Fisheries

Sockeye harvests wind down; pinks and chums slow going

As Alaska’s salmon fisheries transition away from sockeye and kings to pinks and chums, the harvest results so far look mixed. May, June and July are the main harvest months for sockeye salmon across Alaska, beginning in Prince William Sound and reaching a crescendo in Bristol Bay throughout July. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasted a total sockeye harvest of 41.7 million sockeye salmon for the 2019 season. Some sockeye are still being harvested, but as of Aug. 11, the count stood at 53.7 million sockeye, more than 43.1 million of which came from Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay’s harvest blows away even the large harvest from 2018 of 41.7 million, though it didn’t quite reach the all-time record. The Prince William Sound harvest is about 2.5 million sockeye, and the Cook Inlet harvest is about 1.9 million as of Aug. 13. The Kodiak harvest was about 1.64 million as of Aug. 13. While Prince William Sound’s sockeye harvest is close to its preseason forecast, Upper Cook Inlet fishermen are about 1.5 million fish shy of their preseason forecast of about 3 million sockeye. Constrained by low late-run king salmon returns to the Kenai River, managers closed setnet fishing in the Upper Subdistrict on the eastern shore of Cook Inlet on Aug. 5 and Aug. 8, with a possibility of reopening if king salmon escapements improve on the Kenai. The closure continued Aug. 12 for Upper Subdistrict setnetters. The drift fleet was scheduled to fish its normal period. “Kenai River late-run king salmon escapement will continue to be monitored on a daily basis and if escapement projections estimate the SEG (sustainable escapement goal) will be achieved, the Upper Subdistrict set gillnet fishery may be reopened,” the closure announcement stated. The commercial closures to shield kings come at the cost of exceeding escapement goals in the Kenai River; as of Aug. 12, more than 1.7 million sockeye had passed the sonar in the Kenai, about 400,000 fish more than the upper end of the in-river goal and 500,000 fish more than the upper end of the sustainable escapement goal. The Kasilof River sonar has counted about 376,184 sockeye as of Aug. 11, greater than the upper end of the biological escapement goal for that river but still within the optimum escapement goal. And so far, pink and chum results across the state are tepid at best. The statewide preseason forecast predicted a rosy harvest of 137.8 million pinks and 29 million chum, which would have been a record chum harvest. Though pink harvest has been good in Kodiak so far — as of Aug. 13, fishermen there are on their way to the preseason forecast of 27 million with 14.4 million harvested so far — it hasn’t lived up to expectations in Prince William Sound yet. As of Aug. 12, only 17.6 million pinks had been harvested in Prince William Sound. At this point, nearly 25 million pinks would need to be harvested per statistical week through the end of the season to reach the forecast, and the odds of those numbers appearing are relatively low. Warm weather and drought conditions in Prince William Sound may be holding back escapements, though. Purse seine commercial fishery manager Charles Russell said the escapements of pink salmon into streams across the region have been delayed as fish shy away from the extremely warm water in creeks, waiting for temperatures to cool and rain to fall. “We were already in a drought scenario moving into the season, and that heatwave just exacerbated the situation,” he said. “In the low water and extremely warm water temps we were seeing around the sound, salmon were holding offshore. They didn’t have any urge to move into stream mouths like they typically do. It’s delayed the fisheries here. Obviously, we manage on escapement in streams, and if we don’t get escapement in streams, it’s hard to justify a fishery.” Catches are improving, though, after a slow start. The aquaculture associations have met their cost recovery goals and escapements are catching up, Russell said. However, with underperformance from the Solomon Gulch Hatchery — the run is estimated to finish at about 10 million to 12 million pinks as opposed to the 20 million forecasted — it seems unlikely that the area will reach its preseason forecast of 64 million fish, he said. Chum runs look likely to disappoint, too. Southeast Alaska’s salmon hatcheries had collectively projected about 10 million chum salmon to be harvested in that area, courtesy of a large parent year return. However, that run has yet to materialize, and at this point seems unlikely. As of Aug. 9, commercial fishermen had harvested about 2.5 million chum. “Based on our harvest so far, it looks like we’re going to have one of the lower harvests since the program for chum salmon began,” said Andrew Piston, a research biologist with Fish and Game’s Division of Commercial Fisheries in Ketchikan. “Over the last decade, (the chum harvest) averaged about 10 million, and the way things are shaping up, we’ll be lucky to get about half that.” It’s hard to say what happened to the chum salmon that were predicted to come back this year. The forecasts for chum are produced by the hatcheries, which collectively produce about 90 percent of the chum harvested in Southeast Alaska. The wild stocks are returning in decent numbers, but the hatcheries are having trouble harvesting enough chum, Piston said. Southeast is about on track to meet its forecasted pink salmon harvest, Piston said, but that wasn’t high to begin with — about 18 million pinks total. There has been very little opportunity in northern Southeast, which is divided roughly at Sumner Strait near Wrangell, but southern Southeast has harvested about 9 million pinks as of Aug. 12. The low abundance of hatchery chums wouldn’t change ADFG managers’ fishing strategies for the commercial fleet, Piston said; as long as the wild stocks are meeting their goals, they’ll continue to fish as normal. “We wouldn’t not let our fishermen fish on wild stocks because there aren’t enough hatchery fish,” he said. Though it’s struggling for pinks so far, Prince William Sound is doing just fine for chum salmon — about 82 percent greater than last year’s catch, and above the preseason forecast of about 2.8 million. As of Aug. 13, just shy of 5 million chums had been harvested in Prince William Sound, according to ADFG. Russell said the hatcheries were expecting a good harvest this year based on past returns, and the same pattern played out with chums as with pinks — many fish were caught milling around in the sound. As of Aug. 12, fishermen across the state had harvested just more than 120.7 million salmon. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Some Chamber members oppose policies, but admit lack of engagement

The Alaska Chamber touts itself as “the voice of Alaska business” but seafood industry and coastal community members are largely left out of the conversation. The chamber isn’t entirely at fault; it appears that most of those members are not speaking up. Three cases in point. In February the chamber was one of the first to “applaud Governor Dunleavy for proposing a spending plan that matches current revenues.” In April the chamber testified in support of the Pebble mine draft environmental impact statement, or DEIS, “in the name of due process.” (The Pebble Partnership is a chamber member.) The chamber’s top federal priority is to “support oil and gas exploration and development in Alaska’s federal areas including the Outer Continental Shelf, National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, Cook Inlet, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” But just about every Alaska coastal community strongly opposed Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s budget; likewise, they spoke out strongly against President Donald Trump’s administration plans for oil and gas development in Alaska’s offshore waters, and nearly all fishing interests have protested what they perceive as sloppy and biased science in the Pebble DEIS. In a canvassing of nearly 25 coastal chamber members and trade groups, not one said they were aware of those policy positions nor were they queried (including at Bristol Bay). “No, we were not contacted, period,” said Clay Koplin, Cordova mayor and chamber member. “We disagree with the state chamber’s executive committee or whoever formulated that. Granted, we seldom attend meetings,” he added. Ditto Kodiak Chamber Executive Director Sarah Phillips. “Our current membership with the Alaska Chamber of Commerce does not reflect agreement or alignment on political issues,” Phillips said. “I find it very unsettling,” said a spokesman for the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association which represents six remote communities. “We were not contacted by the chamber regarding the formation of its legislative priorities and policy positions,” said Doug Griffin, executive director of the Southwest Alaska Municipal League, which serves the Aleutian/Pribilofs, Bristol Bay and Kodiak. “SWAMC is not a very active member and I have not attended any annual meetings. I do not think we would have much impact, but perhaps we could at least provide a dissent on some of its positions. I think many of the chamber’s positions are misguided,” he added. “No contact” also was the response of chamber members Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, United Fishermen of Alaska, Pacific Seafood Processors Association and At-Sea Processors Association, which commented that, “we do get minutes and position papers regularly with opportunity to provide input.” Alaska Chamber CEO Kati Capozzi was surprised at the responses and said the way in which positions and priorities are determined is “quite possibly the most democratic, egalitarian process of any statewide association that I’m aware of.” Every year an email goes out to all members in good standing advising them that the process is open and “it is the opportunity to have your voice heard,” she explained. Each fall, members gather at a policy forum to propose positions for the upcoming year. Based on submitted proposals, chamber members adopt positions on issues that impact Alaska’s economy and the board of directors select the top state and federal priorities. “Every position makes it to our membership at our policy forum,” Capozzi added. “You must be present to vote, but that’s when any member can vote to adopt a position or not. No matter how big or small a business is, it’s one member, one vote. Then we notify all members afterward and tell them what we will be championing for the next year. It’s really a unique process that helps us have a lot of credibility as we move to advocate for the positions that our membership has voted on.” For actions that fall outside of the fall voting time frame (such as the governor’s February budget debut and the window for commenting on the Pebble DEIS), Capozzi said the adopted positions provide a “blueprint that serves as my guiding light for the next year.” “Our February press release applauding the budget directly related to our top state priority to support reduction of spending to sustainable levels. We did not and will not come out in support or opposition to the Pebble project but we are constant advocates for due process,” she explained, adding that “I think that the positions that we come up with are very representative of the overall business community concerns. I don’t know how we can be more inclusive with our process, but a good point is being more communicative with the statements and positions we do come out with.” The Alaska Chamber claims it has “700+ members representing 100,000 employees and 30+ local chambers.” Associations, non-profits and businesses with annual gross revenues less than $1 million pay a $500 annual membership fee; others pay from $800 to $7,200 based on gross revenues. The seafood industry represents only about 1 percent of the membership and Capozzi said she would “love, love to see that number grow.” “I have strong relationships within that community and I hope to get as many of those friends in the industry more involved because the more involvement we have from the business community, the more diverse and better off our positions will be. I believe that firmly,” she added. Chamber members can submit their positions and priorities preferences through Sept. 6. The fall meeting, where attendees will vote, is set for Oct. 28-30 in Girdwood. Best fish messages Alaska’s seafood marketing messages are resonating with consumers and it’s helping to home in on how to persuade them to buy and eat more. “What we know now is that the consumer not only wants a product that is good for them, but good for the planet,” said Michael Kohan, technical program director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. ASMI pinned down that message from a Technomics Foodservice research survey that revealed that 35 percent of consumers are eating more seafood. “When we asked those consumers why, they actually identified aspects of Alaska’s seafood aspects or attributes found in our tag lines — wild, natural and sustainable,” she said at an Accelerate Alaska conference. “Wild” resonates in terms of quality, and “natural” was seen in Alaska’s pristine environment. Consumers said they want to be able to choose a pure source of protein as part of a healthier diet. “Sustainable” definitions vary by person and region, Kohan said, but origins and jobs are highly valued. “The U.S. consumers thought knowing where seafood comes from was important as well as by purchasing seafood they were supporting American jobs,” she said. Kohan added that ASMI believes the already winning “wild, natural and good for the planet messages” give Alaska seafood an advantage in world markets. They will build on the quality, nutrition and sustainability themes and “personalize” outreach by telling people why Alaska seafood is good for them and what body parts get the most benefit. She said that ASMI is becoming more involved in research that applies Alaska seafood to nutrition and healing. “For instance, ASMI is working with the industry to understand if omega 3 content found from DHA and EPA fatty acids in Alaska wild salmon is important or can affect the pain that is triggered by inflammation for breast cancer survivors,” Kohan said. ASMI also is striving to make full utilization of seafood a part of Alaska’s sustainability message by expanding markets for fish “specialty” products to pet food, nutraceutical and medical industries. ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

FISH FACTOR: Mexico becomes top US trade partner one year into China conflict

It’s been one year, so how’s that trade war with China working out for the nation’s seafood industry? As with farmers, there’s not much winning and ongoing tweeted skirmishes have global fish markets skittish. The quick take is the 25 percent retaliatory tariff imposed by China on U.S. imports last July caused a 36 percent drop in U.S. seafood sales, valued at $340 million, according to an in-depth analysis of Chinese customs data by Undercurrent News. “Chinese imports of US seafood fell from $1.3 billion in the 12 months prior to tariffs (July 1, 2017-June 30, 2018), to $969 million in the 12 months after (July 1, 2018-June 30, 2019), underlining the heavy impact of weaker demand for U.S. seafood subject to tariffs, while poor catch of U.S. wild-caught seafood was also to blame,” the News wrote. Until then, China had been Alaska’s biggest seafood buyer purchasing 54 percent of seafood exports in 2017 valued at close to $1 billion. The tit for tat taxes hit nearly all Alaska seafood; exempted were millions of pounds of frozen Alaska pink and chum salmon and cod that are sent to China for processing into fillets or portions and exported back to the US and other countries. Those numbers took a big slide. Over the past year, China imported $136 million of Pacific salmon, down 56 percent, and reflecting a 62 percent drop in volume. Imports of frozen cod decreased to 53 million pounds valued at $91 million, both down 37 percent. The 25 percent tax also pushed the U.S. from China’s second largest seafood supplier to fourth place, behind Russia, Ecuador and Canada. The trade uncertainties have had a downward press on many fish prices and forced Alaska salmon buyers into a more “conservative mode,” especially with pink and chum salmon, said a major Alaska processor. “The tariffs are not on but they are not off. Could they be on tomorrow or never hit? The threat is always out there,” he said. Meanwhile, China is turning away from the U.S. market, and selling products to Europe in direct competition with American producers, said John Sackton, market expert and publisher of SeafoodNews.com. “Products that China is not shipping to the U.S. due to the trade war are going elsewhere, and where they compete directly with U.S. products, it means U.S. exporters face a more competitive situation,” he said, adding that American brands will suffer. “To the extent buying American in China becomes unpatriotic, the Chinese will begin to shun U.S. seafood products and actively seek out other sources, such as Norway, Ecuador, and Russia,” Sackton said. “In my view, the greatest long term danger from the trade war is that it could lead to a generation of Chinese who look down on American products.” Doug Vincent-Lang, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said he believes the escalating trade wars are the seafood industry’s biggest challenge. “In talking with processors, they are uncertain as to the economic viability of delivering their products and getting them onto the shelves of their consumers,” Vincent-Lang said. “When I took this job I understood how we managed our fisheries but I didn’t really have a good appreciation of that dance between how we manage our fisheries in the context of the global economy and world markets.” Meanwhile, President Donald Trump tweeted that beginning Sept. 1 the U.S. will impose a 10 percent tariff on the remaining $300 billion in goods the U.S. imports from China which will include more seafood. The Wall Street Journal reports that: “The total value of bilateral goods traded with China, $271 billion in the first half of the year, fell short of that with both Canada and Mexico for the first time since 2005. Mexico is now the U.S.’s top trading partner.” Fish trade assist As the federal government prepares to roll out $16 billion to help farmers caught in the cross fire of Trump’s trade wars, Democratic congressmen want fishermen included in the deal. Currently, fishermen and seafood producers are not eligible to apply for US Department of Agriculture trade assistance programs. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton filed legislation in late June to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act to enable the federal government to expand the scope of fishery disasters to include trade disputes. Alaska and Maine’s congressional delegations also wrote separate letters to the Trump administration asking it to provide the same relief for fishermen that has been created to help farmers hurt by tariffs. Salmon prices Icicle Seafoods was the first buyer at Bristol Bay to post base prices for sockeye at $1.35 per pound, up from the average $1.26 last year, and 40 cents per pound for chums, an increase of four cents. KDLG in Dillingham reported that Icicle also is paying 15-cent bonuses for iced or refrigerated seawater fish for both drift and setnetters, plus 8 cents more for chilled/bled, and a five-cent premium for floated fish. All told, that’s $1.63 per pound for sockeyes at Bristol Bay. Alaska General Seafoods, North Pacific Seafoods and Peter Pan at Bristol Bay also have posted a sockeye base of $1.35. Kodiak base prices have taken a dip with reports of $1.45 for sockeyes, 27 cents for pinks and 25 cents for chums. That compares to last year averages of $1.56, 39 cents and 51 cents, respectively. At Cook Inlet, sockeye prices were reported at $1.70, down from $2.27. Southeast Alaska trollers were averaging $5.13 a pound for chinook, $1.56 for coho and 61 cents for chums, according to fish tickets. Prices for seine and driftnet-caught salmon were reported at 55 cents for chums, down from 90 cents, sockeyes at $1.90, a drop of six cents, and 30 centsfor pinks, down from 38 cents per pound on average last year. At Norton Sound, chum prices at 50 cents were down from 80 cents and coho at $1.40 was the same as last year. Average Alaska salmon prices per pound across all regions for 2018 were: chinook, $5.98; sockeye, $1.33; coho, $1.34; chum, 78 cents; pink, 45 cents. Prices do not include bonuses. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

ADFG left out of ‘reverse sweep’; Catch 49 ups offerings

As Alaska lawmakers continue their struggle to keep the state afloat, the Commercial Fisheries Division dodged a bullet that would have removed millions of dollars from its budget. An obscure procedural action within the capital budget called a “reverse sweep” prevents dozens of program-specific pots of money from being automatically drained into the Constitutional Budget Reserve, which happened this year after House Republicans would not provide the 30 votes needed to execute the move. “The sweep is money that is not spent in a single year. In this case, it comes from certain sources, such as test fish receipts, commercial crew licenses and sale of Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits and licenses,” explained Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. “There is usually unexpended funds within the budget that typically carry over by the reverse sweep into next year’s budget, and they are integrated into the department’s operational budget as there is an expectation those moneys will be available.” There was a lot of confusion about what the sweeps swept up, he added. “From the ADFG perspective, there was an initial document that showed all of those different pots of money are sweepable. However, we have since learned that the actual budget that was signed by the governor and passed by the legislature included language that makes the test fish receipts, crew member licenses and the CFEC licenses non-sweepable.” Money from test fish receipts comes from sampling salmon or other species that are caught by the state to gauge run strength and collect other biological data and then are sold. Crew license sales and CFEC dollars from permits, vessel licenses and other fees go into separate savings accounts; more comes from General Fund program receipts, primarily from crew license sales. “The test fishing receipts are on the order of $2.5 million, crew licenses bring in $2.5 to $3 million and those are built into our management program for the next year,” Vincent-Lang said. “We use them for doing things like crab and shellfish management to herring management, conducting aerial surveys and running weirs and sonar operations.” Vincent-Lang said the Commercial Fisheries Division is working out the details of a nearly $1 million dollar budget cut, which he calls “not life threatening.” “There’s going to be impacts on some weir operations and sonar operations, but we we’ll be able to manage around them,” he said, adding that things would have been far worse if the test fishing and license receipts were swept away. “Not all of that would’ve been spent in a single year, but it would have meant somewhere on the order of $2.5 to $4 million worth of unexpected budget impacts to the division of commercial fisheries,” Vincent-Lang said. The approved fiscal year 2020 budget for the commercial fisheries division is about $71 million, of which $52 million is from general funds. Catch 49 grows fish sales The Catch 49 program that delivers locally caught seafood to Alaskans across the state has expanded its 900 customers to include a growing wholesale base and a retail store. Princess Holland America lodges in Denali are now one of its biggest buyers for jig caught rockfish and Tanner crab from Kodiak. The Bridge Restaurant in Anchorage and the Muse Restaurant at the Anchorage Museum are clients, as is North Star Quality Meats, the protein supplier for all of the AC stores in rural Alaska. “We are really proud to be one of the first people to supply Alaska caught seafood to those rural communities. It’s kind of shocking they weren’t getting that before, but we’re happy to be filling that gap,” said, Katy Rexford, director of Catch 49, which is an arm of the non-profit Alaska Marine Conservation Council. It’s the eighth year for the “boat to table” program described as a community supported fishery. Customers pre-order their seafood favorites in advance and pick it up at distribution hubs across the state a few weeks later. Up to 15 boats fish for Catch 49 products now, Rexford said, and they are always on the lookout for more fishermen across the state. The group offers sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay and Copper River, halibut, Tanner crab, king crab from Norton Sound, Kodiak rockfish, shrimp from Prince William Sound, octopus, sablefish, smoked products and “just about anything you can pull out of the water.” Rexford said when the seafood arrives at the various distribution centers, it’s like “fishmas!” “I get to hand customers these big beautiful bags of gorgeous fillets or shrimp and people are so happy to be able to buy the best seafood in the world and to know they are supporting fishing families and the fishing way of life in our small Alaska coastal communities,” she said. “One hundred percent of our proceeds is supporting policy work and conservation programs that buoy our fisheries and keep them sustainable and productive for generations to come.” Catch 49 summer orders are being taken through Aug. 5 at www.catch49.org; drop offs will take place a few days later in Fairbanks, Seward, Homer and the Mat-Su Valley. Anchorage customers can now pick up seafood every Thursday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. at a new retail location at 636 E. 15th Avenue. “Instead of four or five times a year, people in the Anchorage area can now order seafood year round. We’re trying to position ourselves as a more regular source of sustainable seafood,” Rexford said, adding that Catch 49 hopes to expand the opportunity to other regions. Fraser salmon stuck There could be fewer wild salmon from British Columbia competing with Alaska this year due to a rockslide 250 miles up the Fraser River that is keeping the fish from their spawning grounds. “All that rock on top of that face has fallen into the river which is confining passage for fish. I’ve never seen anything to this degree on this side of the river,” Dale Mickey, a manager with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told CTV News Vancouver. Nearly 80 percent of the sockeye runs from eight tributaries head up the Fraser River, which this year is expected to be 3.5 million fish. A run of 180,000 reds a day is starting to arrive and a sense of urgency has rescuers resorting to a temporary solution: flying the fish upriver by helicopter. Crews have begun air-lifting the fish from a holding pond below the rockslide where the sockeyes are netted, tagged and put in oxygenated aluminum tanks for transport and release upriver. They also are working nearly round the clock to secure the canyon and create a “natural fishway” using artificial salmon ladders inserted into the river. Another assist could come from pressurized tubes called fish cannons created by Seattle-based Whooshh Innovations. The cannons literally shoot the fish up and over dams or other obstructions blocking their migrations. Company CEO Vince Bryan said results have shown that the cannons provide far less stress on the fish than other transports, like trucks and helicopters. “People have asked us how we know it’s okay for the fish, and we tell them because when they come out of the tube, they turn their heads and look back at us waving their tail and saying thanks,” he said in a phone interview. “In all seriousness, studies we did on the fish cortisol (stress) levels as they were going into the tube were not raised.” Cohos will arrive later and the Fraser produces more chinook salmon than all the rivers of Puget Sound combined. Canada’s provincial and federal governments say they will do everything possible to make sure the salmon are able to reach their spawning grounds. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Kenai River sockeye push liberalizes bag limits; commercial catches rise

SOLDOTNA — After a slow start to their season, things are looking up for Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen. Total salmon landings reached 1.4 million after the July 29 fishing period, with more than 1.1 million sockeye so far. The majority of those landings have come from the Central District drift gillnet fleet and east side setnets, with setnetters on the west side, Kalgin Island and in the Northern district bringing in about 150,000 salmon between them, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It’s hard to say whether the forecast of 6 million sockeye across all the systems of Upper Cook Inlet will materialize yet, but it’s definitely looking better than it was a few weeks ago, when Upper Cook Inlet fishermen were lagging significantly behind even their 2018 catch by this date. Last year was one of the worst years in recent memory for sockeye harvest for fishermen across the Gulf of Alaska, Cook Inlet included. On July 26, fisheries managers in Soldotna estimated that the Kenai River run is 2 to 4 days later than usual, but that it will likely be greater than 2.3 million. That’s on track with the preseason forecast of about 3 million. That’s much more on time than last year, when the run turned out to be at least a week later than usual. Even a run four to five days late can significantly interrupt fishing management plans in Upper Cook Inlet, where the interlocking user groups and their management plans keep operations fairly tight. The Kasilof River, about 12 miles to the south of the Kenai, is getting close to the upper end of its own escapement goal of 340,000 sockeye. As of July 29, 306,812 sockeye had passed on the sonar on that river. Commercial area management biologist Brian Marston said the managers will likely start opening up more hours in the Kasilof area to help control that escapement, with an eye toward not having to open the Kasilof Special Harvest Area. “We have several steps that we’re supposed to take before that, which is to use more hours than the management plans normally allow and also to not adhere to the (mandatory closure) windows,” he said. “The SHA is a last resort. The management plans actually state that you shall do extra hours and step on the windows before you do the SHA. Although it’s a good idea, it doesn’t function to really stop the river that well.” The SHA is a constrained terminal harvest area around the mouth of the Kasilof River, functioning as a last effort to control escapement to that river. Because of the tidal flats and constrained area, it’s relatively hard to fish. During the 2017 Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting, the board members took several steps to help managers avoid having to use the SHA to control escapement, including expanding opportunities for the use of the 600-foot setnet fishery along the nearby beaches. The Kenai River is already within its sustainable escapement goal range, and as of Monday was within the inriver goal range of 1 million to1.3 million sockeye. The sustainable escapement goal is set for spawning; the in-river goal is designed to account for sportfishing harvest. Now it’s a game of controlling escapement to not exceed the upper end of the escapement goal using the commercial and sport fisheries. But one confounding factor is the king salmon run there. The kings are still returning to the Kenai, but only 8,615 large kings had passed the sonar as of July 29. The lower end of the escapement goal for late-run kings is 13,500. In trying to protect kings, the commercial area managers are somewhat hamstrung when trying to open setnets to harvest sockeye salmon in the Kenai River area. After Aug. 1, the managers get more hours as the restrictions on commercial fishing hours through the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan are lifted, Marston said. “As soon as we get out of the king plan at the end of the month, we have to still pay attention to the escapement of king salmon,” he said. The Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery closes on July 31 at 11:59 p.m. as well. Sport anglers will keep fishing, and ADFG sport fishing managers doubled the bag and possession limits to six per day with 12 in possession for the Kenai River downstream of Skilak Lake effective Sunday. They also increased the bag limits for sockeye in the Kasilof River Effective July 24 to six per day with 12 in possession. The personal-use dipnet fishery there will continue as well until Aug. 7. Pink and coho salmon are starting to show up as well, though this year is set to be a relatively weak pink year, as odd-numbered years are in Upper Cook Inlet. As of July 29, commercial fishermen had landed 83,307 coho salmon across Upper Cook Inlet, and though there are no escapement goals for coho salmon south of the Deshka River, Marston said there were signs the run could be strong this year. The Deshka River weir has counted 826 coho salmon as of July 29, ahead of last year on the same date. The northern streams are on target for their coho runs so far, and strong numbers have been showing up at Fish and Game’s weirs since the rain began last week. The run could still turn out to be unexceptional, as coho didn’t show up strongly in the test fishery numbers, but it could also be another excellent year, he said. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bristol Bay sockeye harvest blowing away forecast once again

Bristol Bay is approaching the record for sockeye salmon harvest once again. As of July 21, fishermen in Bristol Bay’s five districts had harvested just more than 42 million salmon. More than 41.5 million of those were sockeye, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game; that’s already more than the 41.3 million sockeye harvested in 2018, the second-largest harvest on record. The largest harvest on record, which occurred in 1995, still stands at 44.2 million sockeye. The total return so far is about 53.6 million sockeye, significantly fewer than the record-breaking run of 62.3 million fish last year but already beyond the upper end of the preseason forecast range of 27.9 million to 52.4 million. Fishermen in the Nushagak district have been leading the area for total catch, but the Egegik isn’t far behind; both have topped 14 million sockeye. Bristol Bay west side area management biologist Tim Sands said he expects Egegik to catch the Nushagak area for total harvest soon. Fishermen in the Nushagak district, at least, have become more efficient in selecting their gear in recent years, which may be helping to boost the catch, he said. “The last two years we’ve had these really tremendous runs of two-ocean fish here in the Nushagak,” he said. “People probably saw fish going through their gear. I think there’s definitely been some learning going on.” So far, the processors in the region have been able to handle the landings without too much difficulty, he said. Fish are coming in relatively steadily, and with a reported price so far of $1.34 per pound on average, fishermen are poised to do fairly well this season again in Bristol Bay. However, there have also been some odd hallmarks to this season. June brought bright sunny days that led to skyrocketing water temperatures across Alaska, which can be bad news for salmon. Dead salmon have been reported floating in rivers in Norton Sound and in the Kuskokwim River. In Bristol Bay, warm water seems to be preventing salmon from moving upstream in at least one system: the Igushik River, a broad river on the western side of the Nushagak District. Sands said many systems across Alaska have seen salmon kills due to heat, including the Nushagak, but the Igushik in particular is having large numbers of them because warm water is blocking salmon from moving upstream. “The Igushik River itself is kind of an interesting river,” he said. “It’s really slow, a lot of tide and not a lot of flow. It’s more like a really long pond. Because of that, it’s much more susceptible to heating up. The warmer the water is, the less oxygen can dissolve in it. There’s a bunch of fish in the river holding, there’s less oxygen available.” Though other areas of Alaska aren’t quite having Bristol Bay’s luck for large sockeye returns, things aren’t going as poorly as last year. Prince William Sound fishermen have landed about 2.3 million sockeye as of July 21, with just shy of 1.2 million of those coming from the Copper River district. That’s about 300,000 fish more than the preseason point forecast of 955,000 fish. Fishermen in Prince William Sound are now shifting attention to pink salmon, which are forecasted to arrive in numbers close to 23 million between hatchery and wild production. Chignik has reported no landings so far this year, but that’s not because no fish are coming in; it’s because there aren’t enough processors in the area to require public disclosure of landing data. Dawn Wilburn, the area management biologist for salmon and herring in the Chignik Management Area, said the two processors taking fish in the Chignik area this year have not signed voluntary waivers for the disclosure of fish landing information, and by law, ADFG cannot disclose that data without them. There hasn’t been a lot of harvest yet anyway, she said. But the sockeye run does at least look better than last year, which brought a disastrously low run to Chignik and prompted a request for disaster support in the area. She said the Chignik River has not experienced the elevated temperatures other river systems in the state have, and there have been no fish die-offs reported there. “It’s a lot better than last year,” she said. “Our early run was pretty weak, and our late run is looking OK.” Things are still slow in Upper Cook Inlet, where fishermen are in the middle of their sockeye season. As of July 24, they’d harvested a total of 824,351 sockeye, about a quarter of the preseason forecast of 3 million sockeye. Sonar counts on the Kenai River are tracking ahead of 2018 and 2017 so far, with 525,936 sockeye having passed the counter as of July 24. The Kasilof River is tracking ahead of 2018, 2017 and 2016, according to ADFG sonar counts, with 238,463 fish having passed the counter as of July 22. Lower Cook Inlet should be ramping up soon, with pink salmon beginning to arrive in the various creeks and bays near Homer. Some of the creeks host sockeye and chum runs as well, with sockeye coming both from wild production and from the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s hatcheries. As of July 22, fishermen had harvested 194,476 sockeye — with 120,823 of those coming from the predominantly hatchery-produced run in Resurrection Bay — and 128,026 pink salmon. The forecast predicts about 2.4 million pinks to be available for commercial harvest district-wide. So far, ADFG hasn’t spotted any fish kills in aerial surveys of the Lower Cook Inlet streams, said Glenn Hollowell, the area management biologist for commercial salmon and herring fisheries in the area. Water temperatures may be a little cooler in the area due to cloud cover and smoke so far, he said. “I am concerned about warm water when they do show up and start moving into the rivers in big numbers,” Hollowell said. Resurrection Bay’s sockeye salmon run has actually significantly underperformed so far — though 120,823 sockeye have been harvested, that’s only about half what the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association projected it needed to harvest for cost recovery. The hatchery organization is still harvesting some fish at its Bear Lake weir, but those fish are not the same quality as the fish harvested in marine water and may not be able to be sold to the processor, said Dean Day, the executive director of CIAA. The organization tries to work around the recreational fishery in Resurrection Bay, which can hamper commercial fishermen as they try to harvest the sockeye for CIAA, Day said. ADFG raised the bag limit for sockeye in the Resurrection River this year from 6 to 12 per day because too many were making it upstream. He said CIAA may consider doing a creel survey on recreational fishermen in Resurrection Bay in the future to quantify how many fish are being taken in the sportfishery there, as the only data available now is the voluntary reporting ADFG collects in the annual Sport Fish Harvest Survey. “In the next couple of weeks I’ll be able to have a pretty good number on what we can estimate was our total return,” Day said. “But a huge unknown number is the fish harvested recreationally.” ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Locals keep share of fish taxes; new tech for cutting crab, salmon farms

One fisheries item that appears to have escaped Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s veto pen so far is his desire to divert local fish taxes from coastal communities into state coffers. Dunleavy’s initial budget in February aimed to repeal the sharing of fisheries business and landing taxes that towns and boroughs split 50/50 with the state. Instead, all of the tax revenues would have gone to the state’s general fund, or a loss of $28 million in fiscal year 2020 to fishing communities. “There is a recognition that these are viewed as shared resources, and they should be shared by Alaskans,” press secretary Matt Shuckerow said at the time. “So that’s kind of what this proposal does. It takes shared resources and shares them with all Alaskans, not just some select communities.” The tax split remains in place and the dollars are still destined for fishing towns, said rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who also represents Cordova, Yakutat and several smaller towns. “It’s general fund revenue and that has been appropriated to the appropriate communities,” Stutes said in a phone interview. “What we can tell right now is it slipped by unscathed because it appears he did not veto that revenue to the communities that generate the dollars. So, it looks like we’re good to go there.” What’s not so good is the nearly $1 million cut to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s commercial fisheries budget. Stutes and Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, worry that the shortfall could result in lost harvests. “It’s always short-sighted when you cut Fish and Game. It’s just really crucial that we have the personnel we need to manage our resources and to make sure they continue to be there when we need them,” Stevens told KMXT in Kodiak. Stutes, who chairs the House Fisheries Committee, said it does not make sense to cut state money makers. “In the long run, that creates revenue for the state because it allows all these different fisheries to stay open longer,” she said, adding that lost oversight due to budget cuts will result in more conservative management. “If they do not have the personnel to do the appropriate salmon counts, they’re going to manage very conservatively. And that means less openings or they’ll close the season earlier,” Stutes said. “Those are dollars that the state’s not going to get by the governor vetoing those funds to Fish and Game. It just doesn’t make sense to me under any conditions.” All the amendments that the Alaska Legislature added back into the original ADFG budget were vetoed, including a $280,000 cut to special areas management, which include 12 game refuges, 17 critical habitat areas and three wildlife sanctuaries. Two director-level positions and associated funding from the Habitat and Subsistence Research Divisions will be moved to the Office of Management and Budget and no longer be associated with ADFG related duties. Impacts of the budget cuts were not readily available and all questions are referred to a new [email protected] address. The questions may be directed back to appropriate staff, but “they want everything to be through that address,” said one ADFG employee. “Welcome to our world,” said Stutes. “As a Legislature, we can’t get answers. We can’t speak to department heads. We get no response. We are required to go through the legislative liaison. I have never seen such a lack of communication between any department or between the legislature and the executive branch.” Robots cut crab Radio Canada reports that robotic machines that cut and shuck crab have nabbed a U.S. patent that is being hailed as a breakthrough in fish processing technology worldwide. The system, developed by the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation in Newfoundland, operates at lightning speed on crab at fish plants in eastern Canada. In a shipping container-sized chamber, crabs go down a conveyor belt where each is analyzed by cameras; then, “pick and place” robots saw off the legs, sort and package them and off they go. Along another belt, robots shuck the meat from the crabs, a job that would have been done in China. “Instead of sending all our crab out as sections with the meat in the shell we thought we could attract a higher price if we sold the meat instead,” said Bob Verge, the brains behind the crab robots and managing director at CCFI. While the crab cutting robots are designed for snow crab (Eastern Canada is the world’s largest producer), Verge said the system is adaptable to other crab species and potentially other shellfish. He added that interest is high, including from international markets who are interested in developing robotic solutions to other fish production problems. CCFI has applied for patents in 10 other countries and those are expected to be issued soon. The robot makers are hoping the system will help solve workforce problems in fish plants that often are located in remote regions where it’s tough to recruit enough workers. In this case, Verge said humans will work on more highly skilled machines and computers, and not on the slime line cutting up crab. “If we are going to attract the young people we need, we need better jobs, not more jobs. We have to offer them a better deal,” he said. “In demonstrating this technology to young people, they are very impressed with it.” Land ahoy! Since the 1990s, Alaska’s salmon industry has faced tough competition from farmed fish. Now salmon growers are coming ashore in the U.S. in a big way. The latest trend is raising Atlantic salmon in massive tanks on land, called recirculating aquaculture systems, or RAS. “It really could be considered salmon aquaculture 2.0,” said Garrett Evridge, an economist with the McDowell Group. “The current model is the nearshore farms, and land based technology has really improved upon that. Obviously, there is no worry about interaction with wild stocks.” The closed loop systems, some holding two million gallons of water, also use no antibiotics, additives or pesticides, removing big negatives from fish that are farmed in crowded ocean net pens. The tank water, gotten mostly from deep wells, is filtered similar to an aquarium, and can be constantly reused. A non-stop current also provides exercise to enhance fish health and meat quality. Maine already has attracted two growers. Last month Nordic Aquafarms of Norway announced plans to build an RAS farm in Belfast that will eventually produce 70 million pounds of salmon each year. UK company Aquabanq also announced they will begin building a massive RAS facility in Millinocket next spring. Another Norwegian company — Atlantic Sapphire — is doubling its land purchase in Homestead, Fla., to 160 acres for a RAS facility that aims to grow 500 million pounds of salmon annually by 2030. Since 2017 a Wisconsin company called Superior Fresh has advanced the land-based fish tank model on its 720 acres by attaching it to a greenhouse. Its motto is “great food from the best fish.” Alaska needs to pay attention, Evridge advises. “In sum, these proposed facilities would have production that in some years is equal to current Alaska salmon production. It’s certainly something to pay attention to and it looks like there’s momentum around the industry.” Video deadline Aug. 2 is the deadline to submit short videos that highlight contributions of women in all segments of the seafood industry: fishing, fish farming, processing, selling, managing, teaching, etc. It’s the second round for the contest that was launched last year by the Paris-based group Women in the Seafood Industry. Last year’s winner showcased women who mend nets for a living in Spain. Second place went to a film about California women who formed a clam farming cooperative. Tied for third place were films about female fishing mentors in Newfoundland and women in India who started food trucks to sell their husbands’ catches. The top winner receives 1,000 euros along with two 500-euro prizes. Enter at www.womeninseafood.com. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Cook Inlet salmon fisheries into full swing after rough 2018

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct that the 2018 Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery closed two days early. Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries are now in full swing, with promising sockeye returns finally showing up. East Side setnetters in the sections north of Kasilof opened for their first period July 8, and the personal-use dipnet fishery on the Kenai River opened July 10. They join the drift gillnet fleet and other Upper Cook Inlet setnetters as well as the inriver sportfishery and the Kasilof River personal-use fishery. As of July 8, nearly 80,000 sockeye salmon had passed the sonar in the Kenai River. That’s more than double the number that had passed through on the previous date in 2018, when only 37,513 had passed, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The Kasilof River sonar has registered about 98,635 sockeye, ahead of the 81,076 counted in 2018. Both rivers saw an uptick in daily passage on July 8 compared to July 7. Commercial fishermen throughout Upper Cook Inlet have harvested about 186,305 sockeye so far, according to ADFG. They’ve also harvested about 18,736 pink salmon, the second-largest component of their harvest so far. The pink salmon runs fluctuate wildly on a two-year basis in most areas, peaking in even years in Upper Cook Inlet. The run would normally be small this year, but ADFG has already had to apportion the pink salmon run within the sockeye run in the Kenai River. The managers run a fishwheel near the sonar site to help apportion the run when the pinks comprise more than 5 percent of the samples during the day. “The pinks in an odd year are usually earlier,” said Brian Marston, the commercial area management biologist for Upper Cook Inlet. “Now is exceptionally early for pinks.” The catch hasn’t been exceptionally high so far, he said. The managers apportioned both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers for about three days, but the passage on both rivers has dropped since then. Pink salmon usually peak in the area in early August. One of the major hallmarks of this summer so far has been the heat. Southcentral Alaska has smashed heat records in Anchorage and Kenai, with temperatures soaring into the upper 80s and up to 90 degrees on the Fourth of July. Along with the atmospheric heat, and possibly contributing to it, is increased sea surface temperatures across the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Data from the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks show that the waters around Cook Inlet are several degrees Celsius above average. While the effects of warmer ocean temperatures are unclear this summer so far, past studies have connected warmer water temperatures with changing marine organism behavior, including fish. So far, Marston said he hasn’t heard reports of particularly abnormal sockeye behavior. The lack of wind this summer may have made it harder for fishermen to hit aggregations of salmon, so members of the fleet have reported some tough fishing. The only direct data ADFG collects on sea surface temperature in Cook Inlet are with the Anchor Point test fishery, which takes place off the coast of Anchor Point as a way of gauging run timing coming into Cook Inlet. In the winter, ADFG collects data on the temperature of the Gulf of Alaska as a way of informing the run timing of the run the following year. Marston said the data they gathered this winter showed that the run this year is likely to be three or four days early. Stream temperatures are also significantly warmer than usual. The Kenai River at Soldotna, which is usually about 54 degrees Fahrenheit in July, measured at 64 degrees on July 9, according to the National Weather Service. Little Willow Creek in the Mat-Su Valley clocked in at 74 degrees. Those warm temperatures may discourage salmon from entering the lakes. Marston said the ADFG weirs in Mat-Su Valley lakes— Chelatna, Judd and Larson lakes — just went in and no fish have passed them yet, but with nearly 80 degrees measuring in some of the lakes, sockeye may not be eager to leave the cooler streams to head into the lakes. For all systems, ADFG is expecting about 6 million sockeye salmon to return to Upper Cook Inlet. With escapement goals totaling about 2 million, that leaves about 4 million for harvest, 3 million of which would go to the commercial fleet. The bulk of those sockeye are bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, the two largest producers in the inlet, followed by the Susitna River. The forecast, which is slightly greater than the 20-year average, was welcome news for fishermen, who endured one of their worst sockeye seasons in recent memory in 2018. The harvest, about 1.3 million salmon total, was about 61 percent fewer than the recent 10-year average. Fishermen were out of the water for a big chunk of the season due to the poor sockeye return, and ADFG closed the Kenai River dipnet fishery two days early. The sockeye did eventually show up, but for the first time in recent memory, more than half the run showed up in the river after Aug. 1. So far, the run timing has been right about on average. About midway through July, ADFG reevaluates the run projection and adjusts management accordingly. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: ‘Unheard of’ flood of pinks surprises at Alaska Peninsula

The biggest fish story for Alaska’s salmon season so far is the early plug of pinks at the South Alaska Peninsula. By June 28, more than 8 million pink salmon were taken there out of a statewide catch of just more than 8.5 million. Previously, a catch of 2.5 million pinks at the South Peninsula in 2016 was the record for June and last year’s catch was just 1.7 million Managers at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Sand Point said at this pace, this month’s catch could near 10 million pinks. “It’s unheard of, really,” ADFG’s Elisabeth Fox told KDLG radio. Typically, pink salmon return to the South Pen region in July and managers believe the earlier arrivals are not homing in on local streams. “We don’t know where these pinks are going,” Fox said. No tagging studies have been done on the pinks passing through, but they could be headed farther north to Norton Sound where record numbers also have shown up for the past few years. “There is no known link between South Peninsula pinks and Norton Sound,” Jim Menard, Area Manager for ADFG in Nome, told SeafoodNews.com. You can track Alaska’s daily salmon catches by region and species with ADFG’s Blue Sheet. There are also in-season summaries that graph the weekly progression of commercial salmon harvests and compare it with five-year averages. Pink pressure All those pink salmon could face stiff headwinds from Russia in global markets. Alaska projects a total catch of nearly 138 million pinks this summer, 97 million more than last year, and Russian fleets expect another huge haul. “If Alaska and Russia both realize their forecasts it will be interesting to see how the market reacts,” said economist Garrett Evridge with the McDowell Group. Just how big might Russia’s pink salmon catch be? “Russia is anticipating a harvest in line with last year which was a record. It was over one billion pounds,” Evridge said. “For context, in 2018 Alaska harvested about 150 million pounds.” Speaking of Russia, we’re into the fifth year of an embargo that Russia put on U.S. seafood and other food purchases in 2014 to retaliate for alleged U.S. meddling in Ukraine affairs. That‘s been an annual loss of over $60 million to Alaska, mostly for salmon roe sales to Russia which had grown by 222 percent in 2013, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to buy increasing amounts of seafood from Russia, mostly king crab, snow crab and sockeye salmon. Trade data show the US bought $51 million of Russian-caught seafood in 2018. Dunleavy déjà vu On June 28, Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy cut an additional $444 million from Alaska’s operating budget. All the amendments that the legislature had added back into the original ADFG budget were vetoed. There is a gag order on fisheries staff at ADFG and no one is allowed to talk about the budget cuts. All questions are referred to “the governor’s administration.” United Fishermen of Alaska provided this initial breakdown: • $997,000 less for commercial fisheries management • 50 percent reduction in funds for travel across all divisions (including Commercial Fisheries) • $280,000 less for special areas management • Transfer of two director-level positions and associated funding from the Division of Habitat and Division of Subsistence Research to the Office of Management and Budget. (these jobs will no longer be associated with ADFG-related duties) Shuckin’ time One of Alaska’s most exclusive fisheries gets underway on July 1: weathervane scallops. Just two boats take part in the fishery that spans from Yakutat to the Bering Sea. “It’s not something you can get into easily,” said Nat Nichols, area shellfish manager at ADFG in Kodiak. “It takes a fair bit of institutional knowledge and also specialized gear. Lots of people have some Tanner crab pots lying around but not many have a 15-foot New Bedford scallop dredge in their backyards.” The scallop fishery also is very labor intensive as it includes crews of up to 12 people who catch and shuck the catch. “Every Alaska scallop you’ve ever seen was shucked by hand,” Nichols said. This year the two boats will compete for 267,000 pounds of shucked meats, which are the adductor muscle that keeps the shells closed. They are a wildly popular delicacy and can pay fishermen $6 to $10 per pound, depending on size and grade. Scallop boats drop big dredges that make tows along mostly sandy bottoms of strictly defined fishing regions. The fishery is co-managed with the federal government and has 100 percent observer coverage. It takes a scallop around five years to be large enough to retain in the fishery. Weathervane scallops are the largest in the world and their shells can measure 8 to 10 inches across. Get thee to a DMV! A request by United Fishermen of Alaska to postpone a new state title and registration law that requires fishing vessels, tenders, barges and sport fish boats to register at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles was denied by Department of Administration’s Commissioner Kelley Tshibaka. Here’s the breakdown from the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission: Undocumented vessels without a valid certificate of documentation issued by the U.S. coast guard must continue to be registered with the DMV and now must also be titled with the DMV. Documented vessels with a valid certificate of documentation issued by the USCG now must also be registered with the DMV. Federally documented vessels are exempt from the new title requirements but are no longer exempt from the DMV registration requirement. Fish movers Alaskans Cora Campbell and Nicole Kimball have been named to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council by the U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The council oversees over 25 Alaska fisheries from three to 200 miles from shore. Campbell is a former ADFG Commissioner and current CEO of Silver Bay Seafoods, a company started by fishermen in Sitka in 2007 that has grown to become one of Alaska’s largest seafood companies. Kimball served for many years as federal fisheries coordinator for ADFG and is currently vice president of Pacific Seafood Processors Association that has represented Alaska seafood companies since 1914. Both will serve three-year terms that begin on Aug. 11. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

EPA sharply critical of Pebble draft; ‘preemptive veto’ revisited

Environmental Protection Agency headquarters leaders want their Pacific Northwest colleagues to again consider rescinding a proposed restriction for the Pebble mine. At the same time, those regional officials have several questions about the thoroughness of the ongoing environmental review of the project. EPA Region 10 Administrator Chris Hladick signed off on 174 pages of comments July 1 to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska officials overseeing the Pebble environmental impact statement, or EIS, and the closely related Clean Water Act wetlands fill permit. The public comment periods on the draft EIS and the Clean Water Act Section 404 permit application closed July 1. The 115 pages of EIS comments stress a desire from EPA Region 10 leaders to see significantly more analysis regarding possible damage to the environment and subsistence activities, among other things from the proposed mine and its expansive network of support infrastructure. “Given the substantial potential impacts and risks of the proposed project and weaknesses in the (draft EIS), the DEIS likely underestimates adverse impacts to groundwater and surface water flows, water quality, wetlands, fish resources, and air quality. Therefore, conclusions that the project will not violate applicable water quality and air quality standards should be further supported,” Hladick wrote in an accompanying letter to Corps of Engineers Project Manager Shane McCoy, who is in charge of the Pebble EIS. Hladick is a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development under former Gov. Bill Walker and has served as manager to several local governments across Alaska, including the City of Dillingham, a commercial fishing hub in the Bristol Bay region. As currently proposed, the Pebble project would consist of a 608-acre open pit mine with a depth of nearly 2,000 feed accompanied by two large tailings storage facilities, water management ponds and other structures such as the ore mill, a worker camp and a large power plant. The megaproject would also require support infrastructure including 77 miles of new roads from the mine site to tidewater; an ice-breaking ferry across Iliamna Lake to haul metal concentrates; a deepwater port in Kamishak Bay on the west side of Cook Inlet; and a 188-mile cross-Inlet natural gas pipeline from the southern Kenai Peninsula to the mine site to provide feedstock gas for the power plant. The mine site would cumulatively disturb more than 8,000 acres, nearly half of which would be from the tailings storage facilities. The overall project would result in the destruction of approximately 3,500 acres of wetlands and 80 miles of streams, according to Pebble’s wetlands fill permit application. The EPA determined in 2014 — based on the conclusions of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment — that any project resulting in the loss of more than 1,100 acres of wetlands and water bodies in the area would be an unacceptable impact. How Pebble will, or can, sufficiently mitigate the wetlands losses is unclear at this point and is an issue Region 10 officials and many groups opposed to the mine have highlighted. EPA’s comments on the draft EIS insist the roughly 1,400-page EIS does not provide sufficient baseline data regarding the ecological functions of the potentially impacted wetlands and other water bodies; therefore, it is difficult to develop a requisite mitigation plan to offset the project’s impacts. Similar work needs to be done in regards to the prospective impacts on fish populations and their habitat, Region 10 officials concluded. “The EPA recommends significant improvements to: (fish) habitat characterization, assessment, quantification, and spatial referencing; assessment of linkages between the loss and/or degradation of habitat and impacts to fish species and life stages [i.e., incubating eggs, spawning fish, and rearing juveniles]; groundwater and surface water flow characterization at a scale that is more relevant to fish and fish habitat; and analysis of the potential population-level effects and effects on genetic diversity in the context of the Bristol Bay salmon portfolio,” the comment document states. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adjudicates wetlands fill permit applications under the Clean Water Act. The EPA has the final authority to veto a permit for projects it deems would result in unacceptable environmental damage. The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a spending bill June 19 with language — known as the Huffman amendment — prohibiting the Army Corps of Engineers from spending money to finalize the Pebble EIS in the 2020 federal fiscal year. That legislation is now under consideration in the Senate. Region 10 officials also note that Pebble’s draft compensatory mitigation plan “includes only a conceptual discussion” of potential means to offset the project’s substantial impacts to wetlands and water bodies and does not mention specific mitigation work the company could employ. Pebble’s draft compensatory mitigation plan in the EIS notes that restoring wetlands near the project — a common practice for project proponents elsewhere in the U.S. — is impractical because the area is undeveloped. As a result, it states the company will likely focus on fish habitat restoration in adjacent watersheds such as the Kenai, Susitna and Matanuska “through culvert rehabilitation and other fish passage improvements that have the potential to benefit the greater Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet watershed areas.” Pebble Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said Pebble plans to develop more specific wetlands mitigation measures as the permitting process continues and the exact permit requirements become more clear, which he said is common for large projects such as the mine. According to the EPA, the draft EIS also lacks up-to-date information regarding subsistence activities in and near the project area. Much of the information it contains regarding subsistence harvests is from a 2004 Alaska Department of Fish and Game analysis and other studies up to 2008; Region 10 officials recommend more recent data be collected or more justification as to why the included subsistence data is sufficient be provided. The EPA also suggests the final EIS should include development alternatives for lining the tailings storage facilities to prevent contaminated water from percolating into the water table. Heatwole contends that lining the tailings storage facilities would be counter to the water management plan the company developed specifically in response to concerns about a potential tailings dam failure. Currently, Pebble plans to allow water to flow through the tailings facilities to prevent additional pressure buildup behind the dams. The water will be treated to meet state and federal water quality standards before it is released into the environment, according to Pebble. Many mine opponents stress the water at the mine site will need to be treated in perpetuity — something they argue can’t be guaranteed. Finally, the Region 10 officials contend the draft EIS should contain more information about the impacts of potential further development of the Pebble copper and gold deposit beyond what the company is currently applying for. They note Pebble’s parent company, Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals has discussed mining the larger, deeper eastern portion of the deposit as recently as 2017. For that and other reasons, the EIS should consider an expanded mining scenario in more detail or explain why evaluating the impacts of additional mining is unnecessary, according to the EPA. Pebble opponents also emphasize that the current smaller, 20-year mine plan is an attempt by the company to get a mine approved that will undoubtedly grow. According to Pebble’s Clean Water Act wetlands fill permit application, the 20-year plan would recover 6.7 billion pounds of copper, 353 million pounds of molybdenum and 10.7 million ounces of gold, while the overall Pebble deposit is estimated to contain more than 80 billion pounds of copper, 5.5 billion pounds of molybdenum and 107 million ounces of gold at higher average grades than the initial mining area. The latest Northern Dynasty investor presentation dated June 2019 also touts the Pebble deposit as containing precious metal resources equivalent to “1.8 percent of all the gold ever mined” in human history. It also contends the draft EIS is “robust and comprehensive” and is the result of more than $150 million worth of environmental baseline data collected over 10 years. The draft document contains “no substantive data gaps” and “no significant impacts” that cannot be sufficiently mitigated, according to Northern Dynasty. ‘Preemeptive veto’ revisted While EPA Region 10 officials were busy critiquing the draft Pebble EIS, the agency’s headquarters leaders in Washington, D.C. were asking them to also revisit lifting a proposed ban on building the mine. EPA General Counsel Matthew Leopold directed Hladick in a June 26 memo to reconsider the agency’s July 2014 preliminary determination that it should use its Clean Water Act authority to prohibit mine development in the Bristol Bay — commonly referred to as a “preemptive veto” of the mine. Leopold noted that the proposed veto determination is still pending five years after it was reached and has not been finalized either way; it must be lifted as an administrative requirement before the Corps of Engineers can approve Pebble’s 404 wetlands permit application. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in January 2018 unexpectedly chose to keep the Obama administration’s proposed determination in place, at the time citing “serious concerns” the agency had about the impacts of mining activity on the Bristol Bay watershed and the salmon it supports. Pebble sued the agency in 2014 alleging the EPA was biased in its proposed action after improperly colluding with anti-Pebble groups to reach its conclusion. A subsequent 2017 settlement company called for the agency to consider rescinding the proposed veto determination. The current situation has caused confusion about where the agency stands in regards to the project, according to Leopold. “To remove any confusion and uncertainty, Region 10 should lift the ‘suspension’ and withdraw the 2014 proposed determination or leave it in place,” Leopold wrote. According to Region 10 officials, Hladick, as regional administrator, is believed to be the decision-maker on the proposed determination, but that decision will be made in close coordination with headquarters officials. Current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler last year recused himself from all Pebble decisions because he had worked for a law firm that provided services to a client related to Pebble issues. Pruitt had indicated the EPA would hold additional public hearings on the determination if it were ever revisited; however, Leopold wrote that Region 10 should forgo more public input given the several rounds of public comments the EPA and Corps of Engineers have solicited on Pebble in recent years. Leopold also urged Hladick to invoke “elevation procedures” for Pebble under a 1992 EPA-Army Corps agreement that provides for additional scrutiny on projects that could cause “substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources of national importance.”

FISH FACTOR: Vessel owners scramble to comply with new registration law

A well-intended new Alaska law has gone awry from a botched rollout that has turned thousands of Alaskan fishing vessel, tender, barge and sport fish operators into lawbreakers. Since the start of 2019, all vessels longer than 24 feet are required to be registered with the state at a Department of Motor Vehicles office. Previously, vessels that were documented with the U.S. Coast Guard were not also required to register with the state. The registration costs $24 and is good for three years. “You need to get down to the DMV whether you’re documented or not,” explained Frances Leach, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska. “If you’re documented you have to register, and if you’re not documented, you have to register and get a title.” The new rule stems from Senate Bill 92, the Derelict Vessels Act introduced last year by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and passed by the Legislature. It is intended to help harbormasters and others track down owners of abandoned vessels. But virtually no mariners know about the new registration requirement. “We found out about it from DMV personnel in Haines who told one of our gillnetters and he told me, and we both called the troopers and they didn’t know anything about it,” said fisherman Max Worhatch of Petersburg. “Later they got back to us and said it was indeed the law.” Worhatch, who is executive director of United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters, said he’s directed queries to the departments of Administration and Public Safety. “Why weren’t we notified?” he asked. “Nobody found out about this and nobody would’ve found out about this if we hadn’t alerted people. There was no public notice, nothing.” The new law states that a derelict vessel prevention program shall, to the extent that general funds are available, establish education and community outreach programs. But the only outreach is coming from fishermen’s groups, said UFA’s Leach in a June 18 letter to Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka. “Since becoming aware of this new law in late May, UFA has been working with the Department of Motor Vehicles and State Wildlife Troopers to understand how they intend to implement the requirements of the law,” the letter says. “We have notified thousands of fishermen of the law’s requirements through emails and social media posts. As far as we can tell, the commercial fishing industry, spearheaded by UFA, is the only sector actively working to inform commercial fishermen of the new requirements, even though this affects thousands of non-commercial fishing boat owners around the state. Who is informing them?” It adds,“As fishermen attempt to comply with the law’s requirements they are discovering that many DMV offices are not ready to deal with the onslaught of this new bill.” Leach and Worhatch also point out that requiring vessel registration at a DMV adds an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and is “reinventing the wheel.” “All the information on the DMV registration is available on a public database website at the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission website. Everything,” said Worhatch. UFA, which represents 36 fishing groups, requested a one-year delay of the law “until all state agencies are better prepared and trained and adequate public notice and education are given prior to it going into effect.” That has the support of Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka. “Running the DMV gauntlet is the last thing fishermen need to be thinking about as salmon season heats up,” he wrote by email. Kreiss-Tomkins voted against the new law, saying he was concerned that the bill, albeit well intentioned and addressing all too real a problem, would create more paperwork than it would solutions. “The fear about paperwork headaches is proving all too real,” he said, adding that it “makes heaps of sense” for the existing CFEC database to do “double duty” and relieve the DMV of those headaches. “If sound legislation will be forthcoming to this end, I’ll certainly support it,” he said. As to the botched rollout, Kreiss-Tomkins said: “There seems to be critical mass concern. Everyone — the fishermen, the agencies — is climbing a learning curve, so to some extent it’s understandable. I just hope that this recent attention can help everyone get on the same sheet of music.” Naknek does nets Fishing net recycling is expanding to Naknek. Nicole Baker, founder and operator of Net Your Problem, plans to meet with net menders, processors, gear sellers and landfill managers in early July to begin formulating a program. “These are people who have reached out to me or I have been communicating with over the last year or so,” she said, adding that the recycling start up is set for next summer. Baker, who is in Dillingham for three weeks taking a class at the University of Washington salmon research camp, also has met with the local Curyung Tribe which has managed a net recycle program at the Dillingham Harbor since 2008. Since 2017, Net Your Problem has shipped more than a half-million pounds of plastic fishing nets from Dutch Harbor and Kodiak for renewed life in Europe. “They grind them up, melt them down and turn them into plastic pellets that they then resell to buyers of recycled plastics who turn them into water bottles, phone cases or whatever they choose,” she said. Other updates: nets are still being taken in at Dutch Harbor and Kodiak has a net drop off deadline this summer of Sept. 1 due to shipping logistics. Petersburg will soon be sending out a container of nets collected by the Petersburg Indian Association. The Haines Friends of Recycling has collected seven nets so far and more are being dropped off at the Net Loft. Juneau will be sending out a container of nets at the end of summer collected by the Recycle Works Group. Fishing changes Fishermen are closest to the changes brought by a warming climate and talking about it is a first step in finding solutions. That’s the thought behind The Nature Conservancy’s second collection of audio stories in its Tidal Change series. “If we are not talking about the problems or the challenges ahead, we’re not going to start tackling them. This is a chance to generate conversation,” said spokesman Dustin Solberg of Cordova. The stories reveal a swirl of emotions. Here’s a sampler: “The environment is changing, undoubtedly. When I first fished there was a lot of ice and now most of the glaciers are receding,” said Leonard Leach of Ketchikan, who has been fishing since 1961. “If this whole warming trend keeps happening my understanding is that jellyfish will really come back and that would be a detriment to our gillnetting and seining.” “The water’s warmer and the fish get confused and they don’t know when they’re supposed to run,” said Lia Cook, who fishes with her family at Bristol Bay. “It really affects the peak and the amount of fish that comes through because there is confusion in the school of when are we supposed to go and spawn and do all these things.” Lauri Rootvik of Dillingham also spoke to the odd run timing at Bristol Bay. “When I was a child it was the 4th of July run and it was pretty predictable. It’s not predictable anymore and it hasn’t been for quite a few years,” she said. “Warm water produces more harmful algae blooms. It’s not something that’s coming, it’s something that we are experiencing,” said Bob Eder, a 45 year veteran of Dungeness crab fishing in Oregon. “In our industry there are people of all different political leanings but I don’t know any fishermen who don’t recognize climate change and the challenges coming.” Katrina Leary grew up at a fishing camp along the Kuskokwim River and called it “magical.” “It’s really emotional when you realize your livelihood is being threatened and your kids might not be able to do this. Fishing really is our life. I couldn’t imagine a summer without fishing and I hope I never have to.” Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Woodrow officially takes director’s helm at ASMI

JUNEAU — Alaska’s seafood industry has a new captain at the helm of its main marketing agency. Jeremy Woodrow, previously the organization’s communications director, officially took over as executive director of he Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute this June. He replaces former executive director Alexa Tonkovich, who left the position in December 2018 to pursue a master’s degree in international business. In some ways, it’s the top of a long ladder for Woodrow. Born and raised in Juneau, he started as an intern with ASMI in 2001 and worked with the organization’s former public relations firm Scheidermeyer &Associates Alaska. After a stint in the communications department at the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, he returned to ASMI as the communications director in 2017. Though he’s not in commercial fishing at present, he said his family has a long history in it. That connection has helped inform his involvement in the ever-changing fisheries of Alaska, and though ASMI stays out of fisheries policy, there are plenty of other tangles to sort out. High on that list is the increasing volatility in fisheries. Salmon fisheries in particular are always fluctuating from year to year, but fishermen have had unpredictable disasters followed by banner years followed by disasters, which is a relatively new phenomenon, Woodrow said. In response, some fishermen are looking to diversify their income or their fishing portfolios to help offset that uncertainty, he said. The fleet is consolidating as well, especially in the larger offshore fisheries. However, Alaska’s wild seafood products have never been more valuable. “While our fisheries have been fully exploited for several decades, we have seen the value continue to go up, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “That shows that there is value in the fish. There are other ways to gauge value than just the price of fish at the dock. More people wanting to get into it, the price of boats …. all that generates money to fisheries economies.” Part of that is due to increasing seafood consumption in the U.S., but part is also due to the increasing price wild Alaska salmon has been able to command in markets. Salmon is the most valuable commercial U.S. species, with a total value of $688 million in 2017, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Alaska salmon accounted for 98 percent of landings in 2017. The average landing price for all species — the majority of which were pink salmon — was 65 cents, according to NMFS, but once those salmon are sent to the supermarket, consumers are paying significantly more for them than for Atlantic salmon or salmon from elsewhere. That’s in part due to ASMI’s work over the years to promote the Alaska brand, Woodrow said. The state’s fisheries have a good story to tell: comprehensively managed fisheries, small communities and a fleet dominated by small boats and local fishermen. “We have such a great generational story to tell, a management story to tell, all that, wrapped into an incredible place,” Woodrow said. Things are changing there as well, though. The ongoing trade conflict between the U.S. and China has presented ASMI with a complex new marketing landscape. China is Alaska’s single large market for seafood, and the organization has spent about two decades building relationships with buyers and processors there. A significant portion of Alaska’s fish are exported to China and reprocessed there, with most bound for either export to other world markets and the U.S. or for domestic consumption in China. On top of that, other countries are increasing their salmon farming efforts and marketing in the U.S., attracting consumers with lower prices for salmon. Norway, for example, is ramping up efforts to market its salmon in the U.S., and Iceland is in the process of expanding its aquaculture industry for salmon. ASMI has been clear about its intentions to remain in China, Woodrow said. With 1.3 billion residents and a rapidly expanding middle class, the country is too big a market to abandon because of tariffs. While the disagreements over trade have merit, the tariff battles have impacted seafood demand there, Woodrow said. “We do agree that something has to change (in U.S.-China trade), but this conflict going on has definitely created extra headwinds for the Alaska seafood industry,” he said. ASMI received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop markets for seafood in other countries, focusing on Southeast Asia, Woodrow said. The organization has also established a presence in South America, with an office in Brazil and significant interest in seafood among people there. There’s also an opportunity to take some of the reprocessing market there, reducing some of the dependence on China for that service. There are also opportunities for marketing other products. Mariculture is a growing industry in the state, with expanding interest in kelp and geoduck clam farming. Most of those products are currently bound for foreign markets, but there’s growing interest in the U.S., especially among younger consumers, who are more open to tastes for different palettes. But it’s not only alternative products. Pollock — the single largest commercial fishery in the U.S. by volume — also has an opportunity. “A great example is pollock roe,” he said. “I guarantee you very few Alaskans or Americans have ever eaten pollock roe, but pollock roe is incredibly popular in Japan … the size of the pollock roe is very similar to the size of fish eggs that you see on sushi. That’s a perfect segment for it to come into the U.S. market.” The ASMI board announced Woodrow’s hire as executive director June 10, saying the board was excited to have a lifelong Alaskan to lead the agency. “The Alaska seafood brand is as strong as ever and we are confident that Jeremy’s leadership will advance the direction and mission of the agency,” said Jack Schultheis, chairman of the ASMI board of directors, in the announcement. Going into the role, Woodrow said one of the things he considers with each decision is how Alaska fishermen will accept decisions that ASMI makes, in part because the agency is ultimately paid for by the fishermen with state funding zeroed out over the past few years through budget cuts. “Anytime that we have a marketing plan, I always keep in the back of my mind how will an Alaska fisherman react to this, because they’re always our first audience,” he said. “We have to make sure they understand they’re getting good value.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Invasive elodea leads to Alexander Lake shutdown

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed sportfishing on Alexander Lake with the goal of controlling the spread of elodea.  Mat-Su Valley residents and state agencies are trying to gather enough support to stop an invasive water weed in the area before it’s too late. Elodea, an aggressive aquatic plant, has made itself at home in several large lakes in the Susitna River drainage. When it was first detected in Alexander Lake in 2014, it only covered about 20 acres; by this year, it had increased to 90 percent of the lake’s area. Nearby Sucker Lake is in a similar state. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed Alexander and Sucker lakes to all sportfishing this summer, specifically targeting controlling the spread of elodea. The plant often hitches rides on boat propellers, in bilgewater and on floatplane floats. Kristine Dunker, who manages the invasive species program for ADFG, said she didn’t expect the closure this summer to impact the invasive northern pike population in the lake much because it will open again in the winter, when people frequently fish for them there. ADFG encourages people to harvest as many northern pike as they can, which can devastate salmon populations in lakes. While elodea is just a plant, it’s more than an innocent bystander. When it’s invasive, it can grow so thick as to make lake water anoxic. Salmon can have a hard time navigating a deeply forested lake to find food as juveniles or spawning areas as adults, and other fish can be flat out strangled in the lakes for lack of oxygen. What’s more, it can spread by fragmentation — only a small piece has to be introduced to good habitat for the plant to flourish. It can survive under ice, and does well in slow-moving, shallow water. “It’s really gotten bad in the Mat-Su,” said Mike Wood, the president of the Susitna River Coalition, a conservation group focused on protecting Susitna River fish habitat. The Susitna River Coalition is among the participants in a task force aimed at eradicating elodea from the Mat-Su Valley. Led by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, the group includes ADFG, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District and a number of landowners. The main point is not the direct threat to fish at present, but the potential for elodea to move out of those two lakes and affect the rest of the system, said Dan Coleman, a natural resource specialist with DNR’s Alaska Plant Materials Center. Coleman said he thought the chances of keeping elodea out of the rest of the Mat-Su were “very good” if the project successfully eradicates the weed in Alexander and Sucker lakes. “These are just source populations sitting out there right now,” he said. “The sooner we get going on this project … the better.” With the current prescriptions needed to kill the elodea, DNR estimates the cost at $850,000 for the first year for both lakes — and that’s just for the herbicide. Some organizations have already committed funding, including the Mat-Su Salmon Habitat Partnership and the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission, but it’s not enough to carry the project through. The group is looking for federal and state grants to support the eradication program, said Nicole Swenson, the conservation director for the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District and coordinator of the elodea task force. The local funding they’re looking for would serve as match funds to access federal grants, she said. The sticker price may look high, but the price to eradicate it in the future would be much higher, she said. “This project is getting close to a million (dollars) per year based on the predictions,” she said. “And the state is hurting, as we all know, for money, and we were just chasing grants and putting it all together. We’re piecemealing it together — when it takes a million dollars a year to get it done, (it’s difficult).” Alexander Lake is complicated, with multiple streams feeding into it, multiple outlets and a system of wetlands around it. The strategy the group would use would include releasing two herbicides — diquat and fluoridone — into the lakes and maintaining high enough concentrations for long enough to kill the elodea. Alexander Lake in particular has high water turnover — all the water in the lake is flushed out within 10 days, Coleman said. Seeking additional funding, Wood said the Susitna River Coalition approached Donlin Gold for help. Donlin, which is working to obtain permits for a proposed gold mine in Southwestern Alaska, has proposed a pipeline to run through the Mat-Su Valley to Cook Inlet for natural gas to power the operations. However Donlin’s community projects committee did not receive the request with enough time, and the requested amount — $700,000, according to the company — was too much for the budget, according to external affairs manager Kristina Woolston. The company only had a few days to respond, and when the Susitna River Coalition reduced its request to about $172,000, Donlin’s community investment committee did not have enough time to adequately consider engaging in a project of that size. “We would consider working with Fish and Game, sport fish groups, industry and other local entities to solve the problem, not just treat the symptoms,” Woolston wrote in an email. Melissa Heuer, the executive director of the Susitna River Coalition, said the group saw the project as a way for Donlin to contribute to a conservation area near the pipeline corridor, which will be impacting wetlands in the construction process. Donlin has agreed to conditions set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do 4.5 acres of wetlands mitigation in the Mat-Su Borough in connection with its project, in addition to wetland conservation projects in the Calista region and in Cook Inlet. “Where things could actually make a difference, I don’t think this was a time for (Donlin),” she said. “Hopefully they’ll come through in the future. I think they still would be a good partner, and people would appreciate seeing a company step up.” The Mat-Su is far from the only place with elodea infestations in Alaska. The plant was first discovered in Eyak Lake near Cordova in the 1980s, thought to have been introduced from someone dumping an aquarium in the lake. Since then, it has spread to Chena Slough near Fairbanks, Lake Hood in Anchorage and several lakes on the Kenai Peninsula, among other locations. Residents say they think the elodea in Alexander Lake was likely introduced there by floatplanes arriving to fish in the lake. There haven’t been any definitive documented cases of elodea infestations negatively impacting salmon runs in Alaska yet, but that may be due to a lack of data, Swenson said. It would have been great to address the elodea a few years ago when it first surfaced, but time is of the essence now, Heuer said. “I think if we could have done it two or three years ago, that would have been great,” she said. “I think we’re really just reaching a key time that we still have an opportunity to stop it before it gets out of control. If we don’t stop it now, it’s just going to grow exponentially. Once it moves out of these water bodies and into the rest of the Mat-Su, it’s going to be almost impossible.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

MSA reauthorization still stalled with 2018 House bill expired

More than a decade has passed since the last reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act was signed into law, but the latest effort has stalled in Congress. The act, originally passed in 1974, is the nation’s landmark legislation on federal fisheries policy. In the intervening years, Congress has passed a number of reauthorizations, most recently in 2006, tweaking language and adding provisions. The House passed HR 200, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, in July 2018. However, it never progressed through the Senate and thus expired at the end of the 115th Congress. Young’s bill included a number of new provisions — most notably, changing the word “overfished” throughout the bill to “depleted” — and allowing regional fishery management councils consider economic impacts to communities when determining catch limits. One of the reasons Young decided to include changing the word “overfished” to “depleted” was to recognize non-fishing impacts on stock abundance, said Zack Brown, Young’s press secretary. “The term ‘overfish’ implies that our commercial fishing industry alone has the potential to impact fish stocks and the overall health of our marine ecosystems,” Brown wrote in an email. “’Depleted’ is a far more comprehensive term that takes a broader and more evidence-based assessment of the risks to marine life.” The language change applies in a situation like the St. Matthew’s Island blue king crab stock. The stock hasn’t been fished since the 2016-17 season because of low abundance, and only four years overall since 1999, but was declared overfished in October 2018 because the estimated biomass was below the minimum stock size threshold specified for the crab fishery management plan. A protected area was established in 2008 and expanded in 2010 to include blue king crab habitat. The MSA requires a stock rebuilding plan to be established for overfished stocks, and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted a purpose and need statement for the rebuilding plan at its June meeting in Sitka. But it’s not just fishing affecting the stock. Stock projections show recruitment in the St. Matthew’s blue king crab stock falling since the mid-1990s. Fishing and bycatch have played roles in the fishery’s decline, but fisheries have been restricted or closed off and on since 1999, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Environmental factors on the populations may be at play impacting the stock, according to a report to the council. Young wanted the language to reflect threats to stocks beyond just fishing pressure, Brown said. “While using the term ‘depleted’ still allows for oversight of fishermen, it also encompasses other potential threats such as predation and ocean acidification,” he said. Young’s bill would have also granted more flexibility to councils in crafting rebuilding plans to account for species’ lifecycles. The current MSA requires stocks to be rebuilt within 10 years of being declared overfished, which may not be possible for certain species. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council agreed with allowing for the term “depleted” to be used in the act to account for cases like the St. Matthew’s blue king crab, but didn’t agree with the proposed change of including economic impact to communities in the determination of catch limits, according to a February 2019 letter to Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. The letter, signed by council chairman Simon Kinneen, noted that the measure would tilt the development of harvests away from their scientific basis. The council would have two choices: ask the Scientific and Statistical Committee to consider social and economic consequence, driving it away from science, or close fisheries early before the total allowable catch has been reached, according to the letter. “Incorporating social and economic factors into the determination of annual catch limits as proposed in the draft will severely impact the conservation and management of resources in the North Pacific by increasing scientific and management uncertainty and reducing public transparency and participation in the decision-making process,” Kinneen wrote. “From our perspective, this may be a cure in search of a problem.” Though HR 200 expired with the last Congress, some elements made it into law as a separate bill: the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2018, or Modern Fish Act. The rest of the provisions will have to start from scratch back in the House, likely with some edits, Sullivan noted in an email. “With the changeover in the House leadership, I expect the Democratic majority will have their own priorities and will want to advance their own legislation on this, and other topics,” he wrote. Sullivan agreed with the inclusion of the language change from “overfished” to “depleted,” noting the North Pacific council’s support. He said that while on the whole the MSA has resulted in Alaska’s fisheries dominating the nation, eliminated foreign fishing off Alaska’s coasts and kept stocks from being overfished like those in other regions, there is room for reconsideration as time goes on. “While I think it’s always healthy to reexamine and update our laws as a matter of course—particularly as technology and science evolve—I have heard from Alaska’s fishermen that my role as a steward of the MSA should largely be that of a doctor practicing the mantra of ‘First, do no harm,’” he wrote. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska senators gain support on transboundary mining issues

Senators from the Western U.S. are joining the Alaska congressional delegation to press the issue of Canadian mining practices in transboundary watersheds . The bipartisan group of six senators — Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Steve Daines, R-Mont.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; and Patty Murray, D-Wash. — sent a letter along with Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan June 13 to British Columbia Premier John Horgan highlighting the steps states and the federal government have taken to monitor transboundary rivers and what they want provincial officials to do in return. They were compelled to send the correspondence because there weren’t enough delegates to the International Joint Commission from either country to hold its biannual meeting in April, according to the letter. IJC spokeswoman Sally Cole-Misch said it took roughly a year for President Donald Trump’s three appointees to the commission to be confirmed by the Senate and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed three new Canadian commissioners as soon as the terms of those appointed by his predecessor were completed. The panel of six new IJC commissioners was sworn in May 17. The Boundary Waters Treaty with Canada established the IJC in 1909 specifically to settle disputes over watersheds that cross or comprise the international border. For years, members of the Alaska congressional delegation have been asking provincial leaders, and domestically, State Department officials, to address potential water quality problems from large hard rock mines at the upper reaches of transboundary watersheds in British Columbia; this is the first time senators from other border states have formally joined them. In the Lower 48, transboundary concerns have centered on Canadian coal mines. While numerous Alaska environmental, commercial fishing and Alaska Native groups have called for IJC involvement to provide further protection for Alaska salmon fisheries downstream from mining activity, the commission can only be spurred by a formal call from either the State Department or Canada’s Global Affairs Department. Attempts by the Alaska delegation to get former Secretary of State John Kerry to review Alaska’s concerns regarding Canadian mining activity in transboundary watersheds largely proved unfruitful. Concerns over the British Columbia mine permitting process were heightened after the 2014 Mount Polley mine tailings dam failure. The Mount Polley copper and gold mine is in the upper reaches of the large Fraser River watershed, a major salmon producer for Canada and the U.S. A British Columbia auditor general report concluded the Mount Polley dam breach was the result of inadequate engineering and poor oversight from regulators. The senators’ letter notes that the departments of State, Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency set up a joint working group to determine what could be done to safeguard U.S. economic interests related to the commercial fisheries and tourism enterprises that could be compromised by the impacts from upstream mines. Congress last year approved $1.8 million for Interior Department agencies to spend on improved downstream water quality monitoring systems in transboundary rivers. “While we appreciate Canada’s engagement to date, we remain concerned about the lack of oversight of Canadian mining projects near multiple transboundary rivers that originate in B.C. and flow into our four U.S. states,” the senators wrote to Premier Horgan. “To address these concerns, we have taken steps in partnership with our federal and state governments to improve water quality monitoring and push for constructive engagement with Canada. “In sharing an update on our efforts, we hope to encourage you, in your role as Premier, to allocate similar attention, engagement, and resources to collaborative management of our shared transboundary watersheds.” Alaska Tribes and conservation groups insist a host of mines proposed in the Canadian portions of large salmon-bearing transboundary rivers that flow into Southeast Alaska, such as the Stikine and Unuk, could degrade water quality and endanger those fisheries. They also contend Canadian bonding requirements for mining companies are inadequate. “This is a multi-state, international problem for which we need a multi-state, international solution,” United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Frances Leach wrote in a formal statement following the release of the senators’ letter. “Right now B.C.’s massive open-pit mines and waste dumps put some of Alaska and B.C.’s most important salmon rivers, and the fishing jobs that rely on them, at risk. Alaska fishermen and the thousands of people across the world who enjoy wild salmon expect and deserve better from B.C regulators.” Former British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said in a prior interview with the Journal that the provincial and federal Canadian governments have environmental protection requirements for mines on par with the U.S. and Alaskans’ concerns come from a lack of adequate communication between the governments on the issue. Bennett is now a director for the British Columbia-based mining exploration firm Eagle Plains Resources Ltd. The Alaska delegation specifically has asked provincial environmental regulators to provide State of Alaska officials, tribes and Alaska Native corporations a formal consultation process during mine permit reviews. In November 2015 former Gov. Bill Walker and then British Columbia Premier Christy Clark signed a memorandum of understanding to create a transboundary Bilateral Working Group to facilitate the exchange of best practices, marine safety, workforce development, transportation links and joint visitor industry promotion. Bennett said at the time that the MOU represented a significant change in how the state and province interact. Last November British Columbia mine regulators began the process of seeking firms to clean up acid rock leakage from the Tulsequah Chief mine in the Taku River drainage east of Juneau. State officials contend the multi-metal mine that operated for just six years has been leaking acid wastewater into the Tulsequah River, which feeds the Taku, since it was closed in 1957. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Summer fishing ramps up; gov opposes council’s Pebble letter

Salmon dominates the summer fishing headlines but it’s among many other fisheries going on throughout the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Alaska’s salmon season has gotten off to a mixed start, with strong catches in some regions over the past month and dismal hauls in others. Good harvests have continued at the Copper River and more recently throughout Prince William Sound. That’s not been the case at Kodiak, Cook Inlet and Chignik where fishing is off to a very slow start. Trollers are targeting chinook salmon in Southeast, and other salmon fisheries are popping up all over that region. The state research vessel Pandalus is on its way to Port Moller to start sampling ahead of the big sockeye run expected in a few weeks at Bristol Bay. State managers predict a total Alaska salmon catch this year of 213 million fish, 84 percent higher than 2018. In other Alaska fisheries, a lingcod fishery reopened at East Yakutat on June 7 and Southeast’s shrimp beam trawl fishery reopens on July 1 with a 175,000-pound combined harvest of pink and sidestripes. Fishing for Alaska pollock reopened on June 10 in the Bering Sea where a catch this year will top 3 billion pounds. Hundreds of other Bering Sea and Gulf boats also are targeting cod, flounders, rockfish, and myriad other whitefish. Alaska halibut longliners are nearing a catch of 8 million pounds out of a 17 million-pound catch limit. For sablefish, about 10 million pounds has crossed the docks from a 26 million-pound quota. Several summer crab fisheries are coming online. The Dungeness season opens in Southeast Alaska on June 15. State fishery managers will use catch stats from the first seven days to predict the harvest for the season. Last summer’s dungy fishery produced three million pounds. The Aleutian Islands golden king crab fishery also opens on June 15 for a slightly increased catch topping seven million pounds. A red king crab fishery will open at Norton Sound on June 26 for a 147,300-pound harvest. Finally, a wrap up by state managers shows that 19 seiners set a record at Alaska’s largest herring fishery at Togiak in April with a 23,060-ton harvest. Fishermen got just $75 per ton for the roe herring making it worth $1.73 million at the docks. Pebble pushback As the July 1 deadline approaches for public comments on plans for the Pebble mine, the project is getting unprecedented pushback from unexpected people and places, to the ire of Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s administration. The City of Kodiak, Aleutians East Borough, North Pacific Fishery Management Council, Trident Seafoods and 53 members of Congress are newly on record to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opposing the draft environmental impact statement, or DEIS, for the massive copper and gold mine, saying it is flawed, inadequate and leaves more questions than answers. At Kodiak, where more than 500 resident fishermen and tenders work at Bristol Bay, city council members said in a comment letter that there is no discussion in the DEIS of how Pebble affects fisheries beyond the Bay and Cook Inlet. “Any potential negative impacts, release of toxins or damage to the watershed and consequently on the fisheries at Bristol Bay, has the potential to have a profound impact on all our fisheries by damaging the Alaska brand,” said Councilman John Whiddon Likewise, the Aleutians East Borough, representing six communities adjacent to the mine area, commented they were never even invited for consultations, and discussions about impacts to their borough were “non-existent.” Mayor Alvin Osterback’s letter called the project “an avoidable risk” and said the best option is no Pebble mine. Similarly, a comment letter written by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council recommends that the potential impacts of large-scale mining be assessed not only for fish populations, but also “on both the value and reputation of North Pacific Fisheries.” That had the Dunleavy administration calling foul at the recent NPFMC meeting in Sitka. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker entered the state’s formal opposition to the letter, calling the Pebble DEIS “outside the Council’s purview” and “a distraction from the large number of fishery management issues on our agenda,” reported KCAW in Sitka. In Congress, led by US Representative Jared Huffman of California who chairs the committee on water, oceans and wildlife, 53 House Democrats sent a letter last week to the Corps asking them to simply drop the Pebble mine project because it would “destroy thousands of acres of wetlands in Alaska and threaten the most valuable wild salmon fishery in the world.” “We urge the Corps to listen to the tribes, village corporations, commercial fishermen, hunters, anglers, and those whose lives and livelihoods depend on the integrity of the Bristol Bay watershed, and we urge the Corps to deny the permit for the Pebble Mine,” the letter stated. Trident Seafoods, the largest seafood company in the U.S., has sent a letter to Alaska fishermen sharing its comments to the Army Corps that the Pebble mine “poses a significant risk to the many families, businesses and communities that rely on the natural resources of Bristol Bay.” Finally, Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office in Washington, D.C. is being deluged with hundreds of net corks being sent by Alaskans with messages entreating her to stand with them in opposition to the Pebble Mine. Building blue businesses Seward is the first Alaska community to work with the Alaska Ocean Cluster to jump and grow ocean-based businesses. A first cohort of four early-stage businesses that signed up with AOC’s Blue Pipeline Incubator last October has so far attracted $1.6 million from an investment goal of $2.3 million, 10 times more than anticipated. “They include seafood manufacturing, ocean energy, mariculture and coastal tourism,” said Justin Sternberg, director of the Blue Pipeline Incubator in Seward which is a partnership with the AOC, the City and local Chamber of Commerce, UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Science, and the Alaska Small Business Development Center. One business also filed a provisional patent on a new technology that won the Invention of the Year award at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks. “It’s a technology that pulls hydrogen out of ocean water that can then be stored as a battery for use later. It also de-acidifies the water,” Sternberg said. “If it proves to be commercially viable it would allow for a mass scale way to produce energy and at the same time reduce the carbon that is in the water creating acidification.” Another Blue Pipeline company was a semi-finalist at the first Alaska Angel Conference last month in Anchorage, which brings investors and business startups together. Sternberg said the cohorts receive mentoring and “MBA level training” that helps them “with the whole suite of starting a business from the idea all the way to the implementation to selling it down the road.” The Incubator also offered ASBDC support to 18 Seward businesses, including two new ones, with eight new jobs created as a result. Sternberg, who also helped launch Alaska’s kelp industry in Kodiak, said AOC collaborators are refining the Blue Pipeline to make sure it “fits the dynamics of entrepreneurship in Alaska communities” as they expand to more regions. The Alaska Ocean Cluster is a project of the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected]skan.com for information.

Council turns down petition sought to protect Adak processor

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Steve Minor's last name. The Aleutian Islands won’t be getting an emergency boost in quota for Pacific cod, despite stakeholders’ assertions that the processing plant in Adak needs it to survive the next season. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council decided not to approve an emergency petition from a group of Aleutian Islands stakeholders at its meeting June 9, instead taking a longer route through a discussion to look at the set-aside options for the area. The petition had sought an emergency quota set-aside of Pacific cod, separate from the general Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands quota, to help sustain the shore-based plant and thus the community. Adak, a small community on an island west of Unalaska that once housed a naval base, relies heavily on Pacific cod processing. The community there taxes fishery landings to pay for public services as well. In recent years, the shore-based processors have had to increasingly compete with larger companies’ catcher-processor vessels participating in the Bering Sea Pacific cod fishery. The fishery has grown as well, and as the fishery is not under rationalization, fishermen have complained of an increasingly dangerous “race for fish” that makes the season shorter and shorter. In spring 2019, the Bering Sea Pacific cod “A” season lasted less than two weeks. Since 2016, the Aleutian Islands area has had a leg-up in the fishery through a provision in the council’s management plan for the area called Amendment 113. Essentially, it created a priority quota for cod to be delivered to shore-based processing plants west of the 170-degree west latitude line in the Aleutian Islands, protecting Adak’s plant from being outrun by the at-sea processing vessels. However, in May, a federal judge ruled in favor of a group of fishermen that complained about that amendment being against the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, saying the council needed to either revise or remove the amendment. The City of Adak is appealing the decision, but in the meantime, the fishermen and plant operator hoped to get an emergency policy from the council to protect the plant in the upcoming season. Steve Minor, who testified to the council June 8 on behalf of the petitioners, said the proposed petition wouldn’t have ensured that fish were delivered to the Adak plant, but it provided a chance to do so. “The emergency rule will not restore Amendment 113,” he said. “It also does not guarantee that a single pound of Pacific cod will be landed by any shore-based processor, but it will create opportunity for us.” The petitioners argue there is an emergency because with the increasing participation in the Bering Sea fishery, the season is shortening as vessels run up to the halibut protected species catch limit quickly, forcing all the other fisheries closed to protect halibut. Fishermen have told the council in the past that with the pressure to fish quickly, vessels may not move off a particular ground even if the catch of halibut is high because they are concerned about not keeping up. With the challenge of more vessels fishing on the same limit of halibut, the petitioners argue they’re concerned that without a set-aside of 5,000 metric tons above the guideline harvest limit of Pacific cod, they may not get a season at all. George Pollock of Aleut Enterprise urged the council to establish a Limited Access Privilege Program fishery, which would add additional protections for that area. The community is working on developing other fisheries, such as for geoduck clams, he said. “These activities are directly or indirectly supported by shore-based Pacific cod processing,” he said. However, Bering Sea trawlers opposed the emergency petition. In the complaint filed over Amendment 113, the Groundfish Forum, the United Catcher Boats, B&N Fisheries Co. and the Katie Ann LLC complained that the set-aside for the Aleutian Islands did not meet the MSA criterion for conservation purposes, and the court agreed. Heather Mann, representing the Midwater Trawlers Association, told the council the petition did not meet the criteria for an emergency and was instead another attempt to reinstate Amendment 113. “(Emergency rules) are not a management tool to be used as an end-run around court decisions,” she told the council. “In this case, the criteria have not been met.” The council members did not agree that it was an emergency and voted instead to ask staff to produce a discussion of trawl catcher vessel harvests and the set-aside in the Aleutian Island Pacific cod fishery. Council alternate member Rachel Baker, representing the State of Alaska for Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lang, proposed the amendment, saying that she didn’t think that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would view it as an emergency even if the council sent it on. “I as one council member can’t do that,” she said. Council members Craig Cross and Bill Tweit agreed with her, saying they would support the motion of looking at the problem holistically. Council member Andy Mezirow said he was disappointed the members had not done more to support Adak, and council member Theresa Peterson said she would have preferred some kind of more immediate action to help the community out of its predicament. “This is most likely going to take a long time,” she said. “I think about the vulnerability of the plant and those dependent on the success of the plant to move forward.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet fishermen celebrate ‘Return of the Reds’ with hope for 2019

Cook Inlet fishermen are looking forward to their salmon season with high hopes that the sockeye will arrive in better numbers than last year. On June 11, fishermen and processors grilled up some of the first Cook Inlet salmon of the year at the Pacific Star processing plant in Kenai, gathering to build excitement for the coming season. The plant is now receiving salmon from the west side of Cook Inlet, while the fishermen in the drift gillnet and east side set gillnet fleets gear up for their first expected openings in the coming weeks. The event, dubbed the Return of the Reds, was reminiscent of the recent gatherings in Anchorage and Seattle to receive the first Copper River salmon of the year, a heralded fish in the culinary and fisheries world. The Kenai version is the first in what the Alaska Salmon Alliance hopes will be a new annual tradition for the area, said ASA President Nate Berga. Retailers, fishermen and local government officials gathered at Pacific Star and donated proceeds from sale of grilled fish to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank. The event was less about promoting the processor or the industry than connecting Alaskans with their locally available fish as well as building excitement for the season, he said. “The biggest thing that we wanted to focus on is getting fresh Alaska salmon onto Alaskans’ plates,” he said. Alaska salmon is an internationally valuable commodity, with a huge percentage being shipped overseas to Asia and some being consumed in the Lower 48. Many Alaskans fill their freezers with salmon they harvest themselves at personal-use dipnet fisheries or in sport fisheries, but others may not have the chance — and the ASA wants to see Alaskans more connected with their commercial fisheries, Berga said. Commercial fisheries are also one of the largest private industry employers in Alaska, and most of the Cook Inlet fishermen live in the state according to permit data. “This is a time when our state is struggling,” he said. “This money is staying here.” Upper Cook Inlet faced a terrible sockeye harvest in 2018 — about two-thirds below the recent 20-year average — with the total estimated run coming in at 1.7 million sockeye to the Kenai River and 697,000 to the Kasilof River. Fishermen sat on the docks for much of the season, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the Kenai River dipnet fishery a day early with an eye toward making escapement goals. The sonar has yet to click on for the Kenai River, the major driver in the region, this year, but early reports from sport fishermen on the river indicate good abundance. The Russian River sport fishery opened June 11 at midnight, with more than 8,400 sockeye past the weir on Lower Russian Lake as of June 10, though it takes about a week for sockeye to typically make it to the Russian River from the lower Kenai, according to ADFG. The large early numbers and fish holding in the Kenai River prompted ADFG to open the area known as the Russian River Sanctuary — a section of the Kenai River close to the confluence of the two rivers — earlier than usual, according to a news release. “Looks like the Russian River is off to a strong start. We haven’t seen numbers like this for several years,” stated Area Management Biologist Colton Lipka. “Sport fishing for sockeye salmon in the Russian River area will likely be good to excellent.” If ADFG’s forecast proves out, about 6 million sockeye will return to the stream systems throughout Upper Cook Inlet this year, about 200,000 more than the 20-year average. That increase is mostly in the Kenai River, where the forecast estimates about 3.8 million salmon to return this year. The Kasilof, which is the second-largest sockeye system in the region, is forecasted at 873,000 sockeye, which is about 94,000 fish less than its 20-year average. Sockeye are the primary driver in Cook Inlet, but fishermen are also out for chum, silver and pink salmon as well. In Lower Cook Inlet, fishermen are oriented toward pink salmon harvests, both wild and hatchery, and some smaller sockeye runs than further north. ADFG’s preseason forecast about 2.4 million in commercial common property harvest for the area. That’s only the commercial common property harvest, as researchers have recently found a high percentage of hatchery-marked fish in Lower Cook Inlet streams, possibly confusing the traditional spawner-recruit forecasts the department has done in the past, according to the forecast. Other species were also produced as commercial common property harvest forecasts, including 125,000 sockeye, 84,800 chum, 13,700 silvers and 452 kings, according to the forecast. The first Cook Inlet drift gillnet period is expected after June 19 this year, which would fall on June 20, while the East Side setnet fisheries won’t open until the first regular period on or after June 25 in the Kasilof section and July 8 in the Kenai and East Forelands sections. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Feds still working on plan for $56M in disaster relief funds

Alaska fishermen are still awaiting disaster relief funds for the 2016 pink salmon run failure that was the worst in 40 years. Congress approved $56 million that year for Alaska fishermen, processors and communities hurt by the fishery flop in three Alaska regions: Kodiak, Prince William Sound and Lower Cook Inlet. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and National Marine Fisheries Service finalized plans and procedures for payouts last August. Since then, the paper push has stalled on various federal agency desks. NMFS missed a promised June 1 sign off deadline and now says the funds will be released on the first of July, according to Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak, who has been tracking the progress. “It affects all the cannery workers all the processors, all the businesses in the community,” she said. “This has a big trickle-down effect.” The draft spending plan awaiting approval provides for funds in four categories. Coastal communities that would have gotten 1.5 percent of the landed value of the foregone pink catch would receive $2.43 million. Just more than $4 million was set aside for pink salmon research, and processors would get $17.7 million for lost wages as a result of the humpy bust. Alaska fishermen would get the biggest chunk at $32 million. The funds would be distributed using a calculation to restore lost dockside value equal to 82.5 percent of their five even year averages. As for the July 1 promise, Stutes said she “is not holding her breath because of the fed’s current track record in adhering to its own timelines.” “They know I’m a squeaky wheel and my job is to keep this moving in a forward direction,” she said. Season of uncertainty Fisheries are always fraught with uncertainties, but there is an added element this year: trade tariffs on Alaska’s largest export: seafood. “The industry is accustomed to dealing with uncertainty about harvest levels, prices and currency rates. The trade disputes just add another layer to that,” said Garrett Evridge, an economist with the McDowell Group. Tariffs of up to 25 percent on U.S. seafood products going to China went into effect last July and more are being threatened now by the Trump administration. China is Alaska’s biggest seafood buyer purchasing 54 percent of Alaska seafood exports in 2017 valued at $1.3 billion. “It’s important to remember that a tariff is simply a tax and it increases the prices of our products,” Evridge explained. “As Alaskans we are sensitive to any increase in the price of our seafood because we are competing on a global stage. And right now we have tariffs imposed on seafood from the Chinese side and the U.S. side.” In terms of Alaska salmon, the new taxes could hit buyers of pinks and chums especially hard. Managers expect huge runs of both this summer and much of the pack will be processed into various products in China and then returned to the U.S. “There is uncertainty as to whether or not those products will be tariffed and the Trump administration has indicated they want to tariff all products from China,” Evridge said. For salmon, in a typical year Alaska contributes 30 percent to 50 percent of the world’s wild-caught harvest. But when you include farmed salmon, Evridge said, Alaska’s contribution is closer to 15 percent of the global salmon supply. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is predicting a total catch of 213.2 million salmon this year, more than 80 percent higher than in 2018. The harvest breakdown this year is pegged at about 42 million for sockeye salmon, 9 million fewer than last year. For pinks, a haul of nearly 138 million would be an increase of 97 million fish over last summer. A coho salmon harvest of 4.6 million would be up 900,000 silvers over 2018. Chum catches are projected to be at an all-time high with a catch of 29 million, topping the 25 million record set in 2017. The harvest for Chinook salmon is 112,000 fish at areas outside of Southeast Alaska, where catches are determined by a treaty with Canada. The all gear limit in Southeast this year is 137,500 kings. You can track Alaska’s salmon catches via weekly emails that Evridge compiles for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. “It gives folks a sense of what the various Alaska areas are producing versus prior years. The goal is to provide a quick snapshot of 2019 versus 2018 as well as the five year average,” he said. Sign on at [email protected] Big boat buy? The Bristol Bay Native Corp. is in talks to buy the two largest U.S. Pacific cod longline fishing companies, according to Undercurrent News. The companies — Clipper and Blue North — have 20 percent and 17.5 percent, respectively, of the longline portion of the Pacific cod catch. Clipper has a fleet of six vessels while Blue North has five larger longliners. Buying the fishing companies would be the first move into seafood for BBNC, which reported revenue of more than $1.6 billion in 2018. Undercurrent said the corporation “generates around half its revenue from providing services to the oil and gas industry. The company’s next biggest business units are firstly construction and then providing engineering and technical services primarily for the U.S. government.” New fish hire Scott Kelley has joined United Fishermen of Alaska as its new executive administrator. Kelley was former director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries division from 2015 until his retirement last year. He worked with ADFG since 1990, starting as a port sampler at Excursion Inlet near Juneau. Kelley replaces Mark Vinsel, who has worked at UFA for 18 years, including as executive director. “Scott’s immense knowledge of commercial fisheries in Alaska is well-respected and his relationship with commercial fishermen is extremely valuable. We are very lucky to have him join our organization,” said UFA Executive Director Frances Leach. UFA is the nation’s largest commercial fishing trade group, representing 35 member organizations. ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

FISH FACTOR: Mariculture expanding in area, species so far in 2019

More Alaskans are turning to seaweed farming as the state’s fledgling mariculture industry expands to more regions. Shellfish growers also are finding that an oyster/aquatic plant combo boosts their bottom line. Sixteen applications were filed for new or expanding aquatic farms during the January through April time frame, of which 56 percent were for growing various kelp, 31 percent for a combination of Pacific oysters and kelp, and 13 percent for oysters only. While it was the same number of applications as 2018, the underwater acreage increased considerably, said Cynthia Pring-Ham, aquatic farming coordinator at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which issues the farm permits. “There were about 616 acres that were applied for in 2019 compared to 462 acres in 2018. That’s about a 33 percent increase,” she said, adding that ADFG partners with the Department of Natural Resources, which leases the tidal and submerged lands where aquatic farming takes place. For the first time, interest came from a westward region beyond Kodiak. “In 2019 we had our first applications from the Alaska Peninsula, two from Sand Point, and for kelp species,” said Pring-Ham. “It’s difficult for bivalves in that area to grow successfully, so maybe that will be a new avenue for people. We are very excited.” Two Kodiak growers pioneered kelp farming in Alaska by getting the first state permits in 2016. A mixed sugar and ribbon kelp harvest of 16,000 pounds followed in 2017; that jumped to nearly 90,000 pounds in 2018, valued at $33,000. Currently in Alaska there are 58 aquatic farms, 5 hatcheries and 7 nurseries operating, with most involved in oyster production at Kachemak Bay, Southeast and Prince William Sound. In 2017, 41 operators produced a crop of nearly 2 million Pacific oysters, valued at $1.53 million. Pring-Ham said Alaska oyster farmers are finding that fast growing kelp can boost their bottom lines. “The major species people are growing can be grown in a very short amount of time. They put them out in the fall and can harvest in the spring. So in four to six months they can have a product ready for market, which is a lot shorter than for shellfish like our Pacific oysters which can take two to four years,” she said, adding that aquatic plants also provide opportunities for more people in fishing communities. The global commercial seaweed market is projected to top $22 billion by 2024, with human consumption as the largest segment. Besides kelp, 21 of Alaska’s aqua-farmers also have added dulce, nori and sea lettuce to their macroalgae or shellfish menus. Other undersea crops being grown in Alaska include urchins, sea cucumbers, mussels and giant geoduck clams. Shrimp shines in the Panhandle Southeast Alaska is the state’s biggest producer of America’s No. 1 seafood favorite: shrimp. And much of it is enjoyed right where it’s landed. Four varieties of shrimp are taken at various times throughout the year by permit holders, with recent catches topping 1.5 million pounds and worth $3 million at the docks. “We have 19 different areas around Southeast and each has its own appropriate harvest level for sustainability,” said Dave Harris, area manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Juneau. Catching shrimp with beam trawls, in fact, is Southeast’s longest ongoing fishery since 1915. The trawlers target tiny northern, or pink, shrimp and larger sidestripes, mostly near Petersburg and Wrangell, with recent harvests topping 1 million pounds. Most of the pinks pay out at around 20 cents per pound and are frozen into blocks and currently processed elsewhere; the sidestripes fetch more than a dollar per pound from local processors and lots of customers pay much more buying direct from the boats. Fewer than 10 boats are participating in the trawl fishery of late; it’s the better known and more lucrative pot fishery for big spot shrimp that is drawing the most interest. “That’s been getting more popular,” Harris said. “In 2016, 116 fished, the next year it was 157,” adding that 175 of 256 active permits fished the current season for a half million pound harvest. Fishermen have several sales options for spots. They can fetch $5 to $7 per pound from processors; $10 at the docks and boats rigged to freeze the shrimp onboard get even more. “Guys are catching, hand packing and freezing whole shrimp onboard their boat primarily for the Japanese sushi market,” Harris said. “They can get $10 to $12 for the whole product, which is about twice the weight of the tailed product.” Fishermen also catch coon stripe shrimp in pots along with the spots, which usually pay out at around $2 per pound. Shrimp are unique in that they are protandric hermaphrodites, meaning they start out as males and switch to females after reproducing for a year or two. The sex switch can make it a tricky species to manage. “As part of the overall population dynamics, it doesn’t really matter when you harvest that shrimp; you’re taking away their reproductive potential,” Harris explained. “For a young male, you’re taking them a couple of years before they convert over to female for the rest of their life. That’s a key part of the management which makes it makes it so difficult because it is very easy to over-fish shrimp if you’re not careful.” It also has been difficult to gauge impacts on the shrimp stocks from personal users. In 2018, new state rules required that personal use fishery permits be issued for the first time. “We have some information from specific areas that it can be quite significant, equal to or more than the commercial harvest in some cases,” Harris said. Other shrimp bits: Total U.S. shrimp production in 2016 was 4 million pounds valued at $10 million. Texas is the largest U.S. shrimp producer at nearly 3 million pounds annually, followed by Alabama and Florida. The U.S. imported nearly 700,000 metric tons of shrimp in 2018 (1.54 billion pounds), setting a new tonnage record for the third year in a row. India achieved the milestone of becoming the first country to top 500 million pounds of shrimp to the U.S., followed by Indonesia and Ecuador. Wood who? Seemingly out of nowhere, Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy last week named fly fishing enthusiast John Wood of Willow to the state Board of Fisheries, to which industry stakeholders responded with a collective “who?” Wood, who is an attorney and local chairman of the Alaska Republican party, was a legislative staffer for then Dunleavy from 2012-14 and focused on Northern Cook Inlet salmon allocation issues. Wood also has participated in the Mat-Su Fish and Game Advisory board, according to a press release. The surprise timing of the appointment also raised eyebrows, because the Legislature won’t be able to confirm him until next year when the regular session resumes. Meanwhile, Wood will be making decisions starting this fall on Cook Inlet regulatory issues when the Board of Fisheries begins its meeting cycle in October. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

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