Elizabeth Earl

All eyes on Bristol Bay after state predicts a record season, but fishery’s economics still in flux

The summer salmon season is due to ramp up in Alaska over the next few months, and the main focus of this year’s salmon fishery statewide will be on Bristol Bay sockeye. Of the 160.6 million salmon of all species that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts will be harvested in 2022, 74 million of those are sockeye and about three-quarters of those would come from Bristol Bay. Another 67.2 million are pink salmon, with the rest made up of smaller numbers of the other three species. If the forecast proves accurate, this will be the biggest year ever for the Bristol Bay fishery. With a total predicted return of more than 75 million and a projected harvest of about 60 million in the bay, it would blow away the existing total-run record of 66.1 million, and dwarf last year’s harvest of 40.4 million. Like all forecasts, it comes with a degree of uncertainty—salmon runs are inherently hard to predict—but it tracks with the upward trend in Bristol Bay the last five years. “We have used similar methods since 2001 to produce the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon forecast, which have performed well when applied to Bristol Bay as a whole,” the biologists wrote in their forecast report for Bristol Bay. “Since 2001, our forecasts have, on average, underforecast the run by 12% and have ranged from 44% below the actual run in 2014 to 19% above the actual run in 2011.” The total number of fish isn’t the only factor to consider in the economics of the region, though. Last year, biologists recorded a significant drop in the average size and weight of sockeye harvested in the fishery — largely due to the fact that it was mostly younger fish coming back. Younger fish are typically smaller, which is worth less to the fishermen and to the processors. However, that banner forecast has sparked speculation about a high-value fishery this summer. Fishermen from other areas have been looking at ways to buy into the Bay over the last few years, pushing the average price for a permit above $232,000 this year. That’s the highest price since 1997, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. Processors have yet to announce a pre-season exvessel price, and it’s hard to know exactly what factors will go into setting what fishermen will be paid. Dan Lesh, an economist with the McKinley Group who tracks seafood, said there are a number of factors both domestically and internationally that go into shaping salmon prices on the market. For one, the amount farmed salmon in the supply chain affects wild salmon prices, and like other businesses, the farmed sector has had disruptions lately, he said. There are also concerns about transport logistics for wild-caught salmon, such as the pilot shortage. One factor that’s drawn speculation since February has been the ban on imported Russian seafood. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, a number of countries — including the United States — have blocked the sale of any Russian seafood products. Historically, Russia has competed with the United States on salmon. While it does block much of the movement of products like snow crab, both U.S. and Russian salmon go through a middleman for processing before hitting shelves: China. After that salmon is sold into China for processing and reexport, it becomes hard to distinguish what is Russian and what is American, Lesh said. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute says it’s too early to determine what the effect of that ban will be on the market for Alaskan seafood, said Ashley Heimbigner, its communications director. “Alaska and Russia are just two players in the larger global seafood trade and Alaska’s competitors have their eyes on the growing U.S. domestic market as well,” she said. “We can’t necessarily assume that product substitutions necessitated by the sanctions will result in significantly more Alaska purchases. However, ASMI will continue our work to increase the awareness and value of Alaska seafood throughout our markets.” The big flush of Bristol Bay sockeye into the market may affect the types of salmon products made, too. Processors have limited capacity, especially for a fish like salmon, where they all arrive at once. Lesh said the industry may see more emphasis on the frozen and canned products this year as opposed to the fresh market. One other challenge on the domestic side may be pressure from inflation. Americans have seen their grocery bills increase significantly in the last year, and while wages have increased as well, it’s not an even effect. Alaska wild-caught salmon tends to carry a higher price than other types of fish products. However, other types of meat have increased dramatically in cost recently—the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that across the board, meat products are expected to rise 4.5% to 6.5% in 2022. Lesh noted that wild salmon has not experienced as much of an increase, and may make it more competitive with other types of meat. “Besides crab, most of the price increases have been higher in other proteins, like steak,” he said. “You can substitute other low-cost seafood products (for Alaska salmon), but I don’t think our prices have gone up enough to worry.” Heimbigner said retail was a successful outlet for salmon during the pandemic, when restaurants and fresh seafood markets were shut down. Inflation, staffing and supply chain issues are affecting that sector, but she noted that one marketing opportunity is in frozen seafood. “Consumers are learning that there is no quality difference when it comes to frozen vs. fresh seafood, and in the case of seafood from Alaska where the catch is frozen just after it leaves the water, freezing locks in nutrients and preserves quality,” she said. “Along the same lines, tinned and canned seafood, like canned Alaska salmon, has seen a surge in popularity.” Alaska’s commercial salmon season kicked off Monday in the Copper River area, where drifters were able to get nets out for king salmon for a 12-hour period. The Copper River kings are the first of the season, and most years carry a premium price. For example, Pike’s Place Market in Seattle was reportedly offering a 1-pound fillet of Copper River king salmon for $129.99 on Monday. Elsewhere in Alaska, there are above-average pink salmon runs predicted for Lower Cook Inlet, Kodiak and Prince William Sound wild pinks. Kodiak’s sockeye salmon run predictions look close to average as well. Southeast Alaska’s pink salmon run is projected to be weak this year, as is Upper Cook Inlet’s sockeye salmon run. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Council asks industry for recommendations on Bristol Bay red king crab

After the first season closure for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery in decades, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is seeking more data on how to rebuild the stock and stabilize the fishery. The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is historically one of the most valuable in the state, but for the last decade, the stock has been declining. Last fall, surveys showed that the female biomass of the stock had fallen below acceptable levels for harvest, and managers closed it. Stakeholders have been working with the council since to try to identify the best paths forward to rebuild the fishery and improve scientists’ understanding of how crab are moving and reproducing in the area. At the April NPFMC meeting, the council members approved a motion to ask the industry to come back with a list of voluntary actions harvesters and other industry stakeholders can take to help reduce bycatch of Bristol Bay red king crab and reduce discard mortality in the directed fishery. Industry stakeholders include not just the directed harvesters in the red king crab fishery, but also reach to the Pacific cod sector, pollock, and Amendment 80 fleets, which impact red king crab stocks based on area and bycatch rates. Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a representative for the state to the council, said the industry recommendations would come back by October. Baker’s motion also asks the council staff to expand the discussion paper to include a number of additional scientific aspects, including analysis of the impacts of seasonal closures to pelagic trawl, groundfish pot, and longline gear within a portion of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishing area called the Red King Crab Savings Area and a table for all sources of mortality for the crab across federal fisheries. Baker said there is a general recognition that more scientific information will be necessary to consider items like rolling or seasonal closures to protect mature female red king crab, which was proposed as a solution, and for the council to adequately weigh the costs against the benefits. “We know we lack information related to distribution of red king crab,” Baker said. “There is ongoing work … that you’ve heard about, and the state is a partner in that.” The directed harvesters are already taking on some voluntary measures to help reduce their discard mortality—essentially, the crab that are not kept because they are not of legal size but die anyway. Jaime Goen, the executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association, told the council at its meeting on April 9 that the harvesters are working with the other sectors to do the same, prioritizing protecting females, prioritizing mating opportunities, and protecting critical habitat. The reason for the stock decline in Bristol Bay is not entirely clear, with some looking to warming ocean temperatures while others point to fishery factors like bottom-trawl impact and bycatch. Goen asked the council to consider options they know they can control, such as adaptive management measures. “This stock is clearly and immediately in need of greater conservation and management,” she said. In their public comment to the council, the ABSC noted that the pot cod fleet voluntarily stayed out of the red king crab savings area and the subareas during the A season, both of which are important for red king crab. For the long-term, the association asked for the council to ban pelagic trawling entirely from the red king crab savings area and to prohibit all gear except longlines from that area when the directed fishery is closed. ABSC also asked for management measures like dynamic closures, protecting additional areas near Amak and Unimak islands from fishing impacts, and requiring pelagic trawl gear to be on the bottom no more than 10% of the time, among other measures. This season has been a hard one for many crabbers. Between the closure of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery and nearly 90% cut to the snow crab quotas in the Bering Sea due to poor survey numbers, the ABSC estimates that the industry lost about $200 million in revenue. While some crabbers say they understand the reason, it doesn’t lessen the impact. Siri Dammerell, a crabber, told the council her family has had to take on additional jobs and dip into their savings to make it through. “The cancellation of king crab hit us hard, and the lowering of (snow crab) hit us more,” she said. “We understand that there’s a need for rebuilding the BBRKC and urge you to act now, before it is too late.” The discussion paper released by the council for the April meeting outlines four areas of further consideration: Bristol Bay red king crab molting and mating, red king crab boundaries, bottom contact by pelagic trawl gear, and flexible spatial management measures in the fishery. The actual distribution of red king crab in Bristol Bay seems to be shifting to the north, according to the most recent survey data from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, including to some areas outside the current boundaries of the normal survey. The science is not settled as to whether those crab are actually Bristol Bay red king crab, though, or another stock, according to the discussion paper. The AFSC, Fish and Game, and the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation are working together on new tagging techniques to help understand the stock distribution and movement outside the normal summer trawl survey period, according to the discussion paper. The council accepted Baker’s motion and plans to hear back from the industry at the October meeting. Council member Kenny Down recognized that six months for feedback is not very long, and also recognized that the need for action in the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is urgent. “It’s not the decisions that we make that are going to haunt us — it’s the indecision,” he said. “Eventually, I do see that we’re going to have to make some hard decisions here regarding BBRKC, and potentially snow crab, as well.” The council is scheduled to meet again in June. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Senate picks back up bill to extend apprenticeships to high school students

A way expand opportunities for high school students to go into apprenticeships is getting renewed attention in the Legislature. House Bill 132, sponsored by Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, would require the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to work with public school districts to develop programs to allow students to complete high school credits and apprenticeships at the same time. Right now, most public school districts offer career and technical education classes such as construction and welding, but this would expand that into apprenticeships in real work environments. Fields said during a mid-March hearing before the Senate Education Committee that he got the idea from observing how South Carolina built a similar program after realizing it needed more apprenticeship availability to supply the automobile manufacturing industry with skilled workers. “In South Carolina, they embedded (an apprenticeship program) in the community college system, and they were very successful,” he said. “These are non-union apprenticeships and South Carolina, by putting this tax credit forward, took some risk off the table for employers.” Apprenticeships are a generally accepted training path for trade occupations such as plumbing and carpentry. They are federally regulated, so apprentices have to register with the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees requirements for training apprentices. In 2020, there were 1,932 active apprentices registered in Alaska spread across 318 programs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The House passed the bill in its current form during the last Legislative session, in May 2021. The Senate is considering it now, and is working on amendments to it in the Senate Education Committee. The version of the bill that passed the House instructed the state departments to work with public school districts on the apprenticeships, which would be available to students 14 and older who have completed eighth grade and meet the program requirements. For vocational programs, instructors would have to hold industry standard master skill certification or the equivalent. The House version also establishes a $1,250 tax credit per apprentice for businesses to incentivize participation. Fields said this is based on the South Carolina model. The bill has received broad support from trade unions and associations, including the Alaska AFL-CIO, the Associated of General Contractors of Alaska, the Association of Builders and Contractors, the Alaska State Pipe Trades Association, Alaska Ironworkers Local 751, the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association and the Mat-Su Borough School District, among others. Chris Dimond, the Alaska regional manager for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, told the Senate Education Committee during an April 11 hearing that the bill could help to meet some of the demand for carpenters. He estimated that 200 to 300 carpenters are needed to fill the jobs on their books right now, and with more infrastructure money likely coming from the federal government soon, he said the need for more trained workers is serious. The training program could help students figure out what they’re interested in without fully committing, too, he said. Sometimes, new workers have come into the construction industry without fully understanding the demands, and left after a year or so, he said. “We see a lot of those folks drop out,” he said. “So creating these opportunities for students to be able to get these real-life job experiences to sort of be able to understand what the culture is like, what the physical demands are like, and so forth, I think will be a big help to backfill some of our workforce up here.” Apprenticeships aren’t just for construction trades, either. The Alaska Primary Care Association, which represents medical providers across the state, has apprentices working in practices everywhere from Barrow to Anchorage, Mari Selle, the chief of staff and Southcentral Alaska Health Education Center interim director, told the Senate Education Committee. In rural Alaska, health care facilities are already training their own employees out of the community. “In this environment where recruitment and retention in health care has been so difficult and is continuing to be so difficult, this really is an innovative way to recruit and retain workers into this really critical field of health care and human services,” Selle said. “When Alaska has strong state support and strong policies for apprenticeship, it puts us in a better position to garner federal funding.” Several of the senators expressed support for the core ideas of the bill, but reservations about the tax credit portion. Senate Education members introduced a committee substitute that removed the tax credit provision, among other changes. Fields said he would defer to the Senate’s decision about that section, though the program did have success in the models he’d based it on. The language about public schools also came up for debate. Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, noted that he was concerned about unfairly dividing students into categories based on what type of school their parents enroll them in, and asked about removing the “public” from the bill. Fields responded that his inclination would be to leave the “public” language in. The Legislature has oversight over public schools through the Department of Education and Early Development and appropriates money to support them, but does not do the same for private schools. Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Wasilla, agreed with Micciche and said students being privately home-schooled could benefit from these kinds of programs. “Part of the discussion was that they were pulling kids out of public school because traditional academic learning, book learning, doesn’t necessarily work for their children, that it’s more hands-on,” she said. “So I think there is absolutely a resource of future apprentices and people who would fit this type of work that could be drawn from the private schools and the private home-schools.” The bill is scheduled for another hearing before the Senate Education Committee on April 20. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Copper River Seafoods exits Cook Inlet, new processor steps in

The troubled Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery is losing one processing company and gaining another ahead of its 2022 season. Copper River Seafoods announced March 28 that it will withdraw from its operations in Kenai and Kasilof this year. In a letter issued to the industry, CEO Scott Blake said the withdrawal was due to a combination of changes to the Cook Inlet management plan, rising production costs and a poor sockeye salmon forecast. The company will no longer buy salmon in Kenai, as it did last year; previously, the company bought fish in Kasilof as well, but stopped buying fish there mid-season in 2020. “We continue committed to building strong groundfish programs on the peninsula in Homer and Whittier, as well as our Cordova location,” Blake said in the letter. Copper River will continue to operate in Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay, and the company is “always willing and ready to recruit new fishermen into those markets, whether they are just starting out, are seasoned captains, or interested in transferring fishing areas,” Blake wrote. Copper River moved into Cook Inlet in 2019 after making an agreement with Snug Harbor Seafoods, a local Kenai Peninsula processor. Blake also noted that another processor, Rogue Wave Processing, would be entering the Kenai market as a buyer. Rogue Wave was started last November, and plans to operate out of the same facilities in the City of Kenai as Copper River and Snug Harbor did, both as a buyer and a processor. Matt Haakenson, who is leading the new company alongside Jason Ogilvie, said there are still some details the company is working out, but he is excited to be starting business in the Inlet. Haakenson, who was previously the fleet manager at Pacific Star Seafoods in Kenai and at Inlet Fish before that, said Rogue Wave is essentially a subsidiary of Vancouver-based seafood distributor Calkins & Burke. The holding company owns the facilities and is investing in the company; Haakenson said he was brought on for his local expertise. One of the reasons he was interested in coming on was to help keep an additional processor in the Kenai area. “Seeing how many processors have gone away — we’ve gone from over a dozen to just two,” he said. “(If) we can pull this operation off, we’ll make sure it doesn’t drop below three.” The plan is to approach the members of Copper River’s fleet who fished in 2021 and 2020, buy and process fish in the area, and to retail some of it at the storefront on Kalifornsky Beach Road. Haakenson said that is part of his hope for the company to be a good neighbor: they’d like to sell some of the fish to locals at the market at affordable prices. Rogue Wave is open to talking about postseason settlements with fishermen to make payment correct, especially in the case of Kasilof fishermen, who didn’t get to fish the entire 2020 season for Copper River. Haakenson said the details of those payments aren’t entire certain yet. “Copper River had obligations to their fishermen,” he said. “Rogue Wave is committed to fulfilling those obligations.” Coming into Upper Cook Inlet as a new processor is somewhat against the economic indicators. Commercial catches have been dwindling in the area for the last 10 years, with restrictive management measures limiting opportunity. Poor king salmon returns to the Kenai River mean severely restricted opportunity for most of the set gillnet fishermen along the east side of Cook Inlet due to the current management plan. Last year, the setnet fishermen were shut down in mid-July, missing out on the majority of the sockeye salmon run. This year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting an available Upper Cook Inlet commercial harvest of roughly 1.4 million sockeye; just more than half the 20-year average harvest of approximately 2.7 million fish. At the same time, the drift gillnet fishermen are facing a complete closure of the federal waters of Cook Inlet, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. The closure is a result of multi-year lawsuit and salmon management plan revision process through the North Pacific Fishery Management Council which went into effect this year. With the EEZ closed, the drift fishermen would be restricted to the three nautical miles from shore around the Inlet. In the past, fishermen have estimated that about half the drift fleet’s catch is from within the EEZ. The federal judge presiding over lawsuits by fishermen seeking to reopen the EEZ has indicated he intends to rule by late June, just before the start of the Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery. There are still lawsuits pending from several fishermen and from organizations representing the drift fleet seeking to reverse the decision. Haakenson said Rogue Wave intends to be in Kenai for the long-term and hopes that actions the courts will make the fishery more favorable to commercial fishermen. Rogue Wave would be only the third processor left in Cook Inlet. OBI Seafoods buys salmon in Kasilof and Ninilchik, and Pacific Star runs processing plants in Kenai. E&E Foods, the parent company for Pacific Star, also bought the former Inlet Fish facility off Cannery Road in 2020. Nate Berga, Pacific Star’s manager, said the company has been very busy during the cod season this winter and is moving into the black cod and halibut seasons now before gearing up for salmon. He said the company doesn’t have plans to leave Kenai any time soon, but understood Copper River’s decision. “Operating here on the peninsula has been a challenge over the last five-plus years,” he said. “Companies have to make decisions to diversify or pull out altogether.” Both Berga and Haakenson said they’re working on securing staff for the summer season. PacStar has regulars from both the Lower 48 and the local community, but hires additional people from the Lower 48 when volumes increase. Last year, they also started using H2B visas to bring in workers from out of the country, which helps a lot to get through the season, Berga said. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Fish Board mostly leaves Sitka herring alone following truce between users

After days of deliberation and a contentious set of proposals targeting the Southeast Alaska herring fisheries, the Alaska Board of Fisheries ultimately declined to make any major changes. The Board of Fisheries met March 10-22 in Anchorage to deliberate proposals related to a large number of Southeast fisheries. The meeting was originally schedule for January, but due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in Ketchikan — where it was supposed to take place — around the original dates of the meeting, the board chose to postpone and move the meeting to Anchorage. To make attending the multi-week meeting easier for stakeholders, the board split the proposals into topics scheduled in three sessions, with herring first. There were 14 proposals dealing with herring from a variety of stakeholders, but the most contentious was were from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance. The tribe’s proposals asked for a variety of changes to Sitka Sound herring management. The tribe’s main focus was to try to preserve more of the herring stock for subsistence use, but the commercial stakeholders say it would have come at the cost of the industry. The Sitka Tribe sued the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2018 alleging the state’s management of the herring sac roe fishery favored the commercial fleet’s harvest at the expense of traditional and subsistence uses and did not adequately protect herring stocks. The tribe agreed to drop the suit last spring after a series of rulings in the case that in-part found the state could sufficiently not back up on how it would ensure there was “reasonable opportunity” for a subsistence herring harvest each year. The tribe dropped the suit after a separate Alaska Superior Court ruling concluded there is no constitutional requirement for state managers to use the best available information in their decision-making. On the other side, the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance — an industry group representing stakeholders in the commercial sac roe herring fishery — sought to change regulations related to subsistence management. One would have opened additional area for commercial harvest, while another would have required permits for subsistence fishing to harvest roe on branches in Sitka Sound. However, on the morning when the board was supposed to begin deliberations on those proposals, a representative from the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance told the board that they and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska had agreed to work together and withdraw the proposals. A handwritten note submitted to the board, signed by representatives from both groups, confirmed it. “I would like to thank all the parties that worked so hard to come to an agreement on these proposals,” said Steve Reifenstuhl, who represented the SHCA. “I would like to thank the board members who were involved late last night. … It was a difficult task but we all worked diligently and we arrived at a consensus to withdraw (our proposals).” The board did not deliberate the groups’ proposals, and the representatives did not offer any further information about what kind of agreement was reached. The Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery has historically been a valuable one, though it has not been open since 2019. In 2018, the ex-vessel value was only worth about $1 million, according to Fish and Game, but that was down from a high in 2009 of about $12.7 million. For the sac roe fishery, the value is in the eggs, which are harvested and largely exported. Japan is the major market for herring roe. However, the value in the fishery depends heavily on the size of the herring — too big or too small, and the eggs won’t work for the processors for the product they’re looking for. “In 2021, (the) average size was 110, 115 grams, average roe size is about 11 grams,” said John Woodruff of OBI Seafoods during public testimony on March 11. “That’s very marginal for this (Japanese) gift pack market. It doesn’t present well. This year, we expect to have 120-gram fish, 125-gram fish. It’s going to be good stuff.” Jamie Ross, a fisherman from Homer, told the board that herring markets depend tightly on size, so Sitka fish are not easily substituted for another within the processing market. “Sitka fish are the most valuable for their size, 120-130 (grams),” he said. “Kodiak fish occupy a bigger size range, and the Togiak fish, we really can’t sell them if they’re under 300 grams. They’re used in a completely different product form in Japan.” The Sitka Sound herring fleet was on notice as of early March 22, with Fish and Game managers reporting no herring schools or spawn sighted. However, survey conditions were poor, with bad weather and air turbulence, according to an announcement issued Monday. A two-hour notice for fishing could be issued any time after Tuesday morning, according to Fish and Game. The board did deliberate on the remaining proposals, approving only one in the end. The one successful proposal increases the possession limit for subsistence spawn-on-kelp harvest from 32 to 75 pounds for an individual, or from 158 pounds to 325 for a family. Board members said they saw increasing the harvest limit as reasonable it based on the current stock levels and to make the fishery more efficient, reducing the number of trips that subsistence harvesters have to make. Board member John Jensen said he’d support it based on the herring numbers projected by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “There’s a lot of herring coming in, and I don’t think it’s going to cause any serious problems — it’s just going to give people more opportunity,” he said. None of the proposals seemed significantly controversial among the board members — all except one were unanimous. The only one that split the vote was a proposal that would have established a quota share system for the sac roe herring fishery, split up among all existing permit holders. The proposer said that the fishery is dangerous currently because of the rush to harvest during a short fishery, often lasting less than a week. A second proposal asked for a very similar measure for very similar reasons. Board member Israel Payton said he didn’t think tying the quota to the permit fit with the intent of how the permits were designed. “I’m very cautious on this one,” he said. “I understand the proposer’s reasonings and he had some great reasonings to do it, but I don’t think the board needs to step in as a government agency and regulate the competitive commerce that’s going on in this fishery.” Jensen was the only member who voted in favor, citing conservation concerns about the fishery, as it could reduce the number of boats on the water, who would be able to focus on their fishing without having to be worried about the chaotic activity of boats around them. He also said he wasn’t as concerned about the complaints that this would put crew members out of jobs because fishermen in recent years have had trouble finding enough crew members to fish at all. “Manning boats, nowadays, it was never like that when I fished back in the day. People were begging for these jobs, seine jobs,” he said. “Nowadays, if you want to be a seiner, you’d better have a big family so you have a crew.” The proposal failed 5-1, with Jensen voting in favor. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Crab crash: Effects of collapsed Bering Sea crab stocks are being felt far beyond the fleet

The crash in Bering Sea crab stocks is translating to serious impacts for fishermen and communities across the Western Alaska coast. A long-term decline in Bristol Bay red king crab abundance paired with an unforeseen plummet in snow crab stocks led to significant cuts in the available Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab harvest for 2022. From the top, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is closed entirely this season for the first time since the 1990s, while the Bering Sea snow crab total allowable catch was reduced by nearly 90 percent. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service are working on a stock rebuilding plan for the snow crab, but that could take years. In the meantime, fishermen who depend on crab are dealing with the fallout of those cuts this year. When the crabbing season began in January — red king crab fishing traditionally starts in October — boat captains had to decide whether it was worth making the trip out into the Bering Sea for such less quota than they were used to. Gabriel Prout of Kodiak was waiting out a storm in the Akutan harbor last week, after finishing up his snow crab season. The F/V Silver Spray, the vessel he owns with his father and brothers, was only able to go out for 100,000 pounds of snow crab. Of that, they only caught about 75,000 pounds because the fishing was so slow; they traded the rest of the quota for bairdi and headed south. Tough ice conditions also made the fishing difficult, Prout said. For the first time in many years the ice reached the northern side of St. Paul Island, and it covered up many of the spots where crab had recently been known to congregate. But even in the open spots, according to Prout, fishing was very slow. “(We caught) 200 to 300 crab per pot on average last year,” he said. “Going back to kind of the same area this year and looking around several miles in each direction, I have to say it was fairly poor and spotty. We didn’t even have a pot of 200 crabs. I think our high pot was 180 — right around 100 keepers a pot. Not too exciting out there. Some boats went farther up north there toward the beginning in mid-January, but like we mentioned, the ice kind of covered up some of the more desirable spots.” The Silver Spray went out to its normal fishing grounds, but not every vessel did. Prout said some of the others chose to stay behind in harbor, to save the fuel and crew pay in a year with such low quota. Others are choosing to diversify and trade quota where they can and looking for other opportunities. After finishing the crabbing season, he said the Silver Spray will be crossing the Gulf of Alaska to tender for the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery. “There’s definitely boats that are looking for more opportunity this year,” Prout said. “When you have your snow crab quota reduced by 90 percent ... that’s a big, big hit to these vessels out there. There’s definitely boats kind of scrambling, looking for opportunity.” St. Paul Fishing Co. has a combination of both. The company, a subsidiary of the CDQ group Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, owns three crabbing vessels and quota in the Bering Sea crab fishery. Over time, the company — based on the small island in the central Bering Sea, with a year-round population of about 470 people — has bought up more of the crab quotas in the region, making itself economically dependent on the fate of the crab fishery. Jeff Kauffman, CEO of St. Paul Fishing Co., said the company sent two boats out to fish snow crab this year. The quota cuts translated to one load from one boat and two loads from another. That was it. “(The crews’) incomes were slashed very, very significantly,” he said. “We put one boat up for sale, and that put six guys out of work, which is incredibly unfortunate because those guys have worked for us for some time now.” The company invested heavily in crab back in 2015, when it bought out Icicle Seafoods’ quota. Crab is now the most important economic resource to St. Paul. While halibut are the cash fishery and provide both food and personal income to the island, it’s crab that brings in the major money to the island. The CDQ group does hold some quota for pollock and for black cod, but not on the scale that it does with crab. Pollock saw about a 19 percent cut this year, which hurt as well, Kauffman said. The processing plant is a major employer, and the tax revenue from the landings help pay for the infrastructure and government in the community. When the cuts were announced, leaders of St. Paul Fishing Co. and CBSFA met to discuss emergency budget cutting, working with the tribe and the community, Kauffman said. It was challenging, but the organization managed to keep its budget balanced this year, but the boats and the crews are paying for it, he said. “One boat last year did 1.8 million pounds last year, only did 200,000 pounds this year,” he said. “Boats are expensive, insurance rates continue to climb ... everything is seemingly getting more expensive, and all of a sudden, we have a lot less revenue to make that happen.” No one knows when or if the crab stocks will rebound, or even the reason for the decline. Researchers have said they’re reasonably certain something happened that caused a mortality event, but not entirely sure what. Until they do rebound, the fishermen and communities will have to plan around the scarcity of crab. The loss of revenue to the local government is a major cost to the decline in the fishery as well. During the Council’s September 2021 meeting, when the crab TAC cuts were first being discussed, Unalaska Mayor Vincent Tutiakoff Sr. wrote that the City of Unalaska would lose not only the fisheries landing taxes from the Bristol Bay red king crab and snow crab fisheries, but also lost taxes on fuel sales and lost wharfage revenue. At that time, when they were estimating only a 50 percent cut in snow crab, it meant $1.7 million less for the city with an operating budget of nearly $30 million. St. Paul’s residents often fish halibut for cash and subsistence, but without crab, the island’s government and services will decline, according to Kauffman. He noted that if the fishery closes entirely or the quota becomes too small, the processing plant may not open, which would reduce economic activity on the island. The tourism sector on the island also depends on the plant, which is where the tourists who come to see birds and seals are fed and sometimes housed. “It’s hard to imagine a day in the Bering Sea where there’s no crab fishery, and when the crab plant is completely dark,” Kauffman said. “It’s absolutely terrifying for the residents of St. Paul. This is who we’ve become and who we are and how we exist. Halibut is the most important to the people, but crab is the most important to the community.” The Bering Sea Crabbers Association and a number of the stakeholders are working on a request for fisheries disaster relief. However, even that wouldn’t likely bring immediate help, as federal disaster declaration and relief funding can take years to arrive. Prout said streamlining that relief is one thing that would help the fishermen significantly, and they hope to see relief to help with expenses like boat payments and lost income. He and his brothers are younger and bought into half of the fishing business with their father, who has been fishing for decades on the Bering Sea. Despite the downturn, they still have hope that the fishery will improve enough to support them in the future and provide opportunity. “There’s still a lot of opportunity here,” Prout said. “Leading up to 2021, the snow crab quotas were looking really, really healthy. In 2019, they were seeing the biggest recruitment ever, not really sure where that went. Obviously, king crab has been on the decline for a little while. Really, it’s diversifying, going into the fishery to supplement your income, buying into those shares to boost your income a little bit. You want to get the next generation involved in this, and that’s what we’re trying to do.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

State park land swap bill would keep Tutka Bay hatchery open

A bill moving through the Legislature would provide a chunk of land cut out of a state park to an embattled hatchery just south of Homer to settle debate about its legality, but locals feelings about the proposal are mixed. House Bill 52, sponsored by Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, would allow for a land designation change in Kachemak Bay State Park, a large wilderness park across Kachemak Bay from Homer. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association operates the hatchery in Tutka Bay, which is within the boundaries of Kachemak Bay State Park, producing pink and sockeye salmon. The pink salmon are primarily targeted by the commercial fishermen in lower Cook Inlet, while the sockeye salmon reared there are used by commercial, sport and personal use fishermen, including at the popular China Poot dipnet fishery. The park was created in 1970. Shortly after its creation, the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery was built by the state in 1975, targeting pink and chum salmon run enhancement. The state handed it over for operation to Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, which has operated it ever since. CIAA shuttered the operation between 2004 and 2011 due to low pink salmon prices, but maintained the facility and reopened it when pink salmon prices made the hatchery operation economically viable again. Today, commercial fishermen harvest the hatchery pink salmon in addition to the wild stocks. The hatchery has long been a target of ire for conservationists, sportfishing groups, recreational users and property owners in Kachemak Bay, among other opposition. Over the years, they have contested that the hatchery does not comply with the purpose of the park, challenging the hatchery’s use of net pens and operating permits. A forthcoming proposed management plan for Kachemak Bay State Park would also designate the hatchery “incompatible” with park operations. The bill is designed to help deal with another problem — a longstanding illegal land disposal problem. Vance said the bill would carve out about 123.5 acres where the hatchery sits and simultaneously incorporate another 267 acres of state land on the road-accessible northern side of Kachemak Bay into the existing park, resulting in a net gain for the park and resolving the constitutional issue. Vance said the issue over the hatchery has led to concern among her constituents in Homer and that she understands those who are opposed to the bill. “I completely understand where they’re coming from, but we have a legal land disposal issue,” she said. The land use issue arises from a section of the Alaska Constitution that deals with land acquisition for special purpose sites, according to a joint letter from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources sating the administration’s support for the bill. Removing the lands from the park would resolve that problem, as well as transferring management of the lands the hatchery occupies from the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation — which doesn’t usually manage hatcheries — to the Division of Mining, Land and Water in coordination with Fish and Game. The new version of the bill also adds a reversion clause, preventing the land from being sold if the hatchery ever does close. If the hatchery closes for three years, the land will automatically revert to the park, which Fish and Game and DNR support, according to the letter. “We find this provision appropriate and a strong compromise that balances the interests of the varied public policy considerations,” the letter, signed by DNR Commissioner Corri Feigi and Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, states. The lands that would be added to the park would also provide direct road access to the section on the north side for the first time. Currently, users have to park and cross private land and borough easements to reach the park by vehicle, Vance said during a Feb. 7 House Resources hearing. During the Feb. 7 hearing, legislators raised some concerns about CIAA’s debt for its facilities and ability to raise revenue by running the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery. Pink salmon typically earn a much lower price per pound than any other type of commercially harvested salmon, and the hatchery makes a return on investment in part through a cost recovery harvest of the salmon that return to its facilities. HB 52 is the House Resources Committee — it’s last stop before a potential House vote — after moving through the Fisheries Committee last year. Sam Rabung, the director of the Division of Commercial Fisheries, said hatcheries commonly use pink salmon and chum salmon programs to help underwrite the more expensive king, sockeye and silver salmon programs. Currently, CIAA is in about $15 million of debt to the state for its salmon enhancement programs and facilities, about 23 percent of which is due to the Tutka hatchery, he said. The cost recovery helps enable them to pay those debts; if the hatchery were closed, the organization would still be on the hook for the debt and have to pay it through returns to other hatcheries. “Pink salmon do pay the bills,” he said. “Maybe the price is lower for pinks, but they make up for it in volume. There’s not a hatchery program in the state … that don’t exist without a pink or chum program.” Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery also provides rearing facilities for sockeye salmon runs in Lower Cook Inlet, including to the China Poot personal use dipnet fishery. Rabung said the state doesn’t have precise numbers about participation in that fishery, but that it is significant, and is dependent on the Tutka hatchery because there is nowhere else to rear and imprint sockeye for the Lower Cook Inlet lake systems. Without the Tutka hatchery, the China Poot run and other Lower Cook Inlet sockeye hatchery runs would “cease to exist,” he said. During a Feb. 11 hearing before the House Resources Committee on the bill, residents of Homer spoke largely in opposition to it. Most of them cited conservation concerns and issues with the fiscal solvency of the facility. Roberta Highland, a longtime Homer conservation activist, told the committee that she understands the land disposal issue, but that Tutka Bay is not the right place for a hatchery. “Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery has had years of problems, and this really has never been the right spot for this hatchery,” she said. A signed letter from an organization called Cook Inlet Coalition and signed by dozens of Homer activists, including former state representative Paul Seaton, former Board of Fisheries member Virgil Umphenour, multiple commercial fishermen, and two former employees of the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery, argues that the operation of the hatchery is “incompatible with the statutory purpose, intent, and definition of Kachemak Bay State Park” under a forthcoming park management plan and asks the Legislature to oppose the bill. CIAA Executive Director Dean Day wrote in a Feb. 11 letter that one of the reasons the hatchery has significant debt is because of the infrastructure investment required to reopen it after years of being closed. The current debt load of $15 million is from 1992 to present, with earlier bills since the organizations founding in 1976 having been paid off, he wrote. However, the loss of a hatchery would be damaging. “The loss of operations in any hatchery will have an immediate effect on CIAA’s ability to provide funding for its other programs,” Day wrote. Steve Vanek of Ninilchik, who serves on the CIAA board of directors, pointed to other commercial operations in the park and set them equal to the hatchery as businesses. “Tutka hatchery is a business, which depends on many support businesses,” he said. “In a time when oil is no longer king, are we going to get rid of another fishing business?” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Halibut commission raises most Alaska harvest limits for 2022

An uptick in halibut stocks along much of the Pacific coast means increases in total catch limits in every region of Alaska this year. The International Pacific Halibut Commission decided in its annual meeting last week to increase catch limits in every management region except for 2A — which covers the California, Oregon, and Washington coast — with an overall coastwide increase of nearly 6%. The total removal limit is set at 41.2 million pounds, with 33.7 million of those going to United States fishermen. The increase comes after IPHC researchers informed the commission that halibut stocks were showing signs of rebounding from lows in the last five years, in part due to a large age class from 2012 becoming mature. The long-term trends of decline seemed to end in 2013, when the stocks began to climb again. The largest increase came for Area 3B, which covers the western Gulf of Alaska — from 3.1 million to 3.9 million pounds, or an approximately 25% increase. Area 2C, which covers Southeast Alaska, saw the smallest increase, climbing 1.9%, from 5.8 million to 5.9 million pounds. Those numbers are for total removals; the totals are split between the recreational sector and commercial. Southeast Alaska was the only region that saw its commercial limits decline, but only slightly — by less than 1% — from 3.53 million pounds to 3.51 million pounds. The differential between the increase overall but the decline in commercial removals is a matter of math: other removals come off the top before commercial allocations are set, such as unguided and subsistence removals. Area 2C stakeholders had been projecting a potential cut to the limit for the area because the actual survey information found a 12 percent decline in the halibut populations in Southeast. The region has seen cuts over the last several years, leading to tighter limits on its commercial fishing sector and its charter sector, which is a major part of Southeast’s tourism industry. Area 2C exceeded its mortality limits in 2021 by 8 percent, the only area last year to do so, according to IPHC documents. Within 2C, the charter sector, unguided recreational sector, and commercial discard mortality limits were all exceeded. By comparison, area 3A — which covers the central Gulf of Alaska and the popular charter sport fisheries out of Homer and Seward — also exceeded its limits in those same areas, but less harvest in other areas put Area 3A at 99 percent of its limit overall Linda Behnken, the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, says part of what’s happening in Southeast is that Canadian fishermen are taking about 5% more of the harvest than what the survey finds in area 2B, which covers the British Columbia coast. To make up for it and reduce some of the economic impact to Southeast fishermen, the commissioners moved some of the allocation for areas 3B and 4B to 2C, she said. The current catch sharing agreement between the U.S. and Canada allocates about 18 percent of the coast-wide harvest of Pacific halibut to Canadian fishermen. Survey data shows that the vast majority of halibut spawn in Alaskan coastal waters. Behnken says this agreement is again disproportionate in favor of Canada. “We are all looking forward to a more equitable sharing of the resource starting in 2023, Behnken said. “87% of the halibut resource is found off our coast by the halibut survey, but Canada takes 18% of the available harvest. That is an unsustainable ‘sharing’ of resources between the two countries that has to change.” The U.S. negotiates with Canada every year through the IPHC on how to share the Pacific halibut stocks on the coasts of both countries, but once the IPHC sets the catch limits, it’s up to the national fisheries managers — the National Marine Fisheries Service, in the U.S. — to manage the fishery. The dates for the 2022 fishery are currently set from March 6–December 7. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bering Sea snow crab deemed ‘overfished’

After a sudden decline in the stock last year, federal managers have officially designated Bering Sea snow crab as overfished and are working on a plan to rebuild the stock. In October, the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that with its current low numbers, the stock of Bering Sea snow crab — also known as opilio crab — is officially overfished. That means that there is not enough mature male biomass to reach what’s considered the minimum stock size to be a sustainable fishery. As of the most recent survey, mature male biomass was estimated at 50,600 metric tons, which is significantly below the minimum threshold of 76,700 metric tons. However, the stock is “not subject to overfishing,” according to a report submitted to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on the issue. That’s because the fishery removals aren’t above the level considered to be sustainable — rather, it’s because the stock dropped for other reasons that scientists and managers aren’t entire sure of yet. By regulation under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the council is required to develop a stock rebuilding plan in the meantime. Stock rebuilding plans are designed to set out a plan to bring a stock back to sustainable levels within a reasonable timeframe while taking the effects on communities, treaties, and marine ecosystems into consideration. Any rebuilding plan would be incorporated into the fishery management plan. The implementation of a plan doesn’t necessarily lead to restrictions in other fisheries, although it may, according to the report. “If associated regulations that affect other fisheries (i.e. groundfish) are necessary, additional implementation of regulations would be required,” the Bering Sea opilio report states. “Rebuilding plans must consider the following three components to improve the status of the stock: a harvest strategy, bycatch control measures, and habitat protection measures. Not all rebuilding plans will amend current management measures to all three components.” The council has considered a rebuilding plan for snow crab once before, in 2010, said Diana Stram, council staff who works with the Crab Plan Team. However, the stock rebounded, and the plan didn’t have to go into place. This time the stock is at its lowest numbers ever, but scientists are hopeful that this stock will recover, unlike some of the others, Stram said. Researchers compiling the survey data in the fall found that female crab numbers had dropped approximately 99 percent from the previous year along with a substantial drop in males. At the time, they said there were two options: either the crab are alive and the survey completely missed them, which researchers said was unlikely, or the crab are dead. If they are dead, there are a variety of potential causes, including predation by Pacific cod and bitter crab syndrome, among others. Stram said it’s increasingly seeming that the crab are dead. Fishing can also lead to unobserved mortality, according to the update to the council. “Unobserved mortality can also occur when crab is impacted by, but not captured in fishing gear,” the report states. “For instance, crab may actively escape capture from trawl gear, as they can slip under the trawl itself, or over the sweeps, but the damage from the gear results in mortality or delayed mortality due to injuries. The potential for unobserved mortality of crabs that encounter bottom trawls but are not captured has long been a concern for the management of groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea It is not accounted for in crab stock assessments.” The rebuilding plan would take that uncertainty into account and would set up a timeframe with maximum and minimum times. At minimum, the stock would need to meet the minimum threshold for at least one year to be considered rebuilt; at max, it will probably be set at 10 years or so, Stram said. If the stock doesn’t recover within that time, the council can revisit the plan and make adjustments as necessary. Several other crab stocks in the Bering Sea are already under rebuilding plans, including the St. Matthew Island blue king crab and the Pribilof Islands blue king crab. Some, like St. Matthew Island, have been under rebuilding plans with no fishing allowed for many years. However, there is some difference between between that stock and the Bering Sea snow crab, Stram said, and the scientists expect the snow crab to be able to make a recovery. One difference is that the blue king crab declined steadily for years; snow crab, on the other hand, showed some increases within the last five years. The crabbers themselves have expressed some skepticism about the results of the surveys because they are finding crab on the fishing grounds. Jamie Goen, the executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabber’s Association, said the fleet recognizes that the survey results are the best science available, but that the crabbing season is going relatively well with the fishermen encountering snow crab on the grounds. The crab fishing quotas were cut significantly in light of the reduced crab stocks; Goen said the fleet estimated the loss in revenue at more than $200 million. With a stock rebuilding plan to go into place, it will likely mean reduced fishing for the life of the plan as managers try to rebuild the stock. Goen noted that there are options to allow the fleet to continue fishing under a plan, but it depends on what the data says about the minimum time for the stock to rebuild to the minimum threshold. Stram said the scientists are still working on the data necessary to provide the council with all the necessary information to build the rebuilding plan, so the information provided for the February meeting is an update. The council won’t take action until at least May or June, when the data is scheduled to be more complete. The Crab Plan Team and Scientific and Statistical Committee meet this week, and the council is scheduled to begin meeting Feb 7. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska Senate picks bill to grow seafood tax credits, infrastructure back up

A bill to continue Alaska’s seafood production tax credit and expand it to new fisheries is getting early attention this legislative session. The state currently runs a tax credit program for qualified seafood processors that invest in value-added processing equipment in Alaska. The program, which currently only covers salmon and herring fisheries, has been around since 2003 and extended several times since. For most of that history, it only covered salmon; herring were added in 2014. Senate Bill 33, sponsored by Sen. Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak), would renew the program again through the end of 2025 and extend it to include the pollock and cod fisheries, two of the largest fisheries in the state. Salmon are the leading fishery for value, with about $715 million in exvessel value in 2019, according to a report compiled for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute by the McKinley Research Institute. Pollock came in second, with $484 million in value. However, pollock dwarfs salmon in volume — harvesters landed about 3.3 billion pounds of pollock compared to 865 million pounds of salmon. Tim Lamkin, an aide to Stevens, said the program is designed to help seafood processors install equipment to increase the value of seafood landings. The credits would only be available to equipment valued in the state. Multiple seafood processing companies and trade organizations testified in favor of the bill during a Jan 24. Senate Finance Committee hearing. Chris Barrows, president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, told the committee that the bill is a “win-win-win,” as it increases value of harvest. That brings added value both for the industry and for the local and state governments, which benefit from a raw fish landing tax. In addition to different types of products, value-added processing can also utilize different parts of fish, such as bones and skins. Barrows pointed to fishmeal as an example of the industry innovating to use more of the landed fish. Jeremy Woodrow, the executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, pointed to the difference between pounds of fish landed and pounds of fish exported. There’s about a 3 billion pound gap, which is being lost as waste, he said. “This leaves roughly 3 billion pounds of product and opportunity to add even more value to Alaska’s seafood resources,” he said. He said that Alaska is lagging behind other seafood producers, like Russia, in terms of investing in its processing infrastructure for the industry and needs to catch up in order to compete. Prior to the pandemic, seafood processing companies were investing about $100 million in infrastructure in Alaska each year, Woodrow said. The equipment that processors use to create those value-added products can be expensive. Mark Palmer, CEO of OBI Seafoods, noted that it can be difficult to amortize the cost of that equipment over the length of some of the fisheries, which can be only weeks long. The tax credits help offset that cost to put the equipment in reach, according to Palmer. “This bill was really a catalyst that switched infrastructure, that put permanent infrastructure in place that will continue to produce in future years,” he said. “It’s not just a one-and-done bill.” Looking into the future, Alaska’s processors also need to shift toward more value-added products to access the domestic markets, Palmer said. In the past decade, China has been Alaska’s main seafood trading partner, with the state exporting seafood for reprocessing and consumption there. China consumed a lot of commodity goods, Palmer said. But since 2017, when former president Donald Trump instituted trade tariffs that touched off a trade conflict between China and the U.S., the traffic of seafood to China has declined, and companies have had to look to other markets. Palmer said the processors will have to account for different tastes in markets like the U.S. and Europe. “For our industry to shift away from a market of that size and create value added products… they’re going to require higher-value, once-frozen products,” Palmer added. Since 2003, an average of $2.3 million in credits has been provided every year, with the majority going to salmon, according to a quantitative analysis from the McKinley Research Group. The report states that the credit program does incentivize higher utilization and value and provides a “net gain to the state of Alaska and local communities by creating more and higher value products which generate higher tax revenue.” “The tax credit has directly contributed to the generation of an additional $114.4 million in new revenue to the State of Alaska general fund due to product form changes and the resulting increase in product value,” he said. One of the major changes was a decrease in the total volume of canned product and the increase in frozen salmon production. The total value of salmon products increased as well, by about $1.1 billion, according to the analysis. The tax credit program is estimated to cost $2.9 million in fiscal year 2023, then $3.7 million in 2024, $4.4 million in 2025, and $5.1 million in 2026, according to the fiscal note submitted to the Legislature in April 2021. However, a new fiscal note that was published more recently lowers those estimates. The Senate Finance Committee tabled SB 33 at the end of the hearing, pending answers to some legislators questions, including questions about the applicability of the tax credit to processors based outside the state; whether the state agrees with the projections for the value to the state and the reasons for the updated fiscal note estimates. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Southeast Conference focused on growing mariculture opportunities

Development of a key processing facility for Southeast’s burgeoning mariculture industry just got a $500,000 jumpstart. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the awarding of a grant to the Southeast Conference, the economic development organization for Southeast Alaska. The $500,000 grant will go to help cover design and planning for a future mariculture processing facility, which would be located on Prince of Wales Island — one of the largest islands in the Southeast archipelago. Prince of Wales Island is a sparsely populated island, but it is home to one of the larger kelp farms currently operating in the state. Robert Venables, the executive director of the Southeast Conference, said the regional development group has been working on the grant for some time. Mariculture operators have been discussing the need for a processing plant in the state for some time, but the up-front cost would have been too high for individual businesses to shoulder. The grant will help speed up the design, planning and public engagement parts of that process. Part of the choice of the region was strategic for the industry, and another part was because the economy of Prince of Wales Island could use a boost, Venables said. “There are a number of stakeholders that have already made investments in that area, and others who I think would like to,” he said. “And Prince of Wales Island is an area that is known for its depressed economy in part because of the decline of the timber industry.” Another opportunity for study could be to overlap with existing seafood industry facilities. While Alaska has some year-round fisheries, many are seasonal, and processing facilities are shuttered for the off-season. There could be some opportunity for the mariculture industry, which has its own off-season, to share with that infrastructure rather than to build more that will be “deserted for half the year,” Venables said. Sen. Lisa Murkowski congratulated the Southeast Conference on winning the grant in a Jan. 16 statement from her office. “Creating sustainable economies in rural and remote communities can be challenging, but this investment, in recognition of the promise that Alaska’s unique and growing mariculture industry holds, is important progress,” Murkowski said. “This new facility will create jobs and support a growing industry in our state. While finfish and shellfish are two pillars of the seafood economy in Alaska, the commercial use of kelp and other seaweeds for food and other purposes is on the rise in many of our coastal communities.” $100 million challenge The Prince of Wales processing facility isn’t the only mariculture-focused project that Southeast Conference is taking on. In early January, the organization announced its intention to participate in the Build Back Better Challenge, a federal program through U.S. Economic Development Administration, as one of 60 finalists across the country. The project is called the Alaska Mariculture Cluster, designed to help support growth in the industry. If the organization is successful in the challenge before March 15, it could be awarded up to $100 million to support eight mariculture projects across the state. Venables said part of that is a solicitation for a consultant to study several aspects of the industry, including business modeling and market analyses and overall mariculture infrastructure assessment, among other pieces. The organization is still evaluating, but Venables said they tentatively plan to award it to the McKinley Research Group. Southeast is looking for new industries. The timber industry in many parts of Southeast has atrophied since the 1980s and ‘90s, and the salmon fishing industry has natural fluctuations but has had several hard years with king salmon closures and poor chum and pink returns. Tourism, particularly cruise ship tourism, provided another major industry, but the closures in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions on cruise ship travel heavily impacted Southeast communities. Kelp and clam farms have been operating in the region for some time, but they’re starting to look more toward a bigger future. The National Marine Fisheries Service notes that Alaska is among the regions leading kelp farming and is home to the largest kelp farm in North America. Kelp is used in a wide variety of dishes, as well as in other products ranging from fertilizer and cosmetics. The first commercial harvest of kelp in Alaska occurred in 2017, and since then has increased by 200 percent; in 2019, the farmers harvested 112,000 pounds of it. Though kelp is the main leading product, Alaska mariculture farms also produce products including oysters and geoduck clams. On top of creating jobs for the region, creating a new export from Alaska could also help reduce freight costs, Venables said. Once, Southeast exported timber, which allowed shipping companies to split up some of their cost of transit in bringing cargo up to Alaska between both the outbound and returning trips. Now, containers often return empty to the Lower 48, Venables said. “The shippers that bring all of our product into Alaska largely go back unutilized if not outright empty,” he said. “Creating something in the state that we can then ship out is going to help all the way around.” Once the design and planning phase of the mariculture processing facility is complete, Southeast Conference is leaving its options open on how to fund the actual building, Venables said. Some alternatives include partnering with private industry or looking to more federal funding, but they are keeping all options in mind, he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Halibut commission to set harvest limits with overall biomass increasing

Halibut fishermen across the Pacific coast will be watching the International Pacific Halibut Commission in a few weeks to see what quotas and limits look like this year. The International Pacific Halibut Commission will meet online starting on Jan. 24. The commission, made up of representatives from the U.S. and Canada, sets the annual catch limits for halibut from the U.S. West Coast through Canada out to the Bering Sea. This year, surveys show that the overall biomass increased by 4 percent, a marked turn from the declines seen in recent years. However, survey data showed mixed results for the areas in Alaska, ranging from an 11 percent decline in Southeast Alaska to a 57 percent increase in southwestern Alaska. Southcentral Alaska, the most populous region, saw a 4 percent decline; there was a 6 percent decline in the eastern Aleutians; a 7 percent increase in the western Aleutians; and a 9 percent decline in the central and northern Bering Sea. Overall, the coastwide stock saw a 4 percent increase, with the declines in Alaska balanced out by an 11 percent increase in Canadian waters, according to the stock assessment provided to the IPHC ahead of the meeting. “The current trend in population distribution appears to be shifting back toward Biological Region 3 after more than a decade of decline,” the stock assessment states. The stock assessments have shown consistent decline coastwide for the last four years, with declining catch limits for the commercial and recreational sectors. At the 2021 meeting, the IPHC increased catch limits about 6.5 percent and extended the season by a month, running from March through December. Long-term, the stock declined from the late 1990s to around 2012, driven largely by “a result of decreasing size-at-age,” according to the assessment. The age classes from 2006-2013 were mostly smaller than those from the previous decade, but the 2012 age class appears to be large like the historical ones. In addition to setting the catch limits, the commission has several proposals related to federal halibut management to consider, such as allowing fishermen to use the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s digital logbook tool to record sport halibut harvest and setting the slot limits and weekly closures in the charter fisheries in Southeast and Southcentral. In Southeast, the proposal recommends a reverse slot limit. If that doesn’t keep the fishery within its allocation, then the charter fishery would be closed on Mondays starting September 19, gradually working its way earlier in the season depending on the charter allocation, with the earliest date being May 19. If the allocation still wouldn’t be reached after closing all Mondays, the annual limit would decrease to four per year, then three. In Southcentral, the recommendations include a two-fish limit per day, with one of any size and the other 28 inches or smaller for charter anglers. Wednesdays would be closed to halibut retention all year and charter vessels limited to one trip per day, and one trip per charter halibut permit per day. There would be no annual limit on retained Pacific halibut for charter anglers, though. The moving piece depending on allocation is Tuesday closures. Like Southeast, depending on the size of the allocation, the number of closed Tuesdays ranges from zero to starting on Feb. 1 and running all season. The recommendations for Southeast and Southcentral came from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, after it received input from Fish and Game and its Charter Halibut Management Committee. Members on that committee from Southeast are concerned about the potential for allocation cuts in Southeast this year. Some of that has to do with what Canada is willing to do. “One member (from Southeast) noted that without any adjustments the IPHC International agreement to assign a fixed allocation percentage in Area 2B could potentially impact the 2C reverse slot limit by 3 critical inches,” a North Pacific Council memo about the proposal to the IPHC states. Beyond just setting catch limits and evaluating proposals, the commission also considers scientific and economic research. One of the ongoing projects includes a socioeconomic study on the impact of halibut to the regional economies of Canada and the U.S. The study includes industries ranging from directed halibut fishing to processing, manufacturing, retail and charter, among others, and seeks to quantify the benefit in fisheries “from hook to plate,” according to an update on the project provided to the commission. The most recent update estimates that commercial halibut fishing resulted in about $195.9 million in household earnings in 2019. The model does include data from 2020, but because of effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers aren’t considered typical of past years. “Detailed results are provided for 2019 as this represents a more typical year for the economy. The estimates for 2020 suggest that Pacific halibut commercial sectors’ contribution to households decreased by 25 percent, and output related to Pacific halibut commercial fishing decreased by 27 percent,” according to the report. Of the $23.7 million earned in direct halibut fishing in Alaska in 2019, about 70 percent of that remained in the state, according to the report, with most of that in Ketchikan, Petersburg and Sitka. One of the goals of the socioeconomic work is to highlight the cross-boundary nature of the halibut fisheries as well as the impact away from just direct harvest. It’s also intended to help policymakers understand the vulnerability of communities that are particularly reliant on halibut to stock fluctuations. “A good understanding of the localized effects is pivotal to policymakers who are often concerned about community impacts, particularly in terms of impact on employment opportunities and households’ welfare,” the report states. “Fisheries policies have a long history of disproportionally hurting smaller communities, often because potential adverse effects were not sufficiently assessed.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Board of Fish postpones Southeast meeting, new time TBD

Update: The Board of Fisheries announced Jan. 11 the Southeast finfish and shellfish meeting will be held March 10-22 in Anchorage to balance the challenges of logistics, other board meetings, the timing of fisheries and the latest surge in COVID-19 cases in Alaska, according to a statement from Department of Fish and Game officials. Original story: The Alaska Board of Fisheries kicked off the new year by postponing its Southeast regulatory meeting. The meeting was supposed to run from Jan. 4–15 in Ketchikan. It would have been the first in-person Board of Fisheries meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic started forcing cancellations in March 2020. A Jan. 1 announcement from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the postponement of the Southeast meeting was out of “abundance of caution due to the record-breaking rise of COVID-19 cases in the United States, and a concerning sharp rise in Southeast Alaska.” Like most regions of the United States, COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Southeast Alaska. Several Fish and Game staff members who were supposed to participate in the meeting recently tested positive for COVID-19 as well, according to the announcement. “Conducting this intensely public 12-day meeting with potential attendance of over 200 people from around the state has the potential to cause a significant case spike in Ketchikan and lead to overrunning its hospital capacity already expected to strain from local infections from the holiday season,” the announcement states. ADFG did not announce a new date or location, but the Board of Fisheries intends to finish its regulatory cycle within this year, according to the Jan. 1 statement. Herring Herring management is at the top of the list of concerns for the Southeast Alaska meeting, with a raft of proposals dividing users primarily between the subsistence and commercial groups. The largest commercial herring fishery in Southeast is in Sitka Sound, though there are smaller fisheries spread across the region. They’re harvested in a number of different ways for several purposes, including as sac-roe and for commercial bait or food, and the spawn is harvested on kelp for both commercial purposes and subsistence. The sac-roe fishery and spawn-on-kelp fisheries all typically take place in the spring, when herring are spawning in Southeast, while the bait and food fishery typically takes place in the fall and winter. A set of 15 proposals before the board at this meeting offer changes to the harvest rate strategy, time and area, quota shares, gear and management plans. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska offered several of the proposals to change the strategy for the Sitka Sound fishery, primarily to preserve the stock for subsistence use. All three proposals received dozens of public comments in support from commercial fishermen, subsistence users and tribal members, among others. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska sued ADFG officials in 2018 over the state’s herring management strategies, which Tribe officials contend favor commercial interests. The case is now before the Alaska Supreme Court. The recent biomass in Sitka Sound has been increasing, which means the harvest rate has been near that 20 percent recently, but the amount of remaining harvestable surplus for subsistence users and ecosystem use is based on old data and is not enough, according to the Sitka Tribe. The first proposes to limit commercial harvest of the Sitka Sound herring stock to less than 20 percent of the total spawning biomass, and the other two seek to limit the harvest of the older fish, which are larger. In their rationale, Sitka Tribe of Alaska officials wrote that the demands of the commercial fishery mean larger fish are the ones being most heavily targeted. “Currently, many herring captured by the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery are young and small and do not meet market demands,” the Tribe’s proposal states. “Consequently, the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery consistently targets and harvests the oldest, largest, most fecund females in the population. These are the very fish we should protect to ensure the long-term health of the population.” A dozen other proposals seek to change the regulations of the herring fisheries as well. Those from the Sitka Herring Conservation Alliance, a fishing industry group, ask for reduced closed areas to commercial fishing in Sitka Sound and a new requirement for a subsistence fishing permit to harvest herring roe on branches in Sitka Sound. Several individuals are asking for an increase in the possession limit for subsistence spawn-on-kelp and the establishment of equal-share quotas for the Sitka sac roe purse seine fishery. Hatcheries Herring aren’t the only topic of contention, though. Several proposals targeting the operation of salmon hatcheries in Southeast would set up a list of requirements for hatchery operations, including limiting straying rates — hatchery salmon that return to nearby streams and mix with wild stocks — and setting controls on production if straying rates exceed a certain amount. The author of the proposal, Pioneer Alaskan Fisheries, Inc., notes concern about the mixing of hatchery salmon stocks with wild stocks out of Silver Bay near Sitka. “This remaining pristine quadrant of (Southeast Alaska) is getting hammered by stray hatchery fish,” the Pioneer Alaskan’s proposal states. The hatchery proposals have both received opposition from commercial fishing interests and hatchery operators, who say the actions could severely limit the ability of hatcheries to operate in Southeast and to support commercial fisheries. King salmon A pair of proposals dealing with the region’s currently scarce king salmon garnered significant attention in comments prior to the meeting. The first, submitted by ADFG, would have the commissioner set limits in the king salmon sport fishery in Southeast based on harvest rate in the winter king troll commercial fishery. The changes would come with the continued objective of providing 20 percent of the annual king harvest set by the Pacific Salmon Commission for the sport fishery, while also keeping the overall harvest within the Pacific Salmon Treaty allocations. Fish and Game notes in the proposal that without modification of the current plan, the sport fishery will exceed its allocation more often and by larger amounts. A proposal by the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization would set the king salmon allocation between commercial trolling and sport fishing to 80-20, aiming for a 20 percent sport harvest allocation over time. The organization says this plan, which could take a variety of forms in bag and possession limits for residents and nonresidents, would help stabilize king salmon fishing opportunity that has been sharply curtailed in recent years. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Pacific council shifts strategy to limit Bering Sea trawl bycatch

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved this week to tie Pacific halibut bycatch limits for Bering Sea groundfish trawlers to abundance, which is expected to lead to immediate cuts to the trawlers. The council’s Dec. 13 action changes the limits on how many halibut can be taken as bycatch by the Amendment 80 fleet, which is a group of catcher-processor vessels that are allocated a portion of Bering Sea groundfish harvest. Currently, the fleet is bound to a hard limit on how many halibut they can take as bycatch, known as the prohibited species catch, or PSC limit. This action, known as halibut abundance-based management, or ABM, has been in the works for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands for about six years. The council’s recommendation is for the National Marine Fisheries Service to adopt a four-tiered PSC limit structure based on the abundance indices from the most recent halibut setline survey data, cross-referencing both data from the International Pacific Halibut Commission and the Eastern Bering Sea shelf trawl survey. Connecting the two creates an eight-option chart. The only way the PSC limit would remain at its current level is if both surveys returned as “high abundance;” in every other situation, the PSC limit drops, from 10% to 35%, in the worst case for the trawlers. The council’s adopted motion is a mix of two alternatives presented in the draft environmental impact statement crafted in-part to create a compromise between the council’s intention to tie the bycatch cap to halibut abundance while reducing the projected impact on the trawl fleet in the case of low abundance. Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a member of the council, made the motion and said it was intended to balance the various standards in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The Amendment 80 fleet has raised a variety of concerns about this action, including that there doesn’t seem to be a positive correlation between bycatch and halibut abundance. Baker said they took this into account before crafting the motion. “While I agree these are valid concerns, the primary objective of this action is to link halibut PSC limits to the abundance of halibut, to recognize that halibut is a fully allocated species,” she said. The Amendment 80 fleet has strongly protested the action, saying vessel owners have already taken steps to reduce their halibut bycatch as much as they practically can and that any further reductions will lead to serious negative impacts on the fleet. TJ Durnan, the captain of the F/V Alaska Spirit, told the council during public testimony that the Amendment 80 fleet has taken on actions like utilizing halibut excluder nets and deck sorting for years and regularly communicates about where halibut are on the grounds. He said his vessel employs about 100 people year-round and asked the council to consider the economic impacts on them. “(The Amendment 80 crewmen) are no different or more or less important than anyone else who works in the fishery,” he said. The main support for the motion came from subsistence halibut harvesters in the Bering Sea region, fishermen in the directed Bering Sea halibut fishery and halibut fishermen from other sectors across Alaska. The directed halibut fishermen in the Bering Sea have said they want to see more of the burden of conservation passed to the trawl fleet instead of bearing all the reductions themselves, and the subsistence fishermen are concerned both about the sustainability of the stock and access to halibut in the future. Meanwhile, a variety of other fishermen, including charter fishermen and commercial fishermen from other regions, testified in favor of the action out of overall concern for Pacific halibut as a coast-wide stock. But many, like Coastal Villages Region Fund, had nuanced concerns. Coastal Villages is a community development quota group, or CDQ group, and distributes community assistance to its various communities in Western Alaska. Paul Wilkins, the quota manager for CVRF, said the group could not support enacting ABM because the benefit to the communities from the assistance programs, which are funded by proceeds from the harvesting quota in the groundfish fisheries, is too important. The council voted 8-3 to pass Baker’s motion, but several members said they have concerns about the long-term impact on the Amendment 80 fleet as well. Council chairman Simon Kineen was on the council in 2015 when it took action to limit halibut bycatch and started discussing ABM. He said he supported Baker’s motion, but that the council in the future may find that it went too far in impacting the Amendment 80 fleet. “I’m not convinced the results will match the expectations as we go ahead here,” he said. Council member Andy Mezirow said he was frustrated that so many members of the public were fixated on passing a single option and were getting their information from stakeholders, who have vested interests, rather than from the experts. He noted that the council appreciated what the Amendment 80 fleet was doing to voluntarily reduce its halibut bycatch, but that this action would help spread out the burden of conservation, comparing it to the way the charter fleet has had to give up chunks of its season to conserve the stock. Mezirow owns a fishing charter business in Southcentral and also fishes halibut commercially. “The Amendment 80 fleet may in fact have to face the fact of doing more with less, but we are moving one step closer to having all fishermen share in this burden,” he said. The draft EIS presented to the council states that the actions won’t have a significant impact on the spawning biomass of halibut in the Bering Sea. That’s in part because the stock is managed by the IPHC, which sets limits to protect the spawning stock of halibut. Council member Nicole Kimball noted this, and said she had heard “loud and clear” from the IPHC that the current low abundance trends are likely to continue for some time. Reached shortly after the Dec. 13 vote, Groundfish Forum Executive Director Chris Woodley said the group was “shocked” at the council’s action. In a statement, the Groundfish Forum — a trade group representing the Amendment 80 fleet — said the council “ignored science” and took actions that would result in a net negative economic benefit to the nation. The draft EIS itself estimates that at least one flatfish harvesting company per year will likely be unable to meet the new cap. Woodley said the Groundfish Forum takes that seriously, and that for some companies, this could mean multiple years where they are shut down early. Woodley said the group estimates that the fishery will see a 25% reduction in its PSC limit the first season ABM goes into place, which would translate to about an $86 million cut to the sector. The action won’t go into place for at least a year, as NMFS still has to go through its federal rule-making process to implement it. In the meantime, Woodley said the Groundfish Forum is “exploring all options due to the unprecedented nature of this decision.” Because the action is so recent, he said the group is not yet sure what that will look like. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

2021 in Review: Top Stories

1. Lawmakers spin their wheels on fiscal solutions through four special sessions The year started with sincere hope among many Alaska lawmakers that it would finally be the time for a grand fiscal compromise that would end years of fighting over Permanent Fund dividend checks and a decade-long run of budget deficits. However, as Gov. Mike Dunleavy tried, and tried again, and again, and again and again — over the regular legislative session and four special ones — it became increasingly clear the factions that have kept the state mired in the same budget debates for years would push the issue into the next year once more. The initial optimism for a long-term fiscal solution stemmed from the fact that it looked like the state would be out of savings, or very close to it, by year’s end, giving entrenched lawmakers no choice but to compromise. Projections at the beginning of the calendar year from the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division said the Constitutional Budget Reserve, or CBR, Alaska’s lone active savings account at the time, would be down to less than $600 million when the 2021 state fiscal year ended June 30. With Department of Revenue and budget officials in the administration stressing the need to maintain a balance of at least $500 million, but ideally more, in the CBR for managing the state’s day-to-day cash flow needs and anemic near-term revenue projections, there appeared to be no way out but to reach some sort of major budget-cut-tax-and-spend agreement. It was mostly downhill from there. Dunleavy moderated his position from demanding “full” PFDs based on the traditional formula still in law to a 50-50 split of the Permanent Fund’s spendable earnings between government and dividends each year at the end of the regular session in mid-May. He announced his compromise plan at a press conference in the Capitol while backed by a large group of legislators, many of whom previously opposed much of the governor’s fiscal agenda, saying it was an important first step towards a solution. Despite that, Dunleavy’s insistence on enshrining the PFD in the Alaska Constitution remained a hard line many legislators were not willing to cross. They say putting the PFD on par with funding for education, public safety and other core services the state is responsible for could lead to serious problems in times of low revenue. Another group of legislators was willing to work with Dunleavy on the constitutional amendment, so long as the administration provided a way to fill the $1 billion to $1.5 billion annual deficits the governor’s plan was projected to create. New taxes or a less than 50-50 PFD again proved to be things Dunleavy could not commit to; his past proposal for major cuts to balance the budget started a recall effort and turned part of his own party against him. This year, administration officials testified in front of legislators numerous times that the governor would be open to carefully crafted new taxes to fill part of the deficit, but the idea was largely dismissed by Dunleavy in public statements. The stalemate over the PFD — this year’s and long-term — again pushed Alaska towards a government shutdown; this time within 2 days, the closest ever. After he signed the budget, Dunleavy persisted with two more special sessions in August and October, though by then it was clear little was likely to be achieved. Consistently rising oil prices throughout most of the year provided for increasingly optimistic revenue and budget forecasts, which most legislators eventually used as a way to avoid a solution this year and the administration used as evidence Alaska doesn’t need new taxes to pay bigger dividends. In the end, eligible Alaskans received a PFD of $1,114, slightly larger than 2020. — Elwood Brehmer 2. $10B+ in North Slope work on hold There was renewed optimism among those with a vested interest in Alaska’s oil industry to start 2021. Drilling was resuming after the early pandemic shutdown and two major projects totaling more than $10 billion in North Slope investments were on the horizon, but that began to change quickly. The year is going to end with both the Willow and Pikka oil projects on hold indefinitely for separate reasons. ConocoPhillips appeared to score a small court victory Feb. 1 when U.S. District Court Sharon Gleason denied an injunction attempting to stop ruled early gravel work the company planned to do last winter for its $8 billion Willow project. Gleason concluded the activity was unlikely to harm polar bears and other wildlife in the National Petroleum Petroleum Reserve-Alaska until the broader merits of two suits challenging federal approvals for the project were determined. The company could move ahead, but only briefly. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Gleason’s decision less than two weeks later on an expedited appeal. The three-judge 9th Circuit order halted work on Willow for the winter and sent the case back for Gleason to reconsider. Through early summer, ConocoPhillips attorneys and representatives expressed hope the issues over the temporary injunction could be resolved, allowing work to resume this winter. That was until Gleason invalidated significant portions of the Interior Department’s environmental analysis of Willow. The company did not appeal the ruling by an October deadline. ConocoPhillips Alaska leaders said they remain committed to the project and the best path forward is to remedy the issues identified by Gleason — likely a multi-year endeavor — rather than continue a potentially longer court fight. Meanwhile, Oil Search Alaska leaders said they were hopeful the company would sanction the first, $3 billion phase of its Pikka oil development between the large Alpine and Kuparuk North Slope fields until this fall when documents filed with the state indicated a likely takeover of the company would delay the decision until at least next year. Oil Search shareholders approved the company’s purchase by Australian-based producer Santos Ltd. in early December. Both projects were once expected to start production by late 2025 after several years of construction. Alaska-based leaders of Papua New Guinea-based Oil Search also acknowledged the mid-sized explorer and producer was having difficulty financing the project as more and more investment banks turn away from Arctic oil and gas projects. — Elwood Brehmer 3. Bristol Bay breaks sockeye run record Sockeye flooded into Bristol Bay this year, topping the all-time run record with 66.1 million sockeye attempting to return to the region’s large river systems. It blew away the preseason forecast and topped the previous record of 62.9 million, which was set in 2018. It’s only the third time the total inshore run has topped 60 million in the bay’s history. It wasn’t the only record set, either — the Nushagak district also saw its two largest single-day harvests ever, with more than 1.8 million sockeye harvested in a single day in July. Prices were also somewhat higher than last year, and competitive — Peter Pan Seafoods announced a pre-season price of $1.10 per pound and raised it to $1.25 per pound in July, competing with OBI, which also announced a $1.25 per pound base price with a 15-cent postseason adjustment. However, it wasn’t all rosy news about the run. Overall fish size was down by about a pound. Managers noted that the fish were younger on average, with three-year-olds as the dominant age class. Managers aren’t sure why yet. The overall ex-vessel value reached about $247.7 million before post-season adjustments, which is the fourth largest in the bay’s history. It’s one of the only regions in Alaska that did well for salmon value this year — others struggled to even get fishing periods, if they fished at all. Next year’s run is predicted to break even this year’s record, with a forecast of 71.9 million sockeye for the various systems, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Some of that has to do with the large sizes of the sibling class related to next year’s run, with exceptional returns projected for all major Bristol Bay systems. — Elizabeth Earl 4. Delegation salvages Southeast cruise season Canada dealt another blow — albeit unintended — to Alaska’s tourism industry in early February when leaders of the Canadian Transportation Ministry announced the country’s ports would again be closed to foreign passenger vessel traffic in 2021. The members of Alaska’s congressional delegation said the closure came as a complete shock and were critical of Canadian officials for not notifying them ahead of time. The news effectively killed the start of the 2021 Alaska cruise season, as the 19th century-era Passenger Vessel Services Act requires all foreign-flagged and built passenger ships to stop in a foreign port on their way between domestic destinations. Cruise ships traveling to Alaska from the West Coast typically used Vancouver as their PVSA compliance stop. For their part, the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation used their outsized collective influence to push an Alaska-specific PVSA exemption bill through Congress and to President Joe Biden’s desk before Memorial Day. That allowed large cruise companies to resume service to the state by late July, providing some additional business for Southeast tourism businesses reeling from no large ships in 2020. The PVSA exemption coincided with action from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to approve COVID-19 mitigation plans for cruise vessels and port towns. Southeast tourism industry leaders estimate more than 110,000 cruise passengers visited the region last year, which is about 10 percent of pre-pandemic passenger volumes. Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced legislation in September to permanently exempt Alaskas from the PVSA, as the prior bill was only effective for this year. — Elwood Brehmer 5. Crab stock crashes lead to deep cuts, closures in Bering Sea It was tough for crab in Western Alaska this year. Surveys revealed a terrible surprise for crab fishermen: a roughly 90% drop in snow crab stocks in the Bering Sea, leading to drastically reduced crab catch limits. The Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association estimates it to result in about a $200 million loss for the fishery. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what happened to the crab. If they’re alive, they’ve moved far away from the survey area and were missed entirely; if they’re dead, there could be a variety of causes. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is moving to start a process to study how to minimize bottom contact for pelagic trawl gear in crab protection areas, in part to see if that will help conserve crab stocks. Snow crab aren’t the only stock in trouble, though they’re the most surprising. In recent years, managers were actually able to increase the total catch limit for snow crab because the recruitment looked promising, but that seems to have reversed this year. One decline that wasn’t really a surprise was the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, which will be closed completely due to low stock abundance this year. This will be the first closure for the fishery since 1995, but the stock has been declining for some years with gradually smaller catch limits. However, the closure is still a serious impact for the affected harvesters and communities that depend on Bristol Bay red king crab for a living. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council also moved to study if extending the closure area for the stock in Bristol Bay could help, in part because the crab in the bay may be moving northward from their older, traditional areas. — Elizabeth Earl

Fishermen sue feds again to stop Cook Inlet salmon closure

A National Marine Fisheries Service rule is set to effectively close the Upper Cook Inlet commercial drift fishery when the calendar turns to 2022, but two lawsuits have been filed to keep it open. In November, two separate complaints were filed in the U.S. District Court of Alaska against the National Marine Fisheries Service related to the closure of the federal waters in Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing. The rule, which was finalized in early November, is set to take effect Jan. 1, and would block the drift gillnet fleet from a major portion of their historical fishing area. Members of the fleet have been protesting the move before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and in court since the decision last December. The first complaint, filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of three fishermen—Wes Humbyrd, Robert Wolfe and Dan Anderson—argues that the actions of the council aren’t valid because of the standing of the council members. Michael Poon, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, said the case is similar to another one that the organization handled for California-based fishermen against the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Council members can make management decisions on federal fisheries by directing the National Marine Fisheries Service to take action. The fishermen’s complaint argues that this makes them officers of the United States, and therefore falling under the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution. That clause says they should be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, as are other federal officials. That’s not the process with the council members, some of whom hold their seats because of their office, and some of whom are state representatives chosen by governors. On top of that, the council members “enjoy extraordinarily strong protections against removal” the complaint states. “These arguments show the sort of accountability deficit of these council structures,” Poon said. “It’s the broader problem that affects the councils nationwide.” He said the complaint is requesting a complete vacation of Amendment 14, which was the motion the council passed roughly a year ago that included the closing the federal waters of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing. As far as the broader implications of the case, he said they’re not expect something as broad as a complete invalidation of council decisions based on the ruling, but that it may call into question the council’s ability to act in a mandatory fashion. “What may be enacted is the ability of a council to be recommending bodies,” he said. Given their past experience, Poon said he thought there was a “strong chance of success on these arguments.” The other case, filed by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association and Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund, asks for a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief and petition for review. UCIDA and CIFF started the legal tussle over the Cook Inlet salmon fishery management plan in 2012, winning a judgment against the council’s prior management actions in 2016 and forcing the council to reconsider how it delegated management of salmon fisheries in federal waters to the state. This lawsuit is a new complaint, though, rather than branching off the previous complaint the two groups filed in 2012. That complaint claims the council did not comply with the previous court ruling on Amendment 12—the original amendment the council passed in 2012 that removed Cook Inlet from the salmon fishery management plan prompting the lawsuit—that required the council to formulate a plan for the fishery that complied with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. “(The council and NFMS) try to achieve the same result (as Amendment 12) under a different guise,” the complaint states. “Amendment 14 closes the fishery in federal waters and relinquishes complete management control for the Cook Inlet salmon fishery to the State of Alaska. But this is just a different way to shirk the same duty.” The complaint also alleges that the council’s actions violate the MSA, Administrative Procedures Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. As a result, UCIDA and CIFF want the court to declare that Amendment 14 doesn’t comply with the earlier ruling, that the defendants acted in bad faith, and to vacate Amendment 14. UCIDA, which is a trade organization representing the drift gillnet fleet of Upper Cook Inlet, has long held that the 2016 ruling requires the council to develop a management plan that would manage the Cook Inlet salmon fishery throughout its range, which includes into freshwater. Part of this contention is that UCIDA has said the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is sidelining the commercial fisheries. Fish and Game officials deny this allegation and argue Inlet salmon management is science-based and held that any action by the council that would reach into freshwaters would violate the state’s sovereignty and right to manage its own fishery resources. At the December 2020 meeting in which the council adopted Amendment 14, a representative from Fish and Game informed the council that the state would not accept delegated management of the inlet, which threw a wrench into the discussions about how to adopt a new plan. In a Dec. 6 statement, UCIDA says it asked the court to expedite its complaint with a new judge. Despite that, the group says it doesn’t expect oral arguments in the case until mid-April. “Under the rules for litigation for the MSA, the court must expedite to the fullest extent possible,” UCIDA’s board of directors wrote in the statement. “Even with that, the courts move at a glacial pace. We will make every attempt to get the court to take affirmative action ASAP, but don’t expect much for the next few months.” A NMFS representative declined to comment on the two legal proceedings, per its policy on pending litigation.   Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bering Sea fishermen press North Pacific Council on halibut bycatch

After years of deliberations, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is inching toward a decision on whether to tie halibut bycatch limits in the Bering Sea to abundance indices. The action, known formally as Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands halibut abundance-based management, or ABM, is intended to reduce bycatch of halibut in the Bering Sea by the Amendment 80 trawl fleet when the fish stocks are lower. The Amendment 80 fleet is a group of catcher-processor vessels that are allocated a portion of groundfish harvest. Each year, the fleet is bound to a hard limit on how many halibut they can take as bycatch, known as the prohibited species catch, or PSC limit. That limit is fixed, however, while halibut stocks and the allowable catch for the directed fleet vary. Over the last six years, the council has been considering whether to instead adjust the PSC limit to fluctuate with halibut abundance indexes based on two surveys, effectively pushing more of the halibut available for harvest to the directed fishery fleet. Depending on which of four alternatives the council chooses — from no action to varying changes —the effects could range from a 45% cut to a 15% increase, depending on abundance. Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, a trade association representing members of the Amendment 80 fleet, said the draft environmental impact statement provided to the council points out that a shift to ABM would overall be detrimental economically. “There are a number of things the Groundfish Forum is concerned about — the primary one being that the draft EIS is very clear that there is going to be little to no benefits to the halibut stocks or to conservation in general and that the net (economic) benefit to the nation is expected to be negative,” he said. “That’s very up front and very clear.” The issue has been controversial from the beginning, in part because of the cost to the trawl fleet. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that cost to the Amendment 80 fleet would be between $68 million and $138 million, depending on fishing variables and the alternative implemented. By contrast, the draft EIS estimates that the economic benefit to the directed halibut fleet would be between $1.1 million and $2.2 million. There are about 835 crew positions in the Amendment 80 fleet, compared to about 400 in the directed fishery for halibut in the region. Because the loss is so large and the number of people relatively small, the reduced revenue would pencil out to about a $30,000 loss per crew position in the Amendment 80 fleet under one alternative. “There’s virtually zero upside to the directed fishery and a huge amount of downside to the Amendment 80 fishermen,” Woodley said. Though the review concludes that the net benefit of implementing abundance-based management would be negative economically, both the social and economic impacts are considered. Diana Stram, a senior scientist with the NPFMC who worked on the document, said the statement about the net benefits is largely an economic one. The council is bound to consider the 10 national standards under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which include standards like conservation, minimizing bycatch to the extent practical and minimizing costs. Stram said the council must balance its decision across those standards. “Certain actions are going to be more related to one of the national standards than others,” she said. “What we do as analysts in the document is we try to provide some narrative to help the decision-makers understand how this plays into their actions, but the onus is on the council if one alternative is balancing one standard higher than another.” None of the four alternatives have a significantly different impact on the spawning stock biomass for halibut in the Bering Sea, according to the draft EIS. That’s because the International Pacific Halibut Commission manages the halibut stocks as well and sets the catch limits based on its survey for sustainable harvest levels, Stram said. Whatever the council decides to do would only affect the amount of fish available for harvest, not the spawning stock. Some fishermen in the Bering Sea region are pushing for the council to enact the motion both out of economic and sustainability concerns. The directed halibut fleet in the Bering Sea is one of the economic mainstays for coastal communities in Western Alaska. Halibut is also a critically important subsistence resource in many of the communities of the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, particularly as other stocks like crab decline. St. Paul Island is one of those communities. The island, with a population of about 480 people, depends on subsistence foods and commercial fishing. Halibut is a staple there, and the community has a vested interest in the long-term sustainability of the stock, said Lauren Divine, the director of the ecosystem conservation office for the Aleut Community of St. Paul. None of the alternatives are enough to do what the community feels is necessary, but they want to see something happen, she said. A number of other halibut-dependent coastal communities have already stopped fishing for halibut, in part because of the decline connected with the static bycatch cap, Divine said. The community of St. Paul is home to a Community Development Quota group, the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, and people on the island do depend on fishing jobs, but it’s not just about the economics for community, Divine said. “From an Indigenous community perspective, it’s not just about money,” she said. “It’s a way of life people don’t want to give up.” Heather McCarty, a fisheries analyst who works with the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, said the group is advocating for Alternative 4, but feels for a number of reasons that the draft EIS doesn’t provide enough information for the council to make a decision. For one, she said Alternative 4 is the only option that meets the council’s purpose and needs statement for the project. For another, the draft EIS focuses on the perspectives of the CDQ groups, which may not always be the same as the perspectives of the communities. The group supports the action because it would help spread out the burden of conservation to the trawl fleet, she said. Because the bycatch cap is static, in some years, the trawl fleet might be able to take nearly all the halibut available for harvest. “The directed fishermen bear the entire burden of conservation,” she said. Divine said the Aleut Community of St. Paul also finds Alternative 4 preferable. “Alternative 4 isn’t enough, but it is a good start as we move into abundance-based management away from static caps,” Divine said. “But I think this is going to be an ongoing (issue).” Stakeholders on both sides of the discussion agree that the EIS has some information holes in it that need to be addressed before the council uses it to take action, including on topics such as the effects of climate change on fish populations. The council is expected to take action on BSAI halibut abundance-based management at its upcoming meeting beginning Dec. 8. Both McCarty and Divine said the communities aren’t advocating for the trawlers to be completely closed, but for there to be a more equitable division. National Standard 9 of the MSA requires the council to reduce bycatch to the extent practicable. The Amendment 80 fleet has taken multiple steps to reduce halibut bycatch as more attention has turned to the issue. Since 2007, the fleet’s bycatch is down by 49%, the vessels have reduced their bottom contact by an estimate 90%, and are communicating about areas with higher halibut bycatch to avoid fishing there. They are also using excluders, deck sorting, avoiding night fishing and using small tows, among other efforts. In the past few years, the fleet has encountered high numbers of halibut on the grounds, such as in 2019, when record-breaking warm waters affected fisheries all over Alaska. Woodley said one of the fleet’s concerns is that the 2019 conditions will become a new normal, so the fleet wants more flexibility within bycatch regulations to adapt. “We are committed to continued halibut bycatch reduction, but with halibut bycatch already so low and with all current tools fully utilized, future efforts will likely result in only small incremental improvements.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Boom-bust commercial salmon season doubles 2020 value

This summer was significantly better for commercial salmon fishermen in Alaska than 2020, though that success was far from evenly spread. Commercial salmon fishermen hauled in salmon valued at $643.9 million this season, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. That’s more than double the 2020 value of $295.2 million, but still a little behind the estimated 2019 value of $657.6 million. Overall, 2021 ranks fairly well in the historical averages for numbers of salmon harvested and poundage as well as in value, according to Fish and Game data. “When compared to the long-term time-series (1975-2020), the 2021 all-species commercial salmon harvest of 233.9 million fish and 858.5 million pounds is the third highest on record for both total fish harvested, and total pounds harvested,” the season summary states. “Adjusted for inflation (CPI, 2021 prices), the 2021 exvessel value estimate of $643.9 million is also the third highest exvessel value reported since 1975.” The vast majority of that value was in Bristol Bay, where fishermen took home an estimated $248.9 million in exvessel value—about 38% of the total value in the state. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of that value in Bristol Bay is from sockeye salmon. The Bay broke its run record again this year, though not its all-time harvest record. However, that value is still significantly below 2019, when it earned about $306.5 million. The fishermen only caught about a million fewer fish, but about 27 million fewer pounds than in 2019. The difference was in the size — the average fish was about 4.7 pounds this year, compared to 5.2 pounds in 2019. Biologists noted during the season that fish were smaller on average. Southeast Alaska came in second for value, with an estimated $132.2 million between its five species of salmon harvested. Southeast’s main commercial species are pink and chum — fishermen there landed about $48 million in pinks and about $39.6 million in chums, according to Fish and Game. Prince William Sound wasn’t far behind Southeast, with an estimated $121.4 million in exvessel value. Prince William Sound is much more heavily weighted toward pinks, though, with an estimated 66.3 million fish harvested and about $84 million in value for just that species. Prince William Sound also commands the highest price for sockeye in the state — about $2.57 per pound — but only brought in about 1.2 million sockeye this year, resulting in a value of about $16.7 million. The Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands also did well this year, with an estimated value of $67.4 million, also mostly concentrated in sockeye. That’s more than quadruple what the region earned in 2020 and about $18 million more than in 2019. However, a number of other fisheries suffered this year. Cook Inlet lost a major chunk of its fishing season opportunity for sockeye in the upper Inlet fisheries due to low king salmon runs, resulting in a lower catch than usual, though it is higher than 2020′s catch. Chignik landed only 118,785 sockeye, with a value of $868,635. Fishermen in Chignik lost much of their season this year due to a weak run and resulting closures. The Yukon area had no fishery at all due to near-complete run failures. The region was only able to harvest pink and chum in 2020, but in 2019, it earned about $2.5 million from chinook, coho, pink and chum catches. Big job losses in salmon in 2020 The COVID-19 pandemic led to job losses in almost every sector of the economy, but seafood harvesting saw its largest single-year drop since 2000, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Throughout all fisheries, the state lost 1,078 jobs from its monthly average of seafood harvesting jobs. That may not be entirely due to the pandemic, though, according to a Nov. 1 Labor Department report. “While COVID-19 made last year’s employment trends anything but typical, it’s difficult to isolate the pandemic’s effects because harvesting employment can change dramatically from year to year anyway,” wrote Joshua Warren, a state economist. “The swings are subject to a range of factors, including when openings happen — if they happen — and environmental and biological factors.” Salmon is the largest employment sector, with more than half the harvesting jobs, and the losses last year hit salmon fisheries the hardest. August saw the largest drop in raw numbers, with 3,000 fewer salmon jobs than in 2019. Across the year, salmon saw an average monthly drop of 700 jobs from the year before. Some of that is due to COVID-19′s impact on restaurants — less demand for seafood products made for less profitable fisheries. Health and safety restrictions on operations also made bringing in staff more difficult. “All of these complications, especially early in the pandemic when little was known about the virus and what mitigation measures were effective, prompted some permit holders to not fish last year,” Warren wrote. “Those who did often reported using fewer crew members.” The Department of Labor’s numbers are for 2020. Employment numbers for 2021 show some early signs of improvement, Warren wrote, and operations reportedly ran more smoothly. However, long-term risks like stock declines and climate change may impact employment in Alaska salmon fisheries long term. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Proposed solar project on Kenai Peninsula would be Alaska’s largest

The Kenai Peninsula may soon get the state’s largest solar power farm to date, but it may depend on the local government’s willingness to provide a tax break. Renewable Independent Power Producers, an Anchorage-based company with several solar farms in Anchorage and the Mat-Su area, is working on a new project on the Kenai Peninsula. If it moves forward with the development, the farm — planned to be 160 acres, with about 60,000 panels and 20 megawatts of power production — would be the largest in Alaska. Jenn Miller, the CEO of Renewable IPP, told the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in October that the company isn’t sharing details of the exact location for the project yet because the land lease details are still in the works. “It’s definitely significant,” she said. “This would be about 60,000 solar panels. Our record to date is a panel per minute to install, so we’ll see if we can beat that.” Across Alaska, cooperative utilities like Chugach Electric Association, Matanuska Electric Association and Homer Electric Association generate and provide electricity to members. Their boards are elected, and the members underwrite the infrastructure projects in their power bills. In the past, the cooperatives have built and owned all their generation sources. IPPs are essentially private companies that build and own the generation projects, but not the transmission lines. They then sell the electricity they generate to the cooperatives. Renewable IPP already owns three projects—one in Willow, one in Houston and one in Anchorage. Miller said the Willow project is the largest so far, but the Kenai Peninsula project will be significantly larger than that, providing enough energy to support about 4,500 homes, or about 6.5% of HEA’s energy demand. But one factor that may make or break the project is whether the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is willing to give the project a property tax break. Without a significant subsidy, the project won’t be competitive as a power producer, she said. “Property taxes would be about 10-15% of our annual revenue,” she said. “Ultimately what that does is it inhibits our ability to offer the lowest possible electricity cost to HEA members.” There’s a tax difference between public utilities and for-profit private energy generation companies. Utility cooperatives like HEA are incorporated as nonprofits, and therefore are not taxed on their properties. Private for-profit corporations — even if they are providing utility services — are. Electric utilities also operate as regulated monopolies under the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, which prevents them from altering prices to consumers too much without oversight. They can only adjust power costs so much under RCA regulations. Renewable IPP is providing electricity like a utility, but because it doesn’t have any paying members, it can’t pass the cost along directly to amortize its infrastructure project. HEA can’t necessarily pass along its cost directly, either, because its prices are regulated by the RCA. Therefore, the solar project has to be competitive with natural gas prices in order to be economical. Miller said that’s why the property tax amounts on a project like the Kenai solar farm—with an estimated $30 million-$35 million in infrastructure costs—can make or break it. “If we get this exemption for this project, how does it benefit the borough residents?” she said. “If we come in four-tenths of a penny below the current cost of generation, we will equal what we would have paid in property taxes, and those dollars are going directly to the residents.” Renewable IPP does pay property taxes on the Willow project in the Mat-Su Borough. However, the difference there is the size of the project, Miller said — the Kenai project would be larger, and with intermittent energy like solar, the company has to cover the cost of guaranteeing power to HEA when the sun isn’t shining. Assembly members expressed some skepticism about having to provide a tax subsidy for a private industry. Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said several times he didn’t support providing a tax cut to the solar project when another utility provider like Enstar Natural Gas pays taxes on its lines. Enstar, where Pierce was previously an employee before retiring, is a for-profit company and thus pays taxes. However, Enstar is also different in that it has a direct subscriber base of consumers. Miller said Renewable IPP usually does have a set escalator over the life of a lease that has to “meet or beat inflation.” The company has to look out a few decades at a price forecast for the utility’s cost of generation and show its price comes in under the estimate to receive approval from the utility and the RCA. She said the estimated cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity for the project would be competitive with HEA’s current costs of generation—between 7 and 9 cents per kilowatt hour—which is still more expensive than the Lower 48 average for solar power generation, but it is renewable and doesn’t depend on the cost of fossil fuels like natural gas or coal, which can fluctuate. She said the project may appeal to new businesses coming into the area as well. “We have heard for some new industries (what) they are looking at when they are considering siting a manufacturing plant here in Alaska … energy prices are one of the major deciding factors,” she said. “Some new businesses are very keen on renewable energy, and they want to be able to say, ‘We’re getting this much of our generation from renewable,’ but people have different feelings about that.’” The assembly took no action on a potential tax exemption for the project in October, but several members said they appreciated the information and were looking for more. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board of Fish adds Chignik, Inlet sockeye issues to March agenda

Upper Cook Inlet setnetters may get some changes from the Alaska Board of Fisheries sooner rather than later. At its Oct. 20-21 worksession, the Board of Fisheries turned down seven agenda change requests from Upper Cook Inlet fishermen, five of them related to the restrictions on the set gillnet fishery and two more on general fishing provisions.  However, the board members accepted their own proposal that could allow for limited fishing in the setnet fishery as long as the late run of Kenai River kings meets the lower end of its goal and both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers have also met their sockeye goals. This year presented exceptionally hard circumstances for the Kenai Peninsula setnetters of the upper sub-district, which stretches about 60 miles from Nikiski to Kasilof. Though sockeye salmon, the fishery’s primary target, were running thick, Upper were forced to pull gear out of the water by mid-July—usually the peak of the sockeye run—because of low king salmon returns. Because the two salmon runs are paired together in regulation, setnetters lost weeks of harvest, and some said that translated to tens of thousands of dollars for their operations. “The lost opportunity to harvest sockeye each year is an economic disaster, and cannot be overstated, for our families, coastal communities, support infrastructure, and processors,” longtime Upper Cook Inlet setnetters Brian and Lisa Gabriel wrote in testimony to the board. “At a time when the governor has stated that we need to squeeze every dollar that we can out of the economy, it seems contrary when $60 to $80 million of economic stimulus was left on the table because of forgone harvest.” The Gabriels were among dozens of setnetters who submitted similarly supportive comments of an agenda change request, or ACR,  which would have allowed for openings of the 600-foot fishery to harvest sockeye under certain circumstances even when Kenai River king runs are limited. Recent data from the fishery indicates that few kings are caught in the short nets, which are set out to 600 feet of mean high tide. Travis Every, who submitted the request, submitted a nearly identical request in July, which prompted an emergency meeting from the board in August. The board declined to accept the request then, which would have potentially reopened some setnetting at the tail end of the Kenai River sockeye salmon run.  “At (the emergency) meeting several board members stated that the emergency petition platform was not the correct venue to solve this matter,” Every wrote. “They encouraged setnetters to present our limited 600ft fishery through the ACR process.” Board member McKenzie Mitchell submitted the board’s 600-foot fishery proposal, which would allow limited fishing when escapement in the late run of Kenai kings reaches 13,500 fish and escapements have been met in the Kenai and Kasilof sockeye fisheries. Mitchell said she agreed that the public ACRs didn’t meet the standards for an emergency, but wanted to see something to be done to help the commercial fishermen. The board has three criteria for accepting ACRs: a conservation purpose, to correct an error in regulation, or to correct an effect on a fishery that was unforeseen. Every wrote that the board’s decision to implement increased king salmon escapement goals at the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet meeting and to require a complete setnet fishery closure could not have foreseen two pieces of information. One is the data showing that the 600-foot fishery, when implemented across the entire east side setnet fishery, would catch so few king salmon proportionally.  The other is that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved to close the federal waters to salmon fishing in Cook Inlet, effective at the end of this year. Estimates range for how that will impact the drift fishery, but past records from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have estimated that about half of the drift fleet’s salmon harvest in Cook Inlet comes from the federal waters. Drifters have protested the move, and the United Cook Inlet Drift Association is currently working in the courts against the council’s decision. Board of Fisheries member Gerad Godfrey, who supported the fishermen’s argument that the present situation was unforeseen at the August meeting, said now that he agreed with the petitioners’ logic and that without action, the fishery will likely become cost-prohibitive to participate in. Board member Indy Walton, who is new to the board and lives on the Kenai Peninsula, said he agreed that the actions taken at the 2020 meeting led to these consequences. “If you’re changing the escapement goals and not seeing the potential domino effect… Now here we are today, looking at those dominoes that have fallen, knowing what has caused those,” he said. “From a conservation standpoint … I want to see these king stocks grow, but at the same time too, we run the risk of over-escapement.” Board member John Wood also said he would support accepting the ACR, especially in light of the federal waters closure. Without additional action, he said the risk of letting too many sockeye into the river is a real one. However, board members Israel Payton, John Jensen, and Marit Carlson-Van Dort all said the request didn’t meet the criteria for an unforeseen emergency. Payton said the board knew that the actions it took in 2020 would result in less sockeye opportunity in order to preserve kings, so that didn’t make it unforeseen. The board also accepted an ACR aimed at conserving Chignik sockeye salmon stocks. Chignik has seen four years of failed sockeye fisheries and the proposal seeks to limit Alaska Peninsula harvest of Chignik-bound stocks through season adjustments. The ACR specifically focuses on the early run. By approving the change requests the board members have not made any regulatory changes yet; rather, they agreed to investigate the issues at a March meeting. The board members went back and forth on whether the Chignik request qualified under the ACR guidelines as well, but ultimately came down to concern over the conservation of the stock. Board member John Jensen said he is concerned about the stock, but that Chignik’s regular meeting is coming up in 2023 and could be discussed then with the extra data. Other board members disagreed, saying that Chignik had already had to wait an extra year because of delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic. “There was one entity that said, ‘Do not postpone this because our situation is so dire,’” Wood said. “That entity was Chignik.” Fish and Game representatives said the department did not see the ACR as meeting the criteria, because early-run sockeye are returning to Chignik at a sustainable rate, but that the yield available for harvest is lessened. Public comments in favor of the Chignik ACR were divided—there were nearly double as many comments opposed as in support, with nearly all the comments in support from the community and those opposed from the commercial fisheries outside it.    Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected] 

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