Fisheries

Judge: Agency erred in beluga estimates

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

Feds fine Seattle-based American Seafoods $2.7M

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

Yup'ik fishermen found guilty of illegal fishing

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

Fresh Copper River salmon lands in Seattle

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

Agency seeks comment on Aleutian sea lion rules

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

Former Murkowski aide who served time now lobbyist

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

Coast Guard expects to cut back on Arctic patrols

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

Crowd in Bethel rallies for subsistence rights

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

Judge adjourns fishermen trial until May

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

King salmon restrictions posted

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

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."  

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