Molly Dischner

Setnets, sport catch closed for Kenai king salmon concerns

King salmon concerns have continued to take the forefront of salmon management on the central Kenai Peninsula this summer. Managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, closed king salmon fishing on the Kenai River effective July 26. That triggered a closure of most commercial setnetting on the east side of Cook Inlet as well. Setnetters target sockeye primarily, but also catch kings in their nets. The Kenaitze Tribe’s educational fishery was also further restricted, going back down to one net, rather than two, as had been allowed earlier in the month. Through July 28, 11,224 late-run kings were counted on the Kenai River — slightly more than the 10,943 counted by that same date in 2013, but less than any other recent year. Setnetters have been limited so far this season, with the Kenai East Side section opened just three times for a total of 36 hours since the season began earlier in July. The Kasilof River Special Harvest area  — a narrow stretch of beach near the mouth of the Kasilof River — and the Kasilof section of the East Side setnet fishery have had more harvest opportunity, however. The commercial drift fleet is also limited, and now cannot fish within one mile of the beach. Through July 29, ADFG estimated the commercial harvest in Cook Inlet at 3 million salmon, including 2.3 million sockeyes. That harvest came primarily in the Central District, where fishermen have landed about 2.1 million sockeyes. About 4,000 kings have been commercially caught in Cook Inlet, split nearly evenly between the Northern and Central districts. There was a targeted king salmon commercial fishery in the Northern District during May and June with about 1,500 kings harvested. Among the king salmon caught in the Central District, the drift fleet harvested about 280 and the setnet harvest outside of Kasilof River area is about 1,300 kings. The Kenai River sockeye run is stronger than the king run, but not as large as the recent past. As of July 28, 732,225 sockeyes were counted on the Kenai, less than the 1.2 million by the same date in 2013. ADFG estimated that the Kenai run so far was 1.9 million fish, with the total run expected to come in between 2.7 million and 4.3 million fish. King fishing in other Peninsula fisheries has also been restricted, as managers typically try to share restrictions on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers to prevent a shift in effort. Also effective July 26, the Kasilof went to catch-and-release for Kasilof River kings. Another emergency order closed marine sportfishing for kings in Cook Inlet north of Bluff Point. Other Upper Cook Inlet king runs are doing better this summer. Although most king fishing in the Matanuska-Susitna area is closed, the counts appear stronger. The Deshka River appears likely to meet its goal of 13,000 to 28,000 kings, with 16,246 kings counted through July 28 — behind the 18,290 counted by the same date in 2013 but ahead of 2012’s 13,902. On the Little Su, 3,082 kings were counted through July 28, ahead of the 2,297 counted by the same day in 2013. This is the second year of a weir count on that river, and a weir-based escapement goal is not yet available. Statewide commercial catches continue Statewide, the commercial harvest reached 87.3 million salmon through July 29 according to ADFG’s bluesheet estimate. The statewide total includes about 40 million sockeye, 38 million pinks, 6.9 million chums, 1,133 cohos and 395,000 kings. The pink catch was the strongest in the past week, driven largely by the Southeast Alaska harvest. There, about 7.8 million pinks were landed through July 29, up from about 2.6 million landed through July 22. In the Central Region, which includes Prince William Sound, Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet, the pink catch went from 22.6 million through July 22, to 27.2 million through July 29. Kodiak fishermen are also landing pinks; more than 1 million were caught from July 23 to 29. The bluesheet estimate through July 29 was 2.8 million pinks, up from 993,000 through July 22. The strong pink catches, however, come after 2013’s record pink catches, resulting in a surplus of canned pink salmon on the market that is driving down prices. Gov. Sean Parnell asked the federal government to purchase canned pinks in a July 23 letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “The 2013 ‘bumper crop’ resulted in an unsold inventory of over 6.1 million cases, or two years of fish at the current level of demand,” Parnell wrote. He also wrote that the price this season is lower than last year at about 28 cents per pound compared to 42 cents per pound in 2013. The USDA purchased some canned pinks earlier this year. Other salmon catches also continue throughout the state. In Prince William Sound, the total salmon harvest as of July 29 was estimated at 31.1 million fish, with about 4 million pinks harvested between July 23 and 29. The sockeye catch there was estimated at about 3.2 million fish through July 29, and is winding down. At Bristol Bay, the salmon catch is estimated at about 29.2 million salmon, including 28.7 million sockeye, 13,000 kings, 438,000 chums and 54,000 pinks. In Southeast, another troll openers for kings is planned, and the regional king harvest through July 29 was estimated at 353,000. Coho and chum harvests in Southeast have also increased, with coho landings nearly doubling from 448,000 as of July 23 to 713,000 as of July 29. About 900,000 chums were landed in the same period, with this summer’s total hitting 3,699 through July 29. In the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region, commercial fishing has slowed down somewhat. Through July 29, the area-wide harvest was estimated at 1.1 million fish, including 810,00 chums and 230,000 pinks. Rashah McChesney of the Peninsula Clarion in Kenai contributed to this report.

Judge rules in favor of setnet ban ballot initiative

Voters could to be asked to decide whether to ban setnets in certain parts of Alaska under a court decision made today in Anchorage. The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, or AFCA, filed a ballot initiative petition in November 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 Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell’s decision not to certify the proposed ballot initiative in a July 23 ruling and ordered the lieutenant governor to certify the initiative and allow proponents to continue the process toward getting 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 appropriation. AFCA appealed, and during oral argument, attorney Matt Singer said that organization believed the initiative is not an appropriation, and that the public’s right to weigh in on fish and wildlife management using the ballot initiative process should be interpreted broadly, with the appropriations limitation interpreted narrowly. Upper Cook Inlet setnetters target sockeye salmon for commercial harvest. Their permits also allow to them to target other salmon species, including kings, that swim into the nets. Eliminating setnetters in Cook Inlet would likely result in increased catch for in-river sport fishermen, personal use fishermen, and for the fleet of drift boats targeting sockeye. Easter agreed with AFCA that the initiative was not a prohibited appropriation. “(The initiative) does not result in a give-away program or usurp legislative control over the salmon allocation process,” Easter wrote. In a July 23 press release, AFCA supported the decision. Singer argued the case during oral argument in April, and highlighted the history of ballot initiatives that preserve Alaska’s fish stocks. “Alaskan voters have a long history of using ballot initiatives to protect fish and game,” Singer said in the statement. The state’s argument relied, in part, on a prior case - Pullen vs. Ulmer case - in which the court said an initiative giving preferential treatment to one user group was a prohibited appropriation. Easter wrote in her order that the two cases were substantially different, and that comparing the two was like comparing apples and oranges. Proponents of the setnet ban must still collect about 35,000 signatures before the question can appear on the ballot. According a its release, AFCA will start collecting signatures once the Alaska Division of Elections finishes preparing the signature packets. Easter’s decision may also still be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Kuskokwim Corp. inks deal with Donlin Gold

A proposed $6 billion gold mine in the Kuskokwim region is progressing after an agreement between the company interested in developing the project and the village Native corporation that has surface rights in the area. The Kuskokwim Corp. announced a surface agreement June 8 with Donlin Gold LLC, enabling the mine to use its land to access gold if the company decides to proceed with the project. Donlin Gold LLC is owned by NovaGold Resources and Barrick Gold. TKC is the Alaska Native village corporation for 10 Kuskokwim-area villages with about 3,400 shareholders. “It’s a milestone for the project because we are on The Kuskokwim Corporation land,” said Donlin Gold spokesman Kurt Parkan. Subsurface mineral rights in the proposed mine area are held by Alaska Native regional corporation Calista Corp. and Donlin has already signed an agreement with that company. “Now we have agreements with Calista for subsurface and Kuskokwim for surface use. Without that agreement, there would be no project,” Parkan said. The Donlin Gold project is a proposed open-pit mine in Western Alaska, near Donlin Creek in the Kuskokwim River region. Donlin has estimated that an average of 59,000 tons of ore would be processed daily, with an estimated 34 million ounces of gold estimated to be available at the site. If built, it would be the largest gold mine in the world. TKC CEO Maver Carey said the two entities have been negotiating the agreement for several years. “We wanted to make sure that we were also obtaining economic development for our village corporation,” she said. The agreement included $50,000 for shareholder scholarships, a signing agreement payment that was used in part for an elder dividend and in part to prepare TKC for future work on the project, and plans for annual compensation. The amount of the signing agreement and annual compensation are confidential. The agreement also gives TKC the right to certain contracts including construction and operation of a necessary port, and site reclamation. TKC has 11 subsidiary companies that operate in a variety of industries, Carey said. Now TKC is preparing them for the work. “We need to work on those companies or new companies,” she said. “We just need to decide which entity these contracts are going to fall into.” Carey said the reclamation work will start immediately, not after the mine ceases operation. “We just believed that it was best that the entity and the shareholders that own the surface reclaim their surface back to the standards,” Carey said. Calista has rights to other parts of the projects, and Carey said the two Native corporations worked together to ensure that they weren’t competing with one another. Under the surface agreement, TKC will also have a role in ensuring subsistence harvest opportunity in the region throughout the project. “We’ve formed a technical subsistence oversight committee so that all the parties can get together and be on board with concerns and things that we hear from our shareholders, Calista, TKC and then even other residents that live in the region,” Carey said. “I think that’s another important piece, that we’re all going to work together.” Representatives from TKC, Calista and Donlin will form an advisory technical review and oversight committee, Carey said. That committee will produce a subsistence harvest plan, as well as work on the spill response plan and spill response training. EIS, environmental work underway The surface agreement was not the only remaining hurdle. Before Donlin Gold decides whether to build a mine, the environmental impact statement, or EIS, process must be completed and about 100 permits will be needed. Parkan estimated that the EIS process will be completed in about 2017. Then, Donlin will decide whether or not to proceed with the project and apply for permits as needed. Donlin has said the mine would be approximately two miles long and one-mile wide, with an initial operating life of 27 years. The mine proposal is for just a portion of the mineralized corridor, and it’s possible that further study will show additional mining opportunity in the area. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the lead agency on the EIS, and selected the alternatives for analysis during the second quarter, according to a Donlin release. “Right now they’re doing the development of alternatives and the analysis of those alternatives,” Parkan said. The alternatives consider Donlin’s proposed port site, a pipeline to bring gas from Cook Inlet to the project site, other options for those, and other components of the project. The draft EIS is expected to be out in the middle of 2015, Parkan said. The final version will be used by various government entities to make permitting decisions. If Donlin proceeds with the mine and acquires the necessary permits, construction will take about four years, Parkan said. In the meantime, Donlin is also working on collecting baseline environmental data to support the EIS process. Although the project has been in the works since the 1990s, and most of the data has already been collected, the Army Corps requested certain additional studies, which are underway now. Parkan said that the current studies primarily look at fish, including juvenile anadromous fish locations on the Kuskokwim River, as well as geotechnical work along the pipeline route. Most likely, more work will be done next summer, Parkan said. The EIS process will also include the opportunity for public comment on the proposal and the potential impacts to the area watershed and other resources. Carey said that being involved in the project has mitigated some of TKC’s concerns. Partners plan regional training Donlin, Calista and TKC are also working on developing a training program to prepare area residents for the jobs that will be created by the mine development and operation.  “We’re working closely with Kuskpuk school district and Donlin and Calista on implementing a training program,” Carey said. Parkan said the surface agreement includes both regional training and local hire provisions. According to a TKC press release, the project is expected to create up to 3,000 construction jobs and between 600 and 1,400 operational jobs throughout the life of the mine. Carey said that TKC will use some of the signing agreement payment for a training facility, but many of those details must still be worked out. The training program will try to target recent graduates of Kuskokwim-area schools, as well as older members of the workforce who may already have some training, and the generation that will eventually join the workforce. “We’re also trying to focus on the younger generation,” Carey said. “Those kindergarteners who, by the time they graduate, are excited and ready and stay in school and work and are trained for all of these different employment opportunities that are going to be provided in our region.” Carey said that the focus on the youngest generation is what she sees as the most exciting part of the project. “I just believe that this is economically going to change our region for the positive,” Carey said. “And in working together with all of the partners, it’s going to benefit all of our shareholders and residents who are in the region. To me, it’s a great legacy that we’re going to leave for our children and grandchildren. I’ll be proud to be retired knowing that our shareholders are going to benefit for several generations.”

Gold prices, mining activity hold steady compared to 2013

Gold mining and exploration is holding steady this summer compared to last, in line with relatively similar gold prices. The state’s Department of Natural Resources oversees much of the permitting activity for mining, including on federal and private land. Through mid-July, DNR had approximately 653 mining and exploration operations registered for the summer, more than the 604 registered by mid-May of 2013. That includes 48 exploration projects, 430 placer projects and 175 suction dredges. Gold prices peaked in 2012, spurring additional exploration and mining throughout the state, but activity has declined since then along with prices. From January 2011 to November 2012, which included two seasons of mining, the state received 549 placer applications and 272 suction dredge applications, more than the mid-season numbers for 2013 and 2014. As of July 22, gold was $1,306 per ounce. That’s similar to summer 2013, when prices hovered around $1,300 per ounce, but less than 2012 when prices were more than than $1,600 per ounce. According to permits filed with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, activity on state land appears to be up slightly compared to 2013, although all of the numbers are ballpark figures as not all applications are processed. Miscellaneous land use permits, or MLUPs, are required for most mining activity on state land, although recreational gold panning and mining with light portable field equipment does not require such a permit. For 2014, a total 549 new and renewal MLUPS were filed through mid-July, compared to 493 in 2013. That was driven largely by entirely new MLUPs. There were 316 new MLUPs and 233 renewals for 2014, an increase of 95 new MLUPs, but 39 fewer renewals. MLUPs are not required for recreational gold panning or mining with light, portable field equipment, or with a suction dredge that has a nozzle intake of six inches or less, pumps no more than 30,000 gallons of water per day and has an engine with 18 horsepower or less. Activity on federal and private land, however, is down. Through mid-July, DNR received 20 new applications for permits to mine in Alaska, or APMAs, for work on federal and private land, and 56 renewal AMPAs. That’s less than 2013, when DNR received 47 new letters and 64 renewals for mining on federal or private land. AMPAs are required each year that a claim owner intends to conduct mining activity, including exploration, mining or transportation of equipment. The AMPA is submitted to DNR, but the permitting process can include several other entities including the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Alaska Department of Revenue, and the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Nome gold rush continues In Nome — a  historic hub for mining that’s received increased attention as gold prices have increased and reality television shows have popularized the region — activity is also steady. Through mid-July, 214 operations were authorized with DNR in 2014. That’s slightly more than the 204 operations authorized through June 2013. Nome-area mining includes a range of operations, but most of the activity occurs in two recreational mining areas offshore from the east and west beaches. The last offshore lease sale was held in 2011, and the next is unlikely to be held until 2021. Mining operations at the west beach are limited to six-inch or smaller suction nozzles, while east beach operations are limited to eight-inch or smaller nozzles. Engine strength is also limited for dredges operating offshore from either beach. Elsewhere in Norton Sound, larger barge-sized dredges have applied for permits to mine.

Veterans discuss challenges of civilian life

A roundtable discussion between Sen. Mark Begich and several representatives of veterans’ organizations and service providers focused largely on the need for better communication about benefits and more streamlined services. Veterans also talked about proposed changes to the program meant to help prepare military members for civilian life. Begich held the July 2 roundtable at Catholic Social Services in Anchorage to better gauge how Alaska’s veterans are doing, and what is needed, particularly for the youngest veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. “We must address the unique needs of this current generation of veterans, particularly during their transition to civilian life,” Begich said. “When I look at the needs of these veterans, it’s not just providing individuals with access to necessary care and services, but also providing their families with the support they need. “We have far more service members with families today and like any family they are struggling with childcare costs and family needs — while also trying to successfully transition to civilian life. There are things we can — and must — do to support these veterans and their families and that is what today’s event was all about.” Stephanie Smithson, program director for Homeless Family Services at Catholic Social Services, said one of the biggest issues is making sure veterans know about the available benefits and how to access them. Other participants agreed. Jennifer Baker, a military spouse who works with Hope For Heroes, said her organization encounters a lot of veterans who need help just covering basic expenses, like buying food and paying utility bills. “They don’t know any of the benefits they can receive,” she said. Eric Warner, a counselor at the Vets Center, said the VA is supposed to have peer navigators to help veterans navigate the system, but that he hasn’t been able to figure out who holds those three positions at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. There is a program meant to help address the transition from military service to civilian life — the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP. TAP includes an employment workshop and other information meant to help service members navigate their benefits and the civilian world. But Veteran Bryan Box, president of the University of Alaska Anchorage Student Veterans Association, said that it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, it just “vomits information at them,” and departing service members can’t retain enough of it to be useful. Some soldiers are trying to take TAP while still deployed, making it particularly difficult to focus on the new information, said UAA Military and Veterans Assistant Nichole Grunwald, who is also a veteran. Warner added that while it’s a requirement that 100 percent of troops receive outgoing counsel, that doesn’t happen in practice. One audience member, however, said that part of the issue is that different supervisors have different views on TAP. His enabled him to go for nearly a decade before he left the service. Other supervisors, however, don’t help military members make time for the course. TAP was recently revised after Congress directed the Department of Defense to do so, but those revisions haven’t necessarily solved all of its problems. Begich said he would ask the DOD whether the revisions were suggested internally, or veterans were consulted to find out what information and structure would have helped them. Participants also talked about some of the issues facing veterans, such as homelessness, finding jobs, education and mental health. Begich asked the participants if it would be helpful if education benefits were easier to use outside of public colleges. Most agreed, and Warner said that when institutions have different timelines than public colleges, it can be difficult to make the benefits work out, like at Northern Industrial Training, which offers a shorter program but is more expensive during the time it runs. Roundtable participants also talked about the growing number of homeless veterans. “That is becoming a complicated problem,” Begich said. Warner said that the criteria for housing assistance can be problematic. Some programs consider veterans homeless if they are “couchsurfing.” Others only consider them homeless if they are living outside, in a camp. Warner said at times he’s had to recommend that individuals stop staying with friends and move outdoors so they can get help. Smithson said that couchsurfing is just considered at an “imminent risk” for homelessness, and not truly homeless. Warner said that mental health issues are often a component of other problems veterans face, but it’s difficult to address them until a vet has a roof over his or her head. Baker said that sometimes military members return straight from a deployment to home life, and families aren’t necessarily prepared to help the returning service member cope. When her husband returned, she didn’t receive any information about what his transition might be like, she said. Baker said there’s also a stigma against Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, that can make it difficult for veterans to get a job or adjust to family life. “I think a lot of that goes back to the mental health issues,” she said.

Born in spill planning, uses for ShoreZone tool expanding

A program originally brought to Alaska to support oil spill planning and response efforts in Cook Inlet has since expanded to most of the state with uses from coastal monitoring to art and education. The coastal mapping endeavor ShoreZone’s Alaska debut was as a Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council pilot project in 2001. Now, about 80 percent of Alaska’s coastline is mapped including Southeast Alaska and the North Slope. ShoreZone provides public access to a coastal map that includes several elements: high-resolution photos, videos, and data on the biology and geomorphology of the coast. “Having the biology and the geology together is a robust data set,” said ShoreZone’s Darren Stewart, who works for The Nature Conservancy as a coordinator among the various partners. In addition to oil and gas uses, the database is valuable for Coast Guard search and rescue operations, researchers doing reconnaissance and selecting sites, marine debris cleanup efforts, and recreation planning such as planning kayak trips and looking for safe landing spots for boats, Stewart said. “Being able to see an area before you get there saves a lot of time and money and resources,” Stewart said. This summer, the National Marine Fisheries Service is funding the next step in mapping Alaska’s coast — about 2,500 miles along the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta shoreline from Cape Newenham to Emmonak, including Nunivak Island. That work will be done in two surveys in July and August, and cost about $300,000. NMFS is the primary funder this summer, but the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge will provide various services like fuel drops, lodging and other logistics support, Stewart said. A private contractor, Coastal and Ocean Resources Inc., or CORI, collects the data that feeds into the maps. A biologist and a geomorphologist will ride in a helicopter along the coast, taking video and shooting still images, and narrating along the way. Generally, the team will follow the same standardized protocol that has been used throughout the state — including doing the work when there are the lowest tides and the most light. “They want the entire coastline from the lowest of the low waterline to the supertidal zone,” Stewart said. In some places, additional information is collected based on interest — for instance, a baseline hydrocarbon study was done on the North Slope. Later on, mappers will listen to the narration and use the imagery to create maps in units. That can take several months, and depends on funding, Stewart said. Eventually, the database that’s built allows for queries about a variety of things — where logs are likely accumulate, whether a stretch of coast has pebble or boulders or a sandy beach, and the habitat there, said CORI’s John Harper, who has been involved with the project since it started in British Columbia. CORI has done all but one of the surveys in Alaska, according to Stewart, and funding has come from a variety of partners — about 30 to 40 organizations have been involved at one time or another. “It’s very cool that we’ve had this array of funding,” Harper said. Rooted in spill response and planning ShoreZone has its roots in oil spill planning — the program started in British Columbia for that purpose, and first came to Alaska for the same. Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council Director of Science and Research Sue Saupe said several organizations recognized the need for more information about Alaska’s coast after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 2001, the Cook Inlet advisory council, or CIRCAC, decided to see if ShoreZone could fill that need and funded the first pilot project. “We wanted a better inventory of all the coastlines in Cook Inlet,” she said. The early goal was to provide habitat information and imagery that could be used in emergency situations. The more information that is available about the coast, the easier it is to plan for a spill and cleanup, and minimize the impacts, because different habitats and landscape types respond differently to various treatments, she said. For instance — oil will linger longer on a slat marsh than an exposed stretch of rocks. ShoreZone provided the information that CIRCAC wanted, so after the pilot, the group started approaching other potential partners around the state to get involved. Within three years, all of Cook Inlet, the outer Kenai Peninsula coast, the Katmai region and northern portion of Kodiak were mapped. “I think the imagery is what really sparked people’s interest in making that happen,” Saupe said. Eventually, the project expanded to Southeast Alaska, and then Bristol Bay and most recently the North Slope in 2012 and St. Lawrence Island in 2013, Stewart said. The uses within the oil and gas realm are varied, Saupe said. “This imagery has so much value, I think, in oil spill planning and response,” Saupe said. Saupe said the program helps an oil spill response team on several levels — operations, planning and logistics. During the 2012 Kulluk incident when the Shell drill rig separated from its tow and went aground in a storm near Kodiak, Harper said the response team relied on ShoreZone to figure out where to land, where to store booms and how to prepare for grounding and minimizing damages. Flying the coast Today, the ShoreZone website is accessible to anyone with a computer and fast enough internet connection. Log on, and you can fly all the segments of Alaska’s coast that are mapped. But it didn’t start that way. Early on, the ShoreZone partners had to figure out how to make the data available, as the database deliverable was simply a disc of information, imagery and maps, Saupe said. In 2004, the National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to host the data and make sure it was seamless throughout the various regions of the data, and in 2005 the agency released the first integrated website, making all the data collected so far available to the public. The website is always being improved, Saupe said. “It’s just a constant effort, constant effort by NOAA to keep upgrading, take advantage of new tools,” she said. More recently, the video displayed on the website went from one second capture to full streaming video for certain portions of the database. Saupe said the partnership is always looking for ways to improve access and use of ShoreZone in oil spill planning and response, and in other capacities. One of the efforts has been to create offline tools, so that responders in areas with limited internet access can still use the ShoreZone information. An early iteration of that effort is available by borrowing a hard drive and pulling all the data from it, but that’s a cumbersome process. Another version is in the works, which would allow users to pull the data right from the internet onto a local drive. For now, however, Saupe said the website remains the best way to access the data. CIRCAC has also worked with the Alaska Oceans Observing System, or AOOS, on a program that integrates ShoreZone data with other information responders might want, Saupe said. The Cook Inlet Response Tool includes more than 100 data layers, such as ShoreZone habitat information and video, realtime weather sensors and webcams, oil persistence, and marine mammal information. Saupe said it was a “powerful way to look at information.” AOOS also has ShoreZone data merged with additional databases for other regions of the state, including the Gulf of Alaska, Prince William Sound and the Arctic. “The goal was to take this ShoreZone imagery the next step,” Saupe said. CIRT also includes Geographic Response Strategies, which are pre-planned, site-specific protection measures for anadramous streams, archeological sites and other places considered fragile or in need of protection. Those were commissioned by Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and are available throughout the state, although they — like ShoreZone — began in Cook Inlet. Other patches remain to be mapped, including Norton Sound and parts of the Aleutian Islands, in part because it’s difficult to find funding for those areas. Other gaps in the data are the Southwest Alaska Peninsula, including King Cove and Sand Point, which are imaged but not mapped, Glacier Bay, the Pribilof Islands and Unimak Pass. The western Aleutians will be particularly difficult, and may have to be done by boat, Stewart said. “Even though its logistically challenging space, getting the Aleutians done is really important,” Stewart said. Harper said that Unimak Pass is a priority because of the shipping traffic in the region. “Even just regular cargo ships, they carry huge amounts of oil onboard,” Harper said. For now, there’s no set plan for updating the information as the coastline changes, although the mapping protocol relies on small homogenous units, so updates could be done piece-by-piece if necessary. Saupe said that the Cook Inlet was already reflown in 2009, as technology improved and the original imagery became outdated. The imagery statewide is also useful for gauging change, she said. “That imagery has become a very important data source in and of itself,” she said. Beyond oil and gas The survey process itself also leads to other interesting discoveries, Saupe said. For instance, during the Gulf of Alaska mapping, researchers discovered that macrocystis kelp beds previously thought not to extend past Icy Strait are actually found in the western Gulf of Alaska. After a small bed in Kenai and a larger bed in Kodiak were noted, CIRCAC funded dive studies to learn more about the habitat, Saupe said, and researchers have looked through historical records to try to learn more about its range, and if this is a change. CIRCAC has also used the habitat information from ShoreZone to develop further studies of salt marshes in Cook Inlet, she said. ShoreZone has also been used to develop two art exhibits, which pair large prints of the photos taken during the survey with scientific information about each area. The exhibits looked at the Gulf of Alaska and the Arctic, and have been installed in various places throughout the state, including the State Museum in Juneau. Communities also use ShoreZone for coastal planning, Stewart said. “Just to get a good bird’s eye view of what’s there on the coast,” he said. ShoreZone is also a tool for education, Saupe said, both in schools and communities. Saupe demonstrated the website in Kodiak. She had a young girl spot the place where she had taken a long beach walk, and a woman point out important archaeological sites around the island. A U.S. Coast Guard member responsible for pulling information when preparing for rescues said it would help with that work in the future. “Right there, you just had all these different levels of interest,” Saupe said. The website is also being used in some schools, both to learn about the coast and as the basis for other projects. One projects has students using the imagery to collect history and information about the villages and surrounding areas from local elders, Saupe said.

Recreational saltwater fishing policy in the works

The National Marine Fisheries Service is working on a draft policy that could incorporate more consideration of marine recreational fishing in management actions. The agency, or NMFS, has released four draft goals for a new national saltwater recreational fisheries policy, and is taking comments on the plan through September, with an October hearing planned to get input from Alaskans. According to information from NMFS, the recreational fishing policy will provide values to guide fishery management decisions made under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. According to a statement from NMFS, “The effort is about better understanding angler needs, better tailoring our programs and services, and empowering anglers to be responsible stewards.” In Alaska, marine recreational fishing generated 4,824 jobs, $213 million in income impacts, $558 million in sales impacts and $337 million in value-added impacts in 2012, according to the most recent fisheries economics report produced by NMFS. That doesn’t reflect the full recreational sector though, as it looks only at durable equipment, for-hire trips, private boat trips, and shore trips for the marine recreational sector. The draft goals look at fostering and enhancing recreational and non-commercial fisheries and public access, integrating saltwater recreational and non-commercial considerations throughout the federal marine fisheries management system, encouraging partnership, engagement and innovation, and enhancing transparency, follow-through and continuity. In a document on the draft goals, the agency suggested better communication, cooperative research and long-term funding for recreational programs as possible ways to accomplish the latter two goals. The effort to develop a plan has been supported by the recreational industry. Both Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease and SouthEast Alaska Guides Organization Executive Director Heath Hilyard said they supported the work the agency is doing to develop a plan. “I think elevating the issue to have a national policy is important,” Gease said. The recreational sector released its own report on saltwater recreational fisheries in the spring, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” which included a call for a national policy such as the one being developed. Gease said that the issue was raised to new NMFS administrator Eileen Sobeck in April at the National Recreational Sportfishing Summit, with the industry suggesting that a plan could help with policy guidance. “She agreed that that would be a good thing for NMFS to have,” Gease said. According to Gease, the Department of the Interior has a national freshwater fishing policy, and the new NMFS policy could serve as the marine parallel.  The new policy could also inform future iterations of the regional action agendas that guide the agency’s work in marine recreational fisheries. The Alaska agenda for 2014-15 outlines several goals for recreational fisheries and the specific projects that can help — including research and habitat projects, trip-planning tools for recreational anglers, data collection and others. In Alaska, the new policy likely wouldn’t have a major impact on recreational fisheries management, because that’s done largely by the state, not the feds. North Pacific Fishery Management Council member Ed Dersham said the policy would still signal an important focus on recreational fishing, however. “For NOAA Fisheries to put a heightened priority on recreational fisheries nationwide, that would be a good thing,” Dersham said. Dersham said that the only federally-managed recreational fishery is the halibut fishery, but that’s managed under the Halibut Act, not Magnuson-Stevens. However, Dersham said the recreational sector would also like to see NMFS devote a staff member to recreational fishing The agency formerly had such an employee, but has not filled the position in recent years, he said. “It would be a great thing if NMFS would put somebody back in a position to deal with recreational fishermen in Alaska,” Dersham said. Gease said that while marine salmon fishing likely wouldn’t change or be impacted by the policy, it could lead to more cooperative agreements between state and federal managers, including funding for research. More of a focus on the limiting factors for salmon out in the ocean, and the mortality bottlenecks for king salmon especially, would be helpful, Gease said. He noted that the state is working on salmon research, but a federal focus on the marine side would be beneficial. Hilyard said the policy could also result in more information collection about marine recreational fishing. He said “a true and thorough economic valuation of the recreational fishery, just in general and also in comparison to the commercial fisheries,” would be beneficial. Gease and Hilyard both said that the new policy appears to be part of a general trend toward more of a focus on marine rec fisheries by the agency. Gease said that trend really started with the first National Recreational Sportfishing Summit in 2010. One of the recommendations was a national office of NMFS looking at sportfishing, which the agency has developed. Gease said that many of the recommendations from that meeting were implemented, and now the agency is working to implement the recommendations from the second summit, held this year. Comments on the draft policy are due Sept. 12, with meetings planned throughout the nation this summer. Alaskans will have another chance to discuss it in October, when federal staff visits Anchorage for a meeting that will be scheduled in conjunction with the regular North Pacific council meeting planned for that month, according to NPFMC Executive Director Chris Oliver. The council meets October 8-14, but an exact time for the recreational fishing session has not yet been scheduled, although it will likely occur one evening. Dersham said the October timeframe was chosen instead of August as a way to try and get as much participation from the charter sector as possible. Webinars on the draft policy are also scheduled for July 9 and July 28.  

Alaska senators take another crack at restoring J-1 program

A few processing plants are finding themselves shorthanded as salmon catches increase around the state, but an item in pending U.S. Senate legislation could make it easier to fill vacant positions next summer. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich supported language in the 2015 State and Foreign Operations spending bill that would enable Alaska’s seafood processing industry to once again hire foreign students for temporary positions through a work travel program. The J-1 visa program grants temporary visas to foreign students interested in working, and traveling, in America. Alaska’s seafood processors were removed from the program in 2012, but language would allow them to participate once again. The bill still must pass the Senate, and then go to the House, before the program is reinstated. Participating students typically apply through a nonprofit that is expected to coordinate housing and job placements, and the students often work in locations where a rural location or seasonal workload makes hiring locally or domestically difficult. According to Alaska Department of Labor estimates, about 25,000 individuals are hired by the seafood processing industry each year. In 2011 and 2012, approximately 70 percent of the workforce came from outside of Alaska. Pacific Seafood Processing Association Vice President Dennis Phelan estimated Alaska processors will operate with about 300 to 500 fewer workers than would be ideal this summer. “It’s a problem,” he said. A smaller workforce means the plants operate more slowly, and sometimes have to put fishers on limits, capping the amount of fish they can deliver at a time, Phelan said. That’s less efficient for both the processors and the fishing fleet, he said. Phelan said at its peak, the industry probably employed about 4,000 foreign students through the J-1 program. While the industry would prefer to hire Alaskans and Americans, sometimes it isn’t possible, he said. “If we had the option of doing full staffing of the plants from workers in the U.S., that is obviously our preference,” Phelan said. But working in a seafood plant — even with the added intrigue of coming to Alaska — doesn’t appeal to very many college students in the U.S. anymore, Phelan said, although it used to. So companies more often turned to foreign students, who are interested in spending a summer in an Alaskan processing facility. “Alaska’s seafood processors have been having difficulty hiring the workers they need during peak summer seasons, since the J-1 program was shut down two years ago,” Murkowski said in a formal statement. “Seafood processors from Naknek to Kodiak to Ketchikan rely on this program when they cannot hire Alaskans or workers from the Lower 48, so I would like to thank my committee colleagues for understanding the need to continue this program for the next year, and Senator Begich for joining me in this effort.” Murkowski has said that the program, which was intended as a cultural exchange of sorts, was halted because of concerns regarding how it was operating outside of Alaska, a characterization Phelan agreed with. “We never felt there was really a justification for seafood being excluded from the program, and so we’re very happy that hopefully we will be allowed back in,” Phelan said. Finding employees in the United States can also be more expensive than using the J-1 program. Great Pacific Seafoods General Manager Roger Stiles said he’s been able to get the employees he needs this summer, but it’s a lot more expensive than in years past. Great Pacific has three plants — one each in Anchorage, Kenai and Whittier — and a buying station in Kotzebue. The largest portion of the company’s product comes from Prince William Sound. Staffing those plants is more challenging without the J-1 program, Stiles said. Great Pacific needs an average of about 275 employees through the summer, but last year, Stiles only averaged about 175 — and he went through 750 employees to get that many, he said. “It was just a disaster,” Stiles said. Flying up employees who don’t stick around is expensive, and understaffed plants are inefficient, so this year, Stiles said he went through a labor company in the Lower 48 to find employees for the positions he couldn’t fill locally. That’s more expensive, but so far it means he’s had enough employees to keep things running, although he said June 24 that he’d need about 70 more in the next two weeks as deliveries increased. This early in the season, Stiles said it’s hard to say for sure that his company is in the clear for this year. Not everyone has had such a hard time. Snug Harbor Seafoods co-owner Paul Dale said his Kenai company has been able to find enough employees this summer by hiring locally and from the Lower 48. But if the J-1 program was reinstated, Snug Harbor may end up using it again, he said. “We used to use a lot of J-1 students, and we enjoyed them very much,” Dale said. The appropriations language would reinstate the program through September 2015, offering processors a one-season reprieve to hire the foreign students. That’s a start, Stiles said. “We very much look forward to the resumption of the J-1 program in 2015, and hopefully it’s extended beyond 2015,” Stiles said. Last year, the delegation tried to reinstate the program through the immigration reform bill that is now stalled in the U.S. House after passing the Senate. That effort would also have temporarily allowed J-1 workers for the seafood processing industry, and then created a new three-year temporary visa for seafood processing and other industries in need of guest workers. “This is something Sen. Murkowski and I have been working together on since last year’s negotiations over the immigration bill,” Begich said in a formal statement. “I’m glad we were able to convince our colleagues on both sides of the aisle of the importance of this provision, and I commend the Appropriations Committee’s decision to include Alaska’s Seafood industry in the J-1 Summer Work Travel program,” said Begich. “Until there is a comprehensive solution to address seasonal labor needs in the U.S. I will continue to use my role on the Appropriations Committee and Senate Oceans Subcommittee to fight for reforms that address critical labor shortages in Alaska’s seafood industry.”

Managers 'cautiously optimistic' about Yukon king goals

The 2014 Yukon River king run could come in stronger than managers expected before the season began, they said during a June 24 conference call with Yukon residents. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Stephanie Schmidt said that if the king run is 80 percent complete as of June 23, as managers think it might be, it could come in at about 121,000 fish for the whole drainage. “That is very, very encouraging to us,” Schmidt said. That’s likely enough fish to meet escapement goals, and put enough fish upriver to meet the Pacific Salmon Treaty requirement calling for 42,500 fish to cross the border. In 2013, an estimated 30,573 made it across the border. At the expected strength, the 2014 king run would still be below average, according to Schmidt, but beyond the 2013 run, when just more than 117,00 fish were counted at the Pilot sonar, and at the upper end of the pre-season forecast, of 64,000 to 121,000 fish. When that 2014 forecast was announced this spring, managers cautioned that the run could come in at the low end. Schmidt said the department was “cautiously optimistic” about the 2014 run, although no estimates would be finalized until after managers see how many fish are counted at escapement projects. But despite the potential run strength, the management strategy is still conservative, and Yukon River fishers were still reporting frustration that they couldn’t fish during the June 24 call. On the lower river, where communities have already seen multiple pulses of fish go by, the report from Kotlik was a question about when the restrictions would be lifted so that fishers could fill their freezers. Farther upriver, in Old Crow, a resident said the community was surprised to see the first pulse swim by early, and that whitefish nets were pulled out of the river for a voluntary community-wide fishing closure to protect those fish. On the Canadian side of the border, the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee, a part of the Pacific Salmon Commission, recommended closing the Canadian-origin run for 2014. ADFG is also maintaining closures, with even subsistence king fishing closed all along the Yukon for several days following the June 24 call, although that will be evaluated as the third pulse moves upriver. However, managers said they’ll look for ways to ensure a chum harvest, with a switch to a chum-focused management strategy, rather than a management strategy focused on king protections. On the lower Yukon, 162,000 chums were caught in the commercial fishery through June 24, according to ADFG’s bluesheet estimate. Other northern fisheries are also underway, with fishers on the Kuskokwim getting their first opening June 20 and Norton Sound openings also scheduled. For most of the Kuskokwim River, from Eek Island to the wildlife refuge boundary at near Aniak, subsistence fishing was open to fishers with certain net limitations as of June 24, although king fishing remained closed. Subsistence freshwater and marine fishing openings were planned in Norton Sound for June 25. Better than expected chum runs meant that commercial fishing opened for 24 hours beginning at 6 p.m. in Golovin, Elim and Norton Bay subdistricts. Strong sockeye catches continue Other commercial fisheries throughout the state are also taking off. Statewide, the commercial catch through June 24 was 5.8 million salmon, including 4.1 million sockeye. Prince William Sound catches made up the largest proportion of the state’s harvest, at 2.9 million fish according to ADFG’s bluesheet estimate, including 2.1 million sockeye, 577,000 chums and 198,000 pinks. Copper River drifters — who caught the largest portion of the Prince William Sound sockeye harvest — also took about 9,000 kings through June 24. Cook Inlet fishers have also received more fishing opportunity than expected, as early sockeye runs come in strong and king runs are slightly better than anticipated. Through June 23, 4,585 early-run kings were counted on the Kenai River, compared to 1,343 at the same time last year during a record-low return. The minimum escapement goal is 5,300 kings. In 2012 on June 23, the count was 4,217. On the Russian River, the early-run sockeye count was 30,983 fish through June 24. The escapement goal range is 22,000 to 42,000 and sport fishing was liberalized, with managers opening the Russian River sanctuary early and increasing the daily bag limit to six fish and the possession limit to 12 fish. Those changes are in effect through July 14. The Kasilof sockeye count was 93,606 through June 23. Fishing time was increased for the June 16 and 23 commercial king openings in Upper Cook Inlet’s Northern District, and the Kasilof-area setnet fishery opened June 23, two days early, due to the strong sockeye counts, with a regular fishing period expected June 26. Through June 24, 146,000 salmon were caught in Cook Inlet, including 53,000 sockeyes in the Upper Cook Inlet and 90,000 in the lower Inlet. At Bristol Bay, 365,000 salmon were caught through June 24, including 190,000 sockeyes in the Egegik District and 155,000 sockeyes in the Naknek-Kvichak District. The western Alaska commercial sockeye catch totaled 1.3 million sockeyes through June 24, including 831,000 in Kodiak and 561,000 at the Alaska Peninsula. In Southeast, the commercial catch is driven by other species. Out of 209,000 fish caught this year, just 44,000 were sockeye. The largest portion were kings — 102,000 of those were caught, although that includes the winter troll fishery, which began Oct. 11, 2013. Southeast fishers have also harvested 58,000 chums.

Scallop boats remain the same after change to open access

Despite a new management structure, Alaska’s commercial scallop fisheries will look much the same as they have in prior years when they open July 1. The guideline harvest levels, or GHLs, are similar to last year. Statewide, up to 407,500 pounds of shucked meat could be harvested this season, compared to 400,000 pounds during the 2013-14 fishery, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced June 19. Participation will also mirror last year, despite a change to the management structure in state waters that saw the end of the vessel-based limited entry program. After the limited entry for scallops in state waters expired at the end of 2013, the fishery reverted to open access to any interested participant who registered with the ADFG, acquired a permit from the Commercial Fisheries Limited Entry Commission, or CFEC, and followed certain regulations to harvest scallop in state waters. Although several newcomers registered for the fishery this spring, only former participants — who also have permits to harvest scallops in federal waters — will be making deliveries. Don Lane of Homer, who was involved in the scallop fishery before it went to limited access, was one of the fishers who registered to participate this year. Lane said he ultimately decided not to fish because of the timing of the season. The July 1 opening conflicts with salmon season, he said. “My boat just wouldn’t be available to fish in July,” he said. Lane said he registered for the fishery to show that he was interested, and that he’s hoping the season will be adjusted in future years, so that the fishery is more accessible to fishermen from Alaska’s coastal communities. Prior to vessel-based limited entry, Lane said the scallop fishery near Cook Inlet started later, in September. That was a better season for vessels also targeting salmon, he said. The limited entry program expired in December, and the Alaska Legislature did not renew it, in part because of concerns about consolidation in the fishery after a small group of Seattle-based owners systematically acquired most of the federal permits while relinquishing state water permits to avoid state caps on ownership. During discussions about renewing the program, proponents including CFEC commissioners said that an open-access fishery could be difficult to manage, with the potential for too many participants given potentially small guideline harvest levels that would force ADFG to close the state waters scallop fisheries. CFEC Chair Bruce Twomley told the Board of Fisheries last October that participation in the open-access fishery was unknown and unknowable, but could prove problematic. For the first season at least, those warnings from CFEC and the federal permit holders have proven unfounded. This year, the new management structure required fishery participants to register for the season with ADFG so the department could gauge the likely participation in both state and federal waters. Scallop fishery participants must also have 100 percent observer coverage while fishing, and, for the first time this year, fill out separate fish tickets in state and federal waters. This spring, a handful of new participants purchased CFEC permits, but not all registered with ADFG, and no one ultimately acquired the observer coverage. As a result, the only fishers in state-waters are those participants with a federal permit and a history of participating in the limited scallop fishery. The uptick in the 2014-15 harvest comes in the Alaska Peninsula, where an additional portion of federal waters is open for fishing this year with a 7,500-pound GHL, bringing the area total to 22,500 pounds. The new area in the Aleutians was open previously, but closed during the last five years because of the stock status. The remainder of the 2014-15 limits parallel those from last year: 145,000 pounds in the Yakutat area, 185,000 pounds at Kodiak, 5,000 pounds at Dutch Harbor and 50,000 pounds in the Bering Sea. The Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet scallop fisheries will remain closed this season. The ADFG announcement said that the biomass in Prince William Sound has increased in one area, and there’s a potential for stronger recruitment into the fishery in coming years, which could lead to it being opened then. The next survey is planned for spring 2016. In recent years, the scallop fishery has been worth more than $4 million in wholesale value. During the 2012-13 season, prices reached $10.63 per pound of shucked meat, and a 2014 report on the economics of the fishery said strong prices were expected to continue this year. Some of Alaska’s scallop beds straddle the three-mile line that divides state and federal waters, and the two areas are managed in tandem, with a single harvest level.

Appeal filed in Cook Inlet fisheries management lawsuit

The Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund is appealing the court decision that upheld the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s 2013 management of Cook Inlet salmon fisheries. The fisherman’s fund, or CIFF, filed an appeal with the Alaska Supreme Court June 10, according to CIFF attorney Bruce Weyhrauch. Next the record in the case must be prepared, and a transcript of the proceedings provided to the court, and then CIFF can file its opening brief. CIFF sued the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in July 2013, asserting that fisheries managers did not follow Cook Inlet salmon management plans appropriately that year and caused harm to commercial fishermen. After hearing oral argument May 29, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Andrew Guidi granted the state’s motion for summary judgment on June 2. He wrote in his final decision that there was no evidence that ADFG had “exceeded its authority in executing the emergency plan promulgated by the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Specifically, the fund has failed to articulate any concrete way in which the department overstepped its management authority other than the claim — already rejected on motion for preliminary injunction — that the fund’s fishermen were entitled to 51 hours of extra fishing time by law.” Weyhrauch listed seven points of appeal in the Supreme Court filing, asserting that the court erred at each step of the way, including when it granted ADFG’s motion for summary judgment and denied CIFF’s request for injunctive relief, constitutional claims, tort claims and discovery. ADFG asked for summary judgment upholding its interpretation of the management plans in December, which was the focus of oral argument May 29. CIFF opposed the request for summary judgment, and asked the judge to allow discovery so that more details about the 2013 management could be brought to light. CIFF President John McCombs said that discovery would have helped his group — and the court — figure out what was going on with management last summer. ADFG is responsible for day-to-day management of Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, while the Board of Fisheries approves the overarching management plans and makes allocative decisions for the fisheries. In recent years, the department has been tasked with conserving Kenai River king salmon, which have had particularly low returns, while allowing opportunities to harvest Kenai River sockeyes, which are plentiful. CIFF had said that the eastside setnet fleet was harmed when ADFG limited fishing time to conserve king salmon. The setnetters primarily target sockeyes, but also catch kings. Last summer, CIFF asked for a preliminary injunction requiring Fish and Game to follow certain aspects of the Cook Inlet salmon management plans, and both sides argued the case in Anchorage Superior Court. Guidi ruled that the injunction was not necessary, in part because a remedy was available if he later determined that managers had erred, and in part because he would simply be substituting the court’s judgment for the managers’ if he ruled in favor of changing their practices. Guidi referenced that decision in his order supporting ADFG’s motion for summary judgment. CIFF, along with the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, has also challenged the federal decision that formally removed Cook Inlet from the federal salmon fishery management plan, eliminating the potential for federal oversight. That lawsuit is currently working its way through federal District Court in Anchorage; oral argument was heard May 26, and parties filed additional briefs in June. A decision is pending. McCombs said previously that the June 2 Superior Court ruling was a disappointment. “I just don’t think the Department of Fish and Game did their job when it came to managing the fishery,” he said.

Mixed start for kings as salmon runs begin around state

In downtown Anchorage, fishers at Ship Creek are enjoying one of the state’s stronger king returns. June 17, anglers participating in the Slam’n Salm’n Derby — a fundraiser for the Downtown Soup Kitchen — recorded 21 kings by late afternoon, with Randall Yost landing a 33-pounder at about 12:50 p.m. that took the lead. But while there are other bright spots in the state’s king runs — the Deshka and Nushagak are strong so far — it isn’t indicative of a statewide trend. The kings returning to Ship Creek are mostly two-ocean fish stocked by the Jack Hernandez Sport Hatchery, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Farther north, wild kings are returning to the Deshka River, where sport fishing was liberalized June 14 in response to the perceived run strength. There, ADFG is now allowing bait and multiple hooks. Through June 17, 13,151 kings were counted at the Deshka weir. The escapement goal there is a range of 13,000-28,000 kings. In Bristol Bay, the Nushagak River has the strongest king run so far, with 27,767 counted through June 17 according to ADFG, more than the 3,600 to 8,400 kings counted by the same date in recent past. That’s the strongest of the Bristol Bay runs so far. ADFG reported poor king fishing so far in the Alagnak and Naknek drainages, and returns elsewhere in the state remain slow. The early-run king return on the Kenai River was 3,533 through June 16, ahead of the 2013 return, which came in at an all-time low, but still behind 2011 and 2012, according to ADFG. Other Cook Inlet runs are also slow, with king counts on the Anchor River, on the southern Kenai Peninsula, and the Little Susitna, farther north in the Matanuska-Susitna region, behind the 2013 numbers. Likewise, the Karluk River and Ayakulik River king numbers, both on Kodiak Island, are behind the 2013 counts. On the Gulkana River, 264 kings were counted through June 17, a much earlier run than 2012 and 2013 when zero fish were counted by that same date. Throughout the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region, king returns are, once again, poor, and fishing is severely limited. On the Yukon River, the first pulse of kings appear to have reached Pilot Station earlier than in recent years, likely related in part to the timing of ice on that river, and the second pulse is also early, according to a June 16 ADFG update. There, 57,897 kings were counted through June 17, more than were counted by that date at any year in the recent past. Daily counts have varied from 2,000 to 9,000 fish; daily counts during the height of the first pulse last year reached 14,000 or more kings. According to ADFG, that run still appears to be on-track for a poor return. Kings are also returning to the Kuskokwim River early, according to a June 16 update from ADFG, in part due to early breakup and warm temperatures, but the department has said the Bethel Test Fishery numbers are not directly comparable to past years because of differences in management, and has not indicated what the run strength is. Fishing remains restricted by both ADFG and federal wildlife refuge managers there. The AYK stocks are also the focus of several new research projects. The North Pacific Research Board, or NPRB, recently announced funding for three projects focused on better understanding king, or chinook, runs there. Those will look at thiamine levels in chinook eggs, early chinook marine ecology along the eastern Bering Sea shelf and modeling of forage and habitat. The thiamine study will look at how thiamine deficiency could affect productivity in AYK salmon stocks, while the early marine study will look at the effects of climate change and variability on those stocks’ growth, fitness and survival. The model funding will go toward finalizing and testing the stream discharge and competition elements of the model, and how those affect the carrying capacity of freshwater streams. The AYK king projects will receive about $800,000 out of the $4.7 million the NPRB has slated for 24 different fisheries research projects this year. The other projects include long-term monitoring studies and awards for graduate students. “If we want to maintain the health of Alaska’s valuable ocean resources long into the future, it is critical that we understand the complex processes in the marine ecosystems of the North Pacific,” said Denby Lloyd, NPRB’s executive director. “NPRB funds research that makes major contributions to the understanding of marine ecosystems and fisheries in Alaska’s waters.” Reds drive commercial fisheries Commercial fishers, and sport anglers, targeting sockeye salmon are off to a stronger start. In Prince William Sound, the total harvest through June 17 was 1.98 million fish, including 1.6 million sockeyes, 239,000 chums, 135,000 pinks and 9,000 kings, according to ADFG’s blue sheet estimate. “We are excited the Copper River and Prince William Sound fishing season has started off strong for our fishermen,” said Nelly Hand, from the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association. Personal use sockeye fishing on the Copper River was also liberalized as a result of the perceived run strength. During the first opener for the Chitna personal use fishery, households were allowed an extra 10 fish. At Kodiak, fishers landed 429,000 salmon, including 404,000 sockeyes and 22,000 chums, through June 17, according to ADFG. A 33-hour commercial opening in several areas was planned for June 21 and 22. Fewer than 1,000 kings were caught so far in the commercial fishery in Kodiak; this year, the Board of Fisheries passed a regulation change requiring purse seiners to return kings to the water earlier in the season. In Cook Inlet, sockeyes also make up the bulk of the catch, mostly from the lower Inlet, where there are hatchery reds. Slightly more than 87,000 salmon were harvested in Cook Inlet through June 17, including 85,00 sockeyes and 2,000 kings. In Upper Cook Inlet, the Northern District king fishery and the Big River sockeye setnet fishery have opened. Most of the harvest, however — 71,000 sockeyes — has come from the eastern district of Lower Cook Inlet, where Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association is conducting cost recovery fisheries. Fishing at Bristol Bay has not yet picked up as much speed. There, fishers have harvested 70,000 fish, including 67,000 sockeyes, through June 17 according to ADFG’s estimates. Commercial setnetting periods were planed for June 18 and 19 in the Igushik Section, with other areas remaining closed, including the Ugashik District. The test fishery for the Egegik River was low according to a June 17 ADFG update, and subsistence openings, but not commercial, were announced at that time. Southeast Alaska fishers have landed 111,000 salmon so far this year. There, however, kings make up the larger proportion of the catch — 84,000 kings were taken through June 17. Much of that came from the winter troll fishery. Summer trollers have taken 22,000 kings. The Southeast Alaska purse seine fishery opened June 15.

Council revamps observer program after first annual report

NOME — The North Pacific Fishery Management Council took action to address issues with the revised marine observer program June 5, including getting rid of the vessel selection pool that put observers on certain smaller boats for 60 days at a time. The council manages fisheries in federal waters — from three to 200 miles offshore from Alaska — and met in Nome June 4-9 to discuss several fisheries issues including the first annual observer report. However, the report didn’t have as much information as some hoped, and the council also asked NMFS to return with more information in October, when it reviews the 2015 annual deployment plan, or ADP. The council’s actions supported moving smaller vessels into the trip selection pool, maintaining a higher coverage rate for trawl vessels and larger fixed gear vessels, and increasing the number of Lead Level Two observers, all for 2015. The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, implemented the revised observer program in January 2013, and the council’s discussion was the first time the council has had a full year of data from the new program to review. In that program, vessels in the partial-coverage category were sorted into trip selection and vessel selection pools. The trip selection pool includes certain trawlers and vessels longer than 57.5 feet. Those vessels are expected to log each fishing trip, and are randomly selected for observer coverage on a trip-by-trip basis. The current vessel selection pool includes boats between 40 and 57.5 feet. Those are chosen for coverage for 60 days at a time. Boats in the vessel selection pool were able to apply for waivers from coverage if the owners could demonstrate safety concerns, lack of space or the displacement of working crew to accommodate an observer. The council’s motion supported the NMFS recommendation to move the small boats in the vessel selection pool to the trip selection pool. The change came after significant public testimony during the past two years that having an observer for all fishing activity during a 60-day period was particularly onerous for the small boat fleet. During public testimony, Ilya Kuzman, from Homer-based K-bay Fisheries Association, agreed that there would be less need for waivers if vessels were observed for a trip at a time, rather than 60 days at a time. Martin Loefflad, who heads up the observer program for NMFS, said that moving the vessels could reduce the burden for the smaller boat fleet. “The feedback I’ve gotten is a trip is a lot easier to deal with than a two-month period,” he said. However, Loefflad also said that if the change is made to the two pools, NMFS will likely also change the criteria for conditional releases from coverage, potentially to only waive the requirement when there is a significant safety issue, such as life raft capacity. During testimony, though, fishers noted the importance of the waivers for making the observer program work so far. Sitka fisherman Jeff Farver said that he crews on a 46-foot boat, and without the conditional releases the boat receives from coverage based on space, he wouldn’t have a crew job. The council’s motion asked NMFS for more information on the burden of having an observer for one trip, and the agency’s ability to grant waivers on short-notice so that it can make a recommendation about waivers for the 2015 annual deployment plan. The information will be provided for the October meeting when the ADP is discussed. The council motion, which was made by council member Dan Hull, prioritized coverage in the trip-selection pool for trawlers and larger vessels, however, and council members noted that they wanted to continue to prioritize those vessels with prohibited species catch caps. Hull said that was largely self-explanatory, but noted that the larger vessels generally harvest more fish, and that it was important to collect consistent data from year to year. Prioritizing the larger vessels would help ensure that the data was comparable to the first two years of the program, he said. The motion also asked for information from NMFS on how and when the program will begin to shift coverage so that it reflects management needs of each fishery. The council’s main observer motion also asked NMFS to consider several items when drafting the 2015 annual deployment plan and the next annual report, including providing more information about observer rates and coverage by gear type, evaluating bycatch estimation, and more information on costs. Loefflad told the council during his report that it’s difficult to provide very much specific cost information, including the price for one day of observer coverage, because of confidentiality requirements. Council member Duncan Fields also made a motion asking for a discussion paper about moving all trawlers into the full-coverage category, but that did not pass, as he was the only yes vote. Instead, the council discussed looking at that as part of the Gulf of Alaska trawl bycatch management package that it will discuss in October. Council member Jim Balsiger, who is the Alaska Region administrator for NMFS, said he supported full coverage for the Gulf of Alaska trawlers, but that the discussion was more appropriate for the Gulf trawl bycatch package the council is working on. Council chair Eric Olson agreed, but noted that waiting for the Gulf discussion could delay discussing the Bering Sea, although that could be discussed as an amendment to the Gulf package, he said. The council also heard testimony from fishers and the observer industry on the issue with the number of Lead Level Two observers available, and unanimously agreed to ask NMFS to change the system that certifies the higher-level observers.  That motion was made by council member Craig Cross, and was meant to expand the pool of those observers by crediting both observers when two are onboard a fixed-gear vessel, rather than just crediting the lead observer. An observer must log a certain number of hours in order to get the LL2 certification. Right now, there are not always enough of the high level observers available, making it difficult for some vessels to get out with an observer when they want to fish. During staff tasking (the “housekeeping” agenda item at the end of the meeting), Cross made an additional motion on observers that asking NMFS to look for a longer-term solution to having a large enough pool of the LL2 observers. Michael Lake, owner of Alaskan Observers, told the council that his business has taken a hit under the revised program because some flexibility was lost, and he’d like to see more of a focus on how the program has changed things for the full-coverage fleet, not just the partial-coverage fleet. Freezer Longline Coalition Executive Director Chad See also supported the council taking action, and said that has fleet and the observer provider shouldn’t be burdened by the number of available providers. Tenders, electronic monitoring The council also took up two related items: a possible regulatory amendment on tenders, and a report from the electronic monitoring, or EM, workgroup. Tender deliveries are not observed, and the council began the regulatory amendment process to address that last year, after seeing information that indicated that fishing patterns were different when delivering to tenders versus shore-based processors. That showed up in the first 14 weeks of 2013 fishing trip information; the full year data showed less of a difference. Instead of pursuing action immediately, the council asked NMFS for more information before it decides how to prioritize the amendment. Essentially, the council wants to know if fishing behavior was different in the first 14 weeks of 2014, as well, or it was a single-year event. Council members said that the issue could be that fishing behavior is different in the winter fishery, perhaps because of conditions or timing (the pollock fishery takes place over a short span during spawning), or it could be that once the tender differences were discovered, vessels stopped the behavior entirely. More data is necessary to see which is occurring, however. The council’s Advisory Panel, or AP, recommended asking for that data. The council also removed one alternative from the analysis, and will consider it as part of the Gulf of Alaska trawl bycatch package instead — that alternative would have allowed observers on a fishing vessel to observe the tender delivery. The council’s motion on electronic monitoring called for continued work on the cooperative research program and will send it to the Scientific and Statistical Committee for review before it is enacted, asked staff to work toward an eventual regulatory amendment package, and noted that it wants to see EM field work continue after June 2015, when the regulatory amendment process is underway. The motion also asked for information on funding availability and for NMFS to look at incorporating pot and trawl fisheries into the council’s EM process. Hull made the motions on tendering and EM.

Judge rules in favor of ADFG in salmon suit

A state judge ruled in favor of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the lawsuit regarding the 2013 Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, but the commercial fishing group who filed suit will appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court. After hearing oral argument May 29, Judge Andrew Guidi granted the state’s motion for summary judgment June 2. He wrote in his final decision that there was no evidence that ADFG had “exceeded its authority in executing the emergency plan promulgated by the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Specifically, the Fund has failed to articulate any concrete way in which the Department overstepped its management authority other than the claim — already rejected on motion for preliminary injunction — that the Fund’s fishermen were entitled to 51 hours of extra fishing time by law.” The Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund, or CIFF, sued the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in July 2013, asserting that fisheries managers did not follow Cook Inlet salmon management plans appropriately that year and caused harm to commercial fishermen. CIFF attorney Bruce Weyhrauch said his group appealed the decision to the Alaska Supreme Court on June 10. CIFF President John McCombs said the ruling came as a disappointment. “I just don’t think the Department of Fish and Game did their job when it came to managing the fishery,” he said. ADFG asked for summary judgment in December, which was the focus of oral argument May 29. CIFF asked the judge to at least allow the process to continue to discovery before making a decision. Last summer, CIFF sought a preliminary injunction requiring Fish and Game to follow certain aspects of the Cook Inlet salmon management plans, and both sides argued the case in Anchorage Superior Court. Guidi ruled that the injunction was not necessary, in part because a remedy was available if he later determined that managers had erred, and in part because he would simply be substituting the court’s judgment for managers if he ruled in favor of changing their practices. Guidi referenced that decision in his order supporting ADFG’s motion for summary judgment. ADFG is responsible for day-to-day management of Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, while the board approves the overarching management plans and makes allocative decisions for the fishery. In recent years, the department has been tasked with conserving Kenai River king salmon, which have had particularly low returns, while allowing opportunities to harvest Kenai River sockeyes, which are plentiful. CIFF had said that the eastside setnet fleet was harmed when ADFG limited fishing time to conserve king salmon. The setnetters primarily target sockeyes, but also catch kings. CIFF, along with the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, has also challenged the federal decision that formally removed Cook Inlet from the federal salmon fishery management plan, eliminating the potential for federal oversight. That lawsuit is currently working its way through federal district court in Anchorage; oral argument was heard May 26, and a decision is pending. Guidi’s June 2 decision indicated that he thought there was enough information to make a decision. At the end of the May 29 hearing, he said that the two sides had a pretty good go at each other in court last summer when he considered the injunction. The May hearing was largely focused on whether or not there were remaining issues of fact to be considered. Alaska Assistant Attorney General Mike Mitchell said that it was up to CIFF to prove that the state erred in its management last summer, and had not done so. “The evidence shows that the department did not throw the plans out the window,” Mitchell said during oral argument. Mitchell said that during testimony last summer, there was no discussion of missing facts, or the need for more information about the management that was occurring. Bruce Weyhrauch, who represented CIFF, reiterated that organization’s position that ADFG strayed from the management plans and made allocative decisions without the authority to do so, calling the 2013 decisions “willful mismanagement.” Weyhrauch has asked that CIFF be able to go through discovery and get further information about how 2013 management decisions were made before the judge decides whether or not ADFG was in the right. Guidi asked why CIFF thought there was enough evidence last summer, but no longer did, and Weyhrauch responded that the injunction had a different standard than summary judgment. The two sides also discussed this winter’s Board of Fisheries Upper Cook Inlet meeting, which occurred during two weeks in January and February. Mitchell said that CIFF had not gone to the board with its complaints over how ADFG managed in 2013, although the board would be the correct way to address the issue, he said. He also noted that the board made significant changes to the management plans this year. McCombs, however, did submit numerous proposals to the Board of Fisheries seeking management plan changes, and the CIFF members who attended the hearing all attended the BOF meeting as well, citing 2013 management in their public testimony and discussions with board members. Weyhrauch said that ADFG’s comment in its reply brief that the board would have dismissed it if CIFF had raised the issue at the meeting did not paint a picture of the board that was open to the public or impartial.

Loans edge up, net income drops for Alaska-based banks

Alaska-based financial institutions posted healthy first quarter results, similar to the first quarter of 2013. For the first quarter of 2014, Alaska-based banks saw year-over-year increases in total assets, total loans and leases, and total deposits. However, the banks also saw, on the whole, a slight decrease in net income. Collectively, net income at the Alaska-based banks at the end of the 2013 first quarter was $13.7 million compared to $11.6 million for 2014 first quarter. More than a third of the total decrease was attributable to a $794,000 loss posted by Alaska Pacific Bank, which was acquired by Northrim Bank effective April 1. In total, deposits in Alaska-based banks grew from $4 billion at the end of the first quarter of 2013 to $4.2 billion by March 31, 2014. Market share information for all of the banks operating in the state is only updated annually each June 30; as of that day in 2013, Wells Fargo NA had the most deposits at $5.3 billion, or about 52 percent of the deposits in the state. First National Bank Alaska and Northrim Bank were second and third, with $1.98 billion and $969.6 million, or about 19.5 and 9.5 percent of the market, respectively. Deposit data is the only state-specific metric for Outside-based banks Wells Fargo and KeyBank, the latter of which was fourth behind Northrim with about $836 million in deposits as of June 30, 2013. Loans and leases were up slightly statewide at the end of the first quarter, for a total $2.72 billion at the state’s banks compared to $2.62 billion for the same quarter of the prior year, although there was a slight drop compared to the prior quarter, when the banks reported $2.73 billion in loans and leases. Alaska’s largest credit unions — Alaska USA and Credit Union 1 — saw similar trends, with increases in total loans and leases year-over-year, although year-to-date loans and leases were down. At Alaska USA, total loans and leases grew by about $342 million to $3.69 billion through the first quarter of 2014. Credit Union 1 saw an increase of $49.9 million, for a total of $625.5 million in total loans and leases through the first quarter of 2014. Both also saw an increase in assets. At Alaska USA, assets grew from $5.3 billion in the first quarter of 2013 to $5.5 billion for the first quarter of 2014. Credit Union 1’s assets increased from $863.9 million at the end of the 2013 first quarter to $893.8 million for first quarter 2014. Asset growth for banks was similar; the Alaska’s state-banks posted a total $5.64 billion in assets for the first quarter of 2014, compared to $5.57 billion at the end of 2013, and $5.29 billion at the end of the 2013 first quarter. Interior Alaska’s Mt. McKinley Bank followed the trends on all of those metrics. CEO Craig Ingham said the growth in loans and leases came from an increase in business loans. Ingham said the housing market in Fairbanks remains somewhat soft, but there’s been an increase in commercial activity in the region. “That’s helping a little bit,” he said, noting that there weren’t any major changes in the economy compared to 2013. Mt. McKinley recorded $115.6 million in total loans and leases, up from $110.9 million in the first quarter of 2013. The largest state-based banks — First National Bank Alaska and Northrim Bank — posted the largest changes in total loans and leases, up 5.5 and 4.7 percent year-over-year, respectively. At FNBA, loans and leases were up both quarterly and year-over-year, with a $1.33 billion in loans for the first quarter of 2014, compared to $1.3 billion at the end of 2013 and $1.26 billion in the first quarter of 2013. Northrim posted about a 1 percent decline in total loans and leases compared to the prior quarter, but lending activity was up 4.7 percent year-over-year, at $787.5 million compared to $752.1 million for the first quarter of 2013. Northrim generally matched the statewide trends, but was the only bank to post an increase in net income, ending the first quarter of 2014 at $3.3 million, up from $2.98 million in the first quarter 2013. Mt. McKinley, like other banks, had a slight decrease in net income. Ingham said the decrease from $851,000 to $778,000 was largely flat, but that the bank had slightly higher security gains and more gain from the sale of loans in the first quarter of 2013 compared to the first quarter of 2014. First National Bank Alaska also had a decrease in net income of about 11 percent, at $7.48 million for the first quarter of 2014 compared to $8.4 million for the first quarter of 2013. In a statement, the bank noted that loan income increased for the first quarter, but the average yield on earning assets decreased 7 basis points to 3.38 percent from an adjusted yield of 3.45 percent for the first quarter of 2013. FNBA President Betsy Lawer was positive about the bank’s overall performance, however. “First National’s ability to meet the continuing challenges of lower interest margins, increased regulatory expenses and ever-rising healthcare costs are due in large part to the financial strength of our bank,” Lawer said in a statement. “This strength, backed by the local expertise our bankers have developed in the communities where they live and work, continue to be the cornerstones of our stability.” Loans around the state are also generally performing better than they have in the recent past. Most of the Alaska-based banks posted a decrease in the number of loans 30-89 days past due, several had a decrease in loans in non-accrual, and a decrease in charge-offs. At Northrim, loans in nonaccrual dropped dramatically, from 4,292 for first quarter 2013, to 999 for first quarter 2014, driven in part by a decrease in the number of loans in nonaccrual secured by 1-4 family properties. At Ketchikan’s First Bank, loans 30-89 days past due decreased from 3,210 at the end of the first quarter 2013 to 1,984 at the end of the first quarter 2014. First Bank President William Moran said that the loans seemed to be moving from that category to getting paid off. “People paid their bills,” Moran said. Like other banks, First Bank saw an increase in total loans and leases for the first quarter, with that metric rising from about $207.1 million for first quarter 2013 to $210.1 million for first quarter 2014. Moran said the economy seemed to be picking up a little bit, with the visitor industry in Southeast getting off to a faster start this year than in the recent past. As fishing ramps up, that will also help the bank, Moran said. First Bank will also see a slightly changed banking dynamic in Southeast, as Northrim closed on its acquisition of Alaska Pacific Bank April 1. But Moran said First Bank hadn’t seen any impacts, and didn’t anticipate any in the future, from that change. Ingham said that the major factors for the remainder of 2014 will be whether commercial loan activity continues to grow, offsetting home mortgage loan performance, and low interest rates. Increased rates could be beneficial to the bank, he said. “We’re optimistic that our earnings for 2014, for the year, will be comparable with 2013,” he said. “But we don’t see a material change.”  

Judge rules for ADFG in lawsuit over 2013 Cook Inlet salmon management

A state judge ruled in favor of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the lawsuit regarding the 2013 Cook Inlet salmon fisheries. The Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund, or CIFF, sued the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in July 2013, asserting that fisheries managers did not follow Cook Inlet salmon management plans appropriately that year and caused harm to commercial fishermen. After hearing oral argument May 29, Alaska Superior Court Judge Andrew Guidi granted the state’s motion for summary judgment June 2. He wrote in his final decision that there was no evidence that ADFG had “exceeded its authority in executing the emergency plan promulgated by the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Specifically, the Fund has failed to articulate any concrete way in which the Department overstepped its management authority other than the claim — already rejected on motion for preliminary injunction — that the Fund’s fishermen were entitled to 51 hours of extra fishing time by law.” ADFG asked for summary judgment in December, which was the focus of oral argument May 29. The state asked the judge to uphold Fish and Game’s interpretation of the management plans in its motion for summary judgment; CIFF opposed that. The fishermen’s fund asked the judge to at least allow the process to continue to discovery before making a decision. Last summer, CIFF asked for a preliminary injunction requiring Fish and Game to follow certain aspects of the Cook Inlet salmon management plans, and both sides argued the case in Anchorage Superior Court. Guidi ruled that the injunction was not necessary, in part because a remedy was available if he later determined that managers had erred, and in part because he would simply be substituting the court’s judgment for managers if he ruled in favor of changing their practices. Guidi referenced that decision in his order supporting ADFG’s motion for summary judgment. ADFG is responsible for day-to-day management of Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, while the board approves the overarching management plans and makes allocative decisions for the fishery. In recent years, the department has been tasked with conserving Kenai River king salmon, which have had particularly low returns, while allowing opportunities to harvest Kenai River sockeyes, which are plentiful. CIFF had said that the eastside setnet fleet was harmed when ADFG limited fishing time to conserve king salmon. The setnetters primarily target sockeyes, but also catch kings. Guidi’s June 2 decision indicated that he thought there was enough information to make a decision. At the end of the May 29 hearing, he said that the two sides had a pretty good go at each other in court last summer when he considered the injunction. That hearing was largely focused on whether or not there were remaining issues of fact to be considered. Alaska Assistant Attorney General Mike Mitchell said that it’s up to CIFF to prove that the state erred in its management last summer, and has not done so. “The evidence shows that the department did not throw the plans out the window,” Mitchell said. Mitchell said that during testimony last summer, there was no discussion of missing facts, or the need for more information about the management that was occurring. Bruce Weyhrauch, who represented CIFF, reiterated that organization’s position that ADFG strayed from the management plans and made allocative decisions without the authority to do so, calling the 2013 decisions “willful mismanagement.” Weyhrauch has asked that CIFF be able to go through discovery and get further information about how 2013 management decisions were made before the judge decides whether or not ADFG was in the right. Guidi asked why CIFF thought there was enough evidence last summer, but no longer did, and Weyhrauch responded that the injunction had a different standard than summary judgment. The two sides also discussed this winter’s Board of Fisheries Upper Cook Inlet meeting, which occurred during two weeks in January and February. Mitchell said that CIFF had not gone to the board with its complaints over how ADFG managed in 2013, although the board would be the correct way to address the issue, he said. He also noted that the board made significant changes to the management plans this year. CIFF President John McCombs, however, did submit numerous proposals to the Board of Fisheries seeking management plan changes, and the CIFF members who attended the hearing all attended the BOF meeting as well, citing 2013 management in their public testimony and discussions with board members. Weyhrauch said that ADFG’s comment in its reply brief that the board would have dismissed it if CIFF had raised the issue at the meeting did not paint a picture of the board that was open to the public or impartial.  

Young adds subsistence to Magnuson-Stevens Act

The House Natural Resources Committee has made several changes to its draft of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, including allowing a change to the limit on the pollock harvest in the North Pacific and an amendment from Rep. Don Young requiring more consideration of subsistence uses in fishery management decisions. The May 23 House draft also adjusts the process for developing new fishery regulations, changes the language regarding bycatch data and electronic monitoring and includes a North Pacific-specific section on pollock harvest limits. The pollock fishery language would require the North Pacific council to set a limit on the percentage of the pollock harvest that can be made by any one individual, coporation or entity, and puts the maximum of that limit at 24 percent. The current limit is 17 percent, so the council could chose to raise it. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA, regulates management of federal fisheries from three miles to 200 miles offshore and authorizes the eight regional councils, including the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which makes decisions for federal waters offshore from Alaska. The MSA first passed in 1976, was most recently reauthorized and amended in 2006, and is up for renewal again. House and Senate committees have been working on separate discussion drafts to amend the act. The House version generally focuses on providing more flexibility to fishery managers and councils. The House Natural Resources committee published a second draft of its version of the new legislation May 23, and held a session May 29 to mark up the draft and make changes. The first House draft came out in December. Young offered the amendment defining subsistence fishing and requiring that subsistence users be considered when members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council are selected. Young called it a simple amendment, and said that despite declines in fish available to subsistence users, those individuals haven’t been taken into consideration during discussions of catch limits.  “All I want them is to have a voice, the same voice as the commercial and the sport fisheries have,” Young said. That passed with no other discussion. Young told the Journal earlier this year that he wanted to offer a greater voice in the council process to subsistence users, although at that time he referred to a designated subsistence seat on the North Pacific council. The Senate version of the MSA also includes subsistence users in determining council membership, as well as in reference to fisheries and users considered when decisions are made. During the hearing, Young asked his fellow committee members to refrain from making too many amendments, noting that the legislation has largely worked for Alaska’s fisheries. “You want to screw it up, and get other agencies involved in the fisheries, then go ahead and do it,” Young said. “…Go ahead and let big government and big brother look over your shoulder every minute of the way. I’m suggesting leave the bill alone as its been written.” Other amendments that passed during the May 29 session implement a requirement that the Secretary of Commerce make a decision on disaster declarations within 90 days of a governor’s request, add a 30-day timeline for determining the cost of recovery after a fishery disaster, and call for additional study and collection of recreational fisheries data. Other region-specific measures were also added. The May 23 House draft also adjusts the process for developing new fishery regulations, changes the language regarding bycatch data and electronic monitoring and includes a North Pacific-specific section limiting the pollock harvest. The new House draft also changes some of the language regarding rebuilding plans and catch limits. The newest draft re-inserts the Scientific and Statistical Committees, or SSC, into changes to the rebuilding plans, and removes some of the ability to phase-in those plans for economic reasons. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the SSC is responsible for determining the overfishing limit and acceptable biological catch, or ABC, for each species managed by the councils. While the councils may adopt fishing quotas up to the level of the ABC, they may not override the limits set by the Scientific and Statistical Committee. The SSCs also create rebuilding plans, and because of the current requirements to rebuild a stock determined to be overfished within 10 years, drastic quota cuts have been implemented, particularly on the East Coast. The economic impacts of sharp cuts were behind the initial language to phase in rebuilding plans. The May 23 draft also deals with how regulations are changed. The language calls for every fishery management plan or amendment to include a fishery impact statement outlining the need for the action, environmental impacts, economic and social impacts, and other details about the change. As proposed, that document would be available to the public at least 14 days before a council meeting where final action might be taken. The older House draft also included language asserting that a fishery management plan prepared under the MSA met the National Environmental Policy Act standards; the new version confirms that that occurs with the proposed fishery impact statement is included as part of the regulation process. The new language also calls for the Secretary of Commerce to review regulation changes and evaluate whether they are consistent with the FMPs and other statutory requirements within 15 days of receiving the proposed changes. The new House draft also alters the electronic monitoring language. The prior version called for electronic monitoring within six months; the new version gives 12 months, and also offers the use of pilot projects before a final program is implemented. The draft also further edits the data confidentiality language. The December version gave the fishing industry significantly more confidentiality, and reduced the amount of information available to the public about bycatch. The new language is changed, but still appears to provide the public with less access to bycatch data. The draft also provides councils with a little more flexibility in how it ensures public access to the process, allowing audio, webcast or broadcast of council meetings, rather than requiring a videostream as the prior version had done, and enables the councils to select between archived audio or video of the meeting, or a searchable audio or written transcript. The North Pacific council had raised concerns about being able to meet the video standard, particularly when it meets in an Alaskan fishing community each June. It is meeting in Nome June 4 to 9.

Verizon to launch voice coverage this fall

A year after Verizon Wireless launched data service in Alaska, it is readying its network to add voice coverage and preparing to enter the retail market with its own stores. The company is on track to launch voice coverage this fall, marking a shift from its current status as a data-only carrier in Alaska to a full-on participant in the telecommunications market here. For the past year, Verizon has provided data service via its 4G LTE, or long-term evolution, network, and relied on other local carriers for voice coverage. “I think the network has been doing great,” said Verizon’s Public Relations Manager Scott Charlston. “It’s not a full network, and most folks who think of wireless do still think of phone and talking, although trends show there’s an awful lot more activity on the data side.” The company will also open its own retail stores this fall when it launches voice coverage. Currently, Verizon products that just use data are available through local retailers such as Sam’s Club, Costco and a few others, Charlston said. “We realize that until we have stores with the Verizon name on them, that we’re not fully immersed, and that time is coming soon, and we’re excited for it,” Charlston said. The company is now hiring for the Verizon-branded stores that it plans to open in the fall. The two big stores will be in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Charlston said, with future expansions to come. The company held job fairs May 19 and 22 to fill its Anchorage and Fairbanks positions. “That’s not where we’re going to finish,” Charleston said. The company also has service in Juneau and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and Charlston said the company’s retail presence will likewise extend beyond Anchorage and Fairbanks. The company will have a mix of retail outlets: stores it owns, operates and controls on its own, and others where it partners with other retailers. Verizon’s voice service will be voice-over-LTE, which uses the data connection to provide voice coverage. That’s different than the other Alaska carriers, who use 4G LTE only for data, and have traditional voice coverage. Verizon offers 4G LTE service in all 50 states, but Alaska is the first place the company has built a 4G LTE network from scratch. Previously, Verizon had to upgrade older networks bit by bit. So far, customer response on the new network has been positive, Charlston said. The company has also continued working on its network since the launch last June, adding cell sites in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and the Mat-Su area, Charlston said. The company also has partnerships with the Matanuska Telephone Association, Copper Valley Telecom and Ketchikan Public Utilities through its LTE in Rural America program. In Ketchikan, the towers are up to provide LTE service, and customers with existing Verizon or partner devices are able to access the service, but the utility has not yet started selling LTE-capable devices. That will likely come later in 2014, depending on when Verizon launches its voice-over-LTE service, according to the utility. Copper Valley announced in February that work was planned to expand its 4G LTE coverage to 14 additional sites, including Glennallen, Tazlina, Nelchina, as well as new sites in McCarthy, Valdez and Cordova. “In 2013, we became the first carrier to offer 4G LTE over a cellular network in our region. We upgraded ten of our wireless sites in Valdez, Prince William Sound, and Cordova and they are performing exceptionally well,” said Copper Valley CEO Dave Dengel in a formal statement. “Our network is meeting or exceeding all performance benchmarks including data speed, reliability, and coverage. We are excited to be able to expand the network this year.” Copper Valley’s upgrades are expected to be completed by mid-2014, the company has said. Charlston could not yet provide any details about the work being done jointly, but said there will be more announcements about that work in the future, including possible new partnerships with other rural providers. Last June, the company said it was evaluating additional partnerships, as well as considering a presence on the North Slope.

Managers tackle state waters Gulf issues

State and federal regulators met May 21 to discuss how to coordinate their efforts and create complimentary management in the changing Gulf of Alaska fisheries. Members of the Alaska Board of Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council gathered in Anchorage at their annual joint protocol meeting to discuss the issues of mutual concern, including how to address changes coming for the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries. The North Pacific council, which manages fishing in federal waters from three to 200 miles offshore from Alaska, is working toward a rationalization package for the Gulf that will likely allocate fishing privileges to certain participants based on their history in the fishery or other factors. That’s intended to help provide tools to cut down bycatch in the Gulf by slowing down the fishery. Currently, the council is considering a rationalization program for trawlers targeting pollock, Pacific cod, and several other target and secondary species in the central Gulf of Alaska, western Gulf of Alaska and west Yakutat management areas. The most recent council motion asked for a discussion paper that looks at using cooperatives to help manage the fisheries, by allocating the quota to cooperatives, rather than individuals, with an option for fishers to remain outside of the cooperative structure, but not receive a direct allocation of quota. The state’s Board of Fisheries will eventually have to decide how to change its own fisheries to accommodate the federal changes. The soonest the federal changes to the fishery will be implemented is 2017 or 2018 on a fast-track, according to North Pacific council Executive Director Chris Oliver; the Board of Fisheries is expected to take up one proposal on the state-waters issue in March 2015 but could consider other proposals then or in the future. Currently, the state has parallel fisheries in state waters for the federal Gulf fisheries that the council is looking to change. The parallel fisheries occur in state waters, but mirror the regulations on the federal side, and the catch comes out of the federal limits set by the council. That makes for a seamless transition for boats going between state and federal waters, and boats take advantage of that for several reasons — economics, finding the fish, and even safety. Several issues will arise for the state if the federal fisheries are rationalized however. In terms of offering a parallel fishery, it will be more difficult to find a way to open and close the fisheries in tandem and there will not be total federal limit from which to subtract the state waters catch. Federal and state managers and participants have also noted that they’d like to find a way to preserve entry-level fishing opportunity in the state fishery. The state cannot directly parallel a rationalized fishery in part because state regulations do not allow for catch share programs that give participants access to a certain share of the harvest. Cooperatives also generally cannot be used to limit or split up harvests in state fisheries under the Limited Entry Act, which requires active participation. The Board of Fisheries could, however, implement a guideline harvest level fishery that was still open access in the state waters, or develop some sort of limited entry program for the affected fisheries. No specific solutions for the state-waters issue were proposed at the May 21 meeting. The committee meeting was largely an information-gathering session. After hearing staff reports on the possible rationalization program, the committee took public testimony but had only a limited discussion. Right now, one proposal for a state fishery change in response to the federal changes is scheduled for discussion at the March 2015 statewide Board of Fisheries meeting, and the board has created a working group to discuss the issue. The proposal set for discussion next year came from fisherman Matt Hegge. He asked the board this year to create state-waters pollock fisheries using trawl, seine or jig gear on vessels 58 feet or shorter, using 25 percent of the Central Gulf of Alaska acceptable biological catch for pollock. The board postponed that, although it was discussed at the Lower Cook Inlet, Kodiak and Chignik meetings in 2013 and 2014. ADFG has also made test fisheries available in state waters that allows fishers to seine and jig for pollock. That could also help provide the entry-level opportunity. So far, there’s been little activity in the test fisheries, with no directed jig trips, but that’s expected to pick up in the fall, according to ADFG’s Karla Bush. The dynamics of western Gulf fisheries add another dimension to the how the state will respond to a federal rationalization program. Tom Evich, a trawler out of Sand Point, said pollock in the area near the Shumagain Islands is generally caught in one of two trenches: One is federal waters, one is state waters. At certain times of year, nearly all the catch comes out of the state waters area — other times, it comes from federal waters. In other areas of the Western Gulf, fishers often move around, sometimes starting a tow in state waters and ending in federal waters, or vice versa, so it’s hard to say exactly how much catch is in state waters. But, Evich said, a significant portion is caught in state waters through the parallel fishery, and the western Gulf fleet needs access to fishing in those waters for the fishery to continue. He asked the board to make sure any changes reflect the need for flexibility where western Gulf fish is caught. Despite that challenge, Evich said he generally supports rationalization, as there’s currently no incentive for fishers to reduce bycatch in the western Gulf. Evich was one of a handful of fishery participants who showed up to give public testimony on the Gulf of Alaska issue. Another meeting is likely in the fall, after the Board of Fisheries workgroup formed earlier this year to look at the issue has its next meeting, and after the North Pacific council takes action on its current discussion paper. Board of Fisheries member Sue Jeffrey of Kodiak, who is also on the pollock workgroup, said she thought having a full meeting with all members of the board and the council would also be helpful in the future. Groundfish possession limits discussed The committee also heard about other issues where they must coordinate management. The Petersburg Vessel Owners Association previously submitted identical proposals to the state and federal bodies asking for a change in how groundfish possession and landing limits are calculated, and the Board of Fisheries decided not to take action until it saw what direction federal managers were going. The federal body has asked for a discussion paper on the issue. Essentially, the change proposed by PVOA would mean that groundfish possession limits for non-target species would be applied at the time of delivery, but not necessarily in the middle of a fishing trip. That would enable vessels to have slightly higher ratios midtrip, as long as they were at the right level at the end of fishing. There was no action or discussion on that issue.

Split decided for $20.8M in salmon disaster relief funds

The National Marine Fisheries Service and other entities have agreed upon a regional split of the $20.8 million in federal aid for fisheries disasters, but how to spend that money is still being decided. Cook Inlet fishers, businesses and other organizations will receive $11.14 million in federal fisheries disaster aid for the poor king salmon runs in 2012, according to NMFS spokeswoman Julie Speegle. Those in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region will receive $9.66 million, she wrote in a May 23 email. In Cook Inlet, the funds will be split with $4.6 each for the commercial and recreational sectors, and the remaining funds — almost $2 million — for research and other projects, Speegle confirmed in a May 27 email. The Cook Inlet split was based on the original disaster request, and agreed upon by the State of Alaska, the state’s congressional delegation and NMFS. Congress appropriated the funds earlier this year in response to the disaster declaration made for poor king runs on the Yukon River in 2010, 2011 and 2012, the Kuskokwim River in 2011 and 2012 and for Cook Inlet’s 2012 salmon fisheries. Now, NMFS is working with 11 representative organizations to develop the spending plans, although they won’t be made public immediately, Speegle wrote. “Because the draft spending plans are pre-decisional, they are not available to the public,” Speegle wrote. In March, NMFS proposed that 10 representative groups help develop the spending plans, and then a different group — the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission — help execute them. The agency took public comment on that structure, and decided to add an additional group to the mix. Speegle wrote that NMFS developed and finalized the list of representative groups in consultation with the State of Alaska and the state’s congressional delegation. The 11th group, the Kenai Watershed Forum, was added after the public comment period ended, she wrote. For Cook Inlet, the Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska-Susitna boroughs, Northern District Setnetters Association, Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, Kenai River Sportfishing Association and Kenai River Professional Guide Association are working on a spending plan with the watershed forum. For the Yukon-Kuskokwim area, the Association of Village Council Presidents, Tanana Chiefs Conference, Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association and Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association are helping with the plan. Pacific States, which is based in Portland, Ore., was responsible for distributing the $5 million appropriation for the 2009 Yukon disaster, and it appears the commission will do so again. Speegle wrote that the commission is expected to formulate a grant application by June 1, which will then be sent to NOAA Grants for funding approval. The approval is expected to come in July. Then the Office of Management and Budget must approve the plan, she wrote. Once the grant is approved, the spending plans will be released to the public, Speegle wrote. Then the first priority will be getting direct-aid money distributed to affected fishers and businesses, and then determining how to use the research money, Speegle wrote in an earlier email. The spending plans are expected to include a mix of direct aid and other fisheries disaster related expenditures, including research, according to Speegle, although the plans will not identify specific research projects. “It will include research priorities and a description of the competitive process to review and award research projects addressing those priorities,” Speegle wrote. Speegle said that NMFS has held conference calls with the representative groups from each region to work on the spending plans. Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease said the Cook Inlet groups have been working together on their plans. “I think so far all the groups are working together to come up with good solid plans, and trying to give the best available information to Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission,” Gease said May 22. In comments submitted to NMFS in April and acquired by the Peninsula Clarion via a Freedom of Information Act request, setnetters and guides generally supported spending most, or all, of the Cook Inlet funds on direct aid. Now, the representative groups for each sector are working on the spending plan for that sector, Gease said. “People are just going through, reviewing drafts,” Gease said. On the recreational side, Gease said the plan is to make the direct-aid as widely-available as possible, with sport fishing guides, sport fishing guide businesses, accommodations, and other related businesses where a significant percent of the business is related to recreational fishing, all eligible to apply for the direct payments. If that goes through as planned, Pacific States would be the entity to review the applications, determine eligibility, and make the payments, Gease said. Most likely, the applicants would need to show a loss or reduction of 35 percent or more in 2012 compared to prior years, he said. Gease said he thought setnetters were looking at a similar plan, but didn’t know if processors would be included. For the Kuskokwim region, AVCP’s Myron Naneng said that the groups are still working on a joint proposal. AVCP sent a draft to the other groups on May 22, and was waiting to hear back before they released it, he said.

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