Fisheries

Alaskans take 553K Cook Inlet salmon in PU fisheries

JUNEAU — Fishermen harvested nearly 533,000 salmon in Cook Inlet personal-use fisheries last year and the Kasilof River saw its highest sockeye salmon harvest to date. Personal use fishing was established by Alaska’s Board of Fisheries as a means of complying with federal subsistence requirements. It allows Alaskans to take certain types of finfish, shellfish or aquatic plants for use as food for themselves or their immediate families. According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data, both the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers have continued to see heavy use. Both are located on the road system on the Kenai Peninsula, about 15 miles apart and about 160 miles south of Anchorage. While personal use fishermen can harvest multiple species of salmon on the two rivers, sockeye salmon typically make up the majority of their take. On the Kasilof River, anglers dipnetted more than 89,000, while on the Kenai River, they took nearly 378,000. More than 34,920 permits were issued in 2015, according to Fish and Game data. While the vast majority of the dipnet fishing effort occurs on the Kenai River, the Kasilof River has become increasingly popular. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources has received more than $2.8 million in funding from the state Legislature for site improvements. They’ve proposed adding more parking, an access road, portable toilets and dune fencing to the area.

Larger expected king run loosens restrictions on setnets, drifters

Commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet will be somewhat freer to fish at the outset of the 2016 season thanks to a larger projected king salmon run. For the past few years, Alaska Department of Fish & Game commercial fisheries managers have had to work around restrictions on their fisheries because of low king salmon runs to the stream systems across Upper Cook Inlet. However, with a projected late-run return of 30,000 king salmon to the Kenai River and improved runs to the Deshka and Little Susitna rivers, managers will be able to operate under normal restrictions, according to the 2016 Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fisheries outlook. “This will be the first year we’ve had the luxury of operating those fisheries without the restrictions,” said Pat Shields, the area management biologists for the Commercial Fisheries Division in Soldotna. For the first time in three years, setnetters in the Upper Subdistrict will be managed by the Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan, restricted only by inseason assessments of sockeye salmon runs and the escapements of late-run kings to the Kenai. In the past, they have been constricted by the low projected run of king salmon to the Kenai River, limiting the number of hours they can fish. This year, they will be able to operate with an additional 84 hours of fishing each week, with a mandatory 36-hour closure each week beginning between 7 p.m. Thursdays and 7 a.m. Fridays, Shields said. The season is set to open June 27 unless opened earlier by emergency order, based on an inriver estimate of 50,000 Kasilof River sockeye salmon before the opener. The earliest it could open would be June 20, according to the outlook. As the season progresses, managers will be carefully watching both the number of sockeye salmon and king salmon in the rivers. “What we’ll do is watch the king salmon numbers as they come in each day in July, and we’ll plan our strategy for how to fish based on the combination of those two sets of numbers,” Shields said. Additionally, commercial setnetters in the Northern District of Cook Inlet will be able to target king salmon again at the season opening. King salmon escapements in the Northern District, which includes all of Cook Inlet north of Boulder Point, have improved in the last few years. More king salmon have been returning to the to the Deshka and Little Susitna rivers as well, and Fish & Game is willing to open up the fishery as well. Shields said it is a relatively limited fishery targeting kings specifically early in the season, with limited fishing periods and fewer nets allowed. The commercial setnet fishery in the Northern District will open with four fishing periods in the 2016 season: May 30, June 3, June 13 and June 20, according to the outlook. After June 27, there will be two 12-hour fishing periods per week with a full complement of gear with at least 600 feet between nets. However, the area from the wood chip dock to the Susitna River will remain closed, reducing the king salmon harvest by approximately half, and the Deshka River will be watched closely. Any closures will come from inseason counts, according to the outlook. The drift gillnet fishery will open by the third Monday in June or June 19, whichever is later. There will be an additional 12-hour fishing period in the Expanded Kenai and Expanded Kasilof sections and Drift Gillnet Area 1 because the Kenai River sockeye run is projected to be greater than 2.3 million fish, according to the outlook. Between July 16 and July 31, there will be an additional 12-hour fishing period each week in the Expanded Kenai, Expanded Kasilof and Anchor Point sections, and no additional restrictions on the remaining regular 12-hour fishing period. One of the challenges of managing this season will be balancing the king run, which is projected to be above the 22,500 target set in the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan, with the sockeye salmon run. A larger than average sockeye return is projected for this year — 7.1 million total, with a 4.1 million commercial fishery harvest, 1.2 million more than the 10-year average annual harvest. Shields said the department has a number of tools for managing the sockeye overescapement if the fisheries are restricted by emergency order again. “It’ll be an interesting year to watch,” Shields said. “Everybody will be watching those two numbers really closely. Our strategy and challenge here will be how many of those extra (setnet) hours will we need to use to keep the sockeye salmon escapement in check.” Last year, both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers saw large overescapements of sockeye salmon, partially due to the closures of the setnet fishery. Managers tried to control the escapement by opening up the drift gillnet fleet for more fishing, which worked “moderately well,” Shields said. “It’s going to put the department in a difficult position — how far do you let the sockeye salmon run go above your escapement objective while you still maintain all the provisions in the (management) plan?” Shields said. One option the managers have is to discuss going outside the Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plan to control escapement, which has been done before. It is a serious decision and requires input from the upper echelons of Fish & Game, but it was done as recently as last year, Shields said. A proviso in the management plan allows Fish & Game to deviate from the management plan to make their escapement goals, he said. However, that doesn’t mean the decisions are always clear. Shields said the decisions to go outside the management plans often generate disagreements within the department and commentary from the public. “When you start exceeding (escapement goals) by quite a bit on the upper end, you see a likelihood for smaller returns,” Shields said. “I wished it was a square decision with nice straight 90-degree corners, but sometimes the lines get a little fuzzy.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

After bumper years, fewer reds forecast

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has released statewide forecasts for salmon, and 2016 promises fewer fish than last year’s price-deadening sockeye glut.  Statewide, ADFG said 2016 will see a drop in the total salmon harvest, led by an especially sharp decline in pink salmon. Projections are for 161 million total salmon: 99,000 chinook in areas outside Southeast Alaska, 47.7 million sockeye, 4.4 million coho, 90.1 million pink, and 18.7 million chum. Southeast Alaska chinook salmon harvests are set by the Pacific Salmon Commission between the U.S. and Canada, and have not yet been released. Rivers will see a half-million more chum and coho salmon, but pinks and reds — Alaska’s money crops — will both decline. The projected harvest of pink salmon — which run strong every other year — is about 100 million fewer than in 2015 at 190.5 million. In Prince William Sound where pink salmon is the major harvest, the forecast is 23.4 million, less than average and a change of pace from the 2015 season that broke the 20-year record for the largest harvest with 96 million fish. Southeast Alaska will have a harvest of 34 million pinks. In Kodiak, 16.2 million is projected, and 13.4 million is forecast for the South Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. The sockeye salmon harvest is expected to be about 7.3 million fewer than in 2015, which could prove a benefit for the industry after Bristol Bay’s surplus driven ex-vessel price crash in 2015. ADFG forecasts the Bristol Bay sockeye harvest — the most valuable in the state — to be 29.5 million, far less than the 2015 harvest of more than 36 million but still greater than the 20-year average of 23.2 million. Both reds and pinks contributed last year to one of the largest overall salmon harvests on record. Statewide, the commercial salmon harvest of all species was 247 million fish, greater than the 2015 harvest projection of 220 million and the 2005-14 average of 179 million fish. The harvest was the second highest since 1994, following only 2013, when the harvest was 273 million fish. The Alaska all-species salmon harvest for 2015 totaled 268.3 million, about 47.5 million salmon more than the 220.8 million forecast. This included 522,000 chinook, 55 million sockeye, 3.9 million coho, 190.6 million pink, and 18.2 million chum salmon. Bristol Bay sockeye led in value with an immense but oddly timed run of sub-average-sized fish, while a bumper pink salmon harvest in the Prince William Sound matched exactly an inexplicable lag of Southeast pink salmon runs. Meanwhile, the international salmon market contended with price forces that included the U.S. dollar’s relative strength, Russian import bans, farmed fish and oversupply from the 2014 harvest. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]  

FISH FACTOR: Salmon forecasts down 40% overall; early halibut prices up

Alaska’s 2016 salmon harvest will be down by 40 percent from last year’s catch, if the fish show up as predicted. The preliminary numbers released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game call for a total catch of 161 million salmon this year; the 2015 harvest topped 268 million fish. The shortfall stems from a projected big decrease for pink salmon. A humpy harvest forecast of 90 million would be a drop of 100 million fish from last summer. Here’s the statewide catch breakdown for the other salmon species: For sockeye, the forecast calls for a catch just shy of 48 million, down by more than 7 million reds from last year. A coho catch of 4.4 million would be a half million fish increase; likewise, for chum salmon, a catch of nearly 19 million would be a similar increase over last season. For chinook, a catch of 99,000 fish is projected for all areas except Southeast, where the harvest will be determined according to Pacific Treaty agreements with Canada. Last year’s statewide chinook catch was 521,612. It all adds up to fewer salmon being available to global buyers this year — and some hopeful market signs for Alaska salmon are starting to surface. A failure of both farmed and wild salmon fisheries in Japan has spawned a surge of demand for Alaska sockeyes. Exports to Japan from October through December were up 320 percent over the previous year, reported Seafood.com, and sales are expected to remain “substantially” higher as inventories clear prior to the new fishing season. Alaska could also benefit from the misfortunes of the world’s top farmed salmon producers, a scenario that is steadily pushing up salmon prices. Farmed fish sales from Chile, the largest supplier to the U.S., are expected to drop by up to 20 percent this year due to a toxic algal bloom, and production is expected to be affected well into 2017. According to Chile’s National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service, 38 salmon farms have been affected, with nearly 24 million fish killed — enough to fill 14 Olympic swimming pools. Financial Times reported that Chilean salmon prices have increased 25 percent to nearly $5 a pound since December. Norway, the world’s largest farmed fish producer, is unlikely to fill the salmon shortfall, as that country is dealing with severe fish loss from sea lice.  “We expect to see a global supply shock,” warned Kolbjørn Giskeødegård, director of seafood at Nordea Bank. Halibut highs Dock prices for halibut started out in the mid-$6 range at major ports, about 25 cents per pound higher than last year. The fishery opened March 19 and first deliveries were sketchy, except in Southeast Alaska. “Fishing is fantastic,” said Dave Ohmer, manager at Trident Seafoods in Petersburg. Halibut prices are usually broken into three weight categories. They were reported at $6.45 for 1- to 20-pounders, $6.65 for 20-40s and $6.85 a pound for “40 ups.” The payout at Icicle was reported at $6.50-$6.75 with a 20 pound split. Halibut prices usually drop a bit after the first week or so into the fishery. In recent years, the dock price has seldom fallen below $5 a pound. Federal data show that 676,000 pounds of halibut crossed Alaska docks through March 25, slightly higher than at the same time last year. Alaska’s share of the Pacific halibut catch this year is 21.45 million pounds, an increase of 200,000 pounds from 2015. The fishery runs through November 7. Fishing slows growth It turns out that fishing appears to be a prime cause of shrinking halibut. A Pacific halibut that weighed 120 pounds 30 years ago tips the scales at less than 45 pounds today. That’s especially true for fish in the biggest fishing holes: the Central and Western Gulf of Alaska. “We found that fishing can explain between 30 and 100 percent of the observed declines in size at age in the Gulf of Alaska, depending on which area you’re looking at,” said Jane Sullivan, a University of Alaska graduate student who is investigating the impacts of fishing on halibut growth for the first time. “We took all the information that we knew about the halibut population in the 1980s when fish were big, and used a computer model to fish this population at different harvest levels to see how fishing affects size at age,” she explained. “And we found that resulting declines in size at age become greater with age because fishing effects compound with each year of fishing.” Sullivan modeled several scenarios, including reducing the 32-inch minimum size in the fishery, and releasing halibut over a maximum of 60 inches. Neither appeared to make any difference in fishing impacts on the fish size at age. The research also found that bycatch of halibut in other fisheries is not a key factor in the slower growing fish. “The majority of halibut caught as bycatch in these other fisheries are much smaller sized halibut, so we don’t think there would be the same selective fishing going on as there is in the commercial halibut fishery,” Sullivan said. In terms of potential changes to the fishery to protect the slow growing halibut, the science points to an unpopular solution. The only management action that appears to make any difference is to reduce fishing effort or harvest. By reducing effort, you reduce the selective harvest of large halibut, she said. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Board of Fisheries hopefuls, legislators playing nice in 2016

The 2016 Board of Fisheries appointees represent no one, and everyone, they insist. 2015 and 2016 took a toll on fisheries leadership. The last 12 months include one botched interview, one forced resignation, three failed nominations – including one denied by the Walker Administration – a fistful of felony charges, and two recent resignations – one of which chairman Tom Kluberton said comes from political burnout and stress, the other, Bob Mumford, coming before he even had the chance to be confirmed by the Legislature.  Gear group and regional allegiance bubbled underneath it all, and what the board should look like to best reflect them all. This year, Gov. Bill Walker’s appointees are eager to explain what little bias they carry onto a board that oversees Alaska’s largest source of private employment. Legislators offer none of the fire seen last year, public comments are gentle, and none of last year’s regional and gear group tensions have boiled over. The Senate Resources Committee forwarded Israel Payton on March 21 to a joint session hearing, moving the Mat-Su resident one step closer to being confirmed as a board member. Payton, along with former Alaska Wildlife Trooper Al Cain and Kenai area conservationist Robert Ruffner, was nominated to fill one of three available positions on the board left Kluberton, Mumford, and Fritz Johnson. This leaves Bristol Bay without a representative. Bay groups are angry, but so far haven’t led the same kind of campaign that derailed board nominations last year. Payton came out of the gate speaking directly of a lack of allegiance to user groups, gear types, and regions, describing a good board member as neutral above all else. A good board member, he said, “should be careful not to be seen as one user’s advocate,” and “realize that board members do not represent any specific interest group, fishery, but represent all Alaskans equally, and we all have very unique differences and perspectives.” Payton’s fisheries involvement extends to subsistence and sport, and he currently serves on the Board of Fisheries’ Mat-Su Fish and Game Advisory Committee. The committee, public commentators, and Payton himself focused mostly on affiliation, specifically, which if any he holds. Payton insists his time as a sportfishing guide has no bearing on his Board of Fisheries plans. “I’ve worked as a sportfishing guide in the past,” said Payton, “but it’s been 11 years since I’ve made any money related to any type of fisheries resource, and it does not define who I am or how I will vote.” Though he has little direct commercial fishing experience, Payton claims he will benefit commercial fisheries. Without any connections, he has no loyalties or prejudices. “I will not bring any preconceived ideas or conflicts between different commercial users or fisheries,” he said. Sen. Pete Micciche, R-Soldotna, the only committee member to question Payton, probed for Payton’s backbone, asking whether he would have trouble making tough allocative calls when needed. “You know the pressure that comes on you in the Board of Fisheries,” Micciche said. “Do you have any hesitation on limiting harvest opportunities to any or all of the four user groups to meet the (maximum sustainable yield) requirement?” Payton said his alliance was to Alaska’s Constitution first, not to user groups. “If there’s a biological concern, and there’s a resource in crisis or not meeting the MSY, I think that it’s time to act accordingly,” he said. “I realize the amount of pressure that the commissioners and managers currently face when they do things like emergency orders, but we are mandated by the statues, by the Legislature, and we have to follow it.” In the midst of the interview, Payton acknowledged the pressure Micciche spoke about. “I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t nervous about serving on this board,” he said, but that he could only try. Along with the committee itself, the public had little input. Only three people called in to the committee, two in support of Payton and one neutral. A March 10 hearing was similarly mild compared to last year. A Senate Committee Hearing for Al Cain and Robert Ruffner met calm receptions from Sens. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, and Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak. Both senators counted among the most vociferous of Ruffner’s critics during his 2015 confirmation hearing, but recanted their earlier opposition. In 2015, they said, Walker had nominated Ruffner to fill a seat they feel sportfishermen had traditionally held. This time around, that’s not a problem. Both Stoltze and Wielechowski said they were glad to see Ruffner back and nominated for a commercial fisherman’s spot. The senators, representing the largely sportfishing and personal use interests of Southcentral Alaska’s largest urban population centers, had opposed Ruffner’s appointment on the grounds that it should go to an Anchorage resident and a sportfisherman. Wielechowski acknowledged that Ruffner’s failed confirmation – the joint committee failed to confirm him by a single vote – had less to do with Ruffner’s undisputed credentials and more to do with fish politics. “Last year was rough and it really had nothing to do with you at all, it was just simply concern over the seat designation,” Wielechowski said. “I’m certainly more open to this entry now that you’re applying for a different seat,” Stolze said. “The seat you are applying for is traditionally thought to be a commercial seat.” Ruffner, director of the habitat restoration focused Kenai Watershed Forum, reaffirmed what he’d said last year. The health of the fish and habitat are first and foremost in his mind. Likewise, Cain responded to committee questions maintaining a neutral position in the endless Cook Inlet fisheries allocation battles. “I’d like to hear input on all sides, and if we can improve something, make something more sustainable, I’m not interested in disenfranchising any user group or individual but seeing that the allocations … are as equally distributed as they can be is my goal,” Cain told the committee. “That is why I’m not opposed to listening to suggested changes for any user group.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska trawlers furious about Walker’s council nominations

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include comment from Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten. Two months after a heated meeting, trawlers are again accusing Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten of short-changing their industry.  Gov. Bill Walker submitted nominations to fill two seats of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on March 9, sending waves of dissatisfaction throughout an industry segment that claims Walker’s administration is forcing it out of the process at the worst time possible. Walker nominated Buck Laukitis of Homer and Theresa Peterson of Kodiak to replace Duncan Fields and David Long among the 11 voting members of the council, one of eight regional councils established by the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act to oversee federal fisheries from three to 200 miles off the coast. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce ultimately selects each member, choosing either the governor’s stated preference or from his list of alternates. Of 11 voting members, six seats are reserved for Alaskans, including the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, currently held by Cotten. The remaining seats are reserved for the fish and game officials from Washington and Oregon, as well as a designated seat for the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region. Fields has served his maximum of three consecutive, three-year terms. Long only served one term after being appointed by former Gov. Sean Parnell in 2013. Since Walker announced the nominations, trawl industry representatives have voiced a steadily building frustration with the his administration’s fisheries policy.  “There’s a strong anti-trawl message coming from this administration,” said Glenn Reed, executive director of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “The two appointees illustrate that really clearly.” Cotten did not respond to requests for comment before press time, but said on on March 17 that the Washington and Oregon council seats already provide ample represenatation for trawlers, the majority of whom port in the Lower 48, not Alaska. He reiterated his comments from the contentious February meeting, saying that the economic and cultural welfare of Alaska communities is the administration's goal. "We are trying to look out for the health of coastal communities," he said.  ‘Fair and balanced’ Trawl representatives say they bring in too much seafood to be left completely off the Alaska council delegation. “Right now, 90 percent of the 5 billion pounds caught off Alaska is caught with trawl gear,” said Julie Bonney, executive director of Alaska Groundfish Data Bank. “Now we have bycatch management tools in front of the council for Gulf of Alaska fisheries, and yet on the Alaska side of the council we don’t have anyone that really understands those fisheries.” In a release, Walker said his nominations provide “balanced and insightful experience.” Trawl representatives insist that Walker’s nominations run afoul of the clause of the Magnuson-Stevens Act which calls for “the Secretary, in making appointments under this section, shall, to the extent practicable, ensure a fair and balanced apportionment, on a rotating or other basis, of the active participants (or their representatives) in the commercial and recreational fisheries.” Both Peterson and Laukitis have opposed many policies in recent years supported by the trawl industry, and promoted others in opposition to the industry’s stakeholders. Most recently, Peterson opposed a proposal to establish rationalization programs in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries favored by the trawl industry during a February council meeting as a member of the Advisory Panel that’s made up of 21 fisheries stakeholders. Instead, Peterson voted to continue studying a proposal the trawl industry loathes which does not allocate harvest quota. Peterson said “large scale fishing operations and the processing sector are well represented both on the council and through dedicated participation,” and that she believes small-scale coastal residents need more help. “Through my years participating in the Council process, seven of them serving as an Advisory Panel member, I find the voice of the small-scale, independent fishing operations to be the most underrepresented group in the process,” said Peterson. “In order to maintain fair and equitable representation on the council we need to have council members who represent coastal community members and understand the challenges of living in remote regions.” Laukitis does not have experience on the council’s Advisory Panel, but has gone on record during council process opposing trawl-backed regulatory proposals. In an 2014 Homer News editorial addressing halibut bycatch, Laukitis advocated for deep halibut bycatch cuts for the Bering Sea groundfish trawlers, referring to Clem Tillion, former Gov. Jay Hammond, and former Sen. Ted Stevens as examples of sound fisheries management. As alternates to Laukitis and Peterson, Walker forwarded Eric Olson, Paul Gronholdt, Linda Behnken, and Art Nelson. None directly represent trawlers or processors. Screening process Trawlers claim nominees were chosen based on fealty to a specific vision of Alaska fisheries rather than experience. John Whiddon, a Kodiak city council member, had applied and was interviewed by Cotten along with Barbara Blake and Walker’s Deputy Chief of Staff John Hozey. Whiddon said the interview had two components. One asked a list of basic questions to determine fisheries management experience and familiarity with council process. The second probed for something deeper. “The second part was how supportive I’d be as a potential candidate of the state’s position towards the various fisheries,” said Whiddon. Whiddon said Walker’s team seemed to want to engineer the council so that “there wouldn’t be any real strong outliers in the Alaska contingent.” “It’s obvious the state has a direction they want to go,” said Whiddon. Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, was interviewed for a council seat. “It seemed to me they were looking for people who were all going to agree with a particular vision,” she said. “My feeling was, there’s two sides of fish. One is social justice and access and the mantra coming out of fish policy now, and the other side, which is economics. Fishing is about making money. I think they’re looking not so much about the division of return of dollars…but access to opportunities for small boat participants.” Certain applicants received no interviews at all, including trawler Jason Chandler, Anne Vanderhoeven, and Rebecca Skinner, an attorney and Kodiak Borough co-chair of the Kodiak Fisheries Work Group. Trawl representatives suspect the timing and reveals what they say is a pattern. “That’s sort of the way the commissioner is stacking the deck,” said Paddy O’Donnell, Kodiak resident and trawl operator who serves on the council’s Advisory Panel. At its December meeting, the council removed Mitch Kilborn of Kodiak’s International Seafoods of Alaska, and Anne Vanderhoeven, fisheries quota manager for Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., a Community Development Quota group. In place, the council appointed Ben Stevens of the Tanana Chiefs Conference and Angel Drobnica of the Aleutians Pribilof Islands Community Development Association, another CDQ group, both of whom trawlers describe as “anti-trawl.” Before the Portland meeting, the AP changed leadership roles, voting to replace Ruth Christiansen with Ernie Weiss of Aleutians East Borough as chair, with co-chairs Matt Upton from U.S. Seafoods and Art Nelson from Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. Trawl representation Trawlers argue their fisheries are the most important part of the Kodiak economy and other coastal economies with fish processing capability. In Kodiak, groundfish fisheries contribute to a year-round processor workforce, rather than the seasonal employment used by many other processing hubs. In Kodiak, an average of 1,500 employees work in processors per month. In all months except June-August — salmon fishing months — the majority of Kodiak’s processor poundage is delivered by trawl vessels. More Alaskans fish the Gulf of Alaska federal fisheries than non-Alaskans, though more non-Alaskans use trawl gear. According to permit data from the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region, twice as many Alaskans fish groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska than do non-residents — which includes pollock, Pacific cod, and flatfish. NOAA federal permit manager Tracy Buck clarified that the agency does not monitor permits according to resident status, exactly. Rather, each permit is attached to a physical address; 65 percent of groundfish permits are attached to an Alaska address. Gulf of Alaska groundfish can be harvested by trawl or non-trawl gear, though the majority of the catch is taken by trawl. There are 1,209 limited license permits, or LLPs, for groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska: 1,062 non-trawl LLPs and 152 trawl LLPs. The numbers favor Alaska addresses, but the difference between trawl and non-trawl residency speaks to the nature of fisheries. Of the non-trawl permits, a majority of 70 percent trace back to Alaska addresses while just a third of the trawl LLPs have an Alaska address. Non-trawl permits include longline and pot vessels — typically smaller than trawl vessels with a substantially lower barrier to entry where cost is concerned. Larger and more expensive trawlers have the ability to move between Pacific Northwest and Alaska waters, leaving homeport in Seattle or Portland to prosecute groundfish in the Gulf.

Victors in suit against NMFS want hired skipper rule scrapped

The victorious plaintiffs in a case challenging a federal rule over hired skippers in the sablefish and halibut fisheries filed a motion Feb. 24 to vacate the National Marine Fisheries Service action. Fairweather Fish Inc. and Ray Welsh filed suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, in 2014, following the finalization of a regulation that prohibited the use of hired skippers to harvest halibut and sablefish quota acquired after Feb. 12, 2010. A U.S. District Court judge in the Western Washington District ruled in their favor on Jan. 13, finding that the regulation didn’t meet legal muster. The court ruled that NMFS violated the Administrative Procedures Act, and failed to ensure the new rule complied with National Standards 9 and 10 of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Judge Benjamin Settle asked the parties for briefings regarding remedy, and the plaintiffs are now requesting that the court simply throw the rule out. “To remedy these violations of law,” the motion reads, “plaintiffs respectfully request that the court vacate the final rule and remand to NMFS for further review.” The Magnuson-Stevens Act was passed in 1976 to govern all federal fisheries in the U.S. It established an Exclusive Economic Zone from three to 200 miles off the U.S. coast, and created eight regional fishery management councils to govern. The act, or MSA, has 10 National Standards, or guidelines that mandate fisheries management goals. National Standard 9 requires regulations to minimize bycatch and bycatch mortality; National Standard 10 requires regulations to prioritize human safety at sea. The court ruled that NMFS failed to consider either when it approved the hired master prohibition. “A fundamental purpose of the halibut and sablefish IFQ program is to reduce bycatch in those fisheries. Yet, the final rule increased bycatch,” reads the plaintiffs’ motion to vacate the rule. “Likewise, by forcing disabled individuals to be onboard their vessels, the final rule decreased safety at sea.” Rather than tune up the rule, the plaintiffs argue that it should be scrapped, citing an earlier case against the U.S. Department of Energy: “When a court determines that an agency’s action failed to follow Congress’s clear mandate the appropriate remedy is to vacate that action.” The hired master rule was a perceived loophole in the federal quota systems installed in the North Pacific, following a derby-style fishery that was both dangerous and over-capitalized. In 1993, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council created an Individual Fishing Quota, or IFQ, program for halibut and sablefish in the North Pacific. The program, ultimately approved by NMFS through the Secretary of Commerce, assigned quota shares to fishermen based on their historical participation in the fishery, and provided for the transfer or sale of those shares among fishermen. The IFQ system allowed for some initial quota recipients to use hired skippers to fish quota for them as long as the quota holder retained more than 20 percent interest in the vessel. They also had to have traditionally used a hired skipper to fish. The North Pacific council, believing that the hired skipper exception was allowing for overconsolidation of quota shares among owners not required to be onboard the vessel, passed a rule in 2013 that prohibited the use of hired masters to harvest any quota acquired after Feb. 12, 2010. However, the council did not set the control date until February 2011, which was after several share transfers had occurred and been approved by NMFS. The plaintiffs argued that the council’s action was an illegal retroactive rule, and that it violated the Rehabilitation Act by disqualifying a disabled quota share owner from the fishery by requiring them to be on board the vessel. The judge did not rule on either the retroactive or Rehabilitation Act claims, stating that the violations of National Standards were enough to determine the final rule was improperly implemented. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Salmon permit values sink; halibut quota prices spike

Firesale salmon prices last year and a dim outlook for the upcoming season have caused the value of Alaska fishing permits to plummet. To another extreme, the prices for halibut catch shares have soared to “unheard of levels.” Starting with salmon permits: “A lot of people had disastrous seasons last year, whether it was drift gillnet or seine permits, and the values have declined dramatically,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. At Alaska’s bellwether fishery at Bristol Bay, a base sockeye prices of 50 cents per pound helped push drift gillnet permit prices into the $98,000 range, down from $175,000 last spring. “That may be the bottom; they seem to have come up a bit,” Bowen said, “but it’s still way below what they were trading for at this time last year.” The lower prices have spawned little interest in Bay drift permits; likewise, for salmon seine cards across the state. Seine permits at Prince William Sound are priced in the $150,000 range, down from over $200,000 a year ago. Kodiak seine permits have sunk into the mid $30,000s, and a Cook Inlet drift permit is valued in the $60,000 range. Bowen doesn’t expect the tide to turn anytime soon. “I’m afraid a lot of the same factors that contributed to the low prices we saw last year are pretty much the same this year. It’s not an optimistic outlook for salmon, and that is depressing the market for permits, and also the boats,” he added. “There are lots on the market, lots of sellers, not that many buyers. “There’s not a lot of extra money floating around in the salmon industry. So folks wanting to upgrade their vessels or pick up permits in another area, we’re just not seeing that happening.” The situation is slightly better in Southeast Alaska, where driftnet permits are getting a plug of interest. “More than I thought compared to all the other salmon areas,” said Olivia Olsen of Alaskan Quota and Permits at Petersburg. “We started at $78,000 in November and drifts now are going for $85,000 and they may creep up from there. Same with power troll permits. They’ve been pretty steady sales at about $35,000, which is down about $6,000 from last year, but still a pretty good price when you listen to all the talk about bad salmon prices. Hand troll permits also are on the upswing to $12,000.” Both brokers said salmon permit prices tend to tick upwards the closer it gets to salmon season. “I think the main issue is what we are going to see for prices, Bowen and Olsen said. Halibut share shocker This year’s small increase in halibut catches combined with hopes of a repeat of $6-$7 per pound prices was enough to send quota share prices skyrocketing. “There was a big rush after the halibut numbers were announced in late January,” said Olsen at Alaskan Quota and Permits in Petersburg. For the first time in nearly two decades, the coast-wide halibut catch was increased by 2.3 percent to nearly 30 million pounds. Alaska’s share of 21.45 million pounds is up 200,000 pounds from 2015. “I would say quota prices shot up $10 a pound since December,” Olsen said of Southeast shares. “We have current sales pending at $63 and $65 per pound, with rumors of going higher. Those prices are just unheard of, and to jump up that high in that short period of time — oh, my golly!” Are people buying at those nosebleed prices? “There’s a lot of people drawing the line, but there are a few who have bought. They’ve been waiting a long time for it and are just going to bite the bullet,” Olsen said. The same holds true for quota prices in the Central Gulf, Alaska’s largest halibut fishing hole. “Those are bumping up to $60,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. “We’ve had offers of $59 but no takers. Quota shares for the Western Gulf have increased by around $5 and are in the $40s if you can find it. There is strong interest there and also in Bering Sea regions. But it’s the same scenario: more buyers than sellers and the market is really tight.” Olsen added: “It will be interesting to see if these prices will last.” Got ice? A grass roots push is underway in Kodiak for a self-pay icehouse and crane at Oscars Dock at its downtown harbor. “It’s common in fishing communities throughout Alaska and the nation,” said Theresa Peterson, a fisherman and outreach director for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “It’s kind of strange that Kodiak doesn’t have this facility, being that we are the No. 2 port in the nation, and home to the largest and most diversified fleet in Alaska.” The need and benefits go far beyond commercial fishing, Peterson stressed. It would serve Kodiak’s five outlying villages, whose residents travel by boat to town and load/offload provisions, sport charter operators, recreational anglers and hunters. Fisherman Darius Kasprzak, who calls Kodiak’s lack of a public icehouse “flabbergasting,” is worried that a lack of it will drive the island’s fleet of small salmon boats out of business. “More processors are requiring RSW (refrigerated sea water) systems and are phasing out all the ice boats. Only a few processors are still accepting fish iced in holds, and most of those are grandfathered in,” Kasprzak said. “So all these little boats that don’t have room for RSW or don’t have the money are walking on pins and needles. But if there’s public ice that will change things dramatically.” Boat owners with RSW also would like to be able to grab ice so they could shut down the systems at night “and not have to listen to it,” he added.  “It’s worth it to buy some ice and chill off the top of the fish and not have to buy fuel and put wear and tear on the RSW,” he explained. Kasprzak said there is another reason ice is even more important for a water faring community. “Our waters are warming. Right now temperatures are at 7 degrees over normal. Last summer the water at Prince William Sound reached 60 degrees. Our RSW systems aren’t built to handle those temperatures. The Kodiak processors didn’t have enough ice for boats last salmon season because it was so hot. There’s more of a need now for a community ice house than ever.” The Kodiak City Council will hear the issue on March 15. Weigh in on water The Alaska Department of Natural Resources is considering revising its water management practices and wants input from the public. It includes regulations on water rights in streams, lakes, wells and other bodies. A DNR announcement said: “The department is soliciting feedback and comments from the public on how they would change or improve the existing regulatory framework related to water management or for suggestions and proposals which would improve the regulations related to water management before the formal process of drafting any proposed changes begins.” Comments are accepted through March 18. Send via email to [email protected] Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Feds file to dismiss suit over Kenai River subsistence gillnet

The Ninilchik Traditional Council filed a response March 3 to a motion by the Federal Subsistence Board and U.S. Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture seeking to dismiss a lawsuit filed last October. NTC filed the complaint after requests were denied by the board to remove federal fishing manager Jeff Anderson and to approve a subsistence gillnet on the Kenai River. According to the motion seeking dismissal by the federal defendants filed Jan. 25, the court should not take up the lawsuit because the Kenai River approval is ongoing. “Plaintiff lacks standing, and its claims are unripe,” reads the motion, “because its claims center around the (Federal Subsistence) Board and the in-season manager’s actions related to a gillnet fishery on the Kenai river, and the decision to authorize that fishery is not yet final.” NTC filed the complaint against Federal Subsistence Board Chair Tim Towarak, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. NTC disputes federal actions that closed subsistence fishing for chinook salmon last summer on the Kenai River because of conservation concerns and the refusal of Anderson to approve an operational plan for a gillnet on the Kenai River within the federal Kenai River Wildlife Refuge. In a divided vote, the Federal Subsistence Board approved the use of a subsistence gillnet on both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in January 2015, drawing strong opposition from other stakeholders linked to Cook Inlet commercial and recreational fishing. So many people have challenged the proposal, the defendants argue among other administrative points, that the board still hasn’t authorized the operational plan for the fishery. “The board has not yet completed the process of determining whether to authorize the gillnet fishery,” reads the motion. “While it initially decided to authorize the fishery, multiple parties have filed requests for consideration, and that reconsideration process is still underway.” According to a previous Supreme Court decision, “when a motion for reconsideration is pending, an order under reconsideration is nonfinal.” NTC denies this argument on several grounds. First, NTC challenges that the 700-plus requests for reconsideration already filed don’t meet the criteria for the legal definition of a request, which can only be filed by a party “aggrieved by a (board) failure…to provide the priority for subsistence uses.” Because none of the request filers are subsistence communities directly impacted by Federal Subsistence Board actions, their requests cannot hold the process, according to the NTC response. “Defendant’s interpretation…would deny NTC the right to a meaningful subsistence fishing opportunity merely because someone who disagrees with the board, and who has no right to a judicial review, takes advantage of an ambiguous administrative position to delay the fishery for year,” the response reads. Further, NTC argues that the board characterized its two early special action requests as requests for reconsideration, and denied them. That makes the matter final, and the complaint timely. “The claims in NTC’s complaint stem from these final administrative actions…NTC’s claims relate to final actions and are ripe even under defendants’ reading of the applicable regulations,” the motion argues. NTC argues that the dismissal motion is disingenuous as the approval of the Kenai and Kasilof gillnets regulation already appeared on the Federal Register. “Indeed, the 2015 Federal Register notice in which the final gillnet fishery regulations were published makes the Board’s position clear: the gillnet regulations were effective, and thus final and ripe for the purposes of this litigation, on the date they were published,” according to the NTC motion. The denial is the latest in a back-and-forth between the federal government, NTC, and non-subsistence fishermen on the Kenai River. In January 2015, the Federal Subsistence Board, a multi-agency board that governs Alaska subsistence users, allowed NTC two community subsistence gillnets, one each on the federally managed portions of the Kasilof and Kenai rivers in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. As a condition, NTC would have to submit operational plans for each gillnet. The federal in-season manager Anderson, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, must approve the plan before either net can go in the water. The proposal passed 5-3, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service voting against. Few besides NTC itself appreciated the gillnets. State and federal biologists opposed the gillnet idea on conservation grounds. More than 700 requests for reconsideration have flooded the Office of Subsistence Management urging a repeal; the previous record for such requests of a single proposal was six. Anderson reviewed and approved an operational plan for the Kasilof River sockeye gillnet on July 13, but did not approve the operational plan submitted for the gillnet on the Kenai River. In an emergency order, Anderson also closed all chinook fishing in the area, including subsistence fishing. Anderson argued that while the early chinook run did meet the lower end of the escapement goal, the low statewide numbers for chinook returns merited a conservation-minded approach. NTC Executive Director Ivan Encelewski said there were no conservation concerns, and that Anderson unfairly halted the fishery for political reasons. With a week to go in July, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game liberalized commercial fishing time for sockeye salmon and allowed the recreational take of Kenai River chinook salmon based on estimates that the minimum escapement goal would be met. The Ninilchik Traditional Council submitted two requests on July 17 and July 21 asking the subsistence board not only to rescind Anderson’s orders, but to remove Cook Inlet area subsistence fishing from the federal in-season manager’s authority. Further, NTC wanted to rewrite the proposal, requesting that the federal manager be forced to accept their operational plan. At a July 28 meeting in Anchorage, the board upheld Anderson’s decision to deny the operational plan and kept him as the manager of the fishery despite the council’s request to remove him. The special action request failed on a tie vote. Ninilchik Tribal elder and Council President Greg Encelewski later spared no venom, describing the board and Anderson’s management as “shameful.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @djsummersmma.

Federal Subsistence Board restores Saxman’s rural status

The Federal Subsistence Board has ended a decade-long struggle for the Southeast Alaska village of Saxman by restoring its rural designation. As a formally recognized rural village, Saxman residents now regain subsistence hunting and fishing rights they lost in 2007 when the board declared the village “nonrural.” Tribal leaders expressed relief, saying their practical survival and cultural survival depend on subsistence rights. “The importance of being recognized as a rural community is acute for Saxman and is crucial to survival,” said Lee Wallace, Tribal President of the Organized Village of Saxman, in a release. “Subsistence is an essential cultural practice, a traditional worldview that is at the heart of surviving and thriving in Saxman,” In 2013, the Village of Saxman in Southeast Alaska filed a lawsuit against the board, the Department of Interior, and the Department of Agriculture over a 2007 board ruling that stripped the village of federal subsistence rights with a nonrural designation. A key part of qualifying for federal subsistence rights means having a rural designation. In 2007, the Federal Subsistence Board ruled that Saxman and its largely-Tlingit inhabitants would incorporate into the Ketchikan urban area two miles north and lose rural status, and therefore not qualify for federal subsistence rights. The Department of the Interior updated regulations in November 2015 defining which parts of Alaska are designated as rural. The new regulations restore Southeast Alaska’s village Saxman as rural, and establish a new process for making rural designations. The Federal Subsistence Board voted unanimously to adopt the rule proposed by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture giving the board the authority to restore subsistence rights to Saxman under a new flexibility to make the numerous designations in Alaska that require rural or nonrural designation as a matter of policy. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

University cuts could damage fisheries, Arctic research

A state fiscal crisis looms, and some of the Legislature’s budget cuts could send ripples into Alaska’s largest private employer and international political affairs. Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, passed a series of university budget cuts out of her subcommittee on March 4 that would lop $50 million from the university budget, largely from research and outreach funding. The subcommittee ended up with a final university unrestricted general fund budget of $300 million, a $50 million cut from last year’s budget. The equivalent Senate subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, proposed a $325 million budget. The House and Senate will likely make amendments to the budget during a conference committee later in March. University of Alaska research functions reach far into trade and key political discussions. Alaska research plays a vital role in state and federal fisheries management as well as Arctic research, now in the political spotlight as the U.S. holds the chair of the eight-nation Arctic Council. Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, an industry group that represents 70 percent of all crab harvested in the North Pacific, penned a letter to both the House subcommittee and the House Finance Committee urging legislators not to cut research funding. “If the proposed subcommittee recommendation is adopted,” the letter reads, “it will seriously jeopardize UA’s continued ability to support fisheries in Alaska. Everyone in the state will suffer as a result. Commercial, recreational, and subsistence users will have fewer harvest opportunities.” Mark Gleason, the organization’s director, calls the university research cuts a “one-two punch” combined with Alaska Department of Fish and Game budget reductions — proposed at 15 percent less than last year. Together, the cuts to fisheries management and research spitball into more conservative management, he said, resulting in lower fishing quotas in a time when Alaskans need income the most. Gleason said the cuts seem far too broadly focused, and didn’t solicit industry input. “I think the legislators pushing for this aren’t taking a targeted approach, they’re just slashing,” said Gleason. “No one’s talking about being creative. It’s just cut, cut, cut.” Fisheries management has private funding components; to partially fund the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, fishermen pay a voluntary landings tax. With general funding to ASMI cut and the state running a negative balance sheet for fisheries management, fishermen could consider what they can pay voluntarily to compensate for state reductions. Gleason, however, said he hesitates to go too far down that path, as science and industry politics make bad bedfellows.  “It would be somewhat problematic to do this,” said Gleason. “It’s important to have independent science. If the industry is funding scientists to be involved in the fisheries management process, at what point is that going to cease to be independent? When you start having industry fund scientists, you open up a can of worms. You don’t want the cure to be worse than the disease.” Federal matching funds in peril The University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Science is a leader in marine research, regularly ranked in the top three nationwide according to Gordon Kruse, director of the school’s fisheries division. As director, Kruse said most of his research concerns industry, not academics. “All of my work is focused on the commercial industry in Alaska,” said Kruse. “There’s nothing I do that isn’t related to them.” Most of the university’s research funding comes from Outside grants. A 2012 study by Juneau-based economics firm McDowell Group linked $1 billion in competitive grants to the University of Alaska system in the decade between fiscal years 2002 and 2011. Federal funds, however, require a direct state match. A drop off in state contributions could jeopardize them. “In (fiscal year) 2015, approximately $24.2 million was allocated from the state to UAF organized research,” reads a letter from UAF to the House subcommittee. “For every $1 of state general fund investment, UAF was able to leverage this investment and generate an additional $4.10 of external funding. This is a substantial return on investment. If state funds are not available for match, UA’s ability to receive external funding is severely limited.” Apart from the loss of programs themselves, Kruse is concerned about the potential impacts to staff and to research infrastructure. Faculty comes to the University of Alaska system in part because of the research opportunities, he said. As the line between academic work and research work gets drawn, Kruse anticipates that faculty will leave the university. “If they’re cutting state funding for research, that also cuts down on the amount of time researchers can write proposals,” said Kruse. “Without a doubt, we’d be losing people.” The university would not only use people, but necessary equipment those people use to carry out research. The University of Alaska uses the Sikuliaq, a marine research vessel, to perform field studies. One of the few ice capable research vessels in the nation, the 261-foot research Sikuliaq is owned by the National Science Foundation but under current use by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Home-ported in Seward, it is in its first year of operations in the Arctic, including a test voyage to the ice regions of the Bering Sea and projects in the Aleutians and in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The Sikuliaq, Kruse said, falls into a “use it or lose it” scenario. As a prerequisite, he said, the university has to put down a $5,000 match on the vessel or else the National Science Foundation will accept bids from other parties looking to perform research. “There’s other universities that would snap that up,” he said. State and federal fisheries management Both state and federal fisheries managers rely on collaborations with university research faculty to craft regulations and set harvest quotas. Routine research functions play a large role in management for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which manages state fisheries up to three miles offshore, and for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages federal fisheries from three to 200 miles off the shore. ADFG and the council co-manage the crab stocks, with the federal Scientific and Statistical Committee creating models and adopting overfishing limits while ADFG ultimately sets the harvest quota. Virtually all management decisions on the North Pacific council depend on intensive quantitative studies. Economic and environmental impact analyses, stock assessments, and myriad biological studies all form the basis for the council’s regulatory scheme. The North Pacific council has two support groups, the Advisory Panel, or AP, and the Scientific and Statistical Committee, or SSC. Before either the Advisory Panel or the council even begin reviewing proposed regulations, the SSC vets each proposal to ensure it meets scientific muster. University of Alaska faculty comprises five members – a full third – of the SSC, two from Anchorage and three from Fairbanks, including Gordon Kruse. The council pays for travel, but university faculty look to research funding to foot the bill for their time. Kruse said cutting research funding could prevent university faculty from fulfilling their duties on the SSC, leaving the North Pacific council without any Alaskan scientists. “We would create a huge vacuum,” said Kruse. “Outside of us, there is a representative from ADFG. But all the others come out of state.” North Pacific council Executive Director Chris Oliver said he couldn’t guess how research cuts will affect the dozens of ongoing research projects the council is involved with. However, he said the potential impact to SSC membership alone is troublesome. “In this case there certainly are implications for our management,” said Oliver. “That would be a very direct and significant concern.” Like Kruse, Oliver is not only concerned with federal/university cross pollination, but that actual structure by which research is done. Many of the North Pacific council’s research projects depend on the Sikuliaq. Similarly, ADFG relies on university researchers for evaluations of quantitative studies. ADFG Deputy Commissioner Charlie Swanton said the department sends off for university assistance when it needs to review one of the many studies on which it bases management decisions. ADFG pays overhead costs for all its university research, so these collaborations would only be hindered by the department’s own substantial fiscal challenges. However, Swanton echoes Kruse’s concerns about research staff thinning out as budget cuts make the University of Alaska less attractive. “There’s levels of technical specificity that only they have,” said Swanton. “If you want a review of sonar program or a stock assessment, we go to the university and find the right person. If there’s not research dollars to support some of those functions, those researchers are going to go elsewhere.” Faculty and staff turnover translate to ADFG’s employment pool as well. The department’s Sportfish Division hires three university graduate students every year to study specific ADFG issues in collaboration — for credit — with the university. After they’ve completed the project, many come onto ADFG as full time staff, already having been trained during their graduate research. Arctic Council University cuts come at a bad moment for the Arctic, according to John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. “The timing is not good,” said Farrell. The Arctic Research Commission is an independent federal agency of presidential appointees that advises the White House and Congress on Arctic research matters and works with executive branch agencies to establish and execute a national Arctic research plan. The commission is an important gear of the international Arctic Council, an international study group of the eight countries that touch the Arctic Circle, founded by the Ottawa Declaration of 1996 to provide a means for its members to work on mutual Arctic-centric issues. The United States entered the chair position of the Arctic Council in April 2015, taking over for Canada. The chair position is held for two years before being taken by another of the eight member countries. The U.S. is a member thanks only to Alaska, along with the Russian Federation, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (including the Faroe Islands and Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden. It makes no grants and builds no projects, focusing its efforts mostly on information gathering, sharing, and disseminating, both through collaborations among government bodies and working relationships with private advocacy groups, academic organizations, or any other organization who wants to contribute to Arctic study. In addition to leading fisheries and marine research, the University of Alaska Fairbanks has one of the premier Arctic research programs in the world. For Arctic research, no university is cited more that UAF. “The work of the Arctic Council is done largely by working groups and task forces. The working groups do assessments,” said Farrell.  “A fair bit of this is done in University of Alaska.” The U.S. is already a year into its Arctic Council chairmanship; Farrell said whatever research cuts eventually take place will not impact the current Arctic Council. Rather, Farrell worries how cuts will affect U.S. contributions later. “There’s a long lead time on science,” said Farrell. “It’s not going to be the end of the world for the U.S. chairmanship, but it could significantly diminish our contributions down the road.” Farrell said Alaska will have a high profile for the remainder of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship; up to a thousand scientists and government officials will attend a UAF Arctic meeting — actually dozens of meetings and workshops — over the university’s spring break in March. Among other meetings, Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Fairbanks for an Arctic Council meeting in 2017. With Alaska in the spotlight, Farrell said a lack of research capability could be bad optics. “The council has two pillars: sustainable development and conservation,” said Farrell. “What feeds those things is knowledge economy…those all link back to research. It would be an acute message to other member nations when they come here for research purposes and the locals have to say, ‘Well we really wish we could help you out but we’ve got no research funding.’” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Fishing industry: Maximize existing rates before raising taxes

Gov. Bill Walker’s fisheries tax bill is still lingering in committee as fishermen and legislators try to stave off new taxes by turning the discussion to maximizing collections at existing rates. By this point, several of the state’s largest fishing industry trade groups — including the United Fishermen of Alaska, Alaska Salmon Alliance, and the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, or PSPA — sent letters to legislators supporting the concept of fishing taxes but calling the bill too simple and too rushed to not harm the fishing industry unfairly. The bill would raise taxes on all segments of the commercial fishing industry by 1 percent. During a House Fisheries Committee hearing on March 8, the conversation veered into existing tax territory, probing for more opportunities to increase existing tax revenues instead of raising rates. “It’s really a question of auditing,” said Department of Revenue Tax Division Director Ken Alper. “This is really one of those things where we don’t want to raise our existing taxes until we know we’re getting all the taxes we could have.” In particular, Specifically, offshore catcher processors harvesting yellowfin sole, Atka mackerel, and other groundfish are being taxed at the statewide average for those species instead of the market value specific to that vessel. “There is an offshore catcher processor fishery that catches yellowfin sole that right when they come out of the water that value is between 12-16 cents a pound (as opposed to the statewide average of 2 cents a pound),” said Vince O’Shea, vice president of the PSPA. “So the difference is potentially 14 cents a pound. In yellowfin sole, that overall tonnage is 298 million pounds. Another species, Atka mackerel, the statewide fish price is 10 cents a pound. But there’s estimates that the at sea is 32 cents a pound. That total tonnage there is 69 million pounds.” Nobody is gaming the system, O’Shea said. Instead, the state’s tax collection methodology creates such pockets of undervalued species. “It’s not an issue of underreporting,” said O’Shea. “The system is set up that the Department of Revenue operates off the statewide average price list. Let’s get everyone on a level playing field and get everyone paying the same rate.” PSPA’s notice is similar to an earlier Department of Revenue finding that a tax rate glitch let groundfish trawlers off the hook for more than $10 million of fishery taxes in the last half-decade. The fishery resource landing tax assesses groundfish based on ex-vessel price. Processors turn flatfish caught as bycatch into low-value fishmeal, so the only known ex-vessel price for certain flatfish species is artificially low. Nine species have this price uncertainty, but most flatfish volume comes from yellowfin sole and Atka mackerel. According to state research estimates, the state has lost out on $1.8 million to $2.5 million per year, or more than $10 million over the last five years. “That $2 million is serious money,” in an environment of nickel and dime tax raises elsewhere, Rep. Jonathon Kreiss Tomkins, D-Sitka, said. Alper said during the committee that the state is nearer to establishing a more reliable way tax rate for the offshore groundfish processing sector. Committee chair Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, also questioned the practice of bonus or retroactive pay for fishermen part of a limited liability corporation or cooperative. “When they first deliver their fish, you get the minimum amount for your fish,” she said. Later when fish may have sold for a higher price, fishermen can receive retroactive pay for the difference. “That’s not a return on investment, that’s being paid for the fish,” Stutes said. “Call it whatever you want, those fish need to be accounted for tax dollar wise.” PSPA, along with Ocean Beauty Seafoods and Icicle Seafoods, proposed an equalization of taxes for each fishery sector by setting every sector’s tax rate to 4 percent. This would be a raise for some sectors but would lower the tax rate for others, including the floating processors and canned salmon sectors. The committee was lukewarm on the proposal; Alper insisted the administration’s intent was to support the bill as written. “I don’t see that there’s a need in this environment to cut those taxes,” said Alper. The bill’s next scheduled hearing on March 10 was canceled. It has not yet been scheduled for another. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Laukitis, Peterson nominated for North Pacific council

Gov. Bill Walker submitted nominations to fill two seats of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on March 9. Walker has nominated Buck Laukitis and Theresa Peterson to replace Duncan Fields and David Long among the 11 voting members of the council, one of eight regional councils established by the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act to oversee federal fisheries from three to 200 miles off the coast. Fields has served his maximum of three, three-year terms, while Long has served just one. As alternates, Walker forwarded Eric Olson, Paul Gronholdt, Linda Behnken, and Art Nelson. “I am pleased to recommend Theresa Peterson, Buck Laukitis, and the four alternate nominees to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council,” said Walker in a release. “Each of these individuals provides balanced and insightful experience that will benefit the council, and contribute to fisheries management and conservation in the North Pacific region.” The U.S. Secretary of Commerce must confirm each nomination. Council seats are held for three years and may serve up to three terms. Of 11 voting members, six seats are reserved for Alaskans, including the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, currently held by Sam Cotten. The remaining seats are reserved for the fish and game officials from Washington and Oregon, as well as a designated seat for the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region. Laukitis is a commercial fisherman from Homer and the owner of Magic Fish Company. While he has no previous fisheries management experience on either the Alaska Board of Fisheries or the council’s Advisory Panel, Laukitis said his experience dealing with proposals to the board and counci, and serving on various fisheries advisory groups has prepared him for the council membership. Laukitis holds permits for several fisheries, including salmon, halibut, and an inactive rockfish trawl license. “I’m pleased and happy and look forward to working with the other members of the council, particularly the other Alaska members,” said Laukitis. Laukitis said he views himself as a small boat Alaska fisherman first, and plans to lend that viewpoint to the council. Laukitis’ daughter and son-in-law both operate the family fisheries with him, and looking out for the next generation of fishermen will be paramount in his council actions. “I have the next generation right in my household who want to be a part of this, and so that’s always first and foremost in my mind how council decisions will affect them,” said Laukitis. Peterson, a Kodiak resident and commercial fisherman, currently serves on the council’s Advisory Panel. Peterson has been a vocal supporter of regulations that would directly benefit Alaska coastal communities and a critic of those she feels would damage them. Most recently, Peterson expressed opposition to a proposal to establish rationalization programs in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries she felt would impact Kodiak residents not tied to large-scale fishing operations. Instead, Peterson voted to have the council further examine a set of proposals that are universally unpopular with trawl industry representatives.

FISH FACTOR: Arrowtooth flounder study focused on food competition

Fish stomachs could help solve the mystery of why Alaska halibut are so small for their age. Halibut weights are about one-third of what they were 30 years ago, meaning a halibut weighing 120 pounds in the late 1980s is closer to 40 pounds nowadays. One culprit could be arrowtooth flounders, whose numbers have increased 500 percent over the same time to outnumber the most abundant species in the Gulf: pollock. Fishermen for decades have claimed the toothy flounders, which grow to about three feet in length, are blanketing the bottom of the Gulf, and many believe they are out-competing halibut for food. A study being done by researchers in Southeast Alaska aims to find out. “People think that potentially arrowtooth is competing with halibut for space and/or prey which is limiting the growth of Pacific halibut,” said Cheryl Barnes, a PhD student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who is working out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Auke Bay lab in Juneau. Since last summer, Barnes and her adviser Dr. Anne Beaudreau have been studying spatial and dietary overlaps between the two species. Along with analyzing Gulf of Alaska bottom trawl data, the team is doing field studies in fishing areas around Juneau where no trawling occurs. Barnes said they are looking at two things: space use and the composition of prey within their stomachs to try and get answers using a concept called “resource partitioning.”  “The thought is that if you see areas where halibut and arrowtooth are overlapping in space, you might expect to see that they are not eating the same things as a way to alleviate competitive effects. They are partitioning their resources in that way,” she explained. “Whereas if they are in an area where there is not much spatial overlap between the two, they might be eating roughly the same things because they are part of the same niche and the goal is to eat those prey items that are more optimal for their growth. And they are more able to do that if both species are not found in the same location.” Barnes is studying the contents of over 1,000 halibut and arrowtooth stomachs collected last year from sport anglers, and she hopes to collect at least that many through September. She said her diet study dovetails with other others being done that focus on environmental factors and impacts of fishing.  “Especially size selective fishing — the idea that we have been removing the larger, faster growing individuals, and it just kind of brings that average size at age down,” she said. If the project proves that the two species are competing for food, it will fall to managers to find creative solutions. That could prove problematic in terms of increasing arrowtooth catches to leave more food for halibut. “One of the problems is that arrowtooth aren’t really marketable because when you heat them up the flesh turns into a mushy fish smoothie. The other is that there is a lot of bycatch associated with arrowtooth catches since they share the same habitat,” Barnes explained. Meanwhile, Barnes wants to get more donated stomachs of both species, either fresh or frozen, along with information that includes fish length, body weight, and where it was caught. While the project, which is funded by the Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center, now centers on fishing areas around Juneau, it could expand to other regions. “We are considering it a pilot project,” Barnes said, “and if we find that we are able to find some answers on the potential for competition around Juneau, there is opportunity to expand it to other areas of the Gulf of Alaska.” Got stomachs? Contact Barnes can be at (907) 957-4893 or [email protected] Salmon sales slump Salmon sales data from last year show what everyone already knows: lower prices across the board. The Alaska Department of Revenue’s Tax Division tracks sales of six different salmon product forms by region, including frozen, fresh, roe and cans. The latest report shows data from the busy sales season from September through December. Here’s a sampler: By far, the bulk of Alaska’s salmon goes to market in frozen, headed and gutted form. The average wholesale price for sockeye was $2.40 per pound, compared to $3.13 last year. For cohos, the price was $2.20 compared to $2.53 per pound; pinks averaged $1.07, down 26 cents, chums sold at $1.25, down 23 cents, and frozen chinook salmon averaged $3.85 a pound, compared to $4.28 at the same time last year. Fresh and frozen sockeye fillets wholesaled for $5.73 on average, down from $6.19 a pound. Pink salmon roe averaged $4.16 per pound, down from $6.95; chum roe at $10.30 was a drop of $2.50 per pound from 2014. Cases of 48 tall cans of sockeye took a huge nose dive to $126.53 per case, a drop of nearly $70. Cases of canned pinks were wholesaling at $76.86, down $4. The market could get some relief from less salmon being available to buyers this year. A toxic algae bloom continues to kill millions of farmed salmon from Chile, where production is pegged to fall way below expectations. “The upshot is that Chile’s production may fall by 40,000 to 50,000 tons, or 13 percent below what was expected from the inventory of fish in the water taken at the end of December,” said market expert John Sackton. Salmon catches on the West Coast also are projected to be down by half at Puget Sound and on the Columbia River due to low coho numbers. Likewise, chinook salmon populations along the coast are in even worse shape, and fishing will be severely restricted this year. Officials blame the overall declines on record warm ocean temperatures and poor river conditions following years of drought. Lower salmon numbers also are projected for several Alaska fisheries – notably, for pink salmon in Southeast and at Prince William Sound. Bristol Bay’s sockeye forecast calls for a catch just under 30 million fish, well below harvests of the past two years. Fish watch March means a couple thousand Alaska fishermen will start gearing up for halibut, which opens a bit later this year on the March 19. For the first time in decades the total coastwide catch increased by 2.3 percent to just under 30 million pounds. Alaska gets the lion’s share at about 21.5 million pounds, a boost of 200,000 pounds from last year. The year’s first roe herring fishery at Sitka Sound could kick off around the same time. A quota of nearly 14,941 tons is a 70 percent increase. Last year the Sitka fishery opened on March 18 and managers planned to begin surveys this week. Fishing for cod, pollock, flounders and other groundfish continues in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. Likewise for crab: Bering Sea snow crabbers have taken 70 percent of the 36.5 million pound quota with less than 11 million pounds left to go. Less than 3 million pounds remain in the Tanner crab quota of nearly 18 million pounds.  A new law requiring life rafts for fishing boats has been delayed. The new rules would have applied to any vessel operating more than three miles from shore, even small hand trollers or halibut skiffs. Currently, only boats 36 feet or larger, or those carrying four or more people, are required to have so called ‘buoyant apparatus.’ Word came after the Feb. 26 deadline that Congress chose to repeal the requirement, and opted instead to go through the formal rule making process before implementation. That could take at least a year, said Steve Ramp, a Coast Guard Commercial Fishing Vessel Examiner in Sitka. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

New GE salmon labeling bill requires third party review

Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced a bill on March 3 that would require all genetically engineered salmon to carry the words “genetically engineered” or “GE.” The bill’s language resulted from discussions between Murkowski and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, strengthening earlier FDA language that made the labeling voluntary rather than mandatory. Beyond labeling requirements, the bill would also require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to mandate a third party review of the previous FDA decision that declared AquAdvantage salmon fit for human consumption. The third party review would focus on ecological effects as well as human consumptive safety. Rep. Don Young introduced a companion House bill. Murkowski said in a press release that she still denies the scientific basis of the FDA’s approval of the AquAdvantage salmon – which grows at twice the rate of wild salmon, Alaska’s most valuable foreign export. “We have had success in the fight against Frankenfish, but I won’t let up until it is mandatory to make clear to consumers whether they are purchasing Frankenfish or the wild, healthy, sustainably-caught, delicious real thing,” said Murkowski in the release. “I still adamantly oppose the FDA’s approval of GE salmon, for the health of both consumers and fisheries. But at least with this legislation, Alaskans and consumers across the rest of the country won’t be deceived and will be aware of what it is they are seeing on store shelves.” Cosponsored by Sens. Dan Sullivan and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Murkowski’s bill could end the drawn-out squabble between Pacific Northwest lawmakers and the FDA.   Murkowski recently lifted a nomination hold on Dr. Richard Califf as FDA chief, having held his nomination until the FDA mandated labeling requirements. At the time, Murkowski said she’d been working with the FDA to come up with a stronger labeling requirement. Last year’s omnibus package ordered the FDA to ban the genetically engineered salmon from the U.S. market until the FDA publishes final labeling guidelines. The FDA legal department, however, said the omnibus language wasn’t strong enough to fulfill Murkowski’s intent of mandatory labeling. The FDA, as a show of good faith, worked with Murkowski’s office to provide them the language that would force mandatory labeling, culminating in the March 3 bill. The FDA approved genetically engineered salmon – manufactured by the Canadian company AquaBounty – for human consumption in 2015. Alaska politicians doubt the science and fear the economic consequences. Alaska fishermen’s wild-caught sockeye will have to compete with genetically altered fish, which splice salmon and ocean pout genes to grow at twice the rate of wild salmon.

Legislative legal, CFEC question Walker’s adminstrative order

Ed. note: An earlier version of this article referred to Rep. Stutes' bill as not having passed the fisheries committee. The bill did pass that committee in 2015 and is currenlty awaiting a hearing in the House Resources Commitee.  The Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission is once again fighting to stay abreast of fisheries officials who want to narrow its scope of duties. Gov. Bill Walker signed an administrative order on Feb. 16 that folded several of the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission’s key duties into the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, effective immediately. These functions include licensing and permitting, IT, accounting, payroll, procurement, and budgeting. The order moves personnel associated with these services into the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG. The most identifiable operational change – ministerial licensure – also causes the administration’s biggest legal hurdle; both CFEC officials and Legislative legal support question Walker’s order’s constitutionality. Fishermen have opposed such rearrangements of CFEC in the past, fearing that the independent agency could be swept into the politics enmeshing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Walker’s administration says the order is a cost-saving move in a grim financial climate, but CFEC doubts the order’s sense. A letter from CFEC officials accuses the administration of deceit and says the plan is vague, possibly unconstitutional, and cuts the Legislature out of the decision-making process. According to Walker’s press release, the reshuffling will save the state an extra $1.3 million. The House Finance Subcommittee cut ADFG’s budget by 14 percent on March 1. This included a $650,000 cut to CFEC, less than Walker’s $1.3 million but still beyond the phased-in approach recommended by the CFEC Legislative audit. The Limited Entry Act, passed by the Legislature in 1973, established a limited entry permit system for state fisheries, establishing a set number of permits for fisheries and the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, or CFEC, to issue and monitor them. Three commissioners serve as judges; they decide who’s eligible for permits, oversee the permit transfer process, and handle appeals for those fishermen who are denied. Currently, one of the positions – each with $200,000 in salary and benefits – is vacant. Bruce Twomley and Robert Brown fill the two remaining positions. The order will make the commissioner positions part-time. A long time coming CFEC has been under increasing scrutiny since 2014 after two bills to disband it legislative audits that call it inefficient. Both Rep. Paul Seaton R-Homer, and Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, introduced separate bills that would have disbanded the commission. The bills were sandwiched between a scallop fishery scandal in late 2013 and two separate audits in 2015. Both reports complimented CFEC’s past work, but also pointed out CFEC’s inefficiency so long after the Limited Entry Act. In each of the last two years, CFEC only adjudicated three contested permits per year. It maintains a backlog of 28 permit applications, most of which have been in the adjudication stage for 15 or more years. “Both reviews outlined the good work that CFEC has accomplished, but also noted that the workload of the agency has diminished over time and that the organizational structure of CFEC is no longer efficient or effective,” reads Walker’s budgetary request for CFEC. The audit points out that the original mission of the CFEC – to establish limited entry fisheries – has been largely completed since the 1980s. Alaska has 68 current limited entry fisheries, most of which were established by CFEC in the 1980s and the last of which was established in 2004. Part of the order delegates CFEC’s research duties to ADFG. Stutes, who chairs the House Fisheries Committee, worries Walker’s order could present a “conflict of interest” between CFEC’s licensing research adn ADFG’s biological research. ADFG commissioner Sam Cotten said he doesn’t understand how research performed under one body would be different under another. “We do research too, we could combine the research needed for the Board of Fisheries,” said Cotten. “It’s another effort to streamline…I don’t see at all that it presents a conflict.” In 2015, Stutes introduced a bill that would have disbanded CFEC entirely and folded its duties into ADFG. Stutes’ bill passed committee and is currently waiting for a hearing in the House Resources Committee. In the interim between sessions, however, Stutes said she rewrote the bill to a more toned-down version that would keep several of CFEC’s duties but still hand over a portion to ADFG. Permit adjudication, fishermen told her, should remain in CFEC’s hands, while ADFG could easily take over tasks like ministerial licensing.  Under the current CFEC system, commercial fishermen must send away to the Juneau office for their permits. Stutes’ change, which Walker’s order incorporates, allows fishermen to renew permits at their local ADFG office. Stutes forwarded her rewrite to the governor, but said she didn’t know Walker planned his own action. “I didn’t even know the governor had intended to take that bill until he had done it,” she said. Order’s constitutionality Walker’s plan saves money, but legal opinions say the administration exceeded its authority simply by making it an administrative order instead of an executive order. CFEC staff circulated two separate letters to the Senate Fish and Game Finance Subcommittee on Feb. 17, one draft and one final – both expressing dissatisfaction with the administrative order. “(The order) ignores entirely the audit’s recommendations, and instead seeks to transfer a vast array of power, functions, and staff to (ADFG),” the letters read. Both letters challenge Walker’s legal authority to make a “de facto rewrite of the Limited Entry Act,” and ask the subcommittee to budget the CFEC according to a legislative audit. CFEC contends that the administrative order skirts the Legislative budgeting process.  “We would further ask the subcommittee to consider the means employed by the Governor to enable (ADFG) to take over the vast majority of CFEC’s operations. Use of an administrative order and not an executive order, denies the Legislature a role in crafting CFEC’s budget for the coming year,” the letters read. The letters, sent by CFEC chair Bruce Twomley and commissioner Robert Brown, accuse Walker’s administration – ADFG commissioner Sam Cotten and deputy commissioner Kevin Brooks – of “actively misleading the (Senate Finance Fish and Game) Subcommittee” at a Feb. 15 hearing, the day before Walker issued the administrative order. CFEC argues that the Legislature should assign CFEC’s budget according to the Legislative audit’s recommendation, not Walker’s order. Furthermore, Brown and Twomley contend Walker’s order could be unconstitutional, both by stripping an agency of several key functions and shuffling employees between two disparate agencies. “The question of whether it is constitutional or otherwise lawful and appropriate for an Administrative Order to deprive an autonomous agency of its ability to perform explicit statutory duties and assign that performance to a separate agency deserves an answer, but that answer will not be forthcoming in time to allow the Subcommittee to act in obeisance to A.O. 279,” the letter reads. Indeed, the Legislature’s legal council seems to agree with Twomley and Roberts. Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, asked the legislative law office for its opinion of Walker’s order. The opinion, drafted by Legislative Affairs Director of Legal Services Doug Gardner, finds a potential constitutional snag. According to the Alaska constitution, the governor is indeed authorized to “reorganize” administrative duties in the executive branch, which includes both ADFG and CFEC. If the reorganization requires “force of law” – a change in statute – then it requires an executive order subject to the Legislature’s approval. Most CFEC duties are statutory, put in place by the Limited Entry Act. In particular, Walker’s administrative order could give ADFG the statutory duty to issue licenses under certain circumstances. This would require a statutory change – a force of law – which means Walker’s order should have been executive, according to Gardner. “Based on the language in (Walker’s order),” wrote Gardner, “it is hard to evaluate how ADFG can perform either of these licensing functions which are 1) specific statutory duties of CFEC that in some cases affect the rights and liabilities of permit holders; and 2) where these statutory functions could be more that purely ‘ministerial.’” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]  

Valley bills seek fishing dollars

Gov. Bill Walker’s commercial fisheries tax bill is stalled in committee, but legislators continue digging into the industry for revenue. Two bills, sponsored by legislators from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, would impose new taxes on either the entire industry or the longliners and trawlers in the federal and state fisheries. HB 358, sponsored by Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, and Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, would require non-salmon and non-halibut trawlers and longliners to pay a tax on halibut and salmon bycatch. The bill was passed to the House Fisheries Committee on Feb. 24 but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. On the same day, Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, signed as a bill cosponsor. Rex Shattuck, Neuman’s chief of staff, said the bill doesn’t intend anything more drastic than starting the conversation. “This is a very fundamental bill, and we honestly can’t say we have all the answers,” Shattuck said. “It’s a basic framework to start the conversation. If it’s a resource we own as Alaskans, and we always have this concern about bycatch, let’s have a discussion.” Neither bill is expected to move quickly in a Legislature buried under a fiscal bill landslide, but Shattuck said he hopes the bycatch bill will spark a conversation to have over the summer. Though the extra funds would go into the general fund and not directly into fish and game management, Neuman’s position as vice-chair of the House Finance Committee guarantees that the funds will be used for fisheries management and research.  “You can comfortably know those are going into related management,” said Shattuck. “From our perspective, Neuman’s sort of been clear in that. We should be looking at putting them into funding things like research.” Bycatch happens when fishermen incidentally harvest a non-target species while chasing the main catch. The bill would require both state and federal fishermen to pay 1 percent of the total value of their bycatch. In federal fisheries – those from three to 200 miles off the coast – federal law bars vessels from selling bycatch salmon and halibut. It therefore has no existing value on which to base a tax. To fix this, the bill would direct fisheries managers to assign it a value, defined as “the market value of the fishery resource as determined by the prevailing price paid to fishermen for the unprocessed fishery resource of the same kind and quality by fisheries businesses in the same region of market area where the fishery resource was taken.” According to this formula, fishermen could end up paying thousands at the individual vessel level and millions altogether. A 1 percent tax on halibut bycatch would have extracted up to $1.7 million from the federal groundfish fisheries alone in 2014. The price paid to fishermen, or ex-vessel price, varies from region to region and year to year. For chinook salmon, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated an average price of $2 per pound for chinook salmon in 2015 – lower than the average $2.80 per pound over the prior four years. Halibut varies, but industry sources say the current ex-vessel price is between $5 and $6 per pound. In 2014, federal groundfish fisheries harvested 27.6 million pounds of halibut, according to catch data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At $5 per pound, the total value of halibut bycatch would be $138 million. At $6 per pound, it would be $166 million. Federal groundfish fisheries also harvested just under 34,000 chinook as bycatch in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska in 2014. Assuming an average weight of 30 pounds, the value of chinook bycatch in federal groundfish fisheries is $2.9 million, or $29,000 in tax value. The bill would exempt those fishing vessels that donate their bycatch halibut to food bank programs like SeaShare. Federal law, however, forbids some vessels are forbidden from making such donations. Groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands are disallowed from keeping bycatch halibut. Representatives from this fishery view the proposed tax as a penalty. SB 198 The second bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, would affect all Alaska fishermen regardless of bycatch. SB 198, introduced Feb. 22, levies a 12.5 percent royalty on all limited entry license holders’ catch. The bill requires seafood buyers to collect the royalty upon purchase, keep detailed records, and remit the money to the state at the end of each month. The bill was referred to the Senate Resources Committee on Feb. 22. Dunleavy’s bill would bring in a hefty chunk of cash for the state, and a hefty chunk of cash from fishermen’s bottom lines. According to Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission data, limited entry permits for both Alaska resident permit holder and non-residents pulled a collective $957 million in 2014. At the proposed royalty rate, Alaska limited entry permit holders would have paid $120 million to the state. The royalty would hit Alaska permit holders on an individual basis. CFEC records for 2014 show an average Alaska resident limited entry permit holder earnings of $50,451 per permit. Under the proposed royalty, Alaska fishermen would have paid an average $6,307 apiece in 2014. Non-residents would have paid slightly more at $6,525. Though the Anchorage and Mat-Su boroughs host over half the state’s population – 54 percent, according to the most recent U.S. census data – they only host 10 percent of the resident commercial fishing permits. Of 38,192 limited entry permits issued in 2014, only 1,141 – 3 percent – were issued to Mat-Su Borough residents. CFEC issued 2,647 permits to Anchorage municipality residents, or 7 percent of the total permits issued.

Gov’s bill would double strict liability commercial fines

Fishermen worry that Gov. Bill Walker’s industry taxes hikes may fall on them alone as a litany of fish bills stacks up. The Senate Resources Committee heard SB 164 on Feb. 22, also from Walker’s office. The complex bill concerns hunting and fishing permits – specifically, how ADFG can discourage wildlife violations while making extra money off them. The bill includes measures to increase commercial fines and recoup money lost in the recreation hunting and fishing licensing process. It will have a second hearing March 3. The bill doubles commercial fishing violation fines, raises the fine schedule for illegal wildlife harvest, prevents wildlife violators in other states from purchasing Alaska fishing and hunting licenses, and allows the state to take restitution from hunting and fishing violators. The committee had mixed feelings about what the bill aims to accomplish. Some elements seemed administrative, while others seemed targeted specifically for revenue. Major Bernard Chastain of the Department of Public Safety and Bruce Dale, ADFG’s wildlife division director, sold the bill as a “flexibility” package with elements of restorative justice, but committee members saw other intentions in the language. “Is this a revenue bill? Is this a deterrence bill?” asked Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak. “I may missed what the overlying theme or motive is.” Chastain said the bill is solely for deterrence. The bill’s fiscal notes provide no estimates for how much revenue the state could raise. Among the largest-scale changes, the bill doubles commercial fishing strict liability violation fines. The new fine schedule would charge $6,000 for a first conviction, up from $3,000; $12,000 for a second conviction, up from $6,000; and $15,000] for a third or subsequent conviction within a 10- year period, up from $9,000. Chastain described the current fine schedule as “inadequate” to keep fishermen from violations. Fishermen have already voiced some concern over the possibility of raising the fine schedule. In a House Fisheries Committee hearing, on Sitka fishermen testified against raising the commercial fishing tax rates, saying that taxes alone are enough to cripple an industry already suffering from the strong U.S. dollar’s downward pressure on seafood exports. Doubled fines could hurt fishermen even worse, Some of ADFG’s budget comes from federal matching funds. Pittman-Robertson funds, for example, earmark three federal dollars for every one Alaska dollar. The federal funds are reserved for wildlife conservation. Part of Walker’s bill would allow the state to take restitution payments that can be funneled back into ADFG funds for the federal match. According to Dale and Chastain, the state loses tens of thousands of dollars a year from petty license fraud. Non-residents often move to Alaska and purchase resident hunting and fishing licenses for the cheaper resident rate. The bill would allow the state to charge the violators for the entire history of the difference. “Over time, we lost the ability to leverage that money into federal funds,” said Dale. “This provides the state appropriate opportunity to restore those funds.” Most times, the losses are fairly small; Sen. Bill Wielechowski wondered aloud if the restitution payments are “figurative.” Dale, however, said several violators each year amount to tens of thousands of dollars apiece. Other bill elements give judges the ability to fine some wildlife violators up to $10,000 rather than the current $5,000 fine schedule. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Walker orders mariculture task force

Gov. Bill Walker issued an administrative order on Feb. 29 establishing a mariculture task force for shellfish and sea plants. Walker’s order responds to both economic and ecological concerns. The release touts the potential economic benefits to coastal communities and the Alaska fishing industry. Further, as ocean acidification continues to impact shellfish, Walker said the stocks need all the help they can get in recovering. “Mariculture represents a tremendous opportunity to diversify our economy, strengthen our coastal communities, and provide healthy food to the world by using sustainable practices that are a foundation of our current fishery resources,” said Walker in a release. “The goal of this task force is to bring key stakeholders together and determine how the state can help this industry prosper with Alaska-grown products.” The task force carries no additional cost to the state – rather than establishing a budgeted agency, it asks for officials and stakeholders to meet a minimum of once every quarter to come up with a mariculture development plan. The governor will appoint members to the eleven-member task force. These will include the commissioners of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Developments, a University of Alaska representative, the director of the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, seven at-large stakeholders with backgrounds in seafood farming, marketing, or harvesting, as well as experience in Alaska Native corporations, tribal governments, or Community Development Quota groups. Task force members will not receive compensation from the state. The Alaska Mariculture Task Force will be required to submit a comprehensive plan to the governor by March 1, 2018 Mariculture farms marine life in saltwater, as opposed to aquaculture, which farms in fresh. Alaska, though it has 30,000 miles of available coastline, has a wary relationship with seafood farming. The Legislature banned salmon farming in 1989 as other seafood-based economies overseas began experimenting with it. Commercial fishermen in Alaska voiced concerns of market competition, product safety, and ecosystem impacts. Only state-run hatcheries may rear salmon, and these are released into the ocean and provided as common harvest for Alaska fishermen. Nations like Norway, Iceland, Canada, and Chile now produce a majority of the world’s farmed salmon. The majority of U.S. salmon is farmed salmon imported from these nations. Alaska’s mariculture output lags behind with an average annual value of less than $1 million. Shellfish and sea plant mariculture, however, is legal in Alaska. Walker’s mariculture task force follows the Alaska Crab Research, Rehabilitation, and Biology Program, which released an experimental batch of red king crab in 2013.   DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Committee chair refuses to advance gov’s fisheries tax hike

Commercial fisheries may see taxes increase, but only if other resource industries do, too. Under a budgetary thundercloud, Gov. Bill Walker is trying to squeeze funding from any source. A commercial fisheries tax bump, part of nine such bills in the Legislature, has slowed to a crawl in committee as fishermen decry it. Fishermen, and House Fisheries Committee chair Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, fear Walker’s tax plan could disproportionately pinpoint the commercial fishing industry while other resource taxes die. Stutes said during a Feb. 23 committee hearing that she’ll hold the bill in committee until further study. “I have some reservations about passing this bill out of committee,” said Stutes. “I’ve been seeing a lot of the other resource tax bills faltering. I’m going to hold this in committee until I’m comfortable that the fishing industry is not being singled out. I would like this committee to assimilate and digest what they’ve heard.” United Fishermen of Alaska, the state’s largest fishing industry group, brooked little opposition to the bill during a February meeting, but cracks appeared once Stutes opened the committee to public comment. The committee heard from fisherman that the tax plan seemed poorly thought out. Richie Davis, a representative for the Seafood Producers Cooperative, said the tax bump is proof that either the Walker’s administration doesn’t fully grasp the social and economic aspects of the fishing industry, or “or somebody is using Alaska’s fiscal crisis as a springboard to cripple our industry.” 1 percent across the board House Bill 251 would levy a 1 percent increase on commercial fisheries taxes. Current rates range from 1 percent to 5 percent, depending on the category. Comment from two separate hearings on Feb. 18 and Feb. 23 called the tax plan too simple, too rushed, and too ignorant of the other resource taxes in the state. A 1 percent across-the-board raise, fishermen said, ignores the industry’s nuances and unique challenges. The fisheries tax schedule is one of the more complex in Alaska tax code. The fisheries business tax and fisheries resource landings tax sprawl across different categories and sectors. The state levies a fishery business tax and a fisheries resource landing tax, which distinguish between established fisheries and developing fisheries, each with different rates for floating processors, salmon canneries, and shore based processors.  The 1 percent tax rate increase doesn’t make enough distinctions, industry said. “The approach HB 251 takes is quite frankly oversimplified,” said Vince O’Shea, vice president of Pacific Seafood Processors Association. O’Shea, along with Icicle Seafoods representative Kris Norosz, pointed out that a 1 percent increase could conceivably work for some sectors but would stress salmon canneries, which are glutted with oversupply and having trouble profiting at the current 4.5 percent cannery rate. “There hasn’t been quite enough analysis on the proposed action,” said Norosz. “I’m not quite sure how we got to this.” Ken Alper, director of the state’s Department of Revenue Tax Division, said the 1 percent tax rate bump aims to bridge the gap between the state’s spending on fisheries management and its revenue. The state splits half the fisheries resource landings tax with the municipalities where the fish were landed. According to an Institute of Social and Economic Research report, the state spent about $78.3 million to manage commercial fisheries in fiscal year 2014 while taking in about $70.2 million in its share of fisheries taxes. Local municipalities received about $50.8 million from their share of the taxes. Combined with management and capital spending, the state spent about $96.8 million on commercial fisheries versus the $70.3 million in revenue. Despite accusations from fishermen and committee member Rep. Charisse Millett. R-Anchorage, that the tax rate is a “dart thrown at a dartboard,” Alper said the tax rate was chosen for simplicity and to “to generate $15-$20 million of (unrestricted general funds) for the state.” “Obviously there was no dart board,” Alper told the committee. “One percent across the board tax on developing fisheries develops $18 million.” Taxes piled on taxes and cutbacks Taxes, some said, will pour more economic hardship on the commercial fishing industry, along with management cuts, market factors, and tax plans in other areas such as fuel. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, has already had its budget reduced 15 percent from last year. Budget cutbacks limit resources vital to fisheries management, including field workers and stock survey study methods. Without a full breadth of surveys, ADFG will manage more conservatively and allow fewer fish for commercial harvest. Committee members asked the public if ADFG would manage differently in the face of budget cuts. Most said it would. “With cuts at (ADFG), it’s hard not to manage more conservatively if you think you have less data to go on,” said Norosz. Fishermen said they will feel the state economy’s sting more harshly than other groups. The commercial fishing industry’s current market climate has created some anxiety in the industry even absent a tax hike. “There’s literally a perfect storm in the seafood industry now,” said O’Shea. Alaska exports 70 percent of its seafood harvest. The U.S. dollar’s strength over key export markets like Europe, China, and Japan has softened seafood prices, notably the 2015 Bristol Bay sockeye harvest for which fishermen received half the average price per pound. New state regulations have and will squeeze this bottom line even further. A $2 per hour minimum wage hike, fishermen said, eats away revenue for processor workers and low-level crew. Further, they said, new fuel taxes will drive up operation costs for all fishermen. Fear of a potential Permanent Fund Dividend reductions and a statewide income tax lurk behind the narrowing profit margins. Fishermen asked why the Legislature wasn’t writing a comprehensive resource taxation bill that includes other industries as well. Piecemeal legislation, they said, could combine with politics and leave fishermen to foot the bill if other taxes don’t pan out. Equity concerned some fishermen. Many asked why Walker’s bill doesn’t include a tax on charter angler guides. Alper said Walker’s goal was to “increase what we already have” instead of creating new areas to tax. “It was not part of the administration’s agenda for this session to try to find new areas to tax,” said Alper. “Once you’re in there, dealing with tour operators, the natural extension is to say, ‘Well what about other tour operators?’” “Fishermen are paying for the privilege of extracting that resource,” said Jonathan Kress-Tomkins, D-Sitka. “The difference is that charter operators make their living from extracting a public resource.” Stutes said the fisheries committee would address charter taxation at a later point. “This committee is aware that there is a charter fleet that is not being taxed in any capacity,” she said. “That issue will be addressed,” but not in the context of Walker’s tax bill. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

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