Fisheries

Judge rejects request to override ADFG

An Anchorage judge denied a motion for preliminary injunction in the lawsuit over Cook Inlet salmon management Aug. 1. Judge Andrew Guidi ruled that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is not required to change its management, for now. The Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund, or CIFF, filed a complaint against Fish and Game, asserting that managers have not followed management plans appropriately this summer, and asked for a preliminary injunction requiring them to follow certain aspects of the plan. The Kenai King Conservation Alliance also participated in the lawsuit, as an intervenor on behalf of ADFG. CIFF’s primary contention is the fishing time setnetters have received. In his ruling, Guidi wrote that the motion did not meet the criteria for a preliminary injunction, and that CIFF had not proven that it would suffer irreparable harms if Fish and Game, or ADFG, was allowed to continue its current practices. “The Fish and Game actions the Fund complains of do not appear to be inconsistent with Board of Fisheries regulations or (statutory) authority, or otherwise unlawful,” Guidi wrote in his order. Now, the future of the case is uncertain. Leslie Need, a lawyer for CIFF, said Aug. 1 that the lawyers would talk to CIFF and decide how to proceed. CIFF had already filed an amended complaint regarding the fisheries management issues, and could chose to pursue that. The pretrial process would likely include an opportunity for ADFG to respond to the amended complaint, discovery and other components.  CIFF President Doug Blossom, who testified as a witness during a July 31 evidentiary hearing, said he wanted to pursue the lawsuit. “I think it went quite well,” Blossom said. “The judge said for us to carry on and go after them.” Despite not receiving the preliminary injunction, Adolf Zeman, another lawyer for CIFF, said it was a difficult case and he respected the judge’s opinion. To issue a preliminary injunction, the judge would have had to substitute his own judgment for ADFG’s, Zeman said. The process had barely scratched the surface in terms of relevant information, and that would be difficult. Additionally, injunctive relief requires a lot of scrutiny, Zeman said. The standards for a preliminary injunction are especially high when the defendant, in this case ADFG and the resources it manages, could be harmed by the injunction. Guidi noted that king salmon could be harmed if ADFG was required to change its management strategies. And, Guidi wrote, setnetters’ economic losses could be mitigated at the end of the lawsuit, if they prevail in future litigation, meaning that the harm to them is not irreparable, which is one of the standards for a preliminary injunction. The CIFF complaint revolves around fishing opportunity provided to setnetters, and ADFG’s actions to manage Cook Inlet fisheries for various escapement goals. ADFG manages several sectors and gear types in the marine and freshwaters of Cook Inlet and the central Kenai Peninsula. Sport, personal use and educational fishery participants, as well as setnetters and the drift fleet, harvest primarily sockeye salmon, as well as king and coho salmon. The Board of Fisheries has passed several management plans that address Kenai River late-run kings, Kasilof River sockeyes, and Kenai River sockeyes. CIFF wanted the court to require ADFG to follow the plans, but the two sides disagree about how strictly the Board of Fisheries has intended for the plans to be followed, and ADFG managers said in testimony that they contain a clause that allows the department to go outside the plans if that is necessary to meet the escapement goals. CIFF set forth that because the Board of Fisheries considered, but did not adopt, additional management measures at its March 2013 meeting, it didn’t want those tools used. But ADFG managers said that when the board made that decision, it noted that ADFG already could use some of the tools being considered, and didn’t want to make management more restrictive than it already was. In his order, Guidi said an injunction requiring compliance would have no effective purpose, and providing additional fishing time would be unreasonable given changes in the fishery since the lawsuit was filed. When the lawsuit was filed in mid-July, setnetters targeting sockeyes were receiving their regularly scheduled fishing periods, and some additional fishing time, but not the maximum allowed in management plans. By the time the evidentiary hearing occurred July 30, East Side setnetters were shut down until further notice to avoid catching any more king salmon. That, CIFF has asserted, is a move that clearly puts preference on the Kenai River late-run king salmon escapement goal ahead of other escapement goals, such as Kasilof River sockeyes, which came in strong and have likely exceeded the goal. ADFG biologists and managers said during the evidentiary hearing that while there is a risk of lower returns in future years when escapements come in outside of the goal, either above or below, runs that are below a goal are more problematic. “The risks are different,” said ADFG’s Robert Clark. During closing arguments July 31, KKAC lawyer Sherman Ernouf said his client wants to see more protections for Kenai kings, and supported ADFG’s precautionary management. In fact, KKAC would have liked to see closures sooner, Ernouf said. “What is undeniable is that 3,000 fish have been killed in setnets,” Ernouf said. The setnet fleet targets sockeyes, but catches kings in their nets as well. As part of the king conservation efforts, sport fishermen were prohibited from catching kings, and participants in the personal use and educational fisheries were required to release any kings unharmed. The sport harvest of kings in 2013 is estimated at about 1,300 before the closure. The drift fleet has been allowed to keep fishing, and setnetters at other Cook Inlet sites have also continued their regular fishing periods, but haven’t had as much extra time as they’d like. Blossom said CIFF would like to see ADFG consider king releases for setnetters, too. CIFF has argued that the setnetters it represents have a historical claim to fishing, and the way ADFG has approached the closures has exceeded its statutory authority to manage the fisheries and reallocated fishing opportunity to other users. “There’s management plans for everything, and they didn’t follow any of them,” Blossom said. Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected]

Chickaloon tribe works to restore Moose Creek king salmon run

CHICKALOON — Fish by fish, the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council is working to restore the king salmon run on Moose Creek, a Matanuska River tributary. The project funded by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s Economic Development office is a short-term effort to jumpstart the king salmon run there. Robert Black and Kendra Larson, who work for the council’s Environmental Stewardship Department, have spent many of the summer’s sunny days on Moose Creek catching, counting, and cutting open king salmon. The council has a permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, to take 20 pairs of Moose Creek kings from the stream. By early August, they’d taken 19, which was likely the end of the project. Black and Larson catch the fish with dipnets. Black, who worked on the project in 2010, said he used to wake up at night thinking of better ways to catch the fish. Moose Creek is clear, and it can be hard to capture the fish. “They’re pretty dynamic,” Black said. “They feel your vibrations, they see you.” The males are actually easier to catch than the females, he said. Once caught, the fish are kept in one of four holding pens in the creek. The research team, along with Environmental Stewardship Director Jessica Winnestaffer, council Executive Director Jennifer Harrison, and visitors from the borough, took the 18th female of the season July 25. Black checked salmon caught earlier to see if they were ripe. A female that is ready to spawn has a particular soft feel to her belly, Black said while standing in knee-deep Moose Creek, not far upstream from its confluence with the Matanuska. Once he found a ready female, the researchers prepared a site for their work on a gravel bed across the creek from the holding pens. Then, Black, Larson and Winnestaffer cut open the fish one at a time, taking eggs from the female and milt from the male, and mixing the two together in a bowl. Black stirred the mixture. It foamed, indicating that the eggs were fertilized. Then he transferred them to a plastic zipper bag for the ride back to town, rinsing the bag with creek water several times before storing it in a cooler. Back at a Council office in Chickaloon, the fertilized eggs were put into sandwich-sized plastic containers, and stored in a Moist Air Incubator the size of a soda machine where they will grow for the next few months. Each female has about 5,000 eggs; 20 pairs of kings mean the incubator will be filled with about 100,000 eggs this fall. The incubator sprays mist over the eggs constantly, providing a wet and oxygenated environment for the eggs to develop in. Once the eggs reach the eyeid stage, when an eye is noticeable in the egg and they’re about to hatch, they’ll be replanted in the gravel, not far from where the kings were caught. That will likely occur in October. By keeping the eggs in the incubator, the researchers hope that more will survive than if they were subject to flooding and other environmental factors in the stream very early in their life. The temperature in the incubator is adjusted daily to match the creek’s temperature, in an effort to mimic natural conditions. Black said the water is usually about 7 to 9 degrees Celsius in Moose Creek. The carcasses are returned to the creek and released near where the eggs will be planted in the fall. That’s to ensure that essential micronutrients remain in the water. Essentially, the council is trying to replicate the natural salmon lifecycle, but provide better conditions at the beginning of life in hopes that more will become juvenile salmon, and then, eventually, return to spawn. Restoring Moose Creek This is not the council’s first foray into restoration at Moose Creek. The enhancement project is in its fifth year — it was previously conducted from 2007-2010. Then, the team took between 9 and 19 females for most of the years. Before the enhancement began, the Chickaloon group restored the creek’s path. Harrison said the first part of the restoration project returned the creek to its original path, eliminating a waterfall that salmon couldn’t pass. The waterfall was created when the creek was straightened out in the 1920s. Subsequent work further restored the creek’s original path and removed barriers for fish passage. Once that was done, the council started on enhancement. Originally, the intention was to spend five years on the effort, but funding ran out before the planned fifth year, 2011, so this year the council is returning to the work with borough funding. The borough chipped in $4,500 for fiscal year 2013, which ended in June, and $14,373 for fiscal year 2014, which started July 1. Eventually, Harrison said she hopes there will be robust enough fish populations to support fishing activity in the river once again, and. Black said that 100 years ago, all five salmon species were present in Moose Creek, according to traditional knowledge. The team has seen cohos, kings and a few chums while counting fish. A few sockeyes have been reported. No one has seen pinks. But none of the runs are what they used to be. Declining salmon runs are a concern statewide — biologists, fishermen and politicians alike have been pondering the issue, particularly with kings. Matanuska-Susitna Borough Economic Development Director Don Dyer said the moist-air enhancement could be a viable answer for many waterways. In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the sport fishing industry contributed $118 million to the local economy in 2007. In recent years, the value is less than half of that. Enhancement could be a relatively cheap and quick way to restore area streams, Dyer said. At $20,000 per program, per year, the borough could possibly afford restoration work on several streams, he said. The borough is also looking toward other issues with its fisheries, including voicing concerns about how Cook Inlet salmon management is affecting in-river users, said Patty Sullivan, the borough’s public affairs director. Harrison credited the borough and other partners with making the project possible. “We definitely couldn’t do it by ourselves,” she said. Marked fish To gauge project’s success, the scientists are also taking otoliths from the fish used for the project, and from others found dead in the stream. Dyer is curious to see the results of the otoliths taken this summer, and get a gauge of how many fish are returning from the incubator set. The Chickaloon group is assigned a certain protocol to mark the otoliths in the incubator. The researchers change the temperature in a certain pattern for a certain period of time. The protocol results in a bar code of sorts on the otolith. “It grows like the rings of a tree, and when the fish changes environment, it lays down another ring,” Winnestaffer said. Once the otoliths are taken out of the fish years later, a lab can sand them down and use a microscope to look at the very smallest stage of the otolith, the size it was in the eyeid stage when the researchers marked it. The ones that match the assigned protocol can be attributed to the enhancement project. Winnestaffer said Fish and Game also takes some of the eggs to ensure the protocol worked. Based on age information from the fish scales, which are also saved during the egg take, Winnestaffer said the fish returning this year are mostly about four years old. This is year five of the salmon enhancement project, so some of the otoliths should show the enhancement-specific marking. The team is also tracking the number of fish in the river. In 2007, the first year of the project, they counted 523 spawners. This year, there were 266. ADFG counted 330 and 257, respectively, those same years. The research team conducts their fish counts on foot, walking upstream and counting spawners. ADFG conducts its own aerial count by helicopter, typically a bit earlier in the season, which could contribute to the difference in numbers. Despite those numbers, which don’t point toward conclusive growth in the population, anecdotally, the researchers have had an easier time catching fish this summer than in years past. While the worked on the July 25 egg take, several kings swam by, although the counts were already done for the year. Time-tested technology The Moist Air Incubation system was developed by Brian Ashton, from Alaska Resource and Economic Development. But Ashton got his inspiration from an old Tlingit practice, Harrison said. So the story goes, archeologists working in Southeast found cedar baskets with salmon egg residue in them behind a waterfall. Alaska Native Elders explained to the archaeologists that it was traditional to collect eggs and milt, mix them together, and store them behind the waterfall so they’d get misted. After a few months, they were planted back in the river. “They had a whole ceremony here the woman would stand over the river and put them in, kind of a birthing ceremony,” Harrison said. The method isn’t just traditional. “It’s really economical,” Harrison said. It’s much cheaper than a traditional hatchery, she said. The incubator is about the size of a coke machine, and can hold eggs from 30 fish or more. It uses less water and less energy to rear those eggs, and they are released earlier than from a hatchery, so less work overall goes into raising them. Dyer said it’s not just the economics that work out better than a hatchery. The shorter life in captivity eliminates some concerns about raising inferior fish due to less time in the wild, he said. And, diseases are less likely to wipe out many fish at once. Even if one sandwich tray were diseased, others would likely be fine, Harrison said. The incubator method is used elsewhere in the state, Winnestaffer said. Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. uses the enhancement method for coho and chum salmon in the Nome area. NSEDC’s Fisheries Research and Development Director Charlie Lean said his organization has successfully used the moist air incubation system in Nome’s Anvil Creek. There, NSEDC had a permit for 60 pairs of coho salmon. The returns have ranged from 2:1 to 10:1, comparing the returned fish to parents. NSEDC has also used the method on other area waterways. Lean said two biologists from Chickaloon visited during an egg take, and he traveled to Chickaloon to help them get started early on in the project.

Pinks push commercial catch up, kings still low statewide

Alaska’s commercial salmon catch was estimated at 143.7 million fish through Aug. 6. The August spike in fish caught was driven largely by strong pink harvests, with an estimated 98.7 million pink salmon landed statewide so far this summer according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, blue book commercial estimates. Prince William Sound fishermen have taken the largest share of the pinks, with about 49.8 million estimated through Aug. 6, nearly all by seiners. The Coghill District drift fleet has had the second-strongest Prince William Sound salmon harvest this summer, landing an estimated 2.9 million fish through Aug. 6, about 2 million of which were chums. There, chum and pink catches have pushed them ahead of the Copper River drift fleet, which has taken about 1.6 million fish, including 1.5 million sockeyes. The Copper River sockeye count is done, with a total 1.26 million fish counted through July 27, similar to the 1.27 million counted in 2012. Southeast Alaska has also had a strong pink harvest, with an estimated 34.4 million landed through Aug. 6, out of a total 43.9 million salmon estimated to have been caught in that region. The majority of the pinks in Southeast were caught by seiners, who have also had strong, but smaller, chum catches. The summer trollers have also had a strong coho catch. In the westward region, which includes the Alaska Peninsula, Chignik and Kodiak, an estimated 22.9 million salmon were caught through Aug. 6, with pinks making up the largest portion of that total at an estimated 13.9 million caught. In the Gulf of Alaska, Sand Point fishermen have received additional fishing time, as have Kodiak fishermen. The sockeye runs are continuing, and at the Ayakulik River, on Kodiak, about 271,160 sockeyes were counted through Aug. 6, ahead of the 262,881 counted by the same day in 2012. But the king run there, like other parts of the state, has not been as strong. On the Ayakulik River, 2,356 kings were counted through Aug. 6, down from 4,733 by the same date in 2012. On the Karluk River, also on Kodiak, 1,787 kings were counted through Aug. 6, down from 3,183 in 2012. In Cook Inlet, pink landings accounted for the largest proportion of the catch after sockeyes, at about 488,000 of an estimated 3.6 million fish landed through Aug. 6. The majority of the pinks were landed in the Outer District of Lower Cook Inlet. In the Central District, commercial fishermen, who target sockeyes, have began taking a larger proportion of cohos, with 179,000 cohos estimated through Aug. 6 in the Central District, and 135,000 chums. The sockeye take remains the largest proportion of the Central District harvest, with about 2.6 million fish estimated. The Kenai River sockeye run has slowed down, with about 1.3 million fish counted through Aug. 5, less than the 1.4 million counted in 2012. The late-run king count totaled 14,880 through Aug. 5, fewer than the 20,857 counted by the same day in 2012. Cook Inlet’s Northern District fishermen have seen some reduced fishing in an effort to return fish to Matanuska-Susitna area streams, and the total salmon landing estimated there is 49,000 fish, including about 20,000 sockeyes, and 25,000 cohos. The Mat-Su coho runs are mixed. On the Deshka River, 711 cohos were counted through Aug. 6, well behind the 4,537 counted by the same day in 2012. The Little Susitna coho run, however, appears much earlier than it was in 2012, with 4,072 fish counted through Aug. 6, well ahead of the 389 fish in 2012, although the weir is now farther downstream. The Bristol Bay harvest is much slower, with an estimated 16.4 million fish landed through Aug. 6, including less than 1,000 pinks, but about 34,000 cohos and 765,000 chums. The vast majority, however, are sockeyes. Chum fishing is driving northerly fisheries. The Yukon chum catch was estimated at 574,000 fish through Aug. 6, nearly all of the 579,000 salmon caught commercially there. At Kotzebue, an estimated 163,000 chums were landed through Aug. 6. ADFG has said the chum catch is on track to exceed the department’s forecast, and test fishery near Kiana, on the Kobuk River, is ranking as the fourth highest in the 21-year project history. The Norton Sound chum catch is slightly lower, at an estimated 107,000 fish, and fishermen have also landed about 15,000 cohos and 8,000 pinks, with commercial coho opportunity expected to continue. Kuskokwim bay and river fishermen have landed about 119,000 chums, and 26,00 cohos.  On the Kanektok River, ADFG announced Aug. 6 that the king salmon aerial survey goal was not met, with just 2,340 fish counted compared to a goal range fo 3,500 to 8,000. The sockeye goal, however, was exceeded, with 64,790 fish counted, compared to a goal of 14,000 to 34,000. At the Middle Fork Goodnews River weir, sockeye and chum escapement goals have been reached, while the king goal has not. Salmon squabbles Salmon allocations in Cook Inlet remain a point of contention between user groups, and an Aug. 1 Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Committee meeting included several hours of public testimony from frustrated fishermen. Ultimately, the committee took no major action, but decided it would resend a letter it wrote earlier this year, which called for an independent review of fisheries management in Cook Inlet, asking for a response from the state this time around. More than 60 people attended the meeting, including Anchorage Democrats Rep. Les Gara and Sen. Bill Wielechowski and Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Dunleavy, held at the William Jack Hernandez sport hatchery in Anchorage, most of whom were sport and personal use fishermen concerned about declining king runs, and upset about current management. Many blamed commercial fishermen for the issues. The handful of commercial fishermen present noted that the declining runs have affected them, too, and offered some factual information to counter the concerns. All sectors also raised questions about the sonar used to monitor runs on the Kenai, and how accurate the counts are there. An effort to write a letter asking for a review of the sonar did not come to fruition. Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected]

Feds visit Alaska for input on Arctic policy

June 20, 2013 A senior federal government group led by a top White House official was in Alaska on June 14 meeting with state and local officials on President Barack Obama’s new Arctic policy. Over the next few months the group will flesh out the policy, which was announced recently, Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council in Environmental Quality, told those at a public meeting held in Anchorage. State officials meeting with the group said they were not entirely satisfied and that the policy statement has a lot of generalities but no commitments. Released in March in the form of recommendations to the president, the policy document lays out information on climate change effects and changing patterns of use in the Arctic, along with risks. It recommends an overall coordinated approach to Arctic policy among federal agencies in consultation with the state of Alaska, municipal governments and Native organizations. The policy relates only to the U.S.-controlled Arctic, defining the region as extending from the northern Bering Sea and Bering Straits to the Chukchi and Beaufort sea regions offshore northern Alaska. “As we develop an implementation plan for the new policy it’s important that we articulate our goals. There are changes in the Arctic. Sea ice is declining bringing new environmental challenges and access to natural resources,” Sutley said in her remarks. Three top strategic priorities in the policy will be national security, responsible environmental stewardship and peace, “keeping the Arctic free of conflict,” Sutley said. The federal group will reaching out for the best information available, she said. Sutley also mentioned the importance of the government in working in partnership with the private sector, particularly on infrastructure projects. Sutley was accompanied by Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, who chaired a task force developing the Arctic policy; Kathy Sullivan, Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans; David Balton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans; U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard’s 17th District (Alaska), and other federal and White House officials in public meetings and session with state cabinet officials and the Alaska Federation of Natives. At the public session, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Ostebo said the opening of the Arctic is happening faster than people expect. On June 10 the first commercial vessel of the year moved north through the Bering Strait, two weeks earlier than has happened in prior years, Ostebo said. Significantly, it was a fishing vessel, the 100-foot “Norseman II,” a U.S. registered vessel. Ostebo also said it was the first non-ice strengthened vessel to go north. U.S. and Russian authorities also recently scrambled to put together a rescue plan for Russian scientists stranded at an Arctic research station built on an ice floe that was disintegrating due to warmer conditions. The station was about 700 miles north of Wainwright, on Alaska’s northwest coast. Russian agencies were able to evacuate the scientists but a joint U.S.-Russian plan for an air evacuation was ready to be acted on, he said. Both of Alaska’s U.S. senators — Lisa Murkowski in person and Mark Begich by teleconference — addressed the panel during its public session June 14, urging the group to engage Alaskans in the development of the policy. “Until the new Arctic policy was released last month the U.S. was the only Arctic nation without an explicit policy statement,” Begich said. “I’m pleased to see the strategy but you will need to consult with people who live in the Arctic as you develop it, and there is more and better science that is needed.” The senator said he was disappointed, however, that the Obama administration has included no funds for a new U.S. icebreaker in its new budget. Murkowski said there is increasing Arctic marine traffic and a need for new navigation aids, better mapping, deepwater port capabilities and customs and border officials who can protect the U.S. Arctic boundary. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who has long been involved in Arctic policy issues, said the Arctic is increasing important to the state’s economy, including oil from the Outer Continental Shelf in keeping the pipeline full, and fisheries and mineral development. State Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, co-chair of the state’s new Arctic Policy Task Force, described the organization of the state panel and its purpose of serving as a conduit of information from Alaskans to the federal officials working on Arctic policy. The state council had just concluded its second meeting in Barrow of June 12 and 13, after a first organizational meeting in Juneau March 23, Herron said. Former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, now chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, moderated the public session. In comments from the public, Carl Portman, representing the Resource Development Council, urged the panel to work with the private sector. “The private sector can, as it has in the past, be a meaningful partner, not only in responsible development, but research,” Portman said. Any proposed standards should be clear and consistent to avoid risk, uncertainty and delay, he said. These could frustrate efforts to expand commerce and develop essential resources, Portman said. State officials who met with the federal panel earlier on June 14 were not entirely satisfied with the meeting. “The purpose of our meeting was to reinforce the point that the state has a lot of experience in the Arctic, and that the state should be considered a sovereign and equal partner,” said Stefanie Moreland, Gov. Sean Parnell’s special assistant for Arctic and ocean issues. Moreland coordinated the state’s meeting with the federal group, which included a number of state agencies with expertise, such as the Departments of Environmental Conservation, Natural Resources and Fish and Game. Two areas the state wanted to stress, Moreland said, was the state’s work on spill response in northern areas and the Arctic ports study, done jointly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and research on Arctic marine traffic and infrastructure needs by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “We particularly asked them to define their own roles and responsibilities and to give us a central point of contact,” Moreland said. Deputy Commissioner of Natural Resources Ed Fogels attended the meeting with the federal group and said federal agency managers present were very interested in the state’s recent streamlining of natural resource permitting. Moreland said the state is concerned that the federal government put substance in its policy, particularly with commitments on mapping and icebreakers. “The national Arctic strategy Is not coming with any resources attached. We’re concerned that Arctic initiative will be funded with existing money drawn from other programs,” she said. Also, the state needs more assurance that it will be considered an equal party as federal Arctic policy is developed. Fogels said the federal agencies have to demonstrate they are willing to work with the state, and the examples set so far of a White House interagency working group on Arctic oil is not encouraging, although the state is supposed to be a member of that. “They meet regularly in Washington, D.C. but it’s mostly the federal family. We always have to press to be involved,” he said. “It seems like their idea of compromise is the state going all the way,” toward the federal position, he said.   Tim Bradner can be reached at [email protected]

Impacts pondered for expanding state waters fisheries

June 20, 2013 JUNEAU — In an era of widespread anti-government sentiment, and Alaska’s particular anti-Washington bent, state and federal fisheries managers are beginning to address a range of issues that will further intertwine their regulatory activities and could risk coastal economic and chinook survival without high levels of cooperation. Early this year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council began a new approach to “rationalization” of federal trawl fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska that would include establishment of comprehensive salmon, halibut and crab bycatch controls. At their annual “Joint Protocol Committee” meeting, June 12 in Juneau, three members each of the North Pacific council and Alaska Board of Fisheries had their first, brief, formal discussion on their respective futures. “I’m hopeful that we can coordinate some efforts with the council before we start making so many heavy decisions on these new fisheries you’re talking about, or reallocation of fisheries,” Board Chairman Karl Johnstone said in an interview after the session. The council’s last attempt at rationalizing the Gulf fisheries was halted in December 2006 at the request of recently elected Gov. Sarah Palin, in large part in response to coastal communities fearful of the loss of locally controlled fishing permits, crew jobs and support industry business that resulted from rationalization of federal crab fisheries in the Bering Sea. The 7,500-fish chinook bycatch cap on Gulf of Alaska non-pollock trawl fisheries set by the council June 8 is to be followed by a yet-to-be built set of tools that vessel owners say they desperately need to stay within that limit. The Alaska Board of Fisheries, at its Oct. 18 meeting in Anchorage, will begin considering more than a dozen proposals to establish or expand state waters Alaska pollock and other groundfish fisheries in the Central and Western Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands regions. Four proposals for the Kodiak, Chignik and South Alaska Peninsula regions would increase the harvest limit in state waters Pacific cod fisheries from 25 percent to as much as 55 percent of the annual combined state/federal harvest limit, known as the acceptable biological catch, or ABC. Options under consideration by the North Pacific council could result in individual vessel fishing quotas that could be increased, reduced or even terminated based on their salmon bycatch levels. State law licenses fishing privileges to persons, not vessels, and does not allow individual quotas in any case, but those limits don’t draw as clear a picture as one might hope. Currently, state waters groundfish fisheries operate solely under Board of Fish regulations. But so-called “parallel” fisheries, which also take place within the state’s three-mile maritime boundary, are open at the same time as adjacent federal fisheries and generally operate under federal regulations and management measures “as guided” by the Board of Fisheries, as described by a Department of Fish and Game review document. Proposals awaiting the board affect both state waters and parallel fisheries, largely without regard to existing or developing federal rules. That means, for example, if the Board of Fisheries increased the size of what are currently open access Pacific cod fisheries, boats with exclusive licenses in the federal cod fishery could join what some stakeholders warned is already an increasingly inefficient harvest derby until the state limit were reached, then return to the federal fishery. The questions raised by such actions include: Would the chinook bycatch in state waters of the federally licensed boats be counted against their federal fisheries limit and who is held responsible for bycatch in the state waters and parallel fisheries, where there are currently no bycatch limits or requirements for observer coverage? Johnstone said he had not been aware of the breadth and complexity of the issues before the day’s briefings by federal and state management staff and acknowledged that the board might not be ready this October, or this winter, to decide on the proposals that await. “I’m hopeful we’re going to be able to get some information and I’m hopeful if we don’t we’re wise enough to know we don’t have it and we will table it until we get it,” Johnstone said. Eric Olson, chairman of the council, acknowledged repeatedly during the meeting that the state has unfettered authority to increase its share of the shared fisheries and to set its own rules. “What we heard today that was really encouraging was that they want to take into consideration some of the views of the some of some of the federal participants, recognizing there could be impacts that could be felt on the federal side,” Olson said. All the cordial comments came at a meeting where everyone knew in advance that no decisions, light or heavy, would be made. They were matched by other officials, and some stakeholders, but were not the only sentiment. Johnstone began the day with an apparently popular cheap shot at federal management and his declared inclination “to cooperate as much as possible” with federal authorities remain fighting words in parts of Alaska. In a Juneau Empire headline and account on the council’s decision to continue research on trawl fishing impacts on coral in the Bering Sea Canyon, published a day before the joint session, a Greenpeace spokesman who had endorsed area closures complained that the council had “kicked the can down the road.” In his first comments after staff briefings, Johnstone noted intense public concern with trawl bycatch, and inferred that the new chinook cap was ineffective and also “kicking the can down the road.” “That’s a quote I use,” Johnstone said. Israel Peyton and Bruce Morgan, respectively representing the Mat-Su and Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory committees, also used the phrase. In an introduction commonly heard in legislative and other hearings before elected officials, Peyton noted that he and Morgan represented 90,000 Southcentral residents. Ignoring the bycatch cap the council had set four days earlier, Peyton demanded a reduction “immediately.” “If it cost 20 cents more for fish sandwich at McDonald’s, so be it ... The attitude of chinook fishermen in Northern Cook Inlet is one of hopelessness and anger,” Peyton said. Ed Dersham, a council member, Anchor Point lodge operator and former Board of Fisheries member, later responded that he had received positive comments on the new bycatch cap from Oceana, the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and other environmental groups. “I would just encourage people who have this feeling about kicking the can down the road to talk to some of the advocates for low bycatch that were here and were present for the council action,” Dersham said. He encouraged the three board members present to “carry the message” to their four remaining colleagues that “the decisions they are facing in October have several layers of complexity” and warned that they “prepare themselves to get inundated with input.”   Tkacz is a correspondent for the Journal based in Juneau. He can be reached at [email protected]  

More humpback whales visit Washington state waters

June 20, 2013 SEATTLE (AP) — The video shows an exceptional wildlife sighting for a big city: A humpback whale surfaces just yards from Seattle’s busy waterfront at twilight. The city’s port cranes, Ferris wheel and car headlights glow in the background, and a ferry cruises by while the giant tail disappears back into the Puget Sound. Whale watchers say the recording, shot in early May and confirmed by the conservationist group Orca Network, highlights an increase in humpback sightings in the Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca. “Fifteen years ago, it was unheard of,” said Brian Goodremont, who is the president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and runs San Juan Outfitters. “Now they’ve become a regular sighting in spring and fall.” The ocean mammals can grow to be 50 feet long and weigh up to 40 tons. They visit Washington waters in the spring and fall as they migrate from southern Pacific winter waters to summer feeding spots off Alaska. Decades ago, humpbacks visiting inland waters were numerous enough that whaling operations were based in the northern Puget Sound. Hundreds of the animals were slaughtered, said Cascadia Research Collective’s baleen whale researcher John Calambokidis. “It hasn’t quite returned to the numbers from the 1800s,” Calambokidis said. He added that humpback whales were hunted off American waters as recently as the 1960s, within the lifespan of some of these whales, a practice that has since been made illegal. The whales that make the north Pacific Ocean their home are making a comeback, and conservationists say the increased sightings are proof that their efforts are working. According to Cascadia Research Collective, the number of humpback whales off the U.S. West Coast has increased about 7 percent annually to about 2,000 animals, while the whales who visit Washington’s coast can number in the hundreds. Experts believe there could be more than 22,000 humpbacks in the greater northern Pacific Ocean, up from about 1,500 in the 1960s when whale hunting was banned in the U.S. The whales visiting Washington waters mostly stick to the open ocean, about 20 miles offshore at least, or concentrate at the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to feed, but some, like the animal that visited Seattle, wander farther in. Anne Hall, a Canadian marine zoologist advising the Pacific Whale Watch Association, says humpback mothers have been seen bringing their young to inland waters, suggesting the Puget Sound is again providing a nursery habitat function. “The mothers seem to feel this is a safe place to take the calves,” Hall said. “There appears to be plenty of food for her to sustain herself, while also weaning her baby, teaching it how to feed.” Over the spring, whale watchers were spotting humpbacks almost daily in the north Puget Sound, providing the possibility that whale watching tours in the future could include humpbacks sightings as part of their regular offerings. “It’s becoming a part of what we do,” Goodremont said. “As those sightings of humpback become a little more reliable, it kind of becomes a part of what our industry does.” Orca Network president Howard Garrett says that as long as whale watching tours continue to be respectful of the animals, seeing humpbacks added to the tours is very positive. “It’s a good thing for people to experience the whales up close,” Garrett said. “They become advocates.” Whale watching in the Puget Sound is better known for orcas, which both live in the sound or visit temporarily. Gray whales could be considered the next big visitors to the area. Other whales, such as the minke and fin, can be seen in Washington waters. Humpbacks have been reported to go as far south as Tacoma and the Hood Canal. “These are individual explorers and adventurers. They’ll come down way down to south Sound, just to explore around for couple of days,” Garrett said. “It’s good to see them come back.”  

CH2M Hill to pay $2.9M to settle hatchery claims

FAIRBANKS (AP) — The company that designed a new fish hatchery in Fairbanks has agreed to pay $2.9 million to settle the state's claims over alleged flaws. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports (http://is.gd/YB7K7J ) that as part of the settlement reached in late May, the company, CH2M Hill Inc., also agreed to swallow as much as $2 million worth of extra work it said it performed on the hatchery. The Ruth Burnett Sport Fish Hatchery had initially been scheduled to open in 2009, but because of construction delays and problems with its water filtration system designed to remove iron and manganese, it didn't begin stocking lakes until recently. The project ended up costing roughly $50 million — about twice as much as first anticipated. The state leveled the blame at designer CH2M Hill and at the construction contractors Alaska Mechanical Inc. The settlement releases CH2M Hill from all liability from currently identified flaws in its design, but leaves open the possibility for new claims if further defects are identified, said Senior Assistant Attorney General Dana Burke. As part of the deal, CH2M Hill dismissed its claims for more money from the state for additional, uncompensated work it said it did on the hatchery. That work was estimated by the Department of Law to cost up to $2 million. The settlement allows the state to avoid taking CH2M Hill to court, which could have cost as much as $750,000. The Legislature had gone as far as appropriating the money for such an outcome, but Gov. Sean Parnell vetoed it once the settlement had been reached. The state, however, has paid out roughly $3.8 million to Alaska Mechanical for additional work needed to make the hatchery operational. The hatchery, in downtown Fairbanks across the street from the Chena River, was designed to raise Arctic char, Arctic grayling, rainbow trout and chinook and coho salmon.

Prosecutor drops UFA complaint without investigation

JUNEAU — After shutting down an Alaska State Troopers investigation that had barely begun, chief state prosecutor Richard Svobodny decided no criminal charges will be filed in response to a complaint from the United Fishermen of Alaska that someone at the offices of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association eavesdropped on its January board teleconference meeting. Civil suits remain a possibility according to some UFA board members and groups. Alaska Statute 42.20.310 (a)(1) declares, “A person may not use an eavesdropping device to hear or record all or any part of an oral conversation without the consent of a party to the conversation.” Svobodny said the Alaska law is based on an 80-year old federal statute intended to cover old-fashioned “party lines.” “The law was designed to prohibit situations with telephone party lines as opposed to meetings that are conducted over the telephone,” Svobodny said June 1. “I said we were not going to go forward on an eavesdropping party line telephone conversation so there wasn’t a need to go forward and gather more information.” He compared the UFA teleconference to an open-access internet “webinar” or a published notice for an in-person group meeting that a nonmember attended. Without substantiation, Svobodny also claimed UFA had published its teleconference call-in number and that too many people had been involved for it to claim privacy. “The determination was made that they should not spend resources and go forward with a case that involved a party line communication as it existed in the 1930s,” Svobodny said June 1. His decision ended a State Troopers investigation the day after it began. Public Safety Commissioner Joseph Masters declined to voluntarily release the investigation report and did so only in response to a formal public records request. Wildlife Trooper Eric Hinton wrote in his March 11 incident report that he called Bruce W. Hunter at the UFA’s Juneau office on Feb. 21 in response to its complaint that an “unknown individual” from KRSA’s office “eavesdropped on their private conversation.” UFA traced a participant on the call to the KRSA office after Board of Fisheries Chairman Karl Johnstone informed UFA, the morning after its teleconference, that he had received “detailed information” concerning the substance of the teleconference, according to a Jan. 31 UFA letter to KRSA asking that it investigate the incident. Hinton’s report said he got no answer to his call and he left a recorded message asking for “Hunter” to call back. “On February 22, 2013, I learned that the Attorney General’s (sic) had met concerning Hunters (sic) accusations and determined no law had been violated. Case closed as unfounded,” the trooper’s four-paragraph report concludes. The report’s summary page lists KRSA as the “suspect,” but gives no indication that the powerful sport fishing lobby was ever contacted. KRSA officers have refused since February to a substantial interview on the matter. KRSA board Chairman Eldon Mulder, in February, indicated that no board member dialed in to the UFA teleconference. “Neither I nor the KRSA Board have knowledge of any conversation with Judge Johnstone regarding a UFA teleconference,” he wrote in a February email. Bruce H. Wallace, the UFA’s interim president, said he received only a phone call from Svobodny informing him no charges would be filed. “The class was too big, the technology is too loose, and the law is somewhat purposely vague on the issue were the three points,” Wallace recalled on May 29. “And they thought we were not damaged as well, which is a debatable issue.” He also disputed several of Svobodny’s statements. “As you read that to me, that seems fraught with holes,” Wallace said of the trooper report. Wallace said he was aware of no phone message from Hinton and that the January teleconference number had been circulated by email only among the UFA’s 36 group representatives and four at-large board members. It was never publicly advertised and not all board members called the teleconference. Svobodny first said he recalled that “probably 70 or so people” had called in to the UFA meeting and said that figure came from information UFA had provided to the troopers. Informed that UFA had only 40 board members, Svobodny said, “I’m guessing 40 to 80 (people called the teleconference). It could have been 27. It was more than three, more than 20, but probably less than 100.” Several individual UFA board members and member groups are researching the prospects of a civil suit. “The Legal Exploration Team (LET) is investigating further action on the KRSA eavesdropping situation (KRSAGATE),” wrote Paul Shadura, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association and a UFA board member, in a May 23 email response, including his original parenthetical terms, to this reporter. “There are many ways to look at pursuing relief. I believe for the most part, a simple review of the facts are warranted.” The informal “LET,” including Wallace, Shadura, other individuals, the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, and possibly other groups, is researching its legal options. It formed after the UFA board got Svobodny’s decision, consulted its own attorney, and formally voted to drop the matter. The teleconference had been called to discuss upcoming Board of Fisheries vacancies. “It was a constructive discussion in what we wanted to see in a Fish board member and then what we wanted to see in letter to the governor that was sent before we found out,” about the eavesdropping, Wallace said. The current terms of board members Tom Kluberton and Vince Webster end on June 30. At the time, neither had applied to be reappointed. Following the incident, UFA members learned that Kluberton and Webster had been told they were on UFA’s “hit list,” according to Wallace. UFA contacted both men, and Johnstone to correct the misinformation. Kluberton and Webster both applied for new terms, were reappointed by Gov. Sean Parnell and endorsed by UFA. Kluberton easily won his legislative confirmation vote. Webster was rejected on a 29-30 vote following what several lawmakers said was a dishonest lobbying campaign by KRSA. Johnstone, whose board term ends in 2015, declined to disclose who provided him with the teleconference information and said the incident was “ancient history.” “As a member of the Board of Fisheries I don’t involve myself in these things at all,” he said on June 4. In January he was very involved. “FYI, someone filled in me in on some of what was said at the UFA meeting held yesterday,” Johnstone wrote in a 9 a.m. email on Jan. 18 to UFA Executive Director Julianne Curry and former Executive Director Arni Thomson. “What was said about applicants for the Board seat and what was said about current members was quite interesting and revealing.” The Journal obtained the emails independently of Curry or Thomson, or other members of UFA quoted in this story. After Curry replied that, “second hand information is correct as often as it is incorrect,” Johnstone wrote that he had “very good reason to believe the accuracy of the detailed information I received ... I have high respect for UFA and believe it has high professional standards. Knowing what was said by some within the organization during a formally called ‘full Board’ meeting, about me, other Board members, and others who aspire to be on the Board of Fish does not enhance that respect and does not live up to the professionalism I have come to expect from UFA.” Kluberton said he could only vaguely recall the matter. “It was somebody said something. We get that on a daily basis at a Fish Board meeting,” Kluberton said on May 31. “It never stops ...  I didn’t feel threatened by any anything I heard. It’s fisheries.” Joshua Decker, interim director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union said he was unsure whether a criminal incident occurred but suggested the Department of Law “is just abdicating its responsibility” by not waiting for the completion of the investigation. “The whole comment that we’re going to make the decision based on the law in the abstracts and not on the reports, that’s like you’re going to a doctor and the doctor is evaluating you without taking your temperature or anything,” Decker said on June 4. “You can’t do one without the other. You can’t do that. It seems incoherent to me.”   Bob Tkacz is a correspondent for the Journal based in Juneau. He can be reached at [email protected]  

EDITORIAL: Common interests: Religion shouldn't trump state salmon fishing rules

Norman Maclean famously began his novel, “A River Runs Through It,” with this line: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” Maclean’s little book carried ideas and emotions powerful enough to make it an enduring national best seller. In Alaska during the past year, we’ve watched as people employ powerful ideas and emotions that also equate fishing and religion. In Alaska’s case, though, those who blur the line do so not to entertain readers but to immunize the fisherman against prosecution for violating rules. A judge last week said he couldn’t grant such immunity, and he made the right decision. Last summer, dozens of Yup’ik fishermen set their standard nets for king salmon in the Kuskokwim River during periods when the state had closed fishing and reduced net mesh sizes to protect the scarce fish. About 60 were charged. In court this winter, attorneys for some of the fishermen argued that they had a religious right to ignore the state rules. Fishing for food is not just an economic activity but also a religious one, the fishermen said, and therefore the government had no authority to stop them. They cited not only the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution but also Article 1, Section 4 of the Alaska Constitution, which states that “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This argument has some well-established legal footing in Alaska. In 1975, the state charged Carlos Frank, who lived in Minto, 40 miles west of Fairbanks, for shooting a moose out of season to supply a funeral potlatch. Frank was prosecuted and convicted, but the Alaska Supreme Court reversed that conviction in 1979 after deciding the potlatch was a religious ceremony. “No value has a higher place in our constitutional system of government than that of religious freedom. The freedom to believe is protected absolutely,” the court said. However, the court firmly asserted that belief is different from action. “The freedom to act on one’s religious beliefs is also protected, but such protection may be overcome by compelling state interests,” it said. In the Frank case, the court said, the state’s worries about unregulated moose hunting were not compelling enough to justify a blanket prohibition on shooting an occasional moose to supply a funeral potlatch. It suggested the state set up a system to allow the practice, which since has been done. In contrast, Magistrate Bruce Ward, ruling in the Kuskokwim fishing case, decided the state does have a compelling interest in limiting king salmon fishing with nets. For reasons that are not well understood, king salmon runs have been extremely poor in the Kuskokwim and elsewhere. The state must limit the harvest so enough fish escape to spawn in the streams far upriver. If it doesn’t, the problem will just get worse. One might ask whether the state should set up some sort of mechanism to allow a few king salmon to be taken for religious purposes. Like the potlatch moose exemption, it could be workable; however, it probably wouldn’t satisfy the fishermen. They assert that the religious act threatened by the state’s regulation is not, as in the Frank case, an occasional ceremony but rather is the regular catch of king salmon. Perhaps so — after all, if a fly fisherman can find religion in pestering trout, surely the experience of sustaining one’s family by netting king salmon from Alaska’s rivers drips with spirituality. Nevertheless, the supremacy of the “compelling state interest” is not the enemy of this religion. In the end, it’s the very thing that protects the fishermen — because to ignore it would endanger the fish upon which their religious experience depends.  

Research shows strong outlook for Aleutians golden crab

A collaboration in the Aleutian Islands has turned up a glowing view of the golden king crab stock. A joint effort between the Aleutian King Crab Research Foundation and Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game has shown a large number of small crabs in the fishery. The test pots determined that there are “lots of recruit and pre-recruit males” near the fishing grounds, said Denby Lloyd, the foundation’s science advisor. That’s a great sign for the future of the fishery, he said. The research project was devised because fishermen thought they were seeing more crabs on the fishing grounds, but verification of a strong stock was needed. The research foundation collaborated with Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game on the study. The foundation provided the research pots, while state biologists actually conducted the work. That led to “cost savings and cooperative research,” Lloyd said. “It’s looking like it’s going to benefit all of us.” The benefit for fishermen is that if the there really are more crab, they’re hoping for an increase in quota, something the state’s Board of Fisheries could take up next March. This year, the fishermen built 20 special crab pots for the research project, with funding from the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Association. Normally, a crab pot attracts crabs with baits. Then, the smallest crabs — generally those that are not yet of legal size — can crawl back out through large mesh, while the large crabs are stuck. The test pots used smaller mesh, which trapped the smaller crabs inside the pot. The crabbers worked with ADFG to locate the special pots near regular pots. Then, ADFG biologists rode aboard commercial vessels to check the pots and record what they were catching. “The regular pots caught good numbers of legal sized crab and the research pots right next to them caught as many or more legals, and very large numbers of small crab,” Lloyd wrote in a statement from the crab research foundation. Prior to the study, fishermen were already seeing an increased catch per unit effort, which is another marker of stock status and generally shows an increasing abundance, but doesn’t guarantee it. The large number of small crab is another way to look at stock status and confirm that it’s doing well. The state wanted to see another indication of a healthy population, Lloyd explained. The golden king crab fishery in the Aleutians is nothing new — the commercial fishery has been open for more than 30 years  — but getting information about the stock is particularly difficult. Elsewhere, trawl surveys are used to see what crabs are lurking on the ocean floor. But those are particularly difficult and expensive for the Aleutian Islands golden king crab fishery. That’s because it spans 600 miles, and the ocean floor is steeper and more difficult to trawl, so a conventional survey isn’t feasible, said Linda Kozak, who works with the Golden King Crab Coalition. The Golden King Crab Coalition is a partner organization to the research foundation, looking more at the regulatory side of things, while the research foundation looks at science. Kozak said the two groups are trying to help state and federal fisheries managers better understand the stock. “The collaborative work that the fishermen have been doing with (the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and (the National Marine Fisheries Service) has been going for years,” Kozak said. Fishermen have done so informally for years, but their partnership was solidified about a year and a half ago, giving the efforts more structure, and efficiency. The foundation is trying to help managers gain a better understanding of full-stock biomass, Kozak said. It focuses on the priorities identified by research boards, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the state and federal crab plan team, and other regulatory and scientific bodies. The fishermen have sent five shipments of live king crab to Kodiak, where the National Marine Fisheries Service is studying, and raising, them in a lab. The studies include looking at ocean acidification, growth, handling mortality and other issues. So far, it looks like golden king crab may survive in acidic water because their traditional deep-water habitat is normally quite acidic. The researchers are also looking at what makes goldens’ shells different from other crabs and shellfish. “They’re finding out that golden crab are very hardy creatures,” Kozak said. All that research could help inform a future decision on a quota increase. Right now, the harvest is capped at 6 million pounds. Harvesters have submitted a proposal to the Board of Fisheries that will likely be considered at the statewide king and tanner crab meeting. They already received one, 5 percent out-of-cycle increase to the total allowable catch, or TAC, but if the stock is doing as well as the studies so far indicate, further increases could be justified. The board, which manages crab fisheries in both federal and state waters, sets the TAC because it is an unsurveyed stock without the full suite of information that is usually available in stock assessments such as Bristol Bay red king crab or Bering Sea snow crab. There’s also a stock assessment model in the works, but it’s not yet ready to be used, so for now, empirical studies are the best source of information about the crab stock, Lloyd said. Fishery managers could use the information to help with stock assessments, or decide to do additional research. Aleutian Islands golden king crab harvesters submitted a proposal to the state’s Board of Fisheries to increase the quota for the crab, Lloyd said. That will likely be considered at the statewide king and tanner crab meeting scheduled for March 17-21, 2014, in Anchorage.   Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected]  

Judge: Agency erred in beluga estimates

The National Marine Fisheries Service made mathematical errors in estimating how many endangered beluga whales in Cook Inlet could be harmed or harassed by seismic testing, a federal judge has ruled. This week’s decision by U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason was a partial victory for conservation groups and the Alaska Native village of Chickaloon. They sued last year, claiming that seismic testing related to oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet in south-central Alaska would harm the belugas and that the fisheries service improperly issued exploration permits to Apache Alaska Corp. for high-intensity seismic work. Gleason sided with the fisheries service on other points, finding that the agency took the requisite “hard look” at the cumulative impacts of Apache’s surveying activities and that those activities did not require a more extensive environmental review process. It’s not clear what the next step in the case might be. Both sides were reviewing the decision May 30. Gleason asked for additional briefing from the parties, noting her order, dated May 28, did not resolve how the mathematical errors might impact other aspects of the agency’s decision making. There may have been as many as 1,300 Cook Inlet belugas at one point, but the number fell sharply during the 1990s, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Even with a hunting ban, the belugas haven’t recovered. In 2008, the federal government declared the Cook Inlet belugas as endangered. The 2011 population was estimated at 284. Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said Gleason’s decision made clear that it’s not OK for the fisheries service to get its estimates wrong. The population is in trouble, and underestimating the number that could be affected by activities is a big problem, she said. Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for the fisheries services, said in a statement that the computation error was contained in the first incident harassment authorization that the agency issued to Apache. After it was brought to the agency’s attention, she said the error was corrected in the second authorization issued to the company.

Feds fine Seattle-based American Seafoods $2.7M

SEATTLE (AP) — Federal authorities are seeking fines of more than $2.7 million against Seattle-based American Seafoods, saying the company underreported its catch by doctoring the scales on its vessels. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the practice dated as far back as 2007 on three American Seafoods' factory trawlers, which catch and process pollock off Alaska, The Seattle Times reported (http://is.gd/dA0a6v ). The company operates six such trawlers in all, reports revenue of more than $500 million and is one of the major players in the North American seafood industry. The feds say the scales were often off by 6 percent to 17 percent. By reporting lower weights, crews could process more fish than their federally allowed quota. In one extreme case from 2007, a federal fishery observer aboard the company's American Dynasty found that fish weighing 238 pounds registered as only 73 pounds -- off by nearly 70 percent. "Violations of this magnitude have the potential to severely impact fisheries if left unchecked," Acting Special Agent in Charge Matthew Brown of NOAA's Alaska Division said in a statement. The company said it "takes seriously its commitment to sustainable fishing practices and has cooperated fully with NOAA in investigating these matters." It will respond to NOAA's allegations after completing a review, it said. Alan Kingsolving, a NOAA official who works as a scale coordinator, said an average single haul in the catcher-processor pollock fishery is somewhere between 80 and 100 metric tons. A 10 percent underweighing of a 100-ton haul would amount to 10 tons of unreported fish. In 2012, American Seafoods had an allocation of more than 185,000 metric tons of pollock, according to a report submitted to federal regulators. Most of the company's revenue comes from pollock in harvests managed by the federal government. Aboard the American Dynasty, federal fishery observers that monitor the catches documented alleged violations during a two-year period ending in 2008. They repeatedly saw crew members adjusting the scales. Then, when observers checked the scales, they reported that scales weighed light, the newspaper reported. Four years later, in January 2012, NOAA law enforcement issued the notice of violation against the company and the operator of the American Dynasty for the 2007 and 2008 incidents. Two more violation notices were issued last month, alleging violations that continued into 2012 aboard two other company trawlers, the Northern Eagle and American Rover.  

Yup'ik fishermen found guilty of illegal fishing

Two dozen Kuskokwim River fishermen have been found guilty of illegal fishing, despite their arguments that fishing restrictions infringe on their religious rights. The fishermen's attorney, James J. Davis Jr., said he will appeal the convictions issued Monday through Wednesday by Magistrate Bruce Ward. Davis said one of the 25 fishermen is in Hawaii and his case will be heard later. The subsistence fishermen were cited last year during a poor king salmon run. They argued they have a spiritual right to fish for king salmon when restrictions are in place. The fishermen's defense was based on a free exercise clause of the Alaska Constitution. Ward found the state's need to restrict kings supersedes the fishermen's religious rights, according to KYUK (http://is.gd/5MlRzK ). Ward imposed $250 fines for all but one fisherman, who was fined $500. They also were placed on probation for one year. The trials began in April with specialists on Yup'ik culture testifying for the fishermen. On the stand Tuesday, fisherman James Albrite choked up when he spoke of growing up in a subsistence lifestyle. "That's our life, our way of eating," he said. "Our way of putting away food." Albrite, whose father is a Moravian minister, said Yup'ik beliefs and Christianity go together. He spoke about Ellam Yua, the Yup'ik word for the creator or spirit of the universe. Ellam Yua is in all animals which give themselves to hunters and fishermen, according to the fishermen. They said that if hunters don't take what they are given, the creator is not pleased. In siding with the state, Ward said he looked at the case closely, reviewing a case decided by the Alaska Supreme Court in 1979. The case shows that the free exercise clause may work when religion is involved, the conduct is religiously based and the person is sincere. Ward said the fishermen met the first two requirements and addressed the sincerity question in individual trials. The judge, however, decided that there is a compelling need to restrict the Kuskokwim king run based on recent data. Davis maintains the state can protect king runs and still allow Yup'ik fishermen a subsistence priority over non-Yup'ik residents, even for a short fishery. He said the state also could press for action against the commercial Pollock trawlers that catch thousands of kings each year as bycatch off Alaska's coast. Davis said it was "extraordinarily significant" that a court recognized subsistence is as deserving of protections as any other religion. But the outcome fell short, he said. "I think the court committed a plain error in finding that the state had to infringe on that religion and had no other means of protecting Yup'ik people," Davis told The Associated Press Wednesday. Altogether, 60 fishermen from western Alaska originally faced misdemeanor charges of using restricted gear or fishing in closed sections of the Kuskokwim River during the king run last summer. Most charges were later reduced to minor violations. Many of the fishermen pleaded guilty to the reduced counts and were ordered to pay $250 fines.

Fresh Copper River salmon lands in Seattle

SEATAC, Wash. (AP) — The first planeload of Copper River salmon from Cordova, Alaska, landed Friday morning at Sea-Tac Airport and the Alaska Airlines pilots carried a 40-pound king to waiting chefs. The annual cook-off among local chefs this year includes Master Sgt. Robert Schulman, a 31-year Air Force Reserve chef representing the 446th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The arrival of fresh Copper River king and sockeye salmon is a rite of spring in Seattle where the fish are prized for their flavor. They typically bring the highest prices at restaurants and fish markets. The plane carried 24,600 pounds of fish, and Alaska Airlines scheduled three more salmon flights Friday. The airline says it will ship more than 2 million pounds of salmon this year across its 95-city network.

Agency seeks comment on Aleutian sea lion rules

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Tuesday it will consider dialing back commercial fishing restrictions in the western Aleutian Islands that were put in place to protect endangered Steller sea lions. The agency will take public comment on five alternatives for measures aimed at protecting sea lions with an eye toward reducing the economic effect on fishermen seeking Pacific cod, pollock and Atka mackerel. Four of the alternatives, including the agency's preliminary preference, would loosen fishing restrictions put in place two years ago. The agency is under a court order to provide additional public review of the environmental work it did before putting restrictions in place. Steller sea lions feed on the same fish sought by commercial fishermen and Mike LeVine, a staff attorney for Oceana, said modifying restrictions would continue a cycle of controversy and litigation. "All of the action alternatives are steps backwards that simply authorize more fishing," he said. Commercial fishing groups and the state of Alaska sued to overturn the restrictions. Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation, said the state is pleased that the federal agency is correcting flaws in the public process but worried that the latest environmental impact statement continues to connect commercial fishing to Steller sea lion nutritional stress and thus a nosedive in population numbers. The western sea lion range begins east of Cordova and stretches west to include all of the Aleutian Islands. The western population in the early 1980s was estimated at 250,000. The current population is estimate at 52,000. The cause of the crash has not been determined. NMFS put fishing restrictions in place in 2011. U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess ruled that NMFS followed acceptable procedures for concluding that fishing must be curtailed because sea lions were nutritionally stressed and not getting enough to eat. However, he faulted the agency for its environmental review and concluded more public review was needed. NMFS in March came up with preliminary recommendations and consulted with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees commercial fishing in federal waters. The council's preferred alternative loosens restrictions by spreading commercial harvest over different times and locations. LeVine said commercial fishing restrictions already have passed court review. "The National Marine Fisheries Service has identified protection measures that comply with the Endangered Species Act, that have been upheld in court, and are consistent with the agency's longstanding position that fisheries may compete with top predators like Steller sea lions." he said. Vincent-Lang said the state has appealed Burgess' ruling and hopes to see it overturned on appeal. Meanwhile, he said, the agency's own three-scientist panel of independent reviewers concluded that the federal government's decision to restrict commercial fishing was not supported by sound science. One reviewer said fishing restrictions were based on speculative and hypothetical suggestions of adverse effects on sea lions. "They're correcting the public process flaws that the court identified and asked them to address but they're not going back and addressing the fundamental science flaws," Vincent-Lang said. The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposals starting Friday.

Former Murkowski aide who served time now lobbyist

KODIAK (AP) — A former aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski who served time in prison for falsifying his fishing records is now working as a lobbyist. Arne Fuglvog represented four commercial fishing companies: Aleutian Spray Fisheries, Blue North Fisheries, Fishermen's Finest and Glacier Fish, according to lobbying records from the first quarter of this year. The Kodiak Daily Mirror reports (http://bit.ly/112Ti03 ) that Fuglvog is listed as president of Coastal Resource Strategies LLC, a lobbying firm based in Seattle. He is listed on lobbying on issues like the Coast Guard authorization bill. U.S. Mark Begich's office confirmed that Fuglvog has been in contact with that office. Begich, an Alaska Democrat, is chairman of the Senate subcommittee on oceans, atmosphere, fisheries and the Coast Guard. In 2011, Fuglvog pleaded guilty to falsifying his own commercial fishing records for profit. He resigned as a fisheries adviser to Murkowski shortly before his plea deal with prosecutors was made public. He was sentenced to five months in prison and released last summer. He registered as a lobbyist on Feb. 1 this year, according to federal records. The story was first reported by the website Open Secrets.  

Coast Guard expects to cut back on Arctic patrols

KODIAK (AP) — The Coast Guard expects to scale back on its Arctic patrols this summer because of budget cuts and a lack of commercial traffic. How much Arctic deployments are decreasing is still being debated as crews from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak fan out across the state for summer deployments, the Kodiak Daily Mirror (http://is.gd/TvVpcx ) reported this week. "There's a presence, but they haven't solidified what the plan is going to look like yet," said Lt. Veronica Colbath with Coast Guard District 17, which covers Alaska. The Coast Guard deployed helicopters, C-130 fixed-wing aircraft and Coast Guard cutters to the Arctic Ocean last summer to provide fulltime search-and-rescue coverage. The helicopters were based in a Barrow hangar, while a cutter cruised offshore. Other Coast Guard crews tested cold-weather equipment or conducted medical and veterinary visits to villages. There probably won't be medical missions this summer, and the Coast Guard's base of operations may not be in Barrow. It could be in Kotzebue, which is home to an Alaska National Guard aircraft hangar. Guard spokeswoman Kalei Rupp said the Coast Guard has signed a use agreement for the 13,068 square-foot facility. "It's our understanding that they're going to have two of their helicopters up there," Rupp said. "What it's for, they're going to use the facility for approximately two weeks in July and two weeks in the August-September timeframe. It's not like a long-term lease like they're going to stage there for the summer." Colbath said she could not confirm the shift to Kotzebue. Royal Dutch Shell PLC announced in February that it will not return to drilling operations in the Arctic this summer. ConocoPhillips Co. said in April that it will not proceed with drilling plans in the Chukchi Sea this summer. The lack of major new drilling operations means fewer ships in the far north. A Coast Guard spokesman in Kodiak said significant marine activity is not anticipated in the Arctic this summer. Reductions in Arctic deployments mean more aircraft would be available to cover commercial fishing in south-central and southwest Alaska. The Coast Guard said a Kodiak MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and aircrew are being deployed to Cordova through the end of September.  

Crowd in Bethel rallies for subsistence rights

(AP) — A sign-waving crowd in Bethel gathered Monday to rally for subsistence rights. The event came at a time when nearly two dozen Yup'ik Eskimo fishermen are facing trials after being cited for illegal fishing on the Kuskokwim River last year during a weak king salmon run. People held signs at the rally with statements such as "Feeding our families is not a crime" and "Fish equals culture," KYUK (http://is.gd/njByTn) reported. A Bethel judge last week adjourned the fishermen's trials until May 20, when he'll rule on whether the defendants have a spiritual right to fish for kings when restrictions are in place. The non-jury proceedings in Bethel began last week with specialists on Yup'ik culture testifying for the fishermen, who say fishing bans on their subsistence lifestyle violate their spiritual freedoms. The fishermen are employing a religious protection defense. Prosecutors and state officials have said ensuring sustainability for future runs is crucial, and last year's king numbers were severely low. The dismal runs led to federal disaster declarations for the Yukon-Kuskokwim area and Cook Inlet. Three other fishermen tried separately in October in Bethel were found guilty of violating fishing restrictions for kings. The men were each fined $250. Altogether, 60 fishermen from western Alaska originally faced misdemeanor charges of using restricted gear or fishing in closed sections of the Kuskokwim River during the king run last summer. Most charges were later reduced to minor violations. Many of the fishermen pleaded guilty to the reduced counts and were ordered to pay $250 fines.

Judge adjourns fishermen trial until May

A Bethel judge has adjourned trials of Alaska Native subsistence fishermen until May, saying that's when he'll rule on whether the fishermen have a spiritual right to fish for king salmon when restrictions are in place. The nearly two dozen Yukon-Kuskokwim fishermen were cited for illegal fishing last summer during a weak king run. Their non-jury trials before Magistrate Bruce Ward began this week with specialists on Yup'ik culture testifying for the fishermen, who are employing a religious protection defense. The fishermen say fishing bans on their subsistence lifestyle violate their spiritual freedoms. KYUK (http://is.gd/5Yhz8Z ) reports Ward said Thursday that before the fishermen take the stand, the court needs to decide if the defendants have a spiritual right to fish for kings. The case was adjourned until May 20.  

King salmon restrictions posted

Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers released a series of emergency orders Thursday restricting early run king salmon fishing on the Kasilof and in lower Cook Inlet streams and marine waters. Area managers inlet-wide cited low king numbers in several river systems as the reason for preseason restrictions and continued conservative management of the king salmon fisheries. On the Kasilof: ■ Naturally-produced king salmon may not be removed from the water and must be released immediately. ■ Angler bag and possession limits have been reduced to one hatchery-produced king salmon 20 inches or greater beginning May 1 and ending June 30. While the restrictions on the Kasilof River came sooner than usual in recent years, longtime area fishermen may recognize the prohibition on retaining naturally-produced king salmon as sportfishing regulation prior to 2005 allowed retention of hatchery-produced king salmon only. “Since 2009 without a restriction, we have had trouble making the goal,” said Robert Begich, area biologist in the sportfishing division of Fish and Game of the Kasilof early run. Last year, managers did not have enough fish return to do egg takes and will do no hatchery stocking of Kasilof king salmon this year as a result. Hatchery-reared salmon can be distinguished from naturally-produced salmon by their lack of an adipose fin, which is the small fleshy fin on the back, just ahead of the tail. On the Anchor River, Deep Creek, or Ninilchik River drainages: ■ Sport fishermen may only use one, un-baited, single-hook, artificial lure when fishing from May 1 to June 30. ■ Beginning May 1 to June 30, a combined annual limit of two king salmon, 20 inches or greater in length, may be harvested from the three rivers and all marine waters south of the mouth of the Ninilchik River to Bluff Point. A person who takes and retains a king salmon 20 inches or greater may not sport fish in any of those drainages for the rest of the day. On the Anchor River: ■ Waters of the Anchor River from its mouth upstream to the junction of the North and South forks will be closed each Wednesday during the king salmon season and decreases the waters of the Anchor River available to sportfishing by relocating the Fish and Game regulatory marker about 1,000 feet downstream of the junction of the North and South Forks. This order is in effect from May 1 through June 30. On the Ninilchik River: ■ The bag and possession limit for king salmon in the Ninilchik has been reduced to one at 20 inches or greater in length. ■ During the three-day weekend fishing periods that begin on Memorial Day, anglers may retain either a hatchery king salmon or a naturally produced king salmon; beginning in July, anglers may only retain hatchery king salmon. This order goes into effect May 1 and ends Oct. 31. According to the order, the Ninilchik River outlook is below its historical average and expected to be similar to king salmon runs over the past five years. In-river restrictions were put in place from 2010 to 2012 and the nearby marine sport fishery was restricted in 2012. “The recent poor king salmon runs in the Lower Cook Inlet streams and uncertainty over how quickly the runs may rebound justify starting the season with restrictions in order to achieve escapement and egg-take goals and provide fishing opportunity throughout the season,” according to the order. Restrictions to sport fisheries in the Northern Cook Inlet Area were also announced for the Susitna River drainage and the Little Susitna River, they will go into effect May 15. Among them, anglers will be restricted to an annual limit of two king salmon taken from the Susitna River drainage and the Little Susitna River.

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