Ringing in new round of ‘fish wars’ as ADFG manages budget

In the face of yet another round of budget cuts, Alaska’s largest private employer, the seafood industry, will have entirely new management schemes to sort out and live under in 2017 alongside status quo projections for harvest in key fisheries.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will take another budget cutback responding to the state’s multi-billion dollar deficit that has yet to be patched.

Gov. Bill Walker released a proposed fiscal year 2018 budget on Dec. 15.

Among other cuts, Walker proposes a budget of $28.9 million for ADFG. This is a 36 percent reduction from the fiscal year 2015.

ADFG will have to find ways to deal with budget cuts to monitor key fisheries stocks, including the iconic king salmon that has fallen in abundance beginning in the late 2000s.

Further, commercial fisheries management programs will suffer, including the sonar and other survey methods used by the department to gauge incoming stock.

Without robust programs and the information they yield, fisheries managers take conservative harvest approaches that could harm commercial fishermen’s bottom lines.

That’s already happened in the Togiak herring fishery, as sampling surveys were not done in 2016 and leading the department to set a harvest at an average level reduced by a conservation buffer.

Fish wars renewed

As usual, much of Alaska’s year will center around salmon.

Among the biggest items for Alaska’s state fisheries will be the two-week 2017 Upper Cook Inlet meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

This meeting, held once every three years, pits the often-conflicting interests of sportfishermen, commercial fishermen, personal use and subsistence fishermen all vying for a limited supply of salmon.

The proposal book, now under review, is stuffed with 499 pages that largely carry over the battles fought in the 2014 meeting, when the Board of Fisheries marathon gave way to new rules for the Kenai River management plans.

The book is currently under review for the 166 proposals submitted.

More than a dozen proposals look to modify or entirely repeal the Kenai River Late Run King Salmon Management Plan and the Kenai River Late Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan.

The current late run king salmon plan include restrictions on commercial sockeye fishing and sport fishery bait usage when the department projects an in-river run of less than 22,500 fish.

The late run sockeye plan, which begins after the sport fishery closes on July 31, restricts the commercial setnet fleet to 36 hours through Aug. 15 if the Alaska Department of Fish and Game projects a king salmon escapement of less than 22,500 fish.

Commercial fishermen largely resent the August sockeye rules and have been restricted by them to some degree in each of the last three years since they were adopted in 2014.

Not helping matters for the meeting is that the Upper Cook Inlet forecasted commercial harvest of just 1.7 million sockeye is 1.2 million less than the recent 20-year average harvest.

The matter will be further complicated by a court decision that will change the area’s salmon management entirely.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court overturned a decision made by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2011 to remove Cook Inlet salmon from the federal fishery management plan, or FMP.

Cook Inlet’s salmon fisheries will now require an FMP that conforms to the 10 National Standards laid out in the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The council has not yet started on an FMP, but the Board of Fisheries will need to take the court ruling into consideration.

Halibut headaches

Halibut will continue as one of the biggest discussion points in the North Pacific’s federal fisheries.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission will adopt harvest limits for commercial and charter halibut fishermen in late January 2017.

These allocations will carry a new undercurrent due to a recent North Pacific Fishery Management Council decision that will allow charter halibut guides to purchase commercial halibut quota through a recreational quota entity.

Developing the structure of the recreational quota entity, and potentially seeing its first sale, will be on fisheries managers agenda for 2017.

Bristol Bay can look forward to a regular season in 2017 after two years of hard work, if the forecast is to be believed.

Alaska’s largest sockeye run has blown past projections the last two years, but next year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts an average harvest.

A total of 41.47 million sockeye salmon (a range of 31.2 million to 51.7 million) are expected to return to Bristol Bay in 2017, according to an ADFG report released Nov. 15.

This is virtually identical to the most recent 10-year average of Bristol Bay total runs (41.4 million) and 27 percent greater than the long-term mean of 32.76 million.

For commercial fishermen, this means next year’s harvest will also be average, with a commercial harvest of 29 million.

It’s anyone’s guess whether or not Bristol Bay’s fishermen will receive more than the last two years relatively depressed ex-vessel prices, which were 50 cents and 76 cents per pound, respectively.

Reports from research firm McDowell Group say the salmon market has eased some of the back stocked salmon from processor shelves, which should raises prices for fishermen.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

12/28/2016 - 12:04pm