Elizabeth Earl

Disaster declarations, relief in limbo for multiple fisheries

The last few years of commercial fishing for Alaska have turned up poor for various regions of the state, resulting in disaster declarations and potential federal assistance. The 2018 season proved no different, with at least two disaster requests in the works at the state level. A third is in process at the federal level, and yet another is finally distributing money to affected fishermen from the 2016 season. The three in process still have to be approved before going to Congress, where funds can be appropriated to assist fishermen. The process is affected by the federal government shutdown, as most of the National Marine Fisheries Service employees are furloughed until a resolution is reached. The pink salmon disaster, which was requested in 2016 after catches across the Gulf of Alaska came in dismally below expectations, is awaiting a finalized plan for distributing $56 million in relief funds. The plan is currently being reviewed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before the fund distribution is coordinated by the Pacific State Marine Fisheries Commission, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Chignik The fishermen in the communities of Chignik Lagoon, Chignik Bay and Chignik Lake sat on the docks for the majority of the summer watching dismally as the sockeye salmon run to the Chignika River failed to materialized. The fishermen that normally catch more than a million sockeye among them walked away with 128. Former Gov. Bill Walker declared an economic disaster for the fishery on Aug. 23, 2018, to start the process of distributing relief to the area’s residents. The three villages on the Alaska Peninsula are subsistence-dependent and obtain most of their cash income as well as winter food supplies from the fishery and wrote in deep concern for the residents this winter. Walker’s initial disaster declaration stated that relief would be distributed in the form of capital projects in the village and hiring preference for locals. That didn’t solve the villagers’ immediate concerns, according to a letter from the Chignik Coalition to Walker’s administration in October. “While we appreciate and look forward to building much needed infrastructure in our region, we are in dire need of immediate relief,” the letter states. The letter stated that the coalition requested a refund of permit renewal fees for 2018 from the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, a deferment on payments to the state’s commercial fisheries revolving loan program and a declaration of a federal disaster to make assistance available. The CFEC planned to send out letters to individual fishermen for potential refunds in November after reviewing the fishery circumstances, according to the Native Village of Chignik Lagoon’s website. A representative from Chignik could not be reached by press time for comment. Upper Cook Inlet The fishermen of Upper Cook Inlet’s drift gillnet fishery are also seeking assistance for their poor sockeye salmon harvest in 2018. Though the run met its escapement goals and the fishermen did have a number of openers, they walked away with only about a third of the average ex-vessel value. Fishermen in the drift gillnet fleet complained of not being able to make boat or loan payments, adding another poor year atop two below-average sockeye salmon years in 2016 and 2017. Though the fishermen haven’t received a disaster declaration from the governor’s office, they’ve found support with local governments on the Kenai Peninsula. The city councils of Homer and Kenai have both passed resolutions supporting a disaster declaration for the drift gillnet fishery, as has the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. The request was sent to the governor’s office before the transition between administrations, but the fishermen haven’t heard anything about it since, said Erik Huebsch, the vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association board. “It sounds like that was pushed forward in the last few days or weeks of the Walker administration,” he said. “We’re working on that, waiting to see if it fell through the cracks somewhere.” Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s office had not returned a request for comment by press time on the disaster declaration request for Upper Cook Inlet. Pacific Cod Walker’s administration filed a request for a federal disaster declaration in the Gulf of Alaska’s 2018 Pacific cod fishery in March 2018. A drastic cut in the quota due to a forecasted decline in abundance in the gulf led the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to cut the fishery’s quota by about 80 percent between 2017 and 2018. Others were closed outright, and the remaining fishery performed poorly. “Throughout the Gulf of Alaska, direct impacts will be felt by vessel owners and operators, crew and fish processors, as well as support industries that sell fuel, supplies, and groceries,” Walker wrote in his request letter to the Department of Commerce. “Local governments will feel the impact to their economic base and the state of Alaska will see a decline in fishery related tax revenue.” As of Jan. 15, no determination had been made on the Pacific cod fishery disaster request. Some disaster determinations take longer than others; while the 2016 Gulf of Alaska pink salmon disaster declaration only took three months until a determination was granted, the Washington state coho and pink salmon 2015 tribal disaster request was filed in 2016 and took more than two years to attain a determination of disaster. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Hilcorp plans $340M investment in Alaska for 2019

HOMER – After completing its Cook Inlet pipeline project in 2018, Hilcorp is planning to keep its monetary investment about the same in Alaska going into 2019. More of the investment will be in drilling now that the $90-million Cook Inlet pipeline project is complete, said Hilcorp Senior Vice President Dave Wilkins in a presentation at the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District’s Industry Outlook Forum on Jan. 9. “We run things year to year fairly steady,” he said. “We don’t like wild swings … in 2019, we’re going to drill more wells.” Hilcorp’s Alaska operations are split between Cook Inlet and the North Slope, where it’s spent a lot of time and money rehabilitating old assets purchased from Marathon, XTO and BP. On the North Slope, Hilcorp operates Milne Point, a field the company purchased from BP, and is working on permitting for the new Liberty offshore project in the Beaufort Sea. Of the $340 million the company plans to spend in 2019, about 55 percent of it will go to projects on the North Slope, with the remaining 45 percent going to Cook Inlet, said Hilcorp External Affairs Manager Lori Nelson in an email. The company’s normal mode of operation is to rework old wells, Wilkins said. Some of the planned investment is also set aside for maintaining the older equipment the company operates. “I like to say we recycle old oil fields,” he said. “When other companies are done with assets, we come in and we put new capital into it and reinvent it extend the life of those oil and gas assets.” Most of Hilcorp’s Alaska assets are in the Cook Inlet region, with a number of offshore platforms and onshore wells. Four new onshore wells in the area are planned for 2018: one in the Beaver Creek field, two in the Swanson River unit and one in the Happy Valley unit. The Beaver Creek well is targeting oil, the Happy Valley well is targeting gas and the Swanson River wells are targeting both. The company completed a cross-inlet pipeline project in fall 2018, facilitating the decommissioning of the Drift River oil terminal. The terminal is sited at the foot of Mount Redoubt, an active volcano on the west side of Cook Inlet, and has long been controversial because of the risk of oil spills during volcanic activity. Wilkins said the pipeline is currently transporting about 15,000 barrels of oil per day and will allow Hilcorp to fully decommission the Drift River terminal. The company is working on a plan now to complete the work there. “Our intent is to decommission Drift River as urgently as we did the cross-inlet pipeline,” he said. “We don’t want to just let it sit there — we want out of it … what’s happening now is we’re pushing the oil to Drift River, and cleaning up all the sludge and dirt at the tank bottoms and get them out.” Though the company’s planned investment is slightly down from about $360 million in 2018, it’s up from a low of $200 million in 2016, when oil prices hit a crippling bottom of less than $30 per barrel. Hilcorp has continued to purchase assets and drill new wells, including several new wells in the Ninlchik and Anchor Point areas. The newest, the Seaview pad just outside Anchor Point, was finished in December 2018. HIlcorp is still deciding what to do with that well, with possible stratigraphic testing this year, Wilkins said. In addition to its onshore wells, the company plans to drill a new well at the Monopod platform and to bring a jack-up rig to upper Cook Inlet to work at the Granite Point platform. The company is also planning seismic work in Lower Cook Inlet, where it won bids on federal oil and gas leases offshore in the Ninlichik and Cosmopolitan units and in the middle of the inlet outside Kachemak Bay. Hilcorp’s leases, purchased in 2017 for $3.03 million, were the first federal leases that attracted any industry attention since 2008. Wilkins said the company is planning seismic exploration in about 175 square miles for April 2019 and will work with the community to reduce impacts. No oil and gas resources have been developed in the federal waters of Lower Cook Inlet before. “In the Cook Inlet, as an industry, we have been responsibly developing oil and gas for over 60 years,” he said. “We can still do this, we can still do it responsibly the right way without upsetting the fishing, the water or the air.” Though companies are continuing to invest in infrastructure and exploration, Alaska continues to lag in oil production behind other states. Alaska Oil and Gas Association President and CEO Kara Moriarty said in her presentation at the Industry Outlook Forum that Texas far and away leads the U.S. in oil and production, with about 4.3 million barrels of oil produced per day. “If you looked at production today, it is up over 500,000 barrels per day, so we are definitely in fifth (place),” Moriarty said. “But we’ve been hanging onto fifth for over a year, probably, so we have lots of it, we are sitting fifth, and right now we’re producing about 5 percent of that record-breaking U.S. production.” Some of the slowing may have been connected to the legislative debates over oil and gas tax policy in the state, Moriarty said. However, the new administration of Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy has indicated that they have no intent of altering oil and gas tax policy, she said. “It’s very encouraging that we have an administration that is saying they want to be open for business and they’re sending that signal,” she said. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Vincent-Lang to focus on sustainability, trust and state control as commissioner

As the state administration turns over, most departments have a new face in the commissioner’s office. At the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, that’s only half true. Though Acting Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang is new to the commissioner’s office, he’s hardly new to the agency. He led the Division of Wildlife Conservation from 2012-14 and worked in various capacities with the department dating back to 1981. As soon as Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy was inaugurated, he named Vincent-Lang as his acting commissioner pending the approval of the joint boards of Fisheries and Game, who were scheduled to interview him on Jan. 16. Unlike other cabinet-level positions, commissioners of the departments of Fish and Game and Education must be recommended as qualified by the respective boards. Dunleavy is retaining Dr. Michael Johnson as the commissioner of Education. Although Dunleavy said he had “no clear preference” for commissioner, Vincent-Lang was the only applicant for the position. Should the board approve his candidacy, his name will be forwarded to the governor for confirmation by the Legislature. Stepping into the commissioner’s office isn’t necessarily a career move for Vincent-Lang, he said. “This is a challenging job,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge. I have two new grandkids and I enjoy spending quality time with my grandkids … I hope to find the best work-life balance.” As the commissioner, all decisions boil down to sustainable management of animals, Vincent-Lang said. One of the biggest challenges moving forward will be how to continue the department’s operations and management with declining funds from the state general fund, he said. ADFG has not taken as steep a general fund cut as other departments, but as oil prices remain low and the Legislature turns down other revenue options, departments are having to get creative on maintaining operations. At ADFG, that has meant reducing surveys and research projects and reducing some staff positions. On the sport fishing and hunting side, that decline has been buffered some by an increase in hunting and fishing licenses, allowing the department to draw down more federal dollars to support operations like weirs and boat launch maintenance. Vincent-Lang was involved in the push to increase in sport hunting and fishing license fees in 2015 and 2016. The effort was unique because it came from the stakeholders themselves, he said; it saw little opposition because the users saw the need to increase funding for management. “As we move forward, we’re going to have to figure that out on the commercial fishing side,” Vincent-Lang said. In the long term, the department also faces the challenge of how to draw more young people into hunting and fishing, both on the commercial and sport sides. Millennials purchase fewer sportfishing and hunting licenses than their elders; the American Sportfishing Association found that sportfishing licenses sales nationwide declined among people 18 to 34 between 1980 and 2011. That decline has affected Alaska, too, which is something the department needs to consider for the future, Vincent-Lang said. That also applies to the commercial fisheries, which are broadly experiencing a “graying of the fleet” as the average age of permit holders increases because the financial threshold of entry is too expensive for young fishermen. The commissioner also holds the responsibility of connecting the department staff to the boards of Fisheries and of Game. In his application letter to the joint boards, Vincent-Lang wrote that he supports the boards’ role in management and their citizen Advisory Committees, ensuring that they have “the best available information to inform their resource allocation decisions” and not impact sustainability. He also wrote that while science plays an important role in management decisions, it is not the only consideration. “These are public trust resources,” he said. “We’re scientific experts, but we can’t do that in a vacuum without gaining people’s trust. It’s a two-way street.” To that end, Vincent-Lang has already delegated a staff member specifically to help build relationships with the public on sportfishing and hunting issues: Rick Green, widely known as Rick Rydell, a longtime conservative radio host and former Anchorage Advisory Committee member. A major theme that Dunleavy heard while campaigning was a lack of public trust and frustration with ADFG’s decisions. Green was appointed a special assistant to the commissioner to work on that problem, Vincent-Lang said. “(Green) has a lot of different people that he knows across the state,” he said. “(He’ll work on) trying to rebuild that trust.” On the hunting side, one major issue the department will continue to press on is state control over regulations on game management. The state sued the federal Interior Department in January 2017 over new regulations restricting certain hunting methods on federal lands in national parks and preserves and specifically on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The state felt the rules interfered with the Board of Game’s ability to regulate game populations and, after pressure from Rep. Don Young in Congress in May 2017, the federal government began the process of reconsidering the regulations. If he’s confirmed as commissioner, Vincent-Lang said he would continue to press for state control over game management. “We are going to continue that battle, because we think they’re intruding on the state’s right to manage,” he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet sockeye forecast improves; kings closed in North

After two disappointing sockeye seasons in a row, the 2019 season may look up for Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s sockeye salmon forecast, published Jan. 4, predicts a total run of 6 million sockeye to Upper Cook Inlet stream systems, with an expected commercial harvest of 3 million and 1 million for sportfishing and subsistence harvest. If the forecast proves true, the run will be nearly double the 2018 run of 3.1 million. The Kenai River, the largest sockeye-producing river in the region, is projected to receive a run of about 3.8 million sockeye, the majority of which are the 1.3 age class (one year in freshwater, three years in saltwater). The Kasilof River, the second-largest producer, is projected to see about 873,000 sockeye come back, with a slight majority in the 1.3 age class. The Kenai’s forecast is greater than its 20-year average of 3.5 million, while the Kasilof’s is behind its 20-year average of 979,000 fish. The Susitna River is forecast to see about 343,000 sockeye come back, while Fish Creek is forecast with a run of 124,000 sockeye, according to ADFG. The Susitna’s forecast is less than its recent 20-year average return of 377,000, while Fish Creek’s is significantly greater than its 20-year average of 83,000. In salmon, age correlates to the size and weight of the fish. In the Kenai, the predominance of the 1.3 age class-fish tracks with the 20-year average, while the Kasilof’s 20-year average has seen more fish in the 1.2 age class. For the Susitna and Fish Creek, the predominant age class is forecast to be 1.2-age class fish, which falls in line with the 20-year average trend for Fish Creek. The Susitna River’s 20-year average usually sees more 1.3-age class fish than 1.2, according to ADFG. The commercial harvest is projected to be about 200,000 more than the 20-year average, and more than triple last year’s harvest of 800,000 sockeye. If the forecast holds true, it’ll be good news for Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen, who largely depend on sockeye salmon as their commercial species and have had two disappointing seasons in a row. Despite a sockeye run that turned out greater than the forecast in 2017, the commercial harvest came in about 1.8 million, which was close to the forecast but about 37 percent below the historical average in the fishery. The next year, a below-average forecast proved to be even worse than expected in 2018, with more than half the run arriving after Aug. 1 and commercial fishing management openings misaligned with the timing of the runs. By the end of the season, commercial fishermen had landed about $11 million worth of salmon, about 67 percent less than the previous 10-year average, according to ADFG’s 2018 season summary. The one exception was silver salmon, which arrived in large numbers late in the summer. “All species-specific exvessel values other than coho salmon were significantly below average in 2018 in UCI,” according to the 2018 season summary. Most of the failing was in two specific age classes — the age class 1.3 and 2.3 fish, also called “three-ocean” fish because they’ve spent one or two years in freshwater and three years at sea. The 1.3 age class fish returned at 10 percent of the forecasted level, while 2.3 fish returned at 50 percent, according to the season summary. Northern Cook Inlet closures Though sockeye forecasts in Upper Cook Inlet are looking up, the king salmon season in Northern Cook Inlet isn’t. ADFG announced preseason restrictions on Jan. 7 on king salmon fishing for sport, commercial and subsistence fisheries across the region, largely based on poor projected returns to the Deshka River. “The department must make these closures and restrictions because of a recent pattern of extremely poor returns for king salmon stocks in the NCI area,” said ADFG Acting Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang in the announcement. “The outlook for this season is particularly worrisome with the Deshka River king salmon forecast well below the escapement goal.” The Deshka River is an indicator stock for king salmon in the region. The forecast projects 8,466 king salmon between age classes 1.2 and 1.4 to return to the river, far less than the lower end of the sustainable escapement goal of 13,000 to 28,000 fish. Like other rivers across Alaska, the Northern Cook Inlet streams have seen declining king runs in the last decade; the forecast is about half of the recent 10-year average of 16,647 kings and less than a third of the long-term average of 31,416 kings, according to Fish and Game. The Susitna River, Yentna River and Little Susitna River drainages will be closed to sportfishing for kings, as will the directed commercial salmon fishery in Northern Cook Inlet. Subsistence fisheries, which receive a management priority, will be restricted to two days per week during the respective subsistence fishery seasons, according to the announcement. ADFG will monitor the runs and provide more fishing opportunity should the run warrant it, Vincent-Lang said in the announcement. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Disagreements remain after on-site cannabis consumption approved

Though Alaska’s cannabis business owners have received the green light for on-site consumption endorsements, there’s still division on the Marijuana Control Board and in the public on the issue. The board members passed regulations for on-site consumption at the Dec. 20 meeting on a 3-2 vote. Industry representatives Brandon Emmett and Nick Miller and public safety representative Jeff Ankerfelt, the Sitka Chief of Police, voted in favor, while public health representative Loren Jones and rural public member Mark Springer voted against. It was a flip across the table for Jones, who helped draft the language of the regulations the board was considering. Last April, when the board first considered regulatory language, Jones told the Journal that he felt the regulation language covered public safety and health concerns well and included various voices in the process. During the meeting, he reversed and said he did not think the regulations went far enough and that to approve on-site consumption now would be a “terrible, terrible mistake for us to make moving forward on this.” “I worked on this with Mr. Emmett, and I was clear to him and clear to everybody else that if this were to pass, I wanted to have something that was enforceable and workable,” he said. “I think we went a long way … but I don’t think we’ve gone far enough.” Atop concerns about the definition of “public space,” Jones said he didn’t think the regulations as written would sufficiently protect people from the effects of secondhand smoke. Earlier in the meeting, he also raised concerns about the ability of citizens in unincorporated areas to protest on-site endorsements from being granted, as they do not have a local government to formally protest or opt out. Like commercial cannabis operations, local governments of cities or boroughs are allowed to opt out of allowing on-site consumption within their boundaries. Though much of the support came from the tourist industry, with business owners seeking a place for tourists to legally smoke cannabis, Jones said there were mixed feelings in Juneau about encouraging cannabis tourism. “We’re expecting 1.3 million tourists come off the cruise ships (in Juneau) next year,” he said. “About 90 percent of the tourists who come to Alaska come through Juneau. I don’t know that Juneau or the state of Alaska wants to be known as a cannabis tourist destination. Most of the people come up to us wanting the clean air, clean water. They want to do the wilderness … In my community, we have a very strong indoor air ordinance that we’re going to maintain.” Springer agreed with Jones, saying he gave weight to the comments of public health officials, joining Jones in voting against. While many hailed the vote as a victory for Alaska’s cannabis industry, which would be the first state to develop retail on-site consumption, there was broad opposition from public health professionals and from the public. Within the board, Miller and Emmett supported clarifying rules for retailers, who under the approved rules would not be able to sell more than a certain amount of marijuana to an individual per day. In a large retail setting, with multiple employees working, that will be difficult to track, he said. “We’re not allowed to keep customer data,” he said. “How do I know if someone came in this morning and came in at 3? I understand that that is not the intent … but is it still a violation? There’s just no way for the retailer to understand it at this time.” The board voted down Miller’s proposed amendment to remove the daily limit clause 3-2, with Emmett and Miller supporting it. Other members cited concerns that removing the language would allow people to buy too much in a single day. Under the current requirements, several of the areas that requested it — notably, downtown Juneau — most likely won’t see on-site consumption areas soon. The regulations the board passed require a retail store to be freestanding to apply for an endorsement, meaning there are no other establishments in the building, and have proper ventilation systems for the smoke. That likely won’t apply to anywhere in downtown Juneau, which is densely developed, Jones said. Springer agreed, saying there will likely be a small number of retailers who meet the requirements. “I think it will be a boon to a relatively small number of people who developed their original facilities with this in mind,” Springer said. “There are a lot of retailers that this is going to do nothing for. It’s not an across-the-board benefit.” The American Lung Association’s Alaska chapter, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Public Health and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network wrote letters opposing the approval of on-site consumption, all citing concerns about the impact of secondhand smoke particularly and the recently passed smoke-free workplace law, which requires all smoking activity to occur outside of places of employment. “Secondhand smoke from combusted marijuana contains fine particulate matter that can be breathed deeply into the lungs, which can cause lung irritation, asthma attacks, and makes users more vulnerable to respiratory infections,” the American Lung Association’s letter states. “Exposure to fine particulate matter can exacerbate health problems, especially for people with respiratory conditions like asthma, bronchitis, or COPD. Secondhand smoke from marijuana has many of the same chemicals as smoke from tobacco, including those linked to lung cancer.” Advocates wrote that the public health studies cited are not reputable about the carcinogenic effects of marijuana smoke and that blocking on-site. Consumption areas just push smokers into their own homes, where they expose their families and roommates. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Southeast purse seiners to hold another permit buyback vote

Southeast Alaska purse seine fishermen are preparing to vote on another permit buyback, with an eye toward making the fishery more viable in an era of more efficient vessels and smaller salmon runs. The National Marine Fisheries Service is scheduled to send out ballots to fishermen starting Jan. 15 asking whether the fleet should take on $10.1 million in federal loans to buy out 36 permits, removing them from the fishery forever. If successful, the move would reduce the number of permits in the fishery to 279, down about 100 permits since 2012. Like many things in the U.S. right now, the vote may be delayed as a consequence of the ongoing federal shutdown because most NMFS employees are on furlough. Pending the resolution of the budget battles in Congress, proponents of the buyback are hoping to get the ball rolling soon. This would be the second buyback since the loan program was authorized by Congress in 2006, and so far, it’s been successful from the perspective of the fleet, said Bob Kehoe, the executive director of the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association. “I think it’s been successful; we’ve removed permits,” he said. “We’ve been able to generate more than enough revenue to service the loan. The service rate has been decreased.” The purse seine permit buyback program in Southeast is something of an outlier; it’s a federally authorized loan program to buy back state-issued fishery permits. The Southeast Revitalization Association, a group of stakeholders formed to pursue the buyback, worked with former Sen. Ted Stevens to pass the authority through Congress, establish a floor for the number of permits with the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission and communicate with permit holders. The first fleet capacity reduction buyback happened in 2008, outside the loan program, through a federal grant. In 2008, about 415 permits existed in the fishery, though only about 200 were fished, according to information in the Federal Register. The Southeast Revitalization Association used a reverse auction to purchase 35 permits in 2008, reducing the capacity to 380. After the buyback program was authorized, NMFS worked with SRA to request bids for permits on a $13.1 million loan, which the fleet approved to buy about 64 permits. Kehoe said the original interest in fleet capacity reduction was because of very poor prices for salmon. “There was a lot of (pink and chum) salmon available for harvest, but the prices were so low that it was hard for people to make a living,” he said. “There was very little competition among the processing sector, and so it worked fine for the processors having more capacity than was needed for harvest, but it wasn’t working for fishermen. Back in the early 2000s, there were some fishermen that couldn’t even find a market to sell their fish.” With about $10.1 million remaining on the loan authority after the first buyback, the SRA asked for other bids to further reduce the size of the fishery. In 2016, after receiving 22 bids and asking the fleet if they cared to move forward with the buyback, the fleet voted it down and sent the second round of the buyback back to the drawing board. Susan Doherty, the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association, said the vote didn’t fail by much in 2016, but many ballots weren’t returned and communication efforts about the buyback were low. Neither the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association nor the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association boards of directors chose to take a position on the 2016 buyback and thus didn’t reach out to permit holders about the vote. The vote also took place over the Christmas holiday when people may have been away from home and did not see the ballots. “Last time there were several issues with the process,” she said. “We didn’t do enough with encouraging folks to return their ballots. Anything that’s not returned is an automatic ‘no’ vote.” This would be the last buyback for the foreseeable future, given that it would use up the remaining loan authority, Doherty said. The 279 remaining permits would still be greater than the floor of 260 set by the CFEC, which is the level at which it would be too exclusive. For the fishermen, it’s primarily an economic decision, Doherty said — the average vessel earnings in 2016 was $65,000. For scale, the average permit value at the end of 2016 was $163,400, according to the CFEC. The fleet now has several seasons of extremely poor runs under its belt since 2016, so that may increase interest in voting for the buyback, said Dan Castle, a seine vessel owner and the president of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association board. “I think this time, after a few more mediocre to poor years, we have a full slate of people willing to extinguish their permits, and it will also extinguish all the money,” he said. “I think we have a much better chance of making the case … it’s going to grab more than 10 percent of the fleet. That’ll be permits that are not going to be fished, whether they’re latent or not … it’s going to be better.” Castle said the buyback program was unique to start and required jumping through a “containerload of hoops to approve.” One of the effects of the program, though, has been to overall increase the quality of the fleet, he said. Older boats, ready to retire anyway, left the fishery, and other concerns that people brought up over the buyback have proved to be non-issues, he said. One motivation for permit holders currently fishing is the hope to keep opportunistic fishermen from returning and ballooning the size of the fleet again when the runs return to larger numbers, he said. Overall, he said he’s more optimistic about the vote this time. “We’ve dispelled a lot of myths over the years,” he said. “Everybody’s familiar with how the process works. We have a lot better understanding in the fleet. This is going to be it … People can see the benefits of squashing the fleet down a little bit. We’re so efficient now, compared to how it was when the first issued the permit program.” The buyback program works as a reverse auction, with each bidder asking a price to be bought out, but the average price per permit would be about $280,555 if the loan is approved. At the end of 2018, the average value for a permit was $195,000, down from an average value of $307,000 in 2014, according to the CFEC. Kehoe said the price is based on bids, but there may some speculation going on as permit holders try to maximize the return based on the loan amount available. “You’re asking people to give up a permit that has value forever and then the permits that will remain assuming the fishery bounces back will have a higher value,” he said. “People are free to put in their bid amount. These permit prices change constantly. It could be when we put this program together, the permit values were higher. If you look at the permit prices now, you’re just coming off two consecutive poor seasons. In order to make this work, you’re going to have to remove permits.” Doherty said the value of permits may also be pushed down currently because people aren’t eager to get into a fishery that’s been hurting for the past several years. Addressing concerns The Alaska Department of Fish and Game raised concerns to NMFS about the reduction in the size of the fishery just before the 2016 buyback vote, according to a letter from former commissioner Sam Cotten dated Dec. 6, 2016. The letter raised concerns about the lack of fishery impact analysis after the 2008 and 2012 buybacks and the buyback increasing the value of permits, making it harder for new fishermen to buy into the fishery, exacerbating the problem of high entry costs blocking younger fishermen entering the fleet, among other concerns. “We are troubled by the lack of analysis informing this process, the lack of objective and measurable goals with which to measure the relative success of these buybacks, the potential impacts of this action, and the commensurate constitutional implications,” Cotten wrote. Castle said that the SRA worked with the CFEC based on fleet size concerns and exclusivity, and if the fishery is judged to be too exclusive, the state can always issue more permits. To pay for the loan, fishermen pay a levy to processors at the dock, who then pay the federal government. So far, the ex-vessel value has also proved itself able to service the loans, with NMFS lowering the loan service rate because the applied rate was generating more revenue than needed. The vote is currently scheduled to run from Jan. 15 to Feb. 14. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Work continues on federal plan for Cook Inlet salmon

More than two years after a court ruling ordered the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to develop a management plan for the Cook Inlet salmon fishery, a stakeholder group has made a first set of recommendations. The council convened a Cook Inlet Salmon Committee last year composed of five stakeholders to meet and offer recommendations before the council officially amends the Fishery Management Plan, or FMP, for the drift gillnet salmon fishery in Upper Cook Inlet, which occurs partially in federal waters. The committee presented a report with three main findings: first, that the fishery be managed cooperatively with the State of Alaska; second, that the committee schedule another meeting before the April 2019 council meeting; and third, that fishery participants be prohibited from retaining groundfish. The council went into rewriting the FMP for Cook Inlet unwillingly. The whole battle began in 2012 when the council voted unanimously to pass Amendment 12 to the existing Cook Inlet FMP, which essentially delegated all management authority for the fishery to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, along with the management of two other salmon fisheries in Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula. The Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund and the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, the trade group for the drift gillnet fleet in the area, sued the National Marine Fisheries Service to restore the FMP to the fishery. After losing in the U.S. District Court of Alaska, the groups prevailed at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in fall 2016. The ruling went back before the council in April 2017, at which point the council decided to move forward with developing an FMP for Cook Inlet first before dealing with the other two areas, whose trade representatives said the fishermen would prefer to remain under state management. The UCIDA plaintiffs have long argued that the state’s management through escapement goals and allocations among sport, subsistence and commercial user groups has led to overly restrictive fishing regulations and left large numbers of salmon harvested beyond what’s necessary for biological escapement. The management plans are created by the Board of Fisheries and implemented by the Department of Fish and Game. The groups expressed frustration at the state’s management regime, saying it violates the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s mandate to manage fisheries for the maximum sustainable yield by leading to foregone harvest and overescapement of salmon they argue reduces future returns. Some of the committee members agreed with UCIDA about the use of escapement goals, according to the committee’s report to the council. “Some members of the Committee objected to escapement based analyses in general and urged movement toward alternative methods, however, no scientifically viable alternative methods were identified,” the report states. “… There were comments about other environmental factors that could contribute to variation in numbers of recruits including diminishing habitat quantity and quality.” In general, the state manages salmon fisheries in Alaska. In many areas, they occur primarily around rivers or near land, placing them in state waters — those waters within three nautical miles of shore. Direct federal management of salmon fisheries, then, presents a number of thorny issues. A primary hangup was a clause in the MSA referring to managing a fish stock “throughout its range” — in the case of salmon, that means inland harvest on rivers. Additionally, unlike groundfish, salmon reproduce in freshwater, which is within state jurisdiction inland. In this case, the FMP would apply to federal waters only, not extending inland. During the committee meeting, the group pointed out that state and federal regulatory areas don’t align, either, so it would have to be clarified which catches were in federal waters and which were in state waters. Additionally, monitoring for salmon runs is largely done with in-stream sonar or weir systems administered by ADFG. In Cook Inlet, ADFG also operates an offshore test fishery near Anchor Point that measures abundance of salmon running into the inlet in the summer. The federal government managers would rely on that data, given that no other data measures are established for abundance, unlike the regular surveys done for other kinds of groundfish. In many federal fisheries, as well, observer coverage is required, which would be tricky and burdensome for many of the small boat fishermen that fish in the Upper Cook Inlet drift fishery. Some difficulty also lies ahead in determining a method for stock status determination for the Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery, which is a mixed-stock fishery. Salmon stocks don’t work the same as many groundfish species, so determining harvest thresholds, stock status and other federal fishery guidelines will require some discussion, the report notes. The committee agreed to recommend that the council pursue cooperative management with the state, but plans to look into other options for recommendations, according to the report. “Some of these approaches may include indexes, CPUE (catch per unit effort), and historic catch,” the report states. “There was also interest in Committee review of Pacific Council management approaches for salmon.” To avoid additional permit complication and because the drift fishery is relatively “clean” — meaning the nets in general don’t catch many groundfish, which are the other federal managed finfish species in Cook Inlet — the committee agreed to also recommend prohibiting groundfish harvest in the fishery and to use eLandings, an electronic catch reporting tool. The council passed a motion noting the committee should meet again before the April 2019 council meeting, making recommendation on “appropriate recordkeeping and reporting requirements, standardized bycatch reporting methodologies, and to further develop its recommendations on status determination criteria at its next meeting.” UCIDA itself is not happy with the committee process. In a public comment submitted to the council on the topic, UCIDA President David Martin wrote that the committee’s membership is not structured the way UCIDA has been requesting for years, excluding the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund entirely, and has been handed a “truncated” task that will not be meaningful. “UCIDA had hoped that the Salmon Committee might be a step in the right direction toward addressing the underlying problems in the fishery,” Martin wrote. “But the narrow task of the Committee and its limited composition preclude that result. UCIDA will participate in the Committee proceedings, but it does so with these fundamental objections clearly stated.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Year in Review: A dismal year for salmon and halibut in the Gulf, Bristol Bay booms, battles over hatcheries

This summer was a disappointment for salmon fishermen across the Gulf of Alaska, both in the timing and in the numbers. Salmon fishermen from Kodiak to Southeast saw poor harvests and poor profits this year due to unexpectedly small runs of sockeye, king and pink salmon. Copper River fishermen rang the first alarm bells when unprecedentedly small sockeye catches were coming into the docks. In response to escapement concerns, managers shut down the fishery in June for a string of days. The fishery reopened in mid-July when the number of sockeye passing the sonar at Miles Lake was strong enough to merit it, and fishermen managed to scrape together enough of a harvest by the end of the season to avoid complete disaster. Not so for Chignik over on the Alaska Peninsula. The run to the Chignik River and Chignik Lagoon never really materialized, and for the first time, neighboring fisheries had to be restricted to control escapement to Chignik. The fishery only opened for a handful of hours, and those hours brought dismal fishing success. The preliminary harvest estimate for the area came to 128 fish, less than 1/10,000 of 1 percent of the average harvest. Before the summer was even out, the Board of Fisheries and Gov. Bill Walker had declared disasters for the fishery on Aug. 23, triggering state relief efforts for the area to help offset the losses. In Cook Inlet, too, the sockeye run baffled and frustrated all user groups. Poor sockeye returns to the Kenai River up through early July led to days of closures in the commercial fishery, restrictions and eventual closures in the sportfishery and the early closure of the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery. Then, for only the second time since the sonar was put in place, more than half of the Kenai River’s sockeye run came in after Aug. 1. Fishery management plans backfired because they were timed to dates, and though the run did eventually end the season within the escapement goal, commercial fishermen particularly were frustrated by the restrictions hampering their ability to harvest silver, pink and chum salmon still returning to the inlet. The Upper Cook Inlet drift fleet is seeking support for a disaster declaration as well. Though there’s no definitive data supporting it, fisheries managers and fishermen have pointed to the warm water anomaly in the North Pacific Ocean from 2015–17, nicknamed “the Blob,” as a possible factor in the poor sockeye and king salmon returns. No. 2: Records smashed in Bristol Bay, Norton Sound While their Gulf of Alaska colleagues nursed their hurting wallets, Bristol Bay and Norton Sound salmon fishermen were busy hauling in heavy net after heavy net, loaded down with historic high numbers of sockeye and pink salmon. Bristol Bay marked a total inshore run of 62.3 million sockeye, the largest run since 1893 and 69 percent more than the recent 20-year average. The total harvest of 41.3 million was the second highest on record, and the ex-vessel value of $281 million was more than 242 percent above the preseason forecasted value, in part due to much higher-than-usual prices. The only thing some Bristol Bay runs had in common with the Gulf of Alaska runs was that they were later than usual — about 10 days later, in some cases. That delay helped the processors keep up with such a high harvest. Farther north, Norton Sound area fishermen also smashed their harvest and exvessel value records. The total value of $4 million knocked out the previous record of $3.5 million, and the 260,000 silver salmon harvest set a new record. A total of 155 permits were fished in 2018 as well, up from a low of 12 in 2002 and the highest number since 1987. Unlike elsewhere in Alaska, the Nome River saw a massive run of pink salmon — 3.2 million, about double the previous record of 1.6 million. There isn’t much of a market for pink salmon there yet, though, so many of them weren’t harvested. No. 3: Hatchery battles at the Board of Fisheries Amid concerns about the sustainability of salmon runs across the Gulf of Alaska, salmon hatcheries had to repeatedly defend themselves before the Board of Fisheries as a group of stakeholders and sportfishing groups sought to limit their operations. The battles began in May, when a group of sportfishing groups led by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association sought to block a pink salmon egg take increase by the Valdez Development Fishery Association, citing straying concerns from Prince William Sound pink salmon into Lower Cook Inlet streams and carrying capacity in the Gulf of Alaska. The Board of Fisheries turned down a request for an emergency petition relating to the hatcheries, and again shot it down in July, saying it didn’t meet the criteria for an emergency petition. The Kenai River Sportfishing Association brought it back again at the board’s October work session, where the board heard hours of presentations from Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff about the function of hatcheries and ultimately decided not to act on the proposal but would continue to meet on hatcheries in the future. No. 4: Halibut hardships, falling quotas and prices Unable to agree on how to cut harvest, the International Pacific Halibut Commission ended its January meeting with no joint decision on quotas for the U.S. and Canadian halibut fisheries. Each country independently set its limits, with the caveat that they could not be higher than the previous year’s quota. The argument arose after a stock status report showed a precipitous decline in harvestable biomass in North Pacific Ocean halibut stocks, recommending that quotas be cut to preserve halibut stocks in the future from becoming overfished. That decline, more than 20 percent, comes after years of declining size and abundance of halibut. The stock status report for 2018, released at the commission’s interim meeting in December, showed yet another decline of about 7.5 percent across the entire survey area. The commission is due to meet in January in Vancouver to resume the discussion about what to do about halibut harvests. Halibut fishermen are feeling the pinch, both in volume in price. At the beginning of the season, fishermen were getting about $4.50–$5.50 per pound at the dock, down from about $7 at the beginning of the 2017 season. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute connected the lower prices to existing supply, an increase of supply from Atlantic halibut fisheries and price fatigue among consumers. Most of Alaska’s Pacific halibut is consumed domestically, with some consumed in Canada, Europe and Southeast Asia as well. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Only one applicant for ADFG chief

Members of the boards of Fisheries and Game will meet jointly Jan. 16 to choose an applicant to forward to Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy for the commissioner’s seat, but it likely won’t be a long meeting with just one applicant. Doug Vincent-Lang, whom Dunleavy appointed as Acting Commissioner on Dec. 4, was the only person to submit an application to be the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He previously worked with the department from 1999–2014, last serving as the director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation. In his application to the board, he outlined his wildlife management philosophy, including preserving fish and wildlife for public use, sustainable population management and maximum sustained yield. Maximum sustained yield is embedded in the state constitution, requiring fish and wildlife managers to manage populations for the maximum benefit of Alaska’s residents. “I would exert the authorities of the Commissioner and recognize and work within the authorities of publicly appointed Boards and Commissions,” he wrote. “I believe that sustained yield can have different targets depending upon the population. Many, if not most of, Alaska’s fish and wildlife populations should be managed for their maximum sustained yield, including many of our salmon and ungulate populations. “Other populations, such as rainbow trout and some predator populations, should be managed for some other level of optimized yield different from maximum sustained yield.” He also wrote that while officials should listen to the advice of ADFG scientists, scientists should not be making policy decisions. “In short, science would inform my decisions, but not make them,” he wrote. “I recognize that there are many other inputs into the decision process than science only.” Vincent-Lang has been involved in a wide variety of projects in his time with ADFG, including leading a research group on the since-scrapped Susitna River hydroelectric project, working on legislation to require sportfish guide licensing and leading a team that developed a strategic plan for the Division of Sport Fish. Leadership at the ADFG has historically been fairly contentious. In 2015, five people applied for the seat, with former governor Bill Walker’s choice Sam Cotten ultimately winning the Joint Board’s approval; in past years, more than a dozen people have applied. By law, the joint boards interview and vet the applicants, forwarding an applicant to the governor for his approval before the nominee is forwarded to the Legislature for confirmation. The joint boards are scheduled to meet in Anchorage on Jan. 16, with comments due Jan. 7. Because the Board of Game is meeting in Petersburg just prior to that, the members will travel to Anchorage in time for the meeting to begin at 7 p.m., or if weather delays their travel, the meeting will be delayed or rescheduled for a following day, according to the notice, issued Dec. 18. Meanwhile, as acting commissioner, Vincent-Lang made three key appointments on Dec. 14: Benjamin Mulligan as deputy commissioner, Edward Grasser as director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation and Rick Green as a special assistant to the commissioner. Mulligan previously worked for Fish and Game from 2010–15 as a special assistant and holds a bachelor’s degree in fisheries biology from the University of Wyoming. Most recently, he served as the vice president of the Alaska Chamber. He also previously worked on staff for former Mat-Su Rep. Bill Stoltze, including as chief of staff. Grasser has served as the vice president of the Safari Club International since 2013 and worked as a lobbyist and activist on Alaska wildlife issues for decades. He has also worked with the Alaska Outdoor Council, the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Federation and the Outdoor Heritage Foundation of Alaska. He previously worked in the department as a special assistant from 2005-06, and Vincent-Lang listed him as a professional reference in his application for commissioner. Green, who is better known as conservative radio host Rick Rydell, broadcast his program until accepting the program. He will be charged with outreach to stakeholders, according to the press release. “Green will work closely with the state’s hunters and fishers to improve communication and build trust,” the release states. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Tighter restrictions for charter halibut likely in 2019

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved preliminary regulations for the halibut charter sector in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska during its recent meeting in Anchorage, but the final rules still depend on what the International Pacific Halibut Commission decides about quotas. The council members approved measures to outline fishing time and retention in regulatory areas 2C and 3A, depending on the final limits determined by the International Pacific Halibut Commission this January. In area 2C, which encompasses Southeast Alaska, the proposed limit is a reverse slot limit of one fish per day either shorter than 38 inches or longer than 80 inches. In area 3A, which encompasses the Central Gulf of Alaska between Yakutat and the Alaska Peninsula, the restrictions will be a little looser than in Southeast. Charter anglers are allowed to keep two fish per day with a four-fish annual limit, with one fish capped at a maximum of 28 inches long. Additionally, there won’t be any fish retention on Wednesdays. While the Southeast charter sector was about 10 percent less than its allocation limit in 2018, the Central Gulf charter sector exceeded its limits, running about 4 percent over its allocation. Some of the restrictions proposed by the council are meant to help bring that sector back in line, such as closing additional Tuesdays. In an analysis provided to the council, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game outlined how halibut harvest would drop with each additional closed Tuesday — at the high end, if all Tuesdays were closed, it would drop about 8.2 percent. At status quo, charter operators would lose about six Tuesdays through the season, plus Wednesdays being entirely closed. However, even if management and effort stay status quo, total catch may still drop because all areas are showing a decline in harvest per unit of effort, or HPUE, according to the ADFG analysis. “The weighted average HPUE forecast for Area 3A overall is 1.18 halibut per angler-trip,” the analysis states. “Glacier Bay, Yakutat, North Gulf Coast, and Kodiak subareas had HPUEs of less than 1 halibut per angler-trip, reflecting the lower retention of second fish in the bag limit in those areas.” Due to falling halibut abundance in the Gulf of Alaska and near Southeast, the council has been adding more regulations and cutting allocations in an attempt to protect the stocks. This year, the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s stock status report showed yet another drop in biomass — 7 percent in the Gulf of Alaska and 15 percent in the Southeast area. The commission will meet in January to discuss final quota setting, but with decreasing biomass, fishermen may see yet another cut across both the charter and commercial sectors. Under the reference catch levels for 2019, all Tuesdays could be opened and there wouldn’t be a need for any other closed days, according to the analysis. The council’s Charter Halibut Management Committee supported the regulations the council ultimately adopted, noting that if the IPHC’s allocation came in ultimately greater than 2.023 million pounds, the managers could increase the lower end of the over-under limit to 30 inches from 28 inches. The committee also urged the members to opt for a more conservative management regime for area 3A than is technically necessary. The committee noted in its minutes that its members also recommended more conservative regulations for the area in 2018, which the council members did not ultimately approve. Many of those who submitted comments noted that while they didn’t love the additional restrictions, they understood the necessity for conservation. Multiple commenters touched on a frustration that the council has yet to address: the lack of comparable restrictions on private angler and subsistence halibut harvest. Matt Kopec, owner of Whittier Marine Charters and Whittier Boat Rentals and serves on the Charter Halibut Management Committee, noted that his area has seen a significant increase in private boat traffic. “From what I have seen, private boaters are far more successful in harvesting halibut than rental boat customers,” he wrote in a letter to the council. “They fish much more and they’ve simply gotten good at it. While I’m still not sure that current data suggests that any restriction is needed, they should be considered before stricter regulations are placed on guided anglers, especially if you’re looking at limiting the catch of anglers on rental boats. Perhaps a new ‘sport’ allocation for all sport anglers that is linked to abundance would be a clean and simple answer.” Noting those concerns from users, the council has discussed actions to regulate the halibut boat rental business, in which businesses rent boats to private anglers without a guide so they are not subject to the charter sector restrictions. A private angler may keep two fish of any size per day. The Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles already requires registration of motor boats, so the council members have debated whether to add more regulations to keep a closer watch on the sector, including aligning the bag limits on both. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Dismal outlook for Stikine, Taku king salmon continues in 2019

Poor king salmon runs predicted for the Stikine and Taku rivers in Southeast Alaska are prompting “extreme conservation” measures, likely resulting in less fishing time for commercial and recreational fishermen. The Stikine is expected to see a terminal run of 8,250 large fish, while the Taku is expected to see a run of 9,050 large fish, according to the forecast published by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Nov. 30. Neither run is large enough to meet the allowable catch by the U.S. or Canada and both are less than the lower end of the escapement goal ranges. On the Stikine, the escapement goal range is 14,000 to 28,000 large fish; on the Taku, it’s 19,000 to 36,000 fish. ADFG allowed a commercial opening in 2016 on the Stikine after years of struggling runs, held in May. The 2017 season brought restrictions but no full closures for sport fishing on the Stikine. The 2018 forecast again came out poor with no king salmon fishing allowed on either the Stikine or the Taku for kings. The Taku River king run has been struggling for years, hitting its record low in 2016. It was closed to directed fisheries from 1974-2004, until larger runs prompted openings in 2005, according to ADFG. Recent years have brought more low runs, leading to restrictions and closures for king salmon fishing across Southeast Alaska. ADFG managers could not be reached for comment as of deadline. The Taku and Stikine are two of the 12 “indicator” stocks listed by ADFG, or king salmon runs the department watches to track the regional health of king salmon runs in Alaska. The indicator stock project began as part of the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative, a massive statewide project that arose under Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration following major declines in king salmon returns starting around 2007. The program’s funding was eliminated as the state budget was cut since oil prices started falling in 2014. Both the Stikine and Taku are transboundary rivers, which begin in Canada and pass through Southeast Alaska on their way to the ocean. As such, their salmon runs are subject to the Pacific Salmon Treaty, negotiated between the U.S. and Canada. The fisheries are managed by abundance rather than by hard caps, allowing the managers to adjust for the size of the run. The two countries reached an agreement for another 10-year extension of the treaty Sept. 18, depending on both fleets allowing more king salmon through to Canada: a 7.5 percent reduction for Alaska and a 12.5 percent reduction for Canada. The final agreement was sent to both governments for final approval. Southeast Alaska fishermen have had several tough salmon seasons in a row. Record low abundances of king salmon led to early closures in 2017 and restrictions and poor fishing in 2018. On top of that, Southeast fishermen have had three poor pink salmon harvests in a row — 2016 brought disastrously low returns and 2017 was an off year with lower numbers. This summer, however, was even worse than 2016. Significantly less than preseason forecasts, the pink salmon harvest was the lowest in decades. The upcoming 2019 season is predicted to be a weak run as well, in part based on low numbers of juveniles in 2018 connected to poor survival among the 2017 brood year. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Survey again shows drop in halibut stocks in Gulf of Alaska

Things aren’t looking good for many Alaska halibut fishermen next year, though official quota limit decisions are still to come. The 2018 stock status report presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission at its interim meeting on Nov. 27 shows yet another drop in the biomass of Pacific halibut in the North Pacific — about 7 percent down from the 2017 fishery-independent setline survey. That doesn’t mean every single region dropped, as it’s an average, but Alaska’s three main areas of effort — 2C, the entirety of Region 3, and Region 4 excluding the western Aleutian Islands — all dropped. The most significant drop was in Area 2, which stretches from northern California to Southeast, falling 15 percent. Region 3, which stretches across the Gulf of Alaska out to the Alaska Peninsula, fell 7 percent. Halibut stocks dropped year-over-year from the late 1990s through 2011, when it appears to have stabilized, according to the report. “That trend is estimated to have been largely a result of decreasing size-at-age, as well as somewhat weaker recruitment strengths than those observed during the 1980s,” the report states. The spawning female biomass stabilized in 2011, increasing the stock through 2016, with a projected spawning biomass of 190 million pounds at the beginning of 2019. Researchers are linking the fluctuations with favorable ocean conditions in connection with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, an ocean temperature trend correlated with fisheries regimes. Historically, conditions were favorable from 1978–2006 and poor from 2007–13, with more positive indications from 2014 through October 2018. However, that’s not the only variable playing into ocean conditions for halibut in the North Pacific. Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska jumped in 2015 and remained anomalously high for several years, earning the warm water mass the nickname “the Blob,” and wreaking widespread havoc on fish stocks and leading to uncertainty for forecasters. “Many other environmental indicators, current and temperature patterns have been anomalous relative to historical periods and therefore historical patterns of productivity related to the (Pacific Decadal Oscillation) may not be relevant to the most recent few years,” the report states. Though conditions have been favorable, the cohorts from 2006–10 were smaller than the prior few years, which will affect abundance as time goes on and those age cohorts become a more significant part of the fishery. The International Pacific Halibut Commission will set its quota limits at its annual meeting in January. Last year, when the stock status led to recommendations for significant cuts to harvest, the commissioners could not come to an agreement and decided to have the U.S. and Canada set their fisheries limits independently, though no higher than the previous year. The stock status report doesn’t make direct recommendations for fishing limits but projects how fisheries limits will impact the population. For all total constant exploitation yield amounts, or TCEY — all halibut mortality for fish longer than 26 inches, including bycatch and research kills — more than 20 million pounds, the stock is project to decline from 2019–21. At the status quo TCEY of 37.2 million pounds total, there’s a 30 percent chance of a stock decline of at least 5 percent in 2019 that climbs to a 79 percent chance by 2022, according to the report. Total mortality of Pacific halibut in 2018 was about 38.7 million pounds. The commercial halibut catch, though — about 23.5 million pounds — was actually an all-time low for the last 10 years, according to the report. Bycatch mortality fell to 6.1 million pounds, the lowest since the arrival of foreign fishing fleets in 1962. Mortality from recreational catches was down as well, about 5 percent lower than 2017. The International Pacific Halibut Commission is scheduled hold its full annual meeting from Jan. 28–Feb. 1 in Victoria, British Columbia. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Board of Fisheries to take closer look at Nushagak king salmon plan

The Board of Fisheries passed a proposal to take a chunk out of the king salmon management plan on the Nushagak River, with plans to form a work group to keep discussing user group conflict on the river. At its meeting in Dillingham dealing with proposals related to the Bristol Bay finfish fisheries on Dec. 2, the board members approved a proposal that amends the management plan for the king salmon run on the Nushagak and Mulchatna rivers. Several clauses in the plan link closures in the commercial sockeye salmon fishery in the Nushagak District, salmon fishing closures on the Nushagak River and limited subsistence fishing periods if the projected spawning escapement is less than 55,000 kings, the lower end of the river’s escapement goal. The updated proposal repeals a number of numeric escapement-based trigger points that close fisheries based on the king salmon passage in the river. The original proposal, submitted by Brian Kraft, would have limited commercial fishing openings in the Nushagak District to no more than 12 hours of fishing per day when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Sport Fish issues emergency orders restricting the sport fishery, among other restrictions. In his rationale, he wrote that the burden to conserve king salmon is currently on sportfishermen. “The impact on the number of chinook making it in river is immediately diminished when commercial openers happen,” he wrote. “This is not intended by the (commercial fisherman), but it happens. We need help in preserving the Nushagak chinook run. When the chinook run falls below acceptable escapement numbers, the sport fishery is restricted or potentially closed, yet (commercial fishing) openings remain aggressive. “The commercial fishery in the Nushagak district, although targeting sockeye, certainly has a by-catch or interception of chinook bound for the Nushagak.” The Nushagak River, which flows into Bristol Bay just south of Dillingham, hosts a vibrant king salmon sportfishery. Nearby, the commercial sockeye salmon fishery brings in on average 6.4 million sockeye each summer. This year, a banner year for Bristol Bay, the fishermen in the Nushagak District landed about 24.1 million salmon, according to ADFG. Adding to the complexity of managing the return is a noted inaccuracy in the sonar counter in the Nushagak River, which ADFG acknowledges. In public comments, Michael Link of the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute noted that recent mark-recapture and acoustic tagging studies found that the sonar was undercounting king salmon by variable degrees. “In 2017, low early-season sonar-based king salmon passage estimates triggered restrictions on harvest opportunities; subsequent examination of all information suggested the estimates were probably about 50 percent lower than actual,” Link wrote in his comments. “Although the restrictions helped increase king salmon escapement, skepticism grew among users about misplaced certainty in the assessment information.” ADFG staff opposed the original proposal because it would tie the department’s hands, said Tim Sands, the area management biologist for the Nushagak District. The board amended the proposal to remove sections based on sonar passage numbers, which the ADFG staff then supported, said Forrest Bowers, the director of the Division of Commercial Fisheries. “There’s some work going on to refine the sonar project,” Bowers said. “We have some concerns about the accuracy of the count there, whether we’re accurately assessing the size of the Nushagak run. This plan has some prescriptive triggers that may not be warranted based on the accuracy of our assessment tool.” Board member Israel Payton noted that the proposal reduces complexity and gives the Division of Sport Fish more flexibility to protect king salmon stocks based on abundance. He also noted that members of the public had requested the Nushagak River’s king salmon management plan be revisited, especially as ADFG has not planned to reassess the escapement goal. “The plan has some arbitrary in-river trigger points that aren’t really biological; in my mind, they’re kind of an allocative trigger point,” he said. “It gets rid of those trigger points but still allows the department to manage for the sustainable escapement goal … once again, this doesn’t tie the hands of any commercial fish manager, and in my mind, allow a little more flexibility for the sport fishing manager, or all the manages.” Board member Robert Ruffner noted that the amendment to the original proposal arose from a board member and stakeholder meeting but that there would be further work on the issue. “Our anticipation is that over the next 18 months or so, we’re going to work on this, and there is the possibility of bringing something up out of cycle to further flesh this out a little bit,” he said. “That’s part of what we’re trying to work through here.” A charge statement submitted on Dec. 2 would create a temporary committee to review fisheries recommendations to the board “on a comprehensive solution.” In the meeting between board members and stakeholders, attendees recognized uncertainty in sonar data and restrictions in the sportfishery without restrictions in the commercial fishery as continuing issues. ADFG will work with a stakeholder-led study team to review data on the Nushagak River king salmon enumeration and work on updating the goal by March 2020, according ot the charge statement. The work group, which will consist of no more than nine members of the public and three members of the board appointed by board chairman Reed Morisky, will meet before the Board of Fisheries’ October 2019 worksession and help create any proposals to address the issue before the March 2020 statewide meeting. The board passed the proposal 5-0, with members Fritz Johnson and John Jensen — both commercial fishermen — abstaining for conflict of interest. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Dunleavy: no ‘preferred choice’ to lead ADFG

Newly-inaugurated Gov. Mike Dunleavy has tapped Doug Vincent-Lang to temporarily head the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a spokesman said he intends to let the nomination process by the boards of Fisheries and Game lead the way to select a commissioner rather than announcing his own choice. Dunleavy announced the appointment just after his inauguration Dec. 3 in Kotzebue. Vincent-Lang, a veteran of the department, will serve as commissioner on an interim basis, replacing Sam Cotten. Vincent-Lang, who holds degrees in biology and biological oceanography, has previously served as a research biologist, as the director for the Division of Wildlife Conservation and as a special assistant and assistant director of the Division of Sport Fish. In a press release announcing the appointment, Dunleavy noted that “it is important that someone is in the position to manage the Department while the Joint Boards of Fish and Game go through their process of nominating potential commissioners.” “The Governor respects that process and looks forward to the recommendations from the Joint Meeting of the Board of Fish and the Board of Game,” the release notes. In response to a follow-up question, spokesman Jeff Turner said Dunleavy “does not have a preferred choice for commissioner of fish and game. The board determines the best person to fill the job.” That’s a departure from Dunleavy’s two predecessors, who named their pick to lead ADFG before a joint meeting of the boards. The boards, which are independent of the department, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature, will advertise for the position and will meet in January to take up the appointment, Turner said. Dunleavy is following a fairly normal process for appointment so far, according to Glenn Haight, the executive director of the Board of Fisheries. The joint boards will accept applications for the position before interviewing candidates at the special board meeting in January. The application period is open through Dec. 14 and requires that applicants submit a letter of interest with statements of and personnel management philosophy as well as a resume and references. Depending on the number of applicants, the joint boards may meet with all the members or may designate a subcommittee of a few members, Haight said. In the past, the number of candidates has varied, from more than 20 to just five or six, he said. The position is notoriously contentious and different from the process for other commissioners, who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. ADFG and Education Department commissioner candidates are selected by their respective boards before they can be appointed by the governor to be approved by the Legislature. Dunleavy has already announced he intends to retain current Education Commissioner Dr. Michael Johnson. Former Gov. Sean Parnell nominated Cora Campbell to lead the department in 2010, and her name was ultimately forwarded to him after interviewing with the joint boards. The same was the case for former Gov. Bill Walker’s choice of Sam Cotten, who was likewise interviewed by the joint boards and deemed a qualified choice. Only one other candidate applied for the position in both cases after the governors made their preferences known. Defined by statute, the commissioner should be “a qualified executive with knowledge of the requirements for protection, management, conservation, and restoration of the fish and game resources of the state. The commissioner is the principal executive officer of the department, whose mission is to protect, maintain, and improve the fish and game resources of the state, and manage their use and development in the best interest of the economy and the well-being of the people of the state, consistent with the sustained yield principle.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

State removes Kenai from ‘impaired’ listing, citing lack of data

The Kenai River has again escaped being labeled as an impaired water body because of turbidity, though there are other issues on the horizon. In the final report the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state agency removed its initial recommendation for the lower 7.5 miles of the Kenai River to be listed as impaired based on turbidity levels. The additional data gathered over two weeks this July didn’t exceed acceptable turbidity levels and couldn’t verify the three years of data gathered from 2008-10. Turbidity, a measure of material suspended in the water, can be harmful to water quality for human consumption and for aquatic organisms. In the case of the Kenai River, which the neighboring communities do not use for drinking water, the primary concern is for the fish; the river supports the largest salmon and trout sportfishery in the state, including the popular Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery in July. The listing, first announced in the public notice of the draft Integrated Water Quality and Assessment Report for 2014-16 in December 2017, sparked controversy among Kenai River users. The listing was not a surprise — the Kenai Watershed Forum, an environmental conservation nonprofit based in Soldotna, had been taking the readings nearly a decade before — but held implications for the sportfishing community in particular. The Kenai Watershed Forum’s readings found a significant uptick in turbidity in the lowermost reach of the river during July while the upriver readings stayed relatively level. The turbidity in the lower river was lower in June and dropped again in August, though the relative river velocity and temperature were similar. The area where the turbidity was read at a higher level, a popular area to fish for king salmon, also saw much more motorboat traffic at the time. However, things have changed since then, the DEC noted in its Nov. 2 transmittal letter to the EPA. “Public comments were received in opposition and support of the proposed turbidity listing; however, opposition statements indicating that motorized boating use and conditions in the lower Kenai River have changed substantially since 2010 warranted further investigation,” the letter states. “The 2018 turbidity data showed a reduction in overall turbidity levels and in difference between the upstream background site (river mile 23) and the downstream suspected impairment side (river mile 11.5).” Regulations on the river have changed significantly since 2008. In response to high readings of hydrocarbons in the Kenai River, the state required boat motors running on the river to be larger than 35 horsepower to switch to four-stroke engines or direct-injection two-stroke engines and set the maximum power to 50 horsepower, with exceptions for Kenai and Skilak lakes. The ban appeared to do the trick, with the hydrocarbon pollution levels dropping and the DEC’s listing of the Kenai as an impaired water body later removed. The salmon runs on the river have changed since 2008, too, changing fishing patterns. Years of poor king salmon returns have led guides and many private anglers to switch to targeting primarily sockeye salmon, moving to either bank angling or fishing further upstream, moving away from the lower river where the turbidity readings were taken. Fishermen pointed to this change in fishing effort as a reason to review the data for the determination. The DEC also funded a boat-count study in July 2018 to determine changes in boating patterns between two popular launches, the Pillars and Eagle Rock, appended to the turbidity monitoring. The agency noted in its response to public comments that many boats now launch from the Eagle Rock launch, downstream of the original turbidity sampling site at river mile 11.5, so in the future, the sampling site might need to be moved further downstream to capture those boats’ effect. The DEC is suspending classification of the river as a Category 5 impaired water body until “further information becomes available to reassess the condition of the river,” according to the letter to the EPA. Without the increase to a Category 5 impairment, the river reverts to its previous listing as a Category 3 water body, joining a long list of water bodies that the DEC “has insufficient information on” to make an impairment determination, according to the final report. “The Department will continue to work with local stakeholders on a watershed plan to prioritize emerging water quality issues on the Kenai River,” the letter states. Those “ emerging” issues include high fecal coliform bacteria near the mouth of the river — largely sourced to gulls, which flock to the rivermouth during the summer — indications of high copper and zinc readings on the lower Kenai River near the urbanized areas of Kenai and Soldotna. Copper and zinc readings are frequently connected to stormwater runoff and signs of urbanization. Stormwater runoff can be troubling for salmon health, as in the case of coho salmon, which have shown particular sensitivity to metals like copper. The DEC had not returned a request for comment as of deadline. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Poor pink runs forecast again; return to ‘normal’ in Bristol Bay

Next summer may be a slow one for Southeast and Bristol Bay salmon fishermen. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s annual salmon forecasts for the Southeast and Bristol Bay regions predict weaker runs for the 2019 season. In Southeast’s case, it’s the pink salmon predicted to come up short compared to recent averages; in Bristol Bay, it’s the sockeye. About 18 million pink salmon are predicted to be harvested in Southeast Alaska in 2019, placing the run in the weak range, or between 20 percent and 40 percent of the 59-year average in the history of the fishery. The forecasted number is about half the recent 10-year average of 36 million pinks, according to the ADFG forecast. If the forecast holds true, it will be the lowest odd-year harvest since 1987. The low number of juveniles in 2018 was unexpected, as the previous year’s escapements met goals. “This indicates that brood year 2017 pink salmon likely experienced poor freshwater and/or early marine survival,” according to the forecast. The forecast comes with an 80 percent confidence interval, but some uncertainty comes form the warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska. An exceptionally warm body of water in the Gulf from 2013-16, nicknamed the “Blob,” appeared to have dissipated but has now returned. ADFG managers connected the disastrously low pink salmon returns in 2016 with poor marine survival due to warm conditions in the Gulf as well. “The return of anomalously warm sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska may have a negative impact on the survival of pink salmon,” the forecast states. “Although the weak harvest forecast in 2019 is consistent with poor survival, the impact of Gulf of Alaska temperatures is unknown and adds uncertainty to the forecast.” In Bristol Bay, the total run is estimated to come in at 40.18 million sockeye salmon, with a commercial harvest of 27.6 million. That’s slightly less than the recent 10-year average harvest of 30 million reds, though greater than the long-term average of 34.2 million, and significantly less than this year’s harvest of 41.3 million. The majority of the run is expected to be age class 1.3 fish, or those that spend one year in freshwater and three years in the ocean. Of the five districts, the largest run is expected back in the Naknek-Kvichak district, with a forecast of 16.12 million sockeye. The second-largest is predicted to be the Nushagak district with 10.38 million, followed by the Egegik, Ugashik and Togiak districts. Forecasting the sockeye run in Bristol Bay presents a challenge, as nine different rivers contribute significant sockeye numbers to the total run from four different age classes. The numbers are presented in the forecast with an 80 percent confidence interval as well, based on historical contrasts between forecasts and runs. ADFG always provides a caveat in forecasts: they are primarily meant for planning purposes, not as a promise to the fleet on management. The managers will use in-season catch and escapement data as available to determine openings and restrictions where necessary as the run develops. Bristol Bay has had two strong sockeye years in a row, while Southeast Alaska has had three tough years for salmon fishermen. The 2016 salmon season brought exceptionally poor pink runs atop restrictions meant to protect troubled returning king salmon stocks; 2017 brought even more king salmon restrictions, forcing an early closure on the spring troll fishery, and 2018 again brought some disappointingly low pink salmon harvests — the lowest since the mid-1970s. The total harvest of approximately 7.8 million pinks, worth about $11.4 million, was less than a third of the 23 million forecasted harvest. The poor pink salmon returns have been roundly connected to the anomalously warm ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska in fisheries around southern coast of the state. Poor sockeye returns across the Gulf in 2018 were pinned on the warm sea temperatures as well. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Final harvest numbers in hand, halibut commission set for meeting

All of Alaska’s Pacific halibut fisheries stayed within their quota limits this year, but not all individual sectors within the fishery areas did. The final regular landings update for 2018 from the International Pacific Halibut Commission, issued Nov. 15, outlines the final data available before the first interim meeting of the commission. Overall, all Pacific halibut fisheries for Canada and the U.S. harvested about 26.5 million pounds of halibut, or about 95 percent of the total limit of 27.9 million pounds. Alaska’s regulatory areas, stretching from Southeast to the northern Bering Sea, all harvested a lower percentage of their quotas than the West Coast and British Columbia, which harvested 99 percent and 98 percent of their quotas, respectively. The two areas with the largest participation and quotas, Southeast and the central Gulf of Alaska, harvested 92 and 96 percent of their quotas, respectively. Within those areas, though, not every sector stayed within its quota limits. In the central Gulf of Alaska, the guided recreational fishery harvested about 1.85 million pounds, or about 103 percent of its 1.8 million-pound limit. With the commercial discard mortality unavailable, all the other sectors stayed within their quota limits. The existing overall quotas will come under review at the upcoming interim meeting of the IPHC on Nov. 27-28 in Seattle. On the agenda is a stock assessment, data and harvest decision table for Pacific halibut for 2019, which the commissioners will use to determine quota levels for the upcoming fishing season. At the same meeting last year, IPHC staff presented stock data showing a significant drop in halibut numbers from Oregon to the Bering Sea, leading to recommendations to cut harvest quotas across the entire fishery by 20 percent. Political disagreements on the commission about the proper quota level led to Canada and the U.S. setting their own catch limits for halibut. The U.S. dropped its total allowable catch by about 9 percent from 2017, to 17.5 million pounds. IPHC scientists tied the lower numbers of halibut to poor recruitments of young halibut, beginning in approximately 2009-10, when younger fish did not survive as well to become adults. With that backdrop of falling numbers, prices at the beginning of the halibut season looked poor, too — about $2.50 less than the average 2017 opening price of $7 per pound, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s market bulletin for halibut. The lower price likely came from competition from existing sources, including existing halibut stocks and incoming Atlantic halibut catches. The halibut fishery has been trending downward for nearly a decade, according to the ASMI bulletin. “Since 2011, Alaska’s halibut TACs have been reduced by 46 percent, or about 15 million pounds,” the bulletin states. “Quota for Pacific halibut in British Columbia and the U.S. West Coast (Washington and Oregon) declined by 1.2 million pounds or 16 percent between 2017 and 2018.” The upcoming IPHC meeting will take a look at the season’s survey data and present recommendations for the commissioners to consider at the full annual meeting, scheduled for Jan. 28-Feb. 1, 2019, in Victoria, British Columbia. The stock assessment is scheduled to be presented to the council at 10:45 a.m. on Nov. 27. All open sessions are webcast at iphc.int. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Researchers work on better model for impact of fishery closures

Fisheries managers are faced with a firestorm every time they decide to close a fishery because of poor returns or low population numbers. A new economic model is trying to help them see into the future to understand the effects of a closure before it happens. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington worked together on the model, finished in 2017 and published in the journal Marine Policy this past September. It takes into account items like fishery participation, the amount of each vessel’s annual revenue that comes from the affected fishery, which vessels participate in other fisheries and the value of the fishery; the aim is to calculate the total impact when managers have to limit or close a fishery. The origin of the idea came after a disastrous broad closure in salmon fishing on the West Coast in 2008. The closure, caused by poor salmon returns correlated to unfavorable ocean conditions, resulted in a federal disaster declaration and a $170 million relief distribution. Had officials and fishery managers been able to estimate the impact better, relief funds might have been distributed sooner, said Kate RIcherson, a marine ecologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the lead author of the study. Fisheries are a difficult economy to track, in part because of the multiple management agencies, fishermen participating in multiple fisheries and seasonal employment, among other factors. Many fishermen aren’t single-species reliant — they participate in multiple fisheries, depending on the season. For example, on the West Coast, some salmon fishermen jump over to participate in the crab fisheries while others fish solely for salmon. “It’s kind of hard to make a blanket statement about how fishermen might have reacted (to the 2008 closure),” Richerson said. “…What I found when I started looking into this was it was hard to make generalities about the folks who are salmon fishing.” Working off the model they developed, Richerson and her two co-authors — Jerry Leonard and Daniel Holland — estimated the economic impact of the 2017 closure on the ocean chinook salmon troll fishery between southern Oregon and northern California. Their result estimated that the closure cost between 200 to 330 jobs, $5.8 million to $8.9 million in income and $12.8 million to $19.6 million in sales. The impact didn’t fall equally among communities, either, they wrote in the paper. “The impacts are not distributed evenly in space, with the largest relative losses occurring in the Coos Bay, Brookings, and Eureka region,” the paper states. “This information may be useful as policymakers consider mitigating economic losses in the fishery and associated communities.” The model is far from a universally applicable model, Richerson said — rather, it’s a first step. First, it relies on landings data, so it’s more tied to vessels than to fishermen. Second, it’s only the ocean troll fishery, which occurs in federal waters and is under NOAA jurisdiction. It doesn’t estimate the economic impact on recreational fisheries or subsistence fisheries, nor would it include any fisheries occurring in state waters. The purpose of the model wasn’t so much to coordinate whether or not to close something; managers don’t always have a choice based on their biological guidelines for salmon stocks, RIcherson said. Instead, it was to help make faster determinations of the impact for fund distribution. “It’s not like you can tell your landlord, ‘Hey, I’ll pay you rent in two years when I get my money (from a fishery disaster),’” Richerson said. Fishery disaster declarations have to escalate up a long ladder before fishermen may see any cash. In Alaska, pink salmon fishermen were asking for a disaster declaration after the 2016 season when harvests were dismally below expectations. Gov. Bill Walker accepted the appeal for disaster declaration, escalating it to the federal government, where Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker accepted it and forwarded it to Congress for acceptance and to appropriate funds for the relief. Nearly two years later, in summer 2018, fishermen finally received notice that they were going to see some funds to provide relief after the 2016 season; $56 million was appropriated by Congress in response to the disaster declaration. Fisheries are by nature unpredictable, but with changing ocean conditions as waters warm and harvest pressures change, there may be more closures in the future. There’s interest in developing models for predicting fisheries closures based on environmental conditions, though that work is not complete, Richerson said. With the paper published and now having moved on to a different position, Richerson said she wasn’t sure she’d get the chance to look into it further but encourage further research on it. “I would definitely think of it as a first step,” she said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

ASMI executive director Tonkavich steps down

After nine years with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Executive Director Alexa Tonkovich has resigned. The organization announced Tonkovich’s departure Nov. 10, though she will stay on as executive director until mid-December while the board of directors searches for a replacement. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in international business and has been accepted to a number of programs in the U.S. and abroad, according to a press release. “After nine years at ASMI, the timing felt right to further my education and prepare myself for wherever the next steps in my career may lead,” she said in the release. Tonkovich became executive director in 2015, taking over for former executive director Michael Cerne. Previously, she served as the international director for ASMI. She worked primarily in developing emerging markets in southeast Asia and Brazil, with an office opening in the latter in 2011. She said the opening of that office as one of the most memorable moments of her time as the international marketing program. “I love market exploration and expansion,” she said. “There have been a few ups and downs (with Brazil’s economy) … we still see good potential there, particularly with the loss in access to the Chinese market (from retaliatory tariffs).” She plans to continue her studies in international business, which is a key part of the seafood industry. Depsite the recently souring global trade positions in the U.S. — the nation has been caught up in an escalating trade war with China over a set of tariffs implemented by President Donald Trump’s administration, including on seafood products — Tonkovich said she hopes it isn’t forever. ASMI has spent years cultivating its relationship with China, but there are potentially other trade relationships on the horizon, too. “I’m hoping this is just a passing phase,” she said. “…(International trade) really is such an important part of the (seafood) business.” For now, she said she’s looking to international business schools in London. The board plans to meet Nov. 19 to discuss appointing a candidate for interim executive director and drafting a notice for recruitment. ASMI Communications Director Jeremy Woodrow said in an email that the board members should have more details about the parameters of the recruitment after that meeting. “With a heavy heart, the ASMI board accepted Ms. Tonkovich’s resignation,” said ASMI board of directors Chari Jack Schultheis, the general manager of Kwik’Pak Fisheries. “Her dedication to Alaska and the Alaska seafood industry is unparalleled. While she will be missed, we also support her decisions and wish her the very best in what is sure to be a very bright future.” ASMI has gone through a number of changes in the past few years, particularly since the budget cuts began in 2015 as the state descended into a fiscal crisis. The organization cut expenses, closed its Seattle office and changed out staff, Tonkovich said. The industry has changed in her time at ASMI, too, she said — more women are moving up into positions of power, and more people of diverse economic, educational and cultural backgrounds are beginning to step in. In the future, innovation and product development will continue to be issues for the Alaska seafood industry to keep pace with the world, Tonkovich said. Addressing the graying of the fleet and bringing more young people into the seafood industry is an issue in Alaska as well as the rest of the world that needs to be addressed, she added. With a degree in Asian studies, Tonkovich said she didn’t originally seek a job in seafood, but is glad for the time she spent there. “I’ve been so honored and it’s bee such a pleasure (to work with ASMI),” she said. “I really grew up here … the organization is in great hands.” Times have tightened financially at ASMI. While the organization, a public-private partnership intended to market Alaska wild-harvested seafood, used to receive state funding, the Legislature has been working on eliminating its support from the general fund, zeroing it out in the fiscal year 2019 budget. This year, the organization plans to request an additional $3.75 million from the Legislature to support programs, according to an Oct. 30 news release from the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. The funds would go to support a match for competitive grant funding, according to the release. “Specifically, this appropriation would bolster the match on a federal grant program, which will strengthen ASMI’s annual application for federal funding,” the release states. “The competitively awarded federal grant for international marketing allows ASMI to market Alaska seafood internationally, funding consumer and trade programs in 30 countries. ASMI competes each year against such national stalwarts as Sunkist Growers, Washington Apples, the Cotton Council Incorporated, and the U.S. Meat Export Federation.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Upper Cook Inlet fishermen seek federal disaster declaration

This season was a sour one for salmon fishermen across the Gulf of Alaska, and participants in multiple fisheries are seeking funding for relief. The Board of Fisheries and Gov. Bill Walker already granted a disaster declaration for Chignik, which harvested next to zero sockeye salmon this year due to an unprecedented poor return to the Chignik River on the Alaska Peninsula. Sockeye salmon runs across the Gulf of Alaska failed to deliver this year, either in timing or in size, at a huge cost to fishermen. Now the Upper Cook Inlet fishermen want a chance at federal funding to recover some of their losses. The set gillnet and drift gillnet fleet in Upper Cook Inlet harvested about 1.3 million salmon, 815,000 of which were sockeye, or about 61 percent below the 10-year average harvest of sockeye. This year was forecasted to be lower than the average, but the harvest as of Oct. 5 — when all Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishing closed for the 2018 season — brought in about $11 million in ex-vessel value, a little more than a third of the $31 million recent 10-year average. The total run, however, was about 32 percent below what was forecast, according to the 2018 salmon fishing summary from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued Oct. 22. The trick of it was that the Kenai River sockeye run — the heavy-hitting run of the region, which usually peaks in July — didn’t arrive in force until August. For only the second time in Fish and Game’s records, more than half the run arrived after Aug. 1. That late arrival was exacerbated further by the existing management structure around the high-tension commercial, sport, personal-use and subsistence fisheries on the Kenai River. “In the previous 10 years, the average date where 50 percent of sockeye salmon passage has occurred in the Kenai River is July 23,” the report states. “In 2018, 50 percent of the final passage estimate did not occur until August 3, or 11 days later than average. The late run timing and smaller peak complicated management in 2018 as management plans with specific dates and triggers were developed to account for average run entry timing and magnitude.” The Kenai City Council unanimously adopted a resolution in October asking Walker to declare an economic disaster in the Upper Cook Inlet fishery for 2018, with Mayor Brian Gabriel abstaining due to a conflict of interest because he commercially setnets. With the city of Kenai’s support, the fishermen and a number of organizations and businesses are now seeking support from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly to declare an economic disaster in the fishery as well. The assembly will consider a resolution to support the request at its Nov. 20 meeting. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, the Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund, Copper River Seafoods and the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District all submitted letters in support of the resolution, citing the difficulty to the fishery participants this year. “Most fishermen didn’t even cover expenses,” wrote Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund President Steve Vanek in the organization’s letter. “…Resident commercial fishermen are an important contributor to the economy of the borough. We appeal to the borough for assistance.” Copper River Seafoods Corporate Development Officers Martin Weiser wrote that the organization, which has “expansion plans in Cook Inlet,” doesn’t have a choice but to absorb the loss, but the fishermen don’t. “Being a large company with operations in almost every major fishery in this state, we will absorb this loss (as we do not have a choice) and continue with business. This is not the case for many of the folks who focus their fishing activities in Cook Inlet,” he wrote. “It is for their sake and the sake of the future of this fishery that we write this letter in support of a disaster recovery effort on the part of the State of Alaska.” Disaster declarations made by the governor then go to the federal Department of Commerce, requiring the Secretary of Commerce’s approval. Congress can then appropriate the funds to return to the fishermen. That process recently concluded with $56 million in relief for the 2016 pink salmon disaster, taking nearly two years before funds surfaced. A federal disaster was also declared in 2012 for low king salmon returns to Cook Inlet and the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, for which $21 million was eventually appropriated. The process is too slow to help the people of Cook Inlet, Weiser noted in his letter. If a disaster is declared, it could open up opportunities for legislative appropriation of assistance grants as well as the opportunity of assistance to permit holders who have loans through the Commercial Fishing Revolving Loan program and may not be able to meet the terms of their loans, noted Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association Executive Director Gary Fandrei in his letter. The sockeye salmon fishery on the river was stop-and-start, with commercial fishing closed for up to six days at one point to boost passage in the Kenai River. Fishermen complained about the closure on sockeye, the most valuable commercial species in the Inlet, and their complaints were exacerbated later by restrictions on harvest to chum salmon stocks in Kamishak Bay due to low numbers of chum salmon in aerial surveys and a lack of offshore test fishery information to provide for openings for late sockeye salmon. Managers were working within tight date and opening confines, trying to meet strict Kenai River king salmon goals and multiple sockeye salmon sonar goals while opening up sockeye fishing opportunities with various tools. Adding to the complexity was the relatively decent-sized run of sockeye returning to the Kasilof River, mixed along the shore with Kenai River king salmon. This year marked the first time the North Kalifornsky Beach area was opened within 600 feet of shore in an attempt to focus harvest on Kasilof River sockeye while minimizing Kenai sockeye and king harvest. As the Kenai sockeye run continued to fail to materialize, the Kasilof run kept coming back, and managers used the 600-foot fishery in the Kasilof section and ultimately the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area — a one-mile square area around the mouth of the Kasilof River — to try to harvest that stock to prevent the run from surpassing the escapement goal. In the end, it did anyway, according to the salmon season management report. Pink salmon harvests were also significantly lower than average— about 84 percent below the recent 10-year average — mostly due to fishing restrictions during the sockeye season. One bright note, however, was the coho harvest. Upper Cook Inlet fishermen brought in about $1.3 million in ex-vessel value for cohos, about double the recent 10-year average of $699,300, according to the management report. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Elizabeth Earl