Sport group sinks Gov's Board of Fisheries nomination

JUNEAU — Following an intense lobbying campaign by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, Anchorage and upper Railbelt Republicans led the legislature’s rejection of the reappointment of two-term Board of Fisheries member Claude “Vince” Webster on April 8. KRSA announced its opposition to Webster at his April 1 Senate Resources Committee meeting. KRSA Executive Director Ricky Gease and constant companion Reuben Hanke, a Kenai River fishing guide, were seen through the rest of the week visiting lawmakers’ offices. Neither is a registered lobbyist and Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Wrangell Republican and Webster supporter, said after the joint confirmation session she was considering filing a complaint against them for lobbying beyond the 10-hour limit on unregistered lobbyists. [Clarification: Reuben Hanke is not listed in the 2013 registered lobbyist directory. Hanke is classified as a “representational lobbyist” by Kenai River Sportfishing Association and is not required to file as a "registered lobbyist." The difference between a representational lobbyist and a registered lobbyist is that representational lobbyists may only be compensated for travel expenses. Representational lobbyists are also not subject to the 10-hour limit on lobbying for unregistered lobbyists. KRSA Executive Director Ricky Gease may not exceed the 10-hour limit. In a statement to the Journal after publication, Gease said he had not exceeded the 10-hour limit. Gease and KRSA Board Chairman Eldon Mulder declined to be interviewed by Tkacz in the preparation of this article.] Several lawmakers said before the 29-30 vote, that they were sending a message to ADFG Commissioner Cora Campbell and her biologists. “In many cases it was a vote against the Department of Fish and Game and some of the governor’s appointees. Not just Board of Fish appointees but department staff and Commissioner Campbell,” said Chugiak Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze, who led the attack against Webster during the annual joint House floor session. In a hearing last week Stoltze said it was a “no-brainer” that ADFG is biased in favor of the seafood industry. “The constituency I represent are highly frustrated by the lack of fish and the quality of fishing. They’re essentially saying, ‘lets deliver a message to people that are involved in the whole fishery process, to include nomination, that we want the fish to come first,’” said Senate President Charlie Huggins of Wasilla. Webster was the only one of 88 board and commission appointees who was not confirmed. He is also the only one of three board appointees who is a commercial fisherman. Reappointees Tom Kluberton, a Talkeetna lodge owner, and Reed Morisky, a new appointee and Fairbanks fishing guide, were confirmed without objection. Webster, a Bristol Bay set and gillnet fisherman, completes his term on the board June 30. Objections were voiced during the session to the confirmations of Game Board reappointees Peter Probasco and Nathan Turner, former Anchorage police chief Mark Mew to the Alaska Police Standards Council and Gloria O’Neill to the University of Alaska Anchorage board of regents. After lawmakers discussed their concerns they withdrew their objections and none cast opposition votes. In Webster’s case, 19 of the 21 opposing House votes and six of nine in the Senate came from Anchorage, Mat-Su and Fairbanks area Republicans. “It is disappointing, discouraging and disheartening when bad information or politics prevent a qualified Alaskan from serving our state,” Parnell said in a prepared statement. Neither the governor’s office nor commercial fishing organizations backing Webster appeared to realize the extent of the opposition, and effort, against Webster. Heather Brakes, the governor’s legislative liaison and Jason Hooley, director of boards and commissions, began talking to lawmakers on April 4, the date KRSA sent the first of two “IMMEDIATE CALL TO ACTION” emails were sent to supporters urging them to contact their representatives and senators. Mike Nizich, the governor’s chief of staff, sent every legislator an email and some said he contacted them personally. Nizich’s letter listed three allegations against Webster, calling them “misleading, incomplete and in some cases inaccurate statements about Webster’s work on the board. “His confirmation should not be blocked due to misinformation,” Nizich’s letter concluded. The three complaints, as described by Nizich, were that Webster “is supposedly singlehandedly responsible for the new late-run Kenai River chinook escapement goal (and) allegedly reframed” the debate on the Kenai chinook management plan “to benefit setnetters at the expense of all other user groups and escapement” and that he “allegedly drives a personal agenda through unseemly means.” “The Governor never would have re-appointed him had if he believed such allegations were true,” Nizich wrote. Nonetheless, Stoltze, among others, leveled those same points in their floor comments. Webster’s supporters noted that state law assigns the task of identifying the appropriate escapement range to ADFG and that the board is required to adopt the department’s recommendation. Chickaloon Rep. Eric Feige, the only Interior Republican in the House who voted to confirm Webster, noted that the board adopted the new escapement range on a 7-0 vote, obviously including Reed Morisky and Tom Kluberton, the other board appointees who were being confirmed. Feige also said of his visit from KRSA, “I kind of felt like I was being intimidated to change my vote.” “I don’t think anybody agrees to any of the character assassination that has been made of Mr. Webster,” said Anchorage Rep. Les Gara, one of six Democrats, three from each body, voting against Webster. Gara also noted his displeasure with ADFG calling it, “ a department, in many circumstances, that has erred on the side of low escapement.” The term “escapement” refers to the number of salmon needed to reach their spawning beds to assure sustainability of the stock. Lowering escapement, which is expressed as a range, generally means harvest levels are higher. Tkacz is a correspondent for the Journal based in Juneau. He can be reached at [email protected]  

Flatfish flexibility OK'd; Steller sea lion EIS not ready

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council took final action on several groundfish issues, and made preliminary moves toward additional changes in the future at its April 3 to 8 meeting in Anchorage. The council agreed to provide Amendment 80 cooperatives and Community Development Quota entities with some flexibility in its flatfish harvest each year. In another action, the council decided that American Fisheries Act, or AFA, pollock vessel owners can rebuild or replace their vessels and still utilize Gulf of Alaska sideboards, subject to certain restrictions. In both cases, the motions for action passed unanimously. The council also agreed to move forward in considering splitting the Pacific cod total allowable catch, or TAC, in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. That will come back at a future meeting, and would mean that the TAC would be divided for the different areas. For now, the council’s action directed staff to study possible community impacts and protections if the TAC were split. Council member John Henderschedt made the flatfish motion, which allows the fleet to exchange flathead sole, rock sole and yellowfin sole quota, as long as the catch of each remains below the total allowable catch, or TAC. The council’s flatfish flexibility action was the similar to the Advisory Panel’s recommendation, adding a request asking for draft co-op reports each year so that the council can monitor how the exchanges are working and use that information in its TAC setting process. Glenn Merrill of National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region told the council that it would likely take some time for NMFS to enact the changes, as it will require altering the catch accounting system. It would be reasonable to expect that it to be in place for the October 2015 council meeting, he said, to impact the 2016 fishing season. Council member Craig Cross made the vessel replacement motion. The council’s action essentially selected a status quo option by bringing the regulations in-line with provisions in the Coast Guard reauthorization act that allowed vessels to be replaced. A status quo option was essentially available to the council because of the Coast Guard act provisions. The rebuilt vessels cannot exceed the maximum length overall, or MLOA, specified on the Gulf groundfish licenses. If a vessel exempt from GOA sideboard limitations is removed from the fishery, that exemption cannot be transferred to a new vessel. A sideboard limit restricts the amount of harvest available to vessels that fish mainly in one fishery, such as Bering Sea pollock, when they also have licenses for another fishery such as the Gulf of Alaska where quota is not assigned and the larger vessels would have an unfair advantage. Alaska Groundfish Databank’s Julie Bonney spoke in favor of the preliminary preferred alternative, which is the one the council selected, and noted that her members included all three sectors — AFA vessels exempt from sideboard limitations, non-exempt AFA vessels, and other vessels operating in the Gulf that aren’t part of the AFA sector. United Catcher Boats Executive Director Brent Paine also testified in support of that alternative. His organization represents 72 AFA vessels, he said. For the TAC split, the council heard testimony about the need to protect communities in any action, and opted to request more information on that before deciding how to proceed. Council member Cora Campbell, Alaska’s Fish and Game commissioner, made the motion for action. It was approved with no objections. The discussion paper will evaluate the impacts of a Pacific cod directed fishing allowance in Areas 541 and 542 (far west Aleutians) to the catcher vessel sector, and regionalized delivery requirements to shoreside plants in the Aleutian Islands. Such a fishery, as outlined in the motion, would have the same allocations as are currently available, and be based on abundance. Henderschedt, the only council member to comment on the action, said he supported looking at community provisions, but would retain a focus on how realistic such a program was as it moves through the analysis phase. There could be difficulties in splitting a fishery into such a small piece, particularly given concerns with the cod resource, he said. Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association spokesman Larry Cotter told the council that in that region, processing activity is vital to local communities. Steller sea lion protections reviewed After several hours of staff reports, questions and public testimony, the council stuck with the Advisory Panel’s preliminary preferred alternative for the new Steller sea lion environmental impact statement, or EIS, but did not release the draft document for public review. Council member Bill Tweit’s motion, which passed without objection, also asked NMFS to provide more information on a new biological opinion before a final decision must be made. The council had been presented with a range of alternatives, including the status quo and several that were considered less restrictive to Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fishing, but the analysis did not provide any definitive information on what each alternative would mean for Steller sea lion populations. The motion also said that the council felt that it was too early for public review of the draft EIS, given that some information was unavailable, and that it was too early to schedule a final decision on a preferred alternative. The council’s action also asked NMFS to address the peer reviews of the 2010 biological opinion, and noted that the draft EIS relied on information that isn’t available to the public yet, including “in press” and “in preparation” scientific work. The council’s action did not keep pace with the planned timeline, and council members said they did not intend to delay action beyond the court-ordered deadline of completing the EIS by March 2014, but wanted issues addressed before the document was approved for public review. Sablefish and halibut issues discussed Halibut and sablefish issues were also on the table. Community Quota Entities are one step closer to purchasing quota share after the council selected a final preferred alternative that would allow those community groups, or CQEs, to purchase any size block of halibut and sablefish quota share. Previously, those groups were limited to purchasing certain blocks. Other existing restrictions on purchase, such as the total number of blocks a CQE can hold, will remain as-is. Council member Duncan Fields, of Kodiak, brought forward the motion for action. It passed in a 10-1 vote, with council member Roy Hyder of Oregon voting against it. During public testimony there was support from the Kodiak communities of Ouzinkie and Old Harbor for the council to take action. No one spoke in opposition. A more restrictive alternative, allowing additional purchases but from fewer sources, had been considered in the Advisory Panel, but that body did not bring a recommendation forward, as it wound up with a 10-10 split on its motion. Before CQEs can make a purchase, the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, will have to make a final regulation. The council agreed to have Bering Sea sablefish industry stakeholders work together on potential management approaches to increase yield, and asked to hear about those efforts in October. That was similar to the AP’s recommendation, and also supported by industry. Chad See, from the Freezer Longline Coalition, said a member of that group brought the issue forward several years ago, but that the group felt it would be premature for the council to select an alternative at the April meeting. The council also agreed to send a letter to the International Pacific Halibut Commission supporting allowing fishermen with halibut IFQ to retain halibut when targeting sablefish with pots. Scallops back on the table Council member Nicole Kimball, who represented the State of Alaska as Commissioner Cora Campbell’s alternate, put forward a motion that carried with no objection, setting the 2013-14 scallop catch limit at 1.16 million pounds. That was based on the AP and Scientific and Statistical Committee recommendations. Kimball also said she supported the plan team’s request for a workshop on what to do about the limited information regarding some portions of the scallop stock, which would include a look at how other fisheries and regions handle biological reference points for stocks with limited data. The action came after a report by council staff Diana Stram, who co-chairs the scallop plan team and talked about that body’s February meeting and general scallop management. The state manages the scallop fishery, as most scallop beds are in both state and federal waters, and is responsible for setting the guideline harvest level, or GHL, for the fishery, although there are entry requirements for the state and federal fisheries. The state program sunsets at the end of 2013, and the renewal effort has raised questions about its constitutionality. In prior hearings, it was stated that if the program isn’t renewed, the fishery could be shut down. But at the council meeting, when Fields asked what could happen, both Stram and Kimball said the state would have several options, including setting separate GHLs for the state and federal waters, attempting to manage under the current program, or closing portions of the state waters. The Department of Fish and Game requires 100 percent observer coverage on scallop boats, and the prior position of ADFG has been that such coverage makes the risk low for exceeding either the guideline harvest level or crab bycatch limits. “There are options if the legislature doesn’t act,” Kimball said. Transit corridor up for study The council also looked at fixing an unintended consequence of an action taken to protect walrus populations on Round Island, part of the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary. The action prevented certain vessels from transiting Round Island, but the requirement has made it difficult for federally permitted vessels to bring herring from Togiak seiners to processors in Dillingham or elsewhere. The council asked staff to develop one or more alternatives to the existing transit corridor options in consultation with affected stakeholders. Industry participants, the appropriate agencies, the Walrus Commission, and others were expected to be included in that stakeholder group. Henderschedt made the motion for action on that issue, and the council agreed without objection.

Genetics study shows 68% of bycatch from Western Alaska

New genetics research on king salmon bycatch has provided industry and managers a little more insight into where they are headed when caught by pollock trawlers. According to a recently released report from the National Marine Fisheries Service, about 68 percent of the king salmon caught by pollock trawlers in the Bering Sea in 2011 originated in Coastal Western Alaska. The study, which was done by NMFS’ Auke Bay Laboratories in Juneau, looked at the pollock fleet’s king bycatch in both the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, but the Gulf of Alaska information is less representative of the fishery as a whole because samples are not collected in uniform fashion. After Coastal Western Alaska, the North Alaska Peninsula stocks were the second largest grouping in the Bering Sea bycatch, at about 9 percent. Based on the new information, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council took action April 8 to ask for an updated Bering Sea pollock fishery bycatch report that incorporates the new genetics information. Council member Cora Campbell, Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game commissioner, made the motion asking for a report. The council approved her motion unanimously. The council’s Advisory Panel recommended a discussion paper, which is often the first step toward an amendment package or possible action. Although she asked for a report rather than a discussion paper, the substance of her request was much the same. During testimony, representatives from the pollock industry said they supported the request for information but didn’t want it characterized as a discussion paper, precisely because that could signal that action was coming down the pipeline.  “I’m opposed to this discussion paper,” said United Catcher Boats’ John Gruver, who is an inter-cooperative manager. “This paper is the beginning of a new chinook bycatch reduction amendment. I don’t know how you can interpret it any other way.” Gruver did, however, say he supported the idea of looking at the science regarding bycatch. The fleet would also benefit from knowing when and where it catches Western Alaska kings, he said. Non-industry stakeholders provided the bulk of the testimony at the meeting, asking the council to look at the bycatch issue. For 2011, the year the bycatch was studied, 25,499 kings were caught in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. That’s well below the performance standard of 47,591 and the hard cap of 60,00 fish in the region. The performance standard is the number the industry targets to be under; exceeding it twice in a seven-year period automatically lowers the hard cap to 47,591. Those standards were set in 2009, and took effect in 2011. Since then, including in 2011, fisheries disasters have been declared on the Yukon River due to a low return of kings for the last three years. The Kuskokwim River also received that designation for 2011 and 2012. That means that each fish matters, Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association Policy Director Becca Robbins Gisclair told the council during testimony.  “We’re at a point where on the Yukon River, the stock is barely replacing itself,” Gisclair said. “And every single removal is critically important. One hundred fish makes a big difference. And at this point, thousands of fish is the difference between meeting escapement goals or not, let alone the different between putting food on people’s tables.” After the council made their motion, Gisclair, also a member of the council Advisory Panel, said she thought it was an important first step. Eventually, she said, the council may need to look at management measures in light of the recent declines. The report that comes back to the council is expected to include several items, although much of it is already existing work that must be compiled. The report should include a review of Alaska’s king stocks, including information on subsistence, sport and commercial fishery restrictions and whether escapement goals have been met, and data on bycatch rates per vessel within each sector for the last two years. The council also asked for inclusion of the 2011 genetic stock identification report, and a stock-based adult-equivalency run reconstruction, harvest rate analyses, and estimated impacts of bycatch for stock specific groupings at the various limits and real bycatch levels. Additionally, the council asked for a description of the way the current bycatch avoidance incentives work. The Bering Sea information was considered a systematic, random sample, meaning that the results could be extrapolated to represent all bycatch from that fishery. Guyon, who worked on the genetics study and presented the results to the council, said that the sample was proportional in time and area to all the bycatch in the fishery. Sampling in the Gulf of Alaska, however, was opportunistic and not representative of the entire fishery. NMFS still has 2012 samples to analyze, which will provide the council with another year’s worth of information for both fisheries. In response to a question from council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak, Guyon said that NMFS does not know yet whether or not the 2012 Gulf samples will be completely representative, but that the information should at least be better. The 2011 Gulf genetics showed that the sample studied was primarily from British Columbia and the West Coast of the U.S., with those stocks making up 40 percent and 26 percent of the sample. respectively. Because it wasn’t a representative sample, however, the results on apply to the sample itself, and cannot be used to characterize all bycatch in the Gulf. Fields also questioned the timing of the work, and asked if the council might see 2012 results sooner than it saw the 2011 results. Ideally, he said, a six to nine month timeframe would be helpful for the council, rather than waiting more than a year. NMFS Administrator Jim Balsiger, who is also a council member, told Fields that he would look into the timing for future genetics work. Gisclair agreed that getting the information quickly would be helpful. In-season data, that could help the fleet determine where to move, would be particularly useful, she said. But any data will help. Chum genetics reviewed Guyon’s report to the council also included an update on chum genetics for the Bering Sea. Those numbers show a smaller percentage of Western Alaska stocks being caught, but it is still enough to worry some stakeholders, particularly those in Norton Sound, where king runs are largely gone, but chums remain. Industry representatives talked about the difficulty of avoiding both chum and king bycatch, saying that when they avoid chum early in the season, it can push fishing later into the season, when it is harder to avoid kings. Council members asked members of the public what they thought about that trade-off, and which species they would prioritize. Most asked for a balance. “Chinook versus chum? You’re going to ask us that we should choose between the two resources for bycatch? No. Both bycatches should be coming down,” Sky Starkey told the council. “…It reminds me a little bit, that question and the councils action’s so far, of the infamous quote that led to one of the most famous revolutions in history, and that’s the aristocracy saying to those who are trying to get food, ‘let them eat cake.’ “’Let them eat pinks, let them eat chums.’” The same day the council asked for a report on bycatch from the Bering Sea pollock trawl fleet, the Alaska Senate passed a bill asking the council for action to reduce Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska bycatch. Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, introduced that bill earlier in the session. It passed the Senate 18-0, with two abstentions. The House had considered a similar bill, which was introduced in the House fisheries committee, but that was withdrawn by Fisheries Chair Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, after Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, prepared to amend it to request limits in the Cook Inlet East Side setnet fishery, as well. The report isn’t the council’s only foray back into bycatch issues. In June, the council is scheduled to work on crafting an amendment package for Gulf of Alaska trawl bycatch management measures, and take final action on king bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska non-pollock trawl fleet.

Inlet fish war leads to failure for anti-bycatch resolution

JUNEAU — What was supposed to be a two-fisted verbal whack at trawler bycatch of Alaska chinook salmon had one hand tied behind its back when a House resolution aimed at federal managers fell victim to the Cook Inlet salmon war. The Senate twin, SR 5, passed 18-0 on April 8, calls for a 50 percent reduction in the chinook bycatch limits. The Bering Sea Aleutian Islands pollock fishery operates under an effective limit of 47,951 kings and a hard cap of 60,000. The pollock fleet is limited to 25,000 in the Gulf of Alaska, but draggers chasing other species there operate under no effective limit in large part due to the lack of reliable observer data. SR 5 requests the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to cut the pollock caps by at least 50 percent, set meaningful limits on the Gulf non-pollock fleet and to require 100 percent observer coverage. The council is scheduled to decide on the non-pollock fleet Gulf bycatch cap at its June meeting in Juneau. A “joint resolution” is the standard vehicle for expressions of the legislature’s “will, wish, view, opinion, sympathy or request ... for addresses outside the state,” according to its Uniform Rules. The separate resolutions were introduced to make sure the feds got the message, according to Rep. Paul Seaton, a Homer Republican and chairman of the House Fisheries Committee, which sponsored HR 6. “In a state where we enjoy fighting over fish regularly, this resolution represents an issue where we are all united,” said Sen. Peter Micciche a Soldotna Republican before the Senate vote. Three days earlier, Seaton withdrew HR 6 after Rep. Bill Stoltze released a four-page amendment minutes before the House vote would have occurred. For the second time in less than a week, Stoltze charged that the Board of Fisheries is tilted in favor of the seafood industry and against the vast majority of the state’s population. “At least the focus and concern of my colleagues, from the Mat-Su valley, and from Anchorage and from the Interior, anybody that’s not on the coast, the management decisions are biased against them,” Stoltze said under “special orders,” the period at the end of each floor session when members may comment on any subject. He also seemed to accuse the House of a conspiracy to ignore the desires of the public after no members objected to the withdrawal of the resolution. “I think that speaks volumes of why nobody wanted a recorded vote on that issue, because I think there’s a silent majority of Alaskans who are shut out of that process and we’re their representatives so we won’t talk about that on the floor, I guess, this session,” Stoltze continued. The resolution, which had been the subject of two Fisheries Committee hearings, was focused entirely on trawl bycatch and directed only to the North Pacific council. Stoltze’s amendment called on the Board of Fisheries to “reduce chinook bycatch in the Cook Inlet by setting new limit on setnet fisheries.” It also declared, with no supporting evidence, that both trawlers and Cook Inlet commercial harvesters show “little urgency” in using gear that would let chinook escape their nets. The Senate resolution took a more cordial tone and said it “acknowledges and appreciates” the trawl industry’s past and continued efforts to reduce bycatch. “This resolution does not discourage trawl fishing in Alaska,” Micciche said on the Senate floor. As co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, Stoltze is one of the most powerful members of the legislature and a senior member of its largest regional delegation. In the 40-member House, 22 lawmakers are from Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough, including 16 majority Republicans. Stoltze said repeatedly that he drafted his amendment out of “total frustration at having no other way to express the feelings on an issue.” Reps. Lynn Gattis, Eric Feige and Craig Johnson, all Republicans from Wasilla, Chickaloon and Anchorage, respectively, are members of the Fisheries Committee. None offered amendments to the resolution during two hearings there and none spoke in support of Stoltze during the debate. Responding to Stoltze, Seaton said, “I hate to get into the fish wars, especially on the floor. That’s why we were withdrawing this.” He added that Stoltze’s charges against Cook Inlet commercial harvesters, and the failure of Board of Fisheries proposals from Mat-Su residents seeking stock reallocations are not based on accurate information. “The problem is what’s being addressed there is counter to everything that’s known to the Board of Fish. That’s why they haven’t prevailed there,” Seaton said. He noted that the 2012 Upper Susitna Chinook run was a failure even though drift and setnet fisheries intercepted no kings because they had been “totally shut down” after the Department of Fish and Game underestimated chinook returns by 30 percent. “People have to look at the real reasons, not made-up reasons,” Seaton said.   Tkacz is a correspondent for the Journal based in Juneau. He can be reached at [email protected]  

CFEC responds to scrutiny of scallop limited entry program

In the March 17 article in the Journal of Commerce titled “Shell game,” under the heading “Seaton questions constitutionality,” the article states: “The scallop fishery is the only vessel-based limited entry program in the state, and it was made vessel-based because assigning permits to individuals with fishing history would have resulted in 10 or 11 permits. That number was greater than the nine determined to be the most vessels the fishery could support.” This statement does not convey the magnitude of the problem faced by the commission. Based on the same period used to establish vessel eligibility, some 43 individual captains had participated in the fishery and would have been eligible to apply for permits (and hold interim-use permits) under traditional limited entry. Even under a shorter, hypothetical four-year period, 27 captains would have been eligible to apply. If the commission had implemented traditional limited entry, each of those captains could have brought a vessel into the fishery during the period of time required to adjudicate their claims to permits (with judicial appeals, at least 6 years). In good conscience, the commission could not have risked visiting that much fishing power on (in the words of ADFG Commissioner Cora Campbell) “a hard bottom dredging” fishery, which could potentially do terrible damage if not very carefully controlled. The possibility of 43 vessels (or even 27) compared to 9 participating vessels presented a stark choice to the commission. The article attributes the following statements to Rep. Paul Seaton: “Time does go on and things change, and there wasn’t consolidation to a very few select people at the time [in 2008 when the legislature extended termination of this limitation], which may run afoul of other parts of the constitution and a special right of fishery ... “For several years there seems to have been a philosophy at the CFEC that they are the chief supporters of a position of policy instead of implementing the policy that is set by the legislature. Although they were implementing the policy, to oppose a change in policy by the legislature is, I believe, beyond their real mission.” Some years ago during the course of a hearing, Rep. Bill Hudson made a somewhat parallel comment to the commission, but in the form of praise for being “proactive.” The comments attributed to Rep. Seaton fail to acknowledge (1) that the state waters fishery looks very much the same today as it did when the legislature extended the limitation in 2008, and (2) that the commission’s actions are solidly grounded in specific direction from the legislature and the Alaska Constitution. As it did in 2008, the state waters scallop fishery includes 7 permits, and, in full compliance with state law, no individual or entity holds more than one state permit. The article correctly cites Johns v. Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, 758 P.2d 1256, 1266 (Alaska 1988), for the proposition that the Limited Entry Act directed CFEC to determine an optimum number to ensure that a limited fishery was not too exclusive. CFEC is prepared to examine an optimum number for the state scallop limitation. That opportunity will be destroyed if the limited fishery terminates at the end of 2013. Preserving CFEC’s statutory authority to perform an optimum number determination is a principal reason the commission supports extending the termination date for the fishery. The procedure would also be fair to Mr. Bill Harrington, Mr. Max Hulse, and the other permit holders. Extending termination would avoid a risk that the resulting open-to-entry scallop fishery may have to be closed to protect the stocks. Creating the risk of closure would breach the duty of the legislature and managers alike under Article VIII, Section 4, of the Alaska Constitution, to ensure that “Fish ... and all other replenishable resources belonging to the State shall be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle ... “ Current management of the fishery under limited entry has earned high marks. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch has bestowed upon Alaska Weathervane Scallops their “Best Choice” award based on a showing that the Alaska scallop resource is abundant, well-managed and caught in an environmentally friendly way. Bruce Twomley is the Chair of the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. Benjamin Brown is a CFEC Commissioner. Editor’s response: The Journal stands by its reporting. The CFEC writes that we understated the potential number of permits (and therefore the possible number of scallop vessels) that could have fished under traditional limited entry with interim-use permits. We believe CFEC is overstating the magnitude of the risk. Under open access from 1980 to 2002, the peak number of vessels that ever fished in state waters was 12 (in 1981 and 1994), with a typical range of about six to 10 vessels annually. There is no realistic possibility that 27 or 43 vessels would have entered the state water scallop fishery through operator-based interim-use permits. The range of possible permits we reported was based on the CFEC’s official position in 2004 regarding the number of traditional, operator-based permits that could have ultimately been issued for scallops. In any case, however, the only intent of the sentence referenced by CFEC was to describe why a vessel-based system was chosen over traditional operator-based limited entry. We agree — and reported — that would have resulted in more permits than the number of vessels the state wanted to participate in the fishery. We disagree with the CFEC assertion that the state waters fishery “looks very much the same” as it did in 2008 when the program was last authorized. The Washington-based partnership described in our March 17 issue purchased three federal licenses in 2008 soon after the legislature extended the state waters limited entry program, bringing their total holdings to five federal licenses. One of those federal licenses was held by individuals that relinquished their state permit eligibility in 2003 as a move to consolidate effort; another federal license was associated with a state permit that was relinquished in 2007; and the third state permit previously associated with the federal license is now in suspension because it has not been assigned to a vessel. Because many of the scallop beds straddle the three-mile boundary between state and federal waters, it is difficult to prosecute the fishery only in state waters. By controlling five federal licenses, we believe it is accurate to report that the partnership effectively controls the corresponding portion of the state waters harvest as well, and to a larger extent now than it did in 2008.   — Andrew Jensen Managing editor  

Multiple fisheries studies under way for Watana hydro

Editor's note: Since this issue went to press, the Alaska Energy Authority announced Wednesday that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had approved the 14 remaining study plans. Now, 58 studies are approved, to be conducted over the next two years. Fisheries studies are under way on the Susitna River north of Talkeetna as part of the regulatory process for the proposed Susitna-Watana Hydro project. The Susitna-Watana Hydo project’s fish and aquatic resources technical workgroup held a quarterly meeting March 26 to discuss the fisheries study plan. The Alaska Energy Authority, or AEA, is studying a 735-foot high dam on the Susitna River, above Devil’s Canyon. That would create a reservoir about 42-miles long, and have an installed capacity of 600 megawatts, although actual output year-round would likely not meet that peak value. With those details set out, AEA is now working on studies of what the dam means for the surrounding environment — including fish.  Most of the currently available information about the dam is from studies done in the 1980s. But now AEA has hired R2 Resource Consultants to assist with a new round of scientific work. Although AEA and R2 are developing the studies, in conjunction with other partners, and ensuring the plans comply with regulatory requirements, the working group brings together a variety of participants, including state and federal agency representatives and members of nonprofits, to discuss the plans. As proposed, the study plan calls for more than 50 studies, which must be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. Of the studies, 13 are specifically categorized as pertaining to fish and aquatic resources, although others, including two looking at in-stream flow, could also be significant in determining the dam’s impact on fisheries. AEA filed its study plan with FERC on Dec. 14. So far, FERC has signed off on 44 of the studies, and asked AEA to do further work developing the others. The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, filed a study dispute request in February regarding three of those studies, two of which are set to look at fisheries resources. AEA has also updated some of the plans as FERC requested, but was waiting for a response from FERC as of March 26. Other plans will be finalized later this spring, with an opportunity for the public, and agencies, to comment at that time. The authority has also been instructed to include input from certain federal agencies as it modifies study plans, a point that attendees emphasized at the March 26 meeting, and asked the authority to remember. At that meeting, AEA offered an update on each fish study. The plan is to look at fish distribution and abundance for all parts of the river, salmon escapement, river production, the future reservoir area, fish passages and barriers, fish harvest downstream of the proposed dam, a genetic baseline study being done in conjunction with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, euchalon distribution and abundance, and a beluga whale study. The studies NMFS is questioning look at fish escapement and fish passage at the dam site, according to Mary Louise Keefe from R2, who provided an overview of the work. FERC had scheduled a technical conference for April 3 to discuss the proposed work, and differences of opinion. Several studies, including the salmon escapement project, are currently in the field planning stage, while some, such as the fish passage barriers work, are still being modified to meet FERC’s comments. The workgroup is also assisting with developing the studies, although it doesn’t have the final say. AEA’s Betsy McGregor reminded the agency participants that ultimately it is not a consensus process. Ultimately, AEA will be responsible for the final plan, and may or may not be able to incorporate every comment made during the meetings, she and others said. FERC has instructed the authority to include some specific participation from federal agencies. The final, approved, versions of the authority’s study plans will eventually be made public, although a timeline for that has not yet been set. Some of the research has already begun. Last year, scientists began baseline studies of the area and worked to pinpoint some study sites. AEA also has video of the area that will become a reservoir, and other parts of the river that could be affected by the dam. That’s available to the public, but must be checked out from AEA’s Anchorage office either in person or via mail. In March, some winter work was conducted, including trips to study sites, installation of some technology. In April, scientists are set to continue the study effort by working on early life history sampling using fish nets and minnow trapping to look at juveniles in the river, and catch their movement out of spawning areas and into rearing areas. Over the next few years, the working group will meet quarterly. Although the March 26 meeting was just one day, future meetings could take longer as the studies begin and there’s more to discuss. The working group’s next meeting will be a fish passage workshop in Washington, on April 9 and 10.   Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected]  

Senate hearing focuses on managing Arctic activity

At a Senate subcommittee field hearing about increased Arctic maritime activity March 27, participants from the government, private industry and nonprofits discussed the opportunities and challenges that will come with development. Whether or not increased Arctic activity is coming didn’t seem to factor into the discussion, and Sen. Mark Begich has said that he thinks the question of whether Arctic oil and gas drilling will be allowed is closed. Begich led the Anchorage field hearing as the chair of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, which included two panels. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, the Coast Guard’s District 17 commander Rear Admiral Tom Ostebo, and Shell Vice President Pete Slaiby participated in the first panel, offering a regulatory and industry perspective on what has happened in the Arctic so far, and what is on the horizon. Despite sequestration, Ostebo said the Coast Guard is gearing up to continue its heightened Arctic presence this coming summer. Ostebo also talked about how various entities have worked together on Arctic issues — such as the National Marine Fisheries Service’s moratorium on fishing north of the Bering Strait, which was a response, in part, to stakeholder concerns, he said, and joint contingency exercises conducted with Canada to prepare for an oil spill or other incident. He also discussed what could happen in the near future, including the need for further study on a Bering Strait access route. In response to a question from Begich, Ostebo said that while Arctic traffic is increasing significantly, much of the increase is from ships outside the oil and gas arena. He also talked about the need to develop the Polar Code and work on international regulations so that the United States can have some oversight of the vessels traveling near its communities. Otherwise, there is little that can be done about foreign-flagged vessels with a foreign crew, he said. Other parties are engaging in that policy discussion in a way that could result in an end product, Ostebo said in response to a follow up question from Begich. Slaiby said that his participation was an obvious nod to Shell’s 2012 Arctic program. While the company has suspended its Arctic work for 2013, it will likely return to the region, he said. Slaiby said the company’s 2012 Arctic program marked historic steps toward validating the offshore potential in the far north. Although the subject came up, no new details were revealed about the Kulluk’s grounding near Kodiak. The Kulluk, a conical drilling vessel owned by Shell and used in the Beaufort Sea last summer and fall, lost its towlines in a storm and grounded on New Year’s Eve. Begich and others noted that the issue was one of transportation, and a potential impact of increased Arctic traffic, but not specifically an Arctic drilling issue. Slaiby thanked the players who helped ensure that the Kulluk grounding didn’t escalate, and said that a variety of factors — including the rig’s proximity to Kodiak, and other preparations — made the aftermath run much smoother than it might have otherwise. In response to a question from Begich about how sequestration will impact future Arctic drilling permits, Beaudreau said that while there are enormous challenges for permitting, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement will work to provide permits promptly. Begich also asked Beaudreau what might be required for ConocoPhillips when it seeks Arctic permits, given that it will undertake a different type of drilling than Shell. Specifically, Begich asked if the requirement for a containment dome would still apply. Beaudreau said that generally, the bureau will look for the same things, and wants to ensure that loss of well control can be addressed at the source, and in short order. Beaudreau also said that a working group is looking at permitting issues, and the quality of oversight, and will also have an opportunity for public outreach with an eye toward reducing the burden for local communities. The second panel took a broader look at development, with various Arctic stakeholders and a range of interests that included both transportation and environmental concerns. That included U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System Executive Director Helen Brohl, Marine Exchange of Alaska Executive Director Ed Page, Pew’s U.S. Arctic Campaign Manager Eleanor Huffines, Bering Straits Native Corp. Vice President Matt Ganley, and Alaska Nanuuq Commission Executive Director Jack Omelak. Ganley said that his organization wants to increase the role it plays in future Arctic operations, and is asking for a land conveyance that could foster that growth. If granted the land, Bering Straits Native Corp, or BSNC, could develop a port that would serve as a staging ground for Arctic development and traffic, and offer a centralized area from which to deploy assets for drilling, response, or other needs. Currently, the state’s Department of Natural Resources, the Coast Guard, and others do not have adequate staging facilities, Ganley said. Others on the panel had a focus on communities and contingencies. Huffines talked about the need for local communities to have a meaningful voice in decision making, and for Arctic-specific oil spill response protocol that acknowledge the ecosystem in the region, and how it differs from other areas. Omelak also talked about the need to engage local communities, and had more specific recommendations as well, including speed restrictions for maritime traffic, zones where no traffic was permitted, and additional resources to study and monitor the area. Communities could also use the ability to track ships, he said, noting that vessels already have tracking devices, communities just need a way to access the information. In Begich’s questions, and some of the testimony, discussions of how to develop the Arctic while the national budget is pared down kept coming up. Ostebo said that for 2013, the Coast Guard would definitely increase its Arctic presence, but that 2014 was too far away to know. And, he said, the issue is largely that the Coast Guard needs more funding, not that money can be shifted to the 17th District from other regions. Begich said that Brohl and Beaudreu both participated via teleconference, from Washington, D.C., because of sequestration and budget concerns.  

Setnetters, sport guides stay guarded heading into 2013

There are some things Norm Darch has to buy for his Salamatof Beach setnet sites every year such as fuel, supplies for his crew, nets and maintenance on his equipment. Other things, like capital improvements, new boats or tractors and even hiring the same size crew, will have to wait. Some 6.7 million sockeye are predicted to make it back to the Upper Cook Inlet during the 2013 fishing season, a run that should yield a harvest of more than one million fish above the 20-year average harvest. But local setnetters say they are unwilling to invest any more money into a fishery they were largely shut out of during the last season. Likewise, Kenai River sport fish guides are approaching the coming season with caution after uncertainty in the 2012 king salmon season led to in-season restrictions. “As of right now, my crew has called and they’re saying ‘What’s your plan?’ I’m saying, right now, don’t plan,” Darch said. “As far as capital improvements, I’m not investing in anything, it’s going bare bones.” Pat Shields, area management biologist in the commercial division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said he’s heard from several fishermen that planning their crews is a challenge. “Based on what happened in 2012, should they go out and hire a whole crew?” Shields said. “It’s a little different from normal.” While East Side setnetters were given a handful of openings throughout their season last year, many said they had lost a significant amount of money for the season. Robert Williams, who fishes on Cohoe Beach, said the sockeye salmon forecast was not biblical, but generally a good indicator of how a season would work. However, because he was unsure if he’d be allowed an opportunity to fish, the size of the run was immaterial. “I’ve fished before on small returns and just not made any money because there wasn’t a harvestable surplus of sockeye,” he said. So Williams, like Darch, said he probably will not hire as many crew members. Still, even cutting back on expenses may not ease the financial burden. “In 2011, I bought a brand new John Deere tractor because we had a good season and even though they decoupled the (drift) fleet on us for a few days that year because the kings were late, everybody got over it quickly because we got to fish.” Those tractors, Williams said, represent millions of dollars to local setnetters. The overhead costs for starting the season still loom as well, he said. Williams said when he considered the economic impacts on the area he had concerns for the future. “We’ve been beaten up on for a while,” he said. “The inriver (guides) too, they’re facing the same thing we are with these king projections. It’s going to put a hurting on the local area, I think.” Alex Douthit, owner and operator of Salmon Buster’s Guide Service said the increasingly restricted king fishing season on the Kenai River has made it much harder for him to conduct business. “I’ve got clients calling and saying ‘Are we going to be able to fish?’ and I’m saying, ‘I have no idea’,” Douthit said. “I’ve got one client ... this is his first year in close to 20 years that he and his wife aren’t going to come up. It’s definitely impacting everybody. Everybody is a little gun shy about making plans to come up again.” Joe Hanes, who owns and operates the Fish Magnet Guide service, blames the uncertainty of the fishery on poor management. “It’s not just the runs of the fish that we’re dealing with, we’re dealing with management concerns too. Big time,” Hanes said. “That’s probably the more difficult thing to deal with … the management strategies have been extremely conservative over the last five or six years where we’ve had closures that were far to early.” Hanes said in the past two years he has seen several kings caught when the river was restricted to no-bait. “When you hit glacial water, it is really hard to catch them without bait,” Hanes said. “That’s what was so frustrating about the last few years in July it was like, holy mackerel, there is a lot of fish in here and they closed it.” The closure to king fishing has been devastating on his business, Hanes said. “When they close us, we lose our bookings for weeks,” he said. “When they reopen we can’t just call people and tell them to come back.” Douthit and Hanes said clients who are booking king fishing trips in 2013 have booked toward the end of July, a departure from when they typically fish. “Bookings I’m getting so far this year are saying, ‘Are there sockeye at that time of year?’” Douthit said. “They’re all worried about spending all that money coming up and leaving with nothing. “ Hanes said the king fishery has slowly been condensed to a two-week period in July as clients become gun shy about booking trips during times of the year that the river has been restricted. “People can’t make a season on the last two weeks of July,” Douthit said. “You can’t live off of two weeks of work.”   Rashah McChesney can be reached at [email protected]  

Sens. ask Obama to seek disaster aid for fishermen

BOSTON (AP) — A group of senators from New England, New York, Mississippi and Alaska is asking President Obama to request disaster aid for fisheries in their states. In a letter Thursday, the 13 senators told Obama it was the administration's responsibility to request the money, since it had declared disasters in fisheries in the three regions. The declaration in the Northeast came as fishermen face huge cuts in catch limits as stocks continue to struggle, even though fishermen have followed strict rules. Last year, the U.S. Senate included $150 million to be divided among the regions in its Superstorm Sandy relief bill. But the House stripped all but $5 million of it out and limited it to Superstorm Sandy impacts. The senators argued fishermen are struggling and can't wait for aid.

EPA plans final Bristol Bay assessment this year

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to issue a final report this year on the impacts of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region, regional director Dennis McLerran said. McLerran spoke Tuesday to the Alaska Forum on the Environment in Anchorage. In his prepared remarks, he said the EPA plans to release a revised draft report this spring for public comment and additional peer review. The EPA said it will consider the additional input as it prepares its final report. The agency began its study in response to concerns about a large copper-and-gold prospect near the headwaters of one of the world's premier salmon fisheries in Alaska. The EPA released a draft watershed assessment last year that found that, even without any failures, there would still be an impact on fish due to eliminated or blocked streams, removal of wetlands and a reduction in the amount and quality of fish habitat as water is used for mine operations. The report offered no position on whether the proposed Pebble Mine project should move forward. McLerran said at the time that the assessment wasn't about a single project — though Pebble is the highest-profile in the region — but was instead a look at the potential impacts of mining in the Bristol Bay region. The assessment was based on a hypothetical mine scenario that the EPA said drew in part on plans and data put forth by Pebble LP, the firm behind the mine. The draft underwent peer review, with some panelists raising concerns about things like lack of clarity in the document's objective, missing data and incomplete information. The EPA announced in November that it would address the concerns raised by the panel, first with a revised draft. McLerran said the EPA is arranging to have the original experts review the revised assessment and evaluate whether it is responsive to their comments. The EPA plans to release the draft to the public for comment concurrently. He said he expects the additional public comment period and review will be initiated this spring, before the Bristol Bay fishing season begins. "Our primary objective is to make sure that we have gotten the assessment right and are using the best available science," he said in his prepared remarks. "The Bristol Bay salmon runs are an Alaskan treasure and no one wants to see them harmed, so we want to make sure we have the best understanding possible of what the impacts of large scale mining could be on the salmon." McLerran said the EPA intends to complete the assessment this year. The agency hasn't decided how it will use the information and won't until the assessment is finalized, he said. Critics of the mine project expressed frustration with what they said could be a lengthy second review. They said they want quick action from EPA. "While we appreciate this administration's efforts to survey the risks and impacts of large-scale mining on the world-class natural resources and fisheries of Bristol Bay with sound science, the EPA has already gone above and beyond the letter of the law in drafting its assessment and conducting an independent and transparent review of it," said Tim Bristol, Alaska program director for Trout Unlimited, in a news release. He said the "added delay is unacceptable to Bristol Bay's communities and stakeholders." The EPA process has been criticized by Pebble LP, the state, pro-development groups and others, who see the agency's actions as premature and an overreach that could lead to it vetoing mining activity in the region. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said EPA's draft assessment was flawed. "The agency chose to evaluate a hypothetical mine that was basically designed to violate modern environmental standards," she said in a news release. "Until the EPA fixes this fundamental flaw, the agency's draft assessment will remain a work of fiction rather than sound science."  

McDonald's to put Alaska pollock 'Fish McBites' in Happy Meals

NEW YORK (AP) — McDonald's says it is offering its first new Happy Meal entree in a decade: Fish McBites. The world's biggest hamburger chain said the Fish McBites will be widely available at U.S. restaurants starting this week through March, to coincide with Lent. The Happy Meals will come with seven pieces of Fish McBites, French fries, apple slices and a drink. The company had already announced last month that the Fish McBites would be sold on the standard menu in three sizes — snack (10 pieces), regular (15 pieces) and shareable (30 pieces). Fish McBites, which are fried pieces of fish, will use the same Alaska Pollock used in the fast-food chain's Filet-O-Fish. The launch marks the start of what McDonald's says is a bigger pipeline of new limited-time offers for the year ahead. By adding more variety to its menu, the company is hoping it can fend off intensifying competition and tempt customers to eat out more at a time when many are being more careful about their spending. Brian Irwin, director of marketing for McDonald's USA, said the Fish McBites are a twist on the popular Chicken McBites that were introduced as a limited-time offer last year. He said the company thought they'd work well in Happy Meals because there's a "fun, poppable" aspect to them. That's why McDonald's sells more Happy Meals with Chicken McNuggets than hamburgers or cheeseburgers, he said — there's something about the dipping that kids like. Additionally, Irwin said the company's internal research showed that moms wanted more seafood options on the menu. Although the Fish McBites will be offered temporarily, Irwin said the company might bring them back periodically if they perform well. Depending on which drink is selected, McDonald's says the Happy Meals with Fish McBites have between 385 calories and 415 calories. McDonald's, often a target for health advocacy groups that say Happy Meals encourage kids to eat junk food, in 2011 began adding apple slices and reduced the portion of French fries in the meal boxes. For adults, the Fish McBites will come with tartar sauce and be served in cartons that make them easy to share or eat as a snack on the go, which Irwin said is an important attraction for customers. "It fits in your cup holder in the car," he said. The big question is whether they can boost sales in the months ahead. In the last quarter of 2012, McDonald's managed to eke out a higher profit in part by touting its Dollar Menu and urging franchisees to stay open on Christmas. But for January, the company warned that a key sales figure is expected to fall again. That would follow a drop in October, which was the first decline in the monthly figure after nearly a decade.

Senators express frustration on fisheries aid

JUNEAU (AP) — Alaska's U.S. senators voted with the majority in supporting a $50.5 billion emergency relief package for victims of Superstorm Sandy. But Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich expressed frustration that $150 million for Alaska and other states affected by fisheries' disasters wasn't included. Both said they would continue pushing for that aid. Begich said Alaska may be farther away, but that doesn't make fisheries disaster any less damaging or significant to the people affected by it. Murkowski referred to fisheries disasters as "fish droughts in our rivers and our oceans." The measure now goes to the president. The package also doesn't include money that could be used to protect U.S. shores from debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. An earlier version that had cleared the Senate had.

NE, Alaska, Gulf fishermen shut out of House disaster aid bill

BOSTON (AP) — The U.S. House of Representatives has shut out fishermen from New England, the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska from any emergency aid in its pending disaster relief bill. The House began debate on a $50.7 billion Superstorm Sandy relief bill Tuesday, and the only money included for fishermen was a possible $5 million for fishermen in New York and New Jersey affected by Superstorm Sandy. Three Democratic lawmakers from Massachusetts had each proposed amendments that would have meant between $116 million and $150 million in assistance for the fishing industry in the Northeast, Gulf Coast and Alaska. In Alaska, fisheries disasters were declared for the Upper Cook Inlet, Yukon and Kuskokwim salmon fisheries after low chinook returns restricted subsistence and commercial harvests. An initial State of Alaska estimated the losses at nearly $17 million. But on Monday, the Republican-led House Rules Committee didn't allow votes on the amendments, meaning they had no chance to be included in the bill. Massachusetts Rep. John Tierney, who proposed an amendment, along with Reps. Ed Markey and Bill Keating, called the committee's refusal to allow the votes "callous and outrageous." In remarks on the House floor Tuesday, Markey accused Republicans of cutting a lifeline to a struggling industry. "This bill says 'no' to them, 'no' to their needs," he said. Keating said the Republican leadership's claims of being small business champions have proven hollow. "When you strip it all down, I think it was just a callous disregard for an important industry and small businesses that are doing their best just to hang on," he said. But a spokesman for the House Rules Committee, Doug Andres, said the committee had asked the Democrats "to unify around one approach to deal with the fisheries issue." "They failed to do so," he said. Northeast fishermen became eligible for federal aid last year after a national fishery disaster was declared in the region, due to the unexpectedly slow recovery of stocks of bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as cod and flounder. That slow recovery means massive cuts in 2013 catch limits, which fishermen say could cause the Northeast's industry to collapse. Nick Brancaleone of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, a Gloucester-based industry group, said the coalition is "extremely disappointed" by the House bill. He said the aid is critically needed and justified by the disaster declaration. "Fishermen have and will continue to face insurmountable challenges with reduced landings and low revenues," he said. In its $60 billion Sandy relief bill, the Senate included $150 million for fishermen. But the House didn't take up the bill before the last Congress ended this month, and the legislation expired. The Senate will again consider a Sandy relief bill, and a spokesman for Sen. John Kerry said he's hopeful the Senate will restore the money for fishermen. "There's no reason why Sandy relief and fisheries assistance can't both be included in this package," said spokesman Alec Gerlach. Still, the differences between the House and Senate versions must be worked out in a final bill. And with the House already rejecting aid for New England's industry, prospects for any money remain uncertain.

Report: Kenai had busiest dipnetting season ever

(AP) — Kenai residents concerned about the increasingly popular personal use fishery on the Kenai Peninsula are calling for the city to put limits on dipnetters. The Kenai City Council on Monday held its first work session to discuss the 2012 dipnetting season report, which says that the Kenai Peninsula experienced its busiest dipnet season to date in 2012. The personal use fishery is open to Alaska residents who are allowed to use large nets with long handles to scoop salmon either from shore or from boats. The fishery brings thousands of people to Kenai when sockeye salmon runs peak in the summer. Kenai resident Megan Every said dipnetting season has become a time for people to come to Kenai and "trash the beach" and city officials should place limits on dipnetters. The report says revenues exceeded the previous year by 19.7 percent. That was attributed to a $5 camping fee increase and a larger number of participants. However, the report also says expenditures totaled $482,070. That means the city ended up losing more than $8,900. Fish waste continues to be a big problem. The city intends to pursue an aggressive program to mitigate waste on the north and south beaches. To mitigate the influx of dipnetters, City Manager Rick Koch proposed increasing efforts to move fish waste to the beaches' shores during low tides and collect other solid waste in new waste receptacles. Koch laid out his plan for 2013 in the latter half of the work session. He outlined six possible methods to deal with increasing waste. In the end, he suggested putting additional waste receptacles on the north and south beaches and raking the fish waste during low tides. Residents instead pushed for a prohibition on any fish waste disposal on the beaches or in the waters of the river. Users would be required to take whole fish home. Koch said that approach would require six additional officers to enforce the ban. Residents also spoke in favor of putting more pressure on the state and its agencies to alleviate the burgeoning "Woodstock of Alaska," as one attendee described the three-week dipnet season. "It's not the city's responsibility to clean up everyone else's trash," resident Megan Smith said. "If it ends up strewn from here to wherever, it becomes a state problem, and this is a state fishery."      

Prince William Sound holds top spot for salmon landings

Prince William Sound topped all other Alaska regions for salmon catches last year — but not by much. Fishermen in the Sound, or PWS, squeaked by their colleagues in the Panhandle by just 44 fish to get the No. 1 ranking for the 2012 season. The tally: 34.4 million salmon crossed the docks at PWS compared to 34.34 million for Southeast. For the second year running, Southeast Alaska beat out Bristol Bay for the most valuable salmon catch. According to preliminary numbers from the state, Southeast landings totaled $153 million at the docks, compared to $121 million at Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay can still lay claim to being home to Alaska’s most valuable salmon fishery by far with the sockeye catch valued at $117 million. Alaska’s second most valuable salmon catch in 2012 was chums in Southeast worth about $83 million ex-vessel. Prince William Sound ranked third for salmon value at $111 million; Kodiak was number four with a salmon season worth  $46 million. Cook Inlet’s fishery rang in at $36 million; at the Alaska Peninsula the value was $17.5 million, $2 million for the Kuskokwim, just more than $3 million at the Yukon, and the 2012 salmon season brought in less than $1 million to fishermen at Norton Sound and Kotzebue. In all, 124 million salmon were caught in Alaska in 2012, the smallest volume since 1997, but third largest by value ($505 million) since 1992. It also marked the 25th year in a row that Alaska’s salmon catch topped 100 million fish. Cod crunch Pacific cod kicks off Alaska’s commercial fisheries each January, but an anticipated glut in global supply pulled the bottom out of the market this year. When the dock price dropped a dime over the holidays to around 25 cents per pound, fishermen wondered if they could even afford to head out.  Cod, which accounts for 11 percent of Alaska’s total fish landings, is Kodiak’s second largest fishery, after pollock. In 2011, 85 million pounds of cod fish crossed the Kodiak docks, valued at $30 million. In the big picture, Kodiak is a small player, and this year its catch is facing a huge competing harvest of more than 1 million tons from Russian fleets in the Barents Sea, along with a cod comeback in the North Sea. “There is simply an oversupply of cod in the world market,” said John Whiddon, general manager at Pacific Seafoods in Kodiak. “And we also are competing against pollock and tilapia and Pangasius. And for the consumer, it all comes down to the fact that it is whitefish protein, and cod is just one component of that.” A portion of Kodiak’s cod catch goes to the U.S. market as fresh or frozen fillets, but most goes to China to be reprocessed and packaged for markets around the world. Whiddon said Kodiak’s remote location makes it tough to compete due to added freight costs.     “Right now the transportation cost to get the same cod from Russia to China is about half the price of the cost from Kodiak to China,” he said. “So you have the high volume of cod coming out Russia, the lower cost to get it to China, and it makes it very, very difficult for us to compete.”   Going into the 2013 season Whiddon said the worldwide first wholesale price for headed and gutted cod to China was down 30 percent and, “that would correspond with a reduction of the boat price here in town.”  “We’re off to a slow start. But before anyone gets truly alarmed, I think we need to wait and see how the cod market settles out,” he cautioned. “If the fish comes in slow from Russia, for example, then there will be a high demand for Alaska cod. The Chinese are also waiting to buy and seeing how prices play out.” For now, most Kodiak boats have begrudgingly set out for 27-28 cents a pound. “My hope is that as we start to see the cod flow from all around the world, there might be adjustments to the price that will allow fishermen to make a margin, and on the buying side too,” Whiddon added. “I want to emphasize that the prices paid in Kodiak for every species, but particularly for cod and pollock, are driven by global factors that are well beyond the control of any one entity here in town,” said Whiddon, who is also a Kodiak City Council member. “Cod is a global commodity, so we are always reacting to the changes and adjustments in the world market, both on the buying and selling side.” Fish watch Along with P-cod, lots more Alaska fisheries got under way with the start of the new year. Lingcod seasons opened in Southeast with a catch topping 300,000 pounds. Longliners and jiggers also set out for about 75,000 pounds of seven different kinds of rockfish. A few t-pot shrimpers were still out on the water in Southeast, along with trollers targeting winter king salmon.  Tanner crab seasons open Jan. 15 around Kodiak Island with a 660,000 pound quota. The Bering Sea snow crab fleet heads out this month for a 66 million pound catch; they are concerned again about an early ice pack covering the crab grounds. Pollock, Alaska’s largest fishery, begins Jan. 20, for trawlers in the Gulf and Bering Sea. Nearly 3 billion pounds of pollock will come from Alaska waters this year. More salmon forecasts: The Upper Cook Inlet sockeye catch is projected at nearly 5 million fish for all users. The Copper River catch is pegged at 1.3 million sockeye salmon and just less than 20,000 kings. Halibut cuts Pacific halibut fishermen will know in a few weeks if they will face double digit cuts again in their catches again this year. The International Pacific Halibut Commission will announce the catch limits at its annual meeting Jan. 21-25 in Victoria, British Columbia.  The catches could be cut by 30 percent, meaning a coast wide harvest of just 22.7 million pounds for fisheries in California, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska. Alaska’s share of the halibut catch would be 17.4 million pounds, down from about 25 million this year. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

Chinook conservation, permit stacking approved for Bristol Bay fisheries

Bristol Bay fisheries will operate under some revised regulations this year. The Alaska Board of Fisheries met in Naknek in December to consider changes to Bristol Bay finfish regulations, including 73 proposals regarding area salmon fishing. Commercial salmon fishermen will see a number of changes. Under the changes to how permits can be stacked, two driftnet permit holders can fish from the same vessel and jointly operate 200 fathoms of drift gillnet gear except in the Togiak District, in a special harvest area, or when the Naknek River Special harvest Area is open. The Togiak Traditional Council proposed that such permit stacking not be allowed in the Togiak District because the salmon runs in the area are small, and stacking increases the race for fish. The request to allow 200 fathoms of joint gear was made to allow more flexibility for permit stacking than was allowed under a regulation change in 2009. The board also agreed to prohibit additional drift gear for dual permit vessels in the Togiak District. The board also unanimously approved an amended proposal that closes an area near the Togiak River to commercial driftnet fishing from June 1 to July 15. That change is intended to help protect chinook salmon, which can be caught in that area and have had low escapements into the Togiak in recent years. In the Naknek-Kvichak Management and Allocation Plan, the commercial drift fleet targeting sockeye salmon will only be open between seven-foot flood and seven-foot ebb tide stages. That was proposed an effort to conserve chinooks. The original proposal wanted to stagger fishing but didn’t offer a specific management strategy, and board member Vince Webster proposed the amendment that passed. For the same plan, an effort to open a new set gillnet fishery at Levelock failed. On the Ugashik River, the area for setnetting has been decreased. Those nets now must be within 600 feet of the 18-foot high tide mark, rather than the prior requirement of 1,000 feet. According to the proposal — which came from individuals, the area Alaska Department of Fish and Game advisory committee, and the Ugashik Traditional Village Council — 1,000 feet was too large for some of the small spaces around Ugashik village. That carried unanimously. The board also approved slight changes to the area closed to salmon fishing at the mouth of the Igushik and Togiak rivers. In both cases, the area now open is more consistent with historic openings. The boundaries were inadvertently altered when the state switched from delineating the open and closed waters with markers and loran coordinates to using latitude and longitude coordinates. Near the Igushik, that means an existing setnet site will once again be in open waters. After the boundary transition, the site was placed in closed waters. Setnet vessels can now transport salmon through the Snake River Section. That proposal, as amended by Webster, passed unanimously. A previous regulation change had limited navigation in the Snake River Section to eliminate illegal fishing in that area. Various marking requirements also changed. Shoreside setnet markings will have to be larger this year, as the board approved a proposal changing the marking requirement from six inches to 12 inches. That brings those boats in line with the requirements for drift and setnet boats, which must also have Fish and Game numbers displayed in 12-inch letters. Another regulation change clarifies the vessel marking requirements for setnet vessels. Those vessels no longer have to have a commercial fisheries entry commission, or CFEC, permit serial number displayed on the boat. Now the vessels are just required to have the vessel name, and the permanent vessel license number. Bristol Bay CFEC setnet permit holders are also now required to register for a statistical area in the Nushagak District if they intend to fish in that district. Area management plans were also up for discussion. The king salmon reference points for the Nushagak-Mulchatna king salmon management plan were revised as suggested by ADFG to match the change in technology. The department has switched from a Bendix sonar to a DIDSON (dual identification sonar), which enumerates more fish. The biological escapement was changed to a range from 55,000 to 120,000. Previously, the escapement was a single number rather than a range. Other reference numbers within the plan, including the in-river goal, were also adjusted. Reference points for the Wood River Special Harvest Area Management Plan were changed as well, as were some regulations for operating setnets or drift nets in that harvest area. Five herring-related proposals also failed unanimously. The proposals were split between changing how herring is allocated, and closing certain areas or aspects of the fishery. Individuals brought forward two of the allocation-related changes, while the Togiak Traditional Council proposed both closures and one allocation change. While the proposals failed, board members said they wanted more information on the possible closures, which were put forth as a way to help protect subsistence opportunities in the area. Those will likely come back with additional research during the next cycle. New sport, subsistence regs Under the new subsistence schedule approved in December, the final subsistence fishing opening in the Nushagak District each week will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday and close at 9 a.m. Sunday, instead of running from Friday to Saturday. The other subsistence openings are on weekdays, so the change allows for a weekend harvest opportunity for those who work Monday through Friday. That change, which was proposed by the Nushagak Advisory Committee, was approved unanimously. Sportfishermen will see changes this year as well. The non-retention, no-bait area for the Nushagak River was increased to include the full drainage upstream of its confluence with Harris Creek, and fish parts were prohibited in the waters where bait is prohibited. According to the proposals, both changes are meant, in part, to promote conservation and enhance the rainbow trout fishery. The board also considered requiring barbless hooks in unbaited, single-hook, artificial fly waters, but that motion failed with a 3-3 vote. The board did not pass a number of other proposals, including creation of a general district for sockeye fishing, development of a process for addressing future proposals deemed as restructuring the salmon industry. An effort to increase the setnet allocation in the Nushagak, Naknek-Kvichak, Egegik and Ugashik districts also failed. An effort to establish a sockeye salmon fishery in the Cinder River Section from June 20-Sept. 20, and changes to the allowable fishing areas near Port Heiden were also brought forward at the meeting. Those proposals will be discussed at the Alaska Peninsula/Aleutian Islands finfish meeting, scheduled for Feb. 26 to March 4 in Anchorage. At that meeting, the board will also discuss two proposals it generated at the December meeting. One would close sport fishing for king salmon in the Big Creek drainage, and the other would allow permit stacking for set netting in the Egegik and Ugashik districts. Any proposals resulting from the Western Alaska Salmon Stock Identification Project, or WASSIP, will also come forward at that meeting.

Board of Fisheries to discuss Yukon, Kuskokwim fishery changes

Commercial fisheries disasters were declared after low chinook runs on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers in 2012, and several proposals to be considered by the Board of Fisheries will consider ways to preserve fishing opportunity for residents reliant on those fish. The board will discuss regulation changes for the Arctic, Yukon, and Kuskokwim, or AYK, areas Jan. 15-20 in Anchorage. The board is scheduled to discuss 70 proposals at the meeting, which include revisions to subsistence, sport and commercial fishing regulations for area fisheries. For the Kuskokwim area, the board will look at four subsistence-related proposals as the committee of the whole. An Alaska Department of Fish and Game proposal would update the Kuskokwim River Salmon Rebuilding Management Plan so that there is more management flexibility to meet subsistence needs and offer commercial fishing opportunity when possible. The changes include additional subsistence openings when the run is strong, and ways to manage for different species depending on their relative strengths. That proposal received support in public comments from retired Fish and Game Biologist Douglas Molyneaux, who lead a working group looking at changes. The working group also offered its own suggestions, such as to allow commercial coho fishing that doesn’t impact chum escapement when the chum run is weak. The Association of Village Council Presidents also proposed creating an optimum escapement goal for chinooks, rather than the drainage wide escapement goal for chinooks that ADFG is likely to implement. That would also be a change to the Kuskokwim River Salmon Rebuilding Management Plan. The board will also discuss whether or not to allow the sale of some subsistence-taken finfish in the Kuskokwim area, which was proposed by the Orutsararmiut Native Council. Under the proposal, sales would be capped at $500 per year, the fish could not be resold and such sales would be contained to the Kuskokwim area. According to comments from ADFG, this will be the first time the board considers whether customary trade of finfish is a customary and traditional use of fish, as required for subsistence uses. Another department proposal also calls for reviewing the amount necessary for subsistence, or ANS, in the Kuskokwim River drainage. According to proposal, the department changed how it estimates subsistence salmon harvest in 2008, and the current ANS findings are based on the old methodology. The options offered by the department do not change the ranges for ANS, despite using the different methods. When the board splits into committees, it will also look at a variety of proposals for sport fishing in the Kuskokwim area. Those include efforts to limit or close salmon fishing on the Eek and Kwethluk rivers, and in the Kanektok and Arolik River drainages. Most of those efforts are opposed by ADFG. As the committee of the whole, the board will also take up Yukon Area salmon proposals. Several pertain to subsistence fishing, including a proposal by ADFG to revise the ANS findings to reflect changes in customary and traditional subsistence use patterns, and proposals to create a harvest reporting system for subsistence-taken salmon. Other proposals would affect Yukon chinooks, including gear changes to protect chinooks but allow for the catch of other fish, pulse protection to better allow for fish to make it to Canada, and prohibiting chinook sales when the commercial chinook fishery is closed. Proposed changes to the Yukon River Summer Chum Salmon Management Plan would create a chinook bycatch cap, and change chum escapement and trigger points. ADFG did not offer support for any of those Yukon proposals in its comments, aside from its own effort to update the ANS findings, although it remained neutral on some, including certain gear changes, and chum escapement and triggers. The board will also look at proposals for salmon in the Norton Sound and Port Clarence Area, which come with ADFG support. Proposals from an individual would open up additional areas to subsistence fishing and increase the amount of money a household can receive for selling subsistence-caught fish. Other proposals the board will consider would provide managers with the ability to open up commercial and sport fishing in parts of Norton Sound. Those proposals came from individuals, and the department was neutral in its comments. In separate committees, the board will look at other sport and subsistence proposals. Several relate to sport and subsistence opportunity for northern pike in the Tanana drainage and on the Yukon. Generally, the department’s comments support opportunity in those fisheries and opposed restrictions, although ADFG supported closing Little Harding Lake to sport fishing for northern pike. Other proposals could change rainbow trout fishing areas, stocking and hook allowances for a variety of waters. Salmon fishing at Fielding Lake and chinook fishing on the Black River are also up for discussion. The board’s other committee will look at a variety of subsistence and commercial management plans. Those include efforts to allow for additional commercial and subsistence opportunities for coho, chum and pink salmon, as well as grayling, in various Norton Sound areas under certain conditions. The meeting begins with staff reports and public testimony Jan. 15, while discussion of specific proposals as the committee of the whole will begin Jan. 16. Work done in committees will come back to the full board toward the end of the meeting.

ADFG predicts uptick in sockeye run for Upper Cook Inlet

Fishermen could catch a few extra sockeyes in Upper Cook Inlet waterways in 2013. Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game announced its sockeye salmon forecast Dec. 27, projecting a total run of 6.7 million fish, and a harvest of 4.9 million for all users. That’s up slightly compared to a 2012 harvest of 4.4 million, and about 1 million more than the 20-year average harvest of 3.8 million fish. The projections are good news for Kenai and Kasilof Rivers, but not so hot for Northern District waterways. The Kenai River forecast is down slightly compared to 2012. The prediction is for 4.4 million sockeyes in the Kenai, compared to a run of 4.7 million in 2012. That’s still above the 20-year average for the Kenai. The sockeye run on the Kasilof River is expected to come in just less than a million fish at 903,000, about 200,000 more than last year. Northern District systems Fish Creek and the Susitna River aren’t expected to be as strong. The Susitna River forecast is for 363,000 fish compared to 443,000 in 2012. The Fish Creek forecast is 61,000 fish, down from 84,000 in 2012. Fish Creek drains from Big Lake into the Cook Inlet at the Knik Arm. Fish and Game Biologist Pat Shields said the Kenai forecast ties to a management plan, which Fish and Game will use in the summer to oversee the fisheries. “This puts us in the middle tier for management next year,” Shields said. Under the middle tier Kenai management, Shields said east side setnetters will have two closed windows on Tuesdays and Fridays after July 8, with some flexibility regarding the timing of the closures. It also means that there will be 12-hour openings on Mondays and Thursdays, with an additional 51 hours of fishing time allowed each week. And it sets an escapement goal of 1 million to 1.2 million sockeyes passing the Kenai River sonar. The forecast also included projections for a few other river systems. The Crescent River, on the west side of Cook Inlet, could see an increase, with 110,000 sockeye predicted to swim upstream compared to 89,000 last year. And about 872,000 fish are expected to return to unmonitored systems. The Kenai, Kasilof and Crescent River predictions are all above escapement goals listed in the department’s forecast, while the Fish Creek estimate is within the escapement goal range. An escapement goal isn’t available for the Susitna River, because that river is gauged based on three different lake escapements: Larson Lake, Chelatna Lake and Judd Lake. NOAA lists ringed, bearded seals The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, announced Dec. 21 that it was categorizing ringed and bearded seals as threatened. The protections are based on declining sea ice, a primary habitat for the seals. In U.S. waters, the listing impacts Arctic ringed seals and the Beringia distinct population segment, or DPS, of bearded seals, although other subspecies and distinct population segments were included. There are no immediate restrictions for human activity as a result of the listing, but federally permitted activities in seal habitat — such as fishing or oil and gas development — could face additional scrutiny to protect the seals in the future. “Our scientists undertook an extensive review of the best scientific and commercial data. They concluded that a significant decrease in sea ice is probable later this century and that these changes will likely cause these seal populations to decline,” wrote Jon Kurland, protected resources director for NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska region, in a statement announcing the decision. “We look forward to working with the State of Alaska, our Alaska Native co-management partners, and the public as we work toward designating critical habitat for these seals.” The listing will go into affect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, or in late February. Now, NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comment to inform future critical habitat proposals for Arctic ringed seals and Beringia DPS bearded seals. The NOAA Fisheries announcement said subsistence harvest of ice seals will not be affected. Steller sea lions are listed as a threatened species, and have had critical habitat designated. Those protections have led to significantly reduced fishing for Atka mackerel and Pacific cod in the Aleutians. The listing came on the last possible day under a court order. In November, the Alaska district court ordered NOAA to respond to a complaint by Dec. 21. The listings were originally proposed in December 2010, with a period of public comment following. The administration extended its final determination from December 2011 to June 2012, but did not provide a determination at that time. The Center for Biological Diversity sued the National Marine Fisheries Service when that June deadline was not met. The announcement drew criticism for the timing as well as the action. “I believe that Alaska’s wildlife must be protected, but not by relying on overbroad, overreaching analysis that runs counter to the abundant seal populations we presently see,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski wrote in a statement about the designation. “There is something misguided about policy that is guaranteed to cause real economic impact on the horizon based on a hundred year hunch. No wonder NOAA decided to release this decision the Friday before Christmas, hoping it won’t register with Alaskans.” According to a statement from Gov. Sean Parnell, the State of Alaska is considering legal challenges to the listings. 2013 Kodiak Pacific cod harvest down from 2012 Pot and jig vessels can catch a combined 13.58 million pounds of Pacific cod in the Kodiak area state-waters fishery this year, down from 2012, when the limit was 15.69 pounds. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the 2013 guideline harvest level, or GHL, Dec. 24. Each gear type will receive half of the GHL, or 6.79 million pounds. The state fishery opens after the closure of the central Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod pot gear A-season federal fishery. For pot vessels, the opening comes seven days after the CGOA closure. Jig vessels will likely open 48 hours after the federal side closes, although the two can be open simultaneously if the federal fishery hasn’t closed by March 15. The state fishery comes with a variety of restrictions, and participants must have a state-waters Pacific cod vessel registration. Vessels are limited to either 60 pots or five mechanical jigs. Also, pot vessels greater than 58 feet in length are limited to harvesting at most 50 percent of the pot vessel share of the GHL. Senate approves NOAA Corps bill A bill that would more closely align the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Corps obligations and benefits with other uniformed services passed the senate unanimously Dec. 20. Corps members operate ships and aircrafts to enforce fisheries regulations and conduct other ocean-related duties. “The men and women who make up the NOAA Corps are our eyes and ears on Alaska’s key frontlines – fisheries, ocean mapping and engineering,” wrote Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a statement. Murkowski and Sen. Mark Begich co-sponsored the legislation with several other senators. “In Alaska, oceans are key to our economic prosperity, from fishing to responsible oil and gas development to transportation of goods and people,” Begich wrote in a statement. “We rely on the NOAA Corps to chart shipping routes and survey fish populations. As we expand activity in the Arctic, we will rely on the Corps even more for baseline scientific research in that region. We need to attract the best and brightest young men and women to the Corps and ensure that we retain knowledgeable senior officers.” The bill aims to improve recruiting and streamline procedures for moving up in rank, in addition to work at making benefits and obligations more similar. The House has not yet passed similar legislation, which is necessary before any such bill becomes law. Copper River Campus fined for asbestos violation Copper River Campus LLC pled guilty to violating the federal Clean Air Act for negligently endangering others when it released asbestos into the air in Anchorage. Copper River Campus is the corporate headquarters for Copper River Seafoods, located on East 5th Avenue in downtown Anchorage. The company was told to pay a $70,000 fine and serve three years probation, and contract with an environmental consultant to comply with environmental laws and safety standards in the future. According to a statement from U.S. prosecutors, the company purchased the building in 2009 knowing it had asbestos, and did not take the appropriate precautions when it began demolition and other work on the building. Alaskans respond to genetically modified fish decision Alaskans have been largely unsupportive of the Food and Drug Administration’s environmental assessment of genetically modified salmon. The administration, or FDA, released an environmental assessment, or EA, with a preliminary finding that genetically modified salmon pose “no significant impact” to the environment or public health. The fish under consideration are produced by Aqua Bounty and grow twice as fast as conventional salmon. Alaska’s congressional delegation responded negatively to the announcement. “I am concerned with the recent news that FDA is moving forward with the approval of genetically modified fish,” wrote Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a statement. “This is especially troubling as the agency is ignoring the opposition by salmon and fishing groups, as well as more than 300 environmental, consumer and health organizations.” Rep. Don Young expressed a similar sentiment in his statement, referring to the modified salmon as “frankenfish.” At a minimum, Young wrote that he plans to reintroduce legislation that would require labeling genetically engineered salmon. Sen. Mark Begich also released a statement questioning the FDA’s finding. “I am also concerned that the FDA is continuing to disregard the will of Congress,” Begich said. “It seems incredibly irresponsible to be moving forward on Frankenfish before they’ve taken a step back, consulted with experts on marine fisheries, and considered the potential impacts more broadly.” The FDA has not yet released a report on the potential impacts of genetically modified fish to the environment generally, something that was required under the 2007 FDA reauthorization. The FDA is taking comment on the EA for 60 days from publication in the federal register, which was done Dec. 26.

Nonprofit files legal challenge to NMFS observer program

An Alaska nonprofit filed suit in U.S. Alaska District Court Dec. 21 over the new observer program set to take effect Jan. 1. In an amended complaint filed Dec. 26, The Boat Company questioned whether the new at-sea observer program the National Marine Fisheries Service plans to use is adequate to monitor and manage bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries. The Boat Company is a nonprofit that operates tours on two vessels in Southeast, and provides fishing opportunity as well as conservation education. NMFS published the final rule for a new observer program in November. In a NMFS summary of the new program, the service said the new program will increase the statistical reliability of data collected by the program, address cost inequality among fishery participants and expand observer coverage to previously unobserved fisheries, such as halibut longline vessels. “It’s really about getting good numbers,” said Martin Loefflad, who heads the Alaska observer programs for NMFS, earlier this year. Those numbers are used for federal management of the fisheries. The amended complaint says that by allowing the ex-vessel fee to dictate deployment, the program does not ensure enough observer coverage to generate reliable information about bycatch. The complaint notes that NMFS documentation talks about a 30 percent level of coverage as being statistically robust, but that the new observer program only covers about 13 percent, and shifts coverage from larger, higher-impact trawl vessels to smaller, lower-impact selective gear vessels. The complaint also says that NMFS does not account for species- and fisheries-specific bycatch monitoring needs. “Accordingly, The Boat Company brings this lawsuit to compel the Fisheries Service to reconsider the Final Rule, to revise and supplement its environmental analysis, and to revise its restructured observer program to ensure at least 30 percent observer coverage, which the Fisheries Service has determined is the bare minimum required to generate statistically reliable information on the amount and type of bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska federal fisheries as required to manage them in compliance with controlling law,” the complaint reads. The suit asserts violations of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act, and raises issues with the details of the new observer program. The Boat Company has asked that the final rule for the observer program be remanded, with a new program developed with an adequate funding mechanism and NEPA analysis. The complaint notes that the high cost an observer day under the new program means fewer observer days than was called for in the final rule. It also faults NMFS for not analyzing that change as part of its environmental assessment. The lawsuit argues that the decrease in observer coverage to Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries could result in less robust information about bycatch, and management measures that are not appropriately informed. Such a change should have required an environmental impact statement, not the environmental assessment that came with a finding of no significant impact, according to the complaint. The suit is directed at Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank, NMFS, and NMFS Alaska Region Administrator James Balsiger. NMFS spokesperson Julie Speegle wrote in an email that the complaint is under review. Trawlers, the vessel type the complaint references, are in the trip coverage category for the new observer program’s 2013 deployment plan. As of Jan. 1, they’re required to log each fishing trip at least 72 hours in advance and take an observer when randomly selected. Hook-and-line and pot gear vessels of at least 57.5 feet will also be part of the trip selection pool. Smaller vessels are sorted into a vessel selection pool, in which a subset of vessels will carry an observer for 60 days, and the zero coverage pool, which includes catcher vessels less than 40-feet and those using jig gear. Although NMFS has said that the new program provides better data due to its design, the complaint argues that the partial coverage pools allow for non-representative fishing to be extrapolated to the entire fleet. That could mean more bycatch occurs than is accounted for, according to the complaint, because fishing could be cleaner when an observer is onboard. As developed, the program decreased coverage for certain sectors of the pollock and groundfish trawl fleets in order to begin observing the smaller longline boats targeting halibut and sablefish. The decreased coverage applies to those with greater prohibited species catch — chinook salmon in the pollock fishery and halibut in the bottom trawl fisheries.

2012 Picks and Pans from a year in Alaska seafood news

Alaska’s seafood industry worked hard this year to ramp up its message to policymakers, especially those from rail belt regions who tend to overlook the industry’s economic significance. How important is the seafood industry to Alaska and the nation? At a glance: nearly 60 percent of all U.S. seafood landings come from Alaska and 96 percent of all wild-caught salmon. Seafood is by far Alaska’s No. 1 export, valued $2.4 billion last year. Alaska ranks 9th in the world in terms of global seafood production. The seafood industry is second only to Big Oil in revenues it generates to Alaska’s general fund each year, and it provides more Alaska jobs than oil/gas, mining, tourism and timber combined. Here are some fishing notables from 2012, in no particular order, followed by my annual “Fish picks and pans”: • High winds, frigid temperatures and a record ice pack put the brakes on Alaska’s winter fisheries; ice forced the snow crab fleet to extend its season into June. • The U.S. became the first country to put catch quotas on every fish/shellfish species it manages in waters from three to 200 miles from shore. For Alaska, that means 80 percent of the total annual catch. • Construction of the first Bering Sea-sized fishing boat built in state got under way at Alaska Ship and Dry Dock in Ketchikan — a 136 foot, all steel catcher processor for Alaska Longline Company of Petersburg.  • The world’s first portable floating dry dock was launched at Allen Marine in Sitka; the modular dock can stretch to 160 feet and handle vessels up to 1,000 tons. • Western Alaska CDQ group vessel owners started making plans to homeport their big Bering Sea boats in Seward instead of Seattle. • For the first time, China emerged as the top market for Alaska exports, led by seafood.  • Halibut catch limits declined again by 20 percent and the outlook is for a similar reduction in 2013. Since 2004, the Pacific halibut commercial catch has been trimmed 54 percent coastwide. • Pollock skins were cited as a new source for nano-fibers that have a similar tissue structure to human organs and skin. Studies show that fish gelatin improves tissue cell growth better than mammalian gels. • Gov. Sean Parnell changed the mission statement of the state Department of Natural Resources and removed the word “conserve.” (He changed the governor’s mission statement too.) It was news to the Alaska legislature, which is supposed to approve such changes. • Bristol Bay fishermen continued to get improved grades for improving the quality of their salmon using a “report card” system and lots of ice.  • The industry braced for new rules that will place observers aboard fishing boats smaller than 60 feet, and for the first time, include the 2,000-plus boat halibut longline fleet. The expanded program begins in January. • Alaska’s salmon season came up short, topping 123 million fish, 7 percent shy of projections. • Chile’s farmed salmon industry came back on track after fighting disease outbreaks for several years, and flooded markets with fish. Still, Alaska’s wild catch held its own in world markets. • It took a quarter of a century, but fishery managers finally began putting the brakes on the 5 million pounds of halibut taken as bycatch by trawl and longline fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska. The North Pacific Council agreed to phase in a 15 percent reduction plan starting in 2014. The annual Gulf bycatch allotment exceeds the combined harvests for sport halibut fisheries in Southeast and South central Alaska. • Soccer balls, motorcycles and mounds of buoys and Styrofoam began washed ashore in Alaska from the massive 2011 tsunami in Japan. The worst is yet to come, but it remains a head scratcher as to who picks up both the debris and the tab. At least 750,000 tons of debris is expected to hit Alaska’s coastline. • Another head scratcher: Growing populations of sea otters continued feasting on Southeast Alaska’s stocks of sea cucumbers, crabs, urchins and clams. Estimates peg commercial fishing losses from the otters at $30 million since 1995. • Trident Seafoods introduced 100 percent recyclable “AquaSafe” fish box starting with its shipments of some of the first Copper River reds in mid-May. • A first ever accounting of bycatch in US fisheries was unveiled by federal scientists, setting a baseline for the accidental takes of fish, marine mammals, and seabirds by fishing gear. The Southeast region of the U.S. (Gulf of Mexico) led all others with total fish bycatch, Alaska ranked second for fish bycatch and nearly last for marine mammals. • The state gave a $3 million show of support for University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers to buy high tech buoys to measure ocean acidity levels in Alaska waters year ‘round. Alaska fishermen will play an important role in the water sampling research. • More research backed the fact that the tiniest traces of copper in water affect a salmon’s sense of smell and changes their behavior. A University of Washington/NOAA project confirmed that as little as five parts of copper per billion made the salmon unable to detect predators and were attacked in a matter of seconds. • Dutch Harbor-Unalaska held onto the title of the nation’s top fishing port for seafood landings. • Shrimp, canned tuna and salmon remained as America’s top seafood favorites; Alaska pollock bumped farmed tilapia for the No. 4 spot. Overall, Americans ate slightly less seafood at 15 pounds per person per year. • The no-show by Alaska chinook salmon merited a federal disaster declaration for the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Kenai  Rivers. The State ramped up research for king salmon rehab statewide, and believe ocean factors are causing the salmon declines. • Despite outpourings of opposition from Congress and constituents, the Food and Drug Administration gave a “clean bill of health” to genetically tweaked salmon. That clears the way for Frankenfish to become the first scientifically altered animal approved for human consumption anywhere in the world. The 60-day public comment period is going on now. • The “graying of the fleet” continued in Alaska. State data showed that 45 percent of all Alaska permit holders were between the ages 45 and 60, with an average age of 47.  • A grassroots effort to bring back Alaska’s coastal zone management program failed to get enough votes to get the measure on the ballot. • Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell certified the Bristol Bay Forever citizens’ initiative, which aims to protect wild salmon from any new, large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region. Citizens have one year to gather 30,169 signatures to get the measure on the 2014 general election ballot. • Ever-savvy Copper River salmon producers launched a Locator App to help customers easily find the famous salmon at restaurants and markets across the nation. Bristol Bay salmon fishermen quickly followed suit and launched a locator app.  • It was back to the drawing board for a widely criticized federal “biological opinion” on the impact of Western Aleutian fisheries on Steller sea lions. The opinion was used to justify closures of cod and Atka mackerel fisheries, although many felt the conclusions were not supported by the data. The BiOp will be peer reviewed by the Center for Independent Experts. • More local seafood started making its way to Alaska’s school lunch trays with the help of a USDA funded Fish to Schools program launched at UAF. 2012 Fish Picks and Pans Best Fish Samaritans: UFA’s Alaska Fishing Industry Relief Mission, or AFIRM  Fondest fish farewell: Ray Riutta, leaving the helm of ASMI after 10 years Best fish gadget: SCraMP app for iPhones, a Small Craft Motion Program that tracks vessel stability Biggest fishing change: The expanded observer program that includes coverage of small vessels and the 2,000+ halibut longline fleet. Worst fish omission: tens of thousands of pages of documents on the proposed Pebble Mine — but no images to be found anywhere of what the mine area might look like?    Most savvy fishing town: No town promotes its salmon better and with more pride than Cordova. Least savvy fishing town: No town promotes or celebrates its fisheries less than Kodiak. Biggest fish adjustment: The expanded onboard observer program Best Alaska fishing icons: Bering Sea crabbers Biggest fish fiasco: NMFS Steller sea lion BiOp blunders Best hungry fish feeders: Sea Share, Ocean Beauty Best fish to school boosters: GAPP, the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers Biggest fish blunder: setting a precedent by removing 11 miles of salmon streams to accommodate a coal mine at Upper Cook Inlet Scariest fish story: ocean acidification Best home spirit fish move: CDQ boats home porting in Alaska Worst global fish story: Illegal, Undocumented and Unreported, or IUU, catches by fish pirates. UN estimates say IUU catches amount to 20 percent of the global harvest. Best fish news site: Best fish advocates: Alaska Marine Conservation Council, Renewable Resources Foundation Biggest fish mix up: Alaska spends $20 million on Peruvian fish feed for its 33 hatcheries while sending 200,000 tons of Alaska-made feeds to Asia. Best fish bash: Symphony of Seafood Biggest consumer fish snub: No labeling will be required for genetically modified salmon. To be sure you are getting the real thing and not a manmade mutant look for the Alaska or wild salmon label! Best seafood advocate: Ray RaLonde, Alaska Sea Grant aquaculture specialist Trickiest fishing conundrum: What to do about sea otters in Southeast Alaska Best fish invention: NanoICE. Created in Iceland, it’s a frigid slurry of ice “fractions” that immerses fish completely, and can be pumped into storage areas on fishing boats and in plants. Biggest fish WTF? Millions of pounds of halibut tossed as bycatch (by law) while sport and commercial catches get clipped well below their bottom lines.  Biggest fish story of 2012: Alaska’s disappearing chinook salmon and the anguish and heartbreak, not to mention economic hardship, it has caused for so many.  This year marks the 22nd year for this weekly column that focuses on Alaska’s seafood industry. It began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites. A daily spin off – Fish Radio – airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. The goal of both is to make people aware of the economic, social and cultural importance of Alaska’s seafood industry, and to inspire more Alaskans to join its ranks.


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