Fisheries

Council allows sport guides to buy commercial halibut quota

Culture shifts, as does policy. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, master of the nation’s most valuable fishing region, decided on Dec. 10 to implement a new plan that in some ways reflects changing attitudes and economies in the North Pacific and in Alaska. The plan involves allowing guided recreational halibut fishermen to buy up commercial quota through a system called an RQE — a recreational quota entity. This differs from an existing program that allows sport guides to lease, but not buy, commercial quota. Commercial fishermen don’t welcome the change, and in fact see it as one more nail in the coffin of a historical Alaskan enterprise that is more expensive and more difficult to enter that it ever has been. Commercial fishermen think the RQE will usher in the absolute death of Southeast Alaska coastal village fleets in a matter of five years, all at the hands of the tourism behemoths that control more and more of the island economies. “This is the death of a small boat, owner-operator fishery. It’s over,” said Clem Tillion, a North Pacific fisheries fixture and longtime advocate for coastal quota ownership. “Holland America and Carnival (Cruise Line) will buy the quota and hired hands will fish it, and the small boat fleet out of villages is gone.” Tillion has a dim view of human nature. Though nobody is forcing commercial fishermen to sell their quota in this new program, or forcibly giving to another group of users, he says the temptation of money might as well be force. “I watched the Natives who had all that salmon quota, and they sold to the highest bidder without giving it to their kids,” said Tillion. “The temptation of selling to Carnival will be too high. Mankind is a weak animal.” Guides, meanwhile, said the RQE is an innovative economic means to loosen up quota — one the rest of the country and the North Pacific might use more often as recreational fisheries grow. “The North Pacific council provides guidance to the rest of the country about how to provide allocations between different sectors,” said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. “The complaint at many councils is that many allocations have been frozen shut. This provides a market-based approach for willing sellers, willing buyers, to bypass the deadlocks that are common in allocation issues across the country.” Andy Mezirow, a council member and charter captain in Seward, agreed. “It’s a sign that our sector is growing up,” he said. Shrinking halibut availability Halibut was at the center of nearly every touchy issue the North Pacific council dealt with over the last two years. The never-ending stew of halibut-born conflict is understandable. Halibut is one of the most valuable fish in the sea — even though only 2 percent of fisheries landings are halibut, 18 percent of the total value of North Pacific’s fish value comes from the fish. Scarcity has added to the value. Due to either natural fluctuation or environmental issues, halibut catch limits took a nosedive between 2004 and 2014, from 76.5 million pounds to 27.5 million pounds. Sharing is hard. Along with holding the most value per pound, halibut, alongside salmon, has one of the most diverse groups of fishermen looking to catch it. The commercial halibut fishermen who put the fish onto menus and high-end stores share the harvest with guided charter vessels, non-guided recreational fishermen, subsistence users and non-halibut fishermen, mainly trawlers, who incidentally catch halibut in the process of fishing their own quota, known as bycatch. Recreational quota entity The council’s 11 voting members approved the RQE plan 8-3, with only Roy Hyder of Oregon, Kenny Downs of Washington, and Buck Laukitis of Alaska opposing. Southeast charter lodge owner Richard Yamada planned RQEs to keep the charter fleet within its yearly allocations, as a “market based solution” that matches up willing buyer with willing sellers. Under the plan, a recreational quota entity, or RQE, can buy commercial quota to be held in a common pool for charter operators to draw from as needed if they’re in danger of fishing over their harvest limit. Prices for quota typically run about five times or more the current ex-vessel value per pound, making purchases particularly expensive — a fact not lost on the commercial fleet. This would differ from the current Guided Angler Fish, or GAF, program, which only allows charter permit holders to lease commercial quota rather than buy it. Under the plan passed by the council, the RQE can hold 10 percent of the total commercial quota pool in Area 2C, or Southeast Alaska, and 12 percent of the total commercial quota pool in Area 3A, or Southcentral Alaska. The latter was bumped down from 15 percent. This would take 10 years to happen — Southeast Alaska can only transfer 1 percent per year, and Southcentral 1.2 percent. If the RQE can find commercial quota holders willing to sell, these quota pound transfers will eventually allow the charter fleet to regain some of the size restrictions they’ve lost, potentially going back to one fish of any size in Southeast Alaska. It will also make the RQE the single largest halibut-holding entity in the North Pacific. Stakeholders still don’t know where the RQE will get the money to make purchases in the first place. Estimates place the cost of the necessary quota up to $25 million. Several self-funding options like a halibut stamp from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game exist alongside publicly funded options like a voluntary tax.  Opportunity lost, opportunity gained Well-worn arguments ping-ponged back and forth throughout the council’s Advisory Panel hearing and the council’s own public testimony. Like all halibut fishermen, both charter operators and commercial operators have felt the sting of increased restrictions. In Southeast Alaska, available commercial halibut quota dropped 78 percent over an eight-year period — too big a decline for the fleet to handle even if prices had risen another 38 percent in the same time. The commercial fleet’s profile shows the impact. Between the start of the IFQ program and 2014, the number of commercial vessels and crew dropped by half. For commercial operators, the entire concept of an RQE smells like a week-old slime line, a fancy acronym to disguise a hostile reallocation of valuable halibut quota. If we suffer, they said, charter fishermen should suffer too. “Who in the industry at low levels of abundance doesn’t experience additional restrictions?” asked Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fisherman’s Association. “Does making the charter sector whole again, making the charter sector great again…justify the impact this would have on other sectors of the industry?” The so-called graying of the fleet looms large in halibut fishermen’s minds as well. The term refers to the climbing average age of Alaska’s quota holders. Young fishermen looking to follow in the family footsteps incur greater and greater expenses purchasing quota and boats, leaving fisheries managers looking for ways to encourage new participation. The RQE could worsen the situation if it drives up quota prices even further. “RQE would be a new entry to an industry that’s already competitive,” said Carina Nichols, a 28-year-old fisherman from Sitka. “I find the idea of individuals such as myself competing with a publicly funded entity concerning.” Guides are in a similar boat, and say they have every bit as much at stake as the commercial fishermen and contribute every bit as much to the economy. Functionally, charter captains in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska are trying to maneuver to get back to normal days. Southcentral guides have every Wednesday closed to fishing now, which they say is a mathematically simple cut in their business — one-seventh of their days are no longer viable. They also have size restrictions, which they say can make or break a client’s decision to book a charter trip in the first place, or end a trip when they have to call a booked client with the regulatory news. Ben Martin, a second-generation Homer-based charter captain of an age with Nichols, said he’s sunk upward of $65,000 into his operation in the last few years. Mel Grove, a Valdez guide, spoke of several suicides in his social circle due to a worsening economic outlook in the small Alaska town. “We’ve gone from 9,000 anglers days to barely over 3,000,” he said. “When times are tough, people take drastic measures. It’s those folks in town that are really seeing the greatest impact.” Everybody vs. everybody Fishing conflicts in the North Pacific reflect Alaska’s economic and cultural development in some ways. Tourism has always been a part of Alaska’s economy, but it continues to grow. In 2015, Alaska had a record 2 million visitors come to the Last Frontier. Meanwhile, recreational fishing grows. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce that control the North Pacific council along with seven others, has begun detailing the billions in economic impacts of recreational fisheries in its annual reports. In 2014, 301,000 marine recreational anglers took more than 583,000 trips and caught a total of nearly 2.3 million fish. Samantha Weinstein, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, told the North Pacific council the battle is really about staying on top of the halibut heap. Times change, and the fish is good for more than just eating, she said. “Much of the opposition to the RQE Program is based on the primacy of the commercial sector in Alaska history,” she said. “Essentially, we’re seeking to buy something another group feels a historical right to hold.” Halibut’s current regulatory system, the Individual Fishing Quota or IFQ program, started in 1992, though commercial halibut fishing in Alaska dates back to the 19th century. Like most North Pacific fish, halibut used to be a derby fishery, where whoever wanted to try his luck could catch as much as possible in the season window. Also like most North Pacific fish, halibut management had to switch to a so-called “catch share” system, where fisheries managers gave blocks of quota to historically dependent halibut fishermen. By comparison, guided anglers are relative newcomers of the last 30 or so years. Guides have their own arguments for Alaska’s coastal health. Halibut is worth $7 per pound to a commercial fishermen, but guide businesses multiply that, they say. Outsiders looking for a trophy stay in town and spread money around, feeding a bustling tourism industry in Southeast Alaska towns like Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau. “Buying halibut off the shelf is not the only way people want to get it now - they want to visit Alaska for the halibut fishing experience of a lifetime,” said Weinstein. “Fisheries management needs to take actions that recognize this.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Federal judge tosses another fisheries management rule

Federal judges keep smacking down the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s decisions. For the second time in the last three months, a federal court has overturned a management decision made by the North Pacific council and enacted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS. The United States District Court of Washington overturned a 2011 decision relating to halibut quota shares harvested by hired skippers on Nov. 16. Federal courts have overturned several council decisions in recent years. In September, a the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the council’s 2011 decision to remove Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Alaska Peninsula salmon fisheries from federal oversight.  In this case, the North Pacific council made a decision in 2011 regarding which halibut quota holders can use a hired skipper instead of being required to be on board the vessel. Due to the court’s ruling, NOAA will have to open that group back up after limiting it in 2011.  Julie Speegle, the NMFS Alaska Region spokesperson, said the agency will change the impacted halibut fishermen’s quota shares to reflect the court’s ruling and that the council itself will review the issue. “The court order does not require any immediate change to regulations,” wrote Speegle. “NOAA Fisheries is in the process of modifying those halibut QS permits to allow the use of hired masters for any halibut QS acquired before July 28, 2014. NOAA Fisheries is also considering how to respond to the court’s order to assess the rule’s consideration of the national standards. The (North Pacific) council and NOAA Fisheries will have further discussions on the order at its December council meeting.” The ruling relates to halibut quota. The halibut and sablefish Individual Fishing Quota program, or IFQ program, was approved by the North Pacific council in 1992. Managers assigned quota shares to fishermen who commercially fished halibut or sablefish between 1988 and 1990. The program allowed for shares to be transferred. The program has certain limits on the use of hired masters — people who don’t own the halibut quota themselves but who man the vessel on behalf of the people who do. Concerned about consolidation of quota and desirous to maintain an owner-operator fleet, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved changes to the hired master regulations in 2011; NMFS published the final rule in July 2014, effective that Dec. 1.  Under the council’s rule, quota holders couldn’t use a hired master for fishing any quota they acquired after February 2010. The rule hurt certain fishermen who didn’t make the cutoff and had warned the council that the rule wouldn’t follow several of the 10 National Standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law of federal fisheries. Fairweather Fish Inc. and Captain Ray Welsh filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service. Fairweather got halibut quota in 1995 when the IFQ program began and relies on a hired master to harvest its fish; the company also purchased additional quota after February 2010. Welsh, an Anchor Point resident, also received halibut quota when the program was instituted and in July 2010 sold it and received sablefish quota by transfer. Welsh has physical disabilities and relies on hired masters to fish his quota. Because the rule affected only a small number of fishermen, it’s unknown what kind of impact the court’s ruling will have. The court ordered that any quota shares transferred before July 28, 2014, could be fished under the previous hired skipper rules. Bob Alverson, a commissioner on the International Pacific Halibut Commission, said the ruling means very little for the fishery itself. “I think it’ll have very little impact, myself,” he said. “It’s so far down the road. It’s down to a very small minority of people, a few people that may have a problem with what the council decided.” The real issue, he said, is the council itself. Alverson said the decision was hasty, as it ignored the guidance of its Advisory Panel and members of the public who wanted a different cutoff point known as a control date. “They hurt some people that didn’t need to be hurt,” he said. “There’s that old adage: Don’t inflict pain without gain. I think some people were unnecessarily injured in this, and that’s why you got the lawsuit.” Chris Oliver, the North Pacific council’s executive director, was unavailable for comment. This is the latest in a string of federal judicial decisions overturning council decisions. In September, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a 2011 decision by the council to remove several Alaska salmon fisheries from federal oversight, which is required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act for all federal fisheries. United Cook Inlet Drift Association, or UCIDA, filed the lawsuit in 2013 to repeal the council’s decision, which was officially Amendment 12 to the Alaska salmon fishery management plan, or FMP. The court ruled that the council must have an FMP for the Alaska salmon fisheries and it could not ignore the Magnuson-Stevens Act by turning over total control to the state. In 2012, the State of Alaska and several fishing groups won a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service for improperly imposing fishing closures in the Aleutian Islands to protect food sources for Steller sea lions. In that case the North Pacific council was bypassed by NMFS to create the closures through emergency action. In 2014, another federal court ruled that NMFS did not use the best scientific information and therefore violated the Administrative Procedures Act in the implementation of a revised observer program that did not account for loss of data quality when coverage on trawl vessels dropped to 13 percent from 30 percent under the previous program. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Halibut stock stable, flat harvest likely

Stocks have stabilized and bycatch is as low as it’s been since 1960, however the halibut quota for next year will edge down after being raised for the first time in years in 2016. The International Pacific Halibut Commission held its interim meeting in Seattle Nov. 29-30 to review the 2016 catch, status of the stock, and to recommend how much halibut fishermen will be able to take in 2017. Overall, biologists and managers gave a view of a responsible group of users responding well to a trough in the historical ups and downs of halibut abundance, which has flattened after a decade of downward movement. IPHC biologist Dr. Ian Stewart painted a more secure picture of halibut than the last two years have seen, emphasizing decreased bycatch and a firm outlook for abundance. “I think it’s pretty clear that we’ve seen the stock stabilize,” Stewart said. The commission set a recommendation, called the blue line, of 26.1 million pounds, a slight decrease from last year’s blue line of 26.7 million pounds. The commission will meet again in January to adopt official limits, which may or may not match the blue line. In 2016, the IPHC adopted official limits of more than 3 million pounds beyond that of the blue line. Fishermen have, for the most part, been responsible in the pursuit. Commercial halibut fisheries in each of the regulatory areas in Alaska collectively caught 3 percent less than their catch limit. Guided anglers in Southeast Alaska, or Area 2C, caught 13 percent less than their limit, while the guided anglers in Southcentral Alaska went over their allocation by 8 percent. Reports detailed that overall landings have been fairly static over the last three years, with a total landing of 32.2 million pounds in 2016. Only Area 2A, the West Coast between California and Washington, went over the combined catch limit for all user groups, by 1 percent.  Halibut has persisted as a fisheries politics hot button as more users than ever split the resource. Commercial halibut fishermen share the harvest with guided charter vessels, non-guided recreational fishermen, subsistence and non-halibut fishermen who incidentally catch halibut in the process of fishing their own quota, known as bycatch. The overall removals are more divided among user groups than they have ever been, Stewart said, with only 60 percent of removals going to the directed commercial fishery, while guided recreational fisheries and bycatch each made for 17 percent apiece. The remaining halibut was divided amongst subsistence users.  Notably, the hotly argued issue around halibut bycatch could ease as the bycatch rates for groundfish trawlers drop. Since 2014, bycatch has dropped nearly two million pounds. “We’ve seen a substantial reduction in bycatch from almost 9 million pounds in 2014 to just over 7 million pounds in 2016, Stewart said. “That pattern in 4CDE (Central Bering Sea) is what’s driving the overall reduction in bycatch.” Regulatory Area 4CDE became the focus of IPHC and North Pacific Fishery Management Council action in 2014 over the amount of bycatch taken in that area by groundfish trawlers. The directed halibut fishermen in the Central Bering Sea begged the council to lower bycatch caps for the trawlers so more halibut could go to the small Pribilof Island communities whose economies rely on fisheries. The council took regulatory action, but Stewart pointed out that the area’s bycatch rates dropped 1.5 million pounds from 2014 to 2015 — before the regulatory actions even kicked in for the groundfish fleet. The recent drop in bycatch is part of a larger trend. Bycatch in non-halibut fisheries has fallen steadily from a height of 20 million pounds in 1990 to the present level of 7 million pounds — the lowest bycatch level on the chart Stewart presented, which dated back to 1960.   The IPHC divides the Pacific into several regulatory areas. The areas in the central Gulf of Alaska will see increases, as biologists observe more halibut in those regions, while those regions hugging the U.S. and Canada coast will see theirs drop slightly.  Area 2A (West Coast): 750,000 pounds, down from 1 million pounds last year Area 2B (British Columbia): 4.72 million pounds, down from 5.22 million pounds last year Area 2C (Southeast Alaska): 4.08 million pounds, down from 4.62 million pounds last year Area 3A (Central Gulf of Alaska): 9.41 million pounds, up from 9.27 million pounds last year Area 3B (Western Gulf) – 3.08 million pounds, up from 2.71 million pounds last year Area 4A (Aleutians): 1.28 million pounds, down from 1.3 million pounds  Area 4B (Eastern Bering Sea): 1.12 million pounds, up from 920,000 pounds Area 4CDE (Central Bering Sea): 1.69 million pounds, up from 1.64 million pounds. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]  

2017 Bristol Bay sockeye forecast in line with recent average

Bristol Bay can look forward to a regular season in 2017 after two years of hard work, if the forecast is to be believed. Alaska’s largest sockeye run has blown past projections the last two years, but next year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts an average harvest. “A total of 41.47 million sockeye salmon (range 31.20–51.73 million) are expected to return to Bristol Bay in 2017,” according to an ADFG report released Nov. 15. “This is virtually identical to the most recent 10-year average of Bristol Bay total runs (41.39) and 27 percent greater than the long-term mean of 32.76 million.” For commercial fishermen, this means next year’s harvest will also be average, with a commercial harvest of 29 million. “A Bristol Bay harvest of this size is 2 percent lower than the most recent 10-year harvest which has ranged from 15.43 million to 37.53 million, and 34 percent greater than the long-term harvest average of 20.52 million fish (1963 to present),” the report states.  The forecast predicts an average run and average harvest, but the last two years have put a stain on forecasting accuracy. In 2014, 2015 and 2016, the Bristol Bay sockeye run has returned in massive numbers past those predicted by ADFG. In 2016, commercial fishermen harvested 26 percent more than what the department predicted. In 2015, ADFG predicted 14 percent less fish than what ended up returning. In 2014, fishermen caught 11 million more than forecasted.  Bristol Bay fishermen familiar with the region’s ups and downs expressed little surprise that the forecasts were off during the last two years of massive sockeye hauls. The history of ADFG Bristol Bay forecasting shows that the methods are usually off by a fair margin.  “Historically, sockeye salmon runs to Bristol Bay have been highly variable,” ADFG reported. “Forecasting future salmon returns is inherently difficult and uncertain. We have used similar methods since 2001 to produce the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon forecast.  “These methods have performed well when applied to Bristol Bay as a whole. Since 2001, our forecasts have, on average, under-forecast the run by 10 percent and have ranged from 44 percent below actual run in 2014 to 19 percent above actual run in 2011. Forecasted harvests have had a mean absolute percent error of 15 percent since 2011.” Depending on the size of the actual harvest, the 2017 Bristol Bay run could either ease or intensify an ongoing pricing situation. Ex-vessel prices for commercial fishermen have dropped while retail prices have remained largely the same due in part to a supply glut from the massive runs in 2014 and 2015. Processors still had stores of salmon products to unload when the large harvests came in, leading to a disparity in ex-vessel price versus retail prices. In 2015, area fishermen received 50 cents per pound, half the average, though this price was later adjusted to 99 cents per pound in the postseason. In 2016, they received 76 cents per pound, and are still waiting to hear what the postseason adjustment will be.  DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]  

The next generation of ocean specialists

Alaska’s university system is ramping up programs to train the next generations of fishery and ocean specialists — and plenty of jobs await. Since 1987, the College of Fisheries and Ocean Science, or CFOS, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has offered undergraduate and graduate degrees in Fisheries Science, complete with paid internships to help prepare them for positions in the state’s largest industry. “It’s a degree path preparing students for what I call fish squeezers — they’re going to go to work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or some other type of agency where they’re going to be primarily out doing field work, traditional fish biologist types,” said Trent Sutton, a Professor of Fisheries Biology and Associate Dean of Academics. Due to student interest, the college broadened the fisheries degree this fall to include ocean sciences, and opened more oceanography and marine biology classes to undergraduate students. The new degree combo program attracted 53 students, Sutton said. The college also is a center for ocean acidification studies, which is a big student draw. “You hear all the concerns regarding climate change and marine mammals and fisheries and sea ice — all of those garner interest from students because there are job opportunities down the road to deal with these issues,” Sutton explained. The CFOS also is the only school in the nation to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in fisheries for students interested in seafood sciences and technology, and marine policy. Another focus of the B.A. track is in rural and community development where students can get the degree at home. “A student in Bethel or Dillingham can stay home and take 100 percent of their courses either through video conferences or online or by some other distance delivery technology. They can get a degree that is tied to fisheries and it will help them have a good career and become leaders in their communities,” Sutton said. Starting next fall, CFOS plans to offer the degree programs in partnership with the University at Southeast Alaska, or UAS, and eventually to the Anchorage campus and other regions. A shorter career track for fisheries technologists also is offered through UAS/Sitka to train students for jobs as fishery observers, surveyors, culturists and hatchery technicians. Fish tech certification and associates degree courses are offered remotely, with classes fully loaded onto iPads and no internet is required. There is a dire shortage of fish techs in Alaska and that trend is expected to continue for at least a decade, according to university data. In fact, good careers await fisheries and ocean science grads in Alaska, as state agencies are steadily losing workers to retirement — 20 percent from ADFG alone over the next few years, and a similar amount from federal fisheries agencies. Of the nearly 700 graduates the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences has produced over 30 years, nearly half have gone on to careers at ADFG and NOAA Fisheries, Sutton said. “These students are not only staying in the state,” he said, “but they are working for the agencies that are making the management and policy decisions that impact our fisheries and marine resources.” Bait bites Baits are critical to most fishermen’s catches and it can be a scramble to find ample supplies that change with the times. “Things change over the years. We always try to find what is the new best thing and try and stay ahead of the curve,” said Justin Hackley, vice president of sales and marketing for International Marine Industries of Newport, Rhode Island, a global bait provider for over 30 years. Alaska is one of Hackley’s biggest customers and bait favorites have shifted due to changing weather patterns and cyclical availabilities of the fish. For decades it was east coast herring that kept Alaska fleets out fishing — until a better fish surfaced. “It was herring for halibut or black cod longlining, or for crab or pot cod until a cheaper alternative came around — Pacific sardines caught off the coast of Astoria. That fish had fat content at 18 percent, way higher than you can get out of east coast herring,” Hackley said. But the Pacific sardine fishery closed three years ago, and Hackley scrambled to find another bait replacement. It took some convincing, but last year Kodiak fishermen and processors agreed to bite. “Pacific saury is the new up and coming bait that last year we got them to take, and it’s been quite successful,” he said. Saury will be soaking in Tyler O’Brien’s pots when he sets out on the 58-foot Odin’s Eye for cod in January. At $1.00 a pound (up from 50 cents last year), he estimates the bait cost will be $4,500 for each three-day fishing trip. Fishermen use different baits depending on the fishery, and often mix up their own blends from scraps to save money, O’Brien said. “For crab we’ll catch and use fresh herring or cod and salmon roe. In the fall, we’ll get pink salmon discards from processors for halibut bait. We try and follow the seasonal tastes of the fish,” he explained. Pacific saury already is feeling pressure from increasing demand, Hackley said, and bait prices for short supplies of squid have increased to $1.35 a pound at Dutch Harbor, up from 85-90 cents a year ago. “Prices can double or triple in a year and some guys are buying 10.5 million pounds of squid for a calendar year,” he added. A newer bait alternative gaining traction in Alaska is pollock. “I used to sell a lot of longline herring to halibut guys and everyone seems to want pollock now,” he said. So why aren’t Alaska fisheries using local species as bait? In the case of herring (65 cents a pound) for halibut, at least, Hackley said size matters. “These longliners want a certain size. Typically, herring from Sitka is too small and the Dutch Harbor herring is too big. But it is good for the pot guys,” he said. Hackley credits Alaska for its sustainable management practices and believes he’ll have a good customer long into the future. “As long as people are out there fishing and pots and hooks are going in the water,” Hackley said, “I’ll be there throwing frozen bait at ‘em.” Fish watch The total salmon harvest for the 2016 season came in at 112 million fish, based on preliminary numbers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The value to fishermen of $406 million is the lowest since 2002. The 2017 catch of sockeye salmon at Bristol Bay is pegged at 27.5 million; that compares to a harvest of 37.3 million reds this year. State managers predict Upper Cook Inlet fishermen will see a much lower commercial harvest of just 1.7 million sockeye salmon next summer, one million fish below the 20-year average. The forecast for pink salmon in Southeast Alaska is for a “strong” catch in the 43 million range; that compares to just 18 million pinks taken in the region this summer. The halibut industry will soon get a glimpse of next year’s potential catches when the International Pacific Halibut Commission meets Nov. 29-30 in Seattle. The IPHC also will take up 13 requests for management changes to the fishery, including whether it will be legal to catch halibut with pots in 2017. The fishery will reopen in March. The state Board of Fisheries meets in Homer November 30-December 3. The focus is on commercial, sport, subsistence and personal use fisheries in Lower Cook Inlet. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

King crab harvest was fast, but cuts make crabbers furious

It was fast and furious for Alaska’s premier crab fishery with the fleet catching the nearly 8 million-pound red king crab quota at Bristol Bay in less than three weeks. The overall take was down 15 percent from the 2015 fishery and will likely fetch record prices when all sales are made. “The only price we have is an advance price so fishermen can pay fuel, bait and other trip expenses. The final price will be determined from now to January,” said Jake Jacobsen, executive director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, which represents 70 percent of the Bering Sea crab harvesters. Crabbers fetched an average price of $8.18 per pound for their king crab last year and the fishery was valued at over $81 million at the docks. The hauls since the fishery got underway on Oct. 15 averaged 37.4 red kings per pot, compared to 32 crabs last year, Jacobsen said, adding that some boats were catching 60 to 70 crab per pot, even as the fishery was coming to a close. That’s where the furious comes in — the crabbers believe there are lots more crab on the grounds than were revealed in the standardized summer survey upon which the catch quotas are based. “It’s not one of those things where we don’t think the crab is there, it’s a result of the survey not being able to find them,” said Ruth Christiansen, science adviser and policy analyst for the trade group, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. Jacobsen agreed, saying, “Fishermen were very pleased with the good fishing and at the same time furious that the catch could be so low when the resource is more abundant than they’ve seen in many a year.” He added that they also saw high numbers of female and undersized crab, which bodes well for next year. Only legal-sized males are allowed to be retained for sale. The Bering Sea crab fisheries are co-managed by the state and the federal government. Federal biologists conduct the annual summer surveys and calculate the catch quotas; the state Department of Fish and Game manages the crab fisheries in-season.  Trump takedowns What might the election of Donald Trump mean for the seafood industry? Economic reports already are pointing to his platform of opposing trade and pulling out of the North America Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, a stance that goes against more than 30 years of American policy under presidents of both parties. NAFTA connects trade between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, and Trump has pledged to impose trade barriers that could reduce markets for seafood and other U.S. exports and drive up the cost of imports, causing banks to restrict lending, according to the New York Times. It also is a foregone conclusion that he will tank the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership. If Trump does implement trade protectionist policies, it could tip the economy into a recession, cautioned global economists. Trump also has vowed to place a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports and declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. How this will affect the millions of pounds of Alaska seafood that are sent to China for reprocessing and then shipped back for sales in the U.S. is anyone’s guess. The Wall Street Journal said Trump’s victory could begin “an era of U.S. combativeness” with two of our biggest trade partners — China and Mexico — and prompt trade wars and stall international growth. Tom Sunderland, vice president of marketing and communications Ocean Beauty Seafood agrees. “But it’s far too early to speculate on what any of this might mean. We will just have to wait and see, and deal with any changes as they come, he said.” While Trump’s positions might not pose any direct changes for U.S. fisheries, his vision to “explode fossil fuel development across the nation, including coal” will have a long-term impact on our oceans. Trump has widely claimed that the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive. He has called for gutting the Environmental Protection Agency and is likely to name a top climate skeptic, Myron Ebell, to lead the charge. Like Trump, Ebell calls climate change “bullsh*t,” and both have vowed to “cancel” the Paris global warming accord signed by nearly 200 nations that sets targets to reverse the worst effects of global warming. Scientific American reports that Ebell has called President Obama’s Clean Power Plan for greenhouse gasses “illegal” and boasts that he has been dubbed a “climate criminal” by Greenpeace. The topic is likely to dominate discussions during a special Friday afternoon seminar at Fish Expo. Terry Johnson, a Fisheries Professor and Sea Grant Marine Advisor in Anchorage, will present the most current science on a warming world and off kilter ocean chemistry.  A main focus is to hear ideas from fishermen and coastal community reps on how they plan to adapt to the inevitable. Changes could include things like moving towards bigger, multi-fisheries vessels that allow for more flexibility, and modifying regulatory regimes that lift some of the restrictions on moving from one fishing area to another. “We have seen a number of climate related changes but they are more results of temporary climate variations, such as El Niño’s and regime shifts on the order of a year or a decade or more. But in the long term, things have not yet been sufficiently dramatic so industry has had to make big changes yet,” he said.  Meanwhile, Johnson said he is very concerned that a Trump administration will slash climate change science. “Federal scientists and others are doing very important work that will eventually help inform us about how to adapt to climate changes — if that funding is cut off, we’re going to be working in the dark,” he said. The Expo runs from Nov. 17-19 in Seattle.  Sea a Cure A campaign to raise money for cancer research has been relaunched by Orca Bay Seafoods and members of the fishing industry. The effort began in 2006 when Orca Bay vice president Trish Haaker was diagnosed with breast cancer, and since then more than $40,000 has been raised for research. The company now has enlarged its mission. “We are adding the nutrition messages of seafood and its health benefits, and how it can help during cancer treatments and lead to an overall healthier lifestyle,” said Lilani Estacio, Orca Bay’s Marketing and Communications Manager. All proceeds go to City of Hope, a global leader in cancer research, along with diabetes, heart disease and HIV. “We are a united industry, and we have a product that benefits not just the livelihood of many, but everyone,” Estacio said. “If we could all gather around and help educate Americans about the benefits of eating seafood — that is our ultimate goal.” Learn how you can donate at Sea a Cure on Facebook.  Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

ADFG predicts lowest sockeye salmon harvest in 15 years

Forecasts for Upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon have dropped precipitously, just in time for the state’s fishermen to have another beef with Alaska’s fisheries managers in a few months. “In 2017, a run of approximately 4.0 million sockeye salmon is forecasted to return to UCI with a commercial harvest of 1.7 million,” reads an Alaska Department of Fish and Game release. “The forecasted commercial harvest in 2017 is 1.2 million less than the 20-year average harvest.” The Upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon harvest of 2.4 million, which was 17 percent less than the recent 10-year average, fetched an ex-vessel price of $1.50 per pound for a total value of $21 million. With an average weight of 5.8 pounds per fish, 1.2 million sockeye are worth $10.4 million in 2016 prices. For commercial Upper Cook Inlet sockeye fishermen, the forecast plays into a long-standing management feud the Alaska Board of Fisheries will have to pick up at the beginning of 2017, largely concerning whether or not management policies have been harming the sockeye stocks — and fishermen — by allowing too many to escape to their spawning grounds. Managers predict the overall size of the expected run, then chip away how many spawning fish they need to send back up the river, then divide the rest between commercial, sport fishing, subsistence and personal use fisheries. For all users, the forecast is 2.6 million fish, about 21 percent below average and among the lower third of harvest forecasts going back to 1985. Eight of the last 27 years have had forecasts as low or lower. The commercial harvest expectation is 1.7 million. If the fleet harvests that much, it will be the lowest harvest since 2000 and 1998, when Cook Inlet fishermen harvested 1.3 million and 1.2 million sockeye, respectively. Prior to that, the harvest hadn’t dipped below 1.7 million fish since 1981. “It’s gonna be pretty tricky,” said Aaron Dupuis, the assistant area management biologist for the commercial section of the Upper Cook Inlet ADFG office. “Things will be much more restrictive.” This small of a forecast triggers the most tightly controlled management tiers. Sockeye setnetters will only have 24 hours to fish in addition to their normal Monday and Thursday 12-hour openings. Drift netters will have to stay within certain sections, instead of fishing in the middle of Cook Inlet. Commercial fishermen aren’t happy with the forecast. “It’s pretty alarming,” said Andy Hall, a sockeye setnetter and president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Coalition. Hall said he can’t remember off the top of his head the last time a season forecast gave his fleet so little. “I had a couple fishermen write to me and say they’re alarmed. It’s going to color how we respond to some of the proposals that go to the Board of Fisheries this year.” ADFG biologists acknowledge that high escapements might be a part of the low forecast, but say the situation is still too complex and murky to know for certain. “Yeah, it’s possible (that overescapement led to a small forecast),” said Dupois. “We won’t really know until we have complete brood information for the most recent escapements. It’s definitely a possibility.” Pat Shields, the commercial fishing management biologist for the Kenai area ADFG office, went into more detail about the causes of next year’s small forecast. Large escapements, he said, tend to produce smaller fry — the baby salmon waiting in river systems to swim out into the ocean to grow up. If fry survival drops, it could intensify low returns. “There can be multiple reasons,” he said. “It appears ocean conditions have not been as favorable in the last couple years. I know it’s not satisfying for even me to say that…but there are different things that affect that.” Water temperatures for the Gulf of Alaska and its river systems have been rising in certain areas, leading in 2015 and 2016 to a patch of water 2 degrees Celsius over the average, called “the Blob” by scientists. This warmer water, said Shields, looks to be a contributing factor to salmon marine survival. Rising temperatures only mask the problem of overescapement, according to Dave Martin, president of the industry group Upper Cook Inlet Drift Association. Martin said the forecast validates the group’s long held claim that ADFG and the Board of Fisheries have let too many sockeye salmon escape over the years, which both hurts the fleet’s bottom line and future salmon returns. “It kind of goes along with what we’ve been saying all along,” he said. “You keep grossly overescaping the systems then it’ll produce smaller returns. If we managed the fishery scientifically, we wouldn’t have these ups and downs.” By “scientifically,” Martin means managing to the federal fisheries standard of maximum sustainable yield, a different metric with more economic considerations than in state management. Hall agreed. “We’ve been overescaping these rivers year after year, and you have to wonder,” he said. “I’m not a scientist, but I’ve spoken with former and retired ADFG biologists who say, ‘we can’t keep doing this, this is going to come back on us one of these days.’” Both Martin and Hall want the Alaska Board of Fisheries, which sets management playbooks for Alaska’s in-state fisheries within three miles of the shore, to use this forecast as an example of failed, allocation-driven policy making. “It’s frustrating to see this happening,” said Hall. “I just wish all these political proposals weren’t there and the biologists could just manage. But a lot of what’s happening isn’t driven by science. It’s driven by politics.” The Board of Fisheries will hold a meeting in February for Upper Cook Inlet finfish, which includes salmon. These meetings, held once every three years, are typically among the most combative and political in the state’s fisheries, and have already been the subject of heated discussions in 2016 simply around where the meeting will be held. In 2017, the Board of Fisheries will also have to deal with a recent federal court decision that will require state managers to have a federal fishery management plan and stick to the standards required by federal law. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Obama to appoint Behnken to International Pacific Halibut Commission

In a final round of appointments before his second and final term comes to a close, President Barack Obama announced on Nov. 3 his intent to appoint Linda Behnken to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Behnken is an Alaska fishing fixture and has served as an interim commissioner since July. The commission’s upcoming Nov. 29-30 meeting will be her first. She currently serves as executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, an industry group that promotes the interests of Alaska’s small boat fishermen, and formerly served three terms on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that handles all federal fisheries from three to 200 miles off the Alaska coast.  Behnken has a full schedule ahead of her, as halibut management is complex and has several issues needing fixes. “My goal there is to work with other commissioners and stakeholders to update the harvest policy for the directed fishery, rebuild stocks, and reduce bycatch,” she said in an interview with the Journal. Among other priorities, Behnken said she wants to revisit the harvest policy for halibut fishermen by expanding the range of information factored into harvest guidelines. She would prefer a harvest policy that accounts for fish of all sizes and ages instead of the current focus on fish over 32 inches, and accounts for mortality of all sizes and ages of fish. Alaska halibut stakeholders say they have high hopes for Behnken’s commissionership. “I think the industry is pretty pleased,” said Tom Gemmell, executive director of the Halibut Coalition. “She’s been a long time advocate for the industry.” Gemmell praised Behnken’s grasp of management science, and in particular her involvement with an ongoing policy overhaul involving abundance-based halibut bycatch management. “She’s always had a good grasp of the numbers,” said Gemmell. “I know she’s pretty engaged with the council process in this idea for abundance-based management and fixing this whole problem in the Bering Sea. It’s going to be a long-term process. But I think she’s got a good handle on that.” The commission, or IPHC, is a joint Canadian-U.S. body that governs halibut management in the Pacific. Three commissioners from each country sit on the commission to set quota levels for halibut fishermen and perform the science necessary to run the fishery. Obama announced Behnken’s appointment along with that of Charlie Swanton as a commissioner of the U.S. Pacific Salmon Commission, which jointly manages Canadian and U.S. salmon in Southeast and the Yukon River. “The talent and expertise these individuals bring to their roles will serve our nation well,” wrote Obama of the appointments. “I am grateful for their service, and look forward to working with them.” Behnken was already serving as interim commissioner after another halibut fisherman left the post. She took the job after commissioner Jeff Kauffman resigned. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration law enforcement had charged him with a halibut fishing violation, settled out of courts for $49,000. This is Obama’s second honor for Behnken in 2016. In October, Behnken was named a “Champion of Change” for her work “promoting sustainable fishing and improving the lives of fishermen in Alaska and around the nation.” Behnken’s appointment comes at a time when halibut managers are looking for solutions. The North Pacific fishing world has focused heavily on halibut the last several years. Stakeholders have scrutinized the dual management of halibut between the IPHC and the U.S. North Pacific Fishery Management Council as clumsy and problematic. Groundfish trawlers take halibut as incidental catch, or bycatch. Groundfish includes pollock and non-pelagic species such as Pacific cod, Arrowtooth flounder and rockfish. The North Pacific council sets the caps for how much halibut the groundfish trawlers can take, while the IPHC sets the caps for how much the directed halibut fishermen can take. The IPHC’s caps shift according to how many halibut they predict are in the sea, but the North Pacific council’s caps stay largely the same from season to season. This led to a situation in 2015 in which halibut fishermen ended up taking less halibut than the groundfish trawlers, who aren’t allowed to sell the incidentally caught fish. Behnken was one of the most vocal proponents of slashing the groundfish bycatch caps so the directed halibut fishermen could get more harvest.  The IPHC and the North Pacific council are currently working towards a solution where their management methods are more in sync and the bycatch limits will be set according to halibut abundance as the directed harvest caps are. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Halibut share prices soar

As Alaska’s iconic halibut fishery wraps up this week, stakeholders are holding their breath to learn if catches might ratchet up slightly again in 2017. Meanwhile, prices for hard to get shares of the halibut catch are jaw-dropping. The halibut fishery ended on Nov. 7 for nearly 2,000 longliners who hold IFQs, or Individual Fishing Quota, of halibut. The Alaska fishery will produce a catch of more than 20 million pounds if the limit is reached by the fleet. Last year, the halibut haul was worth nearly $110 million at the Alaska docks. For the first time in several decades the coastwide Pacific halibut harvest numbers increased this year by 2.3 percent to nearly 30 million pounds. Along with Alaska, the eight-month fishery includes the Pacific coast states and British Columbia. The feeling that the halibut resource is stabilizing and recovering after a long decline has upped the ante for shares of the catch. The fact that the dock price again hovered in the $6 to $7 a pound range all season at major ports also has fanned interest. It holds especially true for shares of Southeast Alaska fish. “Fishermen say they’re seeing some of the best fishing they’ve ever seen in their lives there, bigger fish, better production and you see that reflected in IFQ prices,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. The quota shares are sold in various categories, and the asking price for prime shares in Southeast waters has reached $70 per pound! IFQ asking prices for shares in the Central Gulf, the largest halibut fishing hole, also have increased to $60 per pound, according to several broker listings. But the buying there is not as aggressive as in the Panhandle. “They took a 5 percent cut; it’s the only area in the entire coast that didn’t stay the same or have an increase. There is still quite a bit of concern about the resource there,” he said. “And there’s still a lot of concern about other removals and possibly inaccurate accounting of bycatch.” Halibut shares in the Western Gulf sold for a record $48, Bowen said. Shares in regions of the Bering Sea were listed mostly in the mid-$20 range. The halibut fishery falls under the stewardship of the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which has set the annual coastwide catch limits based on surveys since 1923. Stakeholders will get a first glimpse of recommended catches at an upcoming IPHC meeting Nov. 29-30 in Seattle. Mum’s the word so far on any numbers for 2017. “They won’t reveal any information about how their surveys went, for better or worse, and I give them a lot of credit for that,” Bowen said, “because it would only fan the flames of speculation in the IFQ market.” On a related note: Linda Behnken of Sitka has received a presidential appointment as a Commissioner to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Behnken has been a commercial fisherman for over 30 years, and since 1991 has been Executive Director of the Alaska Longline Fisherman’s Association.  Expo time!  For 50 years, it’s been the most popular West Coast trade show for anyone who makes their living on the water. Pacific Marine Expo, dubbed Fish Expo, has bragging rights as one of the nation’s top trade shows, and it’s even bigger this year. “We are going to be 522 companies strong and 90 of them are brand new to the show. It just continues to grow,” said Denielle Christensen, Expo Director, adding that in this day of internet shopping, nothing replaces the “hands on” and networking of a real event. New to the show floor are 11 safety workshops, a Job Fair and a fishermen’s lounge. “It’s an amazing space where people can come in and see art and history and take a break from the floor,” Christensen said. Seminars include selling your own catch, emergency crew duties, marine connectivity, salmon habitat and the importance of bait. The event also feature’s National Fisherman’s popular Fishermen of the Year competition and Highliner awards Pacific Marine Expo takes place Nov. 17-19 at the Century Link Field in Seattle. Pot cod goes EM  Boats that catch cod with big pots are in the pre-implementation stage of making electronic monitoring a reality. That’s due to a steadfast push for three years by the Homer-based North Pacific Fisheries Association, or NPFA, and Saltwater Inc. of Anchorage, a leader in data collection since 1988. The EM systems can replace or augment onboard observer coverage which can cost boat owners $400 per day or more. Armed with funding by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the partnership proved that pot cod is a fishery that fits the bill because of the way the fish is brought on board. Starting in 2013, the pot codders set out to prove that using video cameras aimed at the catch could be cost effective and clearly show what’s coming aboard. “From 2013-2015 we had up to five boats and 13,000 pot hauls. Saltwater data reviewers were able to identify 99.6 percent of the more than 55,000 catch items to a species or a species group level. It was like, wow, this works. That really caught the managers’ attention,” said Nancy Munro, Saltwater founder and president. To get required weights of both catch and discards, the fishermen devised measuring grids on their sorting tables and Saltwater created a digital ruler that snaps nose to tail images of the fish, along with software that calibrates each to length and weight. On the basis of that work, federal managers gave the go-ahead for the pot cod fleet to begin EM pre-implementation starting Jan. 1. Boats are needed to test out EM systems; all costs will be covered by the grant money. Questions? Contact Saltwater Inc. or the NPFA. Giving back  American Seafoods Company is again offering grants totaling $38,000 for community projects that address hunger relief, safety, housing, research, natural resources and cultural activities. The majority of awards range from $500 to $3,000 per organization. The deadline to submit applications is Nov. 16. The awards will be announced by a community advisory board on Dec. 1. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Salmon permit values take a nosedive after poor year in ‘16

Values of Alaska salmon permits have taken a nosedive after a dismal fishing season for all but a few regions. “No activity for drift gillnet or seine permits in Prince William Sound…No interest in Southeast seine or troll permits…Nothing new in Area M (the Alaska Peninsula),” wrote Mike Painter of The Permit Master. And so it goes. “With the lone exception of Bristol Bay and Area M it was a pretty grim season for salmon fishermen all over the state, and we are seeing that reflected in the declining prices for salmon permits and very low demand,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. On the upside, Bristol Bay drift permits have rebounded to the $135,000 range after reaching a low of around $90,000 last fall and spring. But at this point, there’s not much interest. “I believe there are fishermen who would like to switch out, say from Cook Inlet and go to the Bay, but it’s tough to make that move,” he said, adding that “Cook Inlet drift permits aren’t selling; there are lots of them on the market for around $50,000 and no action there.” A few years ago, Prince William Sound drift gillnet permits were fetching up to around $240,000, but recent sales were in the $130,000 range or lower. “Those permits have dropped about $100,000 in a year because they’ve had a couple of bad years in a row,” Bowen said. The story is similar for seine permits in the Sound, following a disastrous pink salmon year that came in less than 25 percent of the forecast. “The market there is around $150,000 and they were up over $200,000 last year,” he added. “We don’t see much action on those, and there is no interest for Kodiak seine cards. You can see them listed in the low $30,000 range but what it would take to actually sell one – my guess is it’s something under $30,000.” In Southeast, some permit values are not down quite as much as in other areas. Drift gillnets were priced at $95,000 to $100,000 last year, with recent sales at around $80,000. Southeast seine permits, which a couple of years ago approached $325,000, recently sold at $160,000.  Bowen says it all adds up to very little optimism. “Several of these areas have had bad years back to back,” he said. “If you add it all up, there’s likely a couple hundred million dollars that did not show up in salmon this year. There’s not money floating around in the industry to buy permits, so we’re seeing a depressed market in general.” He added that many stakeholders are worried about the future of Alaska salmon fishing. “You hear people talking about the water temperature is too warm and the fish are swimming deep and going under the nets and around them, and there seems to be a lot of concern about the future, even in the near term,” Bowen said. One bright note: salmon markets are going strong so far and that could help to turn the tide. “Sales have been brisk this fall,” said Tom Sunderland, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Ocean Beauty Seafoods. “We expect inventories to be low as we head into next season, and that should create some good market opportunities.” Bowen added that with low prices now for permits nearly across the board, it’s a good time to buy. Farmed salmon flop  Wild salmon is less nutritious because it burns up all its good fats and oils on its long journey to spawn. That’s the startling claim by professors at Stirling University in Scotland in a study showing declines in omega-3 levels in farmed salmon due to increased use of plant-based feeds. The statement brought a quick reaction from one Alaska expert. “I laughed. It’s a silly remark,” said Scott Smiley of Kodiak, a retired professor and noted zoological expert in cell and developmental biology. “A friend who is a fish nutritionist asked if the Scottish researcher was a professor of medieval literature,” he added with a laugh. Smiley added that farmed salmon, like other living creatures, are what they eat. “You can adjust the diets of farmed fish so that they have much more omega-3s. It’s just a question of cost and it is relatively expensive to do,” he explained, adding that most fish farmers now balance plant-based feeds with fish meal at critical times in the salmon’s development. Catching wild fish to feed farmed fish has fallen out of favor over the past decade, and that’s forced fish farmers to find feeds sourced from plants or synthetics. The Scottish report said that in 2006, 80 percent of the average farmed salmon’s diet in the U.K. was made up of oily fish; now it is just 20 percent. But even with the lower omega levels, farmed salmon is still better for you than wild, the Scottish researchers concluded. One million smoked salmon meals are eaten in the U.K. every week, and salmon purchases there have increased 550 percent, according to the report that is in the journal Scientific Reports. It’s hard to tell which fish overall has the highest amount of omega-3 oils because levels vary by local populations, Smiley said. “Herring off of Kodiak may have very high levels of omega-3s, but herring from some other place may have half of that. There is variation in natural populations that is really intense. And it totally depends on what they eat,” he explained. Farmed seafood is slowly gaining dominance over wild in Japan’s retail stores and are now the centerpieces of the seafood section, according to Seafood Source. The shift is driven by national supermarket chains that want to plan large-scale promotions in advance. The food service industry has long preferred farmed seafood because costs and supply are more stable, allowing for more consistent menuing and prices. Now, Japanese retailers also want that stability. Top fishing ports and fish favorites Alaska claimed the top three fishing ports for landings again last year, and in fact, led all US states in terms of seafood landings and value at six billion pounds and $1.8 billion, respectively. That’s according to the annual Fisheries of the US report for 2015 released yesterday by NOAA Fisheries. For the 19th consecutive year, Dutch Harbor led the nation in the highest amount of seafood landed at 787 million pounds valued at $218 million. And New Bedford, Mass., again had the highest valued catch — $322 million for 124 million pounds. Most of that was due to the high price of sea scallops, which accounted for 76 percent of the value of the landings in New Bedford. Kodiak ranked second for landings and the Aleutian Islands was number three, thanks to Trident’s plant at Akutan, the nation’s largest seafood processing facility. In all, 13 Alaska ports made the nation’s top 50 list for landings and six were in the top ten, including the Alaska Peninsula, Naknek and Cordova. In other highlights: Alaska accounted for nearly 98 percent of all wild salmon landings, with West Coast states making up the rest. The average dock price per pound for all salmon species in Alaska was 40 cents last year, down by half from 2014. For halibut, the Pacific fishery accounted for all but 216,000 pounds of the total halibut catch. Average price to fishermen was $4.86 a pound, compared to $4.94 the previous year. U.S. landings of king crab were 17.5 million pounds, valued at nearly $99 million, increases of 5 percent and more than 15 percent, respectively. Alaska is home to the most seafood processing plants at 151, which employed more than 10,000 people. And for the third year in a row, Americans ate slightly more seafood at 15.5 pounds per person, adding nearly one pound to their diets. That’s according to the National Fisheries Institute, which each year compiles the Top 10 list of favorites based on the NOAA report that was released this week. The favorites remain pretty much the same, with shrimp topping the list — but consumption of that item has remained static at four pounds per capita. Salmon again ranked second and Americans increased their intake by more than three percent to just less than three pounds per person. That’s due in large part to more availability and lower prices at retail. Canned tuna held onto the third spot at 2.2 pounds, followed by farmed tilapia at nearly 1.4 pounds per person. Alaska pollock ranked at number five at just under one pound per capita, slightly less than in 2014. Rounding out the top ten were Pangasius, cod, crab, catfish and clams. The upward eating tick in the U.S. is good news from a public health perspective. Only one in 10 Americans follows the federal dietary guidelines to eat seafood twice a week. The global annual seafood consumption average is 44 pounds per person. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Processors working with harvesters on budget plan

Fish harvesters and processors might not agree on much, but everyone hates taxes. Commercial fishing stakeholders took turns in 2016 tearing apart a commercial fisheries tax plan from Gov. Bill Walker that the Legislature batted around during the marathon session but eventually dropped. The industry has such diverse needs and complex features that the bill couldn’t hit the revenue target without hurting one industry segment more than another. Stakeholders also objected to a holdup with a range of other industry taxes introduced by Walker. As none of the other taxes moved out of committee, House Fisheries Committee Chair Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, tabled the fishing taxes until she could be sure the industry wouldn’t take a hit none of the other industry’s would face. Months later, Walker bundled the fisheries tax into a bill with mining and fuel taxes. The bill stalled. Fisheries stakeholders might have a fix. At an October meeting of the United Fishermen of Alaska, the state’s largest harvester group, fishermen decided to knock heads together instead of against the legislative wall. “(Pacific Seafood Processors Association) and UFA have agreed to sit down and work together to address the tax issue that’s being put before the Legislature,” said Glenn Reed, president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, or PSPA. PSPA is an industry group that represents companies which control a sizable chunk of the processing facilities that ring Alaska’s coastline and serve as the harvest’s first point of market entry. PSPA was one of the more vocal critics of a commercial fisheries tax plan. Major sticking points for PSPA included a canned salmon tax that would put a dent in export business. Reed said the meeting hasn’t taken place yet pending PSPA’s own schedule needs. “I was invited to UFA’s annual meeting to talk about the tax plan we had last year and a response to the governor’s proposals,” Reed said. “In the context of that response, we and UFA committed to working together on a tax program this coming session. “The steps that need to be taken as I understand them, UFA board is going to appoint a committee, four to seven people, a handful of people, and let me know when they get that done and we’re going to start sitting down and having some discussion.” Reed clarifies that neither group is looking for increased taxes, per se. “We sat down and said, ‘What we’d really like is a world without taxes,’” he said. “But that’s not a possibility.” UFA representatives confirmed the plan and place the meeting tentatively in the first weeks of November. New fisheries taxes aim to grow roughly $15 million in new revenue. For the fishing industry, funds are a matter of survival for both ADFG, which manages fisheries, and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which promotes Alaska’s seafood. Walker will submit his fiscal year 2018 budget in December. That budget will include another round of cuts for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Walker hinted during bill signing in Kodiak that he was looking at corporate income tax in addition to the industry taxes. So far legislators haven’t hinted at what taxes might make their way onto the floor. In the last few years, ADFG’s budget has plummeted $15 million dollars — a 30 percent decline from $50 million in fiscal year 2015 to $35 million in fiscal year 2017. Forrest Bowers, the deputy director of the Commercial Fisheries Division of ADFG, said the department has been told to brace for another 10 percent to 14 percent cut in Walker’s upcoming budget proposal, bringing the total unrestricted general fund allotment for ADFG to less than $30 million, nearly 40 percent less than just three years ago. ASMI cobbles together revenue from a mixture of matching state general funds and private industry payments and federal receipts. In the same timeframe, ASMI’s state funding has dropped along with ADFG’s. In fiscal year 2013, the legislature appropriated $7.8 million. In fiscal year 2017, the Legislature appropriated $2 million — slashed down from $3.8 million proposed by Walker — along with a note asking the institute to wean itself off state funds. “It is the intent of the Legislature that the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute develop a plan to phase out reliance on unrestricted general funds for seafood marketing by fiscal year 2019 and continue marketing on industry contributions,” the note reads. “Further, it is the intent of the Legislature the plan includes consideration of increasing revenue from industry contributions to maximum allowed by law and deliver a report to the Legislature not later than Jan. 1, 2017.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

What's killing Susitna sockeye salmon?

If any fish population in Upper Cook Inlet could be considered in trouble, Shell Lake’s sockeye could. The lake in the Matanuska-Susitna region, located northwest of the village of Skwentna between the Skwentna and Yentna rivers, has long supported a population of sockeye salmon. When the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association first studied the sockeye returns there in the 1980s, the lake seemed to sustain a reasonable smolt outmigration and adult return each year. A 1989 Alaska Department of Fish and Game study indicated that the Shell Lake produced about 10 percent of the total sockeye population returning to the Susitna River. That’s not the case any more. In 2015, only three sockeye returned to the lake, according to CIAA’s counts. The total is an estimate, though, because of partial video loss from the video weir the association uses, according to its 2015 report on Shell Lake. A total of 59 smolts left the lake the same year. Compared to the lake’s historical data, the decrease is drastic. In 2006, approximately 69,800 adults returned to the lake and about 80,600 smolts outmigrated in 2007. CIAA studied the lake again around 2006 and has watched the population decline since, said Gary Fandrei, the organization’s executive director. “After a few years (of declining returns), we said if this goes on one more year, it would be doomsday for the fish population,” he said. The dwindling population has the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission alarmed enough to ask the state to step in. The commission, which represents the Mat-Su Borough on fish and wildlife issues, submitted a non-regulatory proposal to the Board of Fisheries to designate Shell Lake sockeye a stock of conservation concern, the most severe designation in the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy. The concern is that without intervention, Shell Lake’s sockeye will die out completely, said Terry Nininger, a member of the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission who also testified at the Board of Fisheries’ work session in Soldotna Oct. 18. “There’s not a lot of local angler effort except for the locals that live around the lake,” he said. “… It’s more of a concern about the fish, not about the angler effort.” There are likely a number of factors in the decline, chief of which is invasive northern pike predation. The infestation of pike in the northern Cook Inlet area is fairly well documented and pike populations have been identified in more than 100 lakes in the broader Susitna and Matanuska drainages. Though the freshwater fish are native to Alaska north and west of the Alaska Range, they are invasive in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska and can devastate salmon populations because they are voracious predators on juvenile salmonids. Individual pike have been discovered with dozens of juvenile salmon in their stomachs. CIAA, which collects eggs from returning Shell Lake sockeye, rears them to smolt in its Moose Pass-based Trail Lakes Hatchery and returns them to be released in the lake, also nets the pike for population control. However, because of the nature of netting, they catch mostly the larger pike while the younger, smaller pike are still a problem, Fandrei said. There have also been problems with two diseases that affect salmon and beaver dams blocking passage. Though the diseases, both caused by parasites, seemed to have abated for a little while, they were detected again this summer, he said. CIAA regularly surveys the area and creates notches in beaver dams that could be blocking fish passage, he said. More fish returned this summer — approximately 215 according to a record copy Nininger submitted to the Board of Fisheries — and CIAA was able to collect eggs again, Fandrei said. However, when fish populations dwindle down to a certain point, they can’t sustain themselves, he said. “(The egg-take and stocking effort was) an effort to save the gene pool, to keep the gene pool alive in that stock of fish,” Fandrei said. “We had seen a very small number of fish coming back. Less than 10 fish might just be strays that wander up there from somewhere.” The Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission wants to see the state switch the designation to a stock of conservation concern and restrict harvest on the sockeye stock across the board for all user groups: commercial, sportfishing and personal-use, as well as a more aggressive program to deal with the pike infestation, Nininger said. “If the department decided to take a step of making it a conservation concern, they could restrict the fish harvest both commercially and the fish going up that stream both for sport fishing and personal use,” he said. “They could restrict the catch … and that would certainly help.” Through the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy, Fish and Game designates stocks of concern if a particular fish population fails to meet its management goals. There are three categories: yield concern, management concern and conservation concern. There are currently 13 stocks of concern statewide, according to Fish and Game’s website, and eight are in Cook Inlet. The Shell Lake stock would be the only one of conservation concern in the state. The challenge would be for Fish and Game to determine how to reduce harvest on those sockeye specifically, especially in the marine fishery, where set gillnet and drift gillnet fishermen can harvest sockeye of mixed stocks. Fish and Game has conducted genetic studies on the mixed stocks of sockeye salmon in Cook Inlet, but a conservation concern designation would come with additional restrictions. The Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission also asked the Board of Fisheries to consider upping the stock of concern designations on the Susitna River sockeye salmon stock from yield concern to management concern, though the Central Peninsula Fish and Game Advisory Committee asked for the Board of Fisheries to repeal the stock of yield concern designation on the Susitna River sockeye stock, saying the designation was based on a faulty sonar estimate and repealing the designation would open up more commercial fishing. The Matanuska Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee also asked for upgrades on multiple king salmon stocks of concern. A recent court ruling has thrown a wrench into state management of Cook Inlet’s marine fisheries as well. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court ruled in favor of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association in a lawsuit over the 2011 removal of several Alaska salmon fisheries from the federal fishery management plan. No decision has yet been made on how the fishery will proceed next season. Both Nininger and Fandrei said the stock of conservation concern on Shell Lake’s sockeye salmon could help bring needed attention to the issue, and both said the conditions should be better studied. “We feel the state needs to raise awareness across the board,” Nininger said. “There’s a variety of different ways that could be approached. We are concerned that the management concern level isn’t getting the attention it needs.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Changing climate could help or harm salmon

A changing climate is altering rain and snowfall patterns that affect the waters Alaska salmon call home, for better or worse. A first of its kind study now details the potential changes for Southeast Alaska, and how people can plan ahead to protect the fish. One-third of Alaska’s salmon harvest each year comes from fish produced in the 17,000 miles of streams in the Tongass rainforest. More than 50 species of animals feed on spawning salmon there, and one in 10 jobs is supported by salmon throughout the region. “Global climate change may become one of the most pressing challenges to Pacific Salmon conservation and management for Southeast Alaska in the 21st Century,” begins a report called “Climate Change Sensitivity Index for Pacific Salmon Habitat in Southeast Alaska” by Colin Shanley and David Albert of The Nature Conservancy. “In general, the global climate models are saying the wetter places in the world are likely to get wetter and the dryer places are going to get dryer,” said Shanley, who works as a conservation planner and GIS analyst in Juneau. “This is not a doom-and-gloom outlook,” Shanley stressed. “This is really just getting smarter about how climate change may play out and how it might affect resources that are valuable to us.” Shanley studied nearly a half-century’s records of 41 water gauge stations at Southeast watersheds to model future projections on how flow patterns might change. He said watersheds fed by snow packs will likely experience the biggest impacts. “Some of the watersheds that are super steep and fed by snow driven catchments are going to see some of the biggest changes. They might not all be bad, but those are the ones that showed some of the largest changes in flow,” he said. On the other hand, glacial fed waters could provide new and better salmon systems. “In Southeast, Southcentral and Prince William Sound there are a lot of glacial fed systems that salmon use and some that salmon haven’t colonized yet. As glaciers shrink and melt, there is some opportunity to create new, and in some cases, better habitat,” he explained. “Some of those glacial systems are really big rivers, so there are definitely opportunities for some shifts in productivity.” Watersheds that are in good shape should be fairly resilient, Shanley said. For waters adjacent to roads and culverts that have changed historically, the conservancy plans to do restoration projects, such as making sure there is adequate drainages and adding trees and stumps. “The wood slows down the water so that can help with higher water levels, and it also provides pools and shade and protection from predators,” Shanley said. More new research by the Oregon-based Wild Salmon Center, or WSC, also provides a glimpse of how a flooded future could hurt salmon in Southeast and other Alaska regions. Salmon spawn in streams in the fall and eggs develop through the winter, so increased winter flooding could potentially scour their eggs from streambeds and harm the next generations of fish, said WSC science director Matthew Sloat. In collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, Sloat modeled the possible flood disturbances on coho, chum and pink salmon spawning habitats in over 800 Southeast watersheds. They found that as much as 16 percent of the spawning habitat for coho salmon could be lost by the 2080s primarily in narrower, steeper streams. The effects were lower for pink and chum salmon, which spawn almost exclusively in low sloping floodplain streams. Somewhat surprisingly, the study shows that the overall risk of flood impacts to salmon reproduction in Southeast Alaska appears much lower than previously thought. That’s due to the relatively pristine condition of the area's rivers and floodplains, according to Sloat. "Flood plains act as pressure release valves that can dissipate the energy of large floods," he said. "Our results identify key parts of watersheds that, if protected, will continue to buffer salmon populations from flood disturbance in the future.” Find the WSC report online at GlobalChange Biology Tanner tanks The popular January Tanner crab fishery has been cancelled for the fourth year in a row at the Westward Region, meaning Kodiak, Chignik and the Alaska Peninsula. During the last fishery, a fleet of 80 or more small boats took a combined catch of about three million pounds of crab worth several million dollars to the region. But annual surveys showed the numbers of both legal sized males and females don’t meet the minimums to allow for a fishery. “We don’t seem to be having a problem making small crab. The problem seems to be getting enough of them to a legal size where we can have a fishery,” said Nat Nichols, shellfish manager at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Kodiak. It takes six to seven years for Tanner crab to reach their mature, two-pound size. Kodiak is seeing slight crab increases, especially at the east and southeast districts, Nichols said, but it’s slow going. At Chignik, Tanner crab abundance estimates were the lowest in the survey time series that dates back to 1988. At the Western Peninsula, the stock remains in decline and the bulk of the crab were heavily localized in just two areas of one bay. Biologists point to a warming ocean and predation as the likely causes of the crab declines. “We are seeing increases in skates, small halibut, cod and pollock in near shore, so I think it’s fair to look at increased predation as a reason why we don’t have these small crabs making it to legal size,” Nichols said. Nichols added that he has confidence in the annual surveys, and for several years biologists have gone beyond the standard survey grid, thanks to funding from the Aleutians East Borough. “The results of those additional tows indicate that there are small bits of crab everywhere you look,” Nichols said, “but we haven’t found a large portion that indicates we’re missing them wholesale.” By the way — Tanner crab is spelled with a capitol T because it is named after discoverer Zera Luther Tanner, commander of the research vessel Albatross which explored Alaska waters in the late 1800s. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com for information

Board of Fisheries addresses Agenda Change Requests

SOLDOTNA — On the second day of its worksession in Soldotna on Wednesday, the Board of Fisheries discussed a number of agenda change requests, or ACRs — requests for fisheries regulations submitted outside the regular cycles — to take up at its upcoming meetings this winter. The ACRs addressed issues around the state, not just the fisheries that have their regular cycles this winter. The Board of Fisheries chose not to take up an agenda change request related to limiting the size of boats in the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery in this cycle. Three of the 12 ACRs submitted would affect Cook Inlet fisheries, and only one was accepted. ACR 1, which would align regulations for sportfishing services and sportfishing guide services in saltwater with those in statute and update freshwater guide registration and reporting regulations, was accepted and applies statewide. The proposal came up because of a bill passed by the Legislature in 2015, HB 41, which re-establishes the licensing and logbook program for guides around the state and updates the logbook reporting requirements and fees. For the 2017 season, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s registration requirements are out of alignment with the law. “Current regulations require sport fishing businesses and guides operating in fresh and salt water to registered with the department but do not include provisions to implement licensing as required in HB41,” the proposal states. “As a result, current sport fishing business and guide regulations are in conflict with statute.” The Board of Fisheries moved to accept the request because it meets the criteria for an unforeseen consequence of regulation, in this case, from the state. The Legislature has made efforts to update these laws over the years, and this law is a first step, said Reed Morisky, a member of the Board of Fisheries. “It’s got a long, long history, and the Legislature has done various fixes over the years, but there’s still effort in the Legislature to have a longer term solution with this, and I believe that by passing this ACR, we will be headed in that direction,” Morisky said. Accepting the ACR doesn’t mean the regulations will change — it only means the board will discuss it as a formal proposal at a meeting. Newly elected board chairman John Jensen suggested taking it up at the Lower Cook Inlet meeting in Homer, scheduled for the end of November, in order to get the regulations in place by January. Since HB 41 has a sunset date built into it, anything the board passes should also have a sunset date built in, Morisky said. The board declined to take up two Cook Inlet-specific ACRs, one that would have limited the types of boats to be used in the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery and the other to remove the net depth restriction for drift gillnet commercial fishing vessels in the Central District of Cook Inlet. The first was proposed because of the number of boats that get swamped near the Kenai City Dock, where many boats of different sizes interact. At least five private boats were swamped this summer, with some needing assistance from the Kenai Fire Department boat that patrols those waters. Several board members said the public safety concerns about the personal-use fishery were legitimate, but the ACR did not meet the criteria to be accepted past the deadline for regular proposals. Board member Sue Jeffrey said she would like to see it discussed and said she might consider a board-generated proposal to address the public safety concerns arising in that fishery. “I think the issue brought up here is important enough,” she said. “It sounds like the (Kenai River dipnet fishery) ... has increased in disorderliness. I’m saying disorderly because it sounds like a mess of a lot of boats going in and out and I think that this is worth discussing more.” Morisky said he understood the public safety risk in the fishery but that a board-generated proposal would likely generate controversy. Board-generated proposals can come up during the regular Upper Cook Inlet meeting, which will be held in Anchorage at the end of February 2017, and do not require public comment before passing. Jeffrey said if the board does come up with its own proposal, the public will have a chance to weigh in on it. The board also denied the agenda change request to lengthen commercial fishing driftnets beyond 45 meshes. The board denied it unanimously, with several members saying it was essentially a late proposal and that the net-depth issue would come up in the regular meeting in February. Board member Orville Huntington said he was also concerned that lengthening nets could interfere with the migration of king salmon, which have been shown to swim deeper than other salmon species. The board did choose to take up one other ACR related to a subsistence harvest limit for sockeye salmon near Unalaska. The Unalaska/Dutch Harbor Fish and Game Advisory Committee asked the board to reduce the limit because of concerns for the fish stocks in a portion of the beach known as Front Beach. Fish and Game does not monitor the sockeye salmon escapement in that system, but the fact that the proposal came from the local advisory committee carried weight, several board members said. Board member Israel Payton said he would give it more credence because the local advisory committee was petitioning to reduce their own limits. “For a community to ask for a reduction of their own subsistence harvest is pretty substantial,” he said. “I take that seriously.” The board recessed for the evening with two ACRs left to consider and will continue its work in Soldotna Thursday, discussing miscellaneous business and non-regulatory proposals. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Budget cuts take big bite out of herring harvest

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is buckling under deep budget cuts, and now the state’s largest herring fishery is feeling the squeeze. ADFG has canceled vital abundance studies and surveys for several fisheries, meaning fishermen won’t get to prosecute the full amount of otherwise healthy stocks. Last year, based on 17,337 tons harvested in all Togiak herring fisheries and an average price of $100 per ton, the total ex-vessel value for the Togiak herring fishery was $1.52 million. The season allowed for a harvest of over 32,000 tons. This year’s harvest will be less. ADFG will allow for a harvest of 26,170 tons, or 57.6 million pounds, of a forecasted biomass of 287.9 million pounds. Al Chaffe, a processor working herring in the region since 1985, laments that what looked like healthy season was curtailed. “Things look fine,” he said. “It probably should be 15, 20, 25 percent higher. It’s cyclical, but it seems that survival in the Bering Sea is just strong.” The harvest would have likely been larger, but budget cuts forced ADFG to trim it. Typically, ADFG uses an age structure assessment model to estimate herring biomass. “Because that data is no longer available to us, we forecast the 2017 biomass as the average spawning biomass for all years for which we have data (1978-2015) less 10 percent in order to be conservative,” according to an Oct. 10 ADFG release. Across the state, herring fishermen should get used to the adjustment. “Statewide, except for Sitka, all herring monitoring funds have been cut,” said Bert Lewis, ADFG’s Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound salmon/herring fisheries management coordinator. “For Togiak, that means out aerial survey budget was cut. “That was used to document the aerial biomass, that determines whether we have the fishery, and it also cut our age and size data collection, which is what goes into the model that tells us the forecast. So we don’t have the age composition and the size at age data anymore.” By regulation, herring fishermen are allowed 20 percent of the biomass as estimated by the age composition studies. This year’s measurement of the long-term biomass average — minus 10 percent as a conservation buffer — will be less than normal. “Ultimately, this will mean over the long term that less fish will be harvested, I think it’s safe to say,” said Lewis. “And next year we will be coming up with some kind of recommendation on how to prosecute this fishery at some lower level we’ll feel comfortable with but there will probably have to be some regulatory change.” Budget cuts The Alaska state budget deficit of more than $3 billion is hitting Alaska’s fisheries where it hurts most: surveys and abundance estimates. More, and more valuable, fisheries than herring will feel the sting. ADFG operates mostly on unrestricted general funds from the state coffers, explained Department of Revenue Tax Division Director Ken Alper. In the last few years, ADFG’s budget has plummeted $15 million dollars — a 30 percent decline. In fiscal year 2015, ADFG’s general fund allocation was $50 million. In fiscal year 2016 that number dropped to $40 million, then to $35 million in fiscal year 2017. The number will likely fall again next year. Forrest Bowers, the deputy director of the Commercial Fisheries Division of ADFG, said the department has been told to brace for another 10 percent to 14 percent cut in Gov. Bill Walker’s upcoming budget proposal, scheduled for release in December, bringing the total unrestricted general fund allotment for ADFG to less than $30 million, nearly 40 percent less than just three years ago. Along with herring abundance estimates, 75 different ADFG projects took cuts totaling $3.5 million in fiscal year 2017, including several salmon related projects These cuts include: Susitna River weirs, $52,500; Upper Cook Inlet offshore test fishery, $71,300; Salmon River weir in Aniak, $129,000; regional sonar support for Central region, $74,000. For salmon fisheries, the Igushik and Togiak weirs in Bristol Bay and the Coghill weir in Prince William Sound have been cut. Partial salmon aerial surveys in Southeast Alaska — a $119,000 cut — were offset with transfer funds. Some of the slashed projects have supplements attached to them. Bristol Bay catch sampling moved to a cost recovery model. Budget Band-Aids Without an increase in legislative appropriations for ADFG, stakeholders like Chaffe fear a slippery slope in which direct industry funding misleads legislators into further and further cuts. Still, he can’t see another way. “ADFG has to be funded, be it by the stakeholders or the government, one or the other,” said Chaffe. There are no funds that go directly to the broad purpose of fisheries management for the Commercial Fisheries Division. “The majority of our cuts are from the general fund,” said Lewis. “There’s very little tax on fisheries. If it goes into the general fund, it doesn’t mean it’s going back to ADFG. There may be taxes on fish, but it does not mean the department is gaining or losing. There’s no guarantee the (Legislature) is going to allocate back to the department.” This is unlike other divisions in ADFG, which have direct funding sources. “Sportfish and wildlife both get these designated funds from license fees. The commercial fisheries doesn’t have any comparable linkage to the state’s commercial fish taxes,” said Alper. “The other fish- and game-related taxes are all designated — the enhancement tax, the marksman tax, the fisheries assessment tax — these are taxes that for the most part users have accepted voluntarily and goes towards some specific function.” Even without a guarantee of return, new taxes on the fishing industry are uncertain. Alper said Walker hasn’t yet proposed a new commercial fisheries tax increase bill as he did in the 2016 Legislative session, though he did mention the administration expects such bills from individual legislators.   Lewis acknowledges that ADFG managers have no real options except cost recovery fisheries, in which processors catch fish and funnel the money directly back to ADFG, or direct support from the industry. The former is not popular. “We’re basically harvesting fish that otherwise would be available to the common property fishery,” said Lewis. “We do not relish doing it.” In addition to being an unpopular option, herring isn’t the most lucrative of catches and may not even help the budget situation. “It really doesn’t work out in the herring fishery because of the economics,” said Chaffe. “You can’t afford to pay the state and the fishermen both.” Direct industry support, however, has provided some relief in certain fisheries. Processors banded together in 2016 to pay for ADFG’s slashed aerial herring survey so managers could prove there were enough fish to open the season at all. In Prince William Sound, the Coghill weir was funded by private parties. “We put out a ($250,000) bid to processors, and last year we did not have to fill that bid because (the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association) stepped up and paid that. They determined that those fish were better left harvested by the fleet and just paid it rather than have the process pay for harvesting projects through a bid process,” Lewis said. If the money keeps bleeding out of ADFG’s budget, though, industry isn’t happy about being stuck with the bill. “It just goes back to the slippery slope,” Chaffe said. “User fees, I guess. As we all know, the real problem is in the Legislature. Or we’ll have more situations like this.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Public gets open mic at first day of fish board meeting

SOLDOTNA — Fishermen and the fisheries-inclined turned out by the dozens Tuesday for an open hearing before the Board of Fisheries to air their concerns on a host of issues. The Board of Fisheries, preparing to enter its 2016-2017 cycle, is holding a work session in Soldotna this week to discuss Agenda Change Requests and non-regulatory proposals and to take public comments. When the session was scheduled in October 2014, the board set aside an entire day for fishermen to make public comments on any issue they wanted to address. Title 16 Commenters spoke on a variety of issues, but several recurred throughout the day. The issue that received the most comments, both for and against, was a non-regulatory proposal requesting the Board of Fisheries to lobby the Legislature to update the state fish habitat permitting process to include specific criteria from the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy. The proposal, authored by a collection of commercial, subsistence and sport fishermen from all around the Cook Inlet region, asks that the Legislature update Title 16 — the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s fish habitat permit regulations — to more specifically define what constitutes the protection of fish and game. Currently, the law states that the ADFG commissioner should issue permits unless the activity is deemed insufficient for the protection of fish, but the law doesn’t clearly define what sufficient protection is. Willow King, one of the proposal’s 12 authors and a setnetter from Kasilof, urged the board to send the Legislature a letter supporting the proposal. “I find that the references to protecting fish and game in water are vague,” King said. “... What is beneficial to finances isn’t always beneficial to fish. And salmon have enough trials to go through.” The parameters for Title 16 do not require a public notice and comment period for fish habitat permits. Several people testified Tuesday that they want the public to have a chance to weigh in on fish habitat permits as well, like Mike Wood, another of the proposal authors and a setnetter near the mouth of the Susitna River. He said one of the reasons he supports the proposal is the proposed Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project, which would have dammed the Susitna River above Devil’s Canyon to produce hydroelectricity. The project received wide criticism from residents and fishing advocates, and Gov. Bill Walker announced in June that the project would go on hiatus. “I think that a closer look at our state’s sustainable salmon proposal could help provide better guidelines to keep large projects such as Susitna Hydro from even going to the point that they did,” Wood said. Other supporters wanted the state to take an “anadromous until proven otherwise” attitude toward the state waters. Sam Snyder, engagement director for the Alaska chapter of Trout Unlimited, testified to the board that because only a portion of the state’s waters are catalogued, ADFG should assume that streams are anadromous when issuing fish habitat permits if not catalogued. The law also has too much ambiguity for how the commissioner could define the proper protection of fish and game, he said. “Luckily, so far, we’re not a part of the story that faces the Lower 48, where they’re spending billions of dollars to restore trout and salmon habitat degraded by bad habitat management, overpopulation, large disruptive dams and other impactful projects,” Snyder said. “In Alaska, while there are habitat issues in the more populated areas of the state, we again largely avoided those issues. If we can keep habitat intact, we can really work to maintain healthy fisheries.” A few testified in opposition to the proposal as well. Andrew Couch represented the Mat-Su Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee, a citizen group that provides feedback on fish and game issues to the state, and said the group opposes the proposal because members feel they do not have enough information on it and it could potentially make some activities, like gold mining, more arduous. “Several members expressed they had inadequate time to review this proposal — it was not included in the public proposal book,” Couch said. Mat-Su stocks Several people also brought up the issue of declining sockeye stocks in the Susitna River drainage. The Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission submitted three proposals asking for the stock of concern levels for certain stocks of sockeye salmon to be elevated, and for six stocks of king salmon to be designated as stocks of yield concern. Within the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy, ADFG has several levels of stock concern for declining salmon populations — stocks of yield concern, stocks of management concern and stocks of conservation concern, with conservation concern being the most restrictive on harvest. One of the stocks the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission is most concerned about is the Shell Lake sockeye salmon stock. Terry Nininger of Wasilla, a member of the commission, urged the board to support the stock designation. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, which monitors escapement in the lake, reported that only three adult salmon passed the weir at Shell Lake in 2015, as compared to 69,800 in 2006, according to a March 2016 report. ADFG has rarely used the stock of conservation concern designation, but “the Shell Lake issue is unique,” Nininger wrote in his public comments to the board. Pike predation, disease and beaver dams are primary reasons for the decline, but harvest should still be reduced to help aid the stock’s recovery, he said. “In the short term, this may compromise the interest of sport and personal use fishermen and commercial fishermen, but in the long run, it’s the only action that will return this fishery to its original, natural state,” Nininger said in his testimony to the board Tuesday. Couch, testifying on behalf of the Mat-Su Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said the members also support the stock of concern designations. Bairdi crabs Another issue that several participants commented on was the closure of the bairdi Tanner crab fishery for the 2016–2017 season, which ADFG announced Oct. 5 because of concerns about the biomass of female crabs. A 2016 survey showed that mature female biomass fell below the acceptable threshold, closing the fisheries both east and west of the designated middle line, denoted at the 166 degree longitude line. The board can decide to take up the issue at this work session. The Unalaska/Dutch Harbor Fish and Game Advisory Committee submitted a record copy to the Board of Fisheries asking it to reconsider the harvest policy so the fishery can remain open, criticizing ADFG’s harvest strategy methods and saying the method should be re-evaluated before closing the fishery. Leonard Herzog of Homer asked for the board to generate a proposal to reopen the Tanner fishery. Though the fishery on the eastern side of the line has declined “precipitously,” the stock on the west side is still relatively abundant, he said. The fishery targets mostly old-shell males, he said. “It’s really unclear whether or not they’re a help to the future of the resource or not because the females are all clutched and they’re not affecting the female population,” Herzog said. Josiah Johnson, a commercial fisherman, also urged the board to reopen the crab fishery this year and to re-evaluate the abundance in the fishery. “There was a lot of crab last year, and I was really surprised to see that all of a sudden there was going to be no fishery this year,” Johnson said. “... I just know that when we fished the western Pribilof section last year, they looked really good. There was a lot of crab out there.” The board will discuss the non-regulatory proposals and agenda change requests during its Wednesday and Thursday sessions. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Crabbers holding out hope for high prices after cuts

Despite a grim beginning to the season, members of the crab industry are holding out hope for high prices and a late fishery. The Alaska Board of Fisheries hasn’t yet decided whether to review harvest guidelines for Eastern Bering Sea Tanner crab and potentially open the season in January or earlier, or leave the fishery closed entirely for the next two years. Meanwhile, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game cut the quota for snow crab by 50 percent and for Bristol Bay red king crab by15 percent. Despite the cuts, crab industry stakeholders say the season for Bristol Bay red king crab is moving along at more than a healthy clip. “Some good news from the grounds, the crab look good. They’re heavy. There’s a lot of small crab, females. Folks are seeing pots just plugged with crab — so full they can’t get another one in,” said Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, a crab harvesting cooperative with 188 members that together harvest 70 percent of Alaska’s crab. Jacobsen said that given the density of the fishing, he wonders why the surveys that measure abundance didn’t pick anything up.“The reports I’ve got, maybe the people who aren’t doing so well don’t say anything,” he said. “There’s a lot of very optimistic reports from the grounds. I’m not sure what happened with the survey last summer.” Prices Always a costly product, the sharply reduced Alaska crab quota will surely raise prices, though nobody will know by how much until the season wraps up and processors set prices. The average dockside price paid to fishermen for bairdi Tanner, snow crab, and Bristol Bay red king crab from 1985 to 2015 is $2.17, $1.37 and $5.08 per pound, respectively, and have been rising for snow and red king crab over the same timeline. Wholesale and retail rates climb higher.  Jacobsen said, “we are looking forward to what will be record prices for king crab,” which would be more than the $10 per pound received in 2011. Tyson Fick, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said he expects prices to rise due to such a supply cut, but that he isn’t sure to what extent. Due to the lower quota, crabbers will have trouble making the fishery fiscally solvent. Even with a big spike in prices, the ex-vessel prices paid to crabbers won’t likely make up for the quota declines. “People are certainly expecting strong pricing,” Fick said. “It’s a substantial hit…but it would take a pretty amazingly strong price to make up for that.” However, Fick said the Alaska brand won’t suffer under the high prices justified by premium quality. “I will say this about high prices, and we’ve seen this with other species,” said Fick, “when the fish goes in to the market at higher prices, all our consumer polling shows that people don’t really remember paying a high price, they remember the quality experience.” Prices could fluctuate in response to foreign crab as well. Unlike the U.S., Russia increased its crab quota 20 percent to 30 percent for the 2017 season. The U.S. market not only still imports Russian crab, but much of the domestic product marketed in the U.S. as Alaska crab is in fact repackaged illegal, unreported or unregulated crab from Russian waters. Survey questions Bristol Bay red king crab are one of a trio of main North Pacific crab stocks, and by far the most valuable on a per pound basis at the dock. Jacobsen’s puzzlement regarding the red king crab survey is a toned-down version of an ongoing dialogue about survey methods for opilio, or snow crab, and bairdi Tanner crab, the other two large crab stocks. “The models need to be scrutinized pretty closely,” Jacobsen said. “I’m not sure how valid they are. We’d like somebody to take a good hard look at the models and make sure they’re appropriate for what we’re doing.” Unlike red king crab, which has stayed at a fairly steady harvest level over the past half decade, snow crab harvests have varied wildly from year to year, from a height of 89 million pounds in the 2012 season to 40.6 million pounds last year and 20 million this year. Crab is jointly managed between the federal and Alaska governments. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, performs abundance surveys each summer before the winter crab fishery begins. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees federal fisheries from three to 200 miles offshore, approves the over fishing limits and acceptable biological catches for each of six crab stocks based on the conclusions of the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee, or SSC. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game then sets the total allowable catch, or TAC, and manages the fishery directly. It cannot set harvests above the limits established by the North Pacific council, but can and has set them lower than what has been approved by the SSC. This year, the federal survey looks screwy to the crabbers, particularly with the more geographically and biologically complex snow crab. Warming ocean temperatures and other factors could be creating a situation in which there could potentially be more crab to fish than allowed for by federal and state managers. “The question is, and the question we had across all of our stocks, was whether or not these extremely warm temps are affecting our abundance estimates,” explained Bob Foy, the laboratory director for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Kodiak, a research arm of NOAA. Temperature trends have gone up and down in the North Pacific. The fluctuation matches patterns in snow crab abundance. “We had the coldest year on record in 2012,” said Foy. “We had one of the warmest years on record in 2016. We’ve had steady warming between then, so the question is there any trend in all of our stocks? “With snow crab, in particular, we saw an increase in stock biomass just after the cooling years and a steady decrease in the last few years.” Snow crab survey sites straddle a border in the central Bering Sea near St. Matthew Island. The warmer water could be pushing the cold-loving crab north of the survey sites, leading to something like a false positive for declining abundance. Foy said he understands crabbers concerns about cuts in the face of what could be healthy abundance, but also said they probably aren’t missing much. Colder waters often produce crab smaller than the legal harvestable size anyway, and much of them are buried beneath ice sheets crabbers can’t get through. “I don’t think that when it comes to setting our quotas that we’re missing a bunch of crab,” Foy said. “We know that they’re not in deeper waters because we did a survey this year on the slope and we did not see a bunch of missing snow crab.” In the coming year, Foy said NOAA plans to study the issue more closely. “Next year we’re starting a new survey that will extend our existing survey all the way through the Bering Sea to St. Lawrence Island,” he said. “That will occur every other year for awhile. That will ultimately let us know who’s on that border, who’s over the border, and whether or not it affects our mature biomass.” Harvest guidelines Crabbers place some of the snow crab quota cuts at the feet of the federally-managed abundance estimates, but with Tanner crab they take issue with the state. Tanner crab was one of two stocks the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration charted as having a decline in biomass. In 2015, the biomass prediction for tanner crab was 163 million pounds. This year, surveys charted a drop down to a biomass of 100 million pounds. It is the female crab abundance that cancelled the fishery, rather than the overall biomass directly. According to the survey, there isn’t enough female crab in the sea for the Tanner crab fishery to open, despite the fact that the overall Bairdi stock itself is not overfished or experiencing overfishing, according to federal definitions. This is a marked departure form last year’s increased quota. In 2015, a total of 19.67 million pounds of Tanner crab was harvested, compared to 15.1 million pounds in 2014. However, the crab industry thinks ADFG’s harvest policy is an outdated holdover from a stock rebuilding program that is no longer relevant. In a Sept. 8 emergency petition to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, industry stakeholders requested that the board revisit the harvest policy so the Tanner crab fishery can open. Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt, St. Paul Mayor Simeon Swetzof, and Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers science advisor Ruth Christiansen signed the petition. Among other proposed changes to the harvest policy, stakeholders argue that the Tanner crab fishery is the only crab stock tied to the biomass of mature females, while the other stocks chart a combination of male and female. “A female-only threshold makes little sense for commercial fisheries specifically designed and executed to harvest only mature male crab,” the petition states. Further, stakeholders think the survey results themselves do not accurately reflect biomass, as static survey results taken during the warm summer months do not match the winter-driven catches of the mobile crab fleet, which has seen a rising amount of Tanner crab per pot in recent years. Managers also divide the Bering Sea Tanner crab fishery into eastern and western sections, which crabbers say is inconsistent ADFG Commissioner Sam Cotten denied the petition, saying the situation does not meet the criteria for an emergency, which requires a conservation concern. An emergency criteria can also be met if a harvestable surplus will go uncaught because of a regulation, such as the state strategy for Tanner crab. Christiansen sent a second letter directly to Alaska Board of Fisheries Executive Director Glenn Haight with another emergency request, appealing Cotten’s decision. Late Tanner fishery? If two board members agree to take up the matter at the next board meeting in October, and if it decides to grant the petition, the Tanner crab fishery could potentially open late. If not, the fishery will stay closed for the next two years. Crab stock has to meet the minimum threshold for two consecutive years before managers can open the fishery again. Crab industry stakeholders requested ADFG rewrite the harvest plan, but without a conservation concern ADFG commissioner Sam Cotten denied the request. In an appeal, the crabbers wrote a second emergency request directly to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, asking the board revamp the plan. “There is some hope still that there could be a fishery, a curtailed fishery, for bairdi (Tanner) crab,” Fick said. That hope, however, hasn’t come to life just yet. Haight, the executive director of the Board of Fisheries, said board members haven’t moved on the issue. “None have asked me to call a meeting yet,” he said. “I haven’t heard from anything on it.” Depending on the board’s will, it could call an emergency meeting or potentially take up the issue at a regular board meeting. Aside from an Oct. 18-20 work session in Soldotna, the board will hold its next meetings Nov. 30-Dec. 3 and again Jan. 10-13 to discuss Lower Cook Inlet and Kodiak finfish, respectively. Jacobsen still has faith in a late season opener, though he hasn’t heard anything definite yet. Swings are the norm in Alaska crab fisheries, and he’s learned to roll with the waves. “I’ve heard different things from industry,” he said. “There’s some optimism there, and hopefully it’s well founded optimism. There’s still hope. We always have hope. We’ve certainly experiences setbacks before. It’s nothing new. We’ve had closures of seasons before. In the long term we’re pretty optimistic. That’s why we keep doing it, I guess.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet fishermen wait for direction

Concerned fishermen gathered at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s October meeting in Anchorage to discuss a recent federal court decision that turns control of salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula over to state management. Though stakeholders brought their suggestions, the council did not direct its staff to any action related to the subject of a salmon FMP. Instead, the council reiterated that the decision will be remanded back to the lower court where it could either be appealed or produce a directive for the council to write a salmon FMP.  The North Pacific Fishery Management Council governs federal fisheries, which take place from three to 200 miles offshore. In 2013, industry group United Cook Inlet Drift Association, or UCIDA, filed a lawsuit  to repeal a 2011 council decision, which became Amendment 12 to the Alaska salmon fishery management plan, or FMP. The initial suit was rejected by U.S. Alaska District Court Judge Timothy Burgess in September 2014. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit unanimously remanded the case back to Burgess with instructions to find in favor the plaintiffs. Dave Martin, president of UCIDA, pressed for a committee of salmon stakeholders to help draft a salmon FMP. “I think it’ll work here as far as getting the plan developed, and the parties involved, we’d gladly be involved in this process. We need to have people on there that are sincere about the management plans,” said Martin.“In the interim, we’ll probably have to come up with something between now and next season.” “We’d like to work with you to make sure there are no negative, unintended consequences of this decision,” said ADFG commissioner Sam Cotten in response. Cotten insists the state doesn’t need federal guidelines for what is a fishery prosecuted mainly by Alaska fishermen. The state’s drift fishermen show little faith in the state’s ability to run the fishery. “Over the past four years, there have been major fishery disasters declared in Alaska: Yukon & Kuskokwim Chinook, Cook Inlet Chinook as well as Prince William Sound, Lower Cook Inlet, Chignik and Kodiak Pinks,” wrote John McCombs, president of Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund, which co-filed the lawsuit with UCIDA.  “Collectively, the chinook and pink salmon disasters cover the majority of the state-managed fisheries. There is simply no justification for these systemic, state-wide salmon fishery disasters. The notion that the State of Alaska is doing a great job of managing salmon is hollow and is not supported by these reoccurring salmon run disasters.” Cook Inlet fishermen unconnected to the lawsuit offered similar testimony. Arni Thompson, executive director of the Alaska Salmon Alliance, agreed, and said the state needs federal guidelines to revive fisheries. “State management plans in Cook Inlet now result in only about two percent of pink salmon stocks being harvested, about six percent of chum salmon stocks being harvested and about 10 percent of coho stocks being harvested,” wrote Thompson in a letter of public comment. “Surplus Chinook and sockeye are harvested at a higher rate but there is an unharvested surplus of all stocks that could generate additional tens of millions of dollars annually to the regional and state economies.” Others came before the council not for commercial fisheries purposes but for ecological concerns. Bob Shavelson, executive director of habitat conservation non profit Cook Inlet Keeper, used the opportunity to tell the council it could use a salmon FMP to protect the Cook Inlet watershed from the “death by a thousand cuts that’s resulted in the demise of fisheries in other places.” “I think there’s wonderful opportunity for public engagement,” Shavelson said. “Where I see people coming together is around the issue of habitat. Without habitat you don’t have an allocation.” The Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA, requires all federal fisheries to follow a series of guidelines, called the National Standards. The council has to consider factors like best available science, the economic health of coastal communities, and a principle called maximum sustainable yield. Several fisheries meetings at the state and federal level will take place between now and the beginning of the 2017 salmon season. If the North Pacific council decides not to appeal, it will need an operational FMP by the beginning of the 2017 salmon season and will likely need to collaborate with the Alaska Board of Fisheries, which manages fisheries within three miles off the Alaska shore. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Candidates talk fish in Kodiak

At a forum sponsored by some of the North Pacific’s most powerful fishing trade organizations, four congressional hopefuls lined up in Kodiak on Oct. 12 to field questions on the commercial fishing industry. For incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, it served as an opportunity to remind fishermen that she knows their complex and often fractured industry, and reiterate that the United Fishermen of Alaska, the state’s largest industry group, has long backed her campaign. The UFA continues to endorse her in the current cycle, though the organization itself made no donation to her campaign fund. Her opponents, Independent senate candidates Breck Craig and Margaret Stock, along with Democratic challenger Ray Metcalfe, admitted they were less familiar with the topics and instead spoke about issues on a general level, without specifics. Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens moderated the event and fielded question from three fishing industry representatives: Julie Matweyou of Alaska Sea Grant; Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank; and Jeff Stephen, director of the United Fishermen's Marketing Association. Alaskan Leader Fisheries, Pacific Seafood Processors Association, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, At-Sea Processors Association, Groundfish Forum, UFA, City of Kodiak and the Kodiak Island Borough sponsored the event. Catch shares and the graying of the fleet Fisheries are expensive to enter, and fishermen wanted to know how to bring more young fishermen onto the deck. Candidates were asked how they would encourage more involvement from young fishermen, an issue that looms large in the minds of Alaska fishermen who fear more and more the so-called “graying of the fleet” — a phenomenon in which the average Alaska commercial fisherman is getting older and older. Craig, Stock and Metcalfe all seemed to place much of the blame on catch shares, a hot topic in the Gulf of Alaska. Federal fisheries managers there are currently arguing over whether or not to apply a catch share system for Gulf of Alaska groundfish — an idea the city and borough of Kodiak have supported alongside several of the event’s sponsors. Most federal fisheries operate under a quota program of some kind, but not without backlash. Some coastal communities and lower-level fishermen have a strained relationship with catch shares. Many believe quota systems create sharecroppers, concentrating the resource into the hands of the deep-pocketed and preventing young fishermen from entering the industry as owners and operators of their own boats. Except Murkowski, the candidates each expressed some desire to give quota systems a face-lift or at least soften their perceived effects. “There are things we could together do to prevent our fisheries from turning into a giant, multinational corporate conglomerate and wiping out our local fisheries communities,” said Stock. Metcalfe and Craig both favored taking a hard look at catch shares or eliminating them entirely. “I think we need to rethink the whole quota system,” said Craig. “This is not conducive to young people getting into the business.” Metcalfe showed a deep anti-corporate streak, arguing that Alaska’s resources “are not being properly shared,” and that “there’s something wrong with putting corporations in front of people.” He later implied that he thinks the Magnuson-Stevens Act - the central federal fisheries law - should be amended to overhaul catch shares. “When you privatize and enable catch shares, there will come a day when people who live here in Kodiak who don’t own any of the fish they’re fishing,” Metcalfe said. “I think we need to get back to the common ownership of the commonly held resource.” Murkowski had a more nuanced answer on how to stop the graying of the fleet. She said young fishermen need whatever boost they can get from the federal government, in particular that young fishermen should “have access to the same loans a farmer would.” The questioners also wanted to know what kind of faith each candidate placed in the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that governs all federal fisheries from three to 200 miles offshore, asking whether they favor letting the council do its job or having more congressional involvement ion federal fisheries. Candidates each spoke on their support of the North Pacific council operate largely without congressional impediments except Metcalfe, who said the council needs a “legislative referee” from time to time to force actions they otherwise wouldn’t take. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, which established U.S. fisheries in an Exclusive Economic Zone in 1976, is up for reauthorization this year, and fishermen wanted to know what, if anything, each candidate would change in the new draft. “Frankenfish is bad. We hate it.” Murkowski touted a long list of Congressional actions, including her withholding approval of a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration chief until the FDA required labeling for all genetically engineered fish. Murkowski was blunt about the new fish, which grows twice as fast as wild salmon — a multimillion-dollar Alaska-based fishery at the core of the state’s marketing arm, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which is designed to pump up the Alaska wild seafood brand in the U.S. and abroad. “Frankenfish is bad. We hate it,” she said. The other candidates want labeling requirements as well. Metcalfe said “the people who regulate labeling should be given absolute authority,” while Stock gave a less intense answer about Alaska having “better fish” and wanting to see labeling. International markets Candidates didn’t have substantial answers to questions about two key Alaska seafood export markets in politically knotty places: Russia and the United Kingdom. In response to economic sanctions, Russia banned U.S. seafood imports in 2014. Meanwhile, U.S. markets still import Russian products including pollock and crab. Both are often mislabeled as Alaska products, while Russian crab is often illegal, unreported or unregulated. Candidates were asked whether the U.S. should ban Russian seafood imports in return. Murkowski evaded the question and instead pointed to her success in passing a mandate that forbids the use of the “Alaska pollock” label for anything outside Alaska waters and said she has a similar provision in the works for golden king crab. Stock attacked Murkowski’s real effectiveness on the Russian issue, saying “the current Alaska Congressional delegation has not made any progress on it,” but also not directly answering the question. Candidates were also asked about the United Kingdom, which recently left the Europeans Union by a ballot vote most commonly called “Brexit.” The UK is a key export market for canned Alaska salmon, and questioners wanted to know how each candidate would prioritize trade agreements industry had with the EU, in danger of dissolving after the Brexit vote. Murkowski acknowledged the problem, said that the Alaska Congressional delegation and the U.S. needs to “make (trade agreements) a priority,” but had no answer for how. Stock said the fallout from Brexit supporters, who she characterized as uninformed, would give the U.S. time to figure out the issue, but like Murkowski had no specifics. Metcalfe called Brexit a “big mistake” and a move “backwards in terms of the evolution of society,” but had nothing to say about the specific trade agreements. Craig acknowledged he was “not intimately familiar with the subject.” Murkowski and fish politics This marked her second fish-centric appearance in the state in as many weeks. During an Oct. 6 speech to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, Murkowski said “nothing is more political than fish,” a truism downplayed by candidate Craig when he commended the North Pacific council process for “taking(ing) the political out of the process.” Murkowski has the background, connections and donations to prove it. Murkowski does see funds from other groups, though, having received in the neighborhood of $125,000 in donations from seafood companies, industry groups, lobbyists and individual fishermen in 2015 and 2016, according to contribution reports. The same groups that sponsored the Kodiak debates are also Murkowski’s most generous fish-related campaign donors. Pacific Seafood Processors Association dumped $23,500 into Murkowski’s campaign, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers $9,000, Trident Seafoods $20,100 and At-Sea Processors Association $5,000. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Yukon kings are on the rebound

Yukon River chinook stocks are on the upswing, according to a season summary, though not everybody is fishing for the surplus. Holly Carroll, the area management biologist for the Yukon River section of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the painful restrictions on subsistence harvests have paid off. “We wouldn’t have made escapement goals at all if we hadn’t restricted harvest,” Carroll said. “We have to restrict the harvest just to meet the bare minimum for sustaining the run. The restrictions in the subsistence fishery have helped to build the numbers back up.” With 176,895 fish past the sonar counter at Pilot Station, the 2016 chinook run has nosed back up to the most recent 20-year average of 178,000. Along with total run numbers, the amount of chinook into Canada is improving. However, First Nations communities and Canada fisheries managers have different ideas than Alaska, and much of the run sent over the border went unharvested. A major goal of ADFG Yukon River management aims to send between 42,500 and 55,000 chinook salmon over the Canadian border at Eagle as per the Pacific Salmon Treaty. The Eagle passage numbers are not yet final, but preliminary counts say at least 72,300 salmon have crossed the border, which meets the additional 20 percent to 26 percent of the total allowable Yukon catch the treaty requires for the Canadian harvest. Canadian fish comprised greater than average percentage of the overall run than ADFG normally sees in even years. For the latest-returning salmon, measured June 26 to July 6, the percentage of Canadian fish was the highest since ADFG began measuring in 2005. Canadians fish less There is a tension between Canadian management and Alaska management that plays into the restrictions for subsistence users on the Yukon River. “There’s a little bit of a different take between the two different managements and what that looks like,” said Carroll. The Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or DFO, has extra steps in chinook management that include First Nations communities on the Yukon River. Like Alaska, Canada’s Natives live under a lands claim agreement similar to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The Canadian land act established the Yukon Salmon subcommittee which takes input from First Nations communities and the public at large and makes a recommendation to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. According to Mary Ellen Jarvis, Resource Manager of Treaties and Fisheries for DFO, the minister typically follows the salmon subcommittee’s recommendation. Individual First Nations governments may formulate and implement and monitor individual harvest plans in their own communities as long as they’re meeting the conservation objectives outlined in the plan. In recent years and in 2016, the Canadian subcommittee has wanted to keep sex ratio into consideration, a factor ADFG notes in its studies but doesn’t use in management. “This year, we did see a lower than normal sex ratio coming across the border at Eagle, hence we maintained a precautionary approach despite having what was considered a better than expected border escapement,” said Jarvis. “Not only the salmon subcommittee but the communities themselves are quite aware of and quite concerned about it. “If we have a weaker than expected return of females or a really skewed age structure in the run, that is always a bit of flag for us to say perhaps we should not get too excited just about the numbers.” So although the border passage numbers were better than recent years, DFO cancelled all commercial, recreational and domestic chinook fisheries due to the lower female abundance. The fishing communities themselves acted similarly. Though they had the option to harvest their full subsistence amount, Yukon River First Nations opted to keep a heavily restricted subsistence fishery in 2016. Jarvis said only 2,200 salmon were caught throughout the season. Alaska’s subsistence communities have been hurting for the last decade, but things appear to be improving for the Yukon chinook run. Between 2004 and 2008, the Yukon River had plenty of kings and little to no subsistence restrictions. During those years, the average river-wide subsistence harvest was 51,600 fish. When chinook stocks started crashing, management tightened. In 2015, Yukon villagers harvest 7,600 Chinook salmon, 85 percent less than the average during unrestricted years. Because there were more salmon than expected this year, Carroll said she hopes to see at least double the harvest in 2016, when the final numbers are available in December. Looking up Chinook on the river have rebounded somewhat relative to the lowest return years in 2012 and 2013. In 2016, the chinook salmon escapement counts at the Pilot Station sonar counter surpassed the preseason outlook and the returns from the previous half decade. By Aug. 31, the sonar counted 176,895 fish, which is 30,000 more than last year and more than the preseason forecast of 130,000 to 175,000 fish. This number matches the most recent historical average of 178,300, which accounts for the years between 1995 and 2014. The river came to life early in 2016, matching observations around the state of off-timing for salmon of several species. The first chum salmon arrived two weeks earlier than average, the first subsistence chinook was caught two weeks earlier than average, and the chinook run itself peaked two days later than average. The timing coincides with changing environmental conditions. “Ice break-up at the mouth of the Yukon River (near Alakanuk) occurred on May 3, which was more than two weeks earlier than the average break up date of May 22 (based on the years 1995–2015).” The summer chum salmon run — the river’s commercial crop — came in above average and early. An estimated 1.9 million summer chum salmon passed the Pilot Station by the season’s end, more than the historical median of 1.7 million fish. ADFG said each pulse of the chum run matched the normal pattern for an early run timing. Forecasts for pink salmon were off, but ADFG’s Yukon River chinook forecast predicted accurately for the year. For commercial fisheries on the Yukon River, the season was a success. The Lower Yukon River, which is has the largest commercial fishery, netted $1.9 million in dockside pay for chum salmon and $54,800 from a new pink salmon fishery. Per person, fishermen made $4,502 apiece, nearly twice last year. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

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