Impacts pondered for expanding state waters fisheries

June 20, 2013

JUNEAU — In an era of widespread anti-government sentiment, and Alaska’s particular anti-Washington bent, state and federal fisheries managers are beginning to address a range of issues that will further intertwine their regulatory activities and could risk coastal economic and chinook survival without high levels of cooperation.

Early this year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council began a new approach to “rationalization” of federal trawl fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska that would include establishment of comprehensive salmon, halibut and crab bycatch controls.

At their annual “Joint Protocol Committee” meeting, June 12 in Juneau, three members each of the North Pacific council and Alaska Board of Fisheries had their first, brief, formal discussion on their respective futures.

“I’m hopeful that we can coordinate some efforts with the council before we start making so many heavy decisions on these new fisheries you’re talking about, or reallocation of fisheries,” Board Chairman Karl Johnstone said in an interview after the session.

The council’s last attempt at rationalizing the Gulf fisheries was halted in December 2006 at the request of recently elected Gov. Sarah Palin, in large part in response to coastal communities fearful of the loss of locally controlled fishing permits, crew jobs and support industry business that resulted from rationalization of federal crab fisheries in the Bering Sea.

The 7,500-fish chinook bycatch cap on Gulf of Alaska non-pollock trawl fisheries set by the council June 8 is to be followed by a yet-to-be built set of tools that vessel owners say they desperately need to stay within that limit.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries, at its Oct. 18 meeting in Anchorage, will begin considering more than a dozen proposals to establish or expand state waters Alaska pollock and other groundfish fisheries in the Central and Western Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands regions.

Four proposals for the Kodiak, Chignik and South Alaska Peninsula regions would increase the harvest limit in state waters Pacific cod fisheries from 25 percent to as much as 55 percent of the annual combined state/federal harvest limit, known as the acceptable biological catch, or ABC.

Options under consideration by the North Pacific council could result in individual vessel fishing quotas that could be increased, reduced or even terminated based on their salmon bycatch levels.

State law licenses fishing privileges to persons, not vessels, and does not allow individual quotas in any case, but those limits don’t draw as clear a picture as one might hope.

Currently, state waters groundfish fisheries operate solely under Board of Fish regulations. But so-called “parallel” fisheries, which also take place within the state’s three-mile maritime boundary, are open at the same time as adjacent federal fisheries and generally operate under federal regulations and management measures “as guided” by the Board of Fisheries, as described by a Department of Fish and Game review document.

Proposals awaiting the board affect both state waters and parallel fisheries, largely without regard to existing or developing federal rules.

That means, for example, if the Board of Fisheries increased the size of what are currently open access Pacific cod fisheries, boats with exclusive licenses in the federal cod fishery could join what some stakeholders warned is already an increasingly inefficient harvest derby until the state limit were reached, then return to the federal fishery.

The questions raised by such actions include: Would the chinook bycatch in state waters of the federally licensed boats be counted against their federal fisheries limit and who is held responsible for bycatch in the state waters and parallel fisheries, where there are currently no bycatch limits or requirements for observer coverage?

Johnstone said he had not been aware of the breadth and complexity of the issues before the day’s briefings by federal and state management staff and acknowledged that the board might not be ready this October, or this winter, to decide on the proposals that await.

“I’m hopeful we’re going to be able to get some information and I’m hopeful if we don’t we’re wise enough to know we don’t have it and we will table it until we get it,” Johnstone said.

Eric Olson, chairman of the council, acknowledged repeatedly during the meeting that the state has unfettered authority to increase its share of the shared fisheries and to set its own rules.

“What we heard today that was really encouraging was that they want to take into consideration some of the views of the some of some of the federal participants, recognizing there could be impacts that could be felt on the federal side,” Olson said.

All the cordial comments came at a meeting where everyone knew in advance that no decisions, light or heavy, would be made. They were matched by other officials, and some stakeholders, but were not the only sentiment.

Johnstone began the day with an apparently popular cheap shot at federal management and his declared inclination “to cooperate as much as possible” with federal authorities remain fighting words in parts of Alaska.

In a Juneau Empire headline and account on the council’s decision to continue research on trawl fishing impacts on coral in the Bering Sea Canyon, published a day before the joint session, a Greenpeace spokesman who had endorsed area closures complained that the council had “kicked the can down the road.”

In his first comments after staff briefings, Johnstone noted intense public concern with trawl bycatch, and inferred that the new chinook cap was ineffective and also “kicking the can down the road.”

“That’s a quote I use,” Johnstone said.

Israel Peyton and Bruce Morgan, respectively representing the Mat-Su and Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory committees, also used the phrase.

In an introduction commonly heard in legislative and other hearings before elected officials, Peyton noted that he and Morgan represented 90,000 Southcentral residents.

Ignoring the bycatch cap the council had set four days earlier, Peyton demanded a reduction “immediately.”

“If it cost 20 cents more for fish sandwich at McDonald’s, so be it ... The attitude of chinook fishermen in Northern Cook Inlet is one of hopelessness and anger,” Peyton said.

Ed Dersham, a council member, Anchor Point lodge operator and former Board of Fisheries member, later responded that he had received positive comments on the new bycatch cap from Oceana, the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and other environmental groups.

“I would just encourage people who have this feeling about kicking the can down the road to talk to some of the advocates for low bycatch that were here and were present for the council action,” Dersham said.

He encouraged the three board members present to “carry the message” to their four remaining colleagues that “the decisions they are facing in October have several layers of complexity” and warned that they “prepare themselves to get inundated with input.”


Tkacz is a correspondent for the Journal based in Juneau. He can be reached at [email protected].


06/20/2013 - 10:17am