FISH FACTOR: Meeting season nears amid COVID-19 complications
Many Alaska fishermen are likely to be involved in regulatory meetings next spring instead of being out on the water. And Alaska legislators will be distracted by hearings for hundreds of unconfirmed appointments as they tackle contentious budgets and other pressing issues.
New dates have been set for state Board of Fisheries meetings that were bumped from later this year due to COVID-19 concerns. During the same time, along with four unconfirmed seats on the fish board, the Alaska legislature also will be tasked with considering nominees for 137 state boards and commissions named by Gov. Mike Dunleavy during the 2020 session. State lawmakers were unable to do the usual in-depth vetting of appointees when the virus forced them to adjourn early.
The upcoming round of board meetings focuses on management of subsistence, commercial, sport and personal use fisheries at Prince William Sound, Southeast and Yakutat, as well as statewide shellfish issues and hatcheries.
The meeting dates of March 4, 2021, for the hatchery committee and March 5-10 for shellfish issues remain the same as originally scheduled. The Prince William Sound meetings, set to be held in Cordova, are now set to occur from March 30-April 5; for Southeast and Yakutat, the dates are April 17-29 with the meetings scheduled to be in Ketchikan.
The plan is to hold in person meetings while monitoring COVID-19 threats that could lead to extra costs and complications, said Glenn Haight, executive director for the boards of both fisheries and game.
The BOF will address 275 regulatory proposals in its upcoming meeting cycle.
“We’re just going to see what happens with this year and hopefully things will settle down enough so we can get these proposals done,” he added.
“Probably the biggest unknown is what happens if we’re in the meetings and participants get sick, certainly the ones that we are accountable for such as staff, board members and committee members,” Haight said. “That could lead to higher costs if a number of people are forced to quarantine in a hotel out of their own community. And it’s possible that if an outbreak occurs, the meeting is over. There are certain people we can’t conduct the meeting without and it could be that it’s all lost.”
While nothing can replace meeting face to face, Haight said the response to online meetings via Zoom has been positive. One plus is that it is easy to bring in experts from far away to participate.
“It was kind of nice during the recent work session to see how easy it was to bring in subject matter experts out of nowhere,” he explained. “If you’re meeting in Anchorage, for instance, you’re not going to be able to bring in our regional subsistence expert from Fairbanks. But all of a sudden, when we got to that point in the meeting, there she was available for questions. So it has some features that you can do a bit more with sometimes.”
Meanwhile, four of the seven fish board seats are being held by voting members not yet approved by the Alaska Legislature, along with the hundreds of others. That means the appointment procedure goes back to square one, according to Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.
“Confirmations have to take place before we reconvene in mid-January. And if that doesn’t happen, then all these people have to be nominated again by the Dunleavy administration in the upcoming session,” Stutes said.
But there appear to be some questions surrounding the process.
“Our (natural resources) attorney general, Aaron Peterson, said they don’t have a solid answer and he was going to get back to the board on that,” said Glenn Haight. “It’s top of mind; it’s not just the Board of Fisheries, it’s all of the boards and commissions appointments that have been made. It’s a lot of individuals. So it’s very concerning for the state and they are looking into it.”
Going for gold!
Fishermen and state managers are testing the waters for a golden king crab fishery at Prince William Sound.
Through the end of November, fishermen will drop pots for 15,000 pounds of goldens in a fishery that has been closed since 1989. Golden king crab are some of the deepest dwellers, living at depths of 900 meters, or nearly 3,000 feet. The stock was last surveyed in 2006, but stakeholders say they are seeing signs of increased abundance.
“We believe that there is some golden king crab out there and our stakeholders proposed a few things at the last Board of Fish meeting,” said Wyatt Rhea-Fournier, Alaska Department of Fish and Game research project leader for groundfish and shellfish at lower Cook Inlet, the North Gulf Coast district, and Prince William Sound.
“And, it was agreed that for this year we would go forward with a test fishery to try to gain more information. Once that is complete, the department will analyze the data and we will be gaining a lot of information within a low risk scenario.”
At a time of tight budgets, a test fishery allows the crab that’s caught to be sold to a local processor to fund the research project. In this case, a harvest limited to 15,000 pounds will go to 60 Degrees North in Cordova, which also is subcontracting with boats to handle the harvest.
The results of the test fishery will be presented to the Board of Fisheries at its statewide shellfish meeting in March.
“And we just encourage everyone to be patient as we analyze this king crab data, and know that we’re always looking for an opportunity to provide a sustainable fishery,” Rhea-Fournier said.
Golden king crab would be the second emerging crab fishery for Prince William Sound, following Tanner crab openers in March for three years running where catches have topped 100,000 pounds.
The next test fishery for Prince William Sound could be sea cucumbers.
Fisherman, wife and mother, Yale graduate, national policy maker, former international commissioner and funding whiz Linda Behnken of Sitka has received a $250,000 cash award from the Heinz Family Foundation for her work promoting sustainable fishing practices and futures for Alaska harvesters and coastal communities.
Behnken began fishing in Alaska in1982 to earn money for college. After earning a master’s degree at Yale, she returned to skipper her own boat. Not long after, she took the helm as executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, or ALFA, and has made favorable waves in Alaska and nationally ever since.
Under her leadership, ALFA was successful in securing a ban on trawling in waters off Southeast Alaska, in an area covering more than 100,000 square miles.
ALFA’s Fishery Conservation Network forged ongoing partnerships between small boat fishermen and scientists to find ways to reduce whale interactions with fishing gear, map the ocean floor, avoid bycatch, and test electronic monitoring procedures.
To build recruitment for the profession, the ALFA team created a Young Fishermen’s Initiative and launched a crew apprentice training program. Behnken also co-founded the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust that helps young fishermen overcome the high costs of entry through a Local Fish Fund where repayments are based on the price of their catches.
ALFA was the first in Alaska to create a community-supported fishery called Alaskans Own, a subscription-based program in which customers pre-order a suite of local catches. Most recently, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and low salmon returns around the state, Alaskans Own helped coordinate donations and delivery of thousands of pounds of fish to families and elders throughout Southeast and at Chignik.
At the national level, because there are no federal programs dedicated to training the next generation of fishermen (unlike farmers and ranchers), ALFA joined forces with the Fishing Communities Coalition to push for the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, which (if passed) would provide funding, training and education.
Behnken also has served on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and as a U.S. commissioner on the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
“Linda’s success in achieving collaboration between scientists, industry, and the fishermen who work the ocean for their livelihood is a model for effective environmental change,” said Teresa Heinz, chair of the Heinz Family Foundation. “Her efforts to drive policy and practices that protect the stability of Alaska’s coastal fishing communities and the ocean ecosystem on which they depend not only give us hope, they demonstrate what is possible when seemingly competing interests work together.”
Linda Behnken fishes commercially with her husband and two sons.
More Alaska fishermen are selling their catches directly and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute hopes to give them a hand. ASMI is encouraging direct marketers to take a short survey to get a better understanding of their needs and help guide an effective strategy. Take the survey by Nov. 1 for a chance to win a $100 Visa gift card. Take the survey here or at www.alaskaseafood.org.
Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.