Fisheries

NOAA team continues debris survey

Government scientists have resumed their survey of Alaska's coastline for marine debris. Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the team set out from Yakutat for the second leg of the debris survey on July 16. She says the team surveyed the Yakutat region, from Cape Fairweather to Icy Cape, last week. She says the next leg is scheduled to begin next week in the Cordova area, and will include Kayak and Montague islands. Last month, a five-member team completed a 10-day trip beginning in Ketchikan and ending in Juneau. It was billed as the first NOAA survey in Alaska specifically for debris from last year's tsunami in Japan. NOAA typically does marine debris surveys every 5 to 10 years. The last was in 2008.

SeaLife Center takes in stranded walrus calf

The Alaska SeaLife Center is rehabilitating a male Pacific walrus calf that stranded near Barrow this past Saturday, July 21. The calf, estimated to be four to six weeks old, was found by local fisherman who spotted the calf in North Salt Lagoon. On July 17, a large group of walrus were sighted passing Barrow on floating ice and the calf is presumed to have been separated from this group. After a period of observation and approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, staff of the North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management facilitated the rescue. Two Center staff traveled to Barrow early Sunday, July 22, to evaluate the animal, already under the watchful eye of a local veterinarian. Air transportation from Barrow to Anchorage for the 200-pound animal was provided by Northern Air Cargo. In Anchorage, NAC also assisted in transferring the walrus to a specially-equipped truck for the 125 mile trip to Seward. The calf appears to be in good condition, however, Center veterinarians have identified and are addressing some health concerns while performing additional diagnostic testing to better understand his condition. The calf is suckling readily from a bottle, feeding every three hours around the clock, and consuming nearly 1,400 calories at each feed. He is actively seeking attention from care givers, and vocalizing when left alone. “Walrus are incredibly tactile, social animals, said Stranding Coordinator Tim Lebing. “Walrus calves typically spend about two years with their mothers, so we have to step in to provide that substitute care and companionship.” Walrus calves almost immediately habituate to human care and therefore are not candidates for release following rehabilitation. The Pacific walrus is a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection, mainly due to the threat that loss of sea ice could have on walrus population numbers. Pacific walrus use floating sea ice to give birth, nurse calves, avoid predators, and as a platform for feeding. The Alaska SeaLife Center is the only permanent marine rehabilitation center in Alaska, responding to stranded wildlife such as sea otters, harbor seals and walrus. The Stranding Program responds to walrus with the authorization of USFWS. The Center responded to four stranded walrus calves between 2003 and 2007, but this is the first walrus to be admitted in the last five years. Once a stranded marine mammal is admitted to the ASLC, it receives care from experienced and dedicated veterinary and animal care staff. “We have no federal or state funding to care for stranded walrus calves, and we rely on donations to keep this program going. We especially thank Shell Exploration and Production, ConocoPhillips Alaska and BP Alaska for their generous contributions to the Center in support of wildlife rescue,” said Tara Reimer Jones, president and CEO. The Alaska SeaLife Center operates a 24-hour hotline for the public to report stranded marine mammals or birds, and encourages people who have found a stranded or sick marine mammal to avoid touching or approaching the animal; instead, these individuals should call 1-888-774-SEAL (7325) The Alaska SeaLife Center is a non-profit research institution and visitor attraction which generates and shares scientific knowledge to promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems. The Alaska SeaLife Center is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. For additional information, visit www.alaskasealife.org.  

Board of Fisheries rejects setnetter appeals

The Alaska Board of Fisheries voted Thursday not to consider a half-dozen petitions from commercial setnetters aimed at allowing them to put their nets back in the water and participate in what is turning out to be a robust run of Kenai River red salmon. The move essentially shuts the door on the remainder of the season for setnetters. The majority of board members felt they had too little time to consider the petitions that were received late Wednesday afternoon, leaving no time to gather staff comment. Alaska Department of Fish and Game fishery managers closed the Kenai River to sport king fishing a week ago because of dismal returns this summer. The closure also included the setnet red salmon fishery because of the incidental catch of kings. About 400 permits were issued. The setnet fishery ends July 31. Robert Begich, Fish and Game's area management biologist, has said the Kenai king run looks to be the lowest on record going back to the 1980s. Gov. Sean Parnell announced last Friday that a team of top researchers and scientists is being formed to take a comprehensive look at why king salmon returns across the state are low this summer in what is a continuing downward trend. On the same day that the governor made his announcement, a group of nearly 200 people took to the streets of Kenai to protest the fishing closures aimed at protecting king salmon. "Some of the best minds are working on this," board member Vince Webster said during Thursday's emergency meeting. "To ask us to do something last minute for a couple of days into the season, to be an armchair quarterback, in my mind would be irresponsible to do that." Board members John Jensen and Sue Jeffrey voted in favor of considering the petitions. "I do understand the pain and injury going on," Jeffrey said. "Even though it is the last few days ... fishermen can make a season in those last few days." Setnetter Andy Hall of Chugiak was one of those offering an idea for opening the fishery. He said he didn't expect the board to go for his idea, which involved moving some setnetters to drift boats well off-shore, even if his petition had been allowed to be considered. Hall said instead of trying to get a return on his $10,000 investment to set up his fishing operation this summer, he and his crew were watching fish swim by. "Nobody asked me to make this sacrifice," he said. David Groggia, president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association, said the sport fishery has had to make sacrifices, too. Some clients intent on fishing for kings canceled trips. Others that could be convinced to fish for reds cut their fishing trips short, he said. When a ban on bait was issued earlier this summer, a lot fewer kings were caught, Groggia said. "We have been restricted this whole year," he said.

Commentary: First oysters growing at Ketchikan mariculture operation

The OceansAlaska Marine Science Center has barely opened its doors and tiny oysters are already growing out at the new floating facility at George Inlet in Ketchikan. The 28-acre site was granted to the non-profit by the state and Ketchikan Gateway Borough in 2006. The Center houses the first home grown source of oyster “seed” for Alaska growers, and aims to be the go to place for mariculture research and training. There are 29 shellfish farms producing in Alaska so far in Southcentral and Southeast regions. The main crop is oysters, with sales valued at about a half million dollars last year. No shellfish farm applicants have ever come from Westward regions of Alaska, said Cynthia Pring-Ham, state mariculture coordinator. “I could sell all the oysters I could possibly produce and could double sales tomorrow with just a couple of phone calls, especially in New York. There is a lack of production throughout the country,” said Tom Henderson, OceansAlaska mariculture director, and a long time oyster farm near Kake, Henderson said the Center will begin working on geoduck mariculture projects and “then get into other things, among them seaweeds.” Seaweed is the second largest aquaculture industry in the world, second only to freshwater fish. Kelp is a multibillion dollar industry in Japan, and Henderson wants to work with the traditional, local black seaweed which he said tastes better than the Japanese nori, popular in sushi rolls Economists believe expanding mariculture just in Southeast Alaska could easily increase the industry’s revenues over time from the current $7 million to more than $100 million a year. Australia produces 80 million oysters a year worth $40 million; New Zealand’s government-funded mussel industry went from $15 million to over $100 million in 20 years, and scallop farming at Prince Rupert and Prince Edward Islands in Canada is a $60 million industry. See more at www.oceansalaska.org.   Catching small crabs Alaska’s most far-flung fishing fleet plans to catch lots of “small crab for a cause” when the golden king crab season gets underway next month. Golden kings are caught in deep waters along the 1,200 miles of the Aleutian Chain, a part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” and the westernmost region of the United States. Goldens are Alaska’s most stable king crab stock, with a harvest this season of 6.2 million pounds. The remoteness of their home turf, however, prevents managers from surveying the stocks as often as they’d like. To safeguard the fishery, the fleet of five to six boats voluntarily uses gear with larger mesh than required by law to make sure all small crabs can escape. And therein lies the problem. “By designing their gear to avoid juvenile crab during the commercial fishery, the information you get indicates there are no small crabs down there,” said Denby Lloyd, science advisor for the Aleutian King Crab Science Foundation, a harvester group. “To assess whether the population is in a productive cycle or not, you have to use a different method, such as the one in this project.” To help solve the riddle, the fleet will use 20 test pots made with small mesh to capture the juvenile crabs. Alaska Department of Fish and Game scientists will a collect the data and return them to the sea. “The fleet has a very stable fishery and they want to make sure it remains that way, as well as grow the harvest opportunity,” Lloyd said. “By using the commercial fleet directly it minimizes costs for the state and federal government and everyone benefits from the data.” Tracking golden king crab is tricky, no matter how it’s done. The crabs are down 1,800 feet or more and live amid steep underwater mountains. To prevent crab pots from tumbling down cliffs and getting lost, the fleet attaches them to longlines, “Rather than fishing one pot per buoy like other crab fisheries in the Bering Sea, the Aleutian fleet attaches 20-30 pots to a to a line that can be retrieved,” Lloyd said A $25,000 grant from the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation paid for the test crab pots. The Aleutian Islands golden king crab fishery begins Aug. 15 and can run through February.   LAPP lapse IFQ holders will have a tougher time with any appeals issues and it will all be dealt with long distance. The laws that govern fishing limited access privilege programs, or LAPP, include an appeals process for fishermen who are eligible to receive shares of the fish. LAPPs are basically limited entry programs such as Individual Fishing Quotas (catch shares) for halibut and sablefish and Bering Sea crab. “It’s nothing new to Alaska. It’s been happening for over 30 years with the Alaska limited entry commission,” said Phil Smith, a retired limited access manager at NOAA Fisheries in Juneau. Among other things, Smith devised the appeals process for IFQ programs that began in Alaska in 1995. “That was a massive program with 8,000 applicants and built into the system was an administrative appeals process to make the determination if people were not eligible for any IFQ, or for as much as they wanted. There was a formal opportunity for people to appeal in the Juneau office at NMFS where they were treated fairly and got full due process. We handled hundreds of such appeals, some frivolous, some with merit,” Smith said. But the IFQ appeals process has changed. Two years ago the Alaska office was “centralized” and moved to federal headquarters in Maryland. At the same time, the new National Appeals Office devised a new list of regulations to govern the process. Smith called the new rules “punitive and non-user friendly” and said “it puts total control into the hands of a far away adjudicator.” Public comment on the appeals process ended June 9 and it may or may not make it to the law books. Smith said his advice is to pay attention. “I know the halibut charter catch share plan is coming down the pike... That is going to bring rise to certain entitlements and appeals — there always are with these things — and I would think that all of us in Alaska want our fishermen to be treated as fairly as possible.”

Editorial: King closures expose double standard on bycatch

A fisheries management nightmare is playing out across the state caused by weak king salmon returns. The social and economic harms have yet to be calculated, although we have no doubt they are immense. Sport and subsistence king fisheries have been shut down. The East Side setnetters on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers have been shut down as sockeye surge past the beaches. Commercial chum salmon runs in Western Alaska have been restricted and new fishing gear required — all to avoid killing any king salmon. Meanwhile, the Gulf of Alaska pollock fleet is about to hit the waters with an allocation of 14,527 king salmon as bycatch for the C and D seasons that begin Aug. 25 and Oct. 1. The Bering Sea pollock fleet, with until Oct. 31 to catch the rest of a 1.2 million metric ton quota, still has an allocation of 17,741 king salmon remaining as of July 14 with one-third of the harvest to go. To be clear: this is not meant to be an attack on the pollock industry, which is without question an important part of the Alaska economy. The Journal is not anti-pollock or anti-trawl fleet. What we are is pro-accountability, and in this time of extreme conservation measures nobody can escape their fair share of it. We find no fault in the fleet advocacy on behalf of its membership, which has entirely legitimate arguments. For instance, ocean conditions could naturally have a greater effect on productivity than interceptions, and it is true that the amount of salmon bycatch is indeed miniscule compared to the 1.2 million metric ton quota of pollock in 2012. However, consider the “bycatch” of king salmon taken by the East Side setnetters (which really isn’t bycatch because it can be commercially sold while pollock fleet takes cannot). In 2011, this group of setnetters caught more than 2 million sockeye compared to 8,356 king salmon, or a rate of 0.4 percent. Like the Bering Sea pollock fleet, that’s a pretty low rate, but they are still shut down because indications are not even the minimum escapement will be met for kings on the Kenai. King salmon conservation measures cost the setnetters about 500,000 sockeye from their historical split in 2011, or about $4.5 million in dockside value, and the 2012 closure to the East Side setnetters could wind up costing this group $20 million. The potential harm often cited by the pollock fleet in fighting against bycatch controls certainly stands in stark contrast to the very real economic devastation now being felt by salmon fishermen of all types around the state. While we don’t quarrel with the pollock fleet’s right to advance its interests, with its advocacy comes the need to either downplay or deny any impacts of bycatch on Alaska salmon runs. Again, this is their job, but their interests don’t always coincide with the public interest. This is where the federal regulators on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council are supposed to play their role. While drawn by design from industry stakeholders, their job is not to vote a constituency, but to use their knowledge of the fishery to make an informed decision. It is not an unreasonable observation that the trawl fleets for both pollock and groundfish wield major — and often decisive — clout at the council when it comes to management of salmon, halibut and tanner crab that are prohibited species catches for them. Nor is it unreasonable to note the glaring contradiction inherent in directed users being barred from even catching and releasing a single king salmon while a prohibited species user group catches them by the thousands. It may be true that the marine environment is a greater force than the pollock fleet in salmon abundance, but that only makes conservation of the kings that are out there more important. To argue that bycatch is not significant at a time of low productivity is to simultaneously ignore the disproportionate impact bycatch can have in such a period as well as the conservation burden now being borne by the direct users. The pollock fleet may argue that it isn’t practical or realistic to even consider shutting down their fishery as a conservation measure. A few months ago, the East Side setnetters would have probably said the same thing.

Team to tackle problem of disappearing king salmon

A team of top researchers and scientists is being formed to take a comprehensive look at why king salmon returns to Alaska’s rivers are dismal again this summer, Gov. Sean Parnell announced July 20. Parnell was joined by Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell at a news conference to talk about what the state intends to do about the problem of disappearing king salmon. Parnell said many Alaskans are suffering this summer because of poor runs. “The resource is so closely connected to our people, we cannot get it wrong,” Parnell said. The governor said he wants the team’s report and recommendations by the fall for bringing more king salmon back to the rivers to spawn. So few kings, also called chinook, have been showing up that several major rivers, including the Yukon and Kenai rivers, have been closed to king fishing. The closures include major rivers in western Alaska where commercial fishermen are sitting idle and people who rely on king salmon and its higher oil content for smoking, salting and freezing for winter are turning to other species of salmon for food. On the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage, setnetters are being prevented from fishing and sport fishing guides are seeing some clients cancel trips because there is no opportunity to catch an Alaska king. Gone also is the money from summer visitors that ripples through the local economy. “It is huge,” said Kenai Mayor Pat Porter, of the impact of the king closures. “This is their livelihood.” Nearly 200 commercial set-net fishermen protested river closures Friday afternoon in Kenai, many questioning the state’s management of Cook Inlet fisheries. The task of the team will be three-fold: evaluate king salmon stocks, find possible reasons for the decline and make recommendations to bring the kings back in numbers that will sustain future runs. Campbell said more resources and money will be put toward finding answers. But, she said, Alaskans should not expect king salmon stocks to suddenly rebound because what the state is experiencing is a prolonged downturn. The commissioner said the state already has put several million dollars in additional money toward chinook research and expects additional money to be allocated. Campbell said the state is working closely with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service on the chinook problem and that collaboration will continue. It is important that the state work with federal agencies to fill in any research gaps, she said, particularly as to what might be occurring in the marine environment where king salmon spend several years before returning to rivers to spawn. Some experts have suggested the decline in kings has to do with changes in the ocean environment, where the federal government has jurisdiction. “We want to understand what is happening with our fish,” Campbell said.

Alaskans wonder where the king salmon have gone

Alaskans again this summer are wondering: Where are the king salmon? Some of Alaska's largest and best rivers are closed to king fishing because state and federal fisheries managers have determined that the largest of the salmon species, also called Chinook, aren't showing up in enough numbers to ensure sustainable future runs. In western Alaska, people living in dozens of villages along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers are turning to less desirable salmon species — fish with lower oil and fat content — to fill their freezers for winter in what one official described as a summer of "food insecurity." "It is pretty scary," said Timothy Andrew, director of natural resources with the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel. "Chinook salmon is probably the biggest species that people depend on for drying, salting and putting away in the freezer to feed the family throughout the winter." Fishery managers predict that this year's Yukon River king salmon run will be worse than last year, and that was the worst showing for Chinook in 30 years. Commercial fishermen on the Yukon and Kuskokwim are turning to less desirable but more plentiful species of salmon that sell for under $1 a pound. King salmon sells for more than $5 a pound. With gas costing $6.70 a gallon in Bethel, many fishing boats are sitting idle, he said. People living in the region's 56 villages are devastated, Andrew said. "It is an incredibly stressful time," he said. In mid-July, the Kenai River — considered by many to be Alaska's premier river for salmon fishing — is normally crowded and chaotic with fishing guides steering their boats to give their clients the best opportunity to catch a trophy king. But a ban on king fishing on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers went into effect Thursday. Robert Begich, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's area management biologist, said the Kenai king run looks to be the lowest on record going back to the 1980s. While the continued downward trend in kings isn't clear, Begich suspects a combination of factors, with researchers looking more closely at changes in the ocean environment. King salmon usually spend several years in the ocean before returning to rivers to spawn. Ray Beamesderfer, a consultant with Cramer Fish Sciences in Gresham, Ore., also suspects changes in the marine environment. He thought he and his family would be fishing for king salmon on the Kenai River on Thursday. Instead, they were casting for rainbow trout or smaller sockeye salmon. Beamesderfer said in the late 1970s, there was a change in ocean currents that favored Alaska salmon but contributed to poor salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest. That situation appears to be reversing, with a change in ocean currents, he said. "We have seen some better runs in recent years," Beamesderfer said. But he said the persistent downturn in king salmon can't be fully explained by a change in ocean currents, especially when other salmon species in Alaska are thriving. "It doesn't seem to be that simple," Beamesderfer said. Jeff Regnert, director of the commercial fisheries division for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, also said something different in the marine environment likely holds the answer to the downturn in kings. "That is probably where we will see the change," he said.

Late-run kings closed for first time ever on Kenai River

For the first time ever the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed the Kenai River to king salmon fishing during the late run due to continued low counts of king salmon. Sport fishermen, as well as commercial setnetters and driftnetters, were restricted in and around the Kenai River in an attempt by the department to meet the minimum in-season management objective believed to be necessary for an adequate escapement of king salmon. “It could be the lowest run we’ve ever had,” said Robert Begich area management biologist in the sport fishing division of Fish and Game. “This is the action we’re taking to put as many kings in the river needed for seasonal goals.” The hope, Begich said, was to ensure there would be kings in the river in future years despite indications of dismal numbers this year. With about 40 percent of the run completed by July 17, none of the indices the department uses to measure run strength show that the king salmon run will meet minimum in-season management objectives in early August. The sport fishing division’s sonar measured the passage of 253 kings Sunday, bring the total number of late run kings to 4,033. The current in-season projections the department released show a maximum of 15,800 kings, which automatically triggers the closure of king salmon sport fisheries in the Kenai River according to the department’s late-run king salmon management plan. A series of emergency orders released July 17 closed or restricted sport and commercial fishing in several areas. • Commercial setnetting in the Kenai, Kasilof and East Forelands section of the upper subdistrict will be closed until further notice while driftnetting within one mile of the Kenai Peninsula shoreline north of the Kenai River and one and a half miles from the shoreline south of the Kenai river is also prohibited. • The Kenai River drainage will be closed for king fishing beginning July 19 through July 31 from the river mouth upstream to the outlet of Skilak Lake and in the Moose River from its confluence with the Kenai upstream to the northernmost edge of the Sterling Highway bridge. • The Kasilof River is closed to sport fishing for king salmon beginning July 19 and running through the end of the fishing season. • Sport fishing for king salmon is also prohibited in the salt waters of the Cook Inlet north of Bluff Point. Begich said the low number of king salmon passage numbers from July 15 weren’t available until July 16, so the sport fishery couldn’t be restricted before July 17, and a buffer of a few days is needed to inform everyone who participates in the fishery of the changes. The commercial fisheries can be restricted in a shorter period of time because it is a smaller group of people so its easier to inform them of a closure or an opening, Begich said. “We can’t turn the fish on and off with 20,000 people participating,” he said. “Word won’t get out for everybody and it wouldn’t be an effective action to make sure no one was doing it anymore.” The lag time between when the division gets its DIDSON data and when it is actually measured is further complicated by the large number of sockeye passing the sonar station, Begich said. “It’s actually taking them longer now because they measure the fish and there’s a lot more fish going through the ensonified zone,” he said. “We won’t get first blush at data from yesterday until tomorrow.” Begich said the department wanted to wait until the late run was closer to its normal midpoint, which fell on July 18 this year, before issuing the unprecedented closure. “We can’t afford to wait any longer given what we’re looking at,” he said. Some of the data from the indices the department uses manage the run in-season comes in daily but other indices, like some coming from the East Side setnet fishery, isn’t useful as the fishery had only been fished for 25 hours before July 16. The Kenai section of the upper subdistrict has fished one day of their regular fishing period, July 16, while the Kasilof setnetters have fished three. Brent Johnson, president of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association and a Kasilof section setnetter, said his family expected the closure but it was still a blow in a season that is already horrible. “This is my 47th year of setnetting and I’ve had a lot of good ones and a few bad ones but this is by far the worst one I’ve ever had,” Johnson said. He said his family runs 33 setnets near Ninilchik at Coria Creek and he had gone into the season “a little bit optimistically.” “They predicted a real strong run of sockeye and a better-than-last-year run of kings,” he said. “In this particular case I actually hope that they will open us again; what it will take would be a number of king salmon getting into the river. I hope that happens.” Johnson said estimated that he’d made about $12,000 for the year despite fishing more nets than he had in the past. While he is faced with being unable to get a crew to return and work his nets, he said he was supportive actions based on king preservation. “Let’s do something with the kings, we’re looking at four years in a row,” he said. “Let’s not lower the escapement goal, let’s do something to see if we can’t get the kings back.”   Rashah McChesney can be reached at [email protected]

Late run kings closed for first time ever on Kenai River

For the first time ever the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed the Kenai River to king salmon fishing during the late run due to continued low counts of king salmon. Sport fishermen, as well as commercial setnetters and driftnetters, were restricted in and around the Kenai River in an attempt by the department to meet the minimum in-season management objective believed to be necessary for an adequate escapement of king salmon. “It could be the lowest run we’ve ever had,” said Robert Begich area management biologist in the sport fishing division of Fish and Game. “This is the action we’re taking to put as many kings in the river needed for seasonal goals.” The hope, Begich said, was to ensure there would be kings in the river in future years despite indications of dismal numbers this year. With about 40 percent of the run completed by July 17, none of the indices the department uses to measure run strength show that the king salmon run will meet minimum in-season management objectives in early August. The sport fishing division’s sonar measured the passage of 253 kings Sunday, bring the total number of late run kings to 4,033. The current in-season projections the department released show a maximum of 15,800 kings, which automatically triggers the closure of king salmon sport fisheries in the Kenai River according to the department’s late-run king salmon management plan. A series of emergency orders released July 17 closed or restricted sport and commercial fishing in several areas. • Commercial setnetting in the Kenai, Kasilof and East Forelands section of the upper subdistrict will be closed until further notice while driftnetting within one mile of the Kenai Peninsula shoreline north of the Kenai River and one and a half miles from the shoreline south of the Kenai river is also prohibited. • The Kenai River drainage will be closed for king fishing beginning July 19 through July 31 from the river mouth upstream to the outlet of Skilak Lake and in the Moose River from its confluence with the Kenai upstream to the northernmost edge of the Sterling Highway bridge. • The Kasilof River is closed to sport fishing for king salmon beginning July 19 and running through the end of the fishing season. • Sport fishing for king salmon is also prohibited in the salt waters of the Cook Inlet north of Bluff Point. Begich said the low number of king salmon passage numbers from July 15 weren’t available until July 16, so the sport fishery couldn’t be restricted before July 17, and a buffer of a few days is needed to inform everyone who participates in the fishery of the changes. The commercial fisheries can be restricted in a shorter period of time because it is a smaller group of people so its easier to inform them of a closure or an opening, Begich said. “We can’t turn the fish on and off with 20,000 people participating,” he said. “Word won’t get out for everybody and it wouldn’t be an effective action to make sure no one was doing it anymore.” The lag time between when the division gets its DIDSON data and when it is actually measured is further complicated by the large number of sockeye passing the sonar station, Begich said. “It’s actually taking them longer now because they measure the fish and there’s a lot more fish going through the ensonified zone,” he said. “We won’t get first blush at data from yesterday until tomorrow.” Begich said the department wanted to wait until the late run was closer to its normal midpoint, which fell on July 18 this year, before issuing the unprecedented closure. “We can’t afford to wait any longer given what we’re looking at,” he said. Some of the data from the indices the department uses manage the run in-season comes in daily but other indices, like some coming from the East Side setnet fishery, isn’t useful as the fishery had only been fished for 25 hours before July 16. The Kenai section of the upper subdistrict has fished one day of their regular fishing period, July 16, while the Kasilof setnetters have fished three. Brent Johnson, president of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association and a Kasilof section setnetter, said his family expected the closure but it was still a blow in a season that is already horrible. “This is my 47th year of setnetting and I’ve had a lot of good ones and a few bad ones but this is by far the worst one I’ve ever had,” Johnson said. He said his family runs 33 setnets near Ninilchik at Coria Creek and he had gone into the season “a little bit optimistically.” “They predicted a real strong run of sockeye and a better-than-last-year run of kings,” he said. “In this particular case I actually hope that they will open us again; what it will take would be a number of king salmon getting into the river. I hope that happens.” Johnson said estimated that he’d made about $12,000 for the year despite fishing more nets than he had in the past. While he is faced with being unable to get a crew to return and work his nets, he said he was supportive actions based on king preservation. “Let’s do something with the kings, we’re looking at four years in a row,” he said. “Let’s not lower the escapement goal, let’s do something to see if we can’t get the kings back.”   Rashah McChesney can be reached at [email protected]

Commentary: Debris survey under way; salmon product smoothes skin

Marine debris trackers are taking to the air any day to get a better idea of where and what is washing ashore from last year’s devastating tsunami in Japan. Best “guesstimates” claim at least 1.5 million tons of debris are afloat on and under the current driven waters that routinely cover Alaska coastlines. The State has funded a $200,000 systematic aerial survey by Airborne Technologies Inc. of Virginia that will span waters and beaches from Cold Bay to Ketchikan to get a more complete view of the debris problem. “That should give a good picture of where the debris is concentrated and some idea of the makeup and quantities of it,” said Merrick Burden, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance. “That allows us to have the next conversation about what is it we are really talking about — is it a $1 million or a $40 million problem? Then we can start putting together a plan of attack. Right now we don’t have that level of information.” The MCA Foundation took the lead on debris tracking and radiation monitoring efforts in January when sightings began appearing a year earlier than expected. The group deployed experienced clean-up contractors over several months to multiple beaches at Sitka, Craig, Yakutat and Kodiak where debris was most likely to hit first. A report released last week said while heavy snow was a hampering factor in all regions, seven trips to Craig showed patterns of early debris; 12 trips to Sitka yielded 1,600 pounds of mostly Styrofoam debris, and 34 percent of the debris found in June was tsunami related. At Yakutat, in 10 trips, the crew hauled away 95 large Styrofoam blocks and 52 floats, along with 48 large black buoys; seven trips to Kodiak were foiled by bad weather. No radiation was detected at any of the Alaska sites. The amounts of Styrofoam are very worrisome, Burden said, because it breaks up into tiny particles that look like food and can be deadly when it accumulates in fish and birds. Much of what is coming ashore now are lightweight, wind driven objects, but many unknowns are riding below the surface. “What we do know is that it will be a different type of debris,” Burden said. “The next level will be more submerged and we don’t know what it will be, although it is likely to be docks and things of that nature like we have seen on the West coast. The third category should be almost entirely underwater and driven by currents. That will be something else entirely.” Meanwhile, questions remain over who will fund further debris monitoring and clean up efforts. “When it comes to the state and federal response, we see a bit of a road block,” Burden said. “There is an information gap that needs to be filled. Right now we have a lot of questions about the scope of the debris problem. With the aerial survey we can acquire enough information and data to put together a plan and that should get things moving.” The MCA Foundation plans to begin a “hot spot” clean up in Alaska by mid-September. Mariners can report debris sightings and see pictures of cleanup efforts at www.facebook.com/seaalliance. Find the marine debris report at www.marineconservationalliance.org.   Deadline sticks Fishermen and Alaska Native groups are jubilant at the Environmental Protection Agency’s refusal to extend the 60-day public comment period on its draft watershed assessment of the Bristol Bay region beyond July 23. The extension was requested by the Pebble Partnership and had the support of the Parnell administration. The EPA said in a draft assessment in May that the possible failure of a dam holding waste from a large scale mine near the headwaters of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery could wipe out or degrade rivers and streams in the region for decades. Since then the agency has held hearings in six Bristol Bay communities, as well as in Anchorage and Seattle. Nearly 2,300 people attended the meetings and provided more than 450 oral testimonies. More than 90 percent of the people at the Bristol Bay region meetings supported the watershed assessment and the current timeline, according to Bristol Bay Native Corp. “We commend the EPA for recognizing that further delay would not be beneficial,” said Jason Metrokin, President and CEO of BBNC. “It was the right thing for EPA to stay with their original timeline. There is overwhelming support for the Watershed Assessment,” said state Rep. Bryce Edgmon, who represents the region in the Alaska Legislature. Senator Lisa Murkowski was not pleased. She said in a press release that the July 23 deadline “doesn’t allow for Alaskans to offer their comments because of the busy summer season” and that “it demonstrates, once again, that the agency does not understand Alaska.” To the contrary, Sen. Mark Begich said he believes the public has ample time to have their say. “Believe me, Alaskans have never had a problem giving their opinions and meeting a deadline,” Begich said in a phone interview. Opponents to the Pebble mine are urging the EPA to use its power under the Clean Water Act’s to protect Bristol Bay from future large-scale mining developments. Since 1972, when the Clean Water Act became law, the EPA has used this authority 13 times. The EPA will provide another opportunity for public comment during a peer review meeting for the draft watershed assessment in Anchorage on August 7. The 12-member peer review panel will accept comments on several “charge” questions relating to the science used in the assessment. For more information and to read the charge questions, visit https://federalregister.gov/a/2012-13431. Submit your comments through July 23 at www.epa.gov/region10/bristolbay   Salmon skin cream A chance discovery by farmed salmon hatchery workers has spawned a line of skin care products that keep skin softer and younger looking. “Aquapreneurs” in Norway became curious several years ago after it was noticed that hatchery workers who spent long hours handling salmon fry in cold seawater had softer, smoother hands. Researchers at Norway’s University of Science and Technology discovered the skin softening component came from the enzyme zonase, found in the hatching fluid of the salmon eggs. The enzyme’s task is to digest the protein structure of the tough egg shells without harming the tiny fish. The scientists hailed this dual ability as the secret behind the beneficial properties for human skin. Now, Norway-based Aqua Bio Technology, which develops marine based ingredients for the personal care industry, has launched the zonase infused product as Aquabeautine XL to make the name more user friendly, and it has signed with a major distributor in South Korea. The product also is available in Europe. Another personal care product using salmon hatching fluid is also set to be launched at the end of the year, according to ABT’s website. (See more at www.aquabiotechnology.com/)   Salmon jam! Check out three days of fish and music at Salmonstock, Aug. 3 to Aug. 5 in Ninilchik.

CDQ group ties nets to bycatch, reallocation 'statement'

A community development quota group is giving away fishing nets to subsistence salmon harvesters in its member villages, but only if they sign an “acceptance statement” that defends its chinook salmon bycatch record in Bering Sea Pollock trawl fisheries. The statement also calls for a general reallocation of fish stocks among the six CDQ groups, which drew an extremely harsh response from another group. “For Coastal Villages to be doing this now, it’s very immature. It’s very shortsighted. It’s very mean-spirited. It’s very greedy,” said Larry Cotter, executive director of the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association of the reallocation proposal on July 11. Coastal Villages Region Fund, one of six CDQ groups along the Bering Sea coasts, launched the program at the request of the Association of Village Council Presidents after a Department of Fish and Game emergency order changed the river gillnet mesh size in response to low Chinook salmon returns. At about $100 each for the 60-fathom long nets, excluding floats, lead line and other parts, 100 nets were distributed through early July with 140 more coming from suppliers, according to Dawson Hoover, CVRF program manager. Hoover defended the statement as part of an educational campaign to marshal support for the congressional action needed for the reallocation. The head of the AVCP said in the context of a subsistence fishery already being restricted because of poor chinook returns requiring the statement was improper. “For them (CVRF) to have to have them (net recipients) sign it the way it was seemed like coercion,” said Myron Naneng, AVCP president, July 9. The three-paragraph “subsistence net acceptance statement,” followed by the subhead “Please Read Carefully,” does not pledge the signer to any action or position. The first two paragraphs, headed “Salmon Bycatch Issue,” explain that CVRF “earns its funds” from the Bering Sea pollock fishery and that “the best available science shows that the pollock fishery is not a significant contributor to our salmon problems nor can it solve the problem, even if the pollock fishery were entirely shut down.” “Using 320 Chinook salmon, CVRF caught 106 million pounds of pollock worth $59 million for our region,” the statement continues, paying for more than 1,000 jobs for regional residents in salmon, halibut and other fishing and processing operations. The 320 “used” chinook is a reference to the bycatch by CVRF vessels in the pollock fishery. Unlike halibut bycatch in Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries, the chinook are donated to Alaskan food banks. The statement also notes that the pollock fishery “has co-existed with our subsistence and commercial chinook fisheries since 1964.” Hoover said the statement is part of CVRF’s ongoing “Pollock provides” educational effort, also including regional newspaper ads and commentary in its newsletter and online publications. Naneng said the net giveaway was “a good thing,” but rejected the claim that CVRF’s bycatch didn’t contribute to declining chinook returns. “That’s the thing that I think they need to turn around and say we know we can be part of the solution,” Naneng said. He noted that CVRF was the only CDQ group supporting the higher bycatch limit when the 2009 cap of 60,000 was approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Hoover said CVRF has no plans to use the signing statements in any way except to help its village residents understand that “Pollock provides” most of their income. He also said he’d heard of only one complaint over the acceptance statement from a harvester and wasn’t sure whether the person had signed. “We’re trying but these are the facts and we’re getting better at telling the story,” Hoover said. CVRF’s salmon and halibut operations, including prices to commercial harvesters, are “heavily subsidized” by revenues from its pollock harvests and “it’s been that way for a long time,” Hoover added. CVRF’s heavy dependence on its pollock revenues is part of the need for adjustment of quota shares among the six groups. Since the program’s origin portions of the Bering Sea crab, halibut, cod and other commercial fish stocks have been given to the CDQ groups, but portions haven’t been changed since 2006. “There were a lot of politics in the allocations and now we’re trying to fix that. We have the highest need” Hoover said. The statement’s third paragraph, headed “CDQ Allocation Issue,” ends, immediately above the signature line, with the statements: “Please join CVRF in seeking ‘Fair CDQ Allocation Based on Population.’ Each of us from the Kuskokwim is just as important as our brothers and sisters in St. Paul or out the chain in Atka or up the coast of Emmonak. We are not second class citizens to them.” St. Paul Island, with a population of 497 in the 2010 census, is, alone, the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association CDQ and Atka is one of eight villages in the Aleutian Pribilof Island CDQ. With 20 villages and a cumulative population of 9,300 residents CVRF has the smallest harvest quota on a pounds per capita basis. Cotter agreed that “politics reigned” in CDQ quota allocations until the late Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young froze allocations at their current levels with a 2006 program amendment that allowed the groups to make long term financial plans based on stable allocations. “That put to an end a war, in essence, that had occurred between the six groups over allocations,” Cotter said. He noted that CVRF is now the largest and wealthiest of the six groups said allocations based on population, “could come close to killing the three smaller groups. I don’t understand what type of philosophy would drive an organization like Coastal Villages to seek to destroy other CDQ groups based on need.” Cotter also predicted the CVRF reallocation push will fail. “There is no way our congressional delegation is going to let this happen. There’s not a chance in hell this is going to happen. That’s another reason this is stupid,” he said. CVRF sent a group to Washington, D.C., in March to make its case with Alaska’s congressional delegation for quota reallocation through an amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act. “They realize it’s a problem and they’re acknowledging it’s a problem. I don’t think they’re ready to say they’re supportive,” Hoover said of the delegation. At a July 6 news conference following a visit to the region, Sen. Mark Begich agreed. “We haven’t taken a position on it but we’ve asked for them to be prepared as we move down this path as the chair of the oceans committee that has jurisdiction over this hearing,” he said. Begich said CDQ reallocation will be “one topic that will be put on the table for discussion” in hearings he plans to begin hearings on the overall reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens next year, but nothing changing the act will move out of the committee this year. “We are not interested in opening that act up, especially this year because of all the political controversy, the elections and all that, “ Begich said. “We want to be careful to be very frank, that our friends in Washington and Oregon that don’t see this as an opportunity to start managing our fisheries again.”

SOS: Fishing safety program to be cut in '13

The Coast Guard spent July 4 searching for a 63-year-old fisherman who fell overboard in the waters north of Juneau and according to the Associated Press, he was not wearing a personal floatation device. The search was suspended. The body was not recovered. State and federal agencies know that commercial fishing is the most dangerous occupation in Alaska, and the United States. In spite of that, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is about to lose the program that researches safety measures for commercial fishing. The commercial fishing program, which is a large part of NIOSH’s Alaska Pacific Office, will be eliminated because of cuts in President Barack Obama’s budget. The president’s 2013 budget cuts $22 million for the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Program, and approximately $1.5 million of this is for the commercial fishing safety program. This program was also scheduled to be cut in Obama’s 2012 budget. However, support from the fishing industry convinced legislators to reinstate the funds. NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rather than keeping statistics, it works in research and implementation for safety measures within different industries. NIOSH does surveillance on injuries and fatalities, identifies patterns, works with jurisdictional agencies and different industries to bring down those fatality rates and then evaluates the results. Jennifer Lincoln, director of the NIOSH Alaska Pacific Office, said that since the state has been tracking workplace fatalities in Alaska, the numbers have gone down significantly, especially in fishing and aviation. She said the reason for this is because of relevant and focused activities incorporated between NIOSH and the industries and other organizations. “We’re not regulatory. We’re strictly a research organization,” Lincoln said. The Alaska office produces NIOSH’s commercial fishing safety research for the entire country, which will also be eliminated. Lincoln said that among the most disappointing aspects of he program closure is that the government didn’t pinpoint an exact reason why the commercial fishing part was cut.   The “other” PFD One of the biggest examples of NIOSH’s research is with personal floatation devices, or PFD. Lincoln said preventing falls overboard and working with floatation devices are a high priority. Lincoln described how 200 personal floatation devices were distributed to Alaskan fishermen to establish what types were preferred by different groups and what can be worn on deck. She said each vessel is different and evaluating separate needs is crucial to get more vessel operators to wear more devices. “Each group identified a personal floatation device that would work for them,” she said. Lincoln said the agency has gotten more feedback on mandated personal floatation device usage over the years and has given that information back to the industry. Jerry Dzugan, executive director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association and chair of the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee, said the agency found out which floatation device types were rated high and were wearable, which encouraged fishermen to try them more. He said one of the “Deadliest Catch” boats now mandates devices after going through a NIOSH study. Dzugan said NIOSH targeted research for different vessels in necessary and that fishing vessel research for the rest of the nation will be lost with this office. “They are the only ones studying what would really be causing fishing problems,” he said. He sees NIOSH as a resource that cannot go away. He said NIOSH evaluates perceived risks against actual risks, which is important for safety interventions. He said the U.S. Coast Guard only studies fishing safety every 10 years. Dzugan said AMSEA developed a safety video after NIOSH found that although there has been a big drop in the number of fatalities since the 1980s, the number of men going overboard is about the same. This is partly due to lack of survival equipment on board some vessels. “They’re no longer dying from boats sinking but they’re still dying in raw numbers,” Dzugan said. “You’d only know that if someone like NIOSH had teased out that data.” Other fishing measures from NIOSH have included developing stability checks with the U.S. Coast Guard, safety initiatives with the Medallion Foundation and hydraulic wench system improvements with salmon fishermen. NIOSH has also worked with the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration. Other examples of safety cooperation between agencies include marine safety training and ensuring Bering Sea crab vessels aren’t overloading. “Those two are key,” Lincoln said.   Fishing deaths The CDC reports that 31 percent of deaths on commercial fishing vessels nationwide between 2000 and 2009 resulted from falls overboard. CDC data show that 52 percent were from vessel disasters, 10 percent were from onboard injuries and 7 percent occurred while diving or on shore. About a quarter of commercial fishing deaths in the nation between 2000 and 2009 happened in Alaska, according to the CDC. The agency reports that specific hazards identified in Alaska during the 1990s — most notably, overloaded crab boats — resulted in a significant decline in the number of deaths through vessel stability checks that began in 1999. Since then, CDC expanded its surveillance to the rest of the country. NIOSH programs have earned it widespread support in the fishing industry. The United Fishermen of Alaska has written to the Alaska delegation to try to save NIOSH. One such letter to Sen. Lisa Murkowski asks for Congressional support in providing funds authorized through the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 to maintain the fishing program. Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska, said the program is “extremely important to Alaska fishermen and to the industry.” He praised NIOSH efforts for fishermen, pointing out the personal floatation devices in particular. He said different fishermen require different devices and NIOSH has tested and implemented proper devices for many different fisheries. He said NIOSH takes the different working conditions into account. “It’s hard to estimate how many lives have been saved through (NIOSH’s) work,” he said. Vinsel said NIOSH’s work in determining these different fisheries’ safety needs are necessary for alternative compliance programs that will be phased in through the Coast Guard Authorization Act. He said the government’s alternative to this research is to implement broad measures that aren’t tailored and so may end up costing a lot of money without any real safety improvements.   Fatality rates decline According to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, seafood harvesting and aviation have the highest death rates in Alaska and accounted for more than a quarter of all work-related fatalities in 2009 and 2010. According to the Labor Department, fishing has accounted for 275 deaths since 1992. CDC states there were 128 deaths per 100,000 workers reported nationwide for the fishing industry between 1992 and 2008. This averages to 58 deaths annually. In aviation, the Labor Department reports that air transportation, including commercial air taxis and helicopter services, accounted for 13 percent of all the state’s worker fatalities and 50 percent of transportation-related fatalities in 2010. Aviation is the second-leading cause of workplace deaths and that between 2000 and 2010, 54 fatal crashes resulted in 90 occupational deaths in Alaska. This is down from the 1990s when 108 recorded fatal crashes resulted in 155 occupational deaths. In terms of aviation, NIOSH has worked with jurisdictional agencies to prevent controlled flights into terrain. Lincoln said that focusing on this type of crash has resulted in huge reductions in pilot fatality rates. She said focus groups will be conducted with operators and pilots this summer to examine ways to decrease fatigue. Breaking down the Labor Department’s 2010 fatality rates by major industry, there were 5 fatalities in fishing, forestry, agriculture and hunting; 10 in construction, 10 in transportation and warehousing; 10 in government; and 4 in other industries. Research analyst Sara Verrelli of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development said 2011 statistics for workplace injuries and illnesses won’t be available until Oct. 25 at the soonest. Statistics for a 2011 census of fatal occupational injuries won’t be available until a tentative date of Sept. 20. According to the Labor Department, Alaska’s workplace fatality rate has dropped considerably between 2000 and 2009. However, it still remains higher than in the rest of the country. Alaska’s rate of workplace deaths across all industries was 5.6 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2009. The same rate was 10.8 deaths per 100,000 workers between 2004 and 2008, and as high as 31.4 per 100,000 in 1992. The country’s average in 2009 was 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in cooperation with state and federal agencies and the Census of fatal Occupational Injuries.

Kenai personal-use fishery opens Tuesday

The Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery opens today at 6 a.m. for a season that has historically brought several thousand people to Kenai until its close July 31. The group aims to catch some of the more than 1 million sockeye salmon that enter the Kenai river every year. As of Sunday, 42,946 have been counted by a sonar located 19 miles upstream from the mouth of the river. The optimum escapement goal for Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon is 700,000 to 1,200,000. Last year, Kenai River dipnetters harvested an estimated 537,765 sockeye salmon due in part to an expanded fishing period by Fish and Game. Dipnetters will not get a chance to harvest kings this year as an emergency order released Friday prohibits retention of king salmon due to low numbers of kings in the river. Kings cannot be removed from the water and must be released immediately according to the order. In June the Kenai City Council voted to raise camping fees at the North and South beaches to $20 per 12-hour period.  The city estimates that only 3 percent of fishery participants are Kenai residents, while hundreds of tents spring up on the beaches for the duration of the season, sheltering dipnetters from around the state. The fishery is open to Alaska residents only. The fishery is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Fish and Game has released several guidelines for people who utilize the fishery. * The total yearly harvest of salmon is limited to 25 per head of household plus 10 salmon for each additional household member. Permits are limited to one per house-hold. * All fish retained must have the tips of both tail fins clipped and should be recorded before leaving the beach. * Participants are asked to stay off of the dunes and remove their own trash from the beach. * According to Fish and Game, fishing success in the first few days of the dipnet fishery will likely be poor as “few fish are moving at this time.” * Dipnetting from a boat is allowed, but two-stroke motors are prohibited and people should be prepared for long waits at the Kenai City Dock.  

US scientist: Ocean acidity major threat to reefs

SYDNEY (AP) — Oceans' rising acid levels have emerged as one of the biggest threats to coral reefs, acting as the "osteoporosis of the sea" and threatening everything from food security to tourism to livelihoods, the head of a U.S. scientific agency said Monday. The speed by which the oceans' acid levels has risen caught scientists off-guard, with the problem now considered to be climate change's "equally evil twin," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco told The Associated Press. "We've got sort of the perfect storm of stressors from multiple places really hammering reefs around the world," said Lubchenco, who was in Australia to speak at the International Coral Reef Symposium in the northeast city of Cairns, near the Great Barrier Reef. "It's a very serious situation." Oceans absorb excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, increasing sea acidity. Scientists are worried about how that increase will affect sea life, particularly reefs, as higher acid levels make it tough for coral skeletons to form. Lubchenco likened ocean acidification to osteoporosis — a bone-thinning disease — because researchers are concerned it will lead to the deterioration of reefs. Scientists initially assumed that the carbon dioxide absorbed by the water would be sufficiently diluted as the oceans mixed shallow and deeper waters. But most of the carbon dioxide and the subsequent chemical changes are being concentrated in surface waters, Lubchenco said. "And those surface waters are changing much more rapidly than initial calculations have suggested," she said. "It's yet another reason to be very seriously concerned about the amount of carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere now and the additional amount we continue to put out." Higher acidity levels are especially problematic for creatures such as oysters, because acid slows the growth of their shells. Experiments have shown other animals, such as clown fish, also suffer. In a study that mimicked the level of acidity scientists expect by the end of the century, clown fish began swimming toward predators, instead of away from them, because their sense of smell had been dulled. "We're just beginning to uncover many of the ways in which the changing chemistry of oceans affects lots of behaviors," Lubchenco said. "So salmon not being able to find their natal streams because their sense of smell was impaired, that's a very real possibility." The potential impact of all of this is huge, Lubchenco said. Coral reefs attract critical tourism dollars and protect fragile coastlines from threats such as tsunamis. Seafood is the primary source of protein for many people around the world. Already, some oyster farmers have blamed higher acidity levels for a decrease in stocks. Some attempts to address the problem are already under way. Instruments that measure changing acid levels in the water have been installed in some areas to warn oyster growers when to stop the flow of ocean water to their hatcheries. But that is only a short-term solution, Lubchenco said. The most critical element, she said, is reducing carbon emissions. "The carbon dioxide that we have put in the atmosphere will continue to be absorbed by oceans for decades," she said. "It is going to be a long time before we can stabilize and turn around the direction of change simply because it's a big atmosphere and it's a big ocean."  

Commentary: Bycatch tabulated across U.S.; farmed salmon swamps market

A first ever accounting of bycatch in U.S. fisheries has been achieved by federal scientists in a user friendly report that aims to set a baseline for the accidental takes of fish, marine mammals, seabirds, and other creatures by fishing gear. The National Bycatch Report, based primarily on 2005 data, shows fish landings and estimated bycatch ratios of nearly 400 types of sea creatures by gear type and region. It is part of an effort to track changes in bycatch over time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and to help managers meet mandates to preserve the nation’s fisheries.   Here’s a sampler: The total estimate for fish bycatch was 1.2 billion pounds on U.S. landings of 6 billion pounds. The Southeast region of the U.S. led all others with total fish bycatch of nearly 683 million pounds – meaning two-thirds of their catch is getting tossed. Alaska ranked second for fish bycatch at 339 million pounds on 4.5 billion pounds of fish landed. By far the fishery with the most bycatch is Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl, followed by Gulf of Alaska flathead sole and rex sole trawl. For marine mammal bycatch, nearly 1,900 from 54 different species were caught by accident in U.S. fisheries, with the Northeast region leading at almost 1,300 animals. Alaska ranked almost at the bottom for marine mammal bycatch with 36 harbor porpoises, fewer than 10 Steller sea lions and less than 3 humpbacks, killer whales and harbor seals. Alaska led all other regions for sea bird bycatch at 7,280 in 19 fisheries. Nearly half of the birds were fulmars, followed by sea gulls. The report has 78 pages of Alaska charts covering 27 fisheries and 91 fish stocks. In general, bottom trawl and bottom longline fisheries had the highest bycatch ratios, mostly of groundfish. Other fisheries with high estimates included sablefish and Pacific cod longline fisheries and pot cod fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands pollock trawl was among the lowest levels of bycatch. The National Bycatch Report makes seven recommendations for improving Alaska’s fisheries and bycatch assessments, including hiring 13 full time staff and providing nearly 30,000 observer days at sea. NOAA Fisheries plans to provide an abbreviated update of the report in 2013, according to Chris Rilling at NOAA headquarters in Maryland. (See more at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/by_catch/bycatch_nationalreport.htm)   Salmon surge As predicted, farmed salmon from Chile is swamping U.S. markets, with first quarter imports of 18 million pounds up more than 56 percent from the same time last year. A deadly virus crushed Chile’s multi-billion dollar fish farm industry four years ago, but since then growers have worked with a vengeance to regain their market share in the U.S. That market is primarily fresh, user-friendly salmon fillets. Food industry tracker Urner Barry said other countries, like Norway, can’t even come close to the amount of fish Chile is sending to the U.S. More than 35 million pounds of fresh fillets were imported from Chile through March, a 114 percent increase. Chile is expected to produce 700,000 metric tons of whole salmon this year — more than 1.5 billion pounds — just slightly below Alaska’s total poundage last year. The oversupply of Chilean farmed fish has pushed down fillet wholesale prices to $3.40 a pound, per drop of $2.30 from last year. Urner Barry said a few factors are stemming the surge: a lack of Styrofoam boxes for packing/shipping, and a lack of boats to pump fish from the net pens for processing.   Scoopin’ scallops Alaska’s scallop fishery got under way July 1. A fleet of just three to four boats fish for weathervane scallops from Yakutat to the Bering Sea, with most of the catch coming from waters around Kodiak. Weathervanes are the largest scallops in the world with a shell diameter averaging ten inches. It can take up to five years for scallops to reach market size, and they can live up to 20 years. Scallop boats drop big dredges that make tows along mostly sandy bottoms of strictly defined fishing regions, and are closely monitored by onboard observers. “All boats must carry observers,” said boat owner Jim Stone. “It’s a heavy cost at around $350-$400 a day. But we accept that in order to go into the areas and make sure our bycatch and impact are minimal.” Crews on scallop boats catch, package and freeze the shucked meats and can remain at sea until Thanksgiving. Scallop meats are the adductor muscle that keep the shells closed. They are a wildly popular delicacy and can pay fishermen up to $10 per pound. This year’s Alaska catch has dipped a bit from the usual level of nearly 500,000 pounds to just more than 417,000 pounds, the lowest harvest in four years. It’s pricy scallops that each year nudge Dutch Harbor out of the top spot for the nation’s most valuable seafood port. Dutch has the most landings by far, but New Bedford, Mass., has held the lead for value for 11 years running – due to East coast scallop catches that can top 50 million pounds of shucked meats.

Arguments for, against coastal zone plan given

The public got a preview Monday of an upcoming series of hearings on a ballot initiative that would re-establish a coastal management program in Alaska. A news conference called by Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell in Anchorage featured arguments for and against the initiative that are expected to be delivered during each of 10 hearings on the proposal. Terzah Tippin Poe, with the Alaska Sea Party, spoke in favor of the proposal, saying Alaskans deserve a say in development decisions, and the program the initiative would establish would aid developers in navigating the permitting process. The Sea Party is behind the ballot initiative. Rick Rogers, executive director of the Resource Development Council for Alaska, spoke for "Vote No on 2," a group that opposes the measure. He said the program would not cut red tape and would instead pose an obstacle to development. The coastal management program lets states put conditions on certain activities on federal land and water. Alaska's program lapsed last year after attempts by lawmakers failed to revamp and save it. Earlier this year, after the initiative petition was filed, a bill similar to the measure was introduced during the regular legislative session but went nowhere. The Legislature can pre-empt initiatives by passing substantially similar legislation, but some lawmakers and Gov. Sean Parnell said they preferred to let voters have their say on the issue. The initiative is the first to fall under a 2010 state law requiring at least eight hearings be held up to 30 days before the election that will decide the measure. One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, spoke at the news conference. Millett said initiatives are powerful, and that a goal of the law was to help people better understand ballot measures. The initiative is set to appear on the Aug. 28 primary ballot. Treadwell has scheduled hearings around the state next month and plans to run each like a legislative hearing. A summary of the proposal will be given along with a cost estimate prepared by the Office of Management and Budget. There will be a question and answer period and the public will be given an opportunity to speak, with a dial-in number provided, where possible, to allow people to call in and testify. He said the state will not bear the cost for representatives of the pro and con sides to address the hearings, which could last at least three hours. Hearings are scheduled for July 2 in Soldotna; July 3 in Bethel; July 9 in Anchorage and Wasilla; July 10 in Kotzebue; July 11 in Fairbanks; July 12 in Kodiak; July 23 in Barrow; July 25 in Ketchikan and July 26 in Juneau.  

Kenai, Kasilof closed for kings

The Kenai River, from its mouth upstream to Skilak Lake, will be closed to king salmon fishing beginning Friday through the end of the early run on June 30 as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game tries to meet its minimum escapement goal. According to Fish and Game, preliminary indicators of the run show that it may be the lowest on record for the department. When the king salmon late run begins July 1, bait and scent will be prohibited. According to a media release, the department cannot justify “additional mortality associated with catch-and-release fishing” given the low abundance of kings. The emergency order also prohibits all sport fishing for king salmon, including catch-and-release fishing, in the waters of the Kenai River from the Fish and Game marker about 300 yards downstream of the mouth of Slikok creek, upstream to the northernmost edge of the Sterling Highway Bridge beginning July 1 through July 14. The use of bait is prohibited during the late run, beginning July 1 from the mouth of the Kenai River to the Fish and Game marker located at the outlet of Skilak Lake and in the Moose River from its junction with the Kenai River upstream to the northernmost edge of the Sterling Highway Bridge. Only one, unbaited single-hook, artificial lure may be used. These restrictions supercede the emergency orders issued previously restricted the Kenai River to catch-and-release and trophy king salmon fishing. In addition, the Kasilof River fishery is still restricted to the hatchery-reared king harvest only and an additional ban on the use of bait and multiple hooks will go into effect June 22 through June 30.

Commentary: Ocean acidification research buoyed by state funding

Thanks to a nearly $3 million show of support from the state, high tech buoys will soon be measuring ocean acidity levels year round, and Alaska fishermen will play an important role in the research. Basic chemistry proves that ocean waters are becoming more corrosive and it is happening faster in colder waters. The acidity, caused by increasing carbon dioxide emissions, can prevent shells from forming on crabs or oysters and tiny shrimplike organisms essential to fish diets. Alaska’s monitoring project will allow scientists to develop a “sensitivity index” for the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and the Arctic, and key species in the regions. “By doing that we will get an idea of which regions are the most vulnerable,” explained Jeremy Mathis, a chemical oceanographer and director of the Ocean Acidification Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “After that, we will be able to start modeling out some scenarios using our ocean observations combined with subsistence and economic data — where if there was a disruption in a certain species, we could quantify those costs. We can communicate with stakeholders and policy makers using numbers instead of in terms of pH levels and saturate rates.” Mathis and his team will begin ordering and building the buoy equipment next month with deployment planned for next March. The fully loaded buoys each come at a price tag of about $300,000, or roughly the price of one 10-day research cruise. The buoys will be located in Southeast, Resurrection Bay off Seward, Kodiak, and the Bering Sea. “That buoy sits about 100 miles west of Bristol Bay, right in the middle of the big crab fishery. So between those four sites we are able to monitor where the stakeholders and the fisheries are, and ultimately we will be able to answer some of those ecosystem questions,” Mathis said. The OA research center will contract with fishermen and vessels for buoy deployments and maintenance, as well as for collecting water samples to expand the ocean chemistry database. “We hope to be able to utilize the fleets in these different locations, rather than charter a research vessel from somewhere else,” Mathis said, adding that he gets a dozen calls a week from fishermen and others offering to collaborate on OA related research. Mathis said he was amazed at how quickly Alaskans have organized in support of expanding OA research and called the state money, “a major victory for science this year.” “We are at the tip of the spear in terms of the impacts we are going to have and because of the fisheries we rely on. It is truly amazing to see the support at the grass roots level and have the legislature and the governor step up and allow us to take the national lead on this,” Mathis said. The state will get a good return for its investment. By putting up the seed money for the buoys, federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation can partner with the Alaska project for the long term. “It is a way to bring funds into the state,” Mathis said. “We will now be more competitive in bringing in federal science dollars into Alaska and the university with a high return. Over the next five years, my group alone will be able to bring in significantly more federal dollars than what the state has invested in it. But we would probably not have been able to do it if the initial investment had not been made.”   Pollock dodge One key species that appears to be dodging the corrosive ocean bullet is Alaska pollock. Based on the first multi-year studies, pollock seem to be unaffected changes in ocean acidity levels. “We didn’t see dramatic declines in growth or death rates when we exposed them to the more acidic conditions,” Mathis said. “We are hoping we can continue research to show that pollock might have some natural resiliency to changes in ocean conditions.” The report on pollock and ocean acidification is on its way to science journals.   Fish watch Bristol Bay opened its salmon season on June 1; Kodiak followed on June 9. Catches of Copper River reds have topped the one million mark … No fishing for Yukon kings for the third year in a row. State managers predict a lower statewide salmon harvest this year of 132 million fish after 177 million last year due to a forecast decrease in pink catches. Halibut fishermen have taken 37 percent of their 24 million pound catch limit … sablefish longliners have taken nearly half of their 29 million pound quota. Prices for halibut are still topping $6 pound at major ports, and $9 for large sablefish. The Bering Sea pollock and cod fisheries reopened on June 10. The Bering Sea snow crab fishery, which got under way in January, has finally wrapped up its longest season ever, due to ice freezing up the fishery. Estimates peg the snow crab catch at just shy of the 80 million pound quota.

Balsiger keeps control of IPHC process after Ohaus charged

The head of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska, whose advice is alleged to have played a role in the state criminal charges filed against an applicant for a seat on the International Pacific Halibut Commission, won’t talk about his involvement in the matter. NMFS Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger will, however, retain control of the ongoing regional review process for the nine remaining applicants, with the blessing of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Balsiger sits on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and also occupies the IPHC seat designated for an employee of NMFS. The two IPHC seats up for appointment are specified for an Alaskan and a non-resident. Thomas Ohaus, majority owner of the Angling Unlimited lodge and charter fishing service in Sitka, was hit on May 25 with five charges of false statements on his sport fishing license applications from 2007 to 2011. Ohaus was applying for the Alaska resident seat, and was charged by Alaska State Troopers within days of sending a letter to change his IPHC application from the Alaskan set to the nonresident seat, allegedly on the advice of Balsiger. On June 4, the day Ohaus withdrew his application entirely, NMFS refused to comment on whether Balsiger advised Ohaus to change his application status. “NMFS declines to respond in light of the pending charges levied by the State of Alaska against Mr. Ohaus,” wrote Julie Speegle, NMFS Alaska Region public affairs officer in Juneau. On June 14, Speegle responded to follow-up questions sent to NOAA headquarters in Silver Springs, Md., about whether Balsiger’s alleged involvement in the Ohaus case cast an ethical shadow over his ability to continue the selection process. Connie Barclay, NOAA press officer in Silver Springs, declined to comment. “The Alaska Region, under the administrator’s direction, will complete the nomination package and send it forward to NOAA. It is anticipated that NOAA will seek the guidance of the administrator relative to nominee qualifications,” Speegle wrote in the June 14 email. Because the IPHC is an international organization, also including three Canadian commissioners, President Barack Obama officially makes the appointment after consultation with the State Department and Department of Commerce. NOAA Administrator Samuel Rauch, in Silver Springs, Md., is also involved in the process, but all the information they receive comes from or through Balsiger. “The Regional Administrator vets the list of nominees for qualifications to represent the U.S. and where appropriate, consults with stakeholders to provide a summary of each candidate’s strong points to the assistant administrator,” wrote Speegle on June 14. As of June 18 the nominating package had not been sent to Maryland and had no deadline to get there. Ohaus has also declined to be interviewed to date but claims through a spokesman that he was advised by Balsiger to change his application. Ohaus asked Balsiger for guidance on what “residency standard” he should use for his application, according to Heath Hilyard, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization. Ohaus founded, and remains president, of SEAGO. Hilyard said Ohaus sought advice from both of Alaska’s U.S. senators and the Department of Fish and Game, but that Balsiger was apparently the only one to respond. Balsiger consulted federal attorneys and told Ohaus it would be “more appropriate” to apply as a nonresident and advised that he send a letter requesting that his application be changed, Hilyard said June 2. Ohaus met the March 19 deadline for all IPHC applications. The state troopers were led to him by the investigation on an identical charge against David J. Gross, a guide employed at his lodge. Ohaus and business partner Charles McNamee, also facing five charges for the same crime, are scheduled for arraignment in District Court in Sitka on July 11. Charging documents filed with the court say Ohaus is resident of South Dartmouth, Mass., and McNamee lives in Nevis, Minn. Gross pleaded not guilty after charges were filed against him on March 20, but he is scheduled for a change of plea hearing on July 11. He, Ohaus and McNamee are represented by Sitka attorney James McGowan. Among the nine remaining candidates for the IPHC seats is John Whiddon, manager of Pacific Seafoods in Kodiak, who was rumored to be withdrawing from consideration during the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting there earlier this month. Like Ohaus, Whiddon is up for the Alaska resident seat. “News to me,” Whiddon said, June 15, when asked if the rumors were true. “I’ve had quite a bit of support from Kodiak and other areas.” Whiddon declined to comment on the Ohaus case, or the involvement of Balsiger in the process. Balsiger’s wife, Heather McCarty, is a lobbyist for Pacific Seafoods. Another McCarty client, Philip Lestenkof, president of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, was appointed to the IPHC in 2002. He did not seek another term on the commission.

Sec. Clinton urges international cooperation in Arctic

TROMSO, Norway (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ventured north of the Arctic Circle on June 9 and urged international cooperation in a region that could become a new battleground for natural resources. On her trip to the northern Norwegian city of Tromso, she conveyed that message of working together in one of the world’s last frontiers of unexplored oil, gas and mineral deposits. The region is becoming more significant as melting icecaps accelerate the opening of new shipping routes, fishing stocks and drilling opportunities. To safely tap the riches, the U.S. and other countries near the North Pole are trying to cooperate to combat harmful climate change, settle territorial disputes and prevent oil spills. “The world increasingly looks to the North,” Clinton told reporters after a two-hour boat tour of the nearby Balsfjord and meeting with Arctic scientists. “Our goal is certainly to promote peaceful cooperation,” she said, adding that the U.S. was “committed to promoting responsible management of resources and doing all we can to prevent and mitigate the effects of climate change.” At the least, the U.S. and the other Arctic nations hope to avoid a confrontational race for resources. Officials say the picture looks more promising than five years ago when Russia staked its claim to supremacy in the Arctic and its $9 trillion in estimated oil reserves by planting a titanium flag on the ocean floor. The United States does not recognize the Russian assertion and has its own claims, along with Denmark, Norway and Canada, while companies from Exxon Mobil Corp. to Royal Dutch Shell PLC want to get in on the action. China also is keeping a close eye on the region. Moscow has eased tensions somewhat by promising to press any claims through an agreed U.N. process. But Washington has yet to ratify the 1982 Law of the Sea treaty regulating the ocean’s use for military, transportation and mineral extraction purposes. With 160 countries having signed on, the Obama administration is making a new push for U.S. Senate approval. Refusal puts the U.S. at risk of getting frozen out of its share of the spoils. Arguing for its ratification at a recent Senate hearing, Clinton said the treaty would offer the U.S. oil and gas rights some 600 miles into the Arctic. She said American companies were “equipped and ready to engage in deep seabed mining,” but needed to join the treaty to take exploit oil, gas and mineral reserves. On Saturday, in the eight-nation Arctic Council’s home city, she stressed that the international agreement “sets down the rules of the road that protect freedom of navigation and provides maritime security, serving the interest of every nation that relies on sea lanes for commerce and trade.” The Arctic’s warming is occurring at least twice as fast as anywhere else, threatening to raise sea levels by up to 5 feet this century and possibly causing a 25 percent jump in mercury emissions over the next decade. The changes could threaten polar bears, whales, seals and indigenous communities hunting those animals for food, not to mention islands and low-lying areas much farther away, from Florida to Bangladesh. The changing climate also is changing the realm of what is possible from transportation to tourism, with the summer ice melting away by more than 17,000 square miles each year. During the most temperate days last year, only one-fifth of the Arctic Circle was ice-covered. Little of the ice has been frozen longer than two years, which is harder for icebreakers to cut through. Europeans see new shipping routes to China that, at least in the warmth and sunlight of summer, are 40 percent faster than traveling through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. A northwest passage between Greenland and Canada could significantly speed cargo traveling between the Dutch shipping hub of Rotterdam and ports in California. The Arctic Council is hoping to manage the new opportunities in a responsible way. It includes former Cold War foes U.S. and Russia, but Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said governments were prepared to deepen cooperation “in a region that used to be frozen, both politically and climatically.” “Now there is a thaw,” he said. Last year in Greenland, Clinton and her counterparts from other nations took a small step toward international cooperation by agreeing to coordinate Arctic search-and-rescue missions for stranded sailors and others. Officials are now trying to enhance the cooperation, including through joint plans to prevent oil spills in an environment that would make cleanup a logistical nightmare. The U.S. has been championing measures such as shifting away from dirty diesel engines, agricultural burning and hydrofluorocarbons to lessen the effect of short-lived greenhouse gases that are a particularly potent source of climate change in the Arctic.

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