Fisheries

Halibut split approved, both sectors view action as a loss

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted 10-1 to recommend a revised halibut catch sharing plan at its meeting in Anchorage Oct. 5. The motion recommends a combined catch limit for the commercial and charter sectors, with each receiving a percentage of the harvest, beginning in 2014. The exact charter-commercial split will be different in areas 2C, Southeast, and 3A, the central Gulf of Alaska. In 3A, which includes Cook Inlet and other Southcentral Alaska waters, the charter allocation at less than a 10 million pound combined catch limit, or CCL, is 18.9 percent. Between 10 and 10.8 million pounds, it receives a flat 1.89 million pounds. When the CCL is between 10.8 and 20 million pounds, the industry would receive 17.5 percent. Between 20 and 25 million pounds, the charter allocation would be 3.5 million pounds, and at times of high abundance — greater than a 25 million pound CCL — charter operators would have a 14 percent allocation. In 2C, the charter industry receives 18.3 percent when the CCL is less than 5 million pounds, and 15.9 percent when it’s greater than 5.75 million pounds. When the CCL falls between those two numbers, the charter industry would receive a flat 915,000-pound allocation. Had the percentages been in affect this year, the charter industry would have received a smaller allocation than the current guideline harvest level, or GHL. The allocation in 2C would have been 633,000 pounds, less than the actual 2012 GHL of 931,000 pounds. The 3A allocation would have been 2.63 million pounds, less than the 3.1 million pounds under the GHL. Charter customers in 3A were allowed a two-fish bag limit this year, but a lower allocation likely would have taken that away. Preserving a two fish of any size bag limit has been a priority for the charter sector in Southcentral. The flat pound amounts between each step-up are meant to avoid decreases in allocation when abundance increases as percentages change. In making the motion, member Ed Dersham, the lone representative of the sport fishing industry on the council, acknowledged that it was a compromise, and neither sector’s preferred alternative. Council member Dan Hull, who is a commercial halibut quota holder, agreed. “Like Mr. Dersham, I too would have preferred to see different alternatives or choices in this action, but I believe that the votes aren’t there for that, and where we have landed with this motion is the best place that we can get to at this point,” Hull said. Both commercial and charter representatives said the final action represented a loss for their industry. Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Linda Behnken said the final action represented a loss for commercial vessels, but was better than the GHL status quo. The association was glad for stability, she said. Southeast Alaska Guides Organization Vice President Russell Thomas said the move was extremely disappointing. Council member Sam Cotten, the only no vote, said he appreciated the work that went into the motion and noted that both the charter industry and commercial sector saw the plans as taking from their allocation and made it difficult to come up with a plan. Cotten cited the numbers the individual fishing quota, or IFQ, holders point as their losses under the last six years of harvest cuts, but also recognized where the charter industry was coming from seeing losses from their current GHL allocation. Seward charter operator Steve Zernia said the status quo GHL is a fair place to start, and should be seen as the current baseline. Any less fish than it granted was a reduction in allocation, he and others said. The council was clear in its discussion that the status quo option, which would have left the GHL in place, was not an option. Under the GHL program, the commercial sector received what halibut was left after subsistence, charter, and sport needs were calculated. After more than a decade of work, the council took final action on a catch sharing plan in 2008 that connected charter and commercial allocations. That CSP, which was scheduled to take effect in 2012, was not implemented after thousands of comments protesting the action led National Marine Fisheries Service to send the plan back to the council for further work in September 2011. Dersham, an Anchorage resident who introduced the motion for final action, was the only no vote on the 2008 plan. As the only council member with a history in the charter sector, his approval of this plan should give it more sticking power. Commercial fisherman Bill Burke told the council he fishes out of Homer, and has IFQ in both 3A and 3B (western Gulf of Alaska). Over the years, as the value of his quota dropped, Burke has taken on loans to purchase more. Since 2010, he’s seen the value of his quota drop between 9 percent and 25 percent per year. The exact management of the charter allocation is left up to discussion each year, with tools including bag limits, slot limits, or other yet-to-be determined measures. John Moline, a charter operator out of Seward, said that how the fishery is managed has a significant impact on whether or not clients opt to go fishing. Dersham said the intention of his motion was to have a flexible management scheme that could be updated yearly. As management improves, Dersham said he thought the charter sector could be managed closer to its limit. In 2011, the charter sector only harvested about half of its GHL in Southeast because of a 37-inch size limit proposed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which sets the annual harvest levels, to hold the charter sector within its allocation. “I think clearly, as we develop a baseline of effects with different slot limits for example, that our precision can get much better and the buffer we need in actual projected numbers can become much smaller,” Dersham said. Burke and Zernia weren’t alone during public testimony. Several charter operators from around the state testified about the challenges in their businesses. John Baker, a charter operator out of Ninilchik, said loans aren’t unique to the commercial sector. Charter businesses also have business loans, and need fish to continue their operations, he said. Other commercial fishermen talked about the drop in their quota – ranging from oldtimers with several decades of commercial fishing under their belts, to younger fishermen, like 18-year-old Stephen Peavey, of Craig. “I have lost three-quarters of my quota for conservation issues and allocations to other user groups,” Peavey said. “…It is not economically viable for me to take another cut.” The council’s action also recommended a number of other CSP details. It asked the Alaska Department of Fish and Game use logbooks as their primary data collection source, suggested eliminating skipper and crew catch, which was allowed in Area 3A but not 2C, and would make each sector responsible for its own wastage, or discarded fish. The motion also included a Guided Angler Fish program to allow the commercial sector to lease quota to charter operators, but said the council wants to see it reviewed annually. Several charter operators said they wanted to see that changed in the future, as the program would be hard to make equitable between operators. A group is working on a program to allow a pooled approach to purchasing quota.

Permit glitches lead Apache to suspend seismic work

Apache Corp. has temporarily halted its extensive Cook Inlet 3-D seismic program because of unexpected delays in securing permits from the National Marine Fisheries Service for a final section of marine seismic in the Inlet, a company spokeswoman said Oct. 2. “These are just glitches in the federal permitting, and it is not a serious setback. We have now completed 3-D seismic on about 300 square miles and we are very pleased with the results, but we have a lot of acreage yet to do and to evaluate,” company spokeswoman Lisa Parker said. Apache hopes to get the permit issues worked out and to resume the marine seismic in early 2013, she said. The company’s overall multi-year seismic program will cover 1,200 square miles, Parker said. Alaska state officials have said Apache is conducting the most extensive seismic program ever done in the Cook Inlet Basin, a mature producing region that has been producing oil and gas since the early 1960s. Apache has almost 1 million acres under lease in the region, combining state and private lands. Parker also said Apache’s preparations to drill its first exploration well are continuing with a goal of beginning drilling before the year-end. The well will be drilled on the west side of the Inlet about four miles north of the Native village of Tyonek. The company is now moving a rig to the location. “We’ve had a few setbacks due to weather in getting barges and materials to the site. Most of the rig components are there, but we’re still mobilizing,” Parker said. Apache brought the rig to Alaska from North Dakota. “It’s nice to see more drilling equipment being added in Cook Inlet,” where explorers are concerned about a scarcity of rigs and service contractors, Parker said. “I’m also happy to see equipment being brought to Alaska from North Dakota instead of the other way around,” she said. The Alaskan industry is also concerned about a drain of oil contractor equipment and skilled personnel from the state to the booming Bakken shale oil play. Parker said Apache also plans to extend its onshore Kenai Peninsula seismic program, on Cook Inlet’s east side, into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in 2013. The company will explore subsurface lands in the refuge owned by Cook Inlet Region Inc., an Alaska Native corporation. Apache signed an agreement to explore Cook Inlet’s lands two months ago. Parker said the company is now preparing an environmental assessment to cover its seismic work in the refuge. No significant issues are expected with the assessment, Parker said, as the company is working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. The assessment will also rely mainly on data from a conservation plan prepared for the refuge by the agency itself. Plans are to do the seismic in the refuge in fall, 2013, but if the plan is approved by the end of the year the work might be done next spring, Parker said. One positive note in Apache’s relations with federal agencies and the National Marine Fisheries Service in particular, Parker said, is a wealth of Cook Inlet marine mammal data, including on endangered beluga whales, the company is providing the agency from marine mammal observers stationed on offshore seismic vessels and aerial marine mammal surveys.

Commentary: Crab season under way Oct. 15; grant awarded for fishing energy audit

October is National Seafood Month – and it also marks the start of one of the busiest months for Alaska’s fishing industry. The state’s biggest crab fisheries get under way in the Bering Sea on Oct. 15. The Bristol Bay red king crab catch will hold steady at 7.8 million pounds, while the snow crab harvest has taken a dip to 66.3 million pounds, down from about 89 million pounds last season. The St. Matthew Island blue king crab fishery is also down a bit to 1.6 million pounds. Hundreds of divers in Southeast Alaska are plying the depths for 1.5 million pounds of sea cucumbers, 3.2 million pounds of sea urchins and more than a half million pounds of giant geoduck clams. A few dozen divers also target sea cucumbers and urchins in smaller fisheries at Kodiak, Chignik, the Alaska Peninsula and the Bering Sea (175,000 pounds total for cukes and 80,000 pounds of urchins). Fishing for big spot shrimp also opens in October throughout Southeast with a catch of just over a half million pounds. Also in Southeast: the Dungeness crab fishery reopened on Oct. 1, and trollers will be back out on the water fishing for king salmon starting on Oct. 11. Elsewhere, fishermen in the Gulf and Bering Sea continue fishing for pollock, cod, halibut, sablefish and various other groundfish. The halibut and sablefish fisheries close on Nov. 7 this year and will reopen in early March.   Fishing for fuel savings Diesel fuel is $5.27 per gallon in Kodiak and fishing boats elsewhere face similar or even higher fill up costs. Fishermen could soon find some relief from a state backed project that aims to find ways to reduce fuel needs for fishing vessels. “Fuel costs can really affect the bottom line for a fisherman when you’re skimming off 30-40 percent of your annual income for diesel fuel,” said Jim Browning, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which received $250,000 from the state to launch a three-year energy audit pilot project to begin next spring. AFDF will partner with Sea Grant marine advisory agent Terry Johnson in Homer to design and implement the project. The program will begin by obtaining baseline information on fuel usage by vessels of all sizes. It will then test various fuel additives, hydrogen generators and other new technologies aimed at saving fuel and increasing efficiency by up to 20 percent. AFDF is currently seeking industry stakeholders to serve on a steering committee, as well as vessel owners who would like to have an energy audit on their boats. Anyone interested can contact AFDF in Anchorage 907-276-7315. (see more at www.afdf.org)   Expo shift Football has forced a big change in dates this year for Pacific Marine Expo to after Thanksgiving. “The show dates rely on the Seattle Seahawks football schedule at Centurylink Field,” explained Expo director Bob Callahan. “This year there was a bit of a wild card – the Washington State Huskies are renovating their football stadium so they took up a few weekends in November at the Field. So between the Seahawks and the Huskies we had to move our dates.” The new Expo dates are set for Tuesday through Thursday, Nov. 27, and response has been “surprisingly positive,” Callahan said. Early registrations are up by more than 600 people compared to this time last year and the trade show continues to grow. “The show has been growing each year by about 10 percent and we are 4,000 square feet and 40 booths ahead of last year. We are actually in the running for one of the fastest growing shows in the country for its size,” he said. Expo is the West Coast’s largest marine industry trade event for 46 years and attracts over 400 companies and nearly 9,000 visitors. “Any trade show mirrors the success of the industry, so obviously, the industry is doing well and it is reflected in the growth Expo,” Callahan added. See the complete lineup at www.pacificmarineexpo.com.   Chinook salmon meetings Alaska Department of Fish and Game has scheduled a scientific symposium on Oct. 22 and 23 from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m at the Egan Center in Anchorage. The Department said, “The symposium will feature scientific presentations and panel discussions from a wide variety of experts from private, state, federal, and academic backgrounds. The goal is to discuss gaps in knowledge of Chinook salmon abundance and productivity, and assemble a targeted list of research priorities to fill these gaps. More details about this event will be forthcoming in the first weeks of October.”   BOF begins   The state Board of Fisheries had its annual work session on October 9 and 10 at the Egan Center in Anchorage. Its meeting cycle this session focuses on Bristol Bay, Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim and Alaska Peninsula/Aleutian Islands fisheries starting in December.   Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishfactor.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Cook Inlet issues set to dominate work session

Agenda changes, chinook research, and stock of concern statuses are up for discussion at the state of Alaska’s Board of Fisheries work session Oct. 9 and 10 in Anchorage. The board has 21 agenda change requests, or ACRs, to consider, ranging from gear changes in salmon fisheries to a new herring designation. Several of the agenda change requests ask the board to consider various Cook Inlet issues, which are not scheduled to come up under the regular, three-year meeting cycle until 2014. Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, has said it would like to see all Kenai River king salmon issues considered, and submitted one of the proposals, but several other Cook Inlet groups offered only partial support for the taking up the controversial Cook Inlet issues out of cycle. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game submitted one of the proposals, which would allow the board to consider amending the Kenai River late-run and Kenai and Kasilof River early-run management plans to reflect new escapement goals for the 2013 season based on the new sonar counters. The department prepared comments on the other ACRs, but did not offer explicit support for taking up other Cook Inlet issues. KRSA Executive Director Ricky Gease said the department’s comments were neutral at best. “The Alaska Department of Fish and Game appears to be recommending against a full hearing of the Kenai River king salmon issues by the Alaska Board of Fisheries before the 2013 season. Such a decision is surprising, given the aftermath of the 2012 Upper Cook Inlet salmon season…” Gease said in a statement. Senior Assistant Attorney General Lance Nelson offered the Department of Law’s opinion that two of the Cook Inlet suggestions were not actually ACRs. According to Nelson, an effort to declare early-run Kenai River kings a stock of concern is not a regulatory change, and would have to come from the board in consultation with ADFG, rather than the public. A gear change for eastside Cook Inlet set gillnet permit holders could be beyond the scope of the board, according to the department, because it discusses fish traps, which are prohibited by state statute. That gear change was proposed by Brent Johnson. Kenai fisherman Brian Gabriel wrote in support of amending that to allow fishermen to submit their ideas of gear for testing. That could enable the fishery to find ways to harvest sockeye salmon without impacting kings, Gabriel said. A group of eastside setnetters submitted comments opposing out-of-cycle consideration of Cook Inlet issues beyond ACR 17, the proposal to consider some Kenai-area escapement goals. KRSA asked for a modification of the Kenai River late-run king salmon management plan, which was opposed in comments by United Fishermen of Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, or KPFA, which represents setnetters. United Cook Inlet Drift Association opposed most of the changes for that area, according to comments from Executive Director Roland Maw. The drift association did agree with the premise behind further work to determine what personal-use fishery users were not submitting their permit information to the state at the end of the season, as proposed in ACR 18. Pacific herring are also up for discussion. Subsistence user Aaron Bean submitted an ACR for the species to be designated as a forage fish under the Forage Fish Management Plan. That proposal would close commercial herring fisheries statewide, according to comments from Fish and Game. Herring were not included in the original forage plan, which mirrored a federal plan that also excluded them. The herring fishery is also a long-time commercial fishery, according to the department. In comments on behalf of the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance, Executive Director Steven Reifenstuhl asked the board to reject the request. Herring fisheries are healthy overall, and increasing in biomass, Reifenstuhl said. The Alaska Federation of Natives and Sitka Tribe of Alaska both submitted comments in support of the proposal, as did other individuals. Fishing groups, including United Fishermen of Alaska and Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Association submitted comments opposing the designation. Nelson’s department of law opinion said several of the proposals are not true ACRs because they address matters that could be considered on the agenda as-is. Those requests address gear for the Lower Yukon salmon fisheries, salmon seine gear measurements in the Alaska Peninsula area, changing the definition of salmon stream terminus statewide, and the commissioner’s salmon management authority in-season, each of which could be addressed at a meeting scheduled for this year. The opinion suggests that if the board wants to consider the ideas in those proposals, it could do so by generating its own proposals. The date for public proposals has passed. A change to the timing of when Pacific cod issues are discussed also would not be an agenda change because it isn’t a regulatory issue, but could be considered during the work session as miscellaneous business, according to Nelson’s opinion. The Board will also hear from the Department of Fish and Game regarding stock of concern statuses in the fisheries it is set to discuss at its meetings this year. In a Sept. 24 memo, the department recommended designating Swanson Lagoon sockeye salmon, in the Alaska Peninsula/Aleutian Islands area, as a stock of concern. The Swanson Lagoon Section was closed this summer to protect the stock. For the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region, the department recommended that four salmon stocks retain their status. Those are Nome chum salmon, Golovin and Elim chum salmon, Shatoolik and Unalakleet king salmon, and Yukon River king salmon. The department did not recommend any additional designations in that region. In Bristol Bay, the department is recommending removing stock of concern status for Kvichak River sockeye salmon. The board will also discuss escapement goals for those fisheries. A presentation on the Western Alaska Salmon Stock Identification Project is scheduled for Oct. 11.

Commentary: Tsunami debris still Alaska-bound; cod could lose MSC label

At least 1.5 million tons of debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami is still afloat, and at least half of it is expected to hit Alaska’s coastline. The region from Yakutat to Gore Point off the Kenai Peninsula will likely see the heaviest debris piles, but Southeast Alaska and other areas will see chunks of junk as well. Those are conclusions of a fascinating new report by Washington Sea Grant titled “Debris Accumulation Scenarios in Washington State from the March 2011 Tohoku Tsunami.” The report, authored by Ian Miller and Jim Brennan, says most of the debris should land within four years of the 2011 tsunami, with Alaska receiving more in subsequent years as it is released from ocean gyres. (See more at http://wsg.washington.edu/.) Most of the debris that has landed so far has been lighter items driven by the wind, such as buoys and astonishing amounts of Styrofoam. Trackers find that plastic particularly troublesome, said Dave Gaudet, marine debris program coordinator for the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation. “We don’t have any definitive data on what Styrofoam does to the wildlife and the environment. We do know that it breaks up and animals ingest it and it gets into the ecosystem. So we need to be vigilant for that,” Gaudet said. The MCAF has spearheaded marine debris cleanup in remote Alaska regions for years. Shortly after the tsunami occurred in March 2011 it began tracking where and what types of debris are coming ashore at monitoring stations at Kodiak, Yakutat, Sitka and Craig. Arriving soon will be heavier, current-driven debris riding beneath the ocean surface. “We don’t know what’s next,” Gaudet said. The MCAF has compiled an extensive debris cleanup plan for Alaska, and is awaiting the results of a state-backed aerial survey done this summer to help prioritize actions. (See more at http://www.mcafoundation.org/.) “We are in the process of trying to identify the kinds of debris and if it is close to breeding areas for birds or mammals, or other ecologically important areas. Things like that will factor in to what areas are going to be cleaned,” Gaudet said. Or more accurately – if they get cleaned. “The biggest thing we are missing is funding. Nothing has been dedicated to the tsunami beyond the $50,000 that came from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is being used to clean up parts of Prince William Sound this year. But for the future, no money is identified,” he said. Japan donated $6 million to the U.S. government to help with cleanup. Gaudet said he’s hopeful the Washington Sea Grant study will make the case for Alaska to get a good portion of those funds. Might Alaska fishermen and vessels get contracts to help with marine debris clean up? “Unfortunately, this is unlike the Exxon Valdez oil spill where a lot of the clean up took place within the semi-protected waters of Prince William Sound,” Gaudet said. “A lot of the tsunami debris is hitting the outer coasts where it is extremely difficult to gain access to the shore. We are likely going to have to get people in by plane or helicopter and get it out the same way.” Pending more funding, the MCA Foundation hopes cleanup crews can be deployed next spring. Report debris sightings on Facebook at SeaAlliance/Restoring our Shores.   Cod ecolabel Getting a fishery certified as “sustainable” has become a cost of doing business in today’s seafood world. Without that stamp of approval, major buyers in the U.S. and Europe simply won’t source your fish. Alaska salmon, pollock and halibut have long merited eco-labels. Pacific cod was the latest Alaska fish to gain an eco-label in 2010 from the Marine Stewardship Council – but it is in danger of being yanked due to a need for more information. “We are having a really difficult time getting good, accurate information on the amount of lost gear, particularly pot gear that is out there,” said Jim Browning, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation in Anchorage. AFDF is managing the MSC cod certification process. Alaska’s cod fishery certification includes all gear types – trawl, longline and pots. Obtaining and retaining the MSC label hinged on meeting 29 conditions, Browning said, and all have been met except for the lost gear estimates. “The assessment team is interested in that because they are worried about ghost fishing,” he explained. The biggest data gap comes from the pot cod fleet. It has been easier to get information to and from other gears because they have centralized groups and fishing members, such as the Freezer Longline Coalition, the Alaska Seafood Cooperative and Alaska Groundfish Databank. But the pot boats stand pretty much on their own. The lost gear information remains confidential, Browning, said, and only locations will be plotted to see if there are aggregations in particular areas. Cod boats are out on the grounds now, and AFDF is hoping that fishing organizations or fleet managers will encourage skippers to collect data on lost and retrieved pot gear. If that remaining bit of information is not in hand by May, it could derail the green label for Alaska cod. “This will be the second year that we haven’t been able to provide the data on lost gear, and it could suspend the certification or we would have to ask for a variance for more time,” Browning said. Lost gear reporting forms are available at www.afdf.org   America’s top 10 seafood list released Shrimp, canned tuna and salmon remained America’s top seafood favorites last year. Alaska pollock ranked fourth, bumping farmed tilapia to the fifth spot. Another farmed whitefish from Asia - pangasius - was the sixth most popular. Catfish, crabs, cod and clams round out the top 10. Those seafoods make up more than 90 percent of the fish eaten in the U.S., according to the National Fisheries Institute, which compiles the list of favorites each fall. The only two fish that saw increased consumption were Alaska pollock and pangasius, likely reflecting continued belt tightening by consumers and lower US catfish production.

Editorial: Board must take up kings, take no more from setnetters

The — now official —disaster in Cook Inlet during the 2012 salmon season is back in front of the Board of Fisheries at its upcoming annual work session Oct. 9 to 11 in Anchorage. Issues between the sport and commercial users that are contentious in the best of times will be front and center against the backdrop of a record-low return of Kenai kings in 2012 with the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, pushing for a full evaluation of king salmon management while Peninsula setnetters and the statewide United Fishermen of Alaska are opposing the KRSA agenda change request. The issue upon which the two sides agree is the need to formally adopt new escapement goals for the Kenai and Kasilof river kings based on the new DIDSON fish counters deployed fully in 2012 after three years of side-by-side testing against previous sonar counters. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which originally planned to present new DIDSON-based escapement goals for the regularly scheduled 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting, now says it has the capability to present goals in time for 2013. The discussion around the new goals developed by ADFG, what current counts reveal about the status of the Kenai River king salmon stocks, and how ADFG will use existing authorities under the current management to achieve the goals should be a productive step toward achieving a more orderly 2013 season. In 2012, near total closures of the sport and commercial setnet fisheries were required to meet Kenai River king salmon escapement goals. The setnet fishermen lost out on 95 percent of their typical annual harvest while the tourism sector suffered from cancelations and lost visitor traffic. Both commercial and sport fishing industries recognize the need to conserve king salmon and achieve a sustainable fishery. It is certainly not in the setnetters’ interest — especially after a total loss in 2012 — for diminishing returns of king salmon and the restrictions to their sector that go along with it. However, the setnetters also believe that when KRSA is pushing for a change in management it is typically going to cost them money. At the 2011 Upper Cook Inlet meeting of the Board of Fisheries, setnetters were helpless as the four-member majority took measure after measure proposed by KRSA that included a new mandated closures on Tuesdays in addition to the current “weekend window” closures on Fridays, the decoupling of their sector from the drift fleet and a provision for a more expedient closure to their season after Aug. 1. The allocative shifts away from the setnetters were worth millions during the first season under the new rules in 2011, and with low forecasts for Kenai River kings in the near future they can anticipate even more of their historical catch going up the river or into the drift fleet’s pockets. It is important for the board to remember that when it comes to allocations, a bedrock principle of management is history in the fishery. For setnetters who have, in some cases, fished the same sites for generations, it is no easy thing to swallow to see their allocations consistently eroded by a relatively new user group as is the sport guide industry. A setnetter shouldn’t lose fishing opportunity merely by the nature of someone starting a guide business or building a fancy cabin along the Kenai River. They also shouldn’t be told that a dollar they earn to feed their families and support the local communities is less valuable than a dollar earned by a guide or a B&B. For the value of the Cook Inlet commercial fishery to the state economy goes far beyond the $50 million in ex-vessel value it is usually pegged at by the sport industry. Only considering ex-vessel value ignores the impacts of fuel and supply purchases, processing jobs, crew wages spent throughout the community, the transportation and logistics infrastructure necessary to move 25 million pounds of salmon to domestic and international markets, and the end-user spending at retail and fine restaurants where Alaska salmon is served. The setnetters have more than borne their fair share of conservation for Kenai River kings. As the board considers changes in management, they should not weigh them down any more.

Halibut fleet concerned about new observer plan

Another major concern for the commercial halibut fleet is the restructured Gulf of Alaska observer program on the agenda at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council October meeting. The National Marine Fisheries Service will outline the deployment plan for the program, which will include halibut boats for the first time in 2013. Most fishing vessels are required to carry observers onboard at least a portion of the time they’re at sea, although halibut vessels have not been part of the program. The restructured program will include boats less than 60 feet, which captures much of the halibut fleet, random placement of observers and improved data collection. The program, passed by the council in October 2010, is slated to be finalized this fall and implemented in January. According to the draft program presented to the council Observer Advisory Committee, which met Sept. 17 and 18 in Seattle, vessels will be selected and receive observation based on random selection from a pool of all vessels in that program. The updated program does not apply to the full-coverage or no-coverage vessels. The full-coverage fleet are those longer than 125 feet, mostly catcher processors and motherships that may process and discard fish while underway. Zero-coverage vessels are generally less than 40 feet, have small amounts of catch, or are fishing only in state Guideline Harvest Level fisheries where the federal government does not have jurisdiction. Although the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association was supportive of extending the observer program to the halibut industry, Executive Director Linda Behnken said the proposed plan isn’t what they were hoping would be implemented. “So far, it looks like a program that’s not going to work well for our small boat fleet,” Behnken said. The Southeast Alaska longline fleet consists mostly of smaller boats, less than 60 feet long, often with just two or three people onboard. The relatively big boats might have four. Those boats represent most of the commercial halibut sector in Southeast. “The boats are small. There’s just not enough room for another person,” she said. According to the report from the Observer Advisory Committee, vessels that are too small to accommodate an additional body will be able to tell NMFS and receive an inspection to confirm that. Behnken said the program, as proposed by NMFS, would give every boat an equal chance of observation. That could actually decrease monitoring on the larger pollock and groundfish trawl boats, where chinook salmon and halibut bycatch is a concern, she said. “A big part of the reason for doing this whole upgrade to the observer program was to increase coverage and accountability for bycatch,” Behnken said. The fleet was willing to pay for the observer program — 1.25 percent of their landings — in part because it wanted to see better accounting for bycatch, and thought the electronic monitoring option would help balance out the space concerns. Because the fleet takes high value species such as halibut and sablefish, it will be funding the majority of the new observer program. Electronic monitoring was developed as a way to have a camera record every fish that comes on board, Behnken said. As currently drafted, the electronic monitoring program would be separate from the observer program, and a camera would likely not replace a human observer. The advisory committee is recommending that the council make several suggestions to NMFS about the observer program, but whether or not the council will take action is unknown. Behnken said she thought it might take a directive from the State of Alaska to change the program. Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell is a member of the council, which has six of its 11 members from Alaska.

Steller sea lions and crab to be discussed

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which meets Oct. 3-9 in Anchorage, is poised to act on a vessel replacement plan, as well as discuss Steller sea lions and the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab and groundfish fisheries. Halibut management and observation will also be on the table. The council is slated for final action on a vessel replacement program for freezer longline licenses authorized for Pacific cod in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. The preliminary preferred action, which is supported by the Freezer Longline Coalition, would allow catcher-processor vessels to have a maximum length overall of up to 220 feet long. The licenses that also have a pot Pacific cod endorsement would have to surrender that endorsement in order to take advantage of the new size limits, and would have 36 months to make a decision one way or the other. According to the council’s regulatory impact review, 37 licenses could be affected by the change, most for vessels currently between 124 and 174 feet. The replacement program is primarily meant to address safety, said Freezer Longline Coalition Executive Director Kenny Down. The larger sizes are meant to make new vessels financially feasible. “The current size limitations don’t allow you to build a vessel that’s efficient enough to cover the cost of construction, so it’s a fleet that’s going to continue to age without replacement without action by council,” Down said. The other alternatives allow new vessels as long as 150 feet, with certain conditions. Down said the increased boat size could increase revenue by about 20 percent for a freezer longliner. The financial benefit would come largely from improved processing capabilities on the vessels, Down said. Currently, various fish components can’t be processed onboard. Down said that skate wings, which are sold to retail markets in Asia and domestically, and various cod parts – like livers, heads and stomachs – are potential revenue sources on new vessels. The target species for the freezer longliners are Pacific cod, sablefish and Greeland turbot, but vessels also retain incidental catch of skates, rockfish, arrowtooth flounder and pollock. Larger boats or more powerful engines won’t be able to catch more fish, because the longline vessels catch fish by hook, Down said. The economic benefits are needed to outweigh the cost of vessel replacement, which is substantial. Vessel loans are typically 10 to 15 years, Down said. “The payback on building a new vessel is very, very long term,” Down said. The Coast Guard also supports the replacement plan. Newer vessels will make the fleet safer. Older vessels tend to have more fatal injuries associated with them, Down said, and the current freezer longliners are about 39 years old, on average. Shipyards in Alaska and Washington could also benefit if new boats are purchased. “I think the shipyards in those areas are very excited about the prospects of the replacement of the freezer longline fleet,” Down said. Steller sea lion review The council is also scheduled to talk about Steller sea lions. A 2010 National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, biological opinion concluded that removals of Pacific cod and Atka mackerel in the western Aleutian Islands were likely to jeopardize food sources for endangered Steller sea lions and adversely modify their critical habitat. From that conclusion, NMFS imposed wide-ranging closures to all cod and mackerel fishing in an area half the size of Texas in the farthest west Aleutians, in addition to other restrictions. The State of Alaska and a coalition of fishing groups sued to overturn the biological opinion, of BiOp, and closures. Alaska U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess allowed the rule to stand but ordered NMFS to prepare an environmental impact statement to support the action, requiring it to be complete in two years and demanding quarterly progress reports. The EIS discussion by the council will likely center on the recently released independent review of the biological opinion. NMFS contracted with the Center for Independent Experts to analyze the BiOp, with all three reviewers concluding the study was based on flawed science. How the CIE opinion will trickle into management is still unknown. The council is set to talk about the approach to the EIS, which was ordered by a judge. Larry Cotter, from the council Steller sea lion mitigation committee, said the EIS is supposed to look at all available information, which could include the new CIE opinions. “I think it’s going to be very interesting to see what the EIS concludes,” Cotter said. He said there are several possibilities for how the EIS will play out. The judge ordering the EIS only mandated that the assessment consider the Aleutians and the Bering Sea, but didn’t mention the Gulf of Alaska. The EIS now could conclude that the Gulf needs to be considered as well. “And it may be that they conclude that the biological opinion erred, and that jeopardy and adverse modification do not exist, and then we’ll see what happens,” Cotter said. If the EIS concludes that the biological opinion erred, Cotter said it’s hard to know what will happen. If the opinion is struck down, it is unknown what would replace it or how long that would take. Burgess allowed the current management to remain. Beyond the EIS, any direct action resulting from the CIE study is up in the air. “The big question is whether the NMFS will do anything, and if so, what are they going to do,” Cotter said. The council could advise NMFS to dismantle the rule and develop a new biological opinion, just discuss the EIS process, or take a different course of action entirely, Cotter said. “What will be frustrating is if nothing happens,” Cotter said. In a letter to Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Down asked NMFS to withdraw the biological opinion. But Down said he doesn’t expect any direction action from the council based on the independent review. The Freezer Longline Coalition, which had prime cod grounds with a valuable export market closed by the rule, was among the groups who sued NMFS. The case was appealed to the 9th Circuit Court. Crab quota to be adopted Crab and groundfish management and research for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands will also be part of the meeting. Bering Sea snow crab and Bristol Bay king crab quotas are due to be announced Oct. 1, and approved as part of the meeting. On the groundfish side, the council will adopt proposed catch specifications. The council will consider initial reviews of proposed regulatory amendments for management of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands king and tanner crabs. Council documents discuss changing certain time requirements for communities’ right of first refusal for processor quota shares, as well as defining active participation requirements for acquisition and use of owner shares. The council will also look at regulations for crab economic data reporting, review the tanner crab rebuilding plan, and other related issues. Research on how crab and fish populations may expand northward into subarctic regions has been under way for several years, with some preliminary results showing that the species present are not commercially viable. The council will review a discussion paper on those efforts, which also looks at the potential of opening the area to bottom-trawling.

Commentary: Dutch Harbor holds down title for top fishing port once again

Dutch Harbor-Unalaska held onto the title of the nation’s top fishing port for the 15th year in a row, with more than 700 million pounds of fish and crab crossing the docks there last year, a 36 percent increase from 2010. New Bedford, Massachusetts remained the priciest port with landings, mostly scallops, worth nearly $370 million at the docks. Dutch Harbor ranked second again for seafood value at $207 million, an increase of $44 million. The numbers come from the annual Fisheries of the United States Report just released by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Overall, the report paints a healthy picture of the nation’s fisheries. Landings of edible fish topped 10 billion pounds, a 17-year high and up 21 percent from 2010. This increase was led by bigger harvests of Alaska pollock and cod, as well as increases in shrimp landings in the Gulf of Mexico, and lobster and crab landings in the Northeast. The dockside value of the U.S. catch also jumped to $5.3 billion, an increase of nearly $800 million. In all, a dozen Alaska ports made the Top 50 ports list for either landings, values, or both. Akutan made a big debut on the charts, ranking third for U.S. seafood landings (431 million pounds, up from 302 million in 2010), and fourth for value at $114 million, a $30 million increase. Kodiak ranked fifth in terms of landings (372 million pounds compared to 325 million) and third for value at $168 million, an increase of $40 million from 2010. Other Alaska ports with top seafood landings include Sitka (No. 14), Petersburg (No. 15), Ketchikan (No. 16), Naknek-King Salmon (No. 19), Cordova (No. 20), Seward (No. 22), Kenai (No. 29), Juneau (No. 43) and Homer (No. 44). Nearly 60 percent of all U.S. seafood landings come from Alaska, where last year deliveries topped 738 million pounds (down 2 percent), valued at almost $565 million (a 12 percent increase). Other report highlights: U.S. salmon landings in 2011were 780 million pounds valued at $618 million—a 1 percent decrease in poundage, and an 11 percent increase ($63.5 million) in value. Alaska provided 95 percent of the U.S. wild salmon catch. Pollock provided the most U.S. seafood poundage; crabs were the most valuable at $650 million, followed by salmon. Seafood exports surged last year with U.S. producers exporting 3.3 billion pounds, up 19 percent. The average price paid to U.S. fishermen last year was 53 cents, down from 55 cents. Alaska fishermen fared better, averaging 77 cents per pound across the board, up a dime from 2010. U.S. per capita consumption of fish and shellfish in 2011 was 15 pounds, a drop of .8 pounds per person. The fisheries report also includes recreational fishing. It’s a great read. Catch watch Catches of Alaska pollock, cod and other groundfish could climb higher next year if fishery overseers agree with the scientists. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will take a first look at the catch recommendations at its meeting next month and make the final decisions in December. For Bering Sea pollock, the proposed catch of 1.2 million metric tons is just slightly above this year’s limit. Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Pacific cod could also see an upward tick to nearly 263,000 tons, a 7 percent increase. In the Gulf of Alaska, the pollock catch could increase by nearly 8 percent to 125,000 tons; for cod, the proposed catch tops 68,000 tons, up 4 percent. Also in October: The council is set to make a final decision on a Halibut Catch Sharing Plan for charter and sport fishing. There’s a chance that 5 percent of the annual halibut allocation will be shifted from commercial fishing to those groups. Bering Sea crab fisheries also dominate the agenda. The council will discuss findings in a special report “as a first step in its consideration of a variety of measures to address issues related to share purchase opportunities for persons active in the crab fisheries, high lease payments in the fisheries, and the effects of those payments on active participants.” The North Pacific council meets Oct. 3-9 at the Anchorage Hilton. If you can’t make the Anchorage meeting you can participate online.. Quality kudos No town tops Cordova when it comes to touting their salmon, and this summer fishermen and processors took bragging about fish quality to a whole new level. For the past two summers fishermen have partnered with the region’s nine processors to use strict handling guidelines to improve salmon quality. “Everyone in the chain of custody agreed to participate in the project,” said Beth Poole, executive director of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association, operated and funded by over 550 salmon fishermen with a 1 percent tax on their salmon catches. “Having nine independent processors working together on a project is pretty unheard of, and we are proud to have that support from all of them,” Poole added. The guidelines require using short soak times, proper bleeding and chilling, proper sanitizing, delivering often and quick transport from tenders to shoreplants. The extra time and effort really pays off, said Gary Johnson, plant manager at Peter Pan Seafoods. “The program exceeded my expectations quite a bit… there were very few fish we couldn’t fillet,” he said. This year the program called out fishermen for their salmon quality by giving awards and recognition to the top producers. “We asked each processor to track their fishermen over the season and at the end of the year to nominate their top quality harvester and their most improved,” Poole said. Along with the recognition, the fishermen get added bonuses for the higher quality salmon. The first “Top Quality Harvester Award” went to Mike Webber on the F/V Amulet. Crab calls Reports from the industry/agency crab plan team meeting in Seattle indicate the Bristol Bay red king crab quota may be between 7 and 8 million pounds; for Bering Sea snow crab the catch quota will likely be around 70 million pounds. Managers will announce the catch numbers in early October. No red king crab fishery in Southeast Alaska this winter.

Final action scheduled for charter-commercial halibut split

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will consider several alternatives for Pacific halibut allocations at its October meeting. The council meets Oct. 3 to 9 in Anchorage, and has scheduled two full days for halibut issues. The council is slated to take final action on the halibut catch sharing plan for Southeast, or Area 2C, and Southcentral, or Area 3A. The council is tasked with finding a way to split a combined catch limit, set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, or IPHC, between commercial and charter fishermen. The council must decide between four potential regulatory amendments that would create a catch sharing plan, or CSP, with sector allocations dependent on halibut abundance. Each alternative before the council would allocate a certain percentage of the halibut harvest to the charter sector. In Area 2C, the charter sector could receive between 15.1 and 21.8 percent of the catch. For Area 3A, the allocation could range from 14 percent to 20.7 percent. In each scenario, the lowest percent would be at times of high abundance, and the highest percent at the lowest abundance. Allocations are based on the combined catch limit. In Area 2C, less than 5 million pounds is the lowest, while a range of 5 to 9 million pounds is the middle abundance tier, and the greatest is a total catch greater than 9 million pounds. In Area 3A, the tiers are: less than 10 million pounds, between 10 and 20 million pounds, and 20 million pounds or greater. But according letter from Rex Murphy, of the Alaska Charter Association, the charter industry would see a reduction in allocation at many of the step-ups in abundance. Instead, the association suggests an approach that would eliminate those “jinks," using an equation that creates allocations that float with abundance. The council’s alternatives are based on the halibut catch sharing plan, or CSP, passed in 2008, which was set to take effect in 2012 until a flood of charter opposition last fall forced the council to reconsider the allocations. Of the allocation alternatives now under consideration, the original CSP would give the charter sector the lowest share of the catch, with a range of 14 to 15.4 percent for Area 3A, and 15.1 to 17.3 for Area 2C. The council’s preliminary preferred alternative is alternative three. That modifies the 2008 plan by eliminating a 3.5 percent buffer range around the allocations, and adjusting the allocations based on how harvest numbers changed when converted from a statewide harvest survey to logbooks data. Under the original CSP, if the charter sector was projected to be in either 3.5 percent above or below its target allocation, different management measures come into play such as bag or size limits. The matrix of charter options has since been discarded in favor of an annual selection of management measures for the charter sector. The charter sector would receive different allocations in Area 2C and 3A. Ricky Gease, from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said Kenai guides don’t support that option. Portions of the charter industry, including the Kenai organization, would prefer alternative five, which would make the greatest increase to the charter allocation. Like alternative three, it would eliminate the 3.5 percent target range and adjust allocations to reflect the harvest survey to logbook data difference. “We’re saying, we want alternative five to allow us the greatest degree of flexibility in management going forward,” said Heath Hilyard, from the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization. The ACA in Southcentral isn’t in favor of any of the options. “There is no need to rush to final action a second time on a plan with so many outstanding issues,” Murphy wrote in ACA’s comments. The allocations are based on halibut abundance, and were developed from the council’s 2008 preferred alternative. That alternative used the charter sector’s past percent of the harvest to determine the formula for its future share, with different years factoring in depending on different levels of abundance. The choice of which years to use is contentious. The Charter sector has grown over the past two decades. The no-action alternative sets the allocation based on 1995-1999 data; the other possibilities would set the levels using a formula based on the 2001-2005 harvest for times of low abundance. In times of higher abundance, the harvest for Area 2C would be based on 2005, while Area 3A would be based on 1995-1999 levels. For the charter sector, returning to past harvest levels is seen as a cut. But for the commercial side, it’s a way to preserve the investments they made in quota in the 1990s, said Linda Behnken from the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. In 1995, the charter sector was taking 9 percent of the combined charter and commercial catch in area 2C, Behnken said. In 3A, they were taking 12 percent. “What’s on the table now could increase those percentages as high as 20 percent.” Behnken said for a long time, allocations were determined by deducting the subsistence, sport and charter needs from the IPHC’s total amount of halibut. But a growing charter sector meant that commercial operators had a reduction in their allocation, Behnken said. “When people have purchased quota in the commercial sector for 30 to 36 dollars a pound, to have that just reallocated away when you’re still making payments, you’ve got your house as collateral, it’s pretty hard for people to take,” Behnken said. According to the council’s analysis of the various alternatives, the price of halibut fluctuates only minimally based on harvest levels, so commercial vessels cannot expect to make up for decreased fish with higher prices. “An allocation to the charter sector that decreases the commercial allocation is expected to result in a small increase in ex-vessel price, but an overall decline in the net revenue of commercial harvesters,” according to the analysis. In his comments on behalf of ACA, Murphy suggested that the council reconsider its options, and look at combining the entire recreational sector. “The ACA suggests that a wiser approach might be to revise the CSP to include the entire recreational sector. Taking this route would solve the issues with guided and unguided accountability and sector separation, while allowing the time needed to analyze a permanent allocation transfer mechanism and sector accountability,” Murphy wrote. The alternatives also propose different ways to reconcile years where the target allocation is exceeded differently. Under the first two management scenarios, no action would be taken in such a situation. In the latter three, the council would provide IPHC an annual analysis and management recommendation for the upcoming season. Also on the table as part of the alternatives is the Guided Angler Fish program, or GAF. The GAF program, as discussed at the last council meeting, would allow IFQ shareholders to lease their quota to charter operators. The leasors would offer up a certain weight, which would then be converted into fish based on prior year’s size data, and would be limited to leasing 10 percent of IFQ holdings or 1,500 pounds in Area 2C, and 15 percent of 1,500 pounds in Unit 3A, whichever number is greater. Operators would have certain marking and reporting requirements for fish caught and retained under the GAF program. Behnken said the Halibut Coalition sees it as a fair way for charter operators to increase a client’s ability to catch fish. “The GAF allows them to lease quota from the commercial fleet,” Behnken said. She said that route levels the playing field. Gease said KRSA doesn’t support the program as a long-terms solution, but sees it as as a temporary measure. In the long-term, Kenai guides want to see a sector-wide program, he said. Hilyard said Southeast charter operators see the utility of the program, but don’t think the current iteration is ideal. The GAF, Hilyard said, is a viable option for some operators, but it’s unfair across the playing field, and could lead to confusion for clients when some operators can take them out for more fish and others can’t. Hilyard said charter organizations expect that the GAF will be included, but want to see it revised in the future. Ideally, they’re looking for a statement from council that its only temporary, he said. The council’s April motion, as amended in June, calls for a complete review of the GAF program within five years, meant to look at the economic effects for both sectors. Hilyard said operators would rather see allocations purchased on behalf of the entire charter industry, and applying to the whole group, perhaps done by area. The industry is working on a proposal for such an effort, in hopes that the council would consider it in the future. “The goal is to create a funding mechanism that allows a common pool approach,” Hilyard said.

Falling halibut prices add to woes from harvest cuts

Alaska fishermen are feeling the squeeze of lower prices at the same time that their operating costs continue to spiral upward. For halibut, in a reversal of trend and fortune, prices have dropped by 70 cents per pound in recent weeks. Dock prices usually peak from September until the halibut fishery closes in November, but that is not the case this year — overstocked freezers and resistance from buyers has put a downward press on fish prices. “Buyers simply aren’t buying,” said several Alaska fish processors. Prior to the start of the season in March, processors believed carryover halibut from last year would be sold out by May, but that didn’t happen. Now they are still holding the fish in freezers and selling it at a loss, while at the same time the high-end fresh market has fizzled. Prices at Kodiak were reported at $5, $5.40 and $5.80 per pound, depending on size. At Homer, halibut prices dropped as low as $5.25 but were up slightly to $5.40. Last year’s average halibut price for the season was $6.61 a pound. Those prices still might seem high, but they don’t balance out when you factor in the millions of pounds in lost catch. Pacific halibut catch limits have been reduced by 40 percent in the past two years resulting in an Alaska take of just 24 million pounds for 2012. So far 79 percent of the Alaska halibut catch has been landed, with 5 million pounds remaining in the catch limit. Kodiak was the leading port for landings at nearly 3.7 million pounds, with Homer a close second with 3.6 million pounds. That’s followed by Seward (2.2 million), Dutch Harbor (1.7 million) and Sitka (1 million pounds). The market also “stinks” for sablefish (black cod), said major buyers. As with halibut, freezers also are still full of sablefish from last year. An added downer — most of the fish crossing the docks this season are small, and Japan, the No. 1 customer for black cod, wants larger sizes. Sablefish prices were ranging from $2.25 for 1- to 2-pounders to $7.50 a pound for “seven ups.” Prices for large fish reached $9 per pound earlier in the season. The sablefish fishery also ends in November. Prices for Pacific cod also took a dip to between 32 to 35 cents per pound, down about a dime. That’s due to good catches in the North Sea, where cod has been rebounding for six years. That’s pulled Europe out of the buying equation for Alaska cod, there is less demand from China, and nearly all the catch is now going to U.S. markets. Looking ahead – the cod catch next year in the Barents Sea off of Russia was increased 25 percent to 940,000 metric tons (more than 2 billion pounds), the highest quota in 40 years. Finally, Gulf of Alaska pollock boats remained tied to the docks until Sept. 12, although the fishery reopened Sept. 1. The trawlers wanted 18 cents per pound for pollock – the usual price is closer to 12 cents. The fleet settled for 15.5 cents before heading out. Coral caution Many of Alaska’s fisheries have been booted out of areas to avoid Steller sea lions and various bycatch – now corals loom as a red flag for traditional fishing grounds. A petition by the Center for Biological Diversity is asking the federal government to list cold water, deep sea corals as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. “This has great potential in the future to affect a lot of fisheries in the Gulf, the Bering Sea and in the Aleutian Islands,” said Denby Lloyd, Kodiak fishery advisor, at a joint Kodiak Island Borough/City meeting. “I and a number of industry observers see this as having the same potential as Steller sea lions initially had in the early 1990s where it was speculative, and a side issue that soon became an extremely major issue and had dramatic impacts on fisheries.” Alaska corals don’t form reefs like tropical varieties – instead, they grow into dense gardens and can live for hundreds of years. Scientists point to climate changes and ocean acidification as the biggest threats to coldwater corals, Lloyd said – but as usual, fishing would bear the brunt of any restrictions. “The only thing other than climate change that the federal government could control would be fishing activity,” Lloyd said. “And it’s very similar to the results of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service having declared polar bears as threatened. The cause of that was labeled as climate change, but the only thing that could be controlled was immediate human activity and therefore, polar bear hunting and import of trophies and things like that were the way the federal government exerted control. “In this case it’s probably going to be fishing activity that is going to be the outlet for control if corals are declared threatened or endangered.” All fisheries in federal waters (3 miles to 200 miles offshore) with bottom contact gear would be targeted if the corals are listed, said Linda Kozak, a Kodiak-based fishery consultant. “This would be despite clear evidence that the fixed gear fisheries (longline, pots) have been fishing in these areas for many years with no impacts to coral. The Aleutian crab fisheries are targeting the same grounds they have fished for 20 years and their interactions with coral are extremely minimal,” Kozak said. Lloyd added: “If the agencies are persuaded, people are projecting that in 50 years, there is great potential that the acid environment and the temperature environment are going to impact corals to the point of making them threatened or endangered.” The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will discuss the coral issue at its upcoming meeting Oct. 3-9 in Anchorage. Salmon planners Chinook salmon numbers have been declining steadily in major regions throughout Alaska since 2007. Gov. Sean Parnell announced in July the formation of a team of fishery scientists to develop a research plan for the disappearing kings. The team was finally announced by the governor’s office. According to Wesley Loy’s Deckboss blog, it includes Alaska Department of Fish and Game fisheries scientists Eric Volk and Bob Clark, Andrew Munro and Steve Fleischman, fishery biologist Ed Jones, geneticist Bill Templin and Jim Fall from the subsistence division. The U.S. Department of Commerce last week announced a disaster declaration for the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, and for the Cook Inlet region south of Anchorage, including the Kenai River. That means commercial fishermen will be eligible for disaster relief. Eastside setnetters on the Kenai River lost nearly 90 percent of their annual income when the fishery was restricted and closed this summer. Same for Salmon fishermen at the Kuskokwim; the Yukon was closed completely to king Salmon fishing. No one is sure what is causing the declines; most blame ocean factors. The research team is drafting an analysis that will be discussed at a symposium next month in Anchorage.

Fisherman survives day at sea adrift in fish bin

SITKA (AP) — A fisherman who spent a night adrift in a 4-by-4 foot plastic fish bin after his boat sank off Alaska says he gave himself pep talks and sang “Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to keep his spirits up. His fellow crewmember managed to get into a survival suit and washed ashore on a beach after his own night afloat. A Coast Guard helicopter hoisted Ryan Harris, 19, of Sitka, from his plastic “lifeboat” on Saturday, more than 24 hours after the boat sank on Friday, the Daily Sitka Sentinel reported Sept. 10. Two hours before Harris’ rescue, crewmate Stonie “Mac” Huffman of Sitka was rescued from a beach about 25 miles northwest of Sitka. Harris told the newspaper he’s happy both he and his buddy survived after their 28-foot aluminum boat got hit by big waves and overturned. They were dumped into the water before they could send a mayday. The search for them started after friends reported them overdue Friday night. “It’s truly a miracle they survived,” said Sitka Mountain Rescue Director Don Kluting, who helped in the search. “I never thought I was going to die, but I was worried about Mac,” Harris told the newspaper Monday. “I’m glad to be here.” The two men were fishing for coho salmon about two miles off Cape Edgecumbe when the hydraulics failed on their boat. They fixed that problem, but decided to head back to port. Then they encountered waves, one of which tipped the boat onto its side. Two survival suits were on board, but neither man was wearing one when the boat went down. After the boat capsized, the two men climbed onto the upturned hull. “We had no radio, no cell phones,” Harris said. Huffman later found a survival suit that floated from the wreckage. The two managed to grab some empty fish totes that had washed loose. Huffman stabilized one while Harris climbed inside. The men weren’t able to get Huffman into a bin but he took a plastic bin lid for flotation. Eight-foot waves soon separated the men. The Coast Guard said that Huffman told them the lid drifted away during the two hours that he struggled to get into the survival suit. At one point, Harris said, his bin dumped him and he struck his head, but he was able to get in and keep it balanced for the remainder of the 26 hours until his rescue. The toughest part was not knowing the fate of his friend, Harris said. “I gave myself a pep talk,” he said. He kept repeating for four hours: “I’m Ryan Hunter Harris and I’m not going to die here.” During his sleepless night, he sang songs to keep up his spirits. The Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter early Saturday and three others later that day. Alaska State Troopers and Sitka Mountain Rescue sent four boats out searching, Kluting said. The troopers found Huffman, an experienced fisherman in his mid-40s, who had reached the beach at Point Amelia about an hour before troopers spotted him waving on the shore. Harris suffered blistered hands from clutching the bin and a cut above his eye from where his “lifeboat” struck him, but he declared Sept. 10 that he was “almost 100 percent.”

Feds declare disaster for king salmon fisheries

The U.S. Department of Commerce issued a resource disaster designation for the Yukon River, Kuskokwim River and Cook Inlet king salmon fisheries Sept. 13. The Yukon River designation was made for 2010, 2011 and 2012; the Kuskokwim River commercial failure was declared for 2011 and 2012; and the 2012 declaration was made for Cook Inlet, according to a letter from Rebecca Blank, acting Secretary of Commerce, to Gov. Sean Parnell. Runs on each of those rivers were well below average. “Some Cook Inlet salmon fisheries have experienced revenue losses of up to 90 percent of their historical average during the 2012 season, seriously hurting local economies that are dependent on fishing,” said Blank in her announcement. Although the declarations are for commercial fishery failures, Blank’s letter confirms that the commercial failures can also involve economic impacts for subsistence and sport fisheries, as were felt on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and in Cook Inlet. The state is estimating economic damages exceeded $10 million, according to Sharon Leighow, a spokeswoman for Parnell. The governor’s office was asked for information on how the $10 million figure was calculated, but unable to respond by press time. Leighow said the Alaska Department of Commerce, Department of Fish and Game, and the governor’s office are working together with Alaska’s congressional delegation to determine the damages and get an appropriation from Congress. If Congress appropriates funds for disaster relief, the National Marine Fisheries Service will help determine who administers the money. NMFS would first solicit the state of Alaska for a grant proposal, according to a statement from the service. But there are other potential administrators as well. The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission administered the $5 million congressional appropriation after the 2009 Yukon king disaster, NMFS said. In terms of timing, the best-case scenario would be for funding to reach affected communities in 90 days, according to the NMFS. But there’s no statutory timeline, and it could depend on the conditions of the appropriation, the entity administrating the funds, and other factors. The declarations follow Parnell’s July and August requests for the designation. Parnell initially requested a the designation for the 2011 and 2012 chinook seasons on the Yukon and Kuskokwim in July, and then asked for a disaster declaration for upper Cook Inlet chinook in August. Although the request for the designation came from Parnell, Alaska’s delegation worked together to support it. “This is an important declaration for the people of Alaska - especially those living on the Yukon River, Kuskokwim River and Cook Inlet,” said Rep. Don Young in a statement. “The fact is, Alaskans depend on fish for survival and with such a terrible run of Kings this year, people are hurting.” The impacts were widespread. On the Yukon, damages were felt by in the commercial and subsistence sectors. Commercial chinook fishing, which has had an average value of $1.5 million over the past ten years according to the state’s Department of Fish and Game, was completely shutdown. Commercial chum fishing was also limited to preserve chinooks. Subsistence chinook fishing was also significantly limited. This was the fourth year of limited chinook fishing on the Yukon, and the disaster declaration was for 2010, 2011 and 2012 as an extension of a 2009 designation. The Kuskokwim was also closed to commercial chinook harvests, with limited commercial fishing for chum and sockeye, and had limited subsistence fishing. The resource disaster designation was given for the past two years, as 2011 also saw a weak return. Cook Inlet closures also had a larger impact than just commercial chinook fishing. Northern District set gillnetters and east Cook Inlet setnetters both faced restrictions, as did sport fishermen. Fish and Game estimated that the east side setnet fishery had an ex-vessel value of $1.1 million, which is about 10 percent of the five-year average. On the sport side, a total of 103 chinooks were caught, about 99 percent below the five-year average, with rippling effects for sport-related businesses. In 2007, sport angler expenditures totaled $732 million. Much work remains before it is known how much aid fishermen will receive, or the form that assistance will take. Paul Shadura, from the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said it’s too early for the group, which represents Cook Inlet setnetters, to say very much about the declaration. “We really don’t know what all this means yet,” he said. The association hasn’t talked to the state about the declaration or how any aid might affect fishermen. Nor was it contacted for information about how the low runs impacted them this summer, Shadura said. The group is hoping for more answers at a Sept. 21 town hall forum it organized in Soldotna. The meeting will bring together fishermen and the community to talk to state and federal, representatives about the summer’s fishing and the recent disaster designation. “We’re asking for answers and we’re hoping to hear something,” Shadura said. Although the process seems slow to some, so far it’s going faster than the state’s last resource emergency. In 2009, the designation didn’t come until January 2010. “The fishery disaster process can seem frustratingly slow since each program is unique,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Begich. “It has to be designed to meet the needs of fishermen and funding has to be secured. It’s our intent to work with the state, affected fishing groups and others here in Congress to speed up this process and get help out to Alaskans as quickly as possible.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration created a policy for considering such requests in 2011. The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, evaluates requests for fishery disaster declarations under authority from the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act. Once a declaration is made, Congress may appropriate funds for disaster assistance. The NMFS plan does not dictate a timeline for the funds to be dispersed, or even a protocol for determining how much is necessary, so it can vary from disaster to disaster. Over the past two decades, the federal government has made a handful of disaster declarations for Alaska fisheries, the most recent coming in 2000 and 2009. In 2009, the designation was for the Yukon River kings. The 2000 designation applied to salmon fishing in the Norton Sound and Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. That time, more than just kings were part of the picture: chum and sockeye salmon fisheries were also declared failures. The Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinated federal efforts after the 2000 declaration, with home energy assistance, emergency food supplies, small business loans, and other aid provided by various departments. In that case, some of the support was actually appropriated before the disaster declaration. Other designations, in 1997 and 1998, landed $57 million in federal assistance, according to a press release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The cause of Alaska’s low king returns in unknown. Fish and Game has said that a variety of biological factors, like survival in prior years and ocean conditions, could be at play. In July, Parnell created a state team of fisheries scientists to study the issue of low king returns throughout the state. That group is expected to present a research plan at an October meeting in Anchorage. Alaska was one of several states to receive the fisheries disaster designation this fall. In the Northeast, a disaster determination was made for the 2013 groundfish fishery. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said he will work to secure $100 million in relief for New England fishermen. Mississippi’s 2011-2013 oyster fishery and 2011 blue crab fishery were also declared commercial fishery failures.

US seafood catch reaches 17-year high

  PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The U.S. seafood catch reached a 17-year high in 2011, with all regions of the country showing increases in both the volume and value of their harvests. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday that commercial fishermen last year caught 10.1 billion pounds of fish and shellfish valued at $5.3 billion. That's a 23 percent increase in volume and a 17 percent increase in value over 2010. New Bedford, Mass., had the highest-valued catch for the 12th straight year, due largely to its scallop fishery. Dutch Harbor, Alaska, was the No. 1 port for seafood volume. Alaska led all states in catch volume, followed by Louisiana, California, Virginia and Washington. Alaska was also tops in the value of its catch, followed by Massachusetts, Maine, Louisiana and Washington.

Jack-up rig could have brought invasive organism

KENAI (AP) — Although the Kang Sheng Kou heavy-lift vessel brought the Endeavour-Spirit of Independence jack-up rig to Cook Inlet waters from Singapore, the Endeavour rig might have carried its own unique cargo. Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials confirmed Wednesday they have been communicating with the rig's owner, Buccaneer Energy, about what organisms might have still been attached to the rig when it was brought north — specifically if those organisms might be invasive to Kachemak Bay where the rig has been receiving upgrades and work since Aug. 24. Homer resident Larry Smith toured the rig several weeks ago and plucked a small shell he said appears to be a foreign oyster off one of the rig's legs and brought it to the attention of Fish and Game and the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve staff. Smith said the shell was "one of thousands" in the area where he found it. Tammy Davis, a Juneau-based Fish and Game biologist who leads the department's invasive species program, said the department offered to assist Buccaneer by taking samples of any organisms on the jack-up rig and identifying them. "That came about apparently when there was a significant outcry by the public, several conservation organizations and the media had been informed that this organism had been taken off of the vessel by someone who was on a tour," Davis said. However, Buccaneer in response hired a private biologist from a consulting agency to do that task, Davis said. Fish and Game has requested the results of those samples and biological analysis be forwarded to them for further review, she said. Buccaneer issued a statement late Wednesday through Jay Morakis of JMR Worldwide saying the company considered environmental safety a "top priority" and it would "never knowingly do anything to compromise it." "We have passed both our customs inspection as well as Coast Guard inspection, and no environmental concerns have been raised by either organization," Morakis wrote in an email statement to the Clarion. "The issue of a 'photograph' of a 'shell' on the Endeavour came to our attention, and whether it be factual or not we immediately hired an independent biologist to board and inspect the Endeavour and confirm that there was not a problem. "Initial findings show that (there) is no issue and we will issue the final results upon its completion, which we expect shortly." Davis said Fish and Game officials are still considering what it would do if the organism found were indeed an invasive species and could pose a threat to the environment. But they can't do much until they know what the organisms onboard are, she said. "The crux is we don't know what's on (the rig)," Davis said. Fish and Game's upper management has been in contact with the state attorney general's office. It is against the law to "knowingly introduce" an invasive species in Alaska, specifically "fish, invertebrates and amphibians," Davis said. "We haven't enforced that non-indigenous fish statute in this way, so we would want to make sure that we are doing so legitimately," she said. However, whether a company "knowingly" introduces an invasive species is hard to prove, she said. "That's definitely where the water gets muddy," she said. In addition, some of the organisms found on the rig may, or may not be included in injurious species lists made and regulated by the federal government, Davis said. "Very possibly every single one of the species that are on that rig are not considered injurious and so the Lacey Act or any sort of federal regulation that would prohibit bringing in injurious species is sort of out the window," she said. The penalty for an organization introducing an injurious species and violating the Lacey Act is a $10,000 fine, according to information found in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service document published online. Grant DeVuyst, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman, said the Homer-based Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment did inspect and clear both the Kang Sheng Kou and Endeavour rig on Aug. 24. During such inspections the Coast Guard looks for invasive species, he said. If a cleared vessel was found to later have introduced an invasive species into the ecosystem, DeVuyst said the Coast Guard could enforce applicable laws against the responsible company, but could not elaborate on what those laws could entail. Davis said Fish and Game takes invasive or injurious species seriously because, in general, they can cause shifts in ecosystems and could prey upon, or compete for habitat with native species. "Invasive species generally are very successful at reproducing and establishing viable populations," she said. "They tend to out-compete native species often because they either don't have a predator or just because their reproductive rate is high in comparison to native species." ____ Homer News reporter Michael Armstrong contributed to this report.  

Closures prompt requests to take up Kenai management

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, is one of several organizations that submitted a agenda change request, or ACR, to the Alaska Board of Fisheries after the summer closures asking that body to consider Cook Inlet management issues out of cycle. Normally, Cook Inlet fisheries would be discussed in 2014. But KSRA and others have requested that several management issues in the region be considered this year. Of 21 ACRs for the upcoming management season, 10 relate to Cook Inlet. KRSA’s proposals focus on the Kenai River, which faced numerous sport and commercial closures this summer. Gease said one of the organization’s main concerns is the escapement numbers for late-run king salmon, which haven’t been met for three of the last four years. KRSA also wants a change in the time-period covered by the management plan, and an alteration in how the burden of conservation is shared. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also has a proposal in to look at Kenai and Kasilof escapement goals, and there’s a proposal to consider changing the gear used in eastern Cook Inlet setnetting to avoid catching king salmon. This summer, setnetters were shut down for nearly the entire season as a king salmon conservation measure. Other proposals address a change to the area for the Kenai personal use fishery and a stock of concern designation for Kenai River early run king salmon. The board will consider the ACRs at its October meeting in Anchorage.   — Molly Dischner

Commentary: Market forces kick in as 2012 salmon season wraps up

As Alaska’s salmon season winds down, selling the bulk of the harvest gears up for seafood companies that purchased the pack. “This is the season for negotiations, you might say,” said salmon guru Gunnar Knapp, longtime fisheries economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “You never know the price until the product is actually sold.” The salmon season runs on different tracks starting with sockeye, and fish sales have varying schedules and market patterns throughout the year. Plus, salmon markets depend on the species and how they are sold. “You can’t just say what is the market for sockeye salmon this year,” Knapp explained. “You have to ask what’s the market for roe, or frozen H&G (headed/gutted), or fillets or canned. Each faces different market circumstances, and the total picture is the sum of those things.” Not a lot of public data on sales is available yet, but there are some bright spots. Salmon roe markets look really strong, due to shortfalls in supply from Russia. Also strong: the canned market, due to strong interest and low carryovers from last season. “That’s really good news, in particular for sockeye and pinks. A very significant share of the harvest goes into producing canned products,” Knapp said. Notably, canned wild salmon and roe do not face competition with farmed salmon. What does compete directly is frozen H&G salmon — the bulk of the Alaska pack — and fillets. But despite huge volumes of cheaper farmed salmon pushing down prices in the U.S., Europe and Japan, the impact on Alaska fish sales seems less than expected. Prior to the season, all the news from Japan indicated the market for frozen H&G sockeye was going to be down significantly because farmed salmon imports were way up and prices were down. “That led to a sort of self-correction of the problem,” Knapp said. “If processors had the option, instead of producing frozen H&G, they canned more of the salmon or made fillets. So the amount of frozen H&G produced and sent to Japan was lower than expected.” Prices today are still lower than last year but not as much as people had feared, Knapp said, adding that the fillet market is uncertain as those sales continue over a year. Overall, Knapp said salmon markets appear a bit better than people expected going into the 2012 season. “I think the key,” he said, “is the diversity of products that Alaska produces.” The fact that there will be less wild salmon available from Alaska also will come into play in global markets. As of Sept. 7, the statewide catch topped 118 million salmon, just 1 million more from the previous week. The pre-season forecast for Alaska’s 2012 salmon was 132 million fish, down from 177 million salmon last year. Besides salmon Alaska’s halibut fishery has 6 million pounds remaining in its 24 million pound catch limit. Kodiak is topping the charts for landings at just more than 3.5 million pounds, followed by Homer just less than that amount. For sablefish (black cod), nearly 8 million pounds remain in the 29.5 million pound quota. Both fisheries run through mid-November … Fishing for cod reopened on Sept. 1 in the Gulf and is ongoing in the Bering Sea. Also, the pollock fleet was approaching its catch limit this year of more than three million billion pounds, or 1.2 million metric tons … Fishing for golden king crab continues along the Aleutian Islands where there is a healthy 6 million pound catch quota … Small boat crabbers at Norton Sound had one of their best summer seasons ever, fetching $5.25 to $5.60 per pound for nearly 500,000 pounds of red king crab. Prices also were up for Dungeness crab at Southeast Alaska where fishermen averaged $2.55 per pound for 1.8 million pounds, slightly below last summer. Dungies reopen in the Panhandle on Oct. 1. Dive fisheries for sea cucumbers and urchins also open in Southeast and Kodiak that same day.

Better communication needed to combat closures

Kenai and Ketchikan might be more than a thousand miles apart, but charter fishing operators are finding a stronger tie than the map might indicate. When a river in one place in Alaska closes, guides throughout the state feel the hit. “Bad news anywhere in the state translates to a dropoff everywhere,” said Heath Hilyard, executive director of Southeast Alaska Guides Organization. And that’s bad news for the state economy, said Ricky Gease from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. Guided fishing trips contributed about $641 million to various sectors of the Alaskan economy in 2007, according to a study produced by Southwick Associates for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Nonresident anglers spent $652.5 million in 2007. According to Gease, angling activity contributed about 40 percent of the value of the tourism industry that year. This summer, both the early and late king Salmon runs on the Kenai River were closed. That news hurt guides on the Kenai and in Southeast Alaska alike. “I don’t know how many clients ended up actually canceling,” Hilyard said. “I know that I heard from operators that they were fielding phone calls from clients who had yet to come who were saying they were thinking about canceling.” Now charter operators want to make sure that in future summers, anglers are clear on all their fishing options, and how the season is going around the state — not just where they can’t fish. Hilyard is working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on getting data more easily throughout the season. But numbers aren’t the only solution, he said. “We have to really do a better job of telling the story throughout the season and before the season to those people to say, ‘look, just because you hear about a closure on the Kenai River doesn’t mean it’s in anyway going to affect your fishing experience in Sitka,’” Hilyard said. In Southeast, the problem stemmed in large part, he said, from a mid-summer Wall Street Journal article about king Salmon closures. “Certain clients saw that article and started talking to operators, saying, ‘well, you know, maybe I’m not going to come, maybe I’m going to cancel,’” Hilyard said. Gease said the king closures definitely hurt business on the Kenai. But some anglers transitioned to other rivers and fish in Southcentral. And the Kenai Peninsula netted a few anglers when Anchorage and the Mat-Su were closed to silver fishing, he said. Despite those increases, Gease said the king closures had the largest impact on the economy locally, and it wasn’t a positive one. “I know some guides had lost up to half their bookings this summer,” Gease said. But the Kenai Peninsula did see some additional fishing clients when there are other closures. One example of that, Gease said, is when the Mat-Su was closed to silver fishing, some people traveled to Kenai or Homer or Seward. Those anglers often returned home with pinks, too, he said. There are fewer destination-changes across the Gulf of Alaska on the Panhandle, however. Last year, Southeast operators were concerned that business would migrate to Southcentral because of new halibut charter rules, Hilyard said. Under the 2011 halibut rules, charter customers in Area 2C — or Southeast Alaska — could keep one fish 37 inches or smaller. The bag limits in Area 3A, or Southcentral, allowed anglers to keep two fish of any size. This year, the charter bag limit in Southeast was relaxed to allow retention of one fish per day, either up to 45 inches or greater than 68 inches. A measure known as a “reverse slot limit,” halibut between 45 inches and 68 inches are required to be gently returned to the water. A few clients moved from Southeast to Kodiak in 2011, but for the most part operators didn’t see that sort of transition, Hilyard said. In Southcentral, about half the clients are Alaskans and half are from Outside. Alaskans, particularly on the road system, can move their trips around. But the Outside clients are less likely to change their destination, as about 90 percent of the customers in Southeast are visitors. While it might be hard to predict or prevent the closures in many cases, Hilyard said this fall, he’s working on a way to at least help guides with concrete evidence for clients that fishing in their region was still strong. “Not just hey we think that it’s pretty good,” Hilyard said. “We need to be able to say, ‘Alaska Department of Fish and Game is saying x.’” Hilyard said he’s working with ADFG on that effort. Lagging data The Alaska Department of Fish and Game mostly uses logbook information to track fishing. That information is only collected periodically and has to be entered into the system, there’s no instant data source. The logbooks are accurate, and a change charter operators were happy to see enacted, Hilyard said. But they’ve had some unintended consequences. “It has created a problem in terms of collection and analysis and reporting in terms of timeliness,” Hilyard said. This summer, when Hilyard wanted to quantify how the season was going, it took three to four weeks to get very rough estimates, he said. Hilyard said operators would like to see more frequent collection of the logbook information. He is talking to the department about the possibility of real-time data reporting, maybe even electronically so that the data can be turned around more quickly. Hilyard said the department has the same desire for more frequent data collection; it’s mostly just a matter of funding. A smartphone app is in the works that would allow for electronic data transmission, he said. “The department can then turn those numbers more quickly,” Hilyard said. Marketing is also part of the answer. “We can all peacefully coexist and enjoy prosperous fishing,” Hilyard said. “We all want to kinda say hey look, don’t mark Alaska off your calendar just because you heard there’s a closure.” Guides in Southeast have already been successfully upping their marketing efforts, Hilyard said. As a rough estimate, Hilyard said bookings were up about 10 percent overall in Southeast compared to 2011. “That experience is different from operator to operator, port to port,” he said. The increase was largely the result of marketing and ingenuity, he said. Early in the season, one operator on Prince of Wales had bookings up 20 percent to 25 percent compared to 2011. “That’s because they had really changed their internet marketing and social media strategies preseason and really worked on that a lot more heavily so their marketing tactics increased their bookings,” Hilyard said. Another Prince of Wales operator had a sizable increase as well — about 30 percent to 40 percent. In his case, the upswing was the result of an expanded season and additional offerings beyond fishing such as chartered bear hunting. “He tries to be kind of a turnkey full solution resort for families,” Hilyard said. “So hey, the wife shows up, she doesn’t want to fish at all, well we’re going to have guided nature hikes and crafts and you know, different stuff like that.” There are still a few operators who have the same experience, same clientele, as they have for decades. Hilyard spent time with a Sitka guide who took clients out this summer that had been coming back, year after year, for 15 or 20 years. “These guys are really serious fishermen,” Hilyard said. Southcentral slowed Gease said that the picture on the Kenai wasn’t as positive as in Southeast. Without logbook data, he couldn’t say exactly how bookings had fared. But from 2008 to 2011 they decreased by about a third. He attributed that to the economic downturn, and the continuing low king returns. This summer’s closures likely resulted in another decrease. “We’re just seeing the front end of the effects of the closure that we had this year,” Gease said. In the past, it’s taken about five years for bookings to recover after a summer with closures, Gease said. Complicating future bookings is the uncertainty introduced in the closures. It’s possible that early run king Salmon will be designated a stock of concern — there is a proposal in for the Board of Fisheries to consider such a move in October — which could change management. Exactly how the changes will play out is unknown, so guides don’t know exactly what sort of experience to market to potential clients. “That closure brings a lot of uncertainty into the business and inevitably that uncertainty will lead to decreased bookings until it becomes a more stable fishery once again,” Gease said.  

Commerce secretary declares Alaska salmon disaster

The acting U.S. Commerce secretary has declared a commercial fishery disaster for king salmon in major Alaska fisheries. Acting U.S. Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank on Thursday announced the disaster declaration for the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers , which flow into the Bering Sea off Alaska's west coast, and in Cook Inlet in southcentral Alaska, which includes the Kenai River. Blank says low chinook salmon returns this year and in previous years are the reason for the declaration. The declaration makes commercial fishermen eligible for relief if Congress approves funding. Blank says some Cook Inlet salmon fisheries this year lost up to 90 percent of their historic average revenue. A state report assessing reasons for the poor returns is due later this year.   Fishery disaster declared in New England The U.S. Commerce Department declared a national fishery disaster Thursday in New England, opening the door for tens of millions of dollars in relief funds for struggling fishermen and their ports. Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank said the declaration comes amid "unexpectedly slow rebuilding of stocks," which is forcing huge fishing cuts that are jeopardizing the New England industry. And she said her agency had determined the trouble with fish stocks comes despite fishermen following rules designed to prevent overfishing. "The future challenges facing the men and women in this industry and the shore-based businesses that support them are daunting, and we want to do everything we can to help them through these difficult times," Blank said. The declaration doesn't guarantee any money will actually be funneled toward fishermen, but U.S. Sen. John Kerry said it's a big step forward. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has committed to include $100 million for fishermen and fishing communities in emergency assistance legislation that will be debated during the lame-duck session after the election, Kerry said Thursday. Lawmakers must now fight for the money in a potentially reluctant Congress, he said. Kerry compared fishermen to farmers, saying they're just as dependent on the vagaries of the ecosystem as farmers are, and just as deserving of assistance when things go bad through no fault of their own, like when farmers face a drought. "We put billions into the heartland of our country for farmers, billions, literally," said Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. "When you have a massive layoff of an industry like that because of circumstances that are entirely outside the fishing industry's control, we have to respond as a country." Federal and state lawmakers have pursued the disaster declaration since 2010, when new regulations were enacted in New England that put tough limits on how much fishermen can catch of a given species. In the two years since, federal scientists have reported key stocks aren't rebuilding quickly enough, including cod in the Gulf of Maine and yellowtail flounder in the Georges Bank fishing grounds off southeastern New England. Cuts in the allowed catch have already been enacted, but ruinous catch reductions are projected for the 2013 fishing year that have put the future of the historic industry in doubt. The money in the $100 million aid package forwarded by Kerry includes direct aid to fishermen and money to cover required costs, such as the independent observers to monitor their catch. It also includes funds to improve fishery science and stock assessments, which fishermen complain are inaccurate. The Northeast Seafood Coalition, an industry group, applauded the disaster declaration and said regulations are needed that better account for how fisheries fit into the larger environment. "It is unfair to hold fishermen exclusively accountable for natural cycles of complex ecosystems," the coalition said. Johanna Thomas of the Environmental Defense Fund said a better grasp is critically needed on how fish abundance is affected by factors such as climate change, pressure on local coasts and warming ocean temperatures. "The problems facing the fishery ... are long-term and the solutions should be also," she said.  

Review doubts science on sea lion protection

A panel of independent reviewers has concluded that the federal government's decision to restrict commercial fishing in Alaska's Aleutian Islands is not supported by sound science. The reviewers say a biological opinion prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service two years ago does not support for the conclusion that continued fishing for Alaska pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel would jeopardize sea lions or harm their critical habitat. The western population of Steller sea lions was listed as endangered in 1997. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, their numbers fell sharply from 250,000 in the early 1970s to 49,000 in 2008. Over the objections of the state of Alaska and commercial fishing companies, the agency in late 2010 announced that commercial mackerel and cod fisheries in the western Aleutians would be restricted. However, the agency also contracted with the Center for Independent Experts, a program designed to review of agency science, to look over its conclusions. A three-scientist panel concluded this week that the science was flawed. Panel member Brent S. Stewart, a senior research scientist at Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute in San Diego, concluded that the biological opinion equated "language of possibility" with "language of substantial chance" — confusing what might be with what was likely. "Speculative and hypothetical suggestions for jeopardy and adverse modification do not, I think, meet the standard established by the Endangered Species Act," he wrote. Commercial fishing causing nutritional stress to sea lions was one hypothesis put forward for sea lion decline. Another was killer whale predation, Stewart said. "There has been no causal evidentiary support for any of them," he said. NMFS spokeswoman Julie Speegle said the conclusions submitted by Stewart, Don Bowen of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia, and Kevin Stokes of Wellington, New Zealand, will be closely reviewed. "We are committed to making sure that our decisions and analyses are based on the best available scientific information," she said by email. "We are reviewing the report carefully and will determine whether any follow-up actions are warranted." State of Alaska attorneys in an unsuccessful court case argued against fishing restrictions and said the population of western Steller sea lions was growing 1 percent to 1.5 percent annually. Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the state's Division of Wildlife Conservation, said Friday the independent review supports the state challenge to the fishing restrictions. "Their reviews confirmed our assessment of the foundational science," he said by email. A federal judge in January said the agency in general followed proper procedures as it restricted commercial fishing of Atka mackerel and Pacific cod. However, U.S. District Judge Tim Burgess also ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to perform additional environmental work, with the chance for public comment, for its rules.  

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