanation of what’s happened with the decline of the fishery? We don’t know,” Quinn said. “Is it a possibility that is going to continue to be followed up? Absolutely.” The scallop fishery isn’t overfished in Alaska, said Jim Armstrong, the plan coordinator for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and vice chair of the Scallop Plan Team. “We’re miles away from the overfishing limit,” he said. “That’s not really been an issue.” The North Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted the Scallop Plan Team’s proposed acceptable biological catch limit of 1.16 million pounds at its April 6 meeting in Anchorage. The discard mortality is accounted for within the managers’ recommendations, so the discards come out of the fishermen’s bottom lines, Quinn said. They deal with this by moving away from a scallop bed when the catch looks to be poor quality, he said. “We didn’t have any members of the scallop fleet at the meeting a couple of weeks ago, but they definitely are (concerned), and you see it in the fleet behavior,” he said. ADFG plans to continue researching the disease, but it depends on funding, Quinn said. The researchers in Alaska are also conversing with researchers on the East Coast looking into the parasite in scallops there. The pathology report submitted to the council recommends not discarding back into the sea on the fishing ground because the parasite seems to be directly transmissible from individual to individual. “However, this may not be practical or economically feasible without some incentive program,” the report states. “Treating the offal prior to discarding at sea could also be considered, but again this carries a cost.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Despite Trump overturning refuge hunting rules, conflict remains

Although Congress put an end to a set of federal restrictions on wildlife management on national wildlife refuges in Alaska, the underlying conflict is far from over. President Donald Trump signed a House Joint Resolution on Tuesday overturning a set of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations enacted in 2016. The rule restricted certain hunting methods on national wildlife refuges in Alaska, with additional specific rules for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Under the rule, predator control activities were banned unless based on sound science and in response to a conservation concern or met refuge need. On the Kenai, additional public use restrictions went into place, including some plane and motorboat access, camping restrictions and requiring a permit for baiting black bears and prohibiting using a dog to hunt big game except black bears, among other rules. The state filed a lawsuit in January against the Department of the Interior over the Fish and Wildlife rules and another set of hunting restrictions set by the National Park Service in Alaska’s national preserves. The Safari Club International, a hunting organization, filed a similar lawsuit of its own about a week later. A few days after that, the Alaska Professional Hunting Association filed its own lawsuit over the same regulations. “Passage of this resolution reaffirms our state sovereignty, and the state’s authority to manage fish and wildlife statewide, including on federal public lands,” said Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth in a news release issued Tuesday. “Alaskans depend on wildlife for food. Reversal of these regulations will allow residents to continue their hunting and gathering traditions.” Despite the overturn, there’s still a sharp philosophical management disagreement between federal wildlife managers and state wildlife managers, and unless one side’s mandate changes, the disagreement will remain. Fish and Wildlife manages the national wildlife refuges for natural biological diversity, without promoting prey species over predators. Fish and Game, on the other hand, is mandated to manage for maximum sustained yield, which would provide enough harvestable animals to provide for hunters. The National Park Service protects the lands it manages and all the wildlife on them, prohibiting hunting entirely on national preserves. The part of the regulations still on the table, the National Park Service regulations, strongly affect rural hunting guides, hence the reason the Alaska Professional Hunters Association sued, said Thor Stacey, the registered lobbyist for the organization. Many of the group’s 300 members live in rural Alaska, where the economy is mixed cash and subsistence, and sustained hunting both for guided clients and for food purposes is important. Blocking hunting practices or not allowing the state to enact predator control to boost prey populations for sustainable yield impacts those groups, he said. Stacey said the group contests that by bypassing the state’s game management authority, the refuge and national park rules effectively amend the state’s constitution. “(The state constitution) is where you get the maximum sustained yield management rules,” he said. “Within (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act), it says nothing is supposed to modify or amend the state’s constitution. We argue that whrere the federal government steps in and imposes a foreign management philosophy, that actually effectively amends the state’s constitution.” The three agencies cooperate on management issues, but there have been times over the years when the Board of Game or Fish and Game crossed a line and trigged a reaction from the feds. A recent example was when the Board of Game authorized the taking of brown bears over bait on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said Board of Game chairman Ted Spraker. “We allowed the taking of brown bears over bait in 2013, and the refuge immediately said, ‘Not on the refuge,’” he said. “That hasn’t changed.” There are management tools built in, such as an overall quota for brown bears taken in the area before the season closes, he said. The refuge allows baiting for black bears in an area of Game Management Unit 15A but put brown bears off limits, which seemed inconsistent, he said. The National Park Service regulations are still in place, so the lawsuits will go on with those challenges, and the regulations on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge are still in place, so the Safari Club’s lawsuit will still challenge those. “It has more to do with not ceding authority to the federal systems compared to whether the department and the Board of Game will change things that we’re currently doing,” Spraker said. “I don’t see any major changes coming because of this, I think there will be a little more cooperation on some of the issues, but I don’t see the refuges embracing any sort of predator management because of this.” The overturning of the rule must be frustrating for the agency, though, said Michelle Sinnott, an attorney with environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, which represents a group of conservation organizations that petitioned to intervene in the three lawsuits and have been granted intervener status in the Safari Club and Alaska Professional Hunters Association lawsuits. “It’s maddening to a sense and I’m sure it’s very frustrating for federal agencies, because the Congressional Review Act takes a sledgehammer to agencies’ years of work and communications with the public and public noticing comment and meetings with people in the region,” she said. ANILCA has a role to play too. The act, passed in 1980, affected about 157 million acres of federal land in Alaska and changed management for others, including converting the Kenai National Moose Range into the current Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Its baseline principles include the provision of managing for natural diversity, and so even with the 2016 rules changed, with ANILCA still in place, the conflict still stands between federal management of wildlife on federal land and state sovereignty. “That question is still alive and well and we’ll be part of it now,” Sinnott said. “It’s great that our intervention was granted, because now there’s a whole host of Alaskan voices that will be heard in these cases.” Once the debate moved to the national level, the groups supporting Fish and Wildlife’s rule received support from members of Congress who saw problems with the rules themselves and with the state asserting its right to manage wildlife on federal lands, said Pat Lavin with the Alaska office of conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. “To have any state kind of challenge that and claim that the state has the right to do whatever it wants … I think plenty of members of Congress saw that right away and that was all the noise,” he said. “Unfortunately, we lost the vote anyway. There’s plenty of folks in Congress who understand that and aren’t crazy about it but were willing to undo this regulation.” Lavin agreed that ANILCA would help reinforce current management practices. Refuges around the country don’t always follow the strict state regulations, he said. “It is true, and not only in Alaska but around the whole country, that as a general proposition in managing refuge lands, the Fish and Wildlife Service defer at least initially to the place they’re in, in a given refuge,” he said. “That’s kind of the default position, but on top of that, the refuge does things all the time that are specific to the refuge and may or may not be consistent with state regulations.” Spraker said he was optimistic that with the new federal administration, a new Department of the Interior director and a new Alaska regional supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service, state and federal managers could collaborate on management more. “I don’t think this is going to make a major change in how we do business, but I do think it’s going to increase the level of collaboration between the state and federal agencies,” he said. “And with new leadership, I think that will lend itself toward cooperation with the state.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

North Pacific council takes first step in creating salmon plan

A lot of new faces are coming to the table at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and not a lot of them are happy about it. Fishermen who had never previously been involved with the council now have to show up to have a hand in how their fisheries will be incorporated into a federal fishery management plan, or FMP. The council, which regulates federal fisheries off the coast of Alaska, on April 6 started in on the topic of the salmon plan for Cook Inlet, part of the Alaska Peninsula and part of Prince William Sound near Cordova. After removing the three areas from the plan by amendment in 2011, effectively exempting them from federal oversight and delegating entirely to the state despite occurring partially in federal waters, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the move was illegal. Now, the council is having to initiate the process of revising the salmon FMP to include the three areas, which is likely to take years. The State of Alaska is appealing the decision with a petition to the Supreme Court, but the court has not decided whether to take up the case yet. At the April 6 meeting, the council — which didn’t agree with the court’s decision but has to start addressing it anyway — got into the complex questions the plan will have to answer. The council didn’t make an attempt to answer any of the questions at the meeting April 6, but passed a motion solidifying the preliminary purpose and need, a number of alternatives and forming a stakeholder workgroup, which would decide its scope and agenda at future meetings. The motion will require council staff to focus on those questions to bring a more thorough analysis back to the council. The stakeholder committee, or committees, will not be formed until after the council gets its next review of the topic. One of the first hurdles is that the council doesn’t usually regulate directed salmon fisheries. As anadromous fish, most salmon are harvested within three nautical miles of shore in terminal fisheries, which are in the state’s jurisdiction. However, under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the council is required to manage harvested species throughout their ranges. For salmon, that would include state waters and potentially in-river fisheries, where essential salmon habitat is found. The council wrangled with the question of whether they could preempt state management, which is provided for in law, at the meeting April 6. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration legal counsel Lauren Smoker clarified that legal precedent says the council wouldn’t be able to preempt state management in internal waters, which puts in-river management off limits. The state waters near shore, though, may be a different story. Another part of the conundrum is setting criteria for overfishing. The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires the council to set accountability measures to meet the 10 sustainability criteria that are set out in the law, but the parameters of those are based on species and subject to evaluation by NOAA. For salmon stocks, management is based on the state’s analysis and setting of escapement goals, which are in-river and based on state data. The United Cook Inlet Drift Association, the trade group that sued to have the amendment removing the net areas overturned, argued that the state was not meeting Magnuson-Stevens Act sustainability criteria and needed to be held to federal oversight at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council level. In its comments submitted before the meeting, UCIDA said it was not opposed to the state’s escapement goal management, and state day-to-day management of openings and closures may be more effective than federal management, which can be slower. UCIDA Vice President Erik Huebsch said the group wants to see the state held accountable to the sustainability criteria and the fishermen get the opportunity to harvest surplus salmon in Cook Inlet to prevent overescapement. “We see problems in Cook Inlet, both with habitat problems and management problems,” he said. “…We would like to harvest these stocks for (maximum sustained yield), but for various reasons, we don’t really get to do that.” Cook Inlet’s fisheries are a tug-of-war when they come up before the state’s Board of Fisheries. In late February and early March, stakeholdes and the board met for 14 days to hash out regulations for the area’s sport, personal use and commercial fisheries, with hundreds of comments and sometimes hours of discussion on a single topic. Ricky Gease, the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, asked the council to consider the effects on in-river sport and personal use fishermen, who sustain a massive sportfishing and tourism industry in Southcentral Alaska. He said the group supported the council deferring as much management to the state as possible and suggested restrictions like limiting the number of openings in the federal waters and a genetic project on sockeye salmon harvested in federal waters to protect depressed Northern Cook Inlet stocks. “Though this salmon FMP will impact three areas, Cook Inlet definitely has some unique features to it, and it’s the most complex management system for salmon in the state,” he said. Two groups representing the fishermen in the other two districts affected by the lawsuit openly said they had been fine with state management and didn’t want to be involved — Concerned Area M Fishermen and the Cordova District Fishermen United. Huebsch said UCIDA didn’t want the other groups to have to be dragged into it, either, but it was part of the process. The Concerned Area M Fishermen are catching up with the process now that they’ve been pulled into it, but don’t want much to change, said Steve Brown, the president of Concerned Area M Fishermen. “Our perspective is that the state is the proper management for the fishery,” he said. Federal management comes with other requirements such as vessel observers, who watch commercial fishery bycatch. Electronic monitoring systems for bycatch are in the works, but for now, most observers are still people stationed on boats. Huebsch said the Cook Inlet fishery had had observers before and could accommodate them, but the Prince William Sound fishermen would be very inconvenienced, said Jerry McCune, the president of Cordova District Fishermen United. “It’s going to be very disruptive for our fleet,” he said. “…We want out of this FMP. And how we do that, if we can get out of this and go to state management, we’d be happy.”

State launches review of Premera’s finances

After the state’s sole individual market health care insurance provider posted a higher than expected profit this year, the Alaska Division of Insurance launched an investigation into the company’s financials. Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska is the last health insurance company standing on the state’s federally facilitated individual insurance marketplace, where Alaskans who don’t get employer-sponsored health insurance or qualify for public options like Medicare or Medicaid can purchase insurance. Despite struggling with the small number of consumers in Alaska and the exceptionally high cost of doing business, the company posted an $18 million profit in 2016, according to its yearly financials. That was much higher than the expected margin, so the Division of Insurance announced its intention to investigate the company’s financial reports for the last three years in a release March 30. “As soon as the Division of Insurance was made aware of Premera’s higher than expected net income for 2016, we began verifying the company’s financial statements,” said Division of Insurance Director Lori Wing-Heier in the release. “While we have not uncovered anything out of the ordinary, we are doing our due diligence — early this month I ordered a financial examination to independently verify what we’ve been told.” The state has hired Johnson Lambert, a multi-state accounting and auditing firm, to perform the examination and expects it to be finished by May, according to a fact sheet released with the announcement. Premera is based in Washington. While that state does its own examinations, Wing-Heier said in an interview that she felt the financials merited more review. The state should have a good understanding of its insurers, she said. “That’s exactly why we’re going in and looking at these things ourselves,” she said. Part of the discrepancy may have been based on timing. Part of the federal Affordable Care Act provides for reimbursements between insurance companies based on how many high-risk patients they have, and Premera had more of the market share of the high-risk patients than Moda Health, which left Alaska’s individual insurance market effective Jan. 1, 2017 after prolonged financial trouble. Because of the timing of the transfers from 2014 and 2015, they were recorded on the 2016 financials, which pushed up the numbers for 2016, said Steve Kipp, the vice president of corporate communications for Premera. The program, coordinated by the federal government, is meant to balance out the market between companies, he said. “What happens if you have companies like Premera, typically Blue Cross Blue Shield companies take on much more risk,” he said. “People who are sicker tend to go with Blue Cross Blue Shield. They tend to go to us when they really need help. When they’re looking for more savings, they go to a different plan.” Premera has lost millions in the Alaska individual insurance market over the last three years — about $7.7 million, Kipp said. Alaska is a small, volatile market, so it’s important to look at multiple years of a company’s performance before drawing conclusions, he said. “That’s why these numbers are really confusing and, I think, a little misleading,” he said. Premera had about 5,000 individual market customers at the end of 2016, Kipp said in an email. That’s compared to about 200,000 customers in the Washington individual market in the same time period, he said. The company’s rates depend on enrollment and claims over time, and so if there are fewer customers and more expensive claims, rates will go up. Studies across the nation have also identified a trend known as super-utilizers — patients who account for a disproportionately large percentage of the claims in a market. For Premera, 33 individual market members in Alaska in the first half of 2014 accounted for $7 million in claims, or more than a third of the total claims costs for all individual members, he said in the email. In some ways, there is a line that the state is working with — regulators want to make sure the company is following the rules but doesn’t want to lose its only insurer. “There is a line,” Wing-Heier said. “That being said, we don’t want to be without any insurer, but we also think as the regulator, as the state, we have to have an understanding for ourselves.” On the note of the higher-than-expected net income, both Wing-Heier and Kipp said it’s not necessarily a bad sign. The company has to prove its stability to keep participating in the market each year, both where it’s based in Washington and with Alaska should the Division of Insurance choose to review its finances, Wing-Heier said. Despite financial challenges, Premera is committed to staying in Alaska, Kipp said. The company talks with regulators and the state administration frequently and supports several principals, including creating incentives for people to purchase insurance, creating a stable market, providing financial assistance and allowing states to pursue their own innovations. In Alaska last year, one innovation was to pass a reinsurance bill to allow Premera to keep its rates lower than its original projected increase. It’s hard to say what the effect of the reinsurance bill will be, as they only have a few weeks of data — the bill went into effect Jan. 1, 2017 — but the primary effect will be on the premium rates rather than profits, Kipp said. “We had a 7.3 percent rate increase this year,” he said. “Without reinsurance, we were looking at a 42 percent rate increase, had reinsurance not been enacted for 2017. It had a big effect on rates.” The other wild card in the conversation is the uncertainty of health care regulations at the federal level. Had the GOP’s American Health Care Act passed, it would have meant significant changes for the state’s Medicaid enrollees and thus for individual market insurers. If things stay the same as they are now, the state is hoping to address some of the overarching concerns about the sky-high costs of health care in the state, Wing-Heier said. A feasibility study on creating a statewide Health Care Authority is due out in June, which she said may lead to legislation for the 2018 legislative session. “If (things stay the same), we’re feeling pretty positive that maybe we can start addressing some of the cost of health care, with providers (involved),” she said. “…Red, blue, it doesn’t matter, if we start to see talks again where the market becomes upset, then it’s a different question.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Federal council forced back into Cook Inlet salmon fray

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will open up a process next week that will likely take years to redesign the Cook Inlet salmon fishery management plan. A federal appeals court decided last fall that the council, which oversees all federal fisheries management in the North Pacific between 3 and 200 nautical miles offshore — known as the United States Exclusive Economic Zone — has to craft a management plan for the salmon fishery. The council decided in 2011 to hand over several of Alaska’s salmon fisheries to state managers by removing them from the existing fishery management plan, and though an Alaska U.S. District judge ruled that it was legal in 2014, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the decision this past September. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is tentatively scheduled to hear the first discussion paper prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service on what the plan could look like and how they should proceed during the council’s meeting April 6 in Anchorage. The federal rulemaking process can take multiple years, so the council will have to reach a working plan to allow the fisheries to operate for the 2017 season before moving forward with a finalized fishery management plan. How did we get here? The disagreement over the salmon FMP traces its roots as far back as 2007, when the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, also known as the MSA, was amended to include a number of criteria for managing fisheries. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council began reviewing its various fishery management plans that year to bring them into compliance, but left the Cook Inlet salmon plan until 2011, a year before the 2012 deadline set out in the reauthorized MSA. In 2011, the council voted to remove the Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Alaska Peninsula-area salmon fisheries from the federal FMP, deferring to state management. The main thrust of the updates was to bring the plans into compliance with the act’s national standards for sustainable fisheries, including accountability measures to prevent overfishing. When the council voted 11-0 to remove the fisheries from the FMP, it determined that the state was meeting those standards. A Cook Inlet commercial fishing group, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, disagreed with that. The group argued that the state’s management, which is based on escapement goals, leads to large unharvested surpluses and overescapement into freshwater systems in Cook Inlet, which is not consistent with sustainable fisheries and national standards. The group sued in January 2013, challenging the amendment to the salmon FMP, known as Amendment 12. Though Alaska U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess initially rejected the suit, UCIDA appealed to the 9th Circuit Court, where a panel of three federal judges ruled in favor of the group and sent the case back to Burgess with the instruction that the council can delegate management authority to the state, but the state has to manage within the criteria of a federal plan. “The panel held that the National Marine Fisheries Service cannot exempt a fishery under its authority that required conservation and management from and FMP because the agency is content with state management,” the decision states. “The (Magnuson-Stevens Act) requires a regional fishery management council to create an FMP for each fishery under its authority that requires conservation and management.” What does the plan have to include? The Magnuson-Stevens Act sets out 10 criteria for sustainable fisheries management, as follows: 1. Management for optimum yield from each fishery while preventing overfishing 2. Management based on best scientific information available 3. Management for each individual stock of fish throughout its range 4. Non-discriminatory allocation among U.S. commercial fishermen 5. Efficiency 6. Consideration of variations and contingencies in fisheries, fishery resources and catches 7. Minimize costs and avoid unnecessary duplication 8. Consider the importance of fisheries to communities and, to the extent practicable, provide for sustained participation in communities and minimize adverse economic impacts to them 9. Minimize bycatch and minimize mortality of bycatch 10. Promote human safety at sea The council has to amend the salmon FMP to include the three areas exempted by Amendment 12 and manage them to meet the criteria. According to a discussion paper released in preparation for the council’s meeting, the first step is to develop alternatives for managing the three areas, followed by options to address the criteria not currently set out in the FMP. The discussion paper suggests forming a committee to deal with developing options. “If the council decides to delegate specific management measures to the State to use existing State salmon management to the extent possible the Council would need to identify those management functions that would be delegated and how the delegation would operate,” the discussion paper states. The court case isn’t entirely over yet. The State of Alaska, which intervened against UCIDA’s on the side of the National Marine Fisheries Service, filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 27 to hear the case. In the petition, the state wrote that the National Marine Fisheries Service agrees the three areas would be worse off managed under a federal plan. “The Ninth Circuit held that the Magnuson Stevens Act forecloses (escapement goal-based management) and requires that the fisheries be managed under an FMP with annual catch limits,” the petition states. “NMFS agrees that managing the fisheries with catch limits increases the risk of over- and under-harvesting salmon. Whether salmon are over or under-harvested, the result is the same: fewer salmon in years to come.” The Supreme Court hasn’t decided whether to hear the case yet. In any case, the council is moving forward with the process as if the 9th Circuit’s decision is the last word, said Jim Armstrong, plan coordinator with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. “Since that’s kind of up the air, we’re dealing with the circuit court finding as final, and as such, we need to amend the FMP,” he said. UCIDA initially requested that the U.S. District Court of Alaska vacate Amendment 12 and reinstate the old FMP, but the group does support escapement goal-based management versus annual catch limits. In its comments submitted to the council for the upcoming meeting, the group requests that the council form a committee to help develop options for a salmon FMP and include UCIDA members in the process. The group wants the fishery to managed as a unit throughout salmon species’ ranges, according to its comments. “To be clear, this does not mean that the Council is required to take over the State’s job or preempt state fishery management,” the comments state. “Rather it means that the Council, through the FMP, has to set the standards for this fishery based on the requirements of the MSA and its 10 national standards. Whether the State is ultimately willing to voluntarily meet those standards is a separate question, as is the potential need for preemption if the state does not meet those standards.” Implications for the other salmon fisheries? Though UCIDA was the group the brought the lawsuit, it wasn’t the only salmon fishery affected by Amendment 12. The move also removed the salmon fisheries in Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula from the FMP. The fishermen in the Alaska Peninsula area aren’t too happy about being pulled into the lawsuit, said Steve Brown, the president of the Concerned Area M Fishermen, which represents commercial fishermen who fish in the Alaska Peninsula management area. “Out there, we don’t have any of the issues that the Cook Inlet guys have been complaining about,” he said. “That’s not an issue for us. We feel like we’re kind of getting dragged into this and we’re getting up to speed.” The Alaska Peninsula fishermen don’t have an axe to grind with state management — in general, they’ve been pretty happy with it, Brown said. With the future of the plan thrown into question, however, the Alaska Peninsula fishermen will have to jump into the North Pacific Fishery Management Council process, he said. That means travel costs, attorney’s fees and time investment into reading through the lawsuit and discussion paperwork, he said. They’re also concerned about the potential for the implementation of annual catch limits, which are a regular management tools in other federal fisheries. To meet the Magnuson-Stevens Act criterion of preventing overfishing, the FMP has to determine standards for annual catch limits, a less flexible system than the escapement goal system, according to NMFS’ discussion paper. The Concerned Area M Fishermen plan to advocate for a plan that keeps management as close to what exists now as possible, Brown said. Annual catch limits and having to incorporate standards from the Endangered Species Act, which are involved in other West Coast fisheries, would make the fishery more complex, he said. “In some respects, (the annual catch limits) provision is trying to pound a square peg into a round hole,” Brown said. “It doesn’t really match up with the life history of salmon. That’s going to be a really tough issue to deal with, when the council starts looking at catch limits and how that concept would apply to salmon fisheries.” ^ Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Graphite mining company considering plant on peninsula

Kenai, Homer and Seward are up for consideration as sites for a new graphite processing plant. A Vancouver-based company is working on plans to develop Alaska’s sole graphite find, located on the Seward Peninsula about 37 miles north of Nome. Part of the development plan includes a value-added manufacturing facility to process the raw graphite from the mine into coated spherical graphite for lithium-ion electric vehicles batteries and other products. The company is still selecting a site for the manufacturing facility, though it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to consider locations in Alaska for the plant in February, according to a news release from the company. Of the four communities currently under consideration, three are on the Kenai Peninsula, said Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District Executive Director Tim Dillon at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s meeting March 21. “What we’re trying to do is make sure the product doesn’t go from Nome down to the state of Washington to get processed and then over to Asia,” he said. “What we want is we want it to stay in Alaska.” Dillon said the plant would bring 150 new jobs to the peninsula, if one of the cities is selected. It’s still early, but there could be a variety of jobs available, he said. There may more workforce training and planning needed if Graphite One Resources chooses a location on the peninsula, he said, such as housing in Homer and Seward. AIDEA is working with the company to select a site. The final choice will take a number of factors into consideration, including sufficient industrial land, electrical infrastructure to power the plant and industry infrastructure like a port and dock with shallow-draft barge access and potential need for access for lager vessels that would bring in processing materials, wrote AIDEA External Affairs Officers Karsten Rodvik in an email. “Nearby road and rail access, as well as storage silos on-site for incoming material and finished product round out the infrastructure requirements,” he wrote. The Kenai area, with its multiple oil support docks to the north, has long been a center for heavy industry in Southcentral Alaska. With the recent decline in oil prices and production, multiple longstanding oil companies have also scaled back operations or withdrawn, including the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. shuttering its fabrication facility and ConocoPhillips seeking to sell its LNG export facility. However, Homer and Seward have been building their industrial capacity in recent years. A consulting firm is wrapping up a feasibility study for Homer to expand its deep water dock, which serves fishing vessels, cruise ships, oil drilling jack-up rigs and other large vessels. The multi-million dollar project has not taken a final direction yet, and the Homer City Council has a variety of options to choose from in expanding the dock. Seward, meanwhile, has been expanding and improving its Seward Marine Industrial Center on the east side of Resurrection Bay, which also serves heavy vessels and oil drilling rigs. The goal is to expand its capacity for large vessels, including the cruise ships that arrive in Seward all summer, bringing thousands of tourists. In October 2016, the city and multiple partners — including AIDEA — finished a study on upland development at the industrial center, allowing for further business development at the site. The city is also finishing up work on its breakwater there to provide more shelter from swell and wake action, according to the upland development study. Dillon told the assembly the consideration of the three cities is a good sign for the peninsula, whether or not the company ultimately chooses to build its plant here. “My hope is that just having three qualified communities, whether this work outs or not, it’s showing people that, ‘Hey, the Kenai Peninsula is looking to be diverse with different things, and they want to work,’” he said. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Ocean conditions throw uncertainty into salmon forecast

KENAI — After last year’s disastrously low pink salmon runs to drainages all across the Gulf of Alaska, the forecasts offer a little more hope for the 2017 season. Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers in Southeast are predicting a strong pink year, with 43 million fish set to return, slightly greater than the recent 10-year average of 39 million fish. The forecast is high in Kodiak as well, with mangers predicting a total run of about 28.1 million fish between the wild and hatchery-augmented runs, though the confidence is only fair because runs are naturally variable and environmental conditions are unpredictable. In Prince William Sound, managers predict a total run of about 21 million fish, with a harvest estimate of 19.6 million salmon, according to the forecast. Biologists are also predicting a run of approximately 371,000 chum salmon and 74,000 sockeye. If the forecast plays out accurately, it would be welcome news to commercial fishermen all across the Gulf of Alaska. Pink salmon returns were so dismal in 2016 that Gov. Bill Walker asked for and was granted a federal disaster designation, which opened up the potential for funds to be appropriated in Congress for relief. It’s not clear why the pink salmon returns were so much below average, but ADFG’s forecast puts a large part of the blame for uncertainty on anomalously warm sea surface temperatures for the past three years in the North Pacific, colloquially called the blob. “Pink salmon that went to sea in 2014 and 2015 returned in numbers well below expectation and pink salmon that went to sea in 2016 (and set to return in 2017) may have experienced similar conditions,” the forecast states. Every forecast has its uncertainties, but last year’s moderate forecast and poor returns have lent skepticism. Kodiak commercial fisheries area management biologist James Jackson said the managers were moderately confident in the forecast, but ocean conditions are unpredictable and forecasts are best estimates. “I would say we’re moderately confident,” he said. “It really comes down to the fact that when you have such extreme variations in climate that we’ve seen over the past few years, it’s really had to have a predictable model. That ‘s why we have in-season management.” The stars seem to be aligned for Kodiak to have a good pink return this year. It’s an odd year, which is high for Kodiak — pink salmon have a two-year life cycle, so harvests tend to pitch from high to low depending on the area — and the area’s hatchery on Afognak Island is set to have its five-year high return as well, Jackson said. Kodiak is a complex area with multiple management plans and gear types. The management plans start out the season with regular weekly fishing periods that can be changed based on the salmon forecast. As with any fishery, the managers will evaluate the run and decide how to prosecute the fishery if the returns don’t live up to the forecast. That’s what happened last year — as it became clear the forecast was going to come in low, the managers closed the pink salmon fishery. In 2015, the total harvest of pink salmon was more than 33 million pinks. In 2016, it came in at about 3.2 million, or about a tenth of the previous year. The run in 2014 was weaker and early, while 2015’s run was large and late. Many of the streams missed their pink salmon escapements for the first time in decades, Jackson said. All told, the Kodiak pink salmon return was one of the worst since the 1970s. “It was fairly obvious from the get-go that the forecast was wrong,” he said. In Lower Cook Inlet, 2015 was a record-breaking year for pink salmon. Last summer was the area’s low cycle, and given the high returns in previous years, 2017 should be set to break more records, but the forecast doesn’t look that way, said commercial fisheries area management biologist Glenn Hollowell. “The forecasts don’t look rosy enough in comparison to the odd-year pink returns we’ve been getting,” he said. Lower Cook Inlet is expecting a pink salmon return of about 1.29 million fish, with an expected commercial harvest of about 777,000 fish. That is significantly less than the 2015 harvest, when the seiners in Lower Cook Inlet alone harvested nearly 4.5 million pinks, not counting other gear types. Lower Cook Inlet has a hatchery component as well, with Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association getting its Tutka Bay and Port Graham hatcheries operating to produce pink salmon. That should have pushed up the forecast further as well, but it’s only moderate, Hollowell said. With ocean conditions hard to predict and a precedent of a good forecast turned sour, the managers aren’t entirely sure what to expect. With the colder winter this year, sending near-shore conditions more toward normal for Alaska, the mass of warm water in the Gulf of Alaska may be beginning to dissipate, but stream production depends on snowmelt runoff to the rivers as well. Stream production varies on water level each year, and if water levels are lower, then the streams can produce fewer salmon than in higher water years, Hollowell said. “This is an interesting year,” Hollowell said. “It’s a year when we might diverge significantly from what we’ve forecast.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

UAF says ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to Kenai salmon research offer

KENAI — The University of Alaska Fairbanks turned down an offer for funding for research on Kenai River king salmon because it would only come from one side of Cook Inlet’s allocation war. The university’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, consistently recognized as one of the top fisheries research institutes in the country, regularly conducts studies on fish populations around the state. Funding comes from a variety of sources, both industry and from the university’s budget. However, after discussing potential funding for king salmon research from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the university decided not to take the funding because it couldn’t get buy-in from the commercial fishing side as well, according to a March 2 letter from interim chancellor Dana Thomas addressed to Kenai River Sportfishing Association board member and founder Bob Penney. “The UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences feels that it would not be helpful to carry out research on salmon in the Kenai area without a cooperative effort supported by both commercial and sport fishery interests,” the letter states. “Their view is that commercial fishers will not have confidence in research which is financially supported solely by those who have been strong advocates for sport fishing.” Without funding from both commercial and sport interests, the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences faculty didn’t want to expend resources when it would be “unlikely to lead to a productive result,” the letter states. Thomas said in an interview that cooperative funding between industry interest groups is a model the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences has found useful in determining research projects, and the faculty had hoped to get there with the Kenai project. The model provides mechanisms for peer review as well, which sets a high standard for scientific research, and provides convincing evidence for management boards to make decisions, he said. “This particular approach is a little unique to this college and they’ve used it in a variety of settings,” he said. “It has served them well for both sides … in dealing with controversial issues.” Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, a Soldotna-based sportfishing and conservation advocacy organization that funds projects and research, discussed some basic ideas for king salmon research with the university last summer, said executive director Ricky Gease. Since the dramatic decline of the king salmon runs hit a low in 2012, many questions have come up about the ocean conditions affecting king salmon production and returns. KRSA didn’t have a specific plan but provided ideas for potential research, such as marine factors affecting king salmon run timing and run size or sportfishing angler and economic impact surveys, he said. He said the university’s refusal of the funding was likely a function of shrinking budgets. “I think in this era of budget cuts, I think they were doing their due diligence in trying to reach out to different communities around the state to see if there were partnerships out there,” he said. The university doesn’t direct faculty research, and ultimately it was the faculty members’ decision not to take up the project, though he did have conversations with them about the project, he said. The university had hoped for a partnership to be formed in the area among user groups to fund research that would “ensure separation of the goals of individual organizations from impartial scientific research that would inform the best possible management and policy decisions,” the letter states. However, the commercial fishing organizations declined a partnership, according to the letter. The specific commercial fishing organization that handled it was the Alaska Salmon Alliance, an organization representing primarily processors and commercial fishermen in the Cook Inlet area. Though the organization’s board has considered funding research and is open to the idea of collaborating between user groups as long as the research benefits both, the board chose to turn the university’s request down, said Alaska Salmon Alliance board member Paul Dale. “It looked to us as though (the Kenai River Sportfishing Association) had already selected some topics that would seem to be, shall we say, more beneficial to KRSA than to the commercial fish industry,” he said. “Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but that was our impression. We as a group decided to pass on that opportunity ultimately.” It’s common practice for industry to fund research elsewhere in the state. The Alaska pollock industry funds research through the Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center, dispensing funds for research through a board with representatives from several stakeholders. Crabbers in the Bering Sea also fund studies through the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation. But in the past, much of the research in Cook Inlet has been done by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, federal agencies or nonprofits, without direct funding or approval by the industry. With a still-gaping budget deficit at the state level, ADFG’s research budget isn’t likely to grow in the future, and funding at all levels of the state government is subject to cuts as the Legislature attempts to reduce the budget deficit. Federal research may also be on the rocks under President Donald Trump’s administration recently proposed a budget that would trim funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages fisheries in federal waters through the National Marine Fisheries Service. In Cook Inlet, commercial fishing industry members are interested in collaborating to provide more funding in the future if the focus of the research benefits both groups, Dale said. “There were some interesting funding mechanisms in the proposal that intrigued me, and it would be great if we could reduce some of the allocation frictions,” he said. Fishing stakeholders may have to step up and take the reins on funding research if they want the important baseline work to go forward as well as research with more direct management applications, Gease said. ADFG’s research tends to be more oriented toward freshwater research and achieving escapement goals, and marine factors tend to be underrepresented in salmon research and management, he said. “If we could have more data sources from the marine environment and figure out how to incorporate that into the run timing or the size of the return, it would help all fisheries out,” he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Stakeholders of all types leave Cook Inlet meeting unsatisfied

KENAI — The Board of Fisheries wrapped up its Upper Cook Inlet meeting with few changes for the inlet’s commercial drift gillnet fleet, with small gains possible for the drifters and disagreements between the sport and commercial users left intact. The drift gillnet fleet in Upper Cook Inlet, composed of about 570 limited-entry permit holders, wanted the Board of Fisheries to dismantle some of the regulations that have been enacted over the years restricting their fishing time and area. They argue that the restrictions make the fleet inefficient and tie the hands of the managers to allow commercial fishermen to harvest surplus salmon returning in any given year. On the other hand, sportfishermen from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley argued for the restrictions to remain in place, saying they allow depleted northern Cook Inlet stocks to rebound. Allowing the drift fleet to fish in the entire Inlet and giving them more time would lead to further interception of northern-bound stocks, they argued. In reality, the board only changed three main things relating to the drift fleet. They added the potential for one inlet-wide fishing period in the second half of July if the sockeye salmon run to the Kenai River is projected to come in between 2.3 million and 4.6 million fish, dropped the optimum escapement goal for Kenai River sockeye and moved back the date for the 1 percent rule for setnetters in August, which also affects the drift gillnet fleet. No one felt the changes were significant. But while the drifters saw them as minor concessions after years of losing time and area, Mat-Su advocates said the changes were small steps in the wrong direction. “Conservation is not the issue,” said Erik Huebsch, the vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. “Production is the issue.” The drifters have long held that sending more fish into the northern streams won’t do any good to rebuild stocks because of poor habitat conditions and predation by invasive northern pike. Pike prey on juvenile salmonids and are now documented extensively in lakes across the Mat-Su Valley. Additionally, an extensive infestation of elodea — an invasive water weed that can choke out oxygen in lakes — was documented in Alexander Lake, one of the larger lakes in the valley. The population growth in the valley also damages habitat, as roads have been placed across streams with insufficient culverts that don’t allow fish to pass through. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has been trying to address the habitat issues by replacing culverts and putting up public education signs, but until there are meaningful efforts to address the pike, putting more fish into the system is just feeding the pike, Huebsch said. What’s more, the Inlet-wide period only goes into effect during years of very large sockeye runs, and it only a “may” rather than a “shall” in the code, leaving it up to the manager’s discretion. This year, the sockeye run is predicted to be less than 2.3 million, meaning the inlet-wide period won’t come into play unless the run comes in above the forecast. “We didn’t change a thing,” said UCDA President Dave Martin. “We’re still not going to be able to harvest the surplus.” At the other end of the Inlet, the Mat-Su Valley has been seeing declining escapements for a number of years and tight restrictions on sportfishing time and areas within the drainage. Three years ago, when the drifters were restricted out of the center of the Inlet to allow for a corridor to allow fish to pass north, Mat-Su fishermen said it would help rebuild stocks. The corridor is still in place, but with the drifters getting the potential for an extra period, it has been weakened, said Mack Minard, a fisheries consultant for the Mat-Su Borough. The residents wanted the corridor to remain in place for at least one full life cycle, or about six years, he said. “I think it was sort of unfortunate because virtually every action the board took, although individually small, were cumulatively in the wrong direction in terms of conserving king and coho and sockeye salmon in the Northern District,” he said. The board rejected a proposal to set optimum escapement goals for the three indicator lakes — Judd, Larson and Chelatna, which are the only lakes with weirs in the Susitna River drainage — and also moved back the date for the 1 percent rule for setnetters in August. In the past, when both the Kenai and Kasilof sections of the setnet fishery were closed by the one percent rule, the drifters were moved to the West Side of the Inlet. Ultimately, the managers should move from a mixed-stock management approach to a terminal fishery approach, which allows for more stock-specific targeting, he said. Bristol Bay managers have done it for some time, and though it constricts fishermen to specific areas, it can help preserve weaker stocks. “I think it will take a generational change,” he said. “It will take a manager who will embrace the idea and a board that has the political will to implement it. And the day we do that is the day we begin to help northern district stocks recover.” The valley does have habitat issues; the systems are not as productive as the Kenai and Kasilof, which have multiple large, deep lakes, which provide perfect sockeye rearing habitat. The Mat-Su Valley doesn’t have many deep lakes like that, and most sockeye spawn in non-lake habitats, said Larry Engel, a member of the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission. “The sockeye are spawning in environments that aren’t stable,” he said. “They’re subject to huge changes every year … these kind of sockeye are not as productive, anywhere close to what a large stable Bristol Bay or Kenai can produce. That’s a huge difference, just naturally, than any other type of environment.” Pike, warm water and urbanization are problems — no one is denying that, Engel said. However, before any people lived in the valley, the systems still produced fewer fish per spawner than the Kenai and Kasilof because of the nature of the water systems, he said. That’s why the Mat-Su advocates argue for additional escapement. The board’s actions to provide additional opportunity for the drift fleet weren’t major, but the Mat-Su Valley advocates would have liked for nothing to change, he said. “Our position was to leave the Central Distict drift management plan, the corridor, unchanged, to let it work for a few years, and basically that’s what the board did with minor exceptions,” he said. “… We wish the plan had stayed intact, but the change that did occur wasn’t a significant change to the rationale and basis for the plan. I guess you could say that we’re pleased that not much changed, but we wish nothing had. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

On Kenai dipnet, a call for cooperation

Although people debate the value of the Kenai and Kasilof personal-use dipnet fisheries, they all find at least one thing that could be or is an issue with them. The two fisheries, which take place each summer at the mouth of each river, allow Alaskans a shot at some of the hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon that return there in June and July. The Kenai River dipnet fishery is the most popular of its kind in the state, with more than 30,000 fishing days every year since 2011, to fish from boats and from the beaches and banks downstream of the Warren Ames Bridge. The Kasilof fishery, which is slightly less popular and boasts smaller sockeye runs, registers approximately 10,000 fishing days regularly. The problem is that there’s no clear plan to deal with the continual growth of the fishery. The city of Kenai bears the brunt of enforcement, cleanup and infrastructure costs for the Kenai dipnet, running up a bill of approximately $589,000 in 2016, according to the city’s fiscal year 2017 dipnet report. On the Kasilof, the Alaska State Wildlife Troopers provide some enforcement on the beach, but cannot constantly patrol, and the state has to front the cost for portable toilets and cleanup. On March 5, the Board of Fisheries voted to close long sections of the Kenai River’s banks to shore-based dipnetting, but rejected the rest of the dipnet-related proposals. During a discussion of a proposal that would eliminate the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner’s authority to extend the fishery to 24 hours per day, concern arose about the burden on the city of Kenai for maintenance. The Alaska Department of Law ruled that the board didn’t have the authority to revoke the commissioner’s authority, but board member Robert Ruffner asked Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten for a promise to work with the city government more closely. “If there’s a 24-hour fishery, it does impact the local government’s ability to do their job, as it would with an extension of the season,” he said. “I certainly pledge to work closely with the city.” Although all the members voted against the proposal, most acknowledged that the issues with the dipnet fishery are real. Board member Orville Huntington said he hoped the board and Fish and Game would treat the city of Kenai with more respect in the future. “I think we need to acknowledge that it’s a pretty severe cost to those residents,” Huntington said. “We should be treating them kindly (for) them sharing their resources with us.” The proposal that passed, an amended version of a proposal from Fish and Game, closes the banks between No Name Creek and the Warren Ames Bridge on the north bank and between the beach and the Kenai Landing dock on the south side. It doesn’t include the highest-use area, which is the south bank near the Warren Ames Bridge, where there is a state-run parking lot. Ruffner motioned for the change at the request of Kenai’s city council, saying there were a number of private landowners who had established infrastructure to access the river there. The former executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, a conservation organization, he said that the land on the flats is too sensitive for long-term foot traffic. “These are tidally inundated flats,” he said. “Once or twice a year, the water runs up over them. They’re loamy soils, really subject to getting compacted when you walk on them, put coolers on them. … Once you compact these particular kinds of soils, you can’t fix them.” The one confounding factor is that the state is working on obtaining funding for habitat protection structures there, and managers were worried that if the banks were closed, there would be no impetus for the funding. The board batted around the idea of a sunset clause or possibly allowing the department to use its emergency order authority to close the banks. Ruffner said he was concerned that the grants may not work out and the damage will continue. The board ultimately accepted the proposal with a vote of 5-2. The board rejected all other proposals related to the Kenai dipnet fishery, saying they wanted to maintain the status quo and work on collaboration. Though people disagreed about the particular negative side effects of the fishery, almost everyone who participated in the committee process Friday had one or two observations about the fishery that were causing problems, including fish waste, small boats being swamped by bigger boats, household limit abuse or general disarray. However, the one thing many agreed on was that something needed to be done in the fishery. During the committee discussion, one theme arose in multiple people’s suggestions — a long-term plan. When the dipnet fishery was established in 1993, there wasn’t really a plan for it. It replaced the historical subsistence program that allowed Alaskans to harvest fish wherever they wanted for personal purposes, but the Board of Fisheries didn’t provide funding for it and there weren’t clear parameters for regulations other than household limits, gear type and area. Each personal-use area works differently. Board member Sue Jeffrey referenced this during the board’s discussion. “A long-term plan may come forward with future discussions, but for now I think this is working hand-in-hand with this community that is hosting this amazing fishery,” she said. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Lack of coho data complicates fish board discussions

Although coho salmon populations have played an important role in many of the decisions made at the Board of Fisheries’ Upper Cook Inlet meeting so far, one evident detail is that there’s a lot of data missing. For one, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game doesn’t do much inseason coho run management in Cook Inlet. There’s no escapement goal on the Kenai River, and Fish and Game has proposed to set an escapement goal for the Deshka River in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley just this year. There is an escapement goal for Little Susitna coho salmon, but runs fluctuate, and managers have only achieved the escapement goal in three years since 2009, according to online weir counts. Coho salmon runs are highly variable and are primarily harvested by sportfishermen. They’re primarily managed for sport use as well, which leads to scuffles over allocation with commercial fishermen, who are also allowed to catch them under their Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits. On Sunday, the board denied a number of proposals related to Kenai River coho salmon, mentioning repeatedly a lack of data as a concern. One proposal, which would have increased the bag limit for coho salmon from two to three earlier in the season, failed 1-6, but led the board to ask what Fish and Game does track with coho salmon. Board member Robert Ruffner expressed concern about additional sport harvest on Kenai River coho, given that earlier in the meeting, the board passed proposals that could increase commercial fishing time in both the setnet fishery and the drift gillnet fishery. Although effort is most intense in August, according to Fish and Game’s estimates, there’s still little room for upping the bag limit, he said. “We did take some actions at this board that allocated some more fish to the commercial fishery, but even had we not done that, there’s no room here to do that (significantly),” he said. On the Kenai, the bag limit automatically increases from two to three fish after September 1, unrelated to run strength. Managers don’t assess run strength and thus can’t tell inseason how many coho run in the Kenai River. The Division of Commercial FIsheries ran an offshore test fishery near the northern line of the Central District, drawn between Boulder Point in Nikiski and the Kustatan Peninsula, which sampled coho salmon genetics in the inlet, but inriver, Fish and Game relies on creel surveys and the annual statwide harvest survey to gather abundance data. The last significant study done on Kenai River coho harvest rates, total run strength and escapement covered 1999–2004. Based on that data, managers estimate that current total harvest is about 49 percent, said Sportfish Area Research Biologist Robert Begich in a presentation to the board on Feb. 23. Other studies conducted in Southeast Alaska have shown that populations of coho can sustain exploitation rates up to about 61 percent, but because coho runs are so variable, Fish and Game managers like to maintain some breathing room, said Southcentral Area Management Coordinator Matt Miller to the board Saturday. Before the board voted down the bag limit proposal, Director of the Division of Sportfish Tom Brookover said Fish and Game stayed neutral on most of the coho-related allocative proposals, but some managers are getting uncomfortable with high harvest rates and a lack of information. “Without (Kenai coho) escapement information, we really don’t have a major piece of the puzzle that we need to answer some of these questions,” he said. After a lengthy debate, the board passed a proposal closing coho fishing a month earlier in part of the middle Kenai River, between Bings Landing and Skilak Lake. The proposer, Kenai River Professional Guides Association, originally wanted to close the whole river after Oct. 31 to protect coho salmon when the water level begins to fall as the river ices up for the winter. With the amended proposal, board member Sue Jeffrey said she thought it was an appropriate protection for coho, especially those in clearer, shallower side channels. Ruffner said in light of the lack of data, he thought the proposer’s intent to protect the coho was genuine. “We’ve talked a lot about coho, how we don’t have any great enumeration, how we don’t have any great monitoring, so the proposers were really just talking about slowing that down,” he said. In the area between Skilak Lake and the Moose River, a little downstream of Bings Landing, after Sept. 1, anglers harvest about 3,800 coho on average, Begich said. There isn’t any guide logbook data for the area, meaning that there’s no guided effort there, he said. Given that, board member Israel Payton said he didn’t see a reason to close the area because it’s mostly unguided anglers, so it would be reducing opportunity. “I don’t think passing this would lend to any conservation measures,” he said. The board has been wrangling with lack of a lack of coho data around Cook Inlet in its decisions all this week. The main point of contention in a discussion over expanding fishing area for the commercial drift gillnet fleet was whether they intercepted northern-bound coho salmon, but the board didn’t have exact harvest data on what was Kenai or Susitna stocks. Fish and Game presented data from 2013–2015 characterizing genetic data for coho harvests in the commercial fishery, though the data is new and has not been used in management yet. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board passes sweeping change for early run kings

March 5 Early run Kenai River king salmon will now have more protection in the middle river and management will be more conservative after the Board of Fisheries unanimously approved a rewrite of the early run management plan. It’s a paradigm shift for the fishery. Essentially, the new plan turns the Kenai River into a pass-through fishery on the lower 19 miles, and once early run kings have made their way into the middle river between Slikok Creek and Skilak Lake, they have far more protections than they have in the past. It also does away with the slot limit, a size restriction meant to protect larger fish but left some of the very largest available for harvest. The new plan has multiple tiers based on projected escapements and separates the lower and middle river sections. In the lower river, if the run is projected to fall below the sustainable escapement goal of 2,800-5,600 big kings, the fishery is closed. If it is between the sustainable escapement goal and the optimum escapement goal of 3,900-6,600 salmon, the managers can close the fishery or allow catch-and-release. If it’s within or above the optimum escapement goal, managers can allow bait and retention of fish of a size the department deems appropriate. In the middle river, restrictions are tighter and last through July 31, including the late run season. The fishery is closed if the projection is below the sustainable escapement goal; if it’s between the sustainable escapement goal and the optimum escapement goal, it can go to catch-and-release or remained closed; if it’s within or above the optimum escapement goal, the department can allow retention of fish up to 36 inches long, but no bait will be allowed. “Our job as board members is to conserve and develop fisheries, and that language order is not by accident,” said board member Robert Ruffner, who led the charge on the proposal. “This work that we’re giong to undertake here is maybe some of the most critical work I’ve undertaken. The early run king salmon in my community has fallen down, and it’s fallen down seriously.” The goal all along has been to rebuild the overall size, age class and gender ratio of the early run, which has been falling off for decades. Ruffner said some of that may be due to natural decline, but much is due to mismanagement. The proposal was the amended and compromise-filled brainchild of three interest groups — the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition and the Kenai River Professional Guides Association. The three, which have not always seen eye-to-eye over the years on fisheries issues, worked together on a proposal redrafting many of the provisions of the early run king salmon management plan, including setting a size cap at 36 inches. They turned in a joint proposal Friday. Tensions ran high in the breaks between board discussions March 5, with the meeting starting nearly two and a half hours late after Fish and Game staff worked on the language for the new early run Kenai king salmon plan. Small groups met and ran anxiously through language, and “10-minute” breaks stretched out into double or triple that as board members tried to work out what the proposers wanted. When Fish and Game issued its first draft of language, it was not in line with what the groups wanted, they said in another submitted document. They, Ruffner and Fish and Game staff spent the rest of the day rehashing the language to fit better with what they wanted. By the afternoon on March 6, they came together on a consolidated proposal that hit some of the high points from the individual groups’ proposals, with Ruffner championing it. Fish and Game’s main objection was to the reduction in harvest potential. Setting the cap at 36 inches eliminated about 70 percent of the fish, said Southcentral regional management supervisor Matt Miller in answer to a question from the board. The proposed new management plan would create a primarily catch-and-release fishery and make it harder for the department to manage to its escapement goals, he said. “This will increase the likelihood that we’ll exceed the (optimum escapement goal), which has already been set well above the upper bound of the (sustainable escapement goal),” he said. Ruffner fired back that that was the least of the department’s worries. Preseason forecasts are for the total early run to be below average, falling within the optimum escapement goal, according to staff reports presented on the first day of the meeting Feb. 23. “My response to that is if that’s the biggest thing you’re worried about, we have a problem,” he said. “I want you to maintain goals. … With the preseason forecast information we have right now, this is not going to be an issue.” Though the vote was unanimous, some of the board members expressed concern during deliberations. Board members Israel Payton and Al Cain said they were concerned about extending the regulations into the last two weeks of July to apply to the late run. “My understanding is that the department is very comfortable that the tributary spawners are not there or they are in the tributaries,” Payton said. “… If we do this, it really affects late run fishing in the middle river.” Members of the groups who helped author the proposal said they were proud of the measure’s success and hoped it would be a path to rebuild Kenai River early run stocks for the future. Dwight Kramer, a board member of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition, said in a statement that it was the highlight of his years attending Board of Fisheries meetings. “We at KAFC are proud to have been a part of the groups that came together here today for the good of the Kenai River early run chinook salmon,” he said. “The fish have to come first.” Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease said it was a great plan that would offer some opportunity but begin a process to rebuild the early run. Fish and Game had some hesitancies, but in the end they seemed to agree that they should give it a try to see how it works and return in three years to work out problems, he said. He also noted that it had been a transparent process with good conversation throughout. “It’s time for a new approach,” he said. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board of Fish adds 1 district-wide opener for Inlet drifters

Upper Cook Inlet’s drift gillnet fleet will get another 12 hours of fishing time in July, but no one is 100 percent happy about it. For one, the drifters feel like it wasn’t enough. The Board of Fisheries approved an amended proposal at its Thursday meeting that states the commercial fishing managers may open up one fishing period between July 16 and July 31 in the Central District, where before they were restricted to only part of the district. Since they have been restricted to fishing in the corridors, which parallel the shore and keep the fishermen from being able to traverse the entire inlet, they say they haven’t been able to efficiently harvest sockeye salmon, leading to overescapement into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. “It’s token,” said Erik Huebsch, vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. Many sportfishermen feel like the board is chipping away at the commercial fishing restrictions too much, reallocating Cook Inlet’s highly contested salmon populations to the commercial fishing fleet. Chief among the complaints is concern for the Matanuska-Susitna Valley’s coho salmon, which have been on the decline for at least the past decade. Sportfishermen in the valley say the drifters are blocking too many salmon from moving up into the northern streams, corking off the salmon populations and furthering the decline. In the back of the room Thursday, sportfishermen shook their heads as the measure passed. Mike Crawford, chair of the Kenai/Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said the board’s decisions so far this meeting have not been good for sportfishermen. The blame game washed back and forth on Wednesday, with Mat-Su Valley fishermen and officials blaming the sockeye and coho stock declines on the drift fishermen and the drift fishermen blaming the stock declines on conditions in the valley. The discussion was notably civil compared to previous years, but the disagreements were sharp. It’s a long-standing conflict. In 2008, when Susitna sockeye salmon were designated a stock of concern, it triggered restrictions on the drift fleet intended to prevent harvest of northern-bound sockeye and coho salmon as they passed through the Cook Inlet. Although drift fishermen have never denied that they harvest northern-bound sockeye and coho, they say the decline is because of poor production due to shallow lakes in the valley, widespread predation by invasive northern pike and pathogens in the water that affect salmon. In 2011, the Board of Fisheries instituted what drift fishermen refer to as a corridor and Mat-Su and Northern Cook Inlet district commercial set gillnet fishermen have referred to as a conservation corridor. At the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting, the restrictions on the fishing areas were tightened, and the drifters were in the corridor for almost all their regular periods. The effectiveness of the corridor in conserving northern-bound sockeye and coho was a question on Thursday, though. The board spent the first chunk of its day grilling the Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff on science and data related to coho salmon, both in the Susitna system and being harvested by the drift fleet. No one debated that the corridors effectively allowed salmon to move north — the drift fleet is less efficient when operating in the corridors, which is the point. However, swimming beside the northern-bound sockeye and coho in the Central District are Kenai-and Kasilof-bound sockeye, which return in larger numbers and which the drift fleet says have overescaped for the past several years. Mat-Su Valley advocates say the drift fishermen already get more salmon than everybody else. “In reality, the drift fleet gets first opportunity at the fish,” said Matanuska-Susitna Fish and Game Advisory Committee chairman Andy Couch in the committee Wednesday. “… They have to swim through the area the drift fleet is in. (The drifters) get to use more net than everybody else, they can move up and down through 60 miles of the inlet, and if you look at their harvests, they are the user group that harvests the most sockeye salmon, the most coho salmon, the most chum salmon, the most pink salmon.” The board was torn 4-3 on the amended proposal, with board members Israel Payton, Reed Morisky and Al Cain voting against it. The final accepted proposal was an amendment by board member Robert Ruffner, which offered significantly fewer liberalizations to the drift fleet than the original proposal. Still, discussion over the nature of the reallocation went back and forth. Payton said providing more fish to the drift fleet was reallocating them away from the Mat-Su sportfishermen, the Northern Cook Inlet district setnetters, the Fish Creek personal-use fishery and from subsistence users further up in the northern Cook Inlet drainages. Morisky referenced a discussion from the Lower Cook Inlet meeting in Homer over whether to liberalize fishing regulations on the winter king salmon fishery in Kachemak Bay, saying that Cook Inlet’s salmon fishery was fully allocated already. “There’s talk about whose fish that might be, and some of the same folks that are saying we need a little bit more, we need a little bit less, they are someone else’s fish,” he said. “This is a fully allocated fishery, and I believe the current management plan fairly allocates the fishery at this present time.” In answer to a question from Ruffner, commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields estimated that if the opener were district-wide rather than restricted to a section of the inlet, the coho harvest might increase by between 2,500 and 5,000 fish. If the sockeye run is late, it could also coincide with an on-time coho run, which could increase harvest on coho, said commercial fisheries salmon and herring management coordinator Tim Baker, in answer to a question from the board. Board chairman John Jensen and member Sue Jeffrey said they thought it was fair to offer the commercial fishermen more time. Jeffrey said the commercial fishermen had harvested the coho runs in the past and the board should review regulations that have only been in place for a relatively short time. Jensen said he would have liked to see more time given to the commercial fishery but he supported what he called “a minuscule change.” “It will allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up,” he said. “… (Commercial guides) are trying to make a living off the fish, the commercial guys are trying to make a living off the fish, and we’re still trying to provide opportunities for those people who want to go out and catch their dinner.” Because board member Orville Huntington had to leave briefly, the board suspended deliberations on drift gillnet fishery issues and picked up committee discussions on Northern Cook Inlet sportfishing issues and assorted commercial issues. The board will resume deliberations Friday morning. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]    

Board of Fish adds 1 district-wide opener for drifters

Upper Cook Inlet’s drift gillnet fleet will get another 12 hours of fishing time in July, but no one is 100 percent happy about it. For one, the drifters feel like it wasn’t enough. The Board of Fisheries approved an amended proposal March 2 that states the commercial fishing managers may open up one fishing period between July 16 and July 31 in the Central District, where before they were restricted to only part of the district. Since they have been restricted to fishing in the corridors, which parallel the shore and keep the fishermen from being able to traverse the entire inlet, they say they haven’t been able to efficiently harvest sockeye salmon, leading to overescapement into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. “It’s token,” said Erik Huebsch, vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. Many sportfishermen feel like the board is chipping away at the commercial fishing restrictions too much, reallocating Cook Inlet’s highly contested salmon populations to the commercial fishing fleet. Chief among the complaints is concern for the Matanuska-Susitna Valley’s coho salmon, which have been on the decline for at least the past decade. Sportfishermen in the valley say the drifters are blocking too many salmon from moving up into the northern streams, corking off the salmon populations and furthering the decline. In the back of the room March 2, sportfishermen shook their heads as the measure passed. Mike Crawford, chair of the Kenai/Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said the board’s decisions so far this meeting have not been good for sportfishermen. The blame game washed back and forth on March 1, with Mat-Su Valley fishermen and officials blaming the sockeye and coho stock declines on the drift fishermen and the drift fishermen blaming the stock declines on conditions in the valley. The discussion was notably civil compared to previous years, but the disagreements were sharp. It’s a long-standing conflict. In 2008, when Susitna sockeye salmon were designated a stock of concern, it triggered restrictions on the drift fleet intended to prevent harvest of northern-bound sockeye and coho salmon as they passed through the Cook Inlet. Although drift fishermen have never denied that they harvest northern-bound sockeye and coho, they say the decline is because of poor production due to shallow lakes in the valley, widespread predation by invasive northern pike and pathogens in the water that affect salmon. In 2011, the Board of Fisheries instituted what drift fishermen refer to as a corridor and Mat-Su and Northern Cook Inlet district commercial set gillnet fishermen have referred to as a conservation corridor. At the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting, the restrictions on the fishing areas were tightened, and the drifters were in the corridor for almost all their regular periods. The effectiveness of the corridor in conserving northern-bound sockeye and coho was a question on March 2, though. The board spent the first chunk of its day grilling the Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff on science and data related to coho salmon, both in the Susitna system and being harvested by the drift fleet. No one debated that the corridors effectively allowed salmon to move north — the drift fleet is less efficient when operating in the corridors, which is the point. However, swimming beside the northern-bound sockeye and coho in the Central District are Kenai-and Kasilof-bound sockeye, which return in larger numbers and which the drift fleet says have overescaped for the past several years. Mat-Su Valley advocates say the drift fishermen already get more salmon than everybody else. “In reality, the drift fleet gets first opportunity at the fish,” said Matanuska-Susitna Fish and Game Advisory Committee chairman Andy Couch in the committee March 1. “… They have to swim through the area the drift fleet is in. (The drifters) get to use more net than everybody else, they can move up and down through 60 miles of the inlet, and if you look at their harvests, they are the user group that harvests the most sockeye salmon, the most coho salmon, the most chum salmon, the most pink salmon.” The board was torn 4-3 on the amended proposal, with board members Israel Payton, Reed Morisky and Al Cain voting against it. The final accepted proposal was an amendment by board member Robert Ruffner, which offered significantly fewer liberalizations to the drift fleet than the original proposal. Still, discussion over the nature of the reallocation went back and forth. Payton said providing more fish to the drift fleet was reallocating them away from the Mat-Su sportfishermen, the Northern Cook Inlet district setnetters, the Fish Creek personal-use fishery and from subsistence users further up in the northern Cook Inlet drainages. Morisky referenced a discussion from the Lower Cook Inlet meeting in Homer over whether to liberalize fishing regulations on the winter king salmon fishery in Kachemak Bay, saying that Cook Inlet’s salmon fishery was fully allocated already. “There’s talk about whose fish that might be, and some of the same folks that are saying we need a little bit more, we need a little bit less, they are someone else’s fish,” he said. “This is a fully allocated fishery, and I believe the current management plan fairly allocates the fishery at this present time.” In answer to a question from Ruffner, commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields estimated that if the opener were district-wide rather than restricted to a section of the inlet, the coho harvest might increase by between 2,500 and 5,000 fish. If the sockeye run is late, it could also coincide with an on-time coho run, which could increase harvest on coho, said commercial fisheries salmon and herring management coordinator Tim Baker, in answer to a question from the board. Board chairman John Jensen and member Sue Jeffrey said they thought it was fair to offer the commercial fishermen more time. Jeffrey said the commercial fishermen had harvested the coho runs in the past and the board should review regulations that have only been in place for a relatively short time. Jensen said he would have liked to see more time given to the commercial fishery but he supported what he called “a minuscule change.” “It will allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up,” he said. “… (Commercial guides) are trying to make a living off the fish, the commercial guys are trying to make a living off the fish, and we’re still trying to provide opportunities for those people who want to go out and catch their dinner.” Because board member Orville Huntington had to leave briefly, the board suspended deliberations on drift gillnet fishery issues and picked up committee discussions on Northern Cook Inlet sportfishing issues and assorted commercial issues. The board will resume deliberations Friday morning. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board rewrites Kenai late-run king plan

After a day of heavy clashes and divided votes, the Board of Fisheries reformed late-run king salmon management on the Kenai River to loosen restrictions a little more for east side setnetters. The Board of Fisheries spent Tuesday afternoon painstakingly, paragraph by paragraph, going through the management plan for the Kenai River’s late-run king salmon. Under the current management regime, a lot rides on the escapement numbers of late-run kings, both in the sportfishery and the commercial setnet fishery. At the 2014 meeting, after a disastrously low king return in the 2012 season slammed the season closed on the setnet fishery and heavily restricted the inriver sport fishery, the board passed corresponding restrictions on the sport fishery and the setnet fishery based on king escapements. The restrictions, known as paired restrictions, were billed as sharing of the burden of conservation, though setnetters say they unfairly places the burden on them while the sportfishery still gets to operate while they are closed. With a full suite of proposals that tinkered with various aspects of the plan, three days packed with public comment and a full day behind schedule, the board tackled the issue with a bare-bones document with amendments composed by board member Israel Payton, drawing from suggestions from the public and Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff. On the chopping block were three major issues: the conversion of the current all-fish goal to Fish and Game’s big fish goal, the restrictions to the sport and commercial fisheries based on a run trigger point and the level of parity in the paired restrictions. “We set these management plans and we change them over years,” Payton said. “… Through committee of the whole, we heard various things from various users, and yes, this plan may need some tweaking.” The cry from the commercial fisheries has been “let the managers manage,” meaning for the board to take prescriptive management measures off. The sportfishing advocates have said the paired restrictions only kick into effect during years of low king salmon abundance, which aren’t every year, so they do provide for parity. The board spent its entire afternoon tinkering with aspects of the plan, primarily targeted at whether to relax some restrictions on the commercial fishery. One of the biggest struggles was over whether to make changes to the paired restrictions, which board member Sue Jeffrey proposed as a way to answer the complaints from the commercial setnetters. “I think we’ve heard so far throughout this meeting that paired restrictions are anything but parity,” she said. “… I think that we are in a new regime. This is a reason to change, because we are talking about counting large kings now, which has an effect on the sockeye fishery that is going on at the same time. This is reasonable because we have two runs, two different fisheries taking place at the same time.” Jimmying from the two user groups also played a role. During the midday break, two proposed amendments — one from a group of east side setnetters, the other from the sportfishing group Kenai River Sportfishing Association — were submitted, with the only significant difference coming in the restrictions to the setnet fishery. Early on in the discussion, the board decided to tackle a number of the issues in one go. They voted to drop the trigger number, which has been set at 22,500 and would have been adjusted to account for the new large fish goal, which is between 13,500 and 27,000 late-run kings. The trigger sets off restrictions to both the sportfishery and the commercial fishery, and removing it allows the board to make the call based on wehther it will make its escapement. Sportfish area management coordinator Tom Vania said removing the trigger would allow the department to react to a variety of different circumstances, depending on harvest and on the run size. More contentious was the debate over whether to remove or change the paired restrictions. Jeffrey proposed an amendment to introduce time allowances based on run size, similar to the Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon management plan, with tiers based on projected escapement. Director of the Division of Sport Fish Tom Brookover said the division was concerned that if more time were added, based on additional harvest of king salmon, staff would be more likely to restrict to no bait on the sportfishery, which would trigger additional restrictions on the setnet fishery. “I think the effect would be that we would be under these restrictions in more run size scenarios than we would be currently,” he said. With that in mind, and information that the setnet fishery harvests approximately 150 large kings per day, Jeffrey said she wouldn’t support adding the tiers. The motion failed, and the time allowances stayed in place there. However, the board did vote to change the hour allowances for setnets in three circumstances. When the sportfishery is at no bait, the board adjusted the hours available from 36 to 48, which is less than board members Robert Ruffner, Orville Huntington, Jeffrey and board chair John Jensen said they would like, but they were willing to compromise. The board also increased the number of setnet fishing hours available when the sportfishery is at catch-and-release from 12 to 24, essentially restoring two 12-hour fishing periods. Finally, they repealed hour restrictions to the setnet fishery in August, after the sportfishery was closed, while it previously was set by triggers based on projected escapements. The board passed the plan as amended 7-0. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board loosens some season restrictions on setnetters

Upper Cook Inlet’s east side setnetters may get more fishing time next season. The Board of Fisheries passed two proposals Feb. 28 that relaxed some of the season restrictions on the east side set gillnet fishery, which operates in two sections between Ninilchik and Nikiski. The result is that fishermen may get an extra week in August and a subset of fishermen in North Kalifornsky Beach may get a few extra days in July. The first proposal, the more controversial of the two, moved back the effective date for the one percent rule. The rule, applied separately to the Kasilof section and the Kenai section, automatically closed the fisheries when less than one percent of the season’s total sockeye harvest is taken in two consecutive periods after Aug. 1. Commercial fishermen argued that the rule was not based on science and prevented them from harvesting leftover sockeye and pink salmon, contributing to overescapement. Sportfishing advocates argued that the rule protects coho salmon stocks, which overlap with the sockeye run and are managed primarily for sport use. In a 4-3 vote, the board moved back the rule’s effective date from Aug. 1 to Aug. 7. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game retains its emergency order authority to close the fishery before then. Board member Sue Jeffrey amended the original proposal, which eliminated the one percent rule entirely, to simply move back the effective date. She said it fit within allocation criteria and was a matter of opportunity. “What this would provide is opportunity for those who fish who are locals who want to harvest this amount of sockeye … it’s not going to be the whole fleet here,” she said. “It would just be a scaled down amount of people and it would benefit the processors and those who want to harvest the pinks and the sockeye.” Most of the concern surrounding the proposal was for coho stocks. Setnetters are allowed to harvest any type of Pacific salmon under their Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits, but coho are primarily harvested by sportfishermen in Cook Inlet. Fish and Game staff estimated at the Tuesday meeting that about 3 percent of the coho harvest is taken by commercial fishermen. There hasn’t been a definitive study about coho harvest and migration on the Kenai River since 2004, said area sportfish research biologist Robert Begich. Biologists estimate current total harvest and exploitation rate in the middle to high 50 percentile range. King salmon are also still moving into the Kenai River at the time settnetters stand to gain — the department typically stops counting kings around Aug. 19 or 20. About 16 percent of the run typically comes in after Aug. 1, Begich said. Board member Reed Morisky said due to the concern about kings and coho, he supported the status quo for the one percent rule. “I believe there’s fishing enough for everyone in the current one percent scenario,” he said. Board chairman John Jensen said additional openings at the end of a commercial fishing season can help fishermen break even on a season after paying their bills, and moving back the rule would effectively only give the fishermen two additional 12-hour fishing periods in the season. That still leaves a lot of hours for coho to escape into the river, he said. Jensen also said the balance between the fisheries is important to the economy of Upper Cook Inlet and that he supports the change. “Our job … is to keep the salmon populations healthy, and second, to provide opportunity, and then we divide allocation,” he said. “What we’re doing here is a small change but I think it’s a good change.” Changing the date of the one percent rule also has implications for the drift gillnet fleet. They operate under their own version of the one percent rule, but if both the Kenai and Kasilof sections are closed, drifters are pushed to only the western side of Cook Inlet. The board also passed a proposal allowing managers to open the setnet fishery on North Kalifornsky Beach on July 8 in accordance with openings from the Kasilof section, even when the Kenai and East Foreland sections are not open. The area is technically part of the Kenai section. Proposer Gary Hollier, who operates a setnet site in the North K-Beach area, said the area lost fishing time at the 1999 Board of Fisheries meeting and he has proposed the same change ever since. He also included a stipulation in his original proposal that would require all nets to be limited to 29 meshes deep. Although it’s not required by regulation, Hollier has long been a proponent of cutting net depth to allow king salmon to pass beneath, as it is commonly thought that kings swim deeper than sockeye. The goal was primarily to give North K-Beach setnet fishermen a chance to harvest more Kasilof sockeye, which circle north and pass along the beach back southward to enter the Kasilof River. However, the board removed the 29-mesh depth requirement, allowing for all gear lengths to be used, before passing the proposal. Fish and Game didn’t have enough data to quantify if reducing net depth would decrease king salmon harvest, according to the staff comments. Setnet fishermen who stack permits — the term for one person having and operating multiple limited entry permits under one name — are restricted to 29 mesh-deep nets on the second permit anyway, under regulations that were passed in 2014. Hollier said stacked permits may be common in the area, with nine families owning about 45 permits. One of the main reasons board members Robert Ruffner and Al Cain supported the proposal was because of concerns over the use of the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area. The one-mile square area near the mouth of the Kasilof River that is a last-ditch mechanism to help prevent overescapement of sockeye, puts a large number of commercial fishermen into a small area and can lead to gear and user conflicts. In answer to a question, commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields said it was hard to quantify whether passing the proposal would help reduce the use of the special harvest area, but it could. The board passed the proposal 6-1, with Morisky voting against. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board of Fisheries revises sockeye goals for Kenai River

Significantly behind schedule and deep into the mathematical weeds, the Board of Fisheries spent most of its first day of deliberations on one proposal to amend the escapement goals for Kenai River late-run sockeye. The proposal, submitted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, asked the board to review the optimum escapement goal and inriver goal on the river for the late run of sockeye salmon. After several hours of discussion and back-and-forth amendments, the board passed a proposal eliminating the optimum escapement goal and increasing the ceiling of two of the inriver goal tiers. The final language was intended as a compromise between sportfishing and commercial groups, from an amendment authored by board member Robert Ruffner. Commercial groups sought to eliminate the optimum escapement goal, saying it was redundant to the sustainable escapement goal, while sportfishing groups said it allowed managers flexibility during years of extremely large returns. “One of the things that was in (the original proposal) was trying to manage for multiple goals,” Ruffner said. “One of the first steps was removing the OEG … the second point that I thought was increasing the upper end of the inriver goal.” As adopted, the river will now be managed under a sustainable escapement goal of 700,000 to 1.2 million sockeye salmon and inriver goal with three tiers, based on the total projected run. The bottom tier, when total runs are projected less than 2.3 million fish, will remain the same. The middle tier, when the total run is projected between 2.3 million and 4.6 million, will now be managed for between 1 million and 1.3 million fish. The upper tier, when runs are projected to be greater than 4.6 million fish, will now be managed for 1.3 million to 1.5 million fish. Ruffner said his intent in eliminating the optimum escapement goal was to simplify the management. Many people, both on the board and in the public, expressed concern about the complexity of the Kenai River’s escapement management during public comment and committee discussions. In answer to a question from Ruffner, Fish and Game staff said it would be easier for them to manage within the now broader range. Commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields said the effect could be that when the managers are within the middle tier, the sportfishery allocation could increase by 100,000 fish, and 150,000 when in the upper tier. Confusion over the mathematical and technical aspects of the escapement goals pervaded the day. The interlocking management of the Cook Inlet fisheries means that changes to the sockeye salmon management plan will lead to effects not only on the sportfishery but also on the drift gillnet and setnet fisheries and the personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the Kenai River. During the long breaks Monday, multiple groups brought language to amend the original language. The Kenai River Professional Guides Association submitted a possible amendment asking for a regulation automatically increasing the bag limit when the run is projected to exceed 4.6 million fish, but the board did not address it. The Kenai River Sportfishing Association submitted a substitute to raise the inriver goal tier levels but leave the optimum escapement goal in place if runs were projected to exceed 6 million fish, increased from the 4.6 million fish trigger. Board member Reed Morisky moved to make an amendment similar to KRSA’s suggested amendment, leaving the optimum escapement goal in place, but later withdrew it. The only concern from the board was eliminating the optimum escapement goal. During initial discussion, board member Israel Payton said he was hesitant to eliminate it because of concerns for northern stocks like the Susitna River sockeye salmon, but later said it made him more comfortable and didn’t support Morisky’s amendment. “I think we’ve heard a common theme to simplify (management),” he said. Kenai River Sportfishing Association fisheries consultant Kevin Delaney said after the meeting that the inriver goal increase doesn’t technically increase the allocation — it only acknowledges that the sportfishery is bigger than it used to be, and allowing for the broader range is both easier to manage for and ensures that the managers will be able to meet their sustainable escapement goal after the inriver fishery harvest. With the potential for more fish allowed into the river with higher goals, Ruffner said the board will carefully watch the potential for increased habitat damage because sockeye are bank oriented and most people angle from riverbanks to target them. However, the commercial fishermen didn’t get their half of the compromise, which was the elimination of the mandatory Tuesday closure, known as a window. Ruffner attempted to amend a proposal that would eliminate both the Tuesday and Friday windows to only eliminate the Tuesday window, citing concerns from the public. Board member Sue Jeffrey supported it, saying it fit the allocation criteria. However, Payton and Morisky opposed it, saying the windows provided reliability for the sportfishery and personal-use fishery, allowing more sockeye to pass by the commercial nets to make into the river. Ruffner argued that it was fair, in light of the now-increased inriver goal. He also said it would help decrease the use of the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area, a one-mile square area at the mouth of the Kasilof River, to control sockeye escapement into the river. When used, the area can get extremely crowded and has risks for king salmon also headed for the river, he said. “We’re still going to manage for escapement goals, and in light of the fact that we just increased the inriver allocation by a fairly significant amount, that’s (my reasoning),” he said. East side setnetter Joseph Person said the intention was that the inriver fishery would get a slightly increased allocation in exchange for the elimination of one of the two windows. However, the proposal to eliminate the Tuesday window failed on a 3-4 vote, with chairman John Jensen, Ruffner and Jeffrey supporting it. The board concluded deliberations before taking on any additional setnet proposals. They were set to take up proposals related to the one percent rule in the setnet fishery Tuesday morning. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Proposals would change dipnet fishery area, season

KENAI — Like most fisheries issues in Upper Cook Inlet, there’s a lot of disagreement about what to do with the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery. The fishery, which takes place every July 10–31, is the most popular of its kind in the state. Thousands of Alaskans jump into boats and flock to the Kenai River’s north and south beaches to get a shot at the sockeye salmon that return to the river every year, harvesting some 259,057 sockeye in 2016, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. However, the push and pull of allocation battles, safety issues and habitat damage may herald some changes for the fishery in the upcoming Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting. Some proposals ask the board to set more limits on the fishery. Others ask for liberalization of time and space. The board will take up and discuss all the proposals at its meeting in Anchorage from Feb. 23-March 8. Two proposals ask for the dipnet fishery to be extended into August — one from a private citizen and the other from the sportfishing, trapping and hunting advocacy group the Alaska Outdoor Council. The citizen, Ronald Jordan, wrote that the dipnet fishery would be safer if it were extended to the second Sunday in August; the Alaska Outdoor Council wrote that extending the fishery through Aug. 10 when the sonar estimate is projected to pass 1.2 million sockeye would allow more opportunity for anglers and dipnetters. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, lent his support to extending the season with a letter to the Board of Fisheries, dated Feb. 2. He urged people to send comments to the Board of Fisheries about dipnet timing issues before the meeting in February. His comments make the argument that because sockeye salmon are arriving later and the commercial fleet is allowed by regulation to fish until Aug. 15, the dipnetters are unfairly shorted a shot at the sockeye. It should still be executed to protect silver salmon runs, though, which intersect with the tail end of the sockeye runs, he wrote. “The commercial fishery is important to Alaskan families, as is the personal-use fishery, and leaving the latter open does not materially impact commercial fishermen,” Gara wrote. “Rather, this policy change would reflect the reality of later fish runs, entering the river after the July 31 closure.” Extending the dipnet fishery would also impact the City of Kenai, as it is responsible for cleaning and patrolling the beaches and the section of the river between the Warren Ames Bridge and the mouth. In comments on the Alaska Outdoor Council’s proposal, City Manager Paul Ostrander wrote that the city opposes the proposal because reopening the fishery would require the city to re-establish some of the amenities and services supporting it, which would be expensive. “Additionally, it is likely that participation during the first 10 days of August would be lower, resulting in lower revenues to the City from participant fees without a commensurate reduction in costs,” he wrote. Gara wrote in his letter to the Board of Fisheries that should the proposal pass, it should include proper notification to the city. Four proposals ask for changes to the boundaries of the Kenai River dipnet fishery. Three would expand or change the boundaries, and one would cut back on shore access. Fish and Game submitted a proposal to close the banks of the river between No Name Creek and the Warren Ames Bridge to shore-based dipnetting because of habitat damage. If the board adopts the proposal as it’s written, dipnetters would only be able to fish from a boat unless they were on the north and south beaches of the Kenai River’s mouth, both of which have entry fees administered by the City of Kenai. Included in the closure would be a number of private homes along the riverbank just downstream of the bridge. Those property owners would no longer be able to fish from their own property under the closure, Ostrander wrote in the city’s comments. Instead, the city proposed the closure only stretch between the bridge and a line just upstream of the first property. “If the city’s proposed amendment is adopted, (the proposal) will still accomplish its primary objectives of protecting the sensitive vegetated tide land area on the north and south shores of the river in the area immediately below Warren Ames bridge and eliminating overcrowding issues at the Kenai Flats Day Use Area,” he wrote. The city was less amenable to a proposal from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association to extend the dipnet fishery from boats up to Cunningham Park, about another 1.5 miles up the river. Extending the fishery would help reduce crowding for dipnetting boats elsewhere, the proposal states. The City of Kenai “strongly opposes” the proposal, according to its comments. It would increase impacts to property owners in the area, including boat wake, noise and trespassing, and could create crowding and facility capacity issues at Cunningham Park, which is currently a popular bank angling spot. The city would be have to institute fees there to cover the additional costs, Ostrander wrote.

Setnetters seek looser restrictions from fish board

KENAI — Some east side Cook Inlet setnetters want the Board of Fisheries to loosen some of the regulations it has adopted over the years restricting the fishery. On the Kenai Peninsula, which is connected by road to the most populated areas of Alaska, user conflicts between commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries are common. The regulatory meetings before the Board of Fisheries are often contentious, with restrictions on one fishery resulting in additional allocation for another. In a set of proposals scheduled to go before the Board of Fisheries at its upcoming Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage Feb. 23-March 8, various groups and individuals have asked for broad changes to the setnetting restrictions in the Upper Subdistrict, which includes the Kenai and Kasilof sections. One percent rule One change requested in multiple proposals is the removal of the one-percent rule for setnets. The rule states that if less than one percent of the total harvest of sockeye is taken for two consecutive fishing periods after Aug. 1, the fishery must be closed for the season. Without the rule, the fishery would be managed with regular periods until Aug. 15. The rule was originally intended to allow coho salmon to move up the rivers for sport fishing harvests, as coho salmon begin migrating into the Kenai Peninsula’s rivers around August and continue through September and October. Some setnetters feel that it unfairly curtails the season without much benefit for coho salmon — three separate proposals were submitted for the Upper Cook Inlet meeting, all asking for essentially the same thing. The Central Peninsula Fish and Game Advisory Committee, a citizen board composed of multiple user groups from the Kenai Peninsula between Kasilof and Anchor Point, would like to see the rule repealed. “The adoption of the one percent rule has no scientific or biological support,” the group’s proposal states. “It is not used statewide and was strictly an arbitrarily and capriciously implemented allocation regulation.” The restriction on the fishing in August causes too many fish to escape into the rivers because fishermen cannot harvest them, resulting in both economic losses for the fishermen and potentially damage to the fish population, the proposal states. The Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, a nonprofit group representing Kenai Peninsula setnetters, also asked for the Board of Fisheries to repeal the rule for similar reasons. The fishing periods in August are important for catching sockeye, and coho still have months to move up into the river after the mandatory season closure on Aug. 15, the proposal states. KPFA President Andy Hall, an east side setnetter who lives in Chugiak during the winter, said the effect varies based on where setnetters are based — setnetters in the Ninilchik and Kasilof areas fish earlier in the season than those in the K-Beach area, so the effect isn’t even across the fishery. Those in the northern part of the fishery can take a significant portion of their catch in August, which gets cut short under the one percent rule, he said. “This rule, it can put the brake on people fishing when they’re actually making money and we’re trying to take that unharvested surplus,” he said. “We feel like it doesn’t do a lot for anybody other than put us on the beach.” Openings and closings “Paired restrictions” have been one of the least popular regulations among setnetters since they were enacted in a board-generated proposal at the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage. The regulation sets up a stepped plan for openings based on king salmon escapement into the Kenai River — when more than 22,500 late-run king salmon are projected to enter the river, setnetters operate with regular openings. When the forecast is below that, the river opens with no bait and setnetters are restricted to no more than 36 hours per week. If the inriver fishery is restricted to catch-and-release, setnetters are restricted to one 12-hour period per week. Two proposals before the board would do away with paired restrictions. One, from the Central Peninsula AC, would modify the Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan and the Kasilof River Salmon Management Plan to return setnetters to fishing regular periods, with additional openings or restrictions issued by emergency order. In its rationale, the advisory committee wrote that the proposal would allow the managers to manage for abundance better than they currently can. “This proposal will give the (biologists) the flexibility and proven tools to perform in-season real-time abundance based management and to be effective in achieving the escapement goals and to harvest the salmon surplus,” the group wrote. “This proposal also seeks to provide a reasonable opportunity for all harvesters and to provide adequate protection for northern bound and central district salmon stocks.” Joseph Person, who setnets near Kasilof and serves on the KPFA board, submitted a proposal to modify the paired restrictions to alter the pairings if they are not disposed of altogether. His proposal would change the pairings, allowing the setnetters to fish regular periods if the river starts with no bait and reducing the fishing periods to 36 hours per week if the inriver fishery goes to no bait, he said. The regular openings are important for efficiently fishing, he said. The 36 hours is manageable, but the 12-hour weekly opening paired restriction — which has not been implemented yet — would be a huge problem, he said.” “I personally value those regular openings,” he said. “… 36 hours is a reasonable amount of opportunity anyway. The big deal is the next step … that becomes a fishery that is not really manageable for anybody. It’s a big deal when you have 12 hours for everybody.” Tod Smith, a KPFA alternate board member and setnetter who worked on the proposal with Person, said the proposal would set no-bait as the normal opening restriction for the king salmon fishery on the river and for the setnetters. “Basically, our view is that no bait should be a normal setting, bait should be liberalization,” he said. “If there are paired restrictions, that’s how they should be done.” Person also submitted a proposal asking the Board of Fisheries to redefine the Upper Subdistrict into three areas — grouping Salamatof and East Forelands together, North and South Kalifornsky Beach together and Ninilchik and Coho together — with staggered opening dates. Creating three sections would allow for more flexible management based on the run timing of fish in those areas, he wrote. Setnetter Gary Hollier, whose sites are in the North K-Beach area, submitted a proposal asking the Board of Fisheries to open the North K-Beach section with shallow nets only when the Kasilof Section is open on or after July 8. The North K-Beach fishermen don’t have enough opportunity right now to harvest Kasilof sockeye salmon, although they traditionally have, he wrote. Opening the North K-Beach section up at the same time would allow the two sections a little more equity, he said. “We’re looking for a little bit of time and opportunity,” he said. Net depth Two proposals also address depth and length of nets for setnets. In recent years, research has shown that king salmon tend to swim deeper than sockeye salmon, so shallower nets would be less likely to catch as many king salmon as deeper nets. One proposal, submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, would require all setnets in the Upper Subdistrict to be limited to 29 meshes deep. The purpose is to limit setnet harvest of king salmon as much as possible, according to the proposal. “Research conducted at the request of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and widespread experience of setnet fishermen both demonstrate that fishing with shallower setnet gear will more selectively harvest large numbers of sockeye with reduced harvest of king salmon,” the proposal states. Hollier has long been an advocate of cutting net length to reduce king salmon harvest. The reason is simple economics, he said. “I’m in the business to make money, not lose money,” he said. “Bottom line is, if we don’t make king salmon goals, then we don’t fish.” He submitted a proposal that would allow setnets no more than 29 meshes deep to be up to 45 fathoms long, adding back a little bit of the lost gear in depth to the length. It’s still about 17 percent less gear in the water than the current regulation, he wrote in the proposal. Some fishermen have chosen not to cut down their gear depth, but some have adapted. Allowing them to add back length may help incentivize them to switch to shallower gear, he said. “I’d say if it works, and people have the option to do that, let them do that,” he said. “… I don’t think it should be mandatory for everybody.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Governor's budget would cut DOT jobs

The proposed cuts in Gov. Bill Walker’s fiscal year 2018 budget would fall heavily across the state, including broad reductions to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ design department. The $4.2 billion draft budget released Dec. 15 would cut 76 positions from the department, primarily engineers, interns and other staff from the internal design division. The cuts are part of an “aggressive plan” to transition the design of more DOT construction projects to private contractors, according to the budget detail. Shifting to private contractors would help leverage more federal dollars for transportation projects, according to the budget detail. “The department will increase work to the private sector while shrinking internal design staff,” the budget detail states. “This has the added advantage of bolstering the private sector economy. By operating with more contract staff and fewer in-house engineering staff, the department will balance public and private sector specialized expertise and be able to quickly scale up and scale down based on available funding.” The plan comes in response to a directive from the administration, said Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the DOT commissioner’s office. It’s also not the last reduction — part of the plan calls for the reduction of up to 300 additional positions in the fiscal year 2019 budget, he said. Not all the cuts are strictly related to design — they include the work on right-of-ways and other pre-construction work, Woodrow said. It isn’t clear at present how many positions could be cut, which is why the language included “up to” 300, he said. “There are some things the department is going to be working on with the Legislature and the administration over this session and over the coming months,” he said. Private contractors already do about 55 percent of all the department’s design work. The goal is to get 100 percent of it to be done by private contractors by fiscal year 2019, according to the budget detail. “Department of Transportation positions that remain after this initiative will be responsible for project management and contractor oversight as opposed to hands-on engineering work,” the budget detail states. The savings are still uncertain because the funds that would be saved by eliminating employees would be transferred to use for private contractors, said Pat Pitney, director of the governor’s Office of Management and Budget. The goal is to see if savings may come from using private contractors rather than in-house work, she said. “The savings is efficiencies,” she said. “Can we get more dollars for the products that we have? The funding is the same. Can we get more projects if we get more federal matching?” Going out to contractors for design work also offers a wider range of expertise and viewpoints, Pitney said. There are two unions represented in the positions that would be eliminated, so the state will have to complete a feasibility study to look at the effects, Woodrow said. Pitney said there will be “an expectation” that the state complete one, but said it would not have to be done beforehand. She said she isn’t sure if the state had gotten to the point where it had to do a similar feasibility study before, though if the state decides to privatize the Alaska Pioneer Homes — a debate currently going on — that will also require a feasibility study. Most of the jobs proposed for elimination are in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks, the headquarters for DOT’s three regions, though a few are in outlying areas like Sitka and Kodiak. Woodrow said the department would work on finding answers for some of the uncertainties. “Bottom line is, this is an aggressive policy, we have the directive from the administration to work forward toward it,” he said. “But there’s a lot of unanswered questions that will be worked out in the coming months.” DOT, the third largest employer in the state, has already gone through significant budget cuts. Budget reductions have led to the closures of maintenance stations, the staggering of road maintenance and rounds of layoffs. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]  

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