The United Fishermen of Alaska are trying to revive the legislative discussion in Juneau about the vessel-based scallop limited entry program as managers and participants prepare for the new open access state-waters fishery that will open July 1.
In a Feb. 16 email, UFA Executive Director Julianne Curry wrote to members of the legislature that extending the limited entry program for scallops was a priority for UFA.
Curry cited economic concerns for the fleet, and sustainability issues in the fisheries, as reasons for continuing the program in her emails to the Legislature and to UFA board members.
Scallops are fished with dredges in Alaskan waters and many of the scallop beds cross the three-mile line that divides state and federal waters.
Previously, the fishery was managed jointly by state and federal entities.
This summer, the state-waters scallop fishery is slated to become open-access for the first time in just more than a decade after the previous vessel-based limited entry program was not renewed by the Legislature during the 2013 session due to concerns over consolidation.
The scallop fishery was the only vessel-based limited entry program in the state until the program expired Dec. 31, 2013.
Curry wrote in an email to the Journal that if the Legislature allowed one limited entry program to expire, it could set a precedent that would concern permit holders in other fisheries.
Last year, UFA passed a resolution supporting the program’s extension.
Curry was unavailable to elaborate on why it was a UFA priority, however, and referred questions to the Alaska Scallop Association’s Jim Stone, a UFA member.
The Senate passed Senate Bill 54 in 2013 extending the vessel-based limited entry programs for both scallops and Bering Sea hair crab for five years.
The Senate bill stalled in the House Fisheries Committee chaired by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, because of the concerns over consolidation in the scallop fleet under the limited entry program.
Eventually, SB 54 was added to a House bill that was previously expected to pass easily to extend funding for the Alaska Regional Development Organizations, also known as ARDORs.
With SB 54 attached, the ARDOR funding bill was not brought to a vote and both programs expired at the end of 2013.
Now, a conference committee is working on a version of the legislation that would extend the hair crab program and reauthorize the ARDORs, but leave out scallops and keep the state waters as an open access fishery.
The committee held its third hearing Feb. 19, and moved a bill to reinstate the hair crab permits and ARDOR program.
Stone, however, attributes the failure to extend the program last year primarily to one legislator: Seaton of Homer.
“No basis for ending the program was found by CFEC, ADFG or the Senate with an 18-1 vote in favor to extend the licenses. Rep Seaton knows full well the votes to extend the vessel licenses are on house floor, so he uses (abuses) his power as Chair and refuses to allow the fishermen a fair vote,” Stone wrote in an email (Editor’s note: Stone’s statement included the word abuses in parentheses).
“If one man on an anti-scalloper jihad can single handedly burn one fishery’s permits, despite overwhelming support, whose permits are safe? This should scare the hell out of all fishermen across the state.”
Open-access regs developed
Meanwhile, fishery managers and participants have been preparing for the new open-access fishery.
The Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, or CFEC, issued new regulations for the fishery in the fall, and has begun issuing interim-use permits to interested skippers.
Under the new program, separate permits are required for state and federal waters, and separate fish tickets will be required for the two areas.
As of Feb. 18, five participants had received permits for the 2014 state-waters fishery. Of those, just two are new to the state-waters fishery. The other three hold permits in federal waters. Stone said that only one is a member of the Alaska Scallop Association, and additional participants in that group will also be applying.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is also working on its management efforts.
In January, the Board of Fisheries approved a management plan drafted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that calls for vessel registration and provides regulations for the open-access fishery.
Even if the legislature takes action to extend the scallop program, that will have to be reconciled with the new regulations.
The newly-approved Board of Fisheries management plan will remain in place until the board takes action to rescind it, wrote ADFG’s Division of Commercial Fisheries Deputy Director Forrest Bowers in an email.
On the CFEC side, the language in the original bill to extend scallops had a retroactivity provision, and would nullify the new interim-use permits and re-instate the old regulatory framework, wrote CFEC’s Benjamin Brown in an email.
Despite the new regulations, ADFG is still figuring out the specifics of management for the fishery.
Bowers said the department will formulate its management approach based on the number of vessels registered to participate.
Registration opened Feb. 20, with an April deadline.. That will give the department an idea of the maximum participation in the fishery.
ADFG’s preferred approach is to have a guideline harvest level, or GHL, fishery in tandem with the federal fishery, Bowers said. That, he expects, would be managed similarly to past years with in-season catch reporting and daily tracking of the harvest.
Generally, the dredges used are pretty easy to pull out of the water, so the fishery can be managed close to the limit with a quick closure, Bowers said.
If for some reason it appears a GHL fishery isn’t feasible, ADFG’s options include setting a fishery closure date when it opens to limit the season length, or closing the fishery entirely. That’s the worst-case scenario, he said.
Until vessel registration is completed, however, it’s hard to judge what participation will look like.
“I don’t think there will be any fewer boats scallop fishing,” Bowers said.
That worries UFA.
“Scallop harvest levels are so low that simple economics will not allow more vessels to harvest,” Curry wrote in her email to the Legislature.
The original limitation program allowed for nine vessels to participate. Fewer participate now, due to consolidation and relinquished state permits.
Stone wrote that an open-access fishery could also result in higher tanner crab bycatch.
“If participants do not cooperate to avoid pockets of crab, then areas could be closed before scallop gets caught, costing crews and the State … The current participants currently work together and communicate to avoid crab, we can move to the federal side where there might not be any crab,” Stone wrote.
“The open access fishermen will fish as fast as they can irregardless of crab bycatch. The current fishermen have years of learned experience, new fishermen will not know the beds, will not rig their equipment to it optimal ability and will need to make many more tows to catch the same amount.”
Bowers said the potential exists for the scallop fishery to shut down due to hitting the crab bycatch cap more quickly, but couldn’t say how likely it is without knowing how many vessels are participating this year.
The current crab bycatch limits reflect a concern for the crab stock, and will still be used, Bowers said. Most likely, ADFG will partition the limits between state and federal waters, and manage the state fishery with the state-waters portions of the limits.
In recent years, the scallop fishery has shut down once before the GHL was reached because the crab bycatch limit was reached, Bowers said. However, that is not a common occurrence. Whether or not that’s likely to happen under the open-access program will depend on the number of vessels participating in the fishery, he said.
With a smaller cap and relatively high fishing effort, closure could be possible, but it’s not a certainty. However, it is in the fleet’s best interest to avoid crab bycatch and keep the fishery open, Bowers said.
Stone also had concerns about product quality.
“The current co-op vessels freeze onboard within four hours of capture, locking in the sweet flavor the Weathervane is prized for,” he wrote. “They take their time and ensure a 5-star product is being made. New vessels racing for scallop will most likely tear the meats, put scallops on ice where they will soak in water and drastically loose their famous flavor. This could degrade the Weathervane Scallop name in the culinary markets again costing crews and the State.”
In the past, some state-waters participants have delivered fresh scallops and permit holder Max Hulse of Eagle River has told the legislature he would deliver fresh scallops again in the future if he returns to the fishery.
Fishermen gearing up for scallops
Stone said that the vessels fishing for ASA will continue their voluntary co-operative structure but new entrants may behave differently.
So far, the two new entrants are Alaskans with a history in state waters. Matthew Alward and Don Lane, both Homer residents, each said they’re interested in participating in the new open access fishery, which is why they applied for IUPs.
Alward has fished for scallops on the F/V Kilkenny in the past. He has a seiner, and said he didn’t know if it would be feasible to fish for scallops on his vessel, but that since the fishery is open access, he thought he might as well try for it. The details of observer coverage, a low GHL and other challenges could ultimately prevent him from fishing, however, he said.
The other new participant is Lane, a commercial fisher who longlines for halibut and tenders salmon on his 60-foot steel boat, the F/V Predator. Like Alward, he’s not certain that he will fish scallops. It will depend on the season dates and how some of the details work out, he said.
Regardless of whether he fishes, Lane has been involved in discussions about how to manage the new fishery at the Board of Fisheries level. Scallops could provide “shoulder season opportunity” to fishers getting started, Lane said.
“I wanted to be part of the process of creating another opportunity for coastal Alaska to participate in a fishery,” he said.
Lane also has a history with scallops. In 1992 or ‘93, he said he had plans to fish for scallops with a friend. At the last minute, however, they changed their plans after getting back from longlining. He went to Southeast to fish a black cod opening with his boat, which already had gear ready, and his friend stayed for the scallops.
That changed the course of their fishery participation, and when limited entry was instituted — “he got a scallop permit, and I didn’t,” Lane said.
Lane also helped the Homer Advisory Committee develop Cook Inlet scallop fishery management in the 1990s, including requirements that made it a small-boat fishery, such as the dredge size limit, he said.
“We spent a lot of time working on that fishery,” he said.
When the federal management plan was implemented, however, the Cook Inlet fishery was absorbed into that, and it took opportunity away from the small boat fishermen, Lane said.
The consolidation that occurred under the limited-entry program didn’t sit well with everyone, Lane said. Now he’s glad to see it revert to open-access and help structure it again.
“I’m grateful for that opportunity,” he said.