Government shutdown may wound Alaska salmon season

Alaska’s salmon industry is ready to get corked by the inability of state lawmakers to pass a budget.

More than 20,000 state workers are bracing for 30-day layoff notices, meaning they’ll be off the job when the new fiscal year starts on July 1. The timing couldn’t be worse for Alaska’s salmon managers who are nearing the peak of a season that could set new records.

“There is some budget, about 27 percent of our normal amount for us to work in the field, and do our management responsibilities. But how we proceed from July 1 is what we’re working on,” said Jeff Regnart, director of Commercial Fisheries at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG.

“This year has some record forecasts and Alaska salmon is a multi-million dollar industry. That means we are going to be out there managing these fisheries,” Regnart said. “We might have to make some changes based on the fiscal climate, but we’re going to make sure that we do our very best to have the tools to maximize the opportunity in these fisheries. That, to me, is our main mission.”

Alaska’s 2015 salmon catch is projected at 221 million fish, totaling one billion pounds. That’s a bulk weight that has been topped only once before in 2013, according to the Seafood Market Bulletin by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Regnart said the major management focus would be on the “significant” salmon fisheries, such as pink salmon in Southeast Alaska and sockeyes at Bristol Bay, where a 40-million fish harvest is expected, a 41 percent increase. Statewide, a sockeye salmon forecast of nearly 60 million is the largest since 1995.

“The salmon fishery is short,” Regnart said. “In the next three months, it will all be over. It is compressed and we need to be able to respond to that. It might be different from past years, but we’ll do our darndest to make sure we can make the calls necessary to provide access to that resource.”

Other salmon fishing regions could feel even more of a management pinch.

“Kodiak, South and North Peninsula, Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, all those are significant fisheries and our plan is to put them in the water,” Regnart said. “We might have fewer enumeration programs, fewer aerial surveys, and fewer people at the front counters in some offices, all those are possibilities. But the essential function of allowing access to that resource in a sustainable way, we will try to preserve.”

“I have no idea which department employees, if any, would be prioritized over others,” said James Jackson, a regional salmon manager at ADFG in Kodiak, where the fishery opens June 1.

“Reliable, in-season salmon escapement and catch data is the hallmark of a well-managed fishery,” he added. “Without department employees counting fish and keeping track of catch, it is very difficult to manage a commercial salmon fishery, especially one as large as Kodiak’s.”

Of course, lots of other fishing is going on besides salmon, such as cod, shrimp, rockfish and Dungeness crab. Those could simply be put on hold.

“I think there will be an impact across the board,” Regnart said. “We’re just going to put our resources where they make the most sense. With salmon, if you miss it, you’re done until next summer. Other fisheries that could be taken at another time, if it’s possible from a biological perspective, we’ll look at that.”

“The situation is changing every day,” Regnart added. “We’re going to do everything we can to make this work, and try and pull a rabbit out of the hat.”

R2AK

Kayaks, paddle boards, sail boats and other man powered water craft are geared up for the Race to Alaska, dubbed the Iditarod of the Sea. On June 4 more than 30 teams will leave Port Townsend, Wash., and head north 750 miles to Ketchikan.

“It’s an adventure endurance race with very few rules,” said Joe Bersch, president of Premier Pacific Seafoods, a race entrant with partner Dalton Bergen on a 24-foot sailing outrigger called Pure & Wild.

“Our team is centered on promoting pure and wild, sustainable Alaska seafood along the race route,” Bersch said.

The race is expected to take seven to 10 days. If the Pure & Wild team crosses the finish line first, they will donate the $10,000 winnings to SeaShare, a nonprofit that has donated seafood to U.S. hunger relief since 1994.

“The reach of this race is international, and it is a good opportunity to broaden awareness of SeaShare,” Bersch said. “We want people to see the benefits of sustainable fisheries management in Alaska; and that it isn’t just about harvesting resources, but to show that the industry gives back by providing seafood meals to hungry people across the nation.”

Track the race at www.racetoalaska.com/

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Updated: 
11/21/2016 - 8:02pm

Comments