Molly Dischner

Copper River crash will cost commercial fishermen millions

Copper River sockeye fishermen are facing historic low returns this year, prompting some commercial fisherman to target other species elsewhere in Prince William Sound, and leaving others waiting onshore in what is usually a profitable fishery to the tune of $15 million or more in ex-vessel value. Through mid-June, the commercial Copper River District drift gillnet fishery had landed just less than 26,000 sockeye salmon and a little more than 7,000 kings during three mid-May fishing periods. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had expected a harvest this summer of nearly 1 million sockeye in the district, and about 13,000 kings. As the harvest stands now, it’s the second-lowest in the past 50 years. The Copper River fish typically fetch a premium price as the first of the season, and this year was no exception, with prices as high as $75 per pound for kings at the Pike’s Place market in Seattle after the May 17 season-opening period. But the district hasn’t re-opened after the first three periods because the sockeye returns are so poor, so the final value is likely to be far lower than the $20 million-plus the fishery often nets. ADFG Area Management Biologist Jeremy Botz said it would take a significant improvement for the fishery to re-open. “(There’s) not anything to support a commercial fishery at this time,” he said on June 19. Botz said there’s a chance the commercial fishery could re-open if the numbers improved, but that wasn’t looking likely in the near-term. Typically, the sockeye fishery winds down in late July. Coho management begins Aug. 15, and Botz said that should be unaffected by the slow sockeye run. Before the season began, the ADFG forecast noted that the wild sockeye and king returns to Copper River were expected to be smaller than in years past, with a total sockeye run predicted to come in about 16 percent below the 10-year average, and a chinook run estimated at 4 percent below the average. Through June 19, the sonar counter that is about 70 miles downstream of the popular Chitna dipnet fishery had counted just above 243,000 fish, with slow daily counts. The in-river goal past the sonar this year is 644,000 to 1.03 million salmon. The low end of the escapement goal is 360,000 sockeyes. Botz said it is still possible to meet that goal, but it will depend how the rest of the run shapes up. The count so far is about the eighth-lowest on record, Botz said. The department also does an aerial survey count on the Copper River Delta, which was well below the anticipated range, too. Re-opening the fishery would depend both on the aerial survey numbers, and the sonar count, Botz said. The low numbers have meant restrictions for the in-river fisheries too, not just the commercial side. The department has closed the popular personal use fishery at Chitna, as well as sportfishing in-river. The run does look close enough to meeting its escapement goals that the department has offered some subsistence fishing time, Botz noted. Ocean conditions impacting size, run strength The fish that are showing up also aren’t as big as they used to be. “Overall, the average weight has continued to remain down,” Botz said. That was seen in the first few commercial openings, and continues to be the case for the subsistence fishery, he said. Botz said this is about the fourth year in a row of small sockeye in the Copper River. In 2015 and 2016, the average weight was down to about 5 pounds. Last year, it increased slightly, to 5.5 pounds, still far smaller than the typical size, which is typically more than 6 pounds. Botz said there are several theories about what is causing the smaller fish, which have also been seen in other parts of the state in the last few years, but some things are certain. “The smaller size-at-age, there’s definitely some competition or shortage of food out at the ocean,” he said. It’s hard to say exactly what causes poor fish runs, but Botz said it’s likely that ocean conditions play a role, including warmer ocean temperatures caused by the “Blob” of warm water that moved into the Gulf of Alaska in 2015 and 2016. He noted that although there were some large escapements in the years producing the current sockeye run, the large number of stocks in the Copper River system typically mitigate any big impact coming from a large escapement. “Overall, the bigger driver is out in the ocean,” Botz said. Small run, lean earnings The Copper River isn’t the only struggling fishery in Alaska this summer. By mid-June, the returns in Kodiak were weak as well, and several king fisheries were shut down around the state including the early run of Kenai king salmon. Staff for Gov. Bill Walker did not respond to a question about whether he was likely to seek a disaster declaration for the Copper River fishery, or any other shortcomings in the state. More often, that happens after the season is over. The high Copper River prices could help mitigate some of the economic impact of the shutdown, but not all. Copper River drifters typically harvest 60 to 70 percent of total Prince William Sound drift-harvest of sockeye each year, and take home a slightly larger proportion of the drift sockeye fishery’s ex-vessel value, because the Copper River and Bering districts typically fetch a better price per pound than the rest of the sockeye caught by PWS drifters. In 2016, they landed 1.1 million sockeye out of a total 1.6 million for all Prince William Sound drift fisheries, worth about $13.3 million at the average price for that district of $2.30 per pound. That was then considered a relatively lean year for the fishery, but 2018 is unlikely to match it. Botz said many fisherman are also fishing elsewhere in Prince William Sound since they can’t fish the Copper River district, the western Prince William Sound enhanced chum and sockeye fisheries are seeing the biggest uptick in effort. “Most folks, even folks that don’t typically go over to the westside, are over there this year,” he said, noting that just a few “die-hard” Copper River drifters are waiting in Cordova to see if their favorite fishery re-opens. But that won’t completely offset the losses fishermen face from the slow year in what Botz said is “normally a reliable fishery.” The only comparable years were 1979, when the fishery shut down after just a few periods, and 1980 when it was pre-emptively closed. “Now it’s kinda wait and see if we see some improvements here,” Botz said in June.

Halibut fishery poised to open as NMFS works on 2018 catch limits

Alaska’s halibut fishery is set to open this month, but the final quota was still not completely set as of March 14, even as fishermen began to receive permits in the mail. Indications, however, are that the quota will decrease this year compared to last. Under regulations published by the National Marine Fisheries Service this month, the fishery will open March 24 and run through Nov. 7. But the total catch limits remain unknown. That’s because this year, for just the second time in the commission’s history that dates to its creation by a 1923 treaty, the International Pacific Halibut Commission could not come to an agreement about the 2018 catch limits at its annual meeting. That leaves it up to regulatory bodies in each country to determine the limits instead. Halibut Coalition Executive Director Tom Gemmell said he expects the quota to decrease by about 15 percent overall compared to 2017, when Alaskan fishermen had their total statewide quota set at about 22.62 million pounds. In 2017, and for a few years prior, the quota had increased slightly after nearly a decade of annual cuts totaling more than 70 percent from mid-2000 highs. The halibut commission is the six-member body (three each from the U.S. and Canada) charged with regulating the halibut fishery from Northern California to the Bering Sea under the international Pacific halibut treaty, including setting the catch limit each year. The IPHC meets each January and decides on the coastwide halibut catch limits, based on input from staff scientists. But this past January, at its annual meeting in Portland, the commission was not able to come to an agreement on the 2018 limits. Gemmell said the lack of agreement was not entirely surprising. “Last year, the commission was not unanimous about the quota,” he explained, which sort of foreshadowed future disagreements. Until new catch limits are published, the 2017 limits remain in effect. But the IPHC did agree unanimously that those limits were too liberal, and that the resource needs more protection, said Kurt Iverson of the NMFS Alaska Region Sustainable Fisheries Division. “The U.S. and Canada unanimously agreed that catch limits should be lower in 2018,” Iverson said. The two countries couldn’t, however, agree on how much lower to set the coastwide limit, or how to split it up between regions. Gemmell said there have been a few sticking points in the two countries negotiations over the past few years. One is that the Canadians have advocated for more quota for British Columbia fishermen than the stock assessment model appears to support. The other is the level of cuts for Area 3A, which encompasses much of the Central Gulf of Alaska. Canadians have favored larger cuts there than Americans, Gemmell said. Without new IPHC limits for 2018, the 2017 limits remain in place. But under the terms of the halibut treaty, NMFS has the authority to set its own regulations as long as they are not in conflict with those set by the commission, an option NMFS is exercising this year to meet the commission’s recommendation of a reduction. “Carrying the 2017 catch limits forward would not serve conservation purposes,” Iverson said, although those limits will remain in place until 2018 limits are published. This month, the federal agency published season dates and some other regulatory changes for the coming fishing season. The interim final rule with new 2018 catch limits was expected to be published soon, Gemmell said in mid-March. “The season opens March 24. There’s a really high probability that the rule is going to be out before then,” he said. Iverson agreed. “It is right now in the process. It is under review,” he said. “… We’re targeting before that first opening.” Typically, once the IPHC makes its recommendations on the annual catch limits, NMFS is able to publish those through a “pretty fast track” process, Gemmell said. Without that fast-track, the regulatory process is much more difficult. But NMFS appeared to be working to quickly get the fishery going despite the challenging winter, Gemmell said. “People are getting their permits in the mail starting today,” Gemmell said on March 13. “…It’s all kind of falling into place now.” In setting the 2018 limits, NMFS had some help from the commission staff, which provided an update on the halibut stock status as part of its meeting this fall, and also from the American commissioners specifically, who made a recommendation for some specific 2018 catch limits that were lower than the 2017 limits. The American commissioners suggested a catch limit of about 4.5 million pounds in Area 2C, which encompasses Southeast Alaska, and a limit of 9.5 million pounds in Area 3A. Those are both reductions from 2017, and include the combined charter-commercial catch. This likely won’t be the only year of cuts. In addition to its commissioners, which are appointed by each nation, the IPHC has staff scientists responsible for assessing the status of the halibut stock and determining what it will likely be in the future. This past year, the assessments showed a weaker stock. Both the halibut survey out in the ocean, and the review of fishermen’s catch per unit effort, appeared to show that decline. “There’s a couple year classes that aren’t showing up as strong as we’d like ‘em to be. So its probable that the quota is going to go down again (in 2019),” Gemmell said. The commission also regulates other components of the halibut fishery, including the season dates. Those were set as usual, and the commission also approved some other minor regulatory changes. They did not approve the catch share allocations or charter halibut management measures as usual, Iverson noted. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council recommends the charter management measures to keep the charter fleet within its allocation, and the IPHC typically adopts those as recommended. That did not happen this year. The IPHC is expected to meet in April to discuss its differences and how it might go forward in the future. Just who will represent the United States going forward is still unknown, however. Currently, the U.S. commissioners are NMFS Regional Administrator Jim Balsiger of Juneau, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Linda Behnken of Sitka and Washington’s Bob Alverson, from the Fishing Vessel Owners Association. Behnken’s and Alverson’s terms expire this month. But have said they would like to continue serving on the commission, but NMFS also solicited other possible appointees in February. According to the call for nominees, would-be commissioners are vetted by the Department of Commerce and Department of State and forwarded to the Office of the President for consideration for presidential appointments. Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet salmon plan back in front of federal council in April

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will continue its discussion of who should manage Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, and how, at its April meeting in Anchorage. The council is continuing court-ordered work to develop a federal fishery management plan, or FMP, for the salmon fisheries currently managed by the state in Cook Inlet, including creation of a new salmon management committee. From October 2017 to this February, the council solicited proposals regarding the membership of the new committee and the work it might do. Those are expected to be made public around March 16, and the council will discuss them at its April meeting in Anchorage. According to information provided by the council, the comment period generated 33 responses, 25 nominations or applications for participation on the new salmon committee. Those nominations won’t be considered right away, however. The council is also expected to issue the formal call for salmon committee members at the April meeting, and a decision on membership won’t come until after that comment period. The committee and other work to re-tool Cook Inlet salmon management all stems from a lawsuit brought by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, or UCIDA, that challenged the council decision in 2011 to formally remove the Cook Inlet, Alaska Peninsula and Prince William Sound salmon fisheries from the federal management plan. The council is now working to write a Cook Inlet management plan at the directive of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed a U.S. District Court of Alaska judge’s decision to dismiss UCIDA’s lawsuit in 2016. UCIDA’s suit asserted that federal managers should retain oversight of certain salmon fisheries currently managed by the State of Alaska to ensure it complies with the Magnuson-Stevens Act national standards. Those fisheries occur partially in federal waters but have historically managed by the state. The other areas of the state were not included in the federal order, and stakeholder groups from those regions have said they would prefer to largely remain under state management. Eventually, the council is expected to develop a management plan that addresses what Cook Inlet management work is delegated to the state, and how that delegation will work. Right now, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, largely based on escapement goals that requires day-to-day decision-making that proponents of the status quo have argued makes it an ill fit for federal management. ADFG monitors salmon harvests in the marine and freshwaters, operates weirs and sonars to count they fish as the swim upstream, and makes in-season management decisions to open or close fisheries based on that data. Plans devised by the state Board of Fisheries outline many of the tools and decisions ADFG managers can use, including setting some openings and closures, and limiting commercial nets and sportfishing gear. Federal managers have said the state’s ability to use in-season information to run the fishery is a primary reason why the authority has been delegated. Cook Inlet commercial fishermen, including those who brought the lawsuit forward, have protested some of the restrictions they faced under the state management system and decisions by the board. They’ve argued that some of the actions by the state managers and the board conflict with the Magnuson-Stevens Act standards such as attaining optimum yield and that plans lack accountability measures when standards aren’t met. The new salmon committee will have to consider how that management structure could change, and look at various options for management systems, including continuing to delegate management to ADFG or having federal fisheries managers handle it directly. The council will eventually also have to consider how other marine mammals are affected by any changes, and a staff report is expected to analyze how the West Coast arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service handles managing salmon fisheries there. According to a written update from NMFS Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger, the council will hear from NMFS regarding the scope of the new salmon committee, and receive a report from state and federal managers analyzing the proposals submitted for the new committee’s formation. The court is requiring updates every four months from NMFS on progress toward crafting the FMP. The council is also expected to hear from staff about how the Magnuson-Stevens Act applies the new management plan, and whether the management plan will apply to the sport and state-waters components of the fishery. In his most recent update to the court and stakeholders, Balsiger said state and federal scientists and other agency staff are working on putting together the information the council will need to develop status determination for Cook Inlet salmon stocks. Several Cook Inlet Northern District king salmon stocks as well as Susitna sockeye are currently listed as stocks of concern by the Board of Fisheries. Discussion of salmon management is supposed to begin on the first day of the upcoming council meeting, April 4, and there will be opportunity for public comment at the meeting. The council is also taking written public comments via its online portal through March 30. Attorneys’ fees dispute Although the council is working to develop the new management plan, the lawsuit is not completely resolved. Now, the parties involved are disputing who should pay attorneys’ fees. Plaintiffs UCIDA and the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund filed for reimbursement in October 2017, asking for the federal government to pay nearly $500,000 in attorneys’ fees, as well as the cost of an independent report reviewing the state’s use of escapement goals in commercial fisheries. The federal agency engaged in the lawsuit has disputed that they should pay them, and the issue has not yet been resolved. An updated March 2018 filing added more than $30,000 to the request for work in 2018, bringing the total to more than $540,000. ^ Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected]

Electronic monitoring rolling out in 2018 after years of work

Alaska fishermen will see changes to the mandatory observer program next year. After years of requests, testing and prepping, the National Marine Fisheries Service is rolling out a more-complete electronic monitoring program for small boat fishermen who are directed to have partial observer coverage as part of the 2018 observer program. Electronic Monitoring uses cameras and sensors to record and monitor fishing activities, and help ensure the accuracy of catch records. Normally, that work is done by human observers who are placed on fishing vessels. But when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved to put observers on smaller fishing vessels (those 60 feet or shorter) several years ago, to get a better sense of what was happening on those boats, captains said it could be problematic to take an extra person on their boats. It was difficult to find them space to sleep, keep them safe and out of the way while actually catching fish and bringing them onboard, and hard (or burdensomely expensive) to ensure that there was enough life raft capacity and safety gear for an extra person. Instead, they asked for a camera system. Developing such a system has taken several years, from the 2013 decision to restructure the observer program to see what was happening on smaller boats, to 2016, when 51 vessels participated in a pre-implementation program. The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, or ALFA, has been on the forefront of the push for electronic monitoring throughout that time. They’ve worked on testing and groundtruthing various iterations of EM, with help from grants and other organizations, and now the technology is ready for use at sea. ALFA’s Dan Falvey said he’s looking forward to seeing the program launch, but also hopes that more refinement occurs in the future. “There’s more work to be done to fully optimize the EM option that we have now,” Falvey said. The EM program is open for longliners and pot fishermen to opt-in through Nov. 1. So far, Falvey said close to 100 boats have signed up, out of a fleet of about 630 including both the small fixed gear and pot vessels. The program agreed to by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council would allow up to 165 boats to take on an approved EM system: 120 longliners and 45 pot boats. So far, the boats signed on come from across the Gulf of Alaska, including Homer, Kodiak, Southeast ports, and even Dutch Harbor and Sand Point. In mid-October, there was funding available for about 110 boats total, and Falvey said ALFA and others are working to find funding to pay for the systems on all 165 boats. Falvey said that optimum number is one thing he would like to see more work on in the future. The EM program relies on cameras, instead of human observers, which means that no biological data is collected. As a result, the program is limited in number, because the National Marine Fisheries Service wants some biological data collected. Falvey said he’s interested in seeing more work done to balance the need for that biological data, and the need for the electronic option. ALFA, which is based in Sitka, and the North Pacific Fisheries Association, based in Homer, were both involved in testing EM systems. The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission led much of that work, and companies that provide human observers were also involved. Throughout the process, cost was a major challenge. So was finding a way to make sure the camera accurately identified what was coming onboard. Previous iterations of EM required a human to go through all the tape, something that turned out to be too time-consuming to be practical. Now, all approved EM systems (captains have a choice of what to install on their boat, as long as it meets the National Marine Fisheries Service’s regulations) hit a certain standard for what can be ID’d by the cameras, Falvey explained. “Everybody’s pretty satisfied with the data quality,” he said. “…There is a vetting process that all the systems have to go through before deployment.” Alaska’s transition to EM comes as part of a nationwide push. While the Alaska fleet has been requesting it for years, the agency has also been working to implement it elsewhere. In 2016, then-NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Eileen Sobeck told fishermen that the agency had funded about 30 test programs in the past decade, and had successfully implemented some regional EM plans throughout the nation. When the North Pacific council approved the EM option for Alaska’s small-boat fishermen, the agency also set forth a plan for future work. An EM workgroup is expected to track the project through implementation, look at future cost efficiencies, review future research plans, and otherwise stay engaged in the growth and development of future EM options. The program is open to specific boats that are in the partial coverage category, and once they are in the pool of EM vessels, they will be randomly selected to have EM coverage on a particular fishing trip. Those trips will end with a tender delivery, unlike for those with human observers, who do not end their trips until they reach a port. The 2018 observer program also comes with some other changes. NMFS is expecting to have about 30 percent of the fleet that is in the partial coverage category observed next year, which is more than in the past.

Major crab harvests down again, Tanners reopen

Biologists had some less-than-stellar news about Alaska’s crab fisheries this month: surveys have shown that several species’ biomass have declined in the past year, although Tanner crab are on the rebound compared to past years. Last year, the big crab harvests — Bristol Bay red king crab, along with Tanner and snow crabs — were all cut, with Tanners closed completely, due to concerns about the amount showing up in surveys. So this year’s news was not out of the blue, and the reopening of the Tanner crab fishery was an upshot. The bottom line is that this year, unlike last, those three big crab fisheries will all open this year. But the quota for Bristol Bay red king crab and Bering Sea snow crab is down compared to the year prior. That’s all largely the result of the survey and modeling work during 2017, which was explained in detail at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council annual update in October. The season began Oct. 15. The council heard the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Crab Stock Assessment at its October meeting, including reports that both snow crab and Bristol Bay red king crab stocks have declined in the past year. Norton Sound red king crab and Saint Matthew blue king crab stocks have also declined, while Tanner crab is thought to have increased in the past year. That news, and the Crab Plan Team’s recommendation, prompted the council to adopt a harvest lower than what was biologically allowed, to account for the unknown declines of those stocks. Each stock received a buffer of between 10 percent and 25 percent, with a larger buffer for the Western Aleutian Islands red king crab stock. While the council sets the overfishing limit, or OFL, and acceptable biological catch, or ABC, based on each stock assessment and information, the final catch limit, or TAC, is set by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which could decide on more conservative management, depending on how the most recent numbers are perceived. For Bristol Bay red King crab, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which jointly manages the federal crab fisheries with the council, opted to set the total allowable catch, or TAC, at 6.6 million pounds, with the majority (5.94 million pounds) going to the and 10 percent, or, 660,1000 pounds, for the Community Development Quota entity fishery. That’s a decline from the year prior, and lowest in at least 20 years. The Bering Sea snow crab quota is also a decline from the year prior, at about 18.9 million pounds. The Tanner crab fishery is open in the western district, with a quota of about 2.2 million pounds, while the eastern district is closed. The Pribilof District red and blue king crab fisheries are closed next year, as is the Saint Matthew Island section of the blue king crab fishery. For Bristol Bay red king crab, the crab plan team recommended an OFL of 5,600 tons from which the ABC, was derived at 5,040 tons, using a 10 percent buffer, which the Scientific and Statistical Committee also recommended and the council ultimately adopted. A 20 percent buffer was used for snow crab, which was a larger buffer than last year, when the scientists recommended a 10 percent buffer, meant to account for so much more uncertainty in the stock. But Tanner crab was a brighter spot in the stock assessments. The fishery was closed in 2017 due to low abundance shown in surveys, although fishermen said they were still seeing them on the grounds. This year, the Crab Plan Team modeling did show an uptick in that stock. As a result, the OFL was set at 25,420 tons and the ABC at 20,330 tons. Some of the issues with the crab stocks were attributed to issues with the models fitting correctly, and accounting for certain data in the past. Now, they are looking at alternatives. Scientists have had trouble with the stock assessment model fitting the data in recent years, in part because of a drop that doesn’t match very well. During the council’s October presentation, they heard that one of the issues is that once there is a steep decline, it’s hard to account for that again.

App makes Alaska coastal data available offline

An Anchorage-based group of entrepreneurs is trying to make it a little easier to learn about Alaska’s coastline with a new app. CoastView, which launched last spring, relies on the high-quality, publicly-available coastline imagery produced through the ShoreZone endeavor. ShoreZone provides public access online to a coastal map that includes several elements: high-resolution photos, videos, and data on the biology and geomorphology of the coast. CoastView takes that information and pairs it with some narration of the coastline and points of interest, and makes it all available without an internet connection. The offline access is what spurred Amalie Couvillion and her colleagues to develop the app. ShoreZone was originally brought to Alaska to support oil spill response planning in Cook Inlet, and later spread to include most of the state’s coastline and support a wide-variety of uses, from coastal monitoring to education. Couvillion helped with some of that expansion while working at The Nature Conservancy, one of the organizations involved in the project. She loved the data set ShoreZone offered, but the fact that it was only available online felt like a limitation. Eventually, she decided to leave the nonprofit world to focus on developing that offline access with two other individuals. It took about a year, but the team eventually launched the app for iPad and iPhones. Through late July, it had about 500 installations. Couvillion collaborated with developer Mario Pilz and coastal ecologist Carl Schoch, who worked on ShoreZone as well, to develop the app. “There was a lot of testing and a lot of figuring out how to make it work,” she said. As they worked on the offline access component, Couvillion said they realized that they wanted more information to go with the imagery. “In addition to seeing these images, you can read or listen to points of interest along the way,” she said. The app will narrate everything from geographic features to fun facts. “It’s kind of like a Milepost for the sky,” she said, referring to the popular Alaska travel guide. In addition to being an option for air travel, the group is targeting cruise ship passengers as a top audience that might want to download it and take a listen while traveling Alaska’s waters. The app isn’t just for tourists, though. Couvillion said she’s learned new things while listening to the narration, including about lighthouses and even legendary lake monsters. She’s also learned of possible new uses for the app since it launched, like charter fishing guides who could use it as a way to check out new spots and coves, and see how navigable they are, because the coastal images were all captured at extreme low tides. And user George Beringer, who lives in San Antonio, Texas, said he just enjoys exploring Alaska from his home. He’s used the CoastView app to explore Alaska remotely — and in the process, has fallen in love with the land. “The aerial perspective and excellent resolution are captivating,” he wrote in an email. Beringer said that he initially was looking at the eastern Aleutians, but has since explored much of Alaska virtually, including Unalaska, Cold Bay, Sand Point, Nome and other communities. “It is very user friendly,” he said. “I recently finished a book about the Bering Expedition which identified their landing site as Kayak Island. I stopped reading and looked up ‘Kayak Is.’ to get some idea of what the terrain would have looked like. I enjoy spreading out my map of Alaska and then picking out sites to view on the CoastView app.” Transitioning out of the nonprofit world can be a challenge, but Couvillion said that her 20 years at The Nature Conservancy actually helped prepare her for the project. That particular nonprofit had an entrepreneurial bent, with support for innovative ideas that advanced conservation ideals, so she was already in that mindset somewhat. And while Anchorage isn’t a tech hot spot, Couvillion said her team found ample business resources in the Anchorage entrepreneurial community. “There’s so much passion in the community to get things going, especially in this economy,” she said. Couvillion said specific resources, like the Small Business Administration, and the One Million Cups group, were very helpful. She also felt supported by other entrepreneurs. “I’ve had a lot of encouragement from people,” she said. ^ Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected]

Assembly passes tax incentive for fresher fish

DILLINGHAM — Some Bristol Bay fishermen are getting a little extra incentive to upgrade their boats. On June 5, the Bristol Bay Borough Assembly passed an ordinance that will allow fishermen who install a refrigerated seawater system in 2017 or 2018 to get a one-time $1,500 fish tax credit. Improving fish quality in Bristol Bay has been a focus for many groups in recent years, including processors, industry organizations, and now the borough. Keeping fish cold is one of the main steps in producing top-quality fish, and a refrigerated seawater system enables a fisherman to keep fish colder without needing ice. Under the new borough ordinance, installing such a system in 2017 or 2018 will make fishermen eligible for a $1,500, one-time fish tax credit to help offset the cost of the work. The Bristol Bay Borough encompasses much of eastern Bristol Bay and the Naknek-Kvichak commercial fishing district. The borough charges a 3 percent tax on the value of raw fish caught in its waters. “It’s an incentive for fishermen to deliver better product,” borough manager John Fulton said. “The assembly wanted to reward Naknek-Kvichak fishermen who upgrade.” Better quality fish should, in time, result in higher value fish — and more revenue for the borough when it collects its fish tax, Fulton explained. Assembly Member Mary Swain helped develop the fish tax credit, and at the assembly’s May meeting said she wanted the borough to support fishermen who were improving fish quality. “I want Bristol Bay to be known as ahead of the curve,” she said at the time. Enacting the incentive, particularly through the raw fish tax, is a little bit tricky. The borough assembly considered both a property tax exemption and the tax refund, and ultimately decided to go the raw fish tax route to target those upgrading their boats right now. “It’s fairly selective in who it benefits,” Fulton said. To get the refund, a fisherman must upgrade their vessel between Jan. 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2018, and prove it to the borough with receipts. Then, the borough will issue the fisherman a voucher that he or she can take to a processor to prove that they get to keep the first $1,500 in taxes they would normally have to pay. In May, Swain said that processors suggested the voucher system when they were approached about the idea of a fish tax credit. That makes it a fishermen’s responsibility to do much of the legwork, rather than adding all of the work to the processors’ workload, she said. Fulton said the borough didn’t have an estimate of how many fishermen will be eligible for the tax credit this year, but it is not expected to be a large number. “We’ll definitely see some,” Fulton said, noting that the assembly hoped it might prompt fishermen who were on the fence about an upgrade to take the plunge. It will be in effect this season, and also next, so that fishermen who are just learning about the credit can upgrade next year and take advantage of it, he said. Bristol Bay Borough is just the latest entity to promote better quality fish in the region, in part in an effort to raise the value of Bristol Bay salmon. The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., and others have also been supporting the push. BBEDC has offered programs to help resident fishermen purchase and install RSW systems, and BBRSDA has worked on incentives and an educational campaign to encourage chilling fish. BBRSDA has arranged for some incentives, like discounted shipping to Seattle for fishermen getting refrigeration work done on their boats, and also has a campaign to encourage chilled fish in general. Alaska SeaGrant has also worked on the educational component over the past several years, including working with the other parties to offer RSW operator classes in the Bay. ^ Molly Dischner is a reporter in Dillingham. She can be reached at [email protected]

Southwest Alaska education program growing in courses, students

DILLINGHAM — There’s an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. But in the case of the Bristol Bay regional career and technical education partnership it takes nearly two dozen villages to raise more than 100 students. The partnership brings together industry, local government, school districts and communities in an effort to better prepare Southwest Alaska youth for life after high school, Bristol Bay Borough School District Principal Rick Luthi explained. “The communities and organizations value what has been set up because it’s preparing kids for life after high school,” Luthi said. “… They see this as good for the health and wellbeing (of communities).” From May 1 to May 5, students from the Bristol Bay Borough, Lake and Peninsula, Southwest Region and Dillingham City school districts gathered for hands-on learning in Naknek, King Salmon and Dillingham. That was the fourth, and final, week-long focus on career and technical education of the school year. Rick Luthi, principal at the Bristol Bay Borough School District, helped start the program seven years ago. Over the years, it has had to evolve. He and the others running the program don’t have a crystal ball to determine what skills students will most need in the future. So they offer a wide-range of options, check-in with industry on what folks see coming to Alaska businesses, and make sure there is college credit for many of the courses. “We’re getting kids ready for a world that sometimes is hard to define,” Luthi said. Together, the participating school districts cover hundreds of square miles all over Bristol Bay, from Lake Clark to Perryville and Togiak. This month, students from 20 different communities participated in the courses. In Naknek and King Salmon this month, they were learning about small appliance repair, non-destructive testing, and becoming a fishing guide. Across Bristol Bay in Dillingham, they learned about computer support essentials and graphic arts. Ethan Agli was enrolled in non-destructive testing, his sixth CTE class throughout his high school career. Non-destructive testing is essentially a way of testing various systems, that isn’t harmful to them. Over the course of the class, the students learned that it could be used in a wide-range of situations. It was’t just one thing, they explained. “The most fun part of this class is when we went down to the boiler room and got to do some actual testing,” Agli said. The students also practiced reading radiography images and using an infrared camera. Although the testing could look for radiation, the students were not going to practice that. Agli signed up largely because the course was something different for CTE week. By May 2, it had become a possible future plan. “I’m thinking about it,” he said. “(The instructor) mentioned something about a program at UAA. …You can work anywhere.” That course was offered with help from Bristol Bay Native Corp., and its subsidiary Kakivik, which does the testing in the real world. BBNC tries to get shareholders to go through the training to work for Kakivik, and helped get the training to the students, too. It’s also an aging field, and those involved in the class said they hoped exposing youth to the field could change the demographics a little. While some students learned about testing, students in the Bristol Bay school shop area worked on learning how to fix appliances, including a toyo stove, washing machine and freezer. Chignik Lake student Brittany Morales said she was glad to learn such practical skills. Now she and her classmates would be in demand when they got home, joked instructor Dan Phinney. “They can go home and fix their washers now,” he said. Students in the Western Rivers certification class were also learning skills that could help them with future employment. Sportfishing guide and lodge owner Nanci Morris Lyon prepared them for the U.S. Coast Guard exam required to serve as a guide, talking them through the regulations that oversee the field. Retired educator Jack Forrester said Morris Lyon helped develop the course as a way to get kids ready to work in the local industry. Hiring locally is good for area residents, but also for the lodges, Morris Lyon said. Area fishermen know their home streams and what works particularly well (or what doesn’t work at all), which is invaluable knowledge for those visiting the lodges. By May 2, the seven students were eager to get on the water and practice the skills they’d need as guides, like unhooking fish and releasing them safely, or stringing them up. Some of the students had already worked as assistant guides. Others, like Letishia Walcott from New Stuyahok, were just thinking about it. As she caught one Dolly Varden after another on King Salmon Creek, she said guiding sounded like it might be a fun job. She fishes nearly every day during the summer, so it could be a way to do what she loves, she said. The CTE program is also about “more than just what they do during the day,” Luthi said. It is also an opportunity to teach “some of the things we want students to learn and know before they leave us.” Those are things like job application and interview skills, water safety, business and financial skills through the Junior Achievement program, and driver’s education. Those offerings come in the evenings, after the main classes end. And at the same time as the career and technical courses were underway, students in Naknek could participate in “extensions and corrections,” which helped them catch up on past work, or learn more about specific topics, from academics to special topics like cooking and hunter safety. Teacher Andrew Johnson said the structure of the program also helps prepare students for the world of jobs. They have to fill in their course applications correctly, show up on time, and behave appropriately — all skills needed in life, he said. The program has been developing for years. Luthi helped get it started when he noticed that while most of the Lake and Peninsula district’s schools had shops, not many were in use. So he worked with several individuals, including Forrester, to develop a career and technical education partnership between the Lake and Peninsula and Bristol Bay Borough school districts, which launched seven years ago. “We started with eight young bodies and one class, and we’ve evolved to four session a year (and more than 100 students),” Forrester said. Since then, the program has offered to add more fields of study and more sites. Most recently, Southwest Region and Dillingham City school districts have begun to participate. Next year, the partnership will expand further. This spring, the girls section of the new dormitory opened up. In the fall, the boys section will be ready for use. Johnson is working on adding an academic component to the week. The region’s districts have many small schools, and it can be hard to offer every class a student might be interested in, or need to succeed later. Partnering makes it easier. Now that Naknek has dorms, it is easier to expand the program, Johnson said. Boarding students has been one of the costly parts of the CTE program, but the dorms add capacity and reduce the cost. Community and school needs and student interests will help drive the courses that are offered, Johnson said, but it’ll be classes that are hard to offer at the smaller schools in the region. ^ Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected]

Effort continues to replace humans with cameras on fishing boats

Several years into the controversial effort to bolster Alaska’s fisheries observer program, a top federal fisheries official defended the work at a Seattle gathering of fishermen. Eileen Sobeck, the NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, took the stage this past Nov. 18 to talk to fishermen gathered for the annual Fish Expo event to recap the program. Observers are the eyes and ears on boats, collecting a range of data, she explained. “We have been monitoring fisheries for decades, and we do it in a lot of different ways,” Sobeck said. But the details of the program have been under fire over the past few years. Federal efforts to put a human on smaller boats was met with concerns about safety and efficiency, and fishermen’s requests to use cameras have had logistical difficulties. Over the past few years, the effort to use cameras has increased nationwide, and the National Marine Fisheries Service has been tasked with sorting out how to make that work, both logistically and cost-wise. Over 10 years, the National Marine Fisheries Service has helped fund more than 30 electronic monitoring, or EM, pilot programs. Expenses include the cost of cameras, the cost to install them, and the cost of going through the immense amount of data they can collect. “We have, collectively, an interest in being as cost-effective as we can possibly be,” Sobeck said. That effort has translated into regional electronic monitoring plans that were finished more than a year ago, and are now being implemented with plans for regular reviews, said George LaPointe, one of the point people on the project. Although monitoring in some fisheries has developed successfully, like in the groundfish fisheries, LaPointe said, the agency is still working toward certain implementation, such as in Alaska’s small boat fixed gear and pot fisheries, where the target date is 2018. That fleet includes about 630 vessels right now, with a much smaller number that have opted in for 2017. The EM development effort has taken several years, from the 2013 decision to restructure the observer program, to 2016, when 51 vessels participated in a pre-implementation program. This year, the agency is hoping that 120 of the smaller fixed gear and pot boats will be on board with the program, preparing for 2018 implementation. For 2018, the vessels that are required to have some monitoring, but not be covered full-time, will have the option of electronic or human observation. As the agency has worked on implementation, several challenges have arisen, LaPointe said. “We can put cameras on boats. And we can get the data out of those. But it’s expensive,” he said. Now, work is underway to find a more efficient way to review the camera-collected data. Ideally, the agency wants accurate fish identification from computers, rather than requiring humans to review the data. While the agency is helping fund EM for now, LaPointe said they eventually want to transition to funding the program on its own. The agency is looking both at regular cameras, and stereo cameras, mostly testing those on longline boats. Those are machine vision systems, which ideally can process the imagery as fish come on board, limiting the time it takes to process images, as well as the cost. But it’s still in testing phase. The agency has heard years of critiques on the program, from costs to the logistical difficulties boats face in carrying an observer or camera. But in the November discussion, the first question was about fishermen who want to help test EM. “There are some remote places that would like to try this stuff,” Doug Rhodes, a longliner out of Prince of Wales, told the agency. He said in past years, he hadn’t been to a port where he could get a camera to try, but thought that many rural fishermen would give it a shot if there was a way to let them install it or get it installed at a closer port. Although that’s not yet possible, Suzanne Romain from the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission said the ultimate goal is to make the technology open source. Eventually, they want a system that fishermen can install themselves, she said. That’s one way to keep the cost down, and ultimately, minimizing the cost of the program is a primary goal. Fishermen in the North Pacific, unlike their Atlantic counterparts, have borne much of the cost of observation, although the agency has helped with costs of testing pilot electronic monitoring programs, and have said that it’s too much added expensive, particularly for small boat, lower-margin fisheries. Addressing that is a goal, Sobeck said. “We are trying to be innovative,” Sobeck said. “We are trying to find cost savings.”

From the braids of the Kvichak to shores of Bristol Bay

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts in reporter Molly Dischner’s journey with a Homer fishing family to Bristol Bay on the eve of sockeye season. DILLINGHAM — About 8 a.m. on June 17, a sportfishing guide tied his skiff to the F/V Eagle Claw and hopped onboard to join our motley crew. It was the final day of our five-day trip from Homer to Naknek via the Williamsport Road. Skipper Louie Flora, his daughter Sidney and brother Jonathan were headed to fish the east side of Bristol Bay. Soon-to-be west side setnetter Joey Kraszeski and I were just along for the ride. The Kvichak is about 60 miles long, and runs from Iliamna Lake to Bristol Bay. The upper river is crystal clear, full of braids, and quite shallow. Not the easiest waterway for a 32-foot drift gillnet boat to navigate. But George Riddles, who owns a lodge near Igiugig, on the river, and takes clients fishing there daily in the summer, had spent the early part of the summer checking-in on how the river had changed from the year prior. When we reached the shallowest spots, with just a little more than a foot of clearance below the transducer, Riddles knew exactly where to point the boat to stay in the deepest water. “See that white spot sticking out from all the green? Head for it,” Riddles told our skipper. Behind us, two more boats tried to follow our exact movements. We had left Pile Bay, at the eastern shore of Iliamna Lake, the day prior, rafted up with two other Homer-based fishing boats, the Independence and the Solstice. It took a full day for the three boats to cruise the length of Iliamna Lake, leaving ample time for the captains to talk engines, and the crew (and passengers) to pass the time napping, staring at the mountains, searching for river otters (none spotted), and unsuccessfully recording audio for a radio story. Our last night of the trip was spent anchored near Igiugig. The three boats disconnected and anchored separately; onboard the Eagle Claw we listened to the radio (and requested our favorite songs), and watched kids swim in the lake and boys fish from boats and the bank as the sun faded. The lake serves as a large settling pond, and the upper river is crystal clear. As we traveled downstream, we watched tannins flow in at Kaskanak Creek, and then the river get wider, and muddier, the closer we got to Levelock, and Bristol Bay. Back in the braids, Riddles pointed out trout and grayling and talked about the fishing season so far this year as he helped navigate the river. His directions got us through the braids relatively uneventfully, although the boats ahead of us had to stop and replace a part after they finished, and there were only a few hiccups in the day. After five days at sea (and waiting on land), the Kvichak tender line came into sight on the evening of June 17. Finally, the answer to the family-vacation-esque refrain of “Are we there yet” was “YES.” There was wide-spread excitement on the boat (we’re really in Bristol Bay!); but also some melancholy (we have to go back to work!). As soon as we started spotting tenders and setnet sites, the radio chatter increased, and we learned that some drifters were headed to Egegik for an opener there. It was the only place with catches, although the fish-per-delivery reports from Fish and Game were still pretty low — well under 100 fish. So rather than follow those boats out, Louie pointed the Eagle Claw up toward the Naknek River to find a tender to re-fill on water, and anchor up in Naknek to stretch our legs and track down pizza before heading upstream to King Salmon to get the boat ready. The F/V Eagle Claw was back in Bristol Bay. Molly Dischner is the fisheries reporter at KDLG in Dillingham. She made the trip from Kachemak Bay to Bristol Bay onboard the F/V Eagle Claw in early June.

By road, lake and river: Boats make way to Bristol Bay

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts in reporter Molly Dischner’s journey with a Homer fishing family to Bristol Bay on the eve of sockeye season. PILE BAY – It’s noon, Iliamna Lake is calm, and half a dozen fishermen are sitting around in the grass outside the bathroom at Pile Bay using free wi-fi. A soon-to-be setnetter makes a Facebook page for another fisherman. His brother (and this reporter) pitch in with photos and suggestions for friends. The three of us are riding to Naknek with Louie Flora and his daughter Sidney onboard the F/V Eagle Claw. “Did you know they’re making me a Facebook account?” Louie Flora asked his daughter Sidney, who’s traveling to Bristol Bay with him for her first fishing season. He doesn’t sound entirely excited about this. Sidney is more enthusiastic. “Cool,” she said, making sure that devices are charging in all four outlets in the bathroom so that there’s ample entertainment for the next leg of the trip to Bristol Bay. The new Facebook page probably won’t get much use in the next month or so, and time for laying around in the grass will be limited. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting that more than 50 million sockeye salmon will return to Bristol Bay this summer, and eventually these fishermen’s clocks will be set to the openers in each of five fishing districts. But before they start fishing, about 60 boats make the trip from Kamishak Bay to Bristol Bay via the Williamsport Road and the Kvichak River. The Williamsport Road links Iliamna Bay, across Cook Inlet west of Homer, to the northeast side of Iliamna Lake at Pile Bay. Then boats travel 70-some miles across the lake to the Kvichak River, and on down the braided Kvichak River to its outlet at the northeast end of Bristol Bay. Most boats then go on to Naknek, a home base for fishing boats on the east side of Bristol Bay. That’s a much shorter route than the 1,000 miles through the Gulf of Alaska and around the Alaska Peninsula. Ray Williams and his son Chet haul the boats over the 15-mile Williamsport Road, four boats per tide, one or two tides per day, from early June until everyone gets across. In July, they start hauling them back the other way when the boats are done fishing. Ray also provides the bathroom – complete with towels for the shower — and the wi-fi, which comes from a router hooked up to a parked truck nearby. The Williams family has been here for 77 years, since Ray’s dad moved from New York to Alaska for his health; he was so nervous around thunderstorms that he couldn’t eat (his dad had been killed by lightning) and he was 120 pounds when he moved north. Within a couple years, he was 250 pounds and eventually he hauled mail for area villages on his back. The Williams family no longer hauls mail, but they still haul boats — and just about anything else that needs to be delivered to communities on the lake — with trucks, loaders and, for the lake, a barge. Last year, they hauled a record 120 boats, 60 each way, and Ray said they’re on track for that many again this year. Bristol Bay gillnetters are limited to 16 feet wide, but the road can only really handle 14 feet, and Ray said some boats are built to just that size to make the trip. Many of the boats that make the trip come back year after year, he said, and he knows how they fit on his custom-built trailers — including the Eagle Claw and the Independence, Brent Cathey’s boat. Flora and Cathey, another Homer fisherman, are waiting on a third Homer boat, the Solstice, before they set out from Pile Bay, where they put their boats back into the water late on June 14. The trio left Homer on June 13, and arrived near Williamsport that evening. It took about 10 hours for the Eagle Claw to make it approximately 80 miles. That was enough time for a small kitchen fire to alert us that the propane stove was out of commission, everyone onboard to take turns napping, plenty of oohing and aahing at Mt. Augustine and other peaks, and  for a lot of jellybean eating. Our caravan isn’t the only group waiting at Pile Bay. Three other gillnetters, all with crews from the Kenai Peninsula, are waiting for another boat or two to come across the road and join them. They’re mostly Old Believers, and don’t travel on Sundays for religious reasons, so they got stuck on different sides of the road Saturday, and are waiting to regroup before taking off. A couple other Russians’ boats have already left, one left shortly after midnight June 15, and some the next morning after they got hauled over the road. Cathey and Flora have made the journey before, as have most of their crew – everyone but Sidney and I. They know that once they get past Igiugig, at the other end of Iliamna Lake, the braided channels can be difficult to navigate, and it’s easier with a guide and friends to help pull if necessary. They also know how to pass time: Waiting near Williamsport, we went swimming and hiking and canoeing, and fiddled with boat stuff. Here in Pile Bay, we’re watching the friend count on Louie’s page tick up, canoeing, working, doing more boat fiddling, contemplating a swim – and hoping that we’re not missing out on any fish. I check the Alaska Department of Fish and Game blue sheet estimate, and only a couple thousand fish have been landed in Bristol Bay by mid-day on June 15, so no one is too worried about the fishery taking off without us. Good. That means it’s time to go canoeing. Molly Dischner is the fisheries reporter at KDLG in Dillingham. She’s making the trip from Kachemak Bay to Bristol Bay onboard the F/V Eagle Claw.

ADFG opens experimental pollock fishery in Cook Inlet

KACHEMAK BAY — Despite more than 30 years of fishing around Alaska, before this past December Kasilof fisherman Rob Nelson had never let out a net hoping to catch pollock. But the long-time seiner has been learning how to catch the groundfish in Kachemak Bay as part of an experimental fishery this winter. In most of Alaska, pollock are caught by trawlers. But Nelson and other fishermen are hoping that seines could provide a way to safely catch the fish, without worrying about bycatch. Seining is “one of the better methods to release anything undesirable that you do catch,” he said, because fish are alive until they’re hauled on deck. Each day of fishing is a learning experience, he said Jan. 11 while making his fifth pollock trip since the experimental fishery opened Dec. 1. “It’s a big learning experience for everyone, really,” he said. Even finding the fish can be a challenge. During the winter, fish seem to slide back into deep areas. In the summer, they’re often in shallower waters and near the beaches. “With salmon you see them jump, and herring sort of school,” he said. But there’s no indication of where pollock are, he said. Time of day and tide seem to influence the pollock, he said. They’re less active than salmon, so are more prone to be carried by the current. That day, his first haul returned just a few hundred pounds of pollock. Nelson said the tide seemed different than usual, perhaps pushing the fish in an unusual pattern. Typically, Nelson uses a fish finder to help him locate the pollock. That sends an echo down, and shows individual fish and schools on a screen he can monitor while driving the boat. When he’s fishing for herring, Nelson said it will show what direction the school is moving. That morning, the ones he could see were swimming deeper than 100 feet. But not every fish shows up on the finder. His best haul of the day came after few had shown on the radar. In addition to his equipment, Nelson had a little extra help finding pollock during the opener. A voice coaxed him into moving away from his position. “Right over here, closer to Derrick,” said Jake Weiss, the only other participant in the fishery. Weiss wasn’t actively fishing, but he motored his skiff out into the bay, looking for pollock in the area where Nelson was fishing and helping to direct the tow. Nelson considered the new information. “Keep doing what we’re doing, sounds like,” he said. Both fishermen use herring seine gear in the experimental fishery. Nelson’s net hangs at about 180 feet deep and fishes at about 150. It isn’t deep enough to go out in the middle of the bay, where he thinks the largest concentrations of pollock might be. If the fishery receives an allocation and becomes a regular fixture in the bay, he’ll consider investing in a new net, he said. It would have to be specially-made for catching pollock, and could cost up to $100,000, he said. It’s a large investment, but just the next step in a long fishing career for Nelson. “My dad was a fisherman back when I was real little,” he said. By age 20, in 1986, he had his own skiff and camped on the beach while fishing for salmon. He’s bought bigger boats over the years, and in 2012, the newest, Sea Prince, was built. It’s a 58-foot boat that Nelson uses to seine for salmon in Prince William Sound and herring in Sitka. For each haul, Nelson drove the Sea Prince around the bay, looking for fish and trying to understand the current. When he was ready to start towing, he nodded his head. On deck, two of his crew got the seine ready to be deployed. A third crewmember took off in a skiff, pulling the seine away from the main boat and eventually making a large circle, bringing the end back to the side of the Sea Prince after about 35 minutes of towing. Then the seine was hauled from the water, with a purse formed to hold pollock. The net catches most everything that’s above the seine’s depth that doesn’t swim away. Once the haul was brought onboard, Nelson and his crew sorted the fish. Pollock were loaded into fish totes to be delivered to a processor in Homer; Pacific cod were separated out, also to be sold or retained for personal use. Bycatch from the fishery is also monitored, said Elisa Russ, Alaska Department of Fish and Game assistant area management biologist for commercial groundfish fisheries in the Cook Inlet area. King salmon were counted and returned alive to the ocean if possible. Herring and other species were also returned to the water. During the six tows made during that fishing period, six king salmon were caught, and all were released alive. Russ said that when dead kings were hauled in on a previous trip, they were delivered to the Homer food bank. At the end of the day, Russ also sampled the pollock to start getting more information for Fish and Game on the pollock in the bay. It’s another benefit of the new fishery, Russ said. The fishery was created by Fish and Game last year. No one registered for an experimental pollock seine fishery in Kodiak, in part because of the timing of the fishery, but Cook Inlet fishermen expressed interest, so the department offered commissioner’s permits for Kachemak Bay, Russ said. Under the terms of the permit, each trip is limited to 10,000 pounds of pollock, fishermen must record their catch in a logbook and must carry a mandatory Fish and Game observer. Through Dec. 31, the catch was limited to 220,000 pounds. From Jan. 1 to Feb. 28, another 220,000 pounds is available for the fishery, Russ said. In 2014, Nelson made four trips and the other fishery participant — Jake Weiss — made three, catching a combined total of 11,400 pounds. The impetus for the experimental fisheries came as fishermen around the state look at how to deal with pending Gulf of Alaska rationalization, a federal move that could slow down groundfish fisheries, including pollock, and reduce bycatch, but also make it harder for new entrants to participate in those fisheries. Although the federal managers have not yet made a final decision on how or if to rationalize the gulf, fishery participants in 2013 asked the state to consider how it will respond, and the state’s Board of Fisheries created a pollock working group to look at the issue. In February, the work group will meet in Anchorage to discuss the experimental fisheries so far and whether providing state-waters pollock fishing opportunity could be practical. Federal management isn’t the only reason Cook Inlet fishermen are interested in the new fishery. Nelson grew up on Kachemak Bay, and over the last several decades, he’s seen a shift in area. When he was a kid, salmon and shellfish were more predominant than they are now. “Thirty years ago, there weren’t really any pollock here in the bay,” Nelson said. The largest concentrations of pollock started showing up 10 years ago, and in the last five years, he said, there are so many that “you can’t shake ‘em fast enough when fishing for kings.” Finding the fish and figuring out where to catch them is not the only challenge in the fishery. Nelson has also been trying to develop sources to sell them to. “We’ve got a handful of markets we’re exploring,” he said. On the first trip of the new year, Jan. 11, Nelson was catching pollock for two bait markets. “New automatic longline systems are loving pollock,” Nelson said. That day, it was all delivered to The Auction Block in Homer for custom processing, where it would be separated by size for the two different bait markets. At other times during the season, he’ll also sell pollock to a processor in Seward that uses it for fillets, and to South Korea, where the fish is desirable fresh and unprocessed. That’s one of the more complicated markets. After the fish is caught in Kachemak Bay, the shipment has to go through a customs process in South Korea before it gets passed along for sale. That can take from three days to a week, he said.

ADFG launches study on hatchery impacts on wild salmon

Hatchery salmon and their potential impact on wild populations have been a sticking point in ongoing discussions about seafood sustainability, and a multi-year research project undertaken by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is looking at better understanding the issue. More than 40 scientists, fishermen, and others interested in the science gathered in Anchorage Dec. 12 for a daylong update on the research progress so far. ADFG’s study, which is being conducted with the Prince William Sound Science Center, the Sitka Science Center and other contractors, is focused on pink and chum salmon in Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska. The Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC, has raised questions about the impacts of hatcheries in Alaska during the certification process for Alaska’s salmon, and a contractor working on the MSC assessment attended the meeting, but did not weigh in with comments during the presentations. The state is no longer a client for MSC certification, and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has developed its own alternative certification, but other fishing organizations have continued to seek the MSC blue label, and in May, the MSC agreed to switch the certification client from the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association to the Alaska Salmon Processors Association. Although recertification was granted in November 2013, the MSC document specified that Prince William Sound’s salmon fisheries would remain under assessment while research was conducted on hatchery impacts, and a team visited Alaska in early December as part of that process. Northern Southeast Aquaculture Association General Manager Steve Reifenstuhl said the hatchery research project developed out of questions about the impacts of hatcheries and the policies in place to mitigate concerns. Advocates began the push in 2009, and received a state commitment to the project in 2010. So far, about one-third of the needed funding has been committed, and has come from the Legislature and the salmon industry. “It will be a steep hill to climb to attain the balance of the research dollars,” Reifenstuhl said during the meeting. Straying to wild salmon streams has long been a concern regarding hatchery fish, but the main research on the subject was conducted outside of Alaska, and little is actually known about the impacts here. Elsewhere, some research has shown that hatchery fish are generally less productive in nature than wild fish, and can also displace wild fish. The team is essentially trying to answer three major questions: what is the genetic structure of pinks and chums, what is the extent and annual variability of straying for those salmon and what is the impact on natural salmon’s productivity caused by straying hatchery fish. Work on the research project began in 2012. The Anchorage meeting focused on the 2013 and 2014 research programs, with an eye toward allowing the science panel, comprised of state, federal and private scientists, to discuss the research plans for 2015. The research effort includes ocean and in-stream sampling efforts in Prince William Sound and Southeast. The PWS ocean sampling project includes an effort to determine the proportion of hatchery and wild pinks and chums entering the Sound at the test fishery, and an estimate of the total run size. The stream project for that region also looks at straying into each of the sampled streams. The Southeast research is similar, but focuses solely on chum salmon. In both regions, researchers are also using genetics to try to determine the parentage of new fish. By taking genetic samples from spawning fish, and then the alevin that result, the team thinks it can determine which spawners come from hatchery parents and which come from wild parents. Eventually, that could help determine the reproductive success of each group. Bill Templin, who works in ADFG’s genetics lab, said the project should help answer many of the questions about hatchery salmon, but that it’s a significant undertaking, and some of the techniques must be developed specifically for the project. “This is a very ambitious program,” he said. “It’s the first of its kind and the first of its size.” ASMI, Congress weigh in on certifications Scientists are not the only ones working on issues surrounding the sustainability of Alaska’s seafood. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, or ASMI, is working on revamping its own certification process for seafood. ASMI opened a 60-day comment period on its Responsible Fisheries Management conformance criteria in early December. All comments are due Feb. 3. The RFM certification has existed for several years, but ASMI is changing the structure and adjusting the program. Under the new structure, ASMI will be the owner of the certification, and industry groups will seek the certification. The certification is based on United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization guidelines, and there will not be logo or licensing fees. The high cost of the MSC certification was a previous sticking point for Alaska’s fisheries. According to an update on its website, the Alaska Fisheries Development Association, a nonprofit, will seek certification of Alaska’s salmon fisheries from ASMI. ASMI said that it will identify all fishery certification clients by Dec. 31. Congress is also weighing in. Language in the 2015 spending bill for Commerce, Justice and Science prevents the federal government from using third-party, non-governmental certifications of U.S. seafood, and directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to continue providing information about fisheries sustainability on its own. According to a press release from her office, Sen. Lisa Murkowski also prevented third-party non-governmental certification in the Labor, Health and Human Services and Department of Defense budgets. Federal agencies stopped requiring those certifications in 2013, but the language prevents them from resuming the use of those programs.

Cook Inlet fish wars dominate headlines again in 2014

The Upper Cook Inlet fisheries were tense in 2014, with an emotional Board of Fisheries meeting in the winter and new restrictions in the summer. Alaska’s Board of Fisheries met in Anchorage in late January and early February to discuss management plans for Upper Cook Inlet. By the end of the two-week meeting, the board for the first time approved changes that paired restrictions for sport and commercial fishermen. The board considered 236 proposals at the meeting. Among the proposals that passed were those amending the Kenai River late-run king salmon management plan. The paired restrictions meant that this summer, Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s commercial fisheries managers had to take certain actions when the sport fishery was restricted. Sport representatives generally supported the pairings, saying it was a fair way to share the burden of conservation, while commercial fishermen said it reduced their effort more than it reduced sport effort. This summer, setnetters harvested about 930,300 salmon in the Kasilof, Kenai, and East Forelands sections and the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area, about one-third of the 3.1 million salmon caught commercially in Upper Cook Inlet. The setnet harvest included about 704,272 sockeye, 216,233 pinks, 6,461 coho, 2,055 kings and 792 chums. Ultimately, setnetters in the Kenai and East Forelands sections had six openings this summer; Kasilof section setnetters had 14, while the Kasilof Special Harvest Area was open for 17 periods. The total Upper Cook Inlet harvest is on par with 2013, when commercial fishermen also harvested about 3.1 million salmon, although that was a non-pink year, and the total is less than the 1966-2012 average of 4.1 million salmon. Other changes were also at play this summer. The Kenai fishing season began with a closure for early-run kings for the first time ever, and ADFG also used a provision that required anglers to use barbless hooks later in the season, when it appeared that the late-run king salmon goal might not be met. The drift fleet also faced changes, primarily to where they could fish; the board created a new section near Anchor Point, and limited use of the middle of Cook Inlet to try and send more silvers north to the Matanuska-Susitna region. 2. Setnet initiative certified The Cook Inlet fish wars didn’t end at the Board of Fisheries. Voters could be asked to decide whether to ban setnets in certain parts of Alaska under a court decision issued in July. The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, or AFCA, filed a ballot initiative petition in November 2013 seeking to ask voters whether to ban setnets in urban parts of the state, which would primarily impact Upper Cook Inlet setnetters. Anchorage Superior Court Judge Catherine Easter overturned then-Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell’s decision to reject the proposed ballot initiative, and ordered the lieutenant governor to certify the initiative and allow proponents to continue the process of gathering signatures to get the question on the 2016 ballot. Treadwell struck down the initiative in January based on a state Department of Law opinion asserting that it would be a prohibited resource appropriation not allowed under the Alaska Constitution. AFCA began collecting signatures in 2014, although the state is also appealing the court decision. 3. Judge ordered changes to observer program A federal judge ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to prepare a supplemental environmental assessment for the revised marine observer program that was implemented in 2013. U.S. Alaska District Judge H. Russel Holland found in August that NMFS did not account for whether it would lose data quality after learning that higher costs would reduce the amount of observer days at sea by more than half compared to what was originally planned. Holland didn’t require any immediate changes to the program, but the North Pacific Fishery Management Council opted to change it anyway. The revised observer program was implemented by the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, in 2013. It was intended to increase the statistical reliability of data collected through the observer program, address cost inequality among fishery participants and expand observer coverage to previously unobserved fisheries, such as halibut longline vessels, according to a summary from the agency. Initially, smaller boats, like halibut longliners were generally in the vessel selection pool, meaning that they’re randomly selected for 60 days of coverage at a time. Large boats, including Gulf of Alaska trawlers, are in the trip selection pool, where they must log each fishing trip and are randomly selected for coverage on one trip at a time. Previously, all of the halibut vessels and all other vessels less than 60 feet long were unobserved. Under the council’s changes, all vessels will be part of the trip pool, eliminating the requirement that some carry an observer for 60 days. The Boat Company, a nonprofit that operates marine tours in Southeast, along with fishing opportunity and conservation education, sued federal fisheries managers in U.S. Alaska District Court in Anchorage over the revised at-sea observer program in December 2012. Holland wrote in an Aug. 6 order that a new environmental assessment, or EA, was necessary to look at when observer coverage rates were too low to provide adequate information, and said that the federal defendants violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Act by failing to consider that possibility. 4. Disaster Funds distributed A full two years after then-Gov. Sean Parnell declared certain fisheries a disaster, commercial fishermen received direct payments to help compensate them for their losses. The Yukon River designation was made for 2010, 2011 and 2012; the Kuskokwim River commercial failure was declared for 2011 and 2012; and the 2012 declaration was made for Cook Inlet, according to a letter from Rebecca Blank, acting secretary of commerce, to Parnell. Runs on each of those rivers were well below average. The direct aid payments were the first use of the money, accounting for about $7.5 million of the $20.8 million appropriated for the disaster. Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit, is administering the grants. For Cook Inlet, 454 checks were mailed, after 481 eligible fishermen received applications for the payments. Another 330 checks were sent to Kuskokwim fishermen, out of 471 initially expected to be eligible, and 564 out of 599 eligible Yukon fishermen received payments. Cook Inlet fishermen received a $2,000 fixed payment plus an additional percentage based on their landings history from 2007 to 2011. Yukon River fishermen received an estimated $4,952, and Kuskokwim River fishermen received about $165 payments. Although the commercial payments were sent this year, the rest of the money has not been distributed, although it’s expected to be used for payments to guides and other businesses in Cook Inlet that lost money, research, habitat and other projects. 5. APOC complaints The Alaska Public Offices Commission received more than 250 complaints related to Cook Inlet fisheries in August and September. About 200 arrived at once in August, more than the commission typically receives in a year. The volume of complaints was about 10 times the amount APOC typically receives over an entire year; in 2013 the commission received 12 complaints according to its biennial report. Ultimately, former Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell and Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels received fines. A complaint against Treadwell was heard but dismissed, and the other complaints were not accepted. The accepted complaints revolved around public officials participation in the Kenai River Classic, other complaints were about the Kenai River Women’s Classic and lobbying at Board of Fisheries meetings. Nearly all were lodged by individuals from Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula with ties to the commercial fishing industry.

Alaska Communications sale wraps busy year in telecoms

The year in telecommunications closed with a major deal as Alaska Communications System Group Inc. agreed to sell its wireless subscriber business and its 33 percent share of Alaska Wireless Network to General Communications Inc. for $300 million in cash. The AWN transaction closed in 2013, merging the wireless infrastructure of GCI and Alaska Communications while the two companies sold separate retail products. The two companies reported mixed results as they adjusted to changed revenue streams, and prior to the Dec. 4 sale announcement, GCI reported strong revenue for the first three quarters of 2014, citing the new network as one reason. Alaska Communications revenue was down, although other metrics were stronger and the company did receive initial payouts from the new network. According to ACS’s and GCI’s 2014 third quarter reports, GCI will add 109,000 wireless customers to increase their subscriber base to about 253,000 Also on Dec. 4, GCI announced a $75 million, unsecured investment by private equity firm Searchlight and that the company CEO Eric Zinterhofer was named to its board of directors. The two companies also worked to differentiate themselves outside of the wireless market throughout the year. GCI expanded into the broadcast realm with the acquisition of more television stations. The company in 2013 purchased Anchorage’s KTVA and stations in Juneau and Sitka. The first quarter of 2014 was GCI’s first full quarter owning KTVA, which was the first Alaska station with HD news. This year, GCI received FCC approval and purchased three licenses in Southeast Alaska — one each in Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan — all of which were previously held by Colorado-based Ketchikan TV LLC. The TV expansion contributed significantly to the company’s third quarter performance, primarily due to revenue from political ads. Alaska Communications expanded its business services throughout 2014. CEO Anand Vadapalli said the company is continuing to focus on strategic growth, including by expanding its fiber network in Anchorage through a partnership to provide service to Anchorage schools. The company has also stopped selling lower bandwidth broadband packages; margins are higher on higher bandwidth packages. The transition plays to Alaska Communications’ existing structure and strengths in broadband services according to ACS Chief Financial Officer Wayne Graham, who said broadband profit margin can be 50 percent or higher. Vadapalli hopes that focusing on broadband with the addition managed IT solutions will raise company margins without affecting market positioning. ACS also acquired Tek Mate to enhance its business service offerings. 2. Verizon launches voice service,  opens stores Verizon Wireless made its long awaited full launch into Alaska in September. The company turned on a complete long term evolution, or LTE, network, including voice over LTE service, or VoLTE Sept. 19, and opened retail stores in Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Eagle River and Juneau that same day. Verizon began working on its Alaska network after purchasing spectrum here in 2010; through the second quarter of 2014, the build out cost was $115 million, according to Verizon Alaska President Demian Voiles. Exact subscriber numbers were unavailable, but Voiles said that Verizon’s Alaska launch was “record setting” for a company launch. LTE is currently the fastest available data network, and Alaska was the first place Verizon built a complete 4G LTE network from scratch rather than upgrading legacy networks, Voiles said. Alaska customers got new calling features at the same time those in the Lower 48. With VoLTE, the phones use data to send calls, enabling them to have better clarity. “I like to look at this as Alaskans get to be on the cutting edge, finally,” Voiles said in September. The network enables use of the company’s new “Advanced Calling” features, including high-definition voice calls and video calls, both of which work on the company’s regular data network and compatible phones, without needing an additional app. It does, however, require that both the person making the call and the person receiving it be on the Verizon network. Throughout 2014, the company had hundreds of employees testing the Alaska network. The network includes the Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna, Copper River Valley, Prince William Sound, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Ketchikan areas, with some of those areas built out by Verizon’s partners — Matanuska Telephone Association, Copper Valley Telecom and Ketchikan Public Utilities. Voiles said the company is also looking at opportunities to expand into rural Alaska, but middle mile connectivity is the major challenge for that work. Until the launch, Verizon customers in Alaska access Verizon’s network for data services, but roam on other networks for voice calls. 3. Alaska telecoms continue buildouts Verizon wasn’t the only telecom working on network expansions. The Alaska Wireless Network expanded its own 4G LTE network this year, including a LTE launch in Fairbanks. Another 100 LTE sites are planned in the next two years, GCI’s Pete Pounds said during an investor call. GCI is also working to expand 3G and 4G service in many rural communities, and received notice from the Federal Communications Commission in late October that it was ready to award bids from its Tribal Mobility Fund auction, which will fund much of that effort. In December, the company announced that it was launching 3G service in Nome. GCI submitted 51 winning bids in the auction for a total of $41.4 million, and is expected to bring 3G or 4G service to more than 37,000 people in 48 communities as a result. According to the most recent announcement from the FCC, Barrow, Kotzebue and Unalaska are among those set for service upgrades. GCI also completed additional work on its TERRA network, which is a broadband network. TERRA is a multi-year effort to build out terrestrial fiber cables and microwaves towers in much of Southwest and Northwest Alaska to enhance broadband connectivity there. During summer 2014, crews completed some of the work in Galena and Melozitna, among other locations, as part of the buildout along the Yukon River. Work at Shaktoolik, Dime, Baldwin and other communities was also completed to extend TERRA-NW from Nome to Kotzebue, which was completed in December 2014. Other telecoms also worked on rural Alaska buildouts: AT&T worked on permitting for a tower in Nome that would enable it to launch 4G LTE service, and also worked on enhanced service in Cordova through a partnership with a local telecommunications provider there. 4. Quintillion preps for Arctic work Quintillion and Arctic Fibre completed survey and permitting work during summer 2014 as part of an effort to lay submarine cable from Japan to Britain. Arctic Fibre is a Canadian entity building the new telecommunications network; local company Quintillion is partnering on the Alaska portion of the project, including landing spurs bringing the high-speed to connection directly to seven communities in Alaska. This summer, permitting and other prep work was conducted, including marine surveys of the area where submarine cable could be laid, and geotechnical surveys to determine the design for fiber spurs to shore. The company also held meetings throughout the region to inform residents about the work. Initially, Shemya, Nome, Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay will be connected to the new network. In time, Alaska telecoms could build out the network further, delivering faster service to more of the Arctic. The project also includes a terrestrial cable line from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks. Landing sites in each community have been identified, and buildings for the landing sites in Barrow, Wainwright and Point Hope were constructed in 2014 and sent to each of those communities. The Alaska component of the project will be built first, with Asia expected to be completed afterward, and Canada and Europe as the final piece. However, either the Asia segment or the Dalton Highway segment must be completed before service is available in Alaska, according to a September 2014 briefing on the project. The company also announced some investors in 2014 — Calista subsidiary Futaris, Inc. and the Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative both said publically that they are investing. Journal reporter DJ Summers contributed to this article.

Chitina dipnet limit raised; other PWS changes rejected

CORDOVA — Chitina personal use fishermen will have an increased bag limit in 2015, one of just a few changes made at the triennial Board of Fisheries meeting for the Prince William Sound, Upper Copper River and Upper Susitna River region. During its five-day meeting in Cordova, the board heard 57 proposals for changes to the region’s fisheries. The board made a few changes to area sport, subsistence and personal use fisheries, but declined to make significant changes to commercial salmon fisheries, saying the allocation plan is working. The board voted 4-3 to allow dipnetters to take home 25 fish per permit, plus an additional 10 fish per household member. That matches the regulation for the Kenai River personal use fishery, although the two rivers have vastly different run sizes, a point that concerned those voting against the proposal. Board members Fritz Johnson, Karl Johnstone, Tom Kluberton and Reed Morisky voted in favor of the change. The change was proposed by the Chitina Dipnetters Association and the Fairbanks Advisory Committee. Fairbanks AC spokesman Andrew Glasgow said the change is meant to help larger families. The old limit was 15 fish for a permit holder, or 30 for a household of two or more. Each household is limited to one permit. Several other proposals from the AC failed, but Glasgow said that was the one his group was most interested in. “Overall we were very happy with the general outcome,” he said after the meeting. Copper River fisheries are managed under set allocations, and the board did not change the allocation for personal use fishermen, which is a range of 100,000 fish to 150,000 fish, so the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will still be expected to manage fishing time to hit that target range. From 2004 to 2013, the personal use fishery had an average harvest of 127,667 fish, according to information from ADFG. Board member Johnson, from Dillingham, asked for reconsideration of the proposal at the very end of the meeting Dec. 7, but not enough board members voted to discuss changing the new regulation. Johnson was concerned that the new Chitina personal use regulation provides more fish than the subsistence fishery on the Copper River flats. Local residents said that was inequitable, particularly because the board voted against providing certain openings for the subsistence fishery each year. Despite that, Johnson was the only vote for reconsideration because the other members of the board said that fact had been raised during the meeting, even though it hadn’t necessarily registered with them. The standard for reconsideration calls for new information that was not previously provided. Board member Kluberton, from Talkeetna, said he understood the local concern about the perceived disparity in regulations, but couldn’t vote for reconsideration because the issue didn’t meet the board’s standards. Instead, he would anticipate proposals addressing the issue at a future meeting, he said. The subsistence proposal failed in a 3-4 vote, with board members Johnson, Sue Jeffrey and Orville Huntington voting in favor of it. The board also gave ADFG the ability to limit king retention in the Glenallen Subdistrict subsistence fishery. That passed 6-1, with Huntington, considered the subsistence representative, voting against it. Now, when fishery participants use fish wheels in the Copper River to catch sockeye salmon and other species, ADFG can set a bag limit on kings, requiring them to release any additional kings beyond the bag limit. During the committee of the whole process, public testimony from fishery participants largely opposed the change. They said trying to get kings back out of the fish wheel or a live box could be unsafe, and that their cultural traditions oppose playing with food or releasing something once it’s caught. Huntington said he’d rather look at other options for conserving king salmon. But other board members said it would offer ADFG an option other than just shutting down the fishery to protect kings. “I think it’s good to have a fallback position,” Kluberton said. The board also unanimously approved a few additional proposals, including a prohibition on fishing with bait for all drainages crossed by the Copper River Highway once the daily coho salmon bag limit has been reached, a change to allow rainbow trout, cutthroat trout and steelhead retention in a special management area at the end of the highway, and a prohibition on sport fishing within 60 feet of the Main Bay hatchery barrier. Other changes proposed and rejected at the meeting included an increased bag limit for Arctic grayling in the Gulkana area, prohibitions on bait, barbed hooks and multiple hooks for the Upper Copper/Upper Susitna area, a king allocation for the Chitina personal use fishery, and a new, increased, escapement goal for Copper River kings. Board decides against commercial salmon fishery changes Nearly half of the proposals targeted commercial fisheries, but most of those failed. Those addressing groundfish gained the most traction, and the board agreed to make the Prince William Sound Pacific cod jig fishery nonexclusive so that a fisherman could participate in the Prince William Sound fishery as well as one in another region. The board also increased the opportunity for pot and jig fishermen to participate in the Pacific cod fishery. The board also approved two changes to bycatch limits requested by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. While proposals deal with the pollock fishery directly did not pass, the board said it planned to meet in October 2015 for a several day meeting focused entirely on state-waters pollock fisheries, and would consider them then. The board did pass a proposal to allow monofilament nets in the gillnet fisheries briefly, but after a collective gasp from the audience and a brief break, the board voted unanimously in favor of reconsideration. The new information according to member John Jensen of Petersburg was that although ADFG comments said the proposal would apply to both the set and drift fleets, it actually only allowed drifters to use the nets. That was enough to convince all seven members to vote against it. The other salmon proposals, however, failed outright. Some were submitted by other users, seeking to decrease commercial fishing opportunity, such as a proposal not to allow commercial fishing until a salmon had reached the Mile Lake sonar, submitted by the Fairbanks AC. Others were submitted by one commercial sector, trying to change another sector’s allocation or fishery, such as a proposal by the Northwest & Alaska Seiners’ Association that asked the board to allow seiners to fish in an area currently designated for drifters. When failing those, board members noted that the allocation plans were developed in 2008, and that they didn’t see a strong need to change them. Kluberton said many of the proposed changes would equate to the board “opening a can of worms.” Cordova resident Jerry McCune, a member of Cordova District Fishermen’s United and president of the United Fishermen of Alaska, said strong sockeye runs and stronger king runs than are seen in other parts of the state helped maintain the status quo for Prince William Sound and Copper River fisheries. “Most users have been very satisfied,” he said. The king escapement goal for the Copper River was missed once in the past several years, but that wasn’t seen as enough of an issue to require major changes. “The boat’s still floating,” he said, noting that there was more cooperation and education among different users at the Cordova meeting than at many fisheries management meetings. “People were reaching out to each other and learning about each others fisheries,” he said. Glasgow agreed. “Some of them are much more contentious than this,” he said.

Another year of halibut quota cuts on the table for 2015

Pacific halibut fishermen could have a reduced catch next year if the International Pacific Halibut Commission opts to go with the “blue-line” projection released Dec. 2, but Alaskan fishermen in some areas may see a slightly higher quota than in 2014. The blue-line projection calls for a coastwide catch of about 25.02 million pounds million pounds, and total fishery removals of 38.72 million pounds. The coastwide catch figure includes commercial wastage but not the sport fishery; in 2014, the comparable blue-line recommendation called for a coastwide catch of 24.45 million pounds, but the commission ultimately opted to set the limit slightly higher, at 27.52 million pounds. Alaska’s portion of the blue-line projection would be about 19.32 million pounds, compared to about 19.7 million pounds in 2014. IPHC Quantitative Scientist Ian Stewart presented the results of the 2014 stock assessment and possible 2015 harvests at the commission’s interim meeting taking place Dec. 2-3 in Seattle. The blue-line recommendation matches the current harvest policy with the most recent stock assessment, and is typically similar to the catch limit set by the six-member commission of U.S. and Canadian members. Pacific halibut harvests are set under a treaty between the U.S. and Canada, with an equal number of members from each nation. The commission is not required to go with the blue-line, however, and will make a final decision on the 2015 limits at its annual meeting in January. As he did for the 2014 limits, Stewart provided information about a range of 2015 harvests and the effects they might have on the stock. Under the blue-line information Stewart provided, the catch in Southcentral Alaska, or Area 3A, and Southeast Alaska, or Area 2C, would increase slightly. Area 4A, or part of the Bering Sea at the end of the Alaska Peninsula, would also increase compared to 2014, but the rest of the Bering Sea would have a decreased catch. The projection called for a charter catch, including wastage, of about 790,000 pounds in Southeast and 1.89 million pounds in Southcentral. The commercial catch would be about 3.4 million pounds in Southeast, 7.81 million pounds in Southcentral, 1.35 million pounds in 4A, 720,000 pounds in 4B (Aleutians) and 370,000 pounds in 4CDE (Pribilof Islands). Area 4A had the largest increase in fish shown by the IPHC’s summer survey, Stewart said, which was one of the factors contributing to the shift in how the coastwide limit could be apportioned. This summer, halibut were found at several 4A stations where they haven’t been seen previously, he said. The reduction for the rest of the Bering Sea, or Areas 4B and 4CDE, was due to a change in bycatch, he said. The actual stock status for the area appears stable, and increasing, according to the survey results. Halibut bycatch for 4CDE in 2015 is estimated at slightly more than 3 million pounds, however. Last year, the commission adjusted the apportionments to allow a slightly larger harvest in 4CDE than the blue-line called for based on input from fishermen in that region. This year, Areas 2C and 3A went over their apportionments by about 3 and 5 percent respectively, according to a presentation by the IPHC’s Heather Gilroy. That was caused primarily by a larger-than-expected harvest by the charter sector, and more commercial wastage than anticipated. In 2014, the total Alaska commercial catch was about 16.75 million pounds; sport anglers harvested about 6.9 million pounds, Gilroy said. Stewart also provided the commission with some information on a “status quo” option, which mirrors the 2014 limits. According to the harvest policy decision table, sticking with a harvest of about 27.5 million pounds, and total removals of about 41.4 million pounds, would mean an increased chance that the catch limits would need to be decreased in 2016. Under the blue-line, there’s an estimated 37 percent chance that the 2016 catch is less than the 2015 catch, if the 2016 catch is based on the blue-line. Under the status quo projection, that increases to a 57 percent chance. Bycatch work moves forward The IPHC also heard reports on work to study and possibly reduce halibut bycatch. Commissioners generally supported asking IPHC staff to analyze a change to halibut accounting that could reduce commercial wastage, although a final decision on that motion was planned for Dec. 3. The analysis would look at changing the legal size of commercial halibut from over 32 inches to over 30 inches. Canadian Commissioner David Boyes said that could be a “valuable step” toward reducing halibut mortality. The commission is also set to meet with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in February to discuss bycatch. According to IPHC Commissioner Bob Alverson, the two bodies intend to look at developing a broader set of strategies or principals to reduce wastage. Stewart also talked about IPHC staff’s work to develop a new tool for assessing the impacts of mortality. The spawning potential ratio, or SPR, is intended to help account for all types of halibut mortality, including competing sources, and compare different sources of mortality. The work so far shows that the trade-off between bycatch and directed catch is about a pound for a pound, Stewart said.

Waiting game begins in narrow governor's race

For Alaska’s gubernatorial candidates, election night was just the start of the waiting game. With all precincts reporting, independent candidate Bill Walker had 107,395 votes to incumbent Republican Gov. Sean Parnell’s 104,230, or 47.8 percent to 46.4 percent, but an estimated 20,000 absentee ballots still had to be counted as of early Nov. 5, and the Alaska Division of Elections could still receive more before the final Nov. 19 deadline. In the meantime, the two planned to continue their work. “We still are working to make sure the budget gets done, every departments’ daily duties are met, and we’re going to continue to do that,” Parnell said late Nov. 4 at his campaign party at the downtown Anchorage Hilton. He trailed in the votes all night by between 2,000 and 3,000 votes, and did not visit election central at the Egan Center. Shortly before midnight Nov. 4, Parnell said he didn’t want anyone to prematurely decide the race and that it was “important that every vote gets counted.” The atmosphere at Walker’s campaign party inside Anchorage’s Performing Arts Center was upbeat, with a round of cheering when the first results were announced about 9 p.m., and a drum-beating march into election central later in the night. Walker said earlier in the evening that he would wake up Nov. 5 and kiss his wife. He had hoped for enough of a lead to then get started with his transition team — a group he said would “look like Alaska” — right away. Regardless of the wait, he would be thinking about his next steps, he said, and getting together with his running mate. Byron Mallot, the former Democrat gubernatorial nominee running alongside Walker for lieutenant governor on the “unity ticket” formed after the Aug. 19 primary, was stuck in Juneau due to mechanical issues with the plane he planned to fly north in, and didn’t make it to Anchorage until after midnight when most of the election events were winding down. Walker and Parnell struck differing positions on several issues — particularly oil taxes and the effort to build a large-volume natural gas export pipeline project — and the outlook for Alaska’s North Slope producers remains up in the air until the ballots are counted. If Parnell is reelected it will mean his policies favorable to the industry will be sustained, particularly his signature accomplishment in office, an agreement with North Slope producers and TransCanada Corp. on a $50 billion-plus North Slope gas pipeline and liquefied natural gas export project. Beyond that, Parnell pushed through a major overhaul of the state oil and gas production tax to induce new industry investment and initiated changes in state land management policies to expedite permits for development. Parnell said he didn’t believe the close race was a referendum on his oil tax changes. “A lot of factors are at play,” he said. “…I don’t think oil taxes are necessarily a part of it.” Walker, however, differentiated himself from his opponent on those issues. During the campaign Walker was critical of the effort for a North Slope gas pipeline and liquefied natural gas export project agreement Parnell signed with North Slope producers and TransCanada Corp., but said he would support the work now underway by the state-industry project team. Parnell predicted during the campaign that a Walker victory would cause producers to pause if not stop their current spending on the pre-front end engineering and design, or pre-FEED, phase of the project. Walker said he would “review” the project to ensure it is in the state’s interest, and might seek a larger participation for the state if he is dissatisfied or if one of the producers tries to pull out of the deal, but wants the gas/LNG project to stay on schedule for a start of construction in 2018. Walker also said he will not seek to change a 2013 revamp in the state’s oil and gas production that that was another one of Parnell’s signature accomplishments that was upheld through a referendum Aug. 19. Tim Bradner contributed to this story.

Even after restrictions, charter halibut catch exceeds limits

The 2014 charter halibut catch exceeded the allocations in both Southeast and Southcentral despite projections last winter that the management measures would keep anglers within the limits for each area. Total charter removals, which includes release mortality for certain fish, are estimated at 875,572 pounds of halibut in Southeast, or Area 2C, and 2.17 million pounds in Southcentral, or Area 3A. The charter allocation for 2C was 761,000 pounds and 1.76 million pounds for 3A. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated that guided anglers harvested about 67,942 halibut in Southeast Alaska this summer, and 181,947 halibut in Southcentral. Those estimates are based on logbook data through July. ADFG’s Scott Meyer said during an October meeting with charter operators that the department has generally been successful at estimating the full summer’s catch based on the first half, although operators said that storms and other events may throw those estimates off this year. This was the first year of management under the new halibut catch sharing plan. The International Pacific Halibut Commission set the overall halibut catch limit last January, which was split between the commercial and charter sectors based on a formula set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The council recommended management measures for the guided anglers; those were developed by a committee comprised primarily of charter sector representatives. But the management measures didn’t result in the expected harvest. In Southeast, Meyer said the number of fish harvested was about 17 percent higher than expected, but the fish were a little smaller, so the total overage was about 15 percent higher than the pre-season projection. The harvest was larger out of Sitka, Juneau and Glacier Bay, Meyer said, but held fairly steady in Petersburg and Ketchikan. In Southcentral, Meyer said the opposite occurred. Fewer fish were landed, but they were larger than expected. Seward and Kodiak were the main ports were more fish than expected were harvested; elsewhere in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, the catch was lower than in the past. That didn’t necessarily mean that the fish were actually larger this summer, however. Meyer said that in Southcentral, it looked like fewer people kept a second fish this year than in the past, meaning that the fish they kept, which didn’t have a size limit, were bigger on average than anticipated. That’s different than the fish available being generally larger, he said. Homer’s Dan Donich said that at that port, it was “one of the worst years I’ve ever seen” in terms of big fish, although it wasn’t hard to find smaller ones. Donich said that he struggled to find 20- to 40-pounders on his trips, which were mostly halibut-salmon combos. Meyer noted that other ports, like Seward, did appear to have more of the big fish. Meyer said the logbooks also didn’t show an increase in released fish, despite reports that that occurred. Seward’s Andy Mezirow suggested that guide behavior may have also impacted fishing behavior — as the season progressed, he increased his focus on getting clients on fish they’d want to keep right away, and discouraged them from tossing them back, he said. At the meeting, operators also discussed the management measures they’d like to see considered for next year. Unless the IPHC increases the overall catch limit, the measures will likely need to limit their effort more than they did this year. Southcentral operators maintained that they’d like to keep a two-fish bag limit, and asked ADFG to analyze a reverse slot limit, day of the week closures, annual limits and a maximum size, as well as various combinations of those, to try and get the region within its likely allocation. Day of the week closures will be considered for June 15 to Aug. 15, when operators are often busy every day; shutting down fishing during the shoulder season would more likely just result in more activity on the other days. For Southeast, where guided anglers have already been limited to one fish, the primary focus for analysis is the reverse slot limit with an annual limit and a maximum size limit with an annual limit. Analysis of those options will be presented in December. Every halibut counts Charter operators also worked to reduce halibut mortality this summer through an initiative called Every Halibut Counts that started in 2013. Mark Young, a Valdez charter operator and steering committee member, said Every Halibut Counts is an effort to get charter operators and their clients to practice safe release techniques and minimize halibut mortality. “It’s just protection of the resource,” Young said. About 20 vessels participated this summer, mostly from Southcentral, although Young said that Petersburg operator Stan Malcolm also worked to get folks in Southeast Alaska involved. Homer had some of the best participation in the program, in part because of Alaska Marine Conservation Council intern who was also a deckhand, and helped get vessels signed up, Young said. Several factors play into overall halibut mortality, and the decisions an angler makes about whether to keep or release a fish are tied, in part, to the management measures, he said. The committee wants to make sure that when a fish is released, it has the best possible chance at surviving, Young said. To that aim, Every Halibut Counts has a website and video, and is focused on spreading a set of best practices that include the use of circle hooks, quickly reeling the fish in and using a net to carefully return fish to the water. Young said many of the suggestions are already considered best practices, but the campaign is a way to remind everyone. For him, the discussion of which fish to keep is the most interesting part, Young said. Young said that the management measures also impacted people’s fishing behavior this summer— some people wanted to catch and release until they got to their biggest possible second fish shorter than 29 inches. This summer, his approach was to tell his clients that he was hoping that they would want to keep the first fish they caught. “If I’m keeping a fish, there’s no concern about releasing it,” he said. So far, Young said that clients were “very, very receptive” to the message. “Along with many other things, they’re beginning to understand that its more than just going out there and catching fish,” he said. Although the campaign originated in the charter sector, Young said he hopes the practices spread to recreational anglers, too. The project started with a Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, and has been largely spearheaded by UAF Professor Terry Johnson and AMCC Executive Director Kelly Harrell, Young said. He, and other charter operators, were recruited to the steering committee to help develop the best practices and spread the word. Just talking to operators in other ports has been an unexpected bonus to the endeavor, Young said. “It’s been nice to have conversations that aren’t centered around allocation in the charter fleet,” he said. Angler activity up overall Halibut catches weren’t the only increase in angler activity this past summer. Through September, anglers purchased a total of 592,251 fishing licenses in 2014, more than the previous two years, when 582,781 and 589,814 licenses were sold in 2013 and 2012, respectively. That figure includes several types of fishing licenses, including both resident and nonresident, and shows a general increase in sport fishing activity.

APOC recommends changes to Kenai River Classic disclosures

ANCHORAGE — Public officials may need to disclose their participation in the Kenai River Classic in the future under a recent decision by the Alaska Public Offices Commission. The commission discussed Kenai River Classic participation during an Oct. 21 meeting in Anchorage where it addressed three complaints against public officials related to past participation in the event. Those complaints were filed against Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. In its Oct. 31 decisions, the commission did not find a violation regarding the waived entry fee for each of the officials, but noted that the practice may need to change in the future. The commission upheld staff recommendations on other components of each of the complaints. Staff recommended reduced fines and public official financial disclosure training for Campbell and Fogels, and dismissal of the complaint against Treadwell. The classic, an annual sportfishing event held on the Kenai River each year, is organized by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association as a fundraiser and educational event. KRSA has asked for a substantial donation —$4,000 — from most participants, but enabled “invited guests,” including public officials, to participate for free. KRSA executives and public officials have said their participation is educational, and beneficial to both the state and the organization. In the future, however, officials may have to disclose the waived entrance fee as part of their official disclosures. The commission wrote that the tiered donation/participation fee system created a “precarious position” for public officials. “Now that this information is known, if the Classic continues to operate in the same manner, public officials should consider the requirements applicable to the reporting of gifts received by public officials set forth in (state statute),” the commission wrote. In a Nov. 3 email, KRSA Executive Director Ricky Gease wrote that he couldn’t provide formal comment on the orders since they had just been released, but that the organization worked with APOC on its investigation and voluntarily submits quarterly and annual reports to the commission. The commission decided on a $45 fine for Fogels and a $264 fine for Campbell, in both cases a 97 percent reduction of the regular fee. Campbell’s fee was greater because her violation occurred two years earlier, meaning that her disclosure was more delinquent. Campbell will also be required to attend a training session on public official financial disclosure, a staff suggestion that she said she would “enthusiastically embrace” during the October hearing. Campbell’s violation was for failing to disclose gifts received at the 2011 KRC on her public officials financial disclosure form; Fogels violation was for failing to disclose 2013 participation. Both amended their filings to reflect the gifts after the APOC complaints were filed, and said they had disclosed participation to departmental ethics supervisors and the Department of Law. The complaint against Treadwell revolved around his daughter’s alleged participation; however, she did not attend the classic, and just ate one meal — a taco — and state regulations do not require that meals intended for immediate consumption be disclosed. The complaints were among more than 250 filed by Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage residents connected to the commercial fishing industry in Cook Inlet. All related to the Kenai River Sportfishing Association’s Kenai River Classic and other outreach and lobbying of public officials by various entities regarding fisheries management, including at state Board of Fisheries meetings. An appeal has been filed regarding seven of the complaints; those will be made public after the commission finalizes the agenda for its Nov. 19 meeting, according to APOC Executive Director Paul Dauphinis.

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