Elizabeth Earl

Fishing industry grapples with fallout from coronavirus response

Like almost all industries and institutions across Alaska, the novel coronavirus pandemic is shaking up the fishing industry. With restrictions changing almost daily and cases spreading across the United States, fishermen are still fishing, but the normal seasonal progression of the industry is likely to hit some rough waters. Travel in and out of Alaska has dropped after federal and state advisories against it, and questions are hovering about how seafood processors and fishing vessels will find the employees they need for upcoming seasons. Demand for seafood has fallen in restaurants after sweeping closures, and large numbers of layoffs may affect demand as workers scale back their expenses after losing incomes. Status-quo industry events have been disrupted, too. Hiring events have been postponed or canceled; the North Pacific Fishery Management Council cancelled its April meeting, and Kodiak’s annual ComFish exposition has been rescheduled for Sept. 17-19 due to concerns about gatherings where the COVID-19—the name for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus—could be spread. As of March 24, Alaska had reported 42 cases of the illness in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Soldotna, Ketchikan, Sterling, Seward, Juneau and Palmer. The primary recommendation to limit the speed of spread is to maintain physical distance of at least six feet. But it can be hard to limit close contact in the seafood industry, where fishermen work in close quarters on vessels and processing plant workers sleep in dormitories and work together. Adding to that, the workers in the seafood industry are often seasonal and come from outside the communities where they work, from elsewhere in Alaska, the Lower 48 or international. That’s something the processing industry is working hard to figure out. For the past few weeks, as cases of COVID-19 have spread across the U.S., seafood processors in the North Pacific have been meeting in a work group to coordinate how to respond to the pandemic, said Chris Barrows, the president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “From the earliest days of the COVID-19 threat, companies have worked with urgency, together — within this AFISH Committee, to minimize the impacts of this public health threat on Alaskan fishing communities, fishing crews, and processing workers,” Barrows said. “As part of those efforts we have strengthened cross-company information sharing through this AFISH Committee, including through formation of a layered, robust prevention and response network and continue to work together to update guidelines focused exclusively on challenges relating to COVID-19.” The group is currently working on partnerships with public health and government authorities on how to protect employees and the communities they work in, he said. Many of the plants in Alaska are in remote communities with small year-round populations, such as Akutan, Cordova, False Pass and Dutch Harbor. Community leaders from the involved regions, including Unalaska and Bristol Bay, are involved in the discussions, and Barrows said leaders from other remote communities are welcome to work with the committee on response and prevention coordination. Government public health and safety officials from Washington, Alaska, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Coast Guard are all involved in the committee as well, Barrows said. “The network continues to share within the membership guidance on best practices for companies, vessels, and plants throughout Alaska and work to disseminate the most up-to-date information from state and federal authorities to key stakeholders,” he said. The seafood industry relies on seasonal labor from Outside, much of it from foreign countries. Nelson San Juan, the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, estimated that the seafood industry brings in more than 20,000 workers to the state each year. The guidelines for how to handle employees coming in from out of state and out of country are still new, he said. On March 23, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued Health Mandate 10, requiring anyone traveling into the state — resident, visitor or worker — to self-quarantine for 14 days, from March 24 until at least April 21. Visitors and incoming workers will have to go directly to their hotels or rented housing to quarantine, where they can only leave for medical emergencies. Businesses who had to bring in workers from Outside to maintain critical infrastructure were required to submit a plan on how they would prevent the spread of the illness and not endanger the lives of other employees or those in the communities to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development by 3 p.m. March 24, according to the mandate. Barrows said the governor’s office had informed the industry of the mandate, and the AFISH committee is working on how to handle the quarantine requirement and worker plan. Seafood companies are also updating their screening and monitoring plans with maritime health doctors to prevent anyone with a risk profile from traveling to the remote communities and prevent sick crew members from being placed on vessels or in plants, he said. “We are all operating in a period of high uncertainty,” he said. “Access to a sufficient and healthy workforce is key challenge among those uncertainties. The industry is working together, and with local, state, (and) federal officials to successfully address such challenges.” Health Mandate 10 included a list of industries identified as essential to national infrastructure, within which employees would still be allowed to report to work. The fishing industry, including seafood processing, was included on the list, along with other agricultural and food supply industries. In Bristol Bay, where the workers largely come from out of the region, the mandate raised some concern because of the timeline. The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association wrote on its website that anyone who needed to bring in workers prior to May 1 had to submit any plan they had before 3 p.m. March 24, while others who need to bring in workers after that date could submit plans now or at a later date to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. BBRSDA originally looked into submitting a “blanket plan” for all Bristol Bay fishermen, but because of the tight timeline, it likely wouldn’t be feasible, and the organization wrote that it would continue to work on it if deadlines are extended. “In terms of broad advice, it is critical that everyone prioritize partitioning and avoiding increasing the number of places where the virus can live and spread,” BBRSDA wrote on its website. “For partitioning, this means isolating yourself and crew as much as possible until you can get on the water or to your setnet site.” Under regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, seafood processing plants are already required to practice safe sanitizing processes for food products. So far, the federal government has not found that the coronavirus can be spread through food, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. The coronavirus has been found to live on surfaces, but it is unlikely that it will be spread by food products or packaging that has been shipped for a period of time at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures, according to ASMI. “As part of each plant’s required preparedness plans, there are contingency mechanisms in place to deal with human disease outbreaks and other externalities so as to protect the health and safety of both employees and the public and guard against threats that could cause a disruption to plant and processing activities,” ASMI wrote on its website. “Human health and food safety are always the priority.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

A bright spot in recession, tourism outlook dims with uncertainty

For the past five years, tourism has been one of the bright spots in Alaska’s struggling economy. This summer, it may dim down. The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and its associated illness, COVID-19, across the United States this spring has interrupted almost every aspect of American life. Air travel has plummeted, and cruise ships across the U.S. have voluntarily suspended all service for at least a month. Another record number of tourists, some 1.4 million, were expected to arrive by cruise ship this year according to the Cruise Line Industry Association-Alaska. Alaska Airlines has dropped a number of regular flights and has indicated plans to further reduce service in the face of reduced travel. Canada has limited all non-essential land border crossings, and Alaska now requires all people entering the state between March 24 and April 21 to self-quarantine for two weeks. The Port of Seattle also announced March 24 it is suspending cruise travel indefinitely. All of those things bear ill omens for Alaska’s 2020 tourism season. About 70 percent of Alaska’s tourists arrive by cruise ship, visiting communities from Ketchikan to Fairbanks. In addition to the voluntary shutdown by the U.S. cruise industry, Canada announced that it would close its ports to cruise traffic through July 1. Because all cruise vessels on their way to Alaska are required to stop over in Canada, the closure would cut off about half the season. To try to reopen that part of the season, the Alaska Travel Industry Association, or ATIA, has requested an exception to the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which would allow vessels carrying more than 500 passengers to bypass Canada on their way to Alaska. “The loss of these weeks of the season will devastate Southeast Alaska ports, and reduce the number of visitors to all other regions of the State,” the ATIA wrote in a letter to Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young. “The economic impacts to our communities—and to the hundreds of small businesses and their thousands of employees who rely on cruise ship visitors for their economic livelihoods—will be decimating.” An exemption to the foreign port rule would help preserve tourism jobs in the state, mitigating job and revenue losses, the letter states. The ATIA is also advocating for federal assistance to businesses affected by the outbreak. The U.S. Travel Association projects a total loss of approximately $809 billion in the 2020 travel industry, with a loss of 4.6 million jobs, 3.5 million of them directly in tourism, said ATIA President and CEO Sarah Leonard in an email. Alaska is highly reliant on out-of-state and international visitors, making the state vulnerable to disruptions in national and international affairs, she said. “I can only project that the level of economic loss, including tourism jobs and revenue in Alaska will be significant as the impact is happening now and will likely last into the summer season,” she said. “Tourism businesses have already taken a hit and are struggling with solvency and cash flow decisions, due to cancellations and refunds.” The Cruise Line Industry Association did not sign onto ATIA’s letter but supports the efforts to communicate the importance of the industry, said CLIA Alaska Public Affairs senior director Lalanya Downs. “For CLIA, we are focusing our efforts on evaluating ways we can improve our protocols to better protect our passengers, crews, and the communities we visit,” she wrote in an email. “Since the voluntary suspension of cruise operations, we have also been very focused on finding ports for our vessels and helping our guests return to their homes and families during these challenging times.” Though CLIA does not track individual company bookings, there have been some sailing cancellations so far; however, the situation is fluid and hard to predict, Downs said. Since the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency Jan. 30, cruise lines have begun denying boarding to people who have traveled from, visited, or traveled through airports in South Korea, Iran, China, and municipalities in Italy under lockdown. Other ships were held off shore in search of ports, including in the U.S., when passengers fell ill on a cruise to Mexico from California. CLIA met with Vice President Mike Pence about further health safety measures, including more rigorous boarding procedures, adding more medical resources on board and temperature screenings at departure. “Our focus right now continues to be on evaluating ways we can safely return to service at the appropriate time,” Downs said. Fairbanks, where winter tourism has been growing significantly in recent years, has already seen a drop in revenue. Though businesses reported good January and February returns, “the bottom fell out” in March, said Deb Hickok, the president and CEO of Explore Fairbanks, the region’s tourism marketing organization. “March is our most popular winter month,” she said. “In-season winter cancellations were felt immediately … and then we’re hearing more and more cancellations for summer visitation.” Winter tourism has been a growing season in Fairbanks, with visitors coming in to enjoy the skiing, winter activities, and northern lights via the airport and on the Alaska Railroad. About 20 percent of the visitors during the aurora season — which runs roughly from Aug. 21 through April 21 — come from China, where the COVID-19 outbreak began. This year, the visitation definitely dropped, Hickok said. The Alaska Railroad cancelled its remaining Aurora Train and Easter Train services between March 19 and April 30 as well. Though Fairbanks is about 400 miles from the Gulf of Alaska, the tourism industry there is also dependent on cruises. The Alaska Railroad takes many cruise ship passengers north from Southcentral, where they disembark at Seward or Whittier, north through Denali National Park to Fairbanks. Approximately 160,000 cruise ship passengers go north to Fairbanks, about 41 percent of the area’s visitation, and the businesses reliant on them are grappling with the uncertainty of when the season will start and how big it will be this year, Hickok said. Other businesses are wondering how big of a season to predict, in part because of travel restrictions and in part because of the shock to consumer confidence, which may stop people from traveling even if the planes, roads and ships are open. “There are some businesses built on cruise-land tourism,” she said. “(Another factor) is that confidence shock. (Businesses are) really grappling now. How many staff should they hire? When should they start operations?” Some of the tourism industry spending in Alaska comes from Alaskans traveling to various regions of the state, staying in hotels and participating in activities in other regions. However, the state’s population isn’t very large, and likely wouldn’t make up for a large loss in out-of-state tourism, Hickok said. ATIA estimates that the tourism industry was worth about $4.5 billion in total revenue within the state in 2018, supporting about 1 in 10 private-sector jobs. Businesses and tourism industry advocates are working on their plans now, but the future is still uncertain, she said. “Last week we were in shell shock,” she said. “Now we’re just trying to figure it out, what it means. We might not have the answers for a while.” Elizabeth Earl can be reaced at [email protected]

FCC orders telecoms to inventory Chinese equipment

Nearly a year after the federal government labeled Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE as potential national security threats, the Federal Communications Commission is looking for more complete information about which American companies are using their equipment. The FCC announced Feb. 26 that all telecommunications companies eligible for Universal Service Fund monies are required to inventory and report the cost of replacing any Huawei or ZTE equipment currently in use. The data, which companies can report through a portal on the FCC’s website, is due by April 22. The reporting is optional for companies that are not USF-eligible. “Given that those designations may become final this spring, we are moving forward quickly to identify where equipment and services from these suppliers are embedded in our communications networks and, where they do have a foothold, to be in a position to help remove them,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in the release. Companies have to report the type of equipment from Huawei or ZTE they are using, how it’s being used, what they paid for it and how much it would cost to replace. The latter information could be used for a reimbursement program, according to the announcement. Many telecommunications companies, particularly small ones, rely on the USF, which distributes billions in funding every year, paid for by telecommunications companies based on an assessment of their end-user revenues. Funds are provided through four programs: the Connect America Fund, which helps cover the costs of providing service in high-cost areas; low-income support; the E-Rate program, which provides funds to help schools and libraries obtain telecommunications services; and support for rural health care clinics. Accusations that Huawei and ZTE pose a national security threat go back for years, linked to concerns that the companies include “back doors” in their security protocols for spyware. In 2019, President Donald Trump’s administration moved to flag Huawei—a Chinese technology company—as a potential national security threat because of security flaws discovered in some of its devices. ZTE, another Chinese technology company known particularly for smartphones, was also added to the list. The companies’ ties to the Chinese government raised further scrutiny. Some U.S. companies, including Google, have indicated that they intend to continue working with Huawei, but Congress indicated that the FCC should require that U.S. telecommunications providers rip and replace the now-prohibited equipment. The problem is that is incredibly expensive, especially for smaller companies. The Huawei and ZTE equipment is typically much cheaper than equivalents available from other countries. So as part of the plan to replace all the equipment, Congress is working on a bill to reimburse companies for replacing the equipment. Sen. Dan Sullivan cosponsored the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Act of 2019, which passed the Senate March 4 and would prohibit the FCC from subsidizing the purchase of any equipment from “untrusted suppliers” as well as set up a reimbursement program for companies with fewer than two million customers to replace the equipment. The House passed a companion bill on March 3, and the legislation package is now before Trump to sign. Alaska’s two main state-based telecommunications providers, Alaska Communications and GCI, won’t be affected by the reporting requirement and equipment replacement. Neither has any Huawei or ZTE equipment in use at this time, according to spokespeople for both companies. “GCI has been monitoring the situation since last year and we have already conducted an inventory of our network,” said Heather Handyside, GCI’s vice president of corporate communications, in an email. “I am pleased to report that GCI has no Huawei/ZTE equipment on our network systems.” The Alaska providers who may be required to report to the FCC are prepared to do so, said Christine O’Connor, executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association. The details of the reimbursement program through the FCC are still up in the air. The commission has not yet adopted an order on the removal and replacement program, said Tina Pelkey, a spokesman for the FCC, in an email. “The details are still pending, including what costs will be reimbursed, and the Commission has not yet decided specifics about the proposed program while we review the record,” she said. The two bills passed by the House and Senate would also establish an information-sharing network for smaller companies to obtain information related to the vulnerability of their networks. The bill focuses largely on the ongoing conversion to 5G networks, which are being rolled out in some regions of the U.S. and worldwide. 5G, the fifth generation of cellular and wireless network standards, is expected to increase wireless speeds and reduce latency, among other improvements. Alaska, with its broad geography and small population, has lagged behind the country in implementation of 4G, and some regions still don’t have reliable coverage. As companies look to adapt to the changing network standards, the bill aims to push them away from purchasing equipment from companies that could pose a national security threat — particularly Chinese companies. Last year, AT&T announced buildouts of 5G network capability in Alaska, including Anchorage, Bethel and Kusilvak. GCI began building out its 5G infrastructure in Alaska in 2019, with completion expected in 2020 and rollout expected in the first half of the year, according to GCI’s website. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet setnet permit buyout bill stalled in Senate

Cook Inlet’s East Side setnetters are still looking for relief in the form of a permit buyback, but the bill that would allow it is stuck in the Legislature. Senate Bill 90, sponsored by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, would establish a mechanism in law for setnetters on Cook Inlet’s East Side to set up a permit buyback. There’s no funding included in the bill, but the establishment of the mechanism itself would allow stakeholders to seek funding, whether it comes from the federal government, state, or private equity. Micciche introduced the bill in the 2019 session, when it received three hearings in the Senate Resources Committee. However, it does not currently have any hearings scheduled as of March 10. Micciche said he hopes to get the bill moving soon and intended to request hearings for it. “It’s certainly a high priority; it’s at the top of my list,” Micciche said. “My goal is to get it passed in this session.” The East Side setnet fishery has gradually been losing value for years. For the last few decades, user-group politics have led to the Board of Fisheries reducing the time and area allowances for setnetters on Cook Inlet’s East Side, who compete for salmon headed for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, which also host large sport and personal-use fisheries. In 2014, after the disastrously low king salmon runs in Cook Inlet, the Board of Fisheries instituted paired-use restrictions, which further reduced setnet fishing time on the East Side and based openings on the type of gear allowed for king salmon sportfishing in the Kenai River. The effect of additional time and area cuts is that some setnetters in the Kenai area now open in mid-July and close by the second week of August. However, Kenai king runs have continued to struggle, as they have across the state. Citing continuing concerns for king salmon in the Kenai River, the Board of Fisheries increased the optimum escapement goal for king salmon at its meeting in February, meaning paired restrictions may be used more often. The new paired rules restrict setnet fishing time to no more than 48 hours of fishing time per week when the sportfishery is set to no bait. If the fishery goes to no retention of fish longer than 34 inches, setnetters would be limited to no more than 36 hours of fishing per week, and if it goes to catch-and-release only, the limit would be 24 hours of fishing per week. If the sportfishery for kings closed, so would the East Side setnetters. Setnetters have long argued against the paired restrictions, saying it is not an equal burden because when they lose time, they lose opportunity, while commercial guides can still operate and make money on no bait or on catch-and-release fishing. East Side setnetters harvest kings at a higher rate than the drift gillnet commercial fishery does, in part because king salmon migrate along the shore on the way back to the river, but they primarily take sockeye salmon. As they’ve lost fishing opportunity, the value of the setnet sites and permits has gone down. In 1990, the value for Cook Inlet setnet permits reached a high of $98,514 per permit; by 2019, they were worth approximately $19,500 per permit, according to the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. The decline in value has been relatively steady since the 1990s, when it climbed after large runs of salmon in the 1980s in Cook Inlet pushed the value of the catch up for commercial fishermen. Some setnetters would like to sell their permits out permanently, taking the lump sum rather than hoping the profit margin will improve. The bill would buy back up to 200 permits on Cook Inlet’s East Side, defined under a new administrative area outlined in the bill, for $260,000 each, minus the administrative costs. The site would then close permanently, ultimately reducing the fleet by about half. The goal of the bill would be to both reduce the number of nets in the water and make the remaining sites more profitable for those who choose to stay. All buybacks would be voluntary, and the program would still have to be approved by the permitholders by a vote. Micciche said there was some confusion last year and invited lawmakers to educate themselves on how the fishery and the bill work. The bill would not provide funding; it would establish the vehicle for fishermen to start researching funding, he said. Until the bill passes, they can’t approach potential funding sources. “In the meantime, they’re watching their livelihoods erode from beneath them,” he said. On Feb. 21, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, signed on as a co-sponsor, but then reversed course and removed his name about two weeks later, on March 3. Micciche said as far as he knew, Stevens still thought the buyback program was a good idea. Stevens’ office didn’t return a request for comment. At previous hearings, senators raised concerns about the proposed amount for each buyout and fishermen trying to game the system; during public comment, stakeholders objected to the bill because of the precedent of the Legislature getting involved in Cook Inlet’s messy fisheries politics, because of the closing of waters, and because of the lack of clearly identified funding in the bill. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Commerce Dept. allocates $35M for P-cod, Chignik fisheries disasters

Fishermen affected by the 2018 Pacific cod and Chignik sockeye disasters will soon have access to about $35 million in relief funding. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross allocated about $65 million to fisheries disaster relief, about $35 million of which is for Alaska, according to a Feb. 27 announcement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Within Alaska, about $24.4 million will go to the Pacific cod fishery disaster and about $10.3 million to the Chignik sockeye fishery. The funding was appropriated when Congress passed the 2019 Consolidated and Supplemental Appropriations Act. Fisheries disasters can be declared under the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Management and Conservation Act when natural disasters or management actions significantly negatively impact stakeholders’ ability to participate in a fishery. In the case of the Pacific cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska, scientists are linking the decline in stock abundance to environmental causes; in Chignik, the salmon decline seemed to be linked to poor environmental conditions for sockeye that summer. Both disaster requests had already been granted, but the amount of funding that the fisheries would have allocated to them was yet to be determined. The National Marine Fisheries Service determines how much funding to allocate to fisheries based on commercial revenue loss information. Affected fishermen will be able to apply for funding to help with infrastructure projects, habitat restoration, state-run vessel and fishing permit buybacks, and job retraining, according to the announcement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Nearly two years have passed since both disasters. At the beginning of 2018, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council cut Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod total allowable catch limits by 80 percent in response to declining biomass. Then-Gov. Bill Walker requested the disaster declaration in March 2018, citing the direct impacts from loss of revenue in the fishery and indirect impacts such as reduced fuel sales and supplies. This year, the same P-cod fishermen in the Gulf of Alaska are facing a complete fishery shutdown, again due to declining biomass. The Chignik area felt the impact in summer 2018 when so few sockeye salmon showed up in the lagoon and Chignik River that commercial fishermen essentially didn’t fish all summer—they harvested an estimated 128 sockeye in 2018 compared to a five-year average of about 1.3 million, according to Walker’s November 2018 letter requesting the disaster declaration. In a rural community with little cash economy, the commercial fishery provides essential cash flow so residents can purchase items like heating fuel. “These funds help impacted fisheries recover from recent disasters and make them more resilient to future challenges,” Ross said in the NOAA release. “This allocation supports the hard-working American fishing communities suffering from impacts beyond their control.” It’s typically a significant amount of time between a fisheries disaster and the actual awarding of funds. For instance, the 2016 pink salmon disaster in the Gulf of Alaska was approved for disaster status in January 2017, but funds didn’t materialize for distribution until 2019 and are still being distributed in 2020. The U.S. Senate is currently considering a bill, S. 2346, that would streamline some of the regulations and processes for determining a fishery disaster and getting funding out to affected stakeholders. The bill was last heard in November 2019, when an amendment was requested by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The funds will be managed by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. Because the funding for these disasters has already been appropriated, NOAA can start working with the state agencies on distribution, said Karina Borger, communications director for Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “With NOAA’s approval today — NOAA can begin immediately working with the state-level agencies to get the funding moving to fishermen & affected communities,” she wrote in an email. Alaska’s congressional delegation released a joint statement Thursday thanking NOAA for the allocation and encouraging the agency to continue its scientific work to determine drivers of “resource fluctuations.” “Alaska’s fisheries are vital to our state, coastal communities, and families,” they said in the statement. “By restoring these losses, our federal government is following through not only on the commitment we made to Alaska’s commercial fisherman, but also to their families, processors, and coastal communities who were hit hard by these disasters. The economic impact for fisherman and their communities could have been detrimental. This economic relief will go a long way.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

House bill would establish health care payment database

Amid the ongoing effort to control Alaska’s ballooning health care costs, the Legislature is considering a bill that would establish a central repository for pricing data. House Bill 229, sponsored by Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, would establish an all-payer claims database for Alaska, along with the Alaska Health Care Transformation Corp. to manage it. Insurers in the state would be required to work with the corporation, which would be independent from the state government, to report all claims paid for health care services with the goal of making the information more transparent. Health care costs are higher in Alaska than anywhere else in the U.S. and have grown at a faster rate per year over the past three decades than the U.S. average, increasing about 7.9 percent per year, according to the bill. Approximately 13.6 percent of Alaskan adults reported not being able to see a doctor because of costs in 2018, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The high costs are in part due to Alaska’s geography and limited competition, and legislators have been debating how to control those escalating costs for the past decade. “Understanding the underlying cost drivers and market pressures of the cost of health care is important to developing policies and solutions,” Spohnholz wrote in her sponsor statement for the bill. “An Alaska Health Care Transformation Corporation tasked with establishing an (all-payer claims database) will provide a foundation for ongoing analysis, development, implementation and support for health care policy. Payers would report medical claims, pharmacy claims, dental claims and eligibility information to the database, said Sandra Heffern, owner of consulting firm Effective Health Design and the project coordinator for the Alaska Health Care Transformation Project. The database would include information from private insurers that other data sets, such as Medicare or Medicaid payments, do not currently include. The APCD would provide apolitical data that would inform policy recommendations, she said. One of the thorny things about incentivizing competition in the health care industry is that even determining what a service costs can be a complicated question. Providers have varying charges based on an individual person’s insurance, and the itemization of services can be unclear until the bill arrives. In 2017, the Municipality of Anchorage passed a health care cost transparency ordinance that required providers in the municipality to disclose cost information to patients who requested it. In 2018, the state Legislature passed a similar law, slated to go into effect in January 2019. However, DHSS announced it would not impose penalties on providers or health care facilities by that date, giving them more time, with the expectation they will comply with the law. The project committee that developed the idea for an Alaska APCD began meeting in 2017, the same year the final results for an Alaska Health Care Authority feasibility study were published. However, the two efforts were not connected, Heffern said. Provider stakeholders have been involved in the process from the beginning, as have legislators, she said. “The project grew out of a discussion with senators, representatives, the administration and providers who all wanted to ‘do something’ about reforming the Alaska healthcare landscape,” she said. “The project brought these often disparate voices together to approach a solution from the multiple perspectives of payers, providers, policymakers and patient advocates.” Alaska would join a growing group of states amalgamating data in the hopes of improving transparency about health care service charges and using it to develop policy recommendations designed to control the costs of health care. Nationally, health care spending grew about 4.4 percent in 2018, reaching about $3.6 trillion, and under current law is projected to reach nearly $6 trillion by 2027, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Alaska’s health care spending was worth approximately $7.5 billion in 2011, and has grown in the nearly 10 years since, according to a University of Alaska Anchorage report. APCDs have been around for some time; Maine, one of the first states to do so, implemented one in 2012. Maryland, another state with a database in effect, has been using its data to establish a baseline for charges to understand cost drivers and costs in the state versus other regions. Sen. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, introduced a bill in 2019 that, among other changes, would require health insurers to make information like cost estimates available to enrollees through technology. The existence of the database alone may not be enough to drive down costs, but it may help Alaska analyze to how to at least hold down costs—even a 2 percent reduction in the average annual growth rate would save about $150 million, Heffern said. Dr. Norm Thurston, the executive director of the National Association of Health Data Organizations, told the members of the House Labor and Commerce Committee in a Feb. 21 hearing that small states were the first to do these databases, in part because of how complex the health care payer systems are in the more populous states like California and New York. “This traditionally has been a movement coming out of small states and moving into larger states,” he said. “I’m shocked that … New York is in the process of developing one, because of the level of complexity in doing it in those states.” Thurston said many states have chosen to use an outside vendor for the actual technology side of the database, as the solutions already exist and don’t have to be developed by the state itself, but that presents a higher up-front cost. Other states, like Arkansas, built it entirely within state government. The corporation that would manage it would be an independent, state-formed entity with its own governance and structure, like the Alaska Railroad Corp. In the bill’s current form, the corporation would be governed by a council of 17 governor-appointed voting members and four nonvoting. The seats for the voting members would be divided among providers, payers, policy makers, consumers, and state officials from the Division of Insurance and the Division of Retirement and Benefits. The reason the project committee was interested in a third-party corporation managing the database was in part because they wanted to create a “trusted entity” to handle the data that wouldn’t be beholden to the state, Heffern told the committee. “In order to make these types of changes in our health care system, we have to have this kind of information, and there has to be a trusted entity so that everybody in the health care industry would trust what the trusted entity is saying,” she said. The bill has had two hearings and is currently in the House Labor and Commerce Committee. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Proposed budget seeks increase in homeless service funding

After a back-and-forth over funding for state homelessness services last year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget would keep the peace by providing about $43 million in funding to various agencies and nonprofits. Approximately $43.5 million is included in Dunleavy’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget, spread among the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, and the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. The proposed funding level would be about a million dollars more than the 2020 fiscal year budget ended up providing to the same agencies. Homelessness is a chronic issue in Alaska, amid ongoing economic strife, substance abuse, mental illness and elevated housing costs. In 2019, Dunleavy’s administration proposed cutting funding for a number of programs that offered shelter and housing for homeless individuals, which led to Anchorage declaring a state of emergency to access extra funding because of the impact of the number of homeless individuals in the city no longer receiving services on the city. The funding was eventually restored by the Legislature, but the concern over how to address the issue of homelessness in the state remained. Over the last 10 years, the number of homeless individuals identified in the state has stayed roughly level, from 1,992 in 2009 to 2,016 in 2018, according to the point-in-time count data from the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. The point-in-time counts are taken annually on a single day, and are not comprehensive, but rather meant to capture a snapshot of individuals identifying as homeless at a single time, taken by surveyors contacting as many individuals as they can. Most of the funding is level from the fiscal year 2020 budget, but some have been increased or moved around. For instance, the governor’s proposed budget increases the line item for Alaska Housing Finance Corp.’s homeless assistance program by about $2.75 million, while $2 million would be cut out of the line item for AHFC’s beneficiary and special needs housing program. About $1.5 million would be moved from one AHFC line item into another item for teacher and professional housing as well, with another $250,000 included, according to documents provided by the governor’s office. At the recommendation of the Alaska Mental Health Trust, the House Finance Committee proposed an amendment at a Feb. 18 hearing that would increase some of the AHFC line items as well: the homeless assistance line item would increase from $7.3 million to $8.15 million and the beneficiary and special needs housing program from $1.7 million to $3.7 million, according to legislative documents. The homeless assistance program would see a significant increase from the last fiscal year under the proposed budget, wrote Stacy Barnes, the director of government relations and public affairs for AHFC in an email. In the current fiscal year 2020, the homeless assistance program received about $4.55 million; under the proposed amendment from House Finance, that would nearly double, to $8.15 million. “(The) Homeless Assistance Program provides funds to agencies that provide emergency or transitional housing and/or services to rapidly rehouse those who have been displaced or otherwise prevent homelessness,” Barnes wrote. The same kind of increase would be true for the beneficiary and special needs housing program, which provides funds for planning and construction for nonprofits and developers and may provide for congregate, supportive or transitional housing, Barnes said. Last year, that program received about $1.7 million. Last year presented challenges for AHFC, including the wildfires and earthquakes in Southcentral Alaska, Barnes said. Approximately 41 homes financed by AHFC were affected by the November 2018 earthquake that struck Anchorage and rippled throughout Southcentral Alaska, with 13 of those severely damaged, according to AHFC’s 2019 annual report. However, the overall dividend the corporation was able to provide back to the state based on its mortgage activity, investment activity and federal dollars increased, Barnes wrote. “In spite of all of that, the financial performance of Alaska Housing Finance Corporation is healthy as evidenced by the dividend we pay annually to the state, increasing $6.6 million from FY18 to $45.6 million,” she wrote. “Dividends are often used by the governor and legislature to pay for capital project priorities established by our board of directors, and are based on a calculation in state statute that reflects 75 percent of our annual income.” The Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development administers a pass-through federal grant that provides for community assistance projects, which will ultimately go by grant to Rural Alaska Community Action Program, or RurAL CAP. The funding goes to assist housing programs serving low- and middle-income households as well as neighborhood programs, among other services. RurAL CAP could not be reached for comment on the proposed funding levels. The amount is determined by population and appropriation by Congress, said Glenn Hoskinson, the special assistant to the commissioner for the Department of Commerce. The amount named in the governor’s proposed budget is $3 million, slightly more than the approximately $2.6 million provided in fiscal year 2020. “The funding will be determined through the budget process; as of yet we do not know the funding level for FY21,” she said. “Our department will work with RurAL Community Assistance Program (CAP) to develop the State of Alaska CSBG State Plan for FY21 funding.” In addition to the Commerce Department funding, the Department of Health and Social Services administers part of the funding through programs such as emergency youth shelter services and opioid recovery housing. The DHSS did not respond to requests for comment on the funding. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

‘1 percent’ rule reverts to July 31 for Peninsula setnetters

They’re not always counted numerically, but coho salmon in Upper Cook Inlet are highly sought after by sport fishermen and commercial fishermen alike — and, naturally, lead to disagreements over who gets to harvest them and when. Though the most recent Board of Fisheries meeting was largely focused on the regulations on sockeye and king salmon fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet, concerns about coho fishing pulled the strings on some of the regulations, particularly for set gillnet fishermen on the east side of Cook Inlet. In particular, changes to the one percent rule — a rule established for the commercial fisheries in the area, largely designed to minimize commercial harvest of coho salmon — could cost commercial fishermen more time in the August each season. The board approved moving the 1 percent rule date back to July 31 on a 4-3 vote, with members John Jensen of Petersburg, Fritz Johnson of Dillingham and Gerad Godfrey of Eagle River voting against the change. Coho salmon, also known as silver salmon, aren’t as numerous in Cook Inlet as sockeye or pink salmon and aren’t as high-value as kings, but they’re still a highly prized species. In the commercial fishery, they were worth about $1.02 per pound last season, a little less than half as much as sockeye. In 2019, commercial fishermen across the area harvested about 164,859 coho salmon, with a little more than half landed via the drift gillnet fleet, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s annual management report. Silver salmon are worth big money in the sport fisheries around the Cook Inlet basin, too, with guides marketing trips from late July through September based on silvers. When the Kenai River king salmon run closes for sportfishing at the end of July, anglers turn most of their attention to silvers. The board rejected proposals to increase the Kenai daily sport bag limit of two coho in August to three fish. Anglers are allowed to harvest three Kenai coho per day starting Sept. 1. ADFG staff in past meetings have said they consider coho salmon in Upper Cook Inlet to be fully allocated, meaning that they in order to increase harvest for one group without damaging the population, the allocation for another group would have to be reduced. However, there are a number of data gaps that made the board’s decisions on how to move coho around difficult. For one, there is no regular enumeration project on the Kenai River counting silver salmon — the last comprehensive population estimate ADFG has is from 2004. As part of an overall attempt to move more silver salmon toward in-river users, the board members passed a proposal to move the effective date of the 1 percent rule for East Side setnets back from Aug. 7 to July 31. Next season, if the setnet fleet collectively catches less than 1 percent of its total season harvest of sockeye salmon in two consecutive periods after July 31, the fishery will automatically close prior to its normal closing date of Aug. 15. “Everyone is worried about overexploiting the coho because we don’t know (enough),” said board member Israel Payton during the deliberation process in Anchorage. “ I was comfortable leaving it as it was a few years ago … I thought it was appropriate. I think the in-river users think two fish is appropriate, and the in-river users think the one percent rule should be back to the July 31 date.” The 1 percent rule went into effect after the 2014 board meeting, and the effective date moved from July 31 to Aug. 7 after the 2017 meeting. Payton, who voted against moving the date at the 2017 meeting, said he thought the board made the wrong decision at that time to move the date back to Aug. 7, especially as the board also voted against increasing the bag limit for inriver users. Setnetters objected, saying it would unfairly truncate their opportunity to harvest sockeye salmon. Sockeye runs on the Kenai have been increasingly arriving in August—in 2018, for the first time on record, more than half the run arrived after Aug. 1. The fleet also shrinks in August, as more people begin pulling nets out of the water and fewer people are fishing. The rule is evaluated based on the entire fleet, and so the one percent rule makes it a challenge for the whole fleet to keep up with the catch. Gary Hollier, a longtime East Side setnetter, told the board the fleet’s harvest of Kenai-bound coho salmon is relatively minimal. Genetics data provided by the department estimated the East Side setnet harvest of Kenai-bound coho at about 5,400 fish last year, said Pat Shields, the commercial fisheries management coordinator for Upper and Lower Cook Inlet. The total yearly Cook Inlet-wide coho harvest has declined by about 56 percent, or roughly 150,000 fish per year since 1999 compared to historical averages, according to department figures. Comparatively, the Kenai River sport coho harvest has remained roughly flat over that time. Historical data indicate the Kenai coho run is about 150,000 fish. “(The commercial coho harvest) is already minimized,” Hollier said. “There’s no reason to change this. If anything, the minimize date… was Aug. 15. That’s the minimize date.” Shields said the 1 percent rule was not used since being moved back to Aug. 7 in 2017, but other restrictions were placed on the setnet fishery in recent years because of low king and sockeye returns. It was used periodically in years when it took effect July 31, according to Shields. Kevin Delaney, a former ADFG sportfisheries biologist and consultant with the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, pointed to another proposal for the board to increase the bag limit of coho to three from the current two. In 2017, the board declined to do so, citing concerns about harvest rates, but still moved back the effective date for the 1 percent rule. Coho are worth more to the sportfishery than the commercial fishery, he said, especially with the decline in king salmon availability across Alaska. “We stand ready to present reams of economic data that would reflect and inform the board and the public on the value of coho salmon for sportfishing in Upper Cook Inlet,” Delaney said. “That value has gone up exponentially because of the low abundance of king salmon we have. We’ve seen a real decline in the abundance of king salmon … what’s that done is it’s pushed a lot of the effort toward sockeye and coho salmon.” What the new rule is likely to cost setnetters, though, is sockeye. ADFG was neutral on the proposal but had concerns about the effect on management for escapement goals, said Alyssa Frothingham, the assistant area management biologist for commercial fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet. “The department has concerns, however, with restrictions that might impair our ability to meet sockeye salmon escapement objectives in the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers,” she told the board. Board member Fritz Johnson said that variability in salmon runs could end up unfairly restricting setnetters from harvesting sockeye. “In (Bristol Bay), fish don’t arrive where they’re headed in a steady stream,” he said. “The changes that can take place from a day or a tide can be significant, and under those circumstances, there can be a lot of lost opportunity if we enact this rule too early. I don’t think it’s right that the commercial fishery take a hit on this and lose opportunity.” The board ultimately voted to pass the proposal moving the date to July 31, taking no action on other 1 percent rule proposals based on it. Commercial fishermen had proposed eliminating it entirely, while other proposals sought to expand it to 2 or 3 percent, largely based on concerns for coho salmon harvest opportunities.

Halibut commission cuts 2020 harvest levels for US waters

Amid ongoing stock declines and concerns about commercial bycatch, the International Pacific Halibut Commission opted to cut allocations in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska for 2020. Regulatory area 2C, which covers Southeast Alaska, will see about a 7.7 percent reduction from the 2019 allocation, while area 3A, which covers the central Gulf of Alaska, will see about a 9.7 percent reduction. The commission, which includes three representatives each from the U.S. and Canada, passed the catch limits for 2020 at its meeting in Anchorage on Feb. 7. Coastwide, the commissioners set the 2020 total constant exploitation yield, or TCEY, rate at 36.6 million pounds, about a 2 million-pound cut from last year’s TCEY of 38.6 million pounds. That cut came from the U.S. part of the agreement, though; Canada’s allocation of 6.83 million pounds stayed level, in part due to more biomass availability in Area 2B, Canada’s part of the coast. Charter halibut rules were also approved based on the harvest levels. In 2C the limits are 1 halibut per day equal to or less than 40 inches or larger than 80 inches. In 3A, the limits are 2 halibut per day with 1 of any size, and 1 equal to or less than 26 inches. Tuesdays will also be closed for charter anglers in 3A. U.S. Commissioner Chris Oliver said he recognized that there maybe some dissatisfaction on the U.S. side because of the cut while Canada’s allocation stayed level, but that the agreement helped serve the process. “In this particular case, (the biomass) went up in the favor of Canada,” he said. “While optically, I agree with many stakeholders’ concerns, I think it’s in the best interest of this process and it’s a fair reflection of the agreement we made.” Oliver said he did have some concerns about the level of fishing intensity being set at 42 percent of the spawning potential ratio, though noted that it is within the range recommended as safe by the scientific advisors to the commission. Canadian Commissioner Peter DeGreef said he objected to the level of fishing intensity as well, saying that without a cut in allocations soon, the commission could be forced to take more drastic action to preserve the stock. He referenced advice from his father to preserve the stock in his comments. “This is no way to manage a resource,” he said. “I cannot agree to an F42 (fishing intensity) because I do not believe I would be doing the one thing my father asked me to do.” The commission also agreed to a 50 percent account of bycatch of halibut smaller than 26 inches, an issue that had caused concern among commercial fishermen and on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council for fishery stability. U.S. Commissioner Robert Alverson noted that commission staff will be presenting more information to the commissioners in the future to help them continue the discussion on including U26 in bycatch accounting. He also said the concerns of the charter fleet played a role in the catch limits set in areas 3A and 2C. If the limit had dropped much further in 3A, for example, it would have meant the charter fleet was closed for halibut fishing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, Alverson said. “That was a compelling issue there,” he said. “Should the resource continue to deteriorate, I’m not sure we can hold that line in 2021.” Though commissioners DeGreef and Richard Yamada said they disagreed with major aspects of the agreement, commissioners Oliver, Neil Davis and Paul Ryall said they would support it. Davis noted that the agreement had some major steps forward for Canada, including monitoring for bycatch. However, unless the stock begins to rebound, he said he expected more difficult discussion in the future. “While this year’s discussions were difficult, I think the next few years look like they will be even more difficult,” he said. “I think it’s important for all of us to bear that in mind, and that it … potentially means that there will be difficult discussions about the scope of fishing opportunities that lie ahead.” The catch limits for 2020 as passed by the IPHC are as follows: Area 2A (California, Oregon, and Washington): 1.65 million pounds Area 2B (Canada): 6.83 million pounds Area 2C (Southeast Alaska): 5.85 million pounds Area 3A (Central Gulf of Alaska): 12.2 million pounds Area 3B (Western Gulf of Alaska): 3.12 million pounds Area 4A (Eastern Aleutians): 1.75 million pounds Area 4B (Western Aleutians): 1.31 million pounds Areas 4CDE (Bering Sea/Closed area): 3.9 million pounds Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Council approves tighter halibut charter rules for 2020

A tough season may be ahead for the halibut charter fleet in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska as managers look to reduce the overall catch of Pacific halibut. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council passed a set of recommendations for regulations on the charter fleets in areas 2C and 3A, covering Southeast and Southcentral respectively, at its meeting last week. Both include tighter restrictions than in previous years and ratchet down as the recreational catch allocation goes down. In Southeast Alaska, the recommended highest-tier catch limit ranges between 772,000 to just more than 1 million pounds and would allow for an upper size limit of longer than 80 inches and a lower limit of less than 40. If the catch limit goes down to between 658,000 and 771,000 pounds, the council’s recommendations keep the same size limits but begin closing Wednesdays, starting at the end of the season and working backward with a maximum of all Wednesdays in the season being closed. Lower than that, the council recommends a closure of a minimum of 14 Wednesdays and an annual limit of four halibut for all charter anglers, then an annual limit of three halibut, with a complete closure of Wednesdays and an annual limit of three halibut if the catch limit is set at less than 615,000 pounds. In Southcentral, the council took a similar tiered approach. The allocation levels are larger in general in Southcentral, but so is participation. Regardless of the allocation, the recommendations include an annual limit of four halibut per charter angler, closed Wednesdays, one trip per halibut charter vessel per day, and one trip per permit per day. If the allocation is between about 1.7 million and 2 million pounds, the daily bag limit would be set at two halibut, with one fish of any size and the other smaller than 26 inches, with some Tuesdays closed. At an allocation of between 1.588 million and 1.695 million pounds, the bag and size limits would be the same, but all Tuesdays would close and some Thursdays would close until the allocation is achieved. Below that, all Tuesdays would be closed with a daily bag limit of one halibut and a reverse slot limit, with an upper limit of 80 inches and a lower limit beginning at 58 inches. In particular, charter operators in Southcentral came out to comment in opposition to the recommendations. Many told the council that the additional restrictions would further reduce the viability of their fishery. “Alarms are sounding regarding the proposals regarding 3A as they will certain economic damage across our small community,” wrote Whittier City Manager Jim Hunt to the council. “The management of the halibut resource is critical and we in Whittier believe it would be much more effective to address the over/under rule for male fish and more importantly, narrow the aperture and focus on the fact that most commercial bycatch halibut are breeding females.” Many of the commenters asked the council to redirect its efforts toward reducing the bycatch in the commercial trawl fisheries in the North Pacific. The total non-directed discard mortality for area 3A came in at approximately 1.6 million pounds, according to a 2019 fisheries statistics report presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. For the entirety of Area 3, which includes Area 3B in the Western Gulf, that total comes to about 2.1 million pounds. The vast majority of that is in the commercial trawl fishery, with hook-and-line fisheries “a distant second,” according to the report. “IPHC Regulatory Area 3 remains the area where non-directed commercial discard mortality is estimated most poorly,” the report states. “Observer coverage for most fisheries is relatively low.” Many of the concerned charter captains come from Homer, where a major chunk of the economy rests on tourism. As halibut biomass has continued to decline, regulations have continued to tighten, and the institution of a catch-share plan splitting the area allocation between the commercial and recreational fishery has put pressure on the charter sector, reducing the reliability of the recreational fishing opportunity for tourists. The Homer Chamber of Commerce asked the council to take more comprehensive action to control bycatch in the commercial trawl fishery, instituting full observer coverage in the Gulf of Alaska, the same way it is in the Bering Sea fishery. “When the Longline and Charter Fleets experience further restrictions, regulations need to reflect the Trawl Fleet in the Gulf of Alaska being held to the same standardized methods and restrictions,” the organization wrote. “We believe that by instituting 100 percent observer coverage in the Gulf of Alaska, the fishery will reduce bycatch to a more sustainable level for our industry fisherman here.” The council’s recommendations go to the International Pacific Halibut Commission just in time for its meeting, which began Feb. 3 in Anchorage. The commission will set the annual catch limits for halibut in the U.S. and Canada fisheries, with reductions expected across the board due to declining available biomass for harvest. Recent surveys have shown a continuation of a long-term decline, with some potential for increases in future year classes but a short-term decline. One of the council’s main concerns is the inclusion of bycatch of fish smaller than 26 inches in the calculation of the Total Constant Exploitation Yield limit, or TCEY, which the IPHC has voted to do. The new procedure will likely increase allocation to Canada and, in combination with decreased biomass, impact Alaska halibut fisheries, according to a Dec. 31 letter from the council to the IPHC. “The Area 3A adopted TCEY was up 8 percent in 2019 from the prior year, and in 2020 the TCEY could drop by 28 percent from 2019 levels while Area 4CDE could drop 20 percent from 2019 levels if set at the reference TCEY levels,” the letter states. “Interannual changes of this magnitude, which the Council notes are very unusual for long-lived groundfish species, pose significant challenges to commercial and recreational directed users of the halibut resource.” The council asked the IPHC to consider delaying the inclusion of U26 fish bycatch in the TCEY, among other actions, to reduce the year-to-year swings. The IPHC meeting continues through Feb. 7 in Anchorage. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Salmon forecasts out for popular Copper River, Cook Inlet fisheries

Copper River fishermen may be facing a lean year for sockeye but a boom year for kings, while Upper Cook Inlet sockeye are forecast for another weaker run. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released the forecasts for the two regions on Jan. 28, showing a below-average runs for Upper Cook Inlet and Copper River sockeye. Both regions are of high interest: the Copper River because of its high-dollar, early-season sockeye and world-famous king salmon, and Upper Cook Inlet because of its high visibility and accessibility to fishermen of all user groups in Southcentral Alaska. Copper River The Alaska salmon season unofficially begins with the Copper River kings, and this year, there may be something to celebrate for the first time in a while. ADFG biologists are forecasting a return of 60,000 king salmon to the Copper River, about 20 percent more than the recent 10-year average, with an estimated common property harvest of 36,000 fish. The estimated commercial harvest in 2019 was 18,400 king salmon, according to ADFG. King salmon everywhere are valuable to commercial fishermen, but Copper River kings especially so because they are the first of the season; in 2018, the average ex-vessel value for kings in Prince William Sound was $12.91 per pound compared to a statewide average of $5.99 per pound, according to ADFG. By contrast, the wild sockeye forecast for the Copper River is about 1.42 million sockeye, less than the recent 10-year average of 2.1 million sockeye. Combined with expected hatchery returns, the total run forecast comes out to about 1.53 million sockeye, with a common property harvest of 970,000 fish, according to the forecast. Upper Cook Inlet Biologists are forecasting a total run of 4.3 million sockeye across the systems of Upper Cook Inlet, including the Kasilof, Kenai and Susitna rivers. That’s about 900,000 fewer fish than the estimated 2019 return of approximately 5.2 million sockeye to all systems. If the forecast proves true, the commercial harvest would come out to about 1.7 million, about 1 million fish less than the recent 20-year average harvest. The Kenai River is the dominant sockeye system in the drainage and is forecast to see a return of 2.2 million, about 1.4 million fewer than the recent 20-year average, according to the forecast. The Kasilof forecast is also less than the average, with a projected return of about 723,000 fish, while the Susitna is up: about 49 percent above the recent 10-year average, with a projected return of 571,000 sockeye. Fish Creek is also up from the average, with a projected return of about 121,000 fish. The run in 2019 was larger than in the previous handful of years, but still came in less than the forecast of about 6 million fish. This is in part because of the underperformance of either two two-ocean age classes or one three-ocean age class, either due to over-forecasting or poor marine survival, according to the forecast. Kenai and Deshka kings Things look better for the late run of Kenai River king salmon in 2020, but the early run on the Kenai and the run on the Deshka look less than rosy again. ADFG released the 2020 outlooks for the king salmon runs on the two rivers on Jan. 27, in advance of the Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting beginning Feb. 7. The Deshka River is expected to see a return of 10,570 kings; the Kenai River’s early run is estimated at 4,794 kings, less than the average but still within the escapement goal, while the Kenai late run is projected at 22,707, about 60 percent better than the estimated total 2019 run. The Deshka forecast is within the biological escapement goal of 9,000 to 18,000 fish but is less than the sustainable escapement goal of 13,000 to 28,000 fish, according to ADFG. The forecast is about 35 percent less than the recent 10-year average but greater than the estimated 2019 return of 8,466 kings. The Deshka has also seen a recent increase in jack kings — small, younger males — at the weir, which could affect production, according to a memo from Northern Cook Inlet Area Research Biologist Nick DeCovich with the Division of Sport Fish. The early run of king salmon in the Kenai River — which is demarcated from the late run at the end of June each year — has been declining for about the last decade. The estimated forecast is within the optimum escapement goal of 3,900 to 6,600 large king salmon but is less than both the five- and 10-year recent averages, according to ADFG. The late run estimate of 22,707 large fish, on the other hand, will be about on par with the recent five-year average but about half the 10-year average, according to ADFG. The late run estimate would be within its sustainable escapement goal range, if the forecast proves true next summer. The king salmon runs in Upper Cook Inlet are some of the highest-interest stocks in the region, but have declined in abundance so much in recent years that sport anglers have diverted effort to other stocks, with the anticipation that fishing will be restricted. Commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet, particularly setnetters, have had to work around paired restrictions on their time and area based on projected runs to the Kenai River, intended to protect king salmon migrating close to shore. With the upcoming meeting and several proposals on the docket that would alter king salmon management in Upper Cook Inlet, ADFG managers said they would not announce preseason management measures until after the meeting, according to a press release issued Jan. 27. “ADF&G understands that anglers, guides, and local businesses are better served by preseason and timely management decisions,” said Sport Fish Cook Inlet Coordinator Matt Miller. “However, it is prudent to hold off making any preseason management decisions prior to the Board of Fisheries meeting. The board will be considering actions that could impact these fisheries.” The board meeting is scheduled to begin Feb. 7 in Anchorage. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Seafood industry facing challenges beyond harvest cuts

Amid ongoing declines of salmon returns, restrictions on harvest and collapsing groundfish stocks, Alaska seafood industry experts are concerned about something else too: the workforce. The Alaska seafood workforce, both on boats and on shore, is aging, and fewer young people are going into careers in the industry. While the graying of the fishing fleet is in part because of the high cost of entry for permits, boats, and equipment, there is also a looming shortage in processing plant workers. Jay Stinson, president of the Alaska Research Consortium, a research organization supporting fisheries and marine science in the North Pacific, told the House Fisheries Committee on Jan. 23 that about 75 percent of the state’s manufacturing workforce is in the seafood industry. However, those workplaces are changing from what they were a few decades ago, when unskilled labor dominated. “(Processors are) moving from the old slime line, which was unskilled labor, to a technical skill set requiring computer sciences, robotic operators and programmers, maintenance people, things like that,” he said. “Those skill sets are in really big demand, but there’s no place in the state to get that training.” While the University of Alaska has some courses in fisheries technology and skill sets that would be useful to processors, there is no training program that specifically focuses on those skills as related to the seafood industry. A survey of 40 plant managers from 20 different companies the Alaska Research Consortium conducted showed significant interest in more training opportunities for seafood-related careers, said Paula Cullenberg, the executive director of the Alaska Research Consortium. The survey respondents noted the need for skills like math and English proficiency, but also supervisory skills, conflict management and developing future leaders. While many employees get some level of training, some also get training in technical operations like boiler operation, wastewater management, quality control and commercial driving, Cullenberg said. Companies often bear the cost of training individuals currently, she said. “Training provides the opportunity for folks to make a career out of that industry,” she said. In addition to improving existing training opportunities and connecting seafood processing plants with their local high schools as potential internship or employment opportunities—Cullenberg told the House Fisheries Committee that fewer than half of the plants surveyed have a relationship with their local high schools, but that there is a lot of interest; the Alaska Research Consortium is proposing a Seafood Workforce Training Partnership. The partnership would exist to promote training opportunities for Alaska residents and expose high school students to careers in the industry, based out of the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center. To get it started, the consortium is looking to Technical Vocational Education Program funds. The program, housed in the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, provides noncompetitive education grants for workforce reeducation, paid for by a tax on the wages employees are required to contribute to unemployment insurance. TVEP was created initially in 2000 and provides grants to organizations like Ilisagvik College and the Alaska Technical Center. According to information the Alaska Research Consortium provided the House Fisheries Committee, the average annual contribution from employees in seafood processing and packaging to the TVEP program is about $600,000 annually. “We think TVEP resources are a good way to get it started and moving forward,” Cullenberg said. Kodiak in crosshairs Kodiak as a community is deeply connected to the seafood industry; in addition to being the third-largest port for commercial fishing landings in the United States by volume, the archipelago is home to the popular Kodiak Crab Festival and ComFish Alaska each year. Beyond the direct jobs in the fishing industry, the spending and wages in that industry create other jobs in the economy. But in recent years, the fishing fleet there has seen a number of its major fisheries reduced or closed entirely. Halibut fishermen have watched catch limits decline over the past decade along with the biomass; herring fisheries have dropped; this year brought a complete closure to the 2020 Pacific cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska; and crab fisheries have been closed or significantly scaled back over time. Salmon has been a reliable standby, with millions of the fish returning to the rivers and streams of Kodiak each summer, but the season is short and the runs can be unpredictable. The Board of Fisheries also recently changed two management plans that shift sockeye salmon fishing opportunities away from Kodiak in Cape Igvak and in the Katmai and Alinchak areas along the mainland Alaska Peninsula, cutting into the sockeye salmon fishery from the island. “What’s happening in Kodiak … is that you have a cascading chain of events that is creating increased pressure or diminishing opportunity for resident workers,” said Duncan Fields, the chairman of the Kodiak Salmon Workgroup and a member of the Alaska Research Consortium board. “We have seen the downturn of a number of fisheries. So it’s cumulative impact.” As those fisheries decline, so may jobs for processing plant workers. Over time, with reductions in hours and opportunities, families with long histories in processing jobs have not been able to make it anymore, Fields said; Kodiak has been gradually losing population over the course of the last decade. Fields said the estimated economic loss with the two sockeye fishery changes would be between $2 million and $3 million on the island. However, it doesn’t mean there’s no demand for plant workers, and especially for skilled workers, he said. The newer plants in particular have fewer manual jobs and more computerization, particularly on heavy equipment like canning machines. While some training can be done on the job, processing companies are interested in having skilled people who are willing to stay over time, he said. “It’s difficult to recruit and train and currently, the processing companies themselves are bearing most of the cost of training men and women to be part of the seafood industry,” he said. “I believe it’s a wonderful industry; I believe it’s a great career path for people.” The ARC program would be based in Kodiak and would be focused primarily on training residents, but nonresidents would be able to apply, Fields said. House Fisheries Chairman Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said at the opening of the meeting that she would be interested in securing annual funding for the program proposed by the consortium. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Board shifts salmon from Kodiak to Chignik, Cook Inlet

Commercial fishermen in Kodiak will lose some of their time and area for salmon fishing in two management areas as part of an effort to put more salmon in Chignik and northern Cook Inlet. The Board of Fisheries passed several proposals at its meeting Jan. 15 that will cut back on available salmon fishing time in the Cape Igvak area and along sections of the Alaska Peninsula. Kodiak fishermen lost both significant time and area, which commenters said would be a major economic hit for commercial salmon fishermen there. The board passed two proposals changing salmon management plans in the area after multiple days of comment and deliberation last week in Kodiak, including more than a hundred people who came to testify about the proposed restrictions. The proposals are at the crux of a variety of interests: concern about the long-term viability of the Chignik salmon fishery and the interception of Cook Inlet-bound sockeye by the Kodiak fishing fleet. In particular, the presence of Cook Inlet salmon stocks in Kodiak management area fisheries has caused consternation in the Cook Inlet fleet, in part because of the already-high demand on Cook Inlet fisheries in all sectors. Proposal 60, which the board modified before passing, reduces the allocation of salmon to Kodiak in the Cape Igvak section in western Kodiak. The original proposal cut it from 15 percent to five percent of the total Chignik Area sockeye salmon catch; the board modified it to set the allocation as close to 7.5 percent as possible. It also reduces the length of the season by about 20 days and doubles the allocation for Chignik fishermen before the area opens for Kodiak fishermen; previously, Chignik fishermen had to catch 300,000 sockeye before Kodiak fishermen could fish at Cape Igvak. That limit is now set at 600,000. Board member Marit Carlson-Van Dort, who proposed the modified language for the board, said she heard agreement among stakeholders about concern for Chignik stocks, and in addition to aligning other existing regulations, this proposal could help address that. “The Chignik early run sockeye salmon are struggling,” she said. “I sat here and heard that from virtually all the stakeholder groups over the last few days. In my mind, that point is indisputable.” The other, proposal 64, originally sought to change the management plans for Cape Igvak, North Shelikof Strait and the Mainland District. The purpose, according to proposal author Dan Anderson, was to constrain Kodiak harvest of non-Kodiak stocks as much as possible. The board members changed the proposal with new language, increasing the sockeye salmon catch caps in the Mainland District and Shelikof Strait District to 20,000 sockeye salmon and change the fishing time allowance. It also extends the North Shelikof Strait Management Plan to Alinchak Bay and Katmai, requiring those two areas to be based on local stocks. Board member Israel Payton backed the proposal, saying it could help move some of the Cook Inlet-bound salmon further north, particularly toward the Susitna River, which has been struggling to meet returns and sustain a fishery. Board member John Jensen opposed both proposals, raising concerns about the economic impact on Kodiak and noting that Cook Inlet commercial fisheries would have to be addressed if the sockeye passing through Kodiak now will make it all the way north to the Susitna River. “These fish we do pass will definitely go into another fishery,” he said.”They’ll be going into the Upper Cook Inlet fishery.” Fishermen and biologists have long suspected that salmon harvested around Kodiak are not all headed for Kodiak streams. However, the extent of it became clear after an Alaska Department of Fish and Game genetic composition study published in 2017 showed the percentages of various stock catches in some Kodiak fisheries from 2014-16; Cook Inlet-bound stocks composed a significant percentage as great as 37 percent in one season. At the meeting in Kodiak, ADFG Commercial Fisheries Division salmon fisheries scientist Bill Templin told the board that scientists have been studying the origins of salmon in Kodiak for a long time, but data has varied over time. The most recent genetic data about the stock composition is limited in scope — it only covers a small number of the fishery areas and only over 2014-16 and extrapolating it to other years comes with that caveat — Templin said. The various studies on the topic have varied in scope, area and purpose, he said. “We recognize that the board is charged with making decisions using the best available information,” he said. “The board routinely must use limited or uncertain data and information from studies that were not designed to answer the question being asked by the concerned public.” There were a variety of other proposals, some more severe, proposed for the meeting to restrict Kodiak sockeye salmon harvest that the board did not pass. Stakeholders from Kodiak raised concerns about the stability of their fishery, particularly economically, if the changes proposed went through. One of the main contentions stakeholders from Kodiak raised was that the genetic data should not be widely applied, and nor should the origin of stocks dictate where they are harvested. “They tell you what everybody knew for about a hundred years, maybe 50 years: that not all the fish we catch are Kodiak fish,” said Kodiak Island Borough Mayor Bill Roberts. “If you (pass all these proposals restricting) the salmon fishery in Kodiak, you will greatly cripple the salmon fleet, and you will cripple the economy of this island.” Kodiak Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sarah Phillips told the board that heavy restrictions on the salmon fishery will ricochet through the island’s economy. About 38 percent of the area’s jobs are in fisheries. A heavy blow to fisheries means secondary effects in other jobs, she said. In recent years, the cuts in groundfish fisheries — including this year’s complete closure of the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery — have led to fishermen relying more heavily on salmon. “If the suggested proposals are adopted, a significant portion of our employment will be affected,” she told the board. “The fishery income loss will be compounded and potentially devastate fisheries and non-fisheries businesses.” The economic estimates for impact on Kodiak were based on old versions of the proposals, before the board modified them, and so may no longer accurately reflect changes in the fisheries. The Kodiak Island Borough estimated the losses from several of the proposals in the Cape Igvak area and the North Shelikof Strait in the millions, Kodiak Island Borough Assembly member Dan Arndt told the board. The board tabled one more proposal, Proposal 37, which would create paired restrictions for king salmon harvest between Cook Inlet and Kodiak, until the Upper Cook Inlet meeting, partly to get more information about funding for another study related to it. That meeting is set to begin Feb. 7 in Anchorage. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Rockfish closure another blow to Southeast fleet

Southeast Alaska fishermen won’t get to target yelloweye rockfish in 2020, and that’s another notch in tightening belt for the area fleet. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the full-year closure on Dec. 31, spanning both the commercial and recreational sectors. Targeted fishing for all nonpelagic rockfish, which includes species like yelloweye, quillback, tiger and china rockfish, will be closed across the region due to declining populations of the fish. Nonpelagic rockfish, particularly yelloweye, are popular among sport anglers and are regularly caught by the longline commercial fishing fleet in the region. The personal use fisheries for yelloweye in Sitka and Ketchikan will also be closed for 2020, according to the announcement. Biologists come up with an estimate for biomass of demersal shelf rockfish — another term for the nonpelagic rockfish species — by surveying yelloweye rockfish, the most populous and frequently harvested species, in given areas each year. They also take biological samples at ports when fish are landed. The population of yelloweye has been declining since the mid-1990s, despite conservative management measures. Biomass has declined by about 60 percent since 1994, according to the closure announcement from ADFG. “These concerns warrant further management action to allow for rebuilding of (demersal shelf rockfish) stocks and to ensure sustainable rockfish fisheries in the future. Further restrictions in other fisheries will be considered to reduce DSR bycatch.” The age classes are being truncated as well, said Andrew Olson, the groundfish and shellfish coordinator for Southeast Alaska with Fish and Game. Yelloweye rockfish are an extremely long-lived species; they can live to be about 120 years old, and don’t start spawning until they are 18 to 22 years old. In recent years, surveys have shown fewer older fish and fewer young fish entering the fishery, Olson said. “The older fish, those big females, have the most eggs,” he said. “At the same time, we’re not seeing as many fish coming into the fishery, so we’re narrowing our age structure.” The decline has been going on for more than two decades and restrictions have ramped up. Managers started implementing restrictions to the fishery in 2006, with the Board of Fisheries setting up an allocation system to control harvest and tighter limits being placed on sportfisheries. In the last few years, commercial fishery closures for demersal shelf rockfish have gone into place as well in various areas, Olson said. However, biomass has continued to decline, with the exact reasons not entirely clear. The closures are the next step as biologists, managers and stakeholders work on plans to rebuild the stocks, Olson said. During the last winter season, commercial fishermen in the northern and southern Southeast areas together took about 38,749 pounds of demersal shelf rockfish. While it’s not necessarily a major fishery compared to salmon and halibut, it’s an important fishery to some communities because it is open-access, Olson said. “Yelloweye rockfish makes up the majority of our (nonpelagic rockfish) harvest in the commercial fishery — (it) comprises about 95 percent, next largest is quillback, and pretty much everything else is miniscule,” he said. “It’s an important fishery in that it’s an open access fishery; it’s typically one of the few fisheries that are open when everything else is closed down.” Because rockfish is such a long-lived species, it will take time to rebuild. West Coast states have had to do the same, with their stocks depleted more severely than Alaska’s; the hope is to start reversing the problem sooner to help conserve the stock for the future, Olson said. The recreational fleet also often targets nonpelagic rockfish in Southeast: typically yelloweye, as they are one of the largest species, but also tiger, canary, and china rockfish, among other species. In 2018, anglers in Southeast harvested 163,822 fish, up from 149,927 in 2017 but down from a high of 193,098 in 2014, according to ADFG’s sport fishing survey. Fishermen have gradually seen more restrictions go into place on nonpelagic rockfish, particularly yelloweye, said Bob Chadwick, the sportfish coordinator for Southeast Alaska. Most recently, the annual limit for nonresident anglers in Alaska is a single yelloweye rockfish. Much of the effort for yelloweye rockfish comes from nonresident anglers, but residents do target them, he said. Nonpelagic rockfish will often occupy similar habitat to halibut, but avoiding fishing near rocky structures can help reduce the number of rockfish hooked by accident when fishing for them is closed, Chadwick said. “Fish in sandy areas, try to stay off rock structures,” he said. “That’s the main thing; if you’re fishing for halibut, some anglers find that fishing up in the water column, keeping it up off the bottom will reduce your harvest of rockfish.” The Southeast guide industry is increasingly losing options, with tighter restrictions on king salmon populations that are struggling to make escapement each year, a high likelihood of reduced halibut catch limits due to declining biomass, and now a complete nonpelagic rockfish closure. Lingcod, another popular species for sportfishing, is also fully allocated ad closely and is sustainable at present, Chadwick said. In a newsletter, the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization said it would ask ADFG to modify the emergency order closing the fishery to yelloweye only, allowing sportfishermen to target other nonpelagic rock species, given that it is the yelloweye abundance that has dropped so significantly. The organization will also petition the state to separate slope rockfish from the current “nonpelagic” definition in statute, according to the newsletter. While only Southeast has the complete closure, a new regulation went into place for sportfishing for rockfish statewide this year: deepwater release mechanisms. As of Jan. 1, every vessel headed out to sportfish — regardless of whether the anglers are targeting rockfish or not — must have a deepwater release mechanism on board. The devices allow rockfish brought up to the surface to be lowered back down to their native depths and released there, which has been shown to significantly improve survival rates; rockfish suffer from decompression when reeled to the surface, but if quickly lowered to depth and released, they show much better survival rates. Chadwick said the Southeast guide industry has been using the deepwater release mechanisms for years, so it’s nothing new for them, but the public is becoming more comfortable with them. A creel survey in Southeast Outside waters showed that about 80 percent of nonguided anglers polled had used a deepwater release mechanism at least once, he said. “We’re concentrating now on what (we missed) with those people who aren’t using them,” he said. “Really, an upside-down weight on a hook would work.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Marketing efforts paying off for Bristol Bay sockeye

In Alaska, Bristol Bay is nearly synonymous with sockeye salmon. But in the Lower 48, marketers are still trying to raise awareness for the brand and increase sales for the famously plentiful fish. So far, it seems like it’s been working. The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, a fleet-funded cooperative focusing on promoting and improving Bristol Bay seafood products, launched a new marketing program in 2016 to boost sales and awareness in the domestic market. After three years, the numbers seem to bear out that it is working: the organization reported a 34 percent sales lift for the 20 retailers across the U.S. in 2019. That sales lift refers to volume sold, said Executive Director Andy Wink. Participating retailers include Costco, Earth Fare, H-E-B, Harris Teeter, Market Basket, New Seasons Market, QFC, Raleys, Rouses, Rosauers and Wegmans; all told, across the 20 retailers, the program and product includes 1,600 stores nationally. BBRSDA has long been focused on improving quality of product, but after helping the fleet modernize to refrigerating product and emphasizing fillets instead of canning, the organization identified a marketing program as the next step, Wink said. Between 2008 and 2018, the percentage of filleted fish in the Bristol Bay fleet increased from 18 percent to 86 percent, in part subsidized by BBRSDA’s distribution of ice for the fleet and the promotion of refrigerated sea water cooling systems. “The time was right to create a marketing platform that could tell the amazing Bristol Bay story and communicate the special aspects of sockeye salmon from the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery to consumers in a really efficient way for industry,” Wink said in an email. “In a world with more and more farmed salmon being produced every year, this is a really special wild fish which shouldn’t be sitting on shelves as a generic product. We needed to explain the story and value to consumers.” The marketing program includes a variety of approaches, including negotiated discounts with retailers, in-store demonstrations, point-of-sale assets, digital marketing support, media support and some visits from Bristol Bay fishermen to talk with customers and staff, Wink said. “Consumers get more information, access to resources (recipes, prep tips, etc.) and discounted sale prices,” he said. “Retail partners sell more product and illustrate a commitment to offering premium, sustainable wild seafood. And the industry gets to sell product into a marketplace with a growing customer base, which has come at a perfect time coinciding with large sockeye runs in the Bay.” Bristol Bay fishermen have brought in near-record harvests of sockeye over the past two summers, with just short of 43 million landed in 2019, with a preliminary ex-vessel value of about $303.9 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. That large supply, in combination with marketing efforts, may be supporting increased consumer awareness of sockeye salmon specifically, said Caleb Wardell, the wild salmon category manager for Oregon-based retailer Pacific Seafood. “From my perspective, the demand for sockeye salmon is driven by a consistent supply in the last few years, coupled with the variety (of) forms in which it’s available: refreshed in the service counter, tray-packed in self-serve areas, and portions in the freezer,” he said. Salmon consumption is generally ticking up across the U.S. over the past several years. In 2017, Americans consumed about 16 pounds of fish and shellfish per capita, up from the previous year, with the majority of that consumption being shrimp and salmon. On average, Americans ate about 2.41 pounds of salmon per person that year, slightly up from the previous year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2017 Fisheries of the United States report. Though canned salmon consumption was up, fresh and frozen finfish still composed the greatest portion of the seafood Americans consumed, at 6.2 pounds. BBRSDA has commitments from retailers for 2020 already, according to a press release from the organization. So far, the Bristol Bay program has focused on promoting frozen sockeye, but in future expansions, it may expand to include more smoked sockeye, Wink said. It is also currently focused on domestic sales but will look to international sales, food service and other product forms in future years. BBRSDA will have a presence at Global Seafood Expo in Brussels this year and is working to coordinate with restaurants and other food service outlets in the future, Wink said. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute generally markets all Alaska-produced seafood, but in some regions, smaller organizations have been adding additional marketing efforts. BBRSDA markets for Bristol Bay; the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association focuses on seafood produced in Prince William Sound; the Norton Sound Economic Development Association focuses on products like red king crab harvested in Nome. Wink said the BBRSDA supports ASMI’s efforts to market all sockeye but that its program provides an opportunity to tell a more specific story. Wardell said the stories told by partners like ASMI and BBRSDA, particularly with marketing materials and photographs of Alaska, have been successful for retailers. “These consistent efforts excite consumers, leading to increased purchase of Alaska seafood, in this case, Bristol Bay Sockeye,” he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Hotly contested Cook Inlet board meeting looms

In less than a month, fisheries stakeholders from all over the Cook Inlet basin will get together to hash out how salmon should be split up in some of the most populated, heavily-fished streams and marine waters of the state. The Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting is the longest meeting in the Board of Fisheries’ regular cycle, lasting about two full weeks and addressing issues ranging from hook size in certain streams to management plan shifts for entire fisheries. They’re also notoriously contentious, with commercial and sport fisheries interests typically butting heads over how salmon are allocated and fishing time is provided. The Board of Fisheries will meet on Upper Cook Inlet proposals in Anchorage from Feb. 7-19 at the Egan Center. On-time public comments can be submitted through Jan. 23. The board will consider 171 different proposals related to commercial, personal use, sport and subsistence fisheries across the basin. Of those, 68 are directly related to sport or personal-use fisheries; 55 are directly related to commercial fishery management; a variety of others affect both, including changes to management plans or commercial fishery time and area regulations. Sportfisheries The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, is one of the most frequent visitors to board meetings. The organization, which advocates for salmon-related conservation projects on the western Kenai Peninsula and for policies affecting sportfisheries in Southcentral, submitted a number of proposals for the board, ranging from proposing increased sockeye salmon escapement goal numbers to a priority being established for fisheries that provide access for Alaskans to harvest salmon for personal and family consumption. After longtime executive director Ricky Gease stepped down to take over leadership at the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, Ben Mohr took over the Soldotna-based organization last March. The group’s proposals circulate around four main themes, he said: increasing access to personal-use fisheries in the Mat-Su Valley, strengthening the corridors to pass more fish north through Cook Inlet, increasing salmon passage into the freshwater systems, and strengthening the work of conservation across all user groups. Some of the group’s proposals overlap in purpose, Mohr said, as they aim at conservation and increasing access for anglers. One of the group’s proposals, No. 78, would set up a prioritization framework for the board to consider when making decisions, putting access to “the importance of each fishery to providing residents the opportunity to harvest fish for personal and family consumption” at the top. That lines up with the organization’s thematic goals, but isn’t the only one related to it, he said. “If you’ve got people that are putting in multiple proposals to the Board of Fish, they’re usually tied together,” he said. The personal-use priority proposal is a renewed version of a proposal the group supported during the Board of Fisheries’ statewide meeting this past March. The board shot the prioritization system down then, citing a lack of support from users. Mohr pointed out that the language of Proposal 78 does not specifically reference personal-use net fisheries, as Alaskans often use rod-and-reel fisheries to fill their freezers, too. That connects to another of the group’s proposals, No. 88, which would increase sockeye salmon in-river goal ranges, with varying levels based on the run strength. In the past, as more fish have returned to the river, the limiting factor has not been level of participation, Mohr said, it’s been access and bag limits. He pointed to the Russian River sportfishery, which boomed this summer and was limited by access along the Sterling Highway and parking. Several other proposals related to the sockeye salmon management plan make similar assertions, expressing frustration that commercial fishermen are allocated the majority of sockeye in Cook Inlet. Proposals 89, 90 and 96 ask for higher in-river sockeye salmon goal ranges and fewer commercial fishing hours available, and Proposal 94 asks for reduced commercial fishing hours in the Upper Subdistrict setnet fishery. Commercial fisheries Multiple sportfish-related proposals related to king salmon seek to pair closures in the Kenai River with closures in the commercial fisheries. At the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting, the board passed a set of regulations that restricted commercial fisheries based on whether the in-river fisheries were allowed to retain, used bait or not fish for king salmon at all. In 2017, the board trimmed back some of those restrictions on hours of additional fishing allowed after the setnet fleet complained that they were too restrictive; multiple proposals now seek to strengthen those paired restrictions again. Multiple others seek to scale them back, asserting that they are unfair burdens on the commercial fleet and strangle their ability to operate under their permits. Like many other Upper Cook Inlet meetings, the proposals for the upcoming one are back-and-forth. For nearly every change proposed to increase restrictions on commercial fisheries, there is a competing proposal from commercial fisheries to loosen existing restrictions, tighten restrictions on sportfisheries or strike a compromise between them. A number of proposals submitted by setnet fishermen would modify the paired restrictions or allow setnet fishing in some areas while others are restricted during king salmon restrictions on the Kenai River. The KRSA proposal would establish an Optimum Escapement Goal, or OEG, separate from the existing goals, for late-run kings and reduce the number of hours available to setnets when king salmon fisheries are less than fully prosecuted, with tiers depending on the level of restriction. Mohr said the goal is to spread the burden of conservation of king salmon, which have been struggling on the Kenai River for more than a decade, across all user groups. A separate proposal, No. 195, would change the effective date of a rule for commercial fishermen known as the “1 percent rule” from Aug. 7 to July 31 and increase the percentage to 2 percent. Essentially, if the proposal passes, after July 31, the commercial fishery in the Upper Subdistrict would close if any single period’s catch was less than 2 percent of the season’s total catch was taken for two consecutive periods. The goal is to limit take of coho salmon bound for the Kenai River, according to the proposal document. The United Cook Inlet Drift Association, or UCIDA, a trade association representing drift gillnet fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet, submitted Proposal 187 to eliminate the 1 percent rule on the drift fleet entirely. UCIDA President David Martin said the proposal is based on the fleet’s longtime belief that the 1 percent rule is unscientific and unfairly closes the fleet early, while there are still pink, chum and silver salmon available to be harvested in the inlet. It’s difficult for the fleet to deal with, even if there are plenty of salmon coming in, in part because participation drops off in August, he said. “It has no place in the management of the fisheries for harvesting the surplus and abundance,” he said. “I could be the only “one out there fishing and I could load my boat up, but if it’s not 1 percent, that’d be it. Similarly, UCIDA submitted a Proposal 102 to decrease the late-run sockeye salmon escapement goals on the Kenai River. The group has long asserted that the escapement goals are too high and set to allocate more fish to the sportfishery, resulting in poorer returns due to too many fish being allowed to return to the Kenai River system. Proposal 102 would require the department to manage to the lower end of the escapement goal — which would be set at 700,000 fish — in years immediately following years when the estimated return exceeds 1.03 million spawners in the Kenai River. A number of the proposals for the commercial drift gillnet fishery, such as proposals 123 and 126, seek to increase restrictions on fishing area to promote passage of salmon to the Susitna River and other northern Cook Inlet systems. Contrasting them, UCIDA submitted two proposals, Nos. 134 and 135, to add additional fishing periods for the drifters in Area 1, near the center of the Inlet, during the season. Martin said the managers have been meeting escapement goals for sockeye in the Susitna system, and that the main stock in trouble in the Valley — king salmon — isn’t under pressure by the drift fleet. Mohr said KRSA was interested in improving access to fisheries there, as businesses have shuttered and anglers have seen season after season of closures in recent years due to a lack of salmon passage into the valley streams. “I think we’ve made some good progress on passing more fish north,” he said. “(Mat-Su residents) are longing for more fish up there.” Martin said he hoped the board members would consider scientific research when making allocative decisions at the upcoming meeting. “I’m hoping they use the most reliable scientific data that’s available and make decisions based on abundance so we can harvest the surplus and make it a viable fishery for everybody,” he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

2020 Forecast: Bristol Bay still looks bright, but fishermen face cuts in cod, crab and halibut

Judging by the forecasts, 2020 could be an eventful year in Alaska’s commercial fisheries. Even though not all the forecasts and catch limits are rosy, there are some bright spots, such as an increased eastern Bering Sea snow crab total allowable catch and another promising forecast for Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. However, fishermen this winter are looking at tighter limits in some groundfish fisheries, particularly in the Gulf of Alaska. Bristol Bay Continuing its trend of the last few years, Bristol Bay’s salmon fishermen are looking at another bright forecast for 2020. Biologists are projecting a total inshore run of 46.6 million sockeye to return bay-wide, with a projected harvest of 36.91 million sockeye between the Bristol Bay and South Peninsula fisheries. If the point forecast pans out, it will be 6 percent more than the recent 10-year average. It would about 10 million fish less than the 2019 inshore run of 56.5 million sockeye, which produced a harvest of 43 million sockeye. However, the forecast in 2019 was for 38.7 million sockeye; the actual run blew away the preseason forecast by mid-July. All systems are projected to meet their escapement goals, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s preseason forecast. The Naknek-Kvichak District is forecasted to see a return of 19.97 million fish; the Egegik District, 10.75 million; the Ugashik District, 4.67 million; the Nushagak District, 12.63 million; and the Togiak District, 930,000 fish, according to Fish and Game. Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries are a different story. Harvest limits were cut again this past year, this time by 12 percent, with recruitment looking poor and continued declines in the number of crabs available for harvest. The crab is a high-value one for the fleet, but biologists have pointed to environmental factors as a contributor to the decline. Southeast Commercial fishermen in Southeast Alaska are looking at a weak pink salmon forecast for 2020, with an estimated 12 million fish forecasted to be available for harvest. That’s close to the bottom of the “weak” range of ADFG percentile categories, which ranges from 11 million to 19 million fish and only about a third of the recent 10-year average of 35 million fish harvested. It’s not entirely unexpected, with low numbers of juveniles detected in 2019. Biologists noted that pink salmon escapements in 2018, when fish would be laying eggs that would migrate out in 2019 and return in 2020, were very poor. Chum returns, which are largely of hatchery origin, look varied as well. While the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association is forecasting a total return of more than 3.9 million between the early and late runs, a similar number to what returned in 2019, Southern Southeast Aquaculture Association’s is a little more than 2 million, less than half the 4.5 million forecasted to return in 2019. Douglas Island Pink and Chum is predicting 1.98 million chum salmon to return, not even enough to meet DIPAC’s cost recovery requirements. After broodstock requirements, 1.7 million would be available for harvest, according to DIPAC’s forecast. “If 100 percent of the 2020 midpoint forecast is achieved there would still be a shortfall on cost recovery revenue,” the DIPAC forecast states. King salmon fishing opportunities have been increasingly restricted as well, with fewer kings returning and more needed to go upstream to meet the requirements of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada. The management strategy for Southeast kings is usually announced in the spring. The unknowns: Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet The 2020 salmon forecasts for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet have yet to be published. Prince William Sound saw a harvest of about 2.5 million sockeye, 49.3 million pink salmon and 5.3 million chum salmon in 2019, according to an ADFG season summary. The pink salmon harvest was smaller than the recent five odd-year average and about a quarter less than the forecasted harvest. The Copper River district in particular did well for sockeye, harvesting 1.27 million sockeye, about 28 percent more than the recent 10-year average and with fish clocking in at an average of 5.5 pounds, the largest in the last five years. Some of the reduced harvest may be due to environmental conditions this summer; Prince William Sound, like the rest of Alaska, saw record-high temperatures and record-low rainfall throughout much of July and August. As a result, pink salmon held in the marine waters and could not enter streams with flow too low to swim, and “significant prespawn mortality events were documented throughout PWS,” according to ADFG. Cook Inlet’s forecast will likely come into discussion during the upcoming Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting, scheduled for Feb. 7-19, 2020, in Anchorage. Last year, the sockeye forecast fell slightly short of the projection, but commercial fishermen were restricted from fishing because of concerns about Kenai River king salmon passage, which was too poor to achieve escapement. As a consequence, commercial fishermen lost fishing time, and the Kenai River sockeye salmon goal was exceeded in 2019. Groundfish The North Pacific Fishery Management Council set harvest levels known as total allowable catch, or TAC, for various groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands at its meeting in December, largely going with the recommendations of the Scientific and Statistical Committee. For the Gulf of Alaska, the pollock TAC is down by about 26,000 metric tons from 2019; sablefish are up by about 3,000 metric tons; and shallow-water flatfish are about level, up by about 1,500 metric tons. The major hit in the Gulf of Alaska is for Pacific cod. Due to declining biomass and low recruitments, the federal-waters fishery will close for 2020 in the Gulf. In the state waters in Cook Inlet, the guideline harvest level is set at 454,513 pounds, with 85 percent allocated to pot gear, according to ADFG. Jig gear, which is allocated 15 percent, will open Jan. 1 in Cook Inlet; pot gear will open Feb. 1. In Kodiak, the 2020 guideline harvest level, or GHL, in state-water cod fisheries is set at 1.52 million pounds, split equally between pot and jig gear. In Chignik, the 2020 GHL is set at 1.06 million pounds, with 90 percent allocated to pot gear; in the South Alaska Peninsula state-water fishery, the 2020 GHL is set at 2.12 million pounds, with 85 percent allocated to pots. In the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, the TACs for Pacific cod are also slightly down, but the limit for pollock is up in the Eastern Bering Sea: from 1.39 million metric tons to 1.42 million metric tons. Pollock TACs are level in the Aleutian Islands and Bogoslof. The sablefish TACs are slightly up in both the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. Halibut The 2020 catch limits for Pacific halibut are one of the biggest question marks as 2019 closes. Recent survey data presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission did not offer much hope for fishermen who have been seeing cuts in their fisheries over the past few years as halibut biomass continues to drop. The 2019 annual IPHC meeting brought a reprieve for fishermen, as the commission declined to lower catch limits despite data showing biomass declines in the stock, but this year’s data showed continued declining biomass, particularly in the Gulf of Alaska. The International Pacific Halibut Commission will set final 2020 catch limits at its upcoming meeting in February in Anchorage. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council passed a set of recommendations for ways to reduce the take in the charter fleet to help stay within smaller allocations, but the commercial quotas have yet to be set. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Halibut charter operators brace for more cuts in 2020

The continued decline of Pacific halibut stocks in Alaska’s waters is putting increasing pressure on the charter fleets in Southcentral and Southeast as they try to attract clients. Though the International Pacific Halibut Commission has yet to formally decide on catch limits for the various sectors, survey data discussed at the commission’s interim meeting in November indicates that catch limits are likely to go down to keep the stock within acceptable limits in the future. The Gulf of Alaska is down in particular, with fishermen there facing more restrictions in the future to maintain a healthy stock. Because the council won’t know what the sector allocations are until the first week of February, when the IPHC will meet in Anchorage, the council recommended a progressive set of recommendations for the charter fleet that become more restrictive as the catch limit goes down. In Area 2C, which covers Southeast Alaska, the measures begin with instituting a reverse slot limit with an upper limit fixed at longer than 80 inches and a lower limit increasing until the allocation is reached, and progress to closing some Wednesdays and decreasing the lower size limit until the allocation is reached. In Area 3A, which covers the central Gulf of Alaska, the situation is different because there isn’t as much information available to analyze what could be done to decrease the charter fleet harvest. Until more information is available, the council recommended maintaining status quo management measures with the addition of closed Tuesdays throughout the year and reducing the size of the second allowed fish on charter boards from 28 inches to 26 inches or less. The recreational charter fleet has its own allocation separate from the commercial fleet. While the Southeast Alaska charter fleet has fluctuated between more and less than its allocation, the Central Gulf of Alaska fleet has consistently exceeded its allocation. Participation has declined in Area 3A over the years but generally increased in Area 2C, said Sarah Webster, a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in a presentation to the council. “Effort has been increasing across 2C over the years, but was down in 2019,” she said. “The projection is for a small increase in 2020.” The Charter Halibut Management Committee, a stakeholder-run committee that offers advice to the council on how to manage the charter fleet, considered a variety of recommendations on how to work with the new information about the halibut stock, but the recommendations for the Gulf of Alaska were so low that no one quite knew how to proceed, Webster said. “The takeaway is that nobody expected the numbers to be nearly this low when (the Charter Halibut Management Committee) met back in October,” she said. Halibut numbers have been declining across the Pacific coast for several years, without any single known cause; environmental causes and fishing pressures have been linked to declining recruitment, and though there are some promising age classes showing in the data, they are too young to be included in the fishery yet. Southeast Alaska in particular has felt the pinch of the tightening regulations. The charter fleet there largely targets king salmon, silver salmon and halibut. King salmon have been in decline across the state since about 2007, with especially low numbers in some of the stream systems in Southeast Alaska. In order to meet the requirements of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada, fisheries managers have to provide a certain level of escapement, and with fewer fish coming back, that means less and less opportunity for Southeast Alaska’s salmon fishermen. Charter fishermen have been able to divert to fish halibut, but that’s becoming more of a struggle, said Forrest Braden, the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, a nonprofit representing sportfishing guides across the region. “It’s not the only front where they’re losing fish to market, but there’s no optimism,” he said. “They’ve only seen reductions.” Southeast Alaska has three major legs to its economy: commercial fishing, government and tourism. In recent years, cruise ship traffic has dramatically increased, with tourists looking for charter boats as excursions when they dock at Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Skagway, the four major cruise ship destinations. Many independent travelers also seek out guided trips as a way to either fill their freezers or for recreational purposes. Guides usually try to book in advance, but with the tightening regulations, they are seeing more cancellations, Braden said. This summer, though statistics say participation was up, guides are anecdotally reporting holes in their schedules, he said. “I think there’s recognition that each of the sectors have tipping points and that the charter fleet is at a tipping point,” he said. “I think the message was that we need to brace ourselves, because obviously, the IPHC forecast … is that the stock is going to continue to decline for the next couple of years.” There’s some hope coming in the form of the Recreational Quota Entity program, though, he said. The RQE program, developed through the North Pacific council and the National Marine Fisheries Service, would allow some commercial quota to be purchased by the charter fleet through an approved single entity to be used in a pool format as allocated quota for the charter fleets in areas 2C and 3A. Full implementation of the program is held up in Congress, though, with a logjam of conflicting interests within a bill and likely delayed by the ongoing impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. During the council meeting Dec. 7, members requested an update at the next meeting in February with current information about the status of the RQE program. Area 3A charter operators may be looking at some more stringent regulations, and those that testified to the council said they were concerned about the sustainability of the charter industry if they cannot adequately market trips. Council member and charter operator Andy Mezirow said the Advisory Committee is considering a variety of options to say within their allocation, but with the unexpectedly low numbers in the halibut survey sent to the IPHC, they needed more information before providing specific recommendations. “We would just really need to be able to weigh all the options to be able to go that far down,” he said. The IPHC’s annual meeting is scheduled to take place from Feb. 3-7, 2020, at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is scheduled meet the week before, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, 2020, in Seattle. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Stock decline leads to historic shutdown for Gulf P-cod

Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishermen will be keeping their gear dry this winter: The federal fishery has been closed for the 2020 season. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council decided to close the fishery due to concerns about historic low biomass shown in the latest stock assessment. The spawning biomass available in the fishery has declined to less than the threshold where it can sustain a directed fishery and natural predation from Steller sea lions, which depend on Pacific cod as a keystone prey species. The Gulf of Alaska cod stock has been declining for the last four or five years, with biologists drawing the connection to the increased water temperatures in the gulf since 2014. Warmer water conditions have led to lower abundance and fewer young cod in the population, according to the stock assessment. “Female spawning biomass is currently estimated to be at its second lowest point in the 42-year time series considered in this assessment following last year’s record low,” the assessment states. “This following three years of poor recruitment in 2014-16 and increased natural mortality during the 2014-2016 (Gulf of Alaska) marine heat wave.” Cod enter the fishery around three years old. While total biomass has been declining since 2014, it increased slightly in 2019 because of improved recruitment in 2017 and 2018. However, spawning biomass hit a cliff: survey results estimate about 32,957 tons for 2020, less than a third of what it was in 2014 and a historic low. This is below the 20 percent threshold for a fishery, and likely has been since the beginning of 2018, according to the stock assessment. The population may improve in future years as younger fish move into the spawning biomass, but the 2019 age class is expected to be very weak, and biologists don’t know whether the average recruitment rate will apply in the future, according to the assessment. The struggles of the stock have been linked to climate change more than excessive fishing. In 2014, the Gulf of Alaska experienced a major influx of warm water, linked to the El Nino event in the south Pacific. Sea surface temperatures remained above normal in a major section of the Gulf of Alaska for nearly two years afterward, earning the nickname “the blob.” As the blob began to dissipate, Alaska saw another heat wave beginning in September 2018, where sea surface temperatures again spiked from the Gulf to the Bering Sea. Increased sea temperatures can stress fish and have been linked to reduced spawning and recruitment success. Pacific cod, like most fish, are cold blooded. When the water temperature goes up, so do theirs, and their metabolisms along with it. That means they need to eat more, and it becomes easier for them to starve or stay smaller for longer if not enough food is available. “Based on knowledge gained from the 2014-16 heatwave, we consider this to be unfavorable for Pacific cod as the prolonged increased temperatures likely increased their metabolic demands as well as the metabolic demands of their groundfish predators,” the assessment states. “Although as of 1 November 2019 the heatwave appears to have ended 12 October, it is unknown whether these lower temperatures will persist, particularly given the … forecast for warm conditions throughout the North Pacific through the upcoming winter.” The Pacific cod fishery is valuable, both to fishermen and to processors. The fishery in the Gulf of Alaska is primarily shoreside based, unlike the mixed at-sea and shoreside fishery in the Bering Sea, and came in at about $70 million in e-vessel value in 2017, according to a economic status report from the National Marine Fisheries Service. However, stock concerns that year led the council to drop the total allowable catch limit by 80 percent, prompting then-Gov. Bill Walker to request a disaster declaration for the fishery. There isn’t much to say about the fact of the closure except that it’s not good news for the fishermen, said Malcolm Milne, president of the Homer-based North Pacific Fisheries Association. “Other than salmon, Pacific cod is the most important species to many Alaskan small boat fishermen especially in the winter when there are few other fisheries to substitute,” he said. The communities in the western Gulf of Alaska, such as Kodiak and communities in the Aleutians East Borough, depend on fisheries year-round to sustain themselves, both as fishermen and processors. The Aleutians East Borough sent a resolution to the council asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to “make every effort to allow” a western gulf fishery in 2020. The resolution states that fishermen have experienced good fishing for cod in the area and have been working on a voluntary catch share plan to help guarantee a season while not exceeding fishery limits. “Fishermen and communities have suffered under recent low Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod TACs, and the difference between a small cod fishery in 2020 and no fishery at all could mean the difference between the survival of our communities or those communities closing their doors,” the resolution states. In general, the Gulf Pacific cod harvest is much smaller than from the Bering Sea. In 2017, fishermen in Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands landed $178 million in ex-vessel value in Pacific cod, more than double the value of the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery in the same year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. There are significant markets for Pacific cod in both Europe and the United States, but much of the exported cod goes to China as headed and gutted fish for reprocessing and re-export. About 30 percent of Alaska’s cod production stays in the U.S., according to the stock assessment. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Uneven status of Pacific halibut revealed by annual data

Following the trend of the past several years, overall Pacific halibut biomass seems to be down again. The most recent stock assessment presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission for its interim meeting on Nov. 25-26 shows a coastwide decline in spawning biomass, though that decline isn’t even across all areas. That’s a continuation of a trend seen in stock assessments since 2015. Particularly, surveys have indicated lower numbers of halibut in the central Gulf of Alaska. According to the 2019 stock assessment, biologists estimate the spawning biomass at 194 million pounds. It’s not down by much overall, but the impact to regulatory areas isn’t evenly spread; the central Gulf of Alaska, or Area 3A, has been declining fairly steadily since 2004, while Areas 2 and 4 — from British Columbia southward and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, respectively — have seen increases in the same time period. “What you will see here shortly … is that we have mixed trends coastwide. However, (commercial catches per unit of effort are) relatively flat at the coastwide level, with some relatively brighter spots and some relatively not-so-good spots across the coast,” said Ian Stewart, the lead scientist on the IPHC’s stock assessment. “…We’re looking at a period of relatively low productivity for the Pacific halibut stock over the next three years.” All signs are pointing, as they have before, to lower fishing yields in order to maintain the target level of intensity on the stock. Overall Pacific halibut landings increased in 2019, coastwide, by a little more than 1 million pounds. That increase is in commercial, with reported mortality for subsistence and recreational fishing flat, according to figures Stewart presented to the IPHC. Each year, the IPHC surveys halibut in the management areas to gather data for a stock assessment that will inform the fishing limits set by the IPHC in February, prior to the next season’s opening. This year, the biologists also had new data to work with for the assessment to gather more information about the stock: sex. Female halibut are bigger, and have long been estimated to outweigh male fish in the commercial catch by weight, but with definitive data on sex distribution in commercial catches, biologists were able to establish exactly what proportion of the catch was male or female. The sex ratio information improves the IPHC’s understanding of the stock dynamics significantly, Stewart said. Coastwide, catches are coming in at 82 percent female on average by total number of fish. That’s much higher than they expected, he said. “We’ve always known that the commercial catch would be dominated by female by weight, because female Pacific halibut are much larger than males, but in terms of having 82 percent by number, that is quite a bit higher than we would have expected,” he said. In some areas, it’s higher. Area 4, which covers the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, the catch was 92 percent female. Areas C, D and E, the Central Bering Sea, were 97 percent female. “(The catch is) almost completely females in the Bering Sea fishery,” Stewart said. Pacific halibut are broadcast spawners, meaning the females carry the eggs and lay them into the water column, where they are fertilized by males. Biologists don’t think it takes that many males to sufficiently breed to keep up the stock. However, there isn’t a good tool for fishermen to exclusively target male halibut at present, Stewart said. In addition to having fewer halibut, their size at age has been declining as well. In the early 1990s, the average halibut weighed more than 30 pounds; since 2010-11, the average weight has been in the mid-20s. However, there may be some promise of better numbers down the road. The surveys track halibut age classes as well. To date, the cohort of 1987 — the fish born that year — have been one of the strongest contributors to catches across the coast. In more recent years, the 2005 cohort has dominated catches, and because halibut are multi-year fish, they can be represented for many years as the fish age. While some of the other cohorts have been weaker, scientists have been tracking the 2011 and 2012 age classes, which are now starting to show up in catches. Because they’ve been younger, they haven’t been contributing as much to the overall catches so far, but in the future, they may show up more. The cohorts aren’t as strong as the 2005 or 1999 age classes, but it is good news, Stewart said. One of the factors that biologists think affects recruitment among Pacific halibut is an environmental trend called Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO. PDO describes an environmental phenomenon in the North Pacific similar to the El Nino Southern Oscillation which can last years and describes an oscillation of sea surface temperature and pressure. When temperatures near the coast are higher and cooler in the interior, accompanied by below-average pressure, fishery biologists have noted that Pacific halibut tend to have better recruitment. The opposite is true when the temperatures are lower near the coast and higher near the interior, accompanied by above-average sea level pressures, recruitment tends to be lower. From 2007-13, the PDO value was described as negative, correlated with lower recruitment. Since 2014, the PDO has had a positive value, which may be mean better recruitment, but scientists won’t know for several years yet, Stewart said. The anomalously warm temperatures in the Bering Sea for the last two years may also play a part in Pacific halibut numbers in the future. For the last two years, scientists have noted extremely low sea ice cover in the Bering Sea, accompanied by much warmer sea surface temperatures than normal. This summer, residents and the National Marine Fisheries Service noted unusual sea bird and marine mammal die-offs, potentially correlated with ecosystem changes. There have already been some changes to the Pacific cod distribution, and scientists noted a “modest increase” in the density of Pacific halibut in the northern Bering Sea this summer, Stewart said. It’s hard to definitively say how the warmer temperatures and lack of sea ice will affect Pacific halibut, but scientists have their eyes on the Bering Sea, he said. “We don’t know if (the conditions) are bad yet, but they’re certainly different,” he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

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