Elizabeth Earl

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] 

Faced with crashing crab stocks, council looks to swiftly analyze closures and trawl impacts

As crab fishermen face a dire season in Western Alaska this year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is looking for quick analysis and the fleet is looking for more extensive closures to protect some crab stocks. Survey data has shown an approximately 90% drop in snow crab stocks since the last survey, pushing acceptable catch limits down, while the long-term decline of Bristol Bay red king crab has led to a complete closure in the fishery for the first time since 1994. The Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association, the trade group that represents the majority of crab harvesters in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands rationalization program, has estimated a $200 million loss for the fishery. “It is simply catastrophic,” wrote ABSC executive director Jamie Goen in a Sept. 29 letter to the council. “We have boats that are not going to be able to make their payments, vessel repairs that will be delayed, and long-time skippers and crew that are losing their jobs, not to mention all the downstream effects to processors, communities, supply chains, and support businesses.” The problems with the crab fisheries in the region are complicated, and the reason for the apparent stock declines is not entirely clear. With an eye toward conservation, the ABSC requested that the council extend a closure area for red king crab in Bristol Bay and, among other long-term actions, to develop a council discussion paper based on how to minimize bottom contact by pelagic trawl gear in crab protection areas. The council voted to start the process for both. Alaska Department of Fish and Game deputy commissioner Rachel Baker, who serves on the council, introduced the first motion to extend the Bristol Bay closure area. The first action would ask the council staff for an analysis of the effects of extending the red king crab conservation area in Bristol Bay northward by half a degree. The ABSC says this would help protect crab stocks, which are increasingly concentrated in that northern area. Baker said she drafted the motion in response to requests from stakeholders, but wanted the council to have more information before taking definitive action. “While I realize there are some time constraints related to this analysis, and it’s not practicable for every single impact, I am requesting this analysis as outlined in the motion in the hopes to be able to understand if the proposed action is a likely solution to the emergency request from reduced mature female red king crab abundance as outlined in the ABSC request,” she said. Fish and Game, which cooperatively manages the crab fishery with the National Marine Fisheries Service, is very concerned about the decline in the Bristol Bay red king crab stock, but the request for the analysis is meant to help strike a balance between the need for conservation and the impact on the groundfish fisheries in the area, Baker said. The other motion, introduced by council member Cora Campbell, would start the development process for a longer analysis document, which the council refers to as a discussion paper, about the impact of bottom contact by pelagic trawl gear on Bristol Bay red king crab stocks. It would also evaluate boundaries used for the crab surveys, assessments, bycatch determination and directed fishery area. That is almost directly in line with what the ABSC requested. Campbell referenced ecosystem changes in the region in her rationale for the request. She said she hopes the discussion paper will help establish a discussion basis for collaboration among multiple user groups while balancing groups’ interests. “I chose to focus solely on BBRKC because that stock and our opilio stock are clearly the most stressed, and opilio will be the focus of a rebuilding plan that will address most of these elements for that stock,” she said. Many seem to agree that changes in the ecosystem may be playing a role with crab stocks in the Bering Sea region. Goen noted in a separate, Sept. 29 letter to the council that the crabbers acknowledge that changing ocean conditions and predator/prey dynamics may be playing a role, in addition to direct and indirect fishing pressure. Survey data has been showing that the largest concentration of female red king crab in Bristol Bay has been moving north in recent years, so expanding that conservation area would help protect them from fishing pressure, she wrote. The drop in snow crab stocks gave the industry a shock this year — in other recent data, the snow crab stock seemed to be on the upswing. Katie Palof, the co-chair of the council’s Crab Plan Team, presented data to the council that indicated two possibilities for the fate of the missing snow crab: They’re either alive and the survey missed them, or they’re dead with an as-yet unknown cause. She said it’s not likely that the survey system was flawed, because it worked for Tanner crab. There are a number of other factors — including possibly increased predation by species like Pacific cod, a change in bottom temperatures, an increase in bitter crab infection among the crab stocks and possibly fishing pressure — that may indicate that the crab are dead. “Snow crab is our biggest species to be aware of this year, just because of the decline we saw on the survey,” she said. An undercurrent of urgency ran among commenters at the meetings. Particularly, the council received hundreds of comments urging them to take stronger action to limit bycatch limits in the trawl fisheries in the Bering Sea. That’s not entirely because of crab, though — this year also saw a precipitous decline in salmon runs in Western Alaska, which has led to subsistence food instability for many rural Alaska villages. Council member Bill Tweit said he noticed the division among commenters, particularly among the crab fishermen, in the comments, and hoped they could change their “divisive language” as the fisheries try to work together on what to do about the Bering Sea’s changing landscape. “I see some parallels between the crab situation and the salmon situation in the Bering Sea,” he said. “With red king crab and with Chinook, we’re seeing long downward trends; with snow crab and chum there’s really some sudden crashes. Obviously equally, crab harvesters are as dependent on the Bering Sea as anybody else, too. We’re all in the same boat together.” Baker’s motion for the analysis on the Bristol Bay red king crab conservation area closure provides for a fast timeline. She estimated it could be done by the council’s December meeting to help them make decisions on managing the fishery. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Trawler bycatch debate heats up after dismal 2021 returns

Fishermen are calling for state and federal fisheries managers to make changes to salmon bycatch limits for trawlers as chinook salmon numbers plummet across Alaska. Chinook salmon returns were dismal virtually everywhere in Alaska this year, from Southeast to the Bering Sea, with few exceptions. That follows a trend, as abundance has declined over roughly the last decade. Commercial fishermen have lost most of their opportunity to harvest kings, and sport fisheries have been restricted. Now subsistence fisheries are being reined in to help preserve the runs. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is debating changes in its meeting this month. Trawlers, which use weighted nets to drag either along the bottom or in midwater, are permitted a certain amount of bycatch as they fish for their target species, the largest of which is pollock. Bycatch is always a heated issue, but it is especially so now. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game informed the council in a letter dated Sept. 23 that three index species that it uses to track king salmon runs in the Bering Sea—the Unalakleet, Yukon, and Kuskokwim rivers—didn’t reach a threshold necessary to maintain the current bycatch allowances. That threshold is set at 250,000 fish between the three rivers; this year, there were 165,148. The Kuskokwim’s run came within its forecasted range, but the other two fell short. The shortfall in salmon this year hit fishing communities hard, particularly among subsistence fishermen. Amos T. Philemenoff, Sr., president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, wrote to the board that the salmon shortages in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region this year have impacted the island’s subsistence traditions. Donations of salmon from commercial harvesters to replace the lost food do not replace the traditions, he said. “Our communities have experienced physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual hardship due to the impacts of over-harvest and mismanagement that characterize these Alaska fisheries,” he wrote. “The burden of conservation has fallen on Indigenous (e.g., subsistence) users who are not part of the salmon population collapse.” Philemenoff said the island community has been bringing up concerns about the Bering Sea ecosystem for years and pointed to a combination of factors, including trawl over-exploitation of the fishery resources and climate change. Sea ice has become increasingly rare, not surrounding St. Paul Island since 2011 and 2012, and seabird die-offs have become increasingly common in the region. “The population declines of northern fur seals, Steller sea lions, Pribilof Islands blue king crab, and Pacific halibut, to name a few, have been devastating to the livelihoods, wellbeing, and future of our tribal and community members,” he said. “We have carried these concerns to this Council for years, decades.” He requested that the council drop salmon bycatch allowances to zero for the 2022 Bering Sea pollock fishery, that it seek federal disaster aid and research funding and that the council seek tribal consultation on salmon bycatch and management. The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission asked for the same measures in its letter, noting that because of the lack of information on the reason for the salmon collapse, “sustainable fishery management requires that the Council limit salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery to ensure that NO salmon are taken as bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery in 2022.” Kawerak, Inc., the Ocean Conservancy, the Yukon River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, the Yukon Drainage Fisheries Association and the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association submitted the same requests. Several commenters are asking for similarly tough actions on the Bering Sea pollock fishery, but others are noting that significant cuts could also heavily impact Native coastal communities because they hold interest in that fishery through their CDQ groups. Fishermen with the Coastal Villages Region Fund, which represents the villages around the Kuskokwim River Delta and surrounding areas, caught about 102 million pounds of pollock in 2019, according to CVRF’s annual report from that year. Others are asking for changes to the bycatch management in the trawl fisheries. A letter from the Salmon Habitat Information Partnership program signed by 300 commercial fishermen asks the council to reconsider a decision it made regarding apportionment of Chinook salmon bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska pollock fisheries. In August, the National Marine Fisheries Service published a rule moving 1,350 Chinook from the Gulf of Alaska pollock fishery to the non-rockfish program catcher vessel sector in the Gulf. Those 1,350 Chinook are a projected unused part of the prohibited species catch limit — essentially, some that the pollock fleet didn’t catch that they were allowed. The fishermen in the letter, from everywhere from Ketchikan to Dutch Harbor, protested this move, saying the fish should be left in the Gulf rather than be allowed to be caught by another sector as bycatch. “Alaskans are making huge sacrifices to protect Chinook; the federal government via the NPFMC needs to do the same,” the letter states. “Chinook bycatch being rolled over to another trawl sector to kill and discard is unconscionable when many Alaskans are foregoing subsistence, sport and commercial harvest.” Salmon fishermen across the Gulf of Alaska, from Southeast to Bristol bay, saw restrictions this year due to low king salmon runs. In Bristol Bay, early-season commercial fishing in the Nushagak District was restricted because of the slow king salmon return there. In Cook Inlet, setnetters were shut down completely in mid-July because of a poor king salmon run, along with a complete sportfishery closure for the Kenai River king salmon. In Southeast, sport anglers were restricted starting in June to protect the kings returning to the rivers there. In the letter, the fishermen argue that the rollover policy needs to be reversed while the council takes more long-term action to address king salmon bycatch in the trawl fisheries in the Gulf. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting this week via Zoom. The link to the meetings can be found on its website at npfmc.org. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Report highlights how Bristol Bay locals are losing access to commercial fisheries

Alaska’s limited-entry commercial fisheries system may be pulling access to fisheries away from the coastal communities where they take place. A series of research projects in the past decade has increasingly shown that limited-entry systems like Alaska’s commercial fishing permitting system or the federal-state individual fishing quota system are systematically pulling permits away from the coastal communities that traditionally depend on those industries. The most recent installment in that line of projects focuses specifically on Bristol Bay — today, the state’s most successful salmon fishery. The report, commissioned for The Nature Conservancy, found that in the 46 years since Alaska’s limited-entry system went into place, residents in Bristol Bay’s rural communities now own 50 percent fewer permits. The decline is similar among younger permit holders, contributing to the overall trend: commercial fishing permit holders in the state are increasingly older and from regions other than where they fish. Dr. Rachel Donkersloot, the lead researcher on the study, has been conducting research on the effects of limited-entry on rural communities since at least 2016, as well as on the increasing average age of commercial fishermen, known as “the graying of the fleet.” While limited-entry has served fisheries conservation well in the past five decades, she said she was focusing on the human impact of the system in this report. “It’s very clear we need to do better,” she said. “How can we improve, and how can we change it?” When limited-entry was established, the designers primarily focused on implementing a program that would keep more fishing power in the hands of Alaskans while creating a transferable permit system. Permits are freely transferable, though, which creates market value. Depending on the success of a particular fishery, permits can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. On average, a Bristol Bay driftnetting permit cost more than $180,000 in 2021, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. That price creates a huge barrier for residents of rural communities, where cash income is limited. Gradually, those permits have made their way out of rural communities and increasingly into the hands of urban Alaskans and nonresidents. Limited-entry was passed in 1975; by 1983, 288 permits had already left the hands of Alaska Natives in Bristol Bay, a 21 percent decline, the report found. “This rural-to-urban outflow of fishing rights robs rural Alaska of its economic base, erodes rural economic opportunity, degrades rural infrastructure, and negatively impacts coastal community health, fishing heritage, and food security,” the report notes. The effect is not unique to Bristol Bay. In Southeast, for example, the villages of Angoon, Kake, Metlakatla and Hydaburg lost about 60 percent of their salmon fishing permits. Some of the smallest communities in Bristol Bay, including Pedro Bay, Egegik, and Pilot Point lost more than 75 percent of their permit holdings, according to the report. Meanwhile, the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery has been a blockbuster success, breaking its all-time record for returning sockeye this summer. “The impacts of limited entry are devastating, but it’s almost eclipsed by the success of this phenomenal fishery,” Donkersloot said. The reasons the permits are bleeding out of the Bay are complicated. Norm Van Vactor, president and CEO of the Dillinghman-based Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, said it’s a combination of different factors, including migration out of the watershed, attrition and some fishermen selling their permits rather than bequeathing them to their children. For about a dozen years, the BBEDC has run a loan program to help aspiring fishermen purchase permits in the region. But even that has only slowed the bleed, not stopped it, Van Vactor said. “At the end of the day, it almost cut the cost in half for a program participant to participate in it,” he said. “We’ve cut the loss numbers,” he said, but it’s not enough. The loss radiates economically. Not only do local permit holders make more money and hand down their expertise, they also train up local deckhands and younger commercial fishermen in the region. With them gone, Bristol Bay locals have a harder time getting onto vessels as deckhands. A generation of role models has disappeared, he said. What’s more, the locals notice the change, and the attitude tends to become negative. Outsiders bring a different approach to fishing than the locals and Native communities that have traditionally fished the Bay, he said. “It doesn’t really matter if you’re from Soldotna or San Francisco — you’re still an outsider,” he said. Fixes to the problem have been slow to come. Van Vactor said he worked with the Legislature in 2017 and 2018 on a bill to establish Regional Fisheries Trusts, which would have allowed a regional entity to hold permits that coastal communities could use, essentially tying a certain percentage of the salmon fishing permits in a region to that geographic area. After a series of amendments and versions, the bill finally languished in the House Fisheries Committee, which Van Vactor said is “disappointing.” Donkersloot also said the Legislature has a role to play in fixing this problem, trying to shift the permit system away from an open-market system where the cash-poor communities that depend on the fisheries cannot reasonably compete with more affluent permit holders from urban areas of Alaska or the Lower 48. In the report, the authors also highlight the potential for fisheries trusts as well as other suggested programs, like apprenticeship permits, small-scale access provisions and locally designated permits. “We’ve seen the impact of limited-entry on our communities, in villages,” Donkersloot said. “I think the goal here was to restart that conversation.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

ADFG: Bristol Bay sockeye runs set all-time record

It’s official: Bristol Bay’s 2021 commercial salmon season was the largest on record. In-season escapement and harvest estimates already set the stage for the record, but the end-season summary released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game confirmed it. About 66.1 million sockeye salmon returned to the streams across the Bristol Bay watershed, breaking the previous record of 62.9 million, which was set in 2018. It’s only the third time in the bay’s history that the total inshore run has exceeded 60 million sockeye, according to Fish and Game. While the run was 60 percent above the recent 20-year average and about 32 percent above the pre-season forecast, harvest didn’t quite exceed forecast to those levels. In total, fishermen harvested 40.4 million sockeye, 11 percent above the preseason forecast of 36.4 million. It’s only the fifth-largest harvest on record, but it’s the third time in the last four years that the harvest has come in higher than 40 million fish. The $247.7 million overall ex-vessel value — which includes all salmon species, not just sockeye — was the fourth largest in the bay’s history. That amount doesn’t include post-season adjustments, either. During the season, managers noted that the average size of sockeye was somewhat smaller than historical averages. That’s in part because the fish that came back this year were younger. Fish and Game noted in the season summary that the dominant age class this year was three-year-old fish, or the 1.2 age class. They made up about 60 percent of the total run. The larger, older fish made up a much smaller component. “Average weight for sockeye salmon was roughly a pound less than their most recent 20-year average of 5.7 pounds,” the summary notes. Though some areas saw extremely high single days of returns — the Nushagak saw more than 1.8 million sockeye return in a single day in July — the overall run timing was earlier than in recent years as well. That helped with fishery operations. “Inshore run timing to Bristol Bay this season was not as late as in recent years and aligned more with historical average timing in most districts,” managers wrote in the summary. “This helped the fishery to operate at full capacity for the entire season.” Meanwhile, as Bristol Bay’s fishermen took home fat paychecks, other fisheries saw some of their worst seasons. Some of that was due to poor runs, and some was due to lack of harvester participation, lack of processor participation or both. Chignik, for example, saw a stronger than expected late-season sockeye run, which was refreshing for an area that has seen multiple complete sockeye run failures in the last five years. However, this year, there was no one available to harvest it, as the failure of the early-season sockeye run led fishermen to go elsewhere. The Chignik managers noted in a September report that there wasn’t much harvest opportunity in June and July because of the low run. “It is not appropriate to compare sockeye salmon harvest this year to recent averages due to the low participation and lack of harvest opportunity in June and much of July,” the managers wrote. The same is true for Cook Inlet; the commercial harvest is exceptionally low this year, with the drift fishery harvest coming in at about 849,150 sockeye, much less than the average in the last decade. Setnet harvest was low, too, in part because the setnet fishery experienced one of the earliest closures in its history in mid-July due to the failure of the Kenai River late-run king salmon harvest. There were plenty of sockeye — the end-season estimate of 2.4 million escapement into the Kenai is the highest since 1987 — but the lack of kings led to fishing restrictions. Managers noted that participation in the drift fishery was lower than average, too. In the Yukon River, the chum salmon run completely failed. Both the fall chum and the coho runs in the Yukon are the lowest on record, according to an Oct. 1 announcement from Fish and Game. For comparison, the normal historical run size is about 870,000 fish; as of Oct. 1, Fish and Game estimated the run at 102,000. Fish and Game estimates the coho run at 37,000 fish compared to its historical normal of 240,000. The chum run didn’t meet the threshold to allow any kind of fishing, and may not meet the Canadian treaty requirement. Subsistence fishing in the area relies on chum salmon, and managers plan to relax some of the requirements after Oct. 1 for the Lower Yukon, even though the escapement didn’t meet the requirement for any kind of fishing. “Preliminary data from assessment projects indicated that fall chum and coho salmon had the smallest fish lengths observed in their respective datasets,” the announcement said. “Subsistence fishing restrictions are being relaxed starting in the Lower Yukon Area on October 1 and moving upriver once the tail end of the salmon run has passed a subdistrict.” Kotzebue Sound’s season fell short as well, plagued by poor salmon returns and increasing restrictions in July and August. The final harvest estimate of 96,492 chum salmon was only about 64 percent of the 2020 harvest, and was the lowest since 2007. Like Bristol Bay, chums were also smaller, with an average weight of 7.4 pounds per salmon. There are only five years in the history of the Kotzebue Sound commercial fishery when the average weight was below 8 pounds, according to Fish and Game. The lack of fishing opportunity and thin harvests led the three buyers — Copper River Seafoods, Pacific Star Seafoods and Arctic Circle Wild Salmon — to say they would withdraw by mid-August, though the season didn’t end until Aug. 31. The season summary, released Sept. 23, said the department then opened some additional fishing time in the last week. Participation was low, though catch per unit of effort was similar to 2020. “Throughout most of the season, the catch per unit of effort (CPUE) was similar to 2020 but, for most of the time this year, about 25% fewer permit holders were fishing,” the summary states. “During the last week of fishing, the CPUE was double the previous year with nearly the same amount of permit holders fishing.” In total, managers estimate the ex-vessel value for Kotzebue Sound at $332,064, which is less than half of the historical average value of the fishery, according to Fish and Game. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bristol Bay king crab fishery closed for first time since ‘95

As crab numbers for most major stocks fall across the Bering Sea, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery will be closed for the first time in decades. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which manages the fishery cooperatively with the National Marine Fisheries Service, announced the closure on Sept. 3. The survey numbers in 2021 estimated that the red king crab stock in Bristol Bay is below the threshold required for a fishery, following the trend during the last decade. NMFS released its 2021 survey data on Sept. 3, showing the Bristol Bay district red king crab estimated mature male biomass at 12,559 metric tons, or about 27.7 million pounds. That’s higher than 2019, but less than half of the recent 20-year average, continuing the trend of a decline in the region. “Fifty percent of legal-sized males were new hardshell crab, a decline from the 62 percent of legal-sized males that were new hardshell in 2019,” the report says. The Bristol Bay red king crab stock, the largest in the state, has been declining for years. Surveys were cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but in the last year of survey data in 2019, the stock declined and forced managers to cut the total allowable catch, or TAC, by 12 percent to 3.8 million pounds. The stock and harvests have been declining consistently since 2013. At the same time, red king crab has remained an incredibly valuable fishery. NMFS estimated that in 2020, fishermen landed 8.5 million pounds of king crab in the state, with an estimated $50.2 million value. That number includes all species of king crab, though, not just Bristol Bay red kings. Disentangling the economic impact of the red king crab fishery is somewhat difficult without further research, said Andy Wink, the executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. It will definitely negatively impact on the participating boats in the crab fleet, but impacts on secondary effects—such as indirect and induced jobs supported by the fishery—are harder to predict. “The specific economic impacts of this fishery closure would take more study,” he said. The 2020-21 TAC issued for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery was the lowest on record since the 1995-96 closure, according to an economic report on the 2019 fishery presented to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Managers and surveyors had been saying the stock was approaching its threshold for closure, with reasons for the decline somewhat unclear. The survey from NMFS says that some possible reasons for movement in the stock in the past have been due to water temperature changes or fishery pressure, though the more recent movements seem to indicate water temperature being more likely. The economic decline in the fishery was already beginning to show in the employment figures as well. According to the economics report, hours worked by processing employees in the fishery declined about 15 percent and wages fell 5 percent between 2018 and 2019. That generally tracks with lower volumes produced. The harvest sector actually increased in 2019 by one vessel, to 56 active vessels, with about 370 active crew. Most crab stocks across the Eastern Bering Sea this year fell markedly, according to the survey data. That decline was most notable for snow crab, where mature male estimates fell by 55 percent and females by 70 percent from 2019. That was a surprise for some; TACs for snow crab increased in the Eastern Bering Sea in 2020. The results for immature snow crab are even worse: a 96 percent decline in immature females and a greater than 99 percent decline in males. “Total mature male biomass of commercial crab stocks in the eastern Bering Sea in 2021 was the lowest on record and 2021 biomass estimates continued a declining trend that began in 2015,” the survey states. Other stocks didn’t show “similar dramatic changes” since 2019, according to the survey, but the St. Matthew Island blue king crab continued to decline and Pribilof Island red and blue king crab estimates remained low. The only bright spot was Tanner crab, for which the mature female stock estimates increased. However, male mature biomass declined, especially for industry-preferred size crab, and immature Tanner crab biomass declined generally, except for those east of the 166-degree latitude line. Crab and shellfish abundance generally have been noted to be declining in recent years compared to high harvest records in the 1980s and ‘90s, with scientists still unsure about the exact cause. King crab is an iconic species for Alaska, selling for a premium and carrying a chunk of the state’s commercial fishing identity with it. Its decline parallels that of the decade-long downward slide of king salmon abundance in rivers across the state, pushing out most large-scale commercial fishing for kings. Wink noted that the Bristol Bay red king crab closures are difficult, but attest to the sustainability-focused management systems in the state. “It stings that these two iconic Alaska species (king crab and king salmon) are much less abundant than they used to be, but the strict reductions in harvests of those species is proof that Alaska walks the walk when it comes to sustainability,” he said. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is set to meet starting Oct. 6, with committee and advisory meetings beginning Sept. 30. All the meetings are virtual. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Peter Pan latest processor to announce COVID-19 vaccine mandate

After two seasons of closed campuses, rigorous COVID-19 testing and masks, Alaska’s seafood processors are increasingly turning to vaccine mandates for employees in a bid to keep their facilities open. The latest is Peter Pan Seafood Co., which announced its vaccine requirement for employees on Sept. 1. The requirement won’t go into effect for most employees until Oct. 1, with an extension for King Cove facility employees after that. Peter Pan operates facilities in Valdez, Dillingham, Port Moller and King Cove, but only the King Cove facility is open year-round. The requirement would not apply to the fishing fleet, though Peter Pan said in its announcement that it encouraged fishermen to be vaccinated and has provided the opportunity since April 2021. The company estimates that about 95 percent of its approximately 1,800 employees are already vaccinated, and that it will honor religious and medical exemptions. Rodger May, the president and chief growth officer for Peter Pan, said the decision was one of the most difficult he’d had to debate. “People are right on both sides of (the vaccine),” he said. “I’m hoping that the religious and medical exemptions fill all the gaps.” May said the major driving factor behind the decision is to continue to be responsible to employees and the communities in which Peter Pan operates. Even with the vaccine requirement in place, the company plans to continue its closed-campus and masking policies for workers. Peter Pan has been lucky and not experienced an outbreak at its facilities, he said, but if one happened, it could be devastating for the company and for the employees. “If for some reason you’re shut down for 20, 25 days, that could be 25 percent of their paycheck for the whole summer,” he said. “They didn’t sign up for that.” Alaska seafood processors rely heavily on workers from the Lower 48 and internationally to staff their plants, particularly the seasonal ones. That means many have to enter the state as the season ramps up, and the companies have had to bear the brunt of the cost of mitigating COVID-19 risk in that process, including testing workers frequently, paying for PPE, quaranting them in hotels and trying to social distance where possible in facilities that are normally densely crowded with workers. They received some federal relief funding meant to help offset that cost, but not all of it, and it posed a significant expense for many. To date, processing plants have experienced a number of outbreaks statewide, including several complete plant shutdowns. In July, Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods in Cordova had to shutter briefly in response to an outbreak among workers, and in January 2021, two of the state’s largest processing plants — owned by Trident and UniSea — had to close at the beginning of the crab and pollock seasons. Between spring and fall 2020, 13 COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in Alaska seafood processing facilities and on vessels, with 539 cases that counted as spread among workers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Until “high rates of vaccination” can be achieved in the seafood processing workforce, the recommendations are to keep quarantine groups to less than 10 people, test workers prior to transfer and perform serial testing to prevent outbreaks. Multiple processing companies have now announced that they will require vaccines for employees, including Trident Seafoods and OBI. American Seafoods states in its information for applicants that it requires new crew members to “undergo COVID-19 tests, pass a fit-for-duty exam, show proof of COVID-19 vaccine, exemption, or obtain vaccination through us, and receive this year’s flu shot.” Trident says its requirement is meant to help alleviate some of the difficulties about where and how it operates. “Our facilities and vessels require employees to work and live in close quarters, there are limitations on the medical services we can provide in remote locations, and it is not reasonably practical to evacuate from remote locations or shut down operations in the event of another outbreak,” the company’s website states. May said the majority of Peter Pan’s employees are already vaccinated, so the remaining few will be able to decide whether they want to receive the shot or seek employment elsewhere. In the case of those who would prefer not to obtain the shot or an exemption, the company will help place them at another processing facility. The timeframe for the company’s requirement will help facilitate that, he said. “We’re not talking a huge amount of people,” he said. “(The King Cove facility) is still very busy, and I didn’t want to put a gun to their head. The goal isn’t to terminate somebody and send them on their way.” He said Peter Pan has been blessed so far that it has not had a facility shutdown due to an outbreak, but if it fell in a high-volume time, there would “literally be no recovering.” In Port Moller and King Cove, Peter Pan is the only processors in the immediate vicinity, but even in Bristol Bay, a shutdown would impact the fleet because the other plants are already operating at capacity. Hiring is competitive, but May said he didn’t expect the requirement to create an issue for Peter Pan in finding employees. In its requirements, the company states that it defines “fully vaccinated” as having two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or a single doze of the Johnson &Johnson vaccine. The CDC has not provided guidance about recognition of foreign-developed vaccines, though President Joe Biden’s administration said in early August that it was working on guidance on verification of international vaccines for tourists. This year is Peter Pan’s first full calendar year operating after the reorganization in 2020. May said he thought the company is headed in the right direction, and that the vaccine decision is a leadership decision he hopes others can learn from. “There’s no right answer here,” he said. “We hope that people learn from it—we’re sure learning from it. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Court case is final hope for Inlet drifters

Editor’s note: This is the third and final story exploring the Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here. A late-season bumper run of sockeye salmon has pushed the Kenai River to its highest escapement in more than a decade. Unfortunately for the commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet, they have had to watch many of them go by. Over the course of the season, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists upgraded the estimate for the run’s escapement multiple times, upping the in-river bag limits for the sportfishery and opening some additional time for the drift gillnet fleet. With the setnet fleet out of the water after July 20 because of poor king salmon returns to the Kenai, controlling sockeye escapements to the Kenai and Kasilof fell on the drift fleet and on the in-river dipnet and sportfisheries. Both rivers are ending their seasons significantly greater than the upper end of their escapement goals. ADFG is projecting a final escapement in the Kasilof of 519,000 sockeye compared to the top end of the escapement goal of 320,000; the sustainable escapement goal for the Kenai River has a top end of 1.3 million and ADFG is projecting an in-river run of about 2.4 million sockeye. Unless something changes, the drift fleet is likely to lose a major chunk of their fishing area at the end of this year, too. The National Marine Fisheries Service is currently working its way through the regulations review process for a new fishery management plan amendment that will close the federal waters of Cook Inlet to salmon fishing. That section, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ, covers the section of Cook Inlet that’s three nautical miles and farther offshore; drifters typically harvest half or more of their salmon from there during the season. “For most of the fleet, the EEZ is the preferred area for fishing,” said Erik Huebsch, a drifter and vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. “Without access to the EEZ, the drift fleet cannot harvest enough salmon to meet expenses and cannot afford to operate. “Without the drift fleet harvest, the seafood processing companies cannot afford to operate and will close their businesses. This is not speculation; this is exactly what has already been happening in the Cook Inlet salmon fishery.” NMFS opened public comment on the proposed regulations through July 5 this year. If the regulations are finalized and approved by the Secretary of Commerce, the EEZ could be closed by Dec. 31. The closure The fight over federal management of salmon in Cook Inlet goes back to 2012 and, some might argue, back to statehood itself. One of the reasons Alaskans voted to pursue statehood in 1959 was to gain more localized control over fisheries management, wresting control away from the out-of-state processing companies and federal government. Alaska has primary management control over fisheries in state freshwater and in marine waters out to three nautical miles offshore. After that, the federal government assumes primary management through the National Marine Fisheries Service. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council develops fishery management plans, or FMP, for the fisheries in Alaska and the West Coast for the federal government, and historically has delegated or shared some of that management with the state. Yukon River and Southeast salmon management, for example, are managed under federal authority of a treaty with Canada; Bering Sea crab fisheries are also jointly managed by the state and federal governments. In Cook Inlet, that historic but informal delegation of authority to the state included the management of salmon fisheries. In 2012, the council made that formal by excluding the federal waters of Cook Inlet from its FMP through an amendment that permanently delegated management to the state. The United Cook Inlet Drift Association, or UCIDA, sued and won at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016, arguing that the federal government had to manage federal waters to comply with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The council again took up the debate in response to the court order, and in December 2020 voted to support an option for a new amendment that will include Cook Inlet into the Western area salmon FMP and will close the EEZ to commercial salmon fishing. NFMS approved the amendment on Aug. 12, according to a letter from Alaska Region administrator James Balsiger. The controversy UCIDA argues that the adoption of the new amendment to close the EEZ is illegal because of the State of Alaska’s actions. During the December 2020 meeting, Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker told the council that the state would refused to accept delegation of authority with oversight from NMFS. In a November 2020 email obtained by UCIDA and submitted to the court, Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang told Ben Stevens, former chief of staff to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, that UCIDA and others were “lobbying hard” to require annual federal review of state management of Cook Inlet fisheries to ensure compliance with federal laws. “John [Moller, former commercial fisheries advisor to Dunleavy] and I feel that opening our management to federal and outsider influence is the wrong choice, especially that it could potentially create a domino effect that would spread to other salmon fisheries across Alaska,” Vincent-Lang wrote. “It would shift the allocation fight into federal bodies which will lead to calls for sport and personal use representation on the Council and take time away for state issues of priority at the council.” UCIDA argues that this was in bad faith and undermined everything the stakeholders and NMFS had been trying to work on for several years. Among multiple briefs filed Aug. 20, Huebsch wrote in a declaration filed with the 9th Circuit Court on that the members of the Cook Inlet salmon FMP committee, which included stakeholders and NMFS representatives, worked on three options to integrate federal management into the Cook Inlet salmon fishery. “The Salmon Committee has significant interaction with NMFS and Council staff,” Huebsch wrote. “The Salmon Committee was never informed that the state would not accept a delegated program, or that Alternative 2 was infeasible. Had I been so informed, I would not have spent further time on Alternative 2, and instead would have worked on developing Alternative 3, which involves federal management of the fishery.” UCIDA argues that the state had been planning to refuse delegation of authority long before the meeting in December 2020 and did not disclose it publicly, tying the hands of the council on the preferred alternative of most of the stakeholders, which would have been delegated authority with federal oversight. The state argues that UCIDA’s requests — which involve federal oversight of salmon fisheries that reaches up into spawning beds and includes management of salmon escapement — are an overreach and undermine the state’s ability to manage its resources. Several other emails submitted by UCIDA to the court show correspondence between NOAA and Fish and Game about the state’s preference for Alternative 4 to close the EEZ and between Baker and council member Andy Mezirow when Mezirow asked for “rationale points” about why he supported the state’s position. Both are dated before the Dec. 7, 2020, council meeting. A Dec. 3, 2020, email from Baker to Vincent-Lang relayed the input from NOAA General Counsel that the “the main outstanding issue is the need to identify conservation benefits that outweigh costs of closing the EEZ to commercial fishing participants.” The consequences The closure is likely to result in the loss of most fishing opportunity for the drift fleet. Many say they won’t be able to afford the startup costs of fishing in the Inlet without the promise of the harvest in the EEZ, and the rest say that it may not be worth it because the processors may not be there to buy the fish even if they do. In the 2020 season, the average drifter in Cook Inlet made about $7,102, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. That was the worst year in recent memory; a decade ago, in 2011, the average gross earnings were $65,753. “I fish the lower part of Cook Inlet, specifically the EEZ area set to be managed by closing these waters,” wrote Robert Wolfe, a drifter in Lower Cook Inlet. “If this action goes forward my business will have to shut down due to the distance I would have to travel to Where (???) [sic] the State of Alaska chooses where we will fish. At this point we in Cook Inlet have no idea how future fishery will be conducted next year.” There are currently two major processors with operations in Cook Inlet: Pacific Star Seafoods and Copper River Seafoods. Huebsch notes in his filing with the court that the loss of potentially 50 percent of the drift harvest is certain to affect their ability to make a profit in Cook Inlet for the season. The 2021 season highlights the effect of the management regime, he said, with the drifters restricted to the expanded corridors away from the federal waters and the setnetters closed. “This situation is untenable; processors are going bankrupt and commercial fishers face insolvency, all the while the state plugs the rivers with harvestable surplus salmon and NMFS and the Council do nothing,” he wrote. The City of Kenai and state Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, both submitted comments on NOAA’s proposed rulemaking change this summer opposing the adoption of the closure. UCIDA is asking for the court to block the amendment or any other that would close the EEZ, order NMFS to prepare an FMP that addresses “the entire Cook Inlet salmon fishery, including state waters,” appoint a special master to oversee the proceedings and to award the organization all its legal fees. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Last chance? Cook Inlet setnetters look to buyback as a way to save fishery

Editor’s note: This article is the second of a three-part series about the Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishery. Click here for the first part. The next article will be about the proposed closure of the federal waters to salmon fishing in Cook Inlet. In some ways, Cook Inlet’s East Side setnet fishery is the most desirable of commercial fisheries to get into: instead of having to fish remote sections of muddy beach, far from roads or towns, commercial fishermen can finish their sets for the day, jump up to the top of the bluff, and go to town for the night. The ones who live on the Kenai Peninsula can even go home, if they want to. In other ways, it’s one of the worst fisheries to be in. With unexpected closures and constant conflicts over salmon allocation, it’s not uncommon to find fishermen poring over the specific wording of management plans or frantically checking fish counts in the nearby Kenai River to see if they’ll be open. Many of them also listen in to the Board of Fisheries meetings, asking the members and department for changes or adjustments to management. That’s where Ken Coleman has found himself every three years since the 1980s: in the chairs at the Board of Fisheries meetings. A north Kalifornsky Beach, known as K-Beach, setnetter, Coleman said he’s watched the fishery ratchet back, with setnetters losing first the early season, then the late season, then gear, then time. “It just boggles your mind,” he said. Over time, it’s resulted in a fishery that can barely sustain itself. In 2020, the 468 permits that fished in the setnet fisheries around Cook Inlet earned a total of $3.1 million, or about $6,742 per permit, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. Last year was the worst year in recent memory; in 2019, average gross earnings came back around $22,831 per permit, and at $10,886 in 2018. That includes all setnets in Cook Inlet, though, not just the East Side. With the seasons cut short and seemingly no management fix in sight, some of them are looking to a more long-term fix: asking the state to buy them out. Shortened seasons, shortened earnings Like the rest of Alaska, many of the fishermen are aging, and they’re working with their children and hired crew to man their sites each year. This year in particular was expensive; crew were harder to find, COVID-19 mitigations had to be put in place, gear to supply the sites was more expensive, and fuel prices had increased. Then, the entire fishery had an early closure on July 20. Despite plenty of sockeye jumping in the waters and entering the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, not enough large late-run king salmon are returning to the Kenai River. The setnet openings are tied to the in-river sportfishery restrictions on king salmon, so when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the king salmon sportfishery, setnets closed, too. Two setnetters petitioned the board to reopen them on a limited basis, but the board denied the petitions on the grounds that they did not qualify as emergencies. Coleman says north K-Beach, which stretches from the mouth of the Kenai River southward, had nine openers this year, none of which had a full complement of gear. Chris Every, who also fishes on north K-Beach, was one of the petitioners to the board. He said the board and Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang ignored data showing that the limited fishery the setnetters argued for caught very few kings and chose to keep them closed anyway. The late run of king salmon has missed its optimum escapement goal in the Kenai River three years running, and with the management structure for setnets pinned to that goal, many of the commercial fishermen fear this year is a harbinger of seasons to come. Every points to the declining number of processors in Cook Inlet. The once-competitive market of processors at the mouth of the Kenai has dwindled to two major players: Pacific Star Seafoods and Copper River Seafoods. Seattle-based E&E Seafoods, which owns Pacific Star, purchased Inlet Fish Producers from North Pacific Seafoods in 2020, adding that Kenai plant to its existing facilities there. “That’s the future of this fishery,” Every said. Coleman said he bought into the fishery when it was productive and has paid off his permits and lived off the earnings from the fishery for years. It’s hard to watch the young fishermen struggle by on the meager earnings from the fishery today, he said. “Paying my sites off were something I readily did because all my future was before and it seemed like the right thing to do,” he said. Dean Osmar, who has been fishing setnet sites near Clam Gulch for nearly five decades, said he remembers opening in late May and fishing into October, when there was no defined end to the season. “Because of the early ending of the set net season the past couple seasons, we have lost (approximately) 50 percent of our catch,” he said. A buyback plan There are approximately 440 setnet permits registered to the East Side out of the 732 setnet permits Inlet-wide. Though the East Side is a distinct subdistrict, a Cook Inlet setnet permit can be fished anywhere in the area. That means that, given the chance, setnetters can move their operations to regions which are more productive within Cook Inlet. The Kenai and the Kasilof rivers are the most productive sockeye systems other than the Susitna River, and after they started spiking in production in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some setnetters have been looking at possibilities of a permit buyback since the early 2000s. The first effort through the Cook Inlet Revitalization Association fizzled out, but a more recent effort is working its way through the Legislature now under Senate Bill 29. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, does a few things to set up the opportunity for a buyback. First, it splits off the Upper Subdistrict—the official management name for the East Side setnet fishery—into an exclusive zone. Other Cook Inlet setnetters would not be eligible for the buyback. Second, it sets up a program that would allow qualifying permit holders to enter a lottery to have their permits bought back. That lottery would allow about half of the permits to be bought back at a fixed price of $260,000 per permit. To prevent speculation, permit holders have to have owned the permit since at least Jan. 1, 2018, and fished the last two years. The bill proposes using federal funding to finance the program. Coleman, who has been working closely with Micciche and advocating for this program for the past six years, said that number was derived from an average of several years of earnings for setnetters. The state is buying out businesses, which benefits the other participants in the fishery, he said, and gets the fishermen out “with a little monetary dignity.” On average, permit values have dropped since the fishery’s heyday in the early 1990s. Data from the CFEC shows that the value of Cook Inlet setnet permits peaked at about $100,000. They bottomed out in 2004 at about $7,000 and have inched back up to just less than $18,000 as of April 2021. The last thing the buyback program would do is close the tidewater lease associated with the purchased permit. The intent is to prevent other permit holders from just moving into the spot and defeating the purpose. The program has garnered support from some sportfishing groups, including the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, in the past. Setnets are not perfectly efficient; with gear reduced, more salmon will likely pass the commercial fishery and escape into the river. That benefits the sportfishery and personal use fisheries on the Kenai, which target both kings and sockeye. There are constitutional questions from past efforts, though. In 2008, the CFEC issued a memorandum outlining some potential legal ramifications about a salmon permit buyback program under the Limited Entry Act. Specifically, it notes that buybacks should be focused on the sustainability and economic health of a fishery, as well as the long-term well-being of its participants. However, it notes that “if the fishery were to become too exclusive under the Alaska Constitution, the State would have an obligation to put more permits back into the fishery.” SB 29 is currently in the Senate Finance Committee, and does not have a companion bill in the House. To go or to stay The buyback program is entirely elective. The fleet has to approve it, and entering the lottery is optional. The cabin on Sarah Frostad-Hudkins’ site on the Salamatof beach north of Kenai is a work of history. The cabin itself is built partially from wood reclaimed from the fish traps that lined the Cook Inlet coast in the 20th century; on the rafter hangs every commercial fishing permit the site has used for decades. Family pictures include one of her grandfather Ole Frostad who immigrated to Alaska and started fishing the site in the 1920s with a determined look on his face as he makes sourdough pancakes on a small stove. The same stove stands in the corner of the kitchen. Frostad-Hudkins said setnetting is a major part of her family’s lives; they have spent every summer for generations on the beach, hauling up salmon. They haven’t decided, but they don’t think they’ll go for the lottery themselves if it were approved. “We’ll probably just keep fishing,” she said. South of the Kenai, Every said he probably will. “Do you want to be bought out, or do you want to walk away one day and let it all rot on the beach?” he said. Not everyone in the fleet supports the program in its current form. Paul Shadura II, who fishes in the Kasilof region, said he was involved in the early 2000s effort and said he doesn’t care for this version of the buyback with the closed waters and the exclusivity of the Upper Subdistrict. “If that wasn’t in this bill particularly, I would be 100 percent supportive of it,” he said. Coleman said he’s heard a lot of support among the fleet for the buyback, though there are still a few who oppose it for various reasons. Without it, though, there doesn’t seem to be much of. future for the fleet. A gear reduction would allow the ones who stay to be more prosperous, supporting a commercial fishery in the future, he said; without it, they’ll have to struggle on the way they are and likely be starved out. “I want to see this survive into the future,” he said. “It has a rich history. It’s one of the oldest organized fisheries in the state. It’s highly emotional to me; I want to see my sons be able to fish it.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

‘Bleeding out’: Inlet setnetters feel pain of early closure as sockeye continue pouring in

Editor’s note: This story is the first of a three-part series about the Cook Inlet commercial fishery. Every few seconds, a bright salmon throws itself out of the water on the beaches of Cook Inlet and splashes back. Normally, that would be a sight to celebrate for the hundreds of commercial fishing sites up and down the west side of the Kenai Peninsula, but not this year. “I can’t even go to the bluff,” said Ted Crookston, who setnets on the Salamatof beach just north of the mouth of the Kenai River. Looking at the fish flopping in the water, unharvested, is too painful, he says. All the sockeye headed up the river past where setnets are usually harvesting them translates to thousands of dollars not going into a commercial fishery that has been bleeding out economically for more than a decade. He says he’s been fishing the beach for nearly six decades. This season is the earliest closure he remembers, with the last day of fishing on July 20. Since then, the East Side setnetters from Boulder Point north of Nikiski down to Ninilchik have been sitting on the beach, with many giving up and pulling their gear out for the season. The Salamatof fishermen say they had five openers in their whole season. It all hinges on king salmon, which aren’t coming back to the Kenai River in enough numbers. For the past three years, the late run of Kenai River king salmon has been too small to meet the lower end of its escapement goal, which means Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists place restrictions on both the in-river sportfishery and the East Side setnets, also known as the ESSN, which operate close to shore. This management structure is known as paired restrictions, which scale back setnetters’ time and gear as the sportfishery’s gear is restricted. The Board of Fisheries said the structure was justified because the setnet fishery harvests more kings than the drift fishery, tying it to the sportfishery if in-river fishermen are restricted. The problem is that many setnetters say they have tools available to harvest sockeye without taking kings, and ADFG isn’t using them. The 600-foot fishery On July 20, East Side setnetters fished their last day for the season, restricted to the 600-foot fishery from Boulder Point to Ninilchik. In the 12 hours that day, they harvested 36,668 sockeye and 72 kings. According to ADFG estimates, 11 of those kings were large late-run Kenai River kings. Chris Every, a north K-Beach setnetter, said the fishermen in his area have been pushing for the 600-foot nets as a tool to allow the fishery to remain open when the king salmon run is low for years. “We have data from the last four years with the 600-foot fishery,” he said. “It’s been fished between the rivers, and it continually shows the data that we’re trying to prove.” He submitted a petition to the Board of Fisheries asking for ADFG to be allowed to reopen the setnetters to just the 600-foot fishery this summer, letting them continue to fish in a restricted manner while the in-river king salmon fishery is closed. The board rejected his petition 4-2, saying that the situation doesn’t qualify as an unforeseen emergency. ADFG Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang wrote in his finding that this year is not an emergency because it has happened before and the board specifically made the regulation that provided for it. “Closure of the ESSN fishery has occurred in the past and is also not an unforeseen event,” he wrote. Several board members said they felt as though they hadn’t fully understood the implications of the regulations they made nor had the data on the small king harvest from the 600-foot fishery. The board ultimately voted down Every’s petition 4-2 and took no action on the other, a petition from the South K-Beach Independent Fishermen’s association, an ad-hoc advocacy group. Paul Shadura II, who submitted the petition on behalf of SOKI, said he felt slighted that that board didn’t discuss the petition, which differed in specifics from Every’s request. He said the group is interested in putting in an agenda change request, or ACR, this fall to the board related to this issue, but that doesn’t help the situation with all those sockeye headed up the Kasilof River now, which the fishermen think will end up damaging the sustainability of the run long-term. “(It’s hard) to watch hundreds of thousands of potential dollars go into the system that do nothing for the future,” he said. “The annihilation of the East Side setnet fishery takes out another component that’s been here since at least the 1940s.” The data Every contends that the commissioner’s decision does not take the new data into account. ADFG opened the 600-foot fishery five times this season, though the four previous openings were in the Kasilof and North K-Beach areas. Each time, the harvest of large Kenai River late-run kings was less than 10 fish. With that data in hand, the advocates argue, the tradeoff of kings for sockeye is a fair one. The other user groups are able to be in the water, while the setnetters lose all their opportunity. “I never want to be sitting here when the dippers are dipping, the flossers are flossing, and the drifters are drifting,” Every said. “We are a group of people that is being bankrupted.” Some of the setnetters also argue that the king goal is unreachably high. Andy Hall, a Kasilof-area setnetter and the president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said watching the goal increase while watching the setnetters’ fishing time be cut to achieve an escalating goal is frustrating. “The paired restrictions are not equitable,” he said. “The concept of managing a sockeye fishery based on its absurdly low exploitation rate on a struggling king stock that has had the highest escapement goal in 25 years placed upon it is profoundly flawed. The only comparable paired restriction would be if all (personal use) and sport fisheries on both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers were closed when a single targeted fishery was closed. I am not endorsing that by any means. It would be ridiculous, almost as ridiculous as the way the ESSN is managed.” During the Board of Fisheries meeting, Vincent-Lang said the data presented by the setnetters about the 600-foot fishery’s impact might be one instance, but may not accurately capture the exploitation rate on kings if it were prosecuted for more days and when more kings were in the water. During the meeting, no members of the Division of Commercial Fisheries were identified as being able to answer questions for board members; Forrest Bowers, assistant director of the division, said that was because he was traveling. Other staff were monitoring the meeting and able to answer questions, he said. Ben Mohr, the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, agreed; the setnets may have a lower catch rate on kings when there are fewer kings moving through the water, but it may go up when there are more kings moving through the area. While the 600-foot fishery may have merit and he said he understands the pain the setnetters are going through, the middle of the season may not be the best time to make decisions about management strategies. “I think it’s really important that all sectors come together to talk about what we can do to come up with more selective harvest techniques,” he said. “I don’t think in the middle of the season is the time to do that. I don’t think in the middle of the season is the time to immediately call for experimentation.” The other side of the coin about the king goal is the coast-wide trend of king salmon declines. This year, several other large king salmon producing systems— the Yukon, the Nushagak, and the Copper rivers — all struggled to meet their king salmon escapements as well. Mohr noted that all three of those rivers have very little development along them, and they seem to be having the same trouble as the Kenai; that points to a problem in the kings’ ocean life component. Setting the king salmon goal higher can help provide differential levels of escapement in such a heavily used fishery, too, he said. If the goal is moved lower and lower, then the criticism might be that managers are just chasing a failing run down to make it look like they are meeting their goals. The closure costs the in-river guides as well; while some can rebook trips, king fishing trips are the most lucrative. The guides, and many in-river anglers, have gone to catch-and-release all the time for kings as a personal move to conserve the fish, too. “I don’t think anybody would want to be accused of catching the last king,” Mohr said. The future East Side setnetters, like most fishing user groups, aren’t a monolith. They vary in opinion from district to district, and sometimes even site to site. The Salamatof fishermen’s opinions about what should be done may come into conflict with the K-beach fishermen, and so on. One thing they all seem to agree on, though, is that this can’t go on without bleeding them dry. Crookston said the early closure has cost his site “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” “It is just horrible, what is going on,” he said. “There is tens of millions of dollars being squandered. To have opened the fishery would have been nothing. Everybody would have plenty of fish… there is no downside, only upside, and (Doug Vincent-Lang’s) true colors came out. We present you with a tool you say you want: harvest reds without harvesting kings.” Sarah Frostad-Hudkins’ family has been fishing the Salamatof Beach since the 1920s, when her grandfather Ole Frostad arrived there. In the past, the fishing has stretched from late May into September, or as her husband Jason Hudkins said, “until the nets froze.” Over the years, the season has been trimmed back into about six weeks. This season, their crew pulled their nets and stored their skiffs on the hill above the site just as July faded into August, after five openers total. “I feel like grieving is a good word (to describe the season),” she said. “We always grieve the end of the summer … this one is just earlier.” The next part in this series will cover the economic aspects of the closure of the Kenai River king salmon sportfishery, the East Side setnet fishery and the proposed buyback program for permits in the east side setnet fishery. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Board of Fisheries denies setnetters’ emergency petitions

Kenai Peninsula setnetters are likely to remain closed for the rest of the season after the Board of Fisheries denied two emergency petitions seeking a partial reopening. In an emergency meeting held Aug. 2, the Board of Fisheries voted 4-2 to deny a petition seeking a limited reopening of the East Side setnet fishery in Upper Cook Inlet. The petitioner, Chris Every, asked the board to reopen the East Side setnets within 600 feet of mean high tide, known as the 600-foot fishery. “We believe by utilizing the 600-foot fishery we can reduce both the economic and biological impact while conserving chinook salmon, which is our ultimate goal with this 600-foot fishery,” he wrote in the petition. The setnetters had a foreshortened and significantly restricted season because of low late-run king salmon returns to the Kenai River. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that 6,420 large kings have passed the sonar on the Kenai River since July 1, significantly less than the lower end of the escapement goal of 15,000 large kings. In response, the department placed progressively stronger restrictions on the sportfishery, going from no bait to catch-and-release, and finally to a complete closure. Because of the paired-restriction model the Board of Fisheries placed on the East Side setnetters, when the king salmon sportfishery is completely closed, they are too. Setnetters have not been in the water since July 20, and they have watched the peak weeks of the Kenai River sockeye run swim past. Aug. 2 saw the highest daily passage to date: 151,525 sockeye passed the sonar, according to ADFG. Every cited harvest data from ADFG showing that when the entire East Side was open to the 600-foot nets only on July 20, only 11 late-run large Kenai River king salmon were harvested. “We believe that the amount of kings that are impacted by the east set-net 600 foot fishery is equal to or less than the other user groups,” he wrote. “The total chinook harvest in each one of the 600-foot openers is very low.” Board of Fisheries member Gerad Godfrey, one of the members who called for the emergency meeting after hearing from stakeholders, said those numbers were what convinced him the situation is an emergency. “I may not have caught all this in public comment or deliberations,” he said. “That was obviously a very intense meeting with a lot of data.” Board policy makes it hard to qualify something as an emergency. It must be an unforeseen effect of regulations, an immediate threat to the stock or include new information that the board or department did not have on hand when making regulations. The setnetters argue that the harvest data on large kings qualifies as new information, quantifying their exact impact on the run. ADFG Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang issued a response to the petitions over the weekend, just before the board meeting took place, finding that the situation didn’t qualify as an emergency because it was not unforeseen nor new information. During the meeting, he said the board instructed the department to prioritize meeting the lower end of the late-run king salmon escapement goal over keeping the sockeye run within its escapement goal range. The data from the 600-foot fishery on July 20 does show a small number of large Kenai River kings harvested compared to the approximately 36,000 sockeye harvested on the same day in the East Side setnet fishery, according to ADFG data. Vincent-Lang said that one day’s data may not be demonstrative of the effect of a 600-foot fishery long-term. “That 11 (king salmon) harvest is indicative of that day of fishing, but it may not be indicative of what you can expect in the harvest in the 600-foot fishery that is prosecuted in the area depending upon when king salmon are passing and how big of a run you have going by that site,” he said. Godfrey called the king harvest “de minimis” and said he felt he didn’t think he foresaw the full effect of the board’s actions on the setnet fishery while other fisheries remained open. Member John Wood agreed, saying he would like to see a temporary fix to allow the fishermen to harvest some of the sockeye run, but let the action expire after 120 days and consider permanent fixes in the future. However, the other board members did not agree. Member John Jensen said he thought the situation was serious in allowing that many fish to go by, but agreed with Vincent-Lang’s finding. Member Israel Payton said he agreed as well and cautioned against risking king runs for the sake of harvesting sockeye. “We don’t want to miss a goal more than three, four years in a row, because then it goes into stock of concern, and then we really have to take drastic measures,” Payton said. “My philosophy hasn’t changed that yes, my comfort level is more toward making a goal than exceeding a goal.” The board voted 4-2 to deny the emergency petition. There was a second petition from Paul Shadura II, a south Kalifornsky Beach-area setnetter, asking for openings in the Kasilof section, in the 600-foot fishery, and in the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area. The board voted to take no action on the petition without any further specific discussion. Shadura, who submitted the petition on behalf of the ad-hoc group the South K-Beach Independent Fishermen’s Association, said he felt “slighted” that the board had not taken up the Kasilof petition. He said he felt the board didn’t discuss any of the serious underlying issues in the situation, including overescapement of sockeye into both impacting the future of the runs and the increased amount of large king salmon in the Kenai being unattainable. “There’s a lot of discussion among folks,” he said. “We really have our doubts about the credibility of the escapement number. The target range for the kings in the Kenai River may at this current level exceed what was historically available in the first place.” Shadura has been participating in the Board of Fisheries process for years and commented in the 2017 meeting, when the Kenai River king salmon goals were converted from all fish to large fish only, that it would result in more closures of the setnet fishery. He said this result is not surprising to him, though the results are devastating to the local economy. Most Kenai Peninsula setnetters live in Alaska. “And to the processing industry, who’s really, from COVID … trying to survive in this situation with a reduction in harvest capacity,” he said. “All those fish that go up to the river are potential processing dollars that help the local community in multiple ways, and the national economy. It’s very, very shortsighted and the management system is not doing anything for the repair of our COVID economy.” The setnetters can submit an agenda change request, or ACR, ahead of the board’s October work session to be included in the upcoming cycle of regular meetings, with the hope that board members will accept any proposal under ACR requirements. Otherwise, they will have to wait until the Upper Cook Inlet cycle meeting, which is currently scheduled for 2024. The Upper Cook Inlet drift fleet is currently harvesting sockeye headed for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, and so far has harvested about 668,269 sockeye. Across the area, commercial fishermen have harvested about 1.2 million salmon total. However, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association has also submitted an emergency petition to the Board of Fisheries, asking the board to suspend area restrictions during the first two weeks of August as well as the one percent rule. The petition states that the request is to help control escapement, which is increasingly coming in after Aug. 1, and the sockeye escapement goals in both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers have been achieved. ADFG is currently reviewing the petition. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Salmon fisheries turn to chums, pinks as sockeye runs wind down

While the sockeye fisheries in Southcentral and Western Alaska are tapering off after seasons of varying success, the chum fishery statewide is turning out to be pretty dismal. Statewide, chum harvest is actually ahead of 2020’s final catch, almost entirely because of landings in Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula. However, the total volume is still down; as of July 17, the harvest of about 4.4 million fish was about half of the typical volume at that time, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Across Southeast, through July 17, chum harvest was 35 percent less than what it was in 2020. The Southeast troll fishery is seeing both fewer fish and smaller ones in the chum fishery. As of July 23, the trollers had landed 6,900 chums, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, with an average weight of 6.4 pounds per fish, about 2.7 pounds less than the recent 5-year average and about 1.4 smaller than last year’s average weight. “Hatchery produced chum salmon runs throughout Southeast have been variable to date, but harvests have generally been below average as forecasted,” managers wrote in the weekly update July 23. The Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, which tracks in-season returns of its summer chum, is showing that the actual return is tracking better than the lower end of its forecast. Up until statistical week 28, the run was tracking less than the forecast, but moved up by week 29 to between the lower and mid-ranges of the forecast. Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, however, is reporting poor returns at its sites. “Returns of summer chum to NSRAA remote release sites through stat week 29 continues to be poor and all indications to date are that we will be at or well below the low range of our preseason summer chum forecast,” the association wrote in its update on July 19. In Prince William Sound, 2.4 million chums have been harvested as of July 25. Harvest is better than last year, which ended at about 1.2 million chums. Dan Lesh, a fisheries economist with the McKinley Research Group, said chum salmon are marketed for both roe and fillets, with the U.S. being an important market for fillets while the roe is often consumed in Asia. Alaskans may think primarily of sockeye and kings in the salmon market, but chum and pink usually provide large amounts of product to serve the markets. “One way to think about it is just volume,” he said. “In certain markets you need a lot of volume, and pink and chum are where we have the volume. Pink and keta are both affordable ways to provide really high-quality protein to people who aren’t tracking salmon closely.” Salmon fisheries are beginning to turn toward pinks. Prince William Sound fishermen have so far landed 22.6 million of them, which are a mixture of hatchery stocks and wild stocks. It’s a surprise, given that these fish would have been born in 2019, when a drought and record-breaking temperatures seared Prince William Sound. “Wild stocks are returning stronger than anticipated given the uncertainty about spawning success from the 2019 parent year that was assumed to be negatively impacted by drought conditions,” managers wrote in the weekly update. The Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation is forecasting about 6.6 million pinks to return to the Wally Noerenberg Hatchery this year. They are just starting to show up and are not yet in enough numbers to report, according to the hatchery organization. Cost recovery harvest began on July 26 at the Armin F. Koernig hatchery, which is expecting 5 million pinks to return, and planned to start on July 27 at the Cannery Creek hatchery, which is forecasting 6 million pinks to return. Pink season is still just getting going elsewhere. Southeast has harvested about 3 million total so far, while Kodiak has harvested about 1.2 million and the Alaska Peninsula has harvested about 4.5 million. The Alaska Peninsula is ahead of its recent-year averages, while Kodiak was reportedly slightly behind. Cook Inlet is starting to see some pink harvests mixed in among sockeye, but reds are still the main harvest. Last week saw the Upper Cook Inlet East Side setnetters closed entirely due to poor king salmon returns to the Kenai River, leaving the drift fleet and West Side setnetters as the only commercial harvesters in the upper Inlet. The Lower Cook Inlet fleet is primarily harvesting hatchery pink salmon bound for Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s two hatcheries on Kachemak Bay, and so far have landed about 139,000 pinks. Bristol Bay is mopping up the last of its sockeye harvests for the season, but all preseason estimates have shown that this season set a new record at just shy of 40 million sockeye harvested and a total estimated run of 64.2 million. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet setnet, sport king fisheries closed; Bristol Bay breaks record

While Bristol Bay has broken its all time record for sockeye, Cook Inlet’s setnetters are already out of the water for the season because of low king salmon numbers. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order July 19 that closes the Kenai River king salmon sportfishery entirely, as well as the Kasilof River and Upper Cook Inlet saltwaters. The run has been disappointing so far, and looks likely to come in at around 10,000 large fish; that is far short of the lower end of the current optimal escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 large fish. “The 2021 king salmon late-run to the Kenai River is significantly below preseason expectations, without further restrictions the escapement goal for Kenai River late-run king salmon is not expected to be achieved,” said sportfish area management biologist Colton Lipka in the announcement from ADFG. The managers started the late run on July 1 with a fishery open to retention, but no bait allowed. Through the paired restrictions on setnetters, that meant they had only up to 48 hours per week to fish and limited gear: only two 29-mesh nets or one 45-mesh net per permit, compared to the three 45-mesh nets per permit they’re allowed to have without the paired restrictions. Then, last week, ADFG went to catch and release, which pulled setnetters back to no more than 24 hours per week. The move to close the river to king fishing closes the East Side setnets entirely. The drift gillnet fleet is still able to fish, as are the West Side setnets. As of July 15, setnets had harvested a total of 138 large late-run Kenai River king salmon, according to ADFG. For all sizes and stocks, east side setnets had harvested 955 king salmon. The paired restrictions have been a point of pain for East Side setnetters since 2014, when the Board of Fisheries enacted them with the stated goal of spreading the burden of king salmon conservation between the in-river and commercial fisheries. The Kenai River king salmon run has been struggling for more than a decade, and the paired restrictions have led to early shutdowns or significant restrictions for setnetters multiple times since 2014. Andy Hall, a Kasilof-area setnetter and president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said July 19 that setnetters had been expecting the decision but were disappointed. The paired restrictions fall disproportionately on them, he said, because in-river guides, dipnetters, and sportfishermen can continue to fish for other species, but setnetters are on the beach. “The paired restrictions are not fair,” Hall said. “They never have been. We’re going to be the only group in the Inlet that’s not fishing now; guides will be guiding, dipnetters will be dipnetting, drifters will be drifting, sportfishermen will be sportfishing, and we’re going to sit on the beach. And we took a fraction of the big kings taken this year.” Since the 2017 Board of Fisheries meeting, managers have only counted large kings—those 75 centimeters from mid-eye to tail fork or longer—toward the river’s escapement goal. The goal has also been increased numerically several times. In 2016, a department analysis recommended a sustainable escapement goal of 13,500 to 27,000 large late-run Kenai kings. The board members chose a higher goal, set as an optimal escapement goal, of 15,000 to 30,000 large fish. Hall said the setnetters have been watching the goal increase and shift to large kings-only as they lose more fishing time, and that the result has been to allow more sockeye into both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers than the sockeye escapement goals recommend. “The paired restrictions are not equitable. The concept of managing a sockeye fishery based on its absurdly low exploitation rate on a struggling king stock that has had the highest escapement goal in 25 years placed upon it is profoundly flawed,” he said. “The only comparable paired restriction would be if all (personal use) and sport fisheries on both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers were closed when a single targeted fishery was closed. I am not endorsing that by any means. It would be ridiculous, almost as ridiculous as the way the ESSN (East Side setnet) is managed.” KPFA sent a letter to Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang on July 2, predicting that the department would find itself in this position of whether to shut down king salmon fishing, and thus setnets, by late July. The letter asks Vincent-Lang to consider the impact of shutting down the commercial fishery on the local economy and to evaluate whether it is worth “sacrificing some very small number of large kings to prevent yet another year of dramatic sockeye overescapement and the peninsula-wide financial impacts that foregone sockeye harvest leaves in its wake.” Rick Green, special assistant to the commissioner, said Vincent-Lang did receive the letter and called KPFA to thank them for their input. “We are sympathetic to the economic impact of every decision we make, especially on a fully allocated resource like Cook Inlet fish,” Vincent-Lang said in a statement. “However, we are following the management plan agreed on by the Board of Fisheries on how to manage these mixed stock runs. Our primary mission is for sustained yield and we have projections that say we have no kings to spare.” So far, Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen have harvested a total of 649,715 salmon, 90 percent of which are sockeye. The pink salmon harvest has been increasing, and so far, they’ve harvested 28,036 of them. Bristol Bay booms On the other side of the Alaska Peninsula, Bristol Bay has tipped over the edge of its all-time record. Counts on Tuesday confirmed an estimated of 63.2 million sockeye, surpassing the 2018 bay-wide record of 62.95 million.The Nushagak District in particular has blown by forecast expectations, with a total run of 27.2 million sockeye and about 17.5 million sockeye harvested so far. It also boasted two record harvest days, with 1.7 million and 1.8 million fish each day. West Side area management biologist Tim Sands said the forecast was for about 12 million sockeye to be harvested from there. The escapement into the Nushagak District rivers is about 9.7 million total. Sands said there were hampering factors that prevented some extra harvest. “Certainly (escapement is) higher than we would need or like, but with all the tough weather we’ve had this year and the breaks early on for king conservation, we had a lot more fish going by,” he said. However, the banner harvest numbers may be slightly tempered by decreased fish size. ADFG samples have been showing that the average sockeye weight is down about three-quarters of a pound from historical averages, or about 4.5 pounds average this year. Stacy Vega, an ADFG biologist who runs the sampling program in Bristol Bay, said that may be in part because the average age of fish returning to the bay is declining. The fish may also be smaller because of the very large runs returning this year, increasing competition for resources. “When you have a lot more fish, they tend to be smaller, because there’s just less resources out there for them,” she said. The smaller weights may impact the ending-season value of the catch, despite record numbers. Dan Lesh, a fisheries economist with the McKinley Research Group, said those smaller sizes result in smaller fillets, which in turn affect the market value. “When you try to translate to value, that bump of harvest gets watered down quite a lot,” he said. “I think reporting on the numbers of fish in Bristol Bay should be tempered by the size issues.” The decrease in size may not affect the fishermen too drastically, as they are paid by the pound at the dock. This year, base prices are also higher than they have been in recent years. Last week, OBI Seafoods announced a base price of $1.25 per pound, and Peter Pan matched it, up from its own preseason base price of $1.10 per pound. Lesh noted that the prices still down from their high points several years ago, but that the increase is good to see for fishermen. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet salmon catches lagging, limited by Kenai king run

Commercial salmon catches are still lagging in the Central part of the state, but the Western coasts are pulling the overall numbers up with some recordbreaking landings. As usual, Bristol Bay leads the state in volume of sockeye harvested, on track to exceed its preseason harvest forecast. As of July 10, more than 18.5 million sockeye had been harvested, with a total run of more than 48 million. The Nushagak District alone has seen an estimated return of more than 24 million salmon, far past its preseason forecast of about 15 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Escapement in the Nushagak District has exceeded 7 million fish,” ADFG managers wrote in their weekly summary July 9. “Counts on all rivers have surpassed the top ends of the respective escapement goal ranges and a new record is set on the Nushagak River every day.” Daily catches in the Nushagak District have come down, though, as the Naknek-Kvichak District have risen. The latter’s total run has topped 14 million sockeye, with a harvest of about 5.5 million between the Naknek, Kvichak and Alagnak rivers. Catches are also blowing past expectations in the Alaska Peninsula. So far, more than 3 million sockeye have been harvested, more than double the recent 10-year average of 1.2 million. The pink salmon harvest is beter than average, too, with 3.3 million fish harvested so far; the chum harvest so far of 862,150 fish is also nearly double its recent 10-year average of 461,515 fish. Kodiak is ahead of last year and better than the forecast, though its sockeye catch has been tracking with prior averages, according to ADFG. So far, about 997,000 sockeye have been landed. In Southcentral, the Copper River district’s sockeye harvest is beginning to transition to its mid-summer pink salmon season. As of July 9, 292,696 sockeye had been harvested in the district, and ADFG estimated that 99 percent of the commercial harvest timing is complete. That harvest is about a third of the 2021 forecast of 652,000 fish. Cook Inlet is lagging behind past years, though. So far, commercial fishermen have harvested 306,731 salmon of all species, about 96 percent of which are sockeye. The forecasted harvest is about 2.37 million, most of which would occur in the next month before the majority of the fishery closes in mid-August and effort drops off. The run is still picking up on the Kenai. As of July 12, the sonar had counted 119,537 sockeye. In the Kasilof River, the sonar had counted 206,969 sockeye, with pinks starting to arrive in the river. ADFG estimates that the run is about 39 percent complete, with a projected final escapement of 490,000 fish, far better than the upper end of the escapement goal. At this point, the managers are trying to control escapement into the river. Commercial area management biologist Brian Marston said the department is considering using the 600-foot fishery where setnetters can place nets within 600 feet of the mean high tide mark. The fishery is intended to be more targeted and catch sockeye bound for the Kasilof River, and provides an alternative to fishing the terminal harvest area around the mouth of the Kasilof. So far, the runs have been slow, but it’s still early in the Kenai run. Marston said the offshore test fishery in the southern inlet showed some higher numbers than expected recently. “The (offshore test fishery) is basically average for the last couple of days,” he said. “Our preseason estimate is not for average (run size), but the OTF is showing average.” However, the sockeye coming in is only part of the problem. The other part is the Kenai king run, which has been anemic. On July 12, ADFG announced that the Kenai River late-run king salmon sportfishery would go to catch and release only for the rest of the season. The department’s projections are for the late run to reach about 10,778 large fish, or significantly less than the lower end of the escapement goal, which is set at 15,000. “The 2021 king salmon late-run to the Kenai River is significantly underperforming preseason expectations,” said Area Management Biologist Colton Lipka in an emergency order issued July 12. “It is still early in the run, but indicators so far are predicting a weak return similar to 2019 and 2020. Without further restrictions to harvest, the goal for Kenai River late-run king salmon is not expected to be achieved.” That means the commercial fishery is limited, too, as part of the “paired restrictions” model meant to conserve harvest of Kenai king salmon. Setnetters in the Upper Subdistrict are limited to no more than 24 hours of fishing time per week, and types and amounts of gear are restricted. That limits the commercial division’s ability to control escapement through openings. The department will reevaluate as the run develops and make changes as necessary, according to the emergency order. The sportfishing community on the Kenai River had been calling for the department to enact more serious restrictions on the late run of kings. The early run was limited to catch-and-release only and did make the escapement goal, but the late run opened with retention but no bait. Several fishermen and guides put out social media posts and letters asking anglers not to keep kings and calling for the department to enact stronger restrictions. Among the calls was one from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association asking anglers to limit their harvest to fish smaller than 34 inches. Ben Mohr, KRSA’s executive director, said he thought the call was effective and echoed the feelings already moving in the sportfishery. “I think it’s been really well received,” he said. “We’ve heard from the professional guide community as well as some of the more traditional folks that encourage catch-and-release, and we’ve all been pretty much on the same page. All of us, within hours of one another, put out the same statement. None of us coordinated it.” KRSA did not call for catch-and-release, but for a middle step of limiting size retention to fish smaller than 34 inches. That would have allowed the setnetters 36 hours per week instead of 24. King runs are dismal all over the state, from the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers to the Copper. Few systems are able to sustain open sportfishing harvest, and even fewer are able to support commercial fisheries for kings. Many of those rivers have little sportfishing pressure or development around them, too. Mohr said that points to a larger oceanic issue in the lifecycle of kings as the issue. “Our emphasis is on anglers writ large,” he said. “I think everybody that’s involved in the fishery realizes how dire the situation is and realizes that it’s on all of us to take appropriate conservation measures.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bristol Bay blows past harvest records

Bristol Bay fishermen are on track to blow past the preseason forecast for sockeye salmon yet again. Just before the Fourth of July weekend, fishermen in the Nushagak River district of Bristol Bay broke their daily harvest record two days in a row. On June 30 and July 1, fishermen in the district harvested 1.7 million and 1.8 million sockeye respectively. Daily harvests dropped back down in the Nushagak since, with a total of nearly 9.9 million sockeye harvested altogether. Bay-wide, the harvest reached nearly 15.8 million as of July 5, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Tim Sands, the commercial fisheries area management biologist for the west side of the Bay, said the run in the Nushagak is on track to come in greater than the forecast. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to be above average,” he said. “Me and my assistant are thinking over 20 (million fish). That would be the second-best run ever.” ADFG’s preseason forecast predicted a run of approximately 51 million sockeye bay-wide, with a commercial harvest of about 37 million. As of July 5, Fish and Game had counted the total run at about 25.8 million, around half of the total forecasted run. The Egegik and Naknek-Kvichak runs, on the east side, are around 4.6 million and 4.5 million respectively. Most of the catch on the east side so far has come out of the Egegik, though, with 3.6 million from there and 1.6 million from the Naknek-Kvichak as of July 5. Bristol Bay exvessel prices have started out relatively high as well. Peter Pan posted a season-opening price of $1.10 per pound. That’s significantly higher than the base price per pound paid in 2020, which was reported around 70 cents, though lower than the 2019 base price of $1.35. The pandemic reportedly increased demand for seafood nationally. Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association is trying to take advantage of the increased demand. Lilani Dunn, who oversees the retail marketing program for BBRSDA, said half of consumers are choosing seafood more often than last year. “Bristol Bay sockeye salmon is capturing this momentum as an opportunity to show home cooks how foolproof, healthy and delicious (seafood) is, and to feel comfortable making Bristol Bay sockeye salmon a part of their standard meal rotation going forward,” she said. Sands said the processors have been able to handle the volume of fish being harvested so far. One issue for the managers this year, though, has been the king runs. The Nushagak River has not met its king salmon escapement goal since 2018, and this year the run has been coming in slow. Sands said one of the challenges has been accurately counting kings that have gotten lost in the large numbers of sockeye moving up the river. “The kings represent less than 1 percent, 1 to 2 percent of the total fish going by,” he said. “It’s difficult to sort them out from the sockeye going by. We have other information that indicates that the king escapement is probably higher than the sonar count, but even with the sonar count with where it is, we think we could make our escapement goal.” King escapements coming up short aren’t unique to Bristol Bay this year. Cook Inlet is seeing its third year of lesser king salmon runs in the Kenai River, which in turn limits the commercial harvest in Upper Cook Inlet. The early run of king salmon on the Kenai inched its way into the escapement goal by June 30, with 4,131 kings. The managers restricted the sport fishery to catch-and-release only for the early run and began the late run after July 1 with no bait, which restricts the commercial setnet fishery to no more than 48 hours of fishing each week. The Kenai River sockeye sonar began counting on July 1 and has so far counted 32,337 sockeye. The Kasilof River is about a third of the way through its sockeye run, with a projected final escapement of about 485,000 fish, according to a commercial fishing announcement for Upper Cook Inlet issued July 5 that’s better than the upper end of the escapement goal. ADFG opened an extra fishing period for the setnets in the Kasilof section on July 6, saying the extra time would help control Kasilof sockeye escapement while minimizing Kenai king and sockeye harvest. King salmon farther north are doing fine, by contrast; the Deshka River run of king salmon hit 17,302 as of July 5, near the upper end of its escapement goal and significantly more than any year in the last five. The Little Susitna River king run is also within its escapement goal, with 2,474 fish having passed the sonar as of July 5, according to ADFG. Managing sockeye around weak king salmon runs also created some management puzzles in Prince William Sound. The Copper River king salmon run looks unlikely to make its goal this year, despite inside water closures. Commercial area management biologist Jeremy Botz, who manages Copper River finfish, said the continued years of king salmon shortages are having repercussions on managing for sockeye escapement. “I don’t know without having the fisheries evolve somehow … we’re going to continue to have one impact the other,” he said. King salmon runs are down all across the state. Copper River started the season with a long series of closures for sockeye, too, with delays on the fish making it past the ADFG sonar at Miles Lake. That sonar is far upriver from the mouth, though, and there is a significant delay on fish passage from the mouth of the Copper to being counted on the sonar. Now, the counts have come up, and the fleet is able to have regular periods on sockeye, Botz said. However, the sockeye harvest is lacking so far at about 222,601 sockeye. The forecasted season harvest of 652,000 sockeye is about 47 percent less than the recent 10-year average for the Copper River District. Cook Inlet is at about the same harvest level, with 218,056 salmon harvested so far, with about 96 percent sockeye. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Copper River reopens after delayed pulse in sockeye run

Copper River salmon fishermen got their nets back in the water for the first time in weeks on June 9 aiming for some of the sockeye headed upriver. The sockeye had been sparse at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s sonar at Miles Lake, but the count increased enough through June 8 to allow a 12-hour commercial drift gillnet opener. As of June 14, the sonar counted 321,656 sockeye, slighly ahead of the department’s management objective for the run so far and significantly ahead of last year’s count and on track to reach the in-river escapement goal. The Chitina personal-use dipnet fishery also opened June 10 for a 96-hour period. “Increasing daily passage at the Miles Lake sonar station indicates that the inriver goal is likely to be met and supports opening the Copper River District commercial fishery,” ADFG noted in its June 12 announcement. Harvest numbers in Copper River are overall still low; through the June 14 opener, in which 32,005 sockeye and 368 kings were harvested, the total harvest was 122,585 sockeye and 6,137 kings. The commercial Copper River king fishery traditionally fades well before the sockeye fishery is over. The ADFG sonar went into the lake on the south shore of Miles Lake, which based on historical counts means half the sockeye passing through have been counted. The flows in the Copper have been extremely low and cold so far, in line with the late and cold spring, which may be affecting the fish moving upstream as well. Downriver, the Prince William Sound Science Center runs a sonar site near Clear Martin River confluence with the Copper. The fishery depends on the counts of sockeye entering the river, but because of hydrology of the system, ADFG’s sonar is at the outlet of Miles Lake — nearly two miles upriver from the mouth. To help ADFG gather management data for the commercial fishery, the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association fund the PWSSC’s sonar. However, this year, their sonar didn’t gather much useful data. Rob Campbell, who manages the project for the PWSSC, said the flow of the river has changed to more of the water flowing down the western side. The sonar site is on the eastern. “We’re not seeing very many fish,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the fish’s fault. It is just really, really changeable down there.” It’s not entirely clear whether it’s just siting or whether sockeye behavior is a little different this year, particularly with cold water. In 2019, the soaring temperatures in the Sound placed heat stress on salmon, causing die-offs, but the Copper River was deep and cold enough that it wasn’t as affected as the shallower clear-water streams elsewhere in the area. The project may have to relocate in the future to provide more useful data, he said, but that’s something the PWSSC and the funding group will have to talk about. Early in the season, which is when the lower-river data is the most useful, Copper River sockeye salmon command high prices. That’s when an opening — or closing — means the most to the fishermen economically. “If that stimulated one extra opener, that could be like a million bucks into the fishery,” Campbell said. “Up until last year we lined up fairly well with the state sonar.” Copper River sockeye prices have been reportedly sky-high this season. Copper River Seafoods has two-pound packages of king salmon for about $144 and five-pound packages of sockeye for sale for about $250; Peter Pan Seafoods announced following the second drift gillnet opener of the year that the company would be paying $19.60 per pound for kings and $12.60 per pound for sockeye; those prices that are several fold greater than historical averages. Dan Lesh, a seafood industry analyst with McKinley Research — formerly the McDowell Group — said demand is expected to be strong and inventories are low, so prices are expected to be higher this season, despite the dearth in actual fish on the docks so far. “The general story is that most participants in the salmon industry are feeling optimistic about this year,” he said. “The harvest volumes in general are below long-term averages, but they’re still expecting prices to be strong.” Despite the economic damage from the pandemic in many parts of the U.S. economy, demand for frozen seafood in grocery stores and other retail locations reportedly increased. Copper River salmon, and Alaska wild salmon in general, is typically considered a premium product and thus commands a premium price, available to those with more income. People were not spending as much on travel or food service, and there was plenty of income still accumulating, Lesh said. “One of the things we need to understand with the pandemic is that we actually had unprecedented high personal incomes last year,” Lesh said. “People are making money and they’re not spending it as much.” However, Copper River prices don’t always translate elsewhere in the Alaska salmon market. Lesh said it can’t be assumed that the price will stay similarly higher than usual in other fisheries as more wild sockeye hits the market. Bristol Bay will come online in the next few weeks, with forecasted harvest of about 37 million sockeye, which is about 13 percent greater than the average harvest in the last decade. Upper Cook Inlet is gearing up to begin its sockeye harvest as well, though sonar counts do not begin on the Kasilof River until June 15. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Reinsurance program keeps rates down despite pandemic

Despite the economic upheaval of the last year, Alaskans on individual health insurance plan premiums got a little break this year. The state’s two remaining individual health insurance plan providers on the marketplace, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield and Moda Health, declined to significantly raise rates for 2021. While Moda’s stayed close to flat, Premera filed for a slight decrease: about 4.5 percent less on average. For a consumer on the average Bronze plan through the health insurance marketplace, that’s about $435 a month compared to $448 last year, and down about $100 a month since 2018, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. It’s hard to say what effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had exactly on insurance rates, and it’s not entirely clear what will happen in 2022 yet. Nationally, 2021 individual plans rates varied widely, though in Alaska, the premium rates were trending down even before the pandemic. That’s in part because of the state’s ongoing innovation waiver 1332 reinsurance program, which began in 2017. That reinsurance program played a major role in Moda Health’s decision to reenter the state market in 2020, said Vice President of Strategic Marketing Jason Gootee. The Oregon-based company withdrew from the state in 2016, citing difficult a financial situation in the Alaska market, but filed again to reenter the market in 2020. “I would say (the reinsurance program) was one of the driving reasons that it made sense for us to reenter,” he said. “When we left the market, we had a considerable amount of business footprint in Alaska … it was a hard decision to make to leave the individual when we did, but it was necessary due to the financial situations of that market. We were seeing double digit rate increases for consumers every year.” The reinsurance program lifts some of the burden from insurers by taking their most expensive individuals — highly expensive or catastrophic health cases — and directing their premiums to a nonprofit called the Alaska Comprehensive Insurance Association. That nonprofit then uses the broader individual market to spread out the costs for those individuals, lessening the cost to individual insurance providers. Since the program took effect, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield, which remained the sole insurer in the marketplace from 2017-20, has lowered its premiums on the individual market for several years. The state is set to receive about $78.5 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to support the program, according to a March 1 announcement from the Alaska Division of Insurance. The announcement notes that about 84 percent of Alaskans on the individual market qualify for subsidies through the insurance marketplace. The reinsurance program is, however, a waiver program, riding on the federal government’s approval to continue. Gootee said it’s speculative whether Moda would remain in the marketplace should the reinsurance program be discontinued, but the company has been in the Alaska market since 2004 and would like to remain there. Since reentering, it only offers plans in the Southcentral communities of the Mat-Su, Anchorage, and Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks, and the Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island areas. That covers a significant part of the population, and Gootee said the company hopes to phase in other areas of Southeast in coming years, largely depending on the development of network partnerships. The COVID-19 pandemic threw a curveball into the health care industry in multiple ways, particularly in how non-emergency services were used. That was one sector of the industry that dropped, particularly after Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s emergency mandates blocking elective procedures in spring 2020 to maintain hospital capacity in the early days of the pandemic. While insurers had to tackle a variety of new procedures and considerations in light of the pandemic, costs for items like those elective procedures went down. Premera issued some ratepayer relief programs, such as waiving copays for all COVID-19-related treatments. Premera spokesman Jim Havens said the company could not comment on how the pandemic would affect its rate filings for 2022. Gootee said it was too early to say what Moda’s rates would look like, but that the company’s 2021 rates did take effects of the pandemic into account and that the 2022 rates were “looking good.” He said one thing that changed everywhere during the pandemic, including Alaska, was a significant increase in the use of telehealth, which has been identified as a less expensive alternative to providing care. “I think every carrier is taking their own different approaches to it, in terms of how you account for the pandemic,” he said. “It certainly has changed the health care world quite a bit. In some cases you saw utilization go way down and then spike right back up. In both (Alaska and Oregon), telehealth utilization just skyrocketed. It’s stayed relatively high.” Nationally, health insurance premium rates for 2021 are all over the board. Gootee noted that that may be in part because the effects of the pandemic have not been universal; some areas were hit harder than others, and insurers and state governments handled the pandemic differently. The Kaiser Family Foundation notes that insurers across the country have largely been leaving rates close to their 2020 levels, citing low medical loss ratios and profits in the last year. Insurers on the individual market in Alaska will be due to file their rates for 2022 this summer. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

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