Fisheries

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]

FISH FACTOR: Winter fisheries set to ramp up; GM labels coming in 2020

Alaska’s seafood industry will be “open for business” starting Jan. 1 when some of the biggest fisheries get underway long before the start of the first salmon runs in mid-May. Cod will begin it all in the Bering Sea, which has a 305.5 million-pound catch quota, down about a million pounds from 2019. Less than 6 million pounds of codfish will come out of the Gulf. A 400,000-pound Tanner crab fishery at Kodiak starting on Jan. 15 will be helpful to a town whose economic bottom line will be badly battered by the Gulf cod crash. But it will be the opening of Alaska pollock on Jan. 20 that will keep Kodiak’s processing workforce on the job, along with many other Gulf and Bering Sea communities. The Gulf of Alaska pollock catch took a slide to about 250 million pounds, a drop of more than 57 million pounds from 2019. Conversely, the Bering Sea will produce more than 3 billion pounds of Alaska pollock this year, a 2 percent increase. Mid-January is also around the time when Bering Sea crabbers will get serious about pulling up snow crab. That quota is nearly 34 million pounds, a 24 percent increase from last season. Southeast Alaska crabbers will drop pots for golden king crab and Tanner crab on Feb. 17. In recent years, those harvests have been in the 76,000- and 1 million-pound range, respectively. Halibut fisheries will open to more than 2,000 Alaska longliners in March. Catches will be announced by the International Pacific Halibut Commission in early February. Also coming in the spring: roe herring fisheries with some jaw dropping harvests. At Sitka Sound, a catch quota of 25,824 tons is double the 2019 limit when the fishery was called off for the first time in decades due to the small size of the fish. Managers predict heftier herring next spring, saying the forecasted 2020 age-4 herring population is “extremely high.” “The 2020 forecast is larger than the estimated 2019 mature biomass of 130,738 tons and is greater than any forecast previously estimated for Sitka Sound herring,” said a release by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. At Alaska’s biggest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay, a whopping 38,749-ton harvest is forecasted. Up next for the state Board of Fisheries is Kodiak, where it will meet Jan. 11-14. The seven-member board sets the rules for subsistence, commercial, sport, and personal use fisheries and takes up issues by region every three years. Thirty-six Kodiak proposals are on the docket. Murkowski: Name it or no sale Makers of Frankenfish have changed their tune now that labeling their product is about to become law. In a $1.4 trillion appropriations bill passed by Congress two weeks ago to avoid another government shutdown, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski slipped in a rider that will require “a clear, text-based label” that tells customers they are buying “genetically engineered” fish. The manmade fish, first created in 1989 by Massachusetts-based Aqua Bounty Technologies, replaces a growth hormone gene in Atlantic salmon with one from a Pacific chinook, and combines it with antifreeze proteins from an ocean pout, giving it the ability to survive in near-freezing waters. The tweak enables the GM salmon to grow year-round, nearly three times faster than normal fish. The salmon are grown at a land-based facility in Indiana. The labeling rule is a final hurdle for AquaBounty to sell its salmon in the U.S. The push has been two decades in the making; with approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2015 the “AquaAdvantage” fish now is set to go to market by late 2020. AquaBounty called Murkowski’s push for labeling “vague” and “unnecessary” and said it was a “misguided attempt to single out a small, innovative company to protect special interests,” adding in a release that the rider only benefits “Chilean and Norwegian companies that currently export more Atlantic salmon to the U.S. than any American company produces.” That’s a change of tune from October when AquaBounty embraced the Frankenfish name at a conference in Washington, D.C., likening it to the Frankenstein monster in the book written in 1817, and calling opponents an “uneducated mob” that “didn’t understand the benefits of the science.” Then, company CEO Sylvia Wulf applauded the push for labeling. “We think that’s really good news for us. The market will be awash in so many bioengineered products, customers won’t focus on our fish,” Wulf said at the time, adding “buyers are already lined up to get it.” That sounds like a tough sell. Nearly 2 million Americans opposed the FDA’s approval of Frankenfish and 60 major grocery chains with 9,000 locations pledged not to sell it, including Safeway, Kroger, and Target. Meanwhile, Jeremy Woodrow, director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said it’s just another type of farmed fish. “Honestly, here at ASMI we see that as just another farmed seafood product, and we’ve been competing against farmed salmon in the marketplace for several decades now. Wild, natural, sustainable – those are attributes that really only apply to Alaska salmon, wild-harvested salmon and that sets us apart in the marketplace, and those are the attributes that we’ll continue to sell to customers.” In a touch of irony, while AquaBounty plans to expand its sales to China and South America, it has no plans to pitch its Frankenfish to Europe because of “their anti-GM leanings.” Bristol Bay goes galactic! The famed Nushagak and Mulchatna Rivers are now named in the cosmos as an intergalactic star and exoplanet (planets that are outside of our solar system that revolve around other stars instead of the sun). The International Astronomical Union chose the names that were submitted by Ivory Adajar, a Bristol Bay fisherman and member of the Curyung Tribal Council. Adajar’s winning entries topped a field of nearly 900 entries in the competition and were announced in Paris on Dec. 17. She chose the name Nushagak for a star and Mulchatna for an exoplanet, Adajar said, “after earth’s greatest wild salmon river ecosystems that resemble the nature of the exoplanet’s orbit,” she told the Cordova Times, adding, “Our wild salmon are known for their wiggly, eccentric paths out to the ocean and back to fresh water. We might not have this natural habitat and rich fisheries in the future but we can have the star and exoplanet in honor of Alaska’s rich salmon culture and heritage.” “After winning this great honor,” she added, “I plan to use it as a platform to help educate youth and others about our beautiful starry sky above and the rich natural ecology of our Earth below.” Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

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]

FISH FACTOR: ADFG gives go-ahead for small state waters cod fishery

They say good things come in small packages and that’s the case for Alaska cod fishermen heading into the new year. A small cod fishery will occur in Gulf state waters (out to three miles) for 2020, putting to rest speculation that no cod would be coming out of the Gulf next year. A catch quota of about 5.6 million pounds, down from 10.2 million pounds, will be split among five regions: Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Kodiak, Chignik and the South Alaska Peninsula, with limitations on gear and staggered openers. That will be a relief to thousands of Alaskans whose jobs are tied to the fishing industry. Unlike other coastal communities that run on summer salmon, P-cod typically kicks off fishing on New Year’s Day in many fishing towns and keeps workers busy at seafood processing, transports, fuel docks, grocery stores, repair shops and other businesses throughout the year. It didn’t make the mainstream press but in an unprecedented move earlier this month, fishery managers shut down cod fisheries for 2020 in Gulf federal waters (from three to 200 miles) due to a collapse of the stock from “(un)natural causes.” The fish were clobbered by a three year heat wave starting in 2014 that raised water temperatures by as much as 5 degrees. The shift hurt several cod year classes and their offspring by throwing their metabolism and diets off kilter. Cod numbers decreased from nearly 250.5 million pounds in 2014 to less than 30 million pounds in 2018 and surveys this year showed more declines. “Think of no salmon returns to Bristol Bay. Or a shutdown of pollock for the ‘A’ Season in the Bering Sea. This is the kind of seismic impact the changes in climate have wrought with cod,” John Sackton, founder of SeafoodNews.com, wrote it his Winding Glass column titled “Lack of Cod killing Alaskan Communities, as State and Council Punt on any Relief.” When making their decisions, fishery managers must consider other cod-dependent users. By law, strict apportionments must accommodate the diet of sea lions, a protected species. “The closure they’ve announced this year is not because of overfishing or a stock collapse. It’s really because of federal mitigation measures for Steller sea lions,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. The state cod fisheries are determined by surveys and stock models done by federal overseers who then break out the catch among all Alaska fishing regions and gear types. While some fishermen questioned the opener, suggesting it would be best to “let the Gulf cod rest a bit,” Vincent-Lang defended the decision and called it a “balancing act.” “This decision is a carefully thought out and conservative approach to recognize the balance between conservation and Alaska’s right to manage our own resources. We are confident that we’ve struck that balance in this decision and will be monitoring to avoid over harvest yet provide our fishermen the opportunity to fish,” he wrote in an email. Gov. Mike Dunleavy added in a statement that he trusts ADFG to monitor and manage the fishery in a way that avoids overharvest and yet provides an opportunity to fish and provide tax revenues for fishing towns. Around 225 boats of all sizes fish for cod in the Gulf of Alaska, including trawlers, longliners, pot boats and jiggers, each an independent business supporting several families. The Gulf cod outlook is grim with surveys showing very few tiny cod in the water. Worse, an even hotter blob appears to be on the horizon, said Steve Barbeaux, a scientist with NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center. The future is getting harder to predict, said Nat Nichols, area groundfish manager at ADFG in Kodiak, because decades of robust data used to assess the stocks no longer apply. “All of a sudden all the data you collected in the ‘80s and ‘90s about how ocean conditions affect certain stocks start to become a lot less useful for making predictions because it’s so different than anything we’ve seen,” Nichols said. “If you’re trying to compare ocean conditions this year and make a forecast for next year, that works pretty well if you’ve seen these conditions before. But if you haven’t, it starts to fall apart pretty quick.” Pacific cod is Alaska’s second largest groundfish catch by volume topping 510 million pounds in 2018 (a 22 percent decrease from 2017), according to an economic status report by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council plan team. The combined dockside value of Bering Sea and Gulf cod catches in 2018 totaled $225 million, reflecting a 59 percent drop in the Gulf to just $29 million. There will be a 2020 cod fishery in the Bering Sea of 305.5 million pounds, down by nearly a million pounds. Fishing futures The Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit since 2007 has helped build a sustained network of fishing operations across the state and the next gathering is set for Jan. 21-23 in Juneau. The AYFS, sponsored by Alaska Sea Grant, will have drawn over 500 attendees after the Juneau event, said Sunny Rice, a Sea Grant marine advisor at Petersburg who has helped organize eight summits over 12 years. “I’m starting to feel like we are influencing a generation a little bit,” she said, adding that it’s a fast-paced three days of learning and networking. “We start by giving new entrants into commercial fisheries the opportunity to meet each other so they can connect, and then they meet people who have been established in the industry for a long time and glean information from them.” The summit focuses on three themes, with an emphasis on the business of running a fishing operation. How Alaska seafood fits into the global picture is another topic, Rice said. That will include the views of the PCC Market group, the nation’s largest consumer owned food cooperative based in Seattle since 1953. “Their focus is on sustainability and they love Alaska seafood,” Rice said. The summit also digs into the fishery regulatory process. “How do you participate in the Board of Fisheries, what do you need to know when a decision is being made at the council level that impacts your business?” she explained. “How you can get on your local harbor board, be a part of your (Regional Seafood Development Association) or your (Community Development Quota group) or your local Fish and Game Advisory Committee.” A changing climate’s impacts on fisheries also is on the agenda and Rice said she’s surprised at how many fishermen now call it their top concern for the future. The Juneau event also let’s summit-goers meet with Alaska legislators at the start of the session. Discounts apply for sign ups through January 7th. AMSEA also is offering a free Fishing Vessel Drill Conductor class in conjunction with the Summit. AK Young Fishermen’s Almanac Personal glimpses that chronicle the fishing life make up the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Almanac and Volume 2 is available now. The 124-page book contains 50 submissions from across Alaska. “The almanac serves as a cultural touchstone for a community that not a lot of people outside of that community can find a window into. For people who fish it’s a really great community builder. And people who don’t can get a window into this livelihood and why it’s important and worth preserving,” said Jamie O’Connor of Homer, a fisherman who heads the working waterfront and young fishermen’s programs for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. The first almanac last year was so popular it covered the costs for Volume 2 and it may go to a second printing. “Last time there were lots of really cool photos and this time we still got great photos, but a lot more original art and written pieces which is really exciting,” O’Connor said.” The Almanac is modeled after a publication for farmers that dates back to 1792. Find the AK Young Fishermen’s Almanac at local stores, community events and online at www.akmarine.org . ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

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]

FISH FACTOR: Seaweed farming continues to expand with training grant

Weed is set to give a big boost to Alaska’s blue economy! The interest in growing seaweeds in Alaska is gaining momentum and training more farmers is the goal of a program starting next February in Kodiak, Sitka and Ketchikan. The training is phase two of the 2014 Alaska Mariculture Initiative that aims to grow a $100 million industry in 20 years. “We’re doing this training because there is immense interest from coastal communities and commercial fishermen,” said Riley Smith, development director with the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, or AFDF, which helped spearhead the mariculture push. The training program is funded by a $287,646 grant by the federal Saltonstall-Kennedy program for two years. Alaska’s first kelp farm permits were issued in 2016 at Kodiak and now 21 growers have added dulce, nori and sea lettuce to their macroalgae startup menus. The fledgling kelp harvest has gone from 16,000 pounds in 2017 to nearly 90,000 pounds last year, nearly all from Kodiak. Growers were paid 45 cents per pound for sugar kelp and 90 cents for ribbon kelp for crops with a six-month turnover. (Check out the pasta products made from Kodiak kelp at www.blueevolution.com). Through 2019, Alaskans have applied for more than 2,000 acres of new or expanding undersea farms, double the footprint from two years ago, according to Cynthia-Pring Ham, aquatic farming coordinator at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game which issues the permits. ADFG partners with the Department of Natural Resources, which leases the lands where aquatic farming takes place. “In 2016 the state only received four applications for aquatic farms, and in 2017, 2018 and 2019, they received 16, 17 and 14 applications for a total of 47 in three years,” Smith said. “And it’s important to note that all of these applications were for oysters, seaweed or both.” “It’s a really good fit with our existing fishery infrastructure,” Sam Rabung, director of the ADFG Commercial Fisheries Division, said in a previous conversation. “We have an ocean workforce of fishing communities, vessels, fishermen, processors that in many cases get used in a kind of boom and bust manner. This gives an additional shoulder to a season.” Rabung, who began researching kelp in Japan in the 1980s and has worked in salmon enhancement and mariculture in Alaska for over 35 years, called diversification into seaweed farming “the biggest change to the industry I’ve seen in the last five years.” “I can’t see a single downside to it,” he said. “The giant kelp that we’re focusing on in Alaska right now, the brown algae, provides everything from food to nutritional supplements to feed supplements for animals, to biofuels, soil amendments and everything in between.” Now it’s time to prime more Alaskans to accelerate seaweed farming around the state. “The purpose of the training is to provide the tools to Alaskans to start their own farms,” Smith said. Ten applicants will be accepted for each training region and combined with online webinars and two-day onsite visits, they will cover a lot of ground from identifying seaweed species to navigating the permit process to business plans and harvesting techniques. Information and instruction will be provided by GreenWave, Alaska Sea Grant, DNR, ADFG, Blue Evolution, OceansAlaska, AFDF and others. The training sessions are free and food and materials are provided, but participants must pay for their own travel and lodging if they live out of town. The most promising six growers will be selected for two year mentoring. “One of the important things we hope to get out of this is more quality applications to DNR. So, the education on site selection and the application process is going to be a huge part of this,” Smith said. “The way our statutes are written aquatic farming is the lowest priority use of coastal waters,” Rabung explained. “When we review a farm permit, we’re looking at its compatibility with existing uses as one of the criteria, such as fisheries. We can’t put farms in places that are traditional seine hook offs or troll drags or dive fisheries or subsistence harvest areas. So we have to do all these reviews and see if we can find ways to reconfigure a footprint or adjust its siting to make sure that things are compatible.” Applicants also must be aware of navigational hazards and marine mammal haul outs when they are siting their farms. As the fledgling algae industry develops, state planners are encouraging some growers to form clusters to “really get things going.” “Getting a larger number of farms concentrated around a hub area to get the synergy to create that critical mass and reduce the cost of logistics, transports, and support services that the farms need,” Rabung explained. “We need it to become a company, an industry. That’s where the state will see its biggest benefit.” So far two Alaska processors, Ocean Beauty and Silver Bay Seafoods, are involved in the new industry. “They need to know there is enough steady volume to make sure it’s worthwhile,” Rabung added. Smith said the emerging mariculture industry has strong interest and support from Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy. “I think that the administration sees the potential for providing jobs to Alaska and diversifying economies in coastal communities,” he said. Applications for the seaweed farm training sessions are due to AFDF by December 20th. Apply online at www.afdf.org or contact [email protected] Seaweed at Sand Point and beyond Sand Point will be home to Alaska’s farthest west seaweed startup beginning next year. With an assist by Alaska Sea Grant and the Aleutians East Borough, growers plan to test run two different kelp species and harvest them in the spring of 2021. “Our hope is that we can develop an innovative type of farm that can withstand our weather conditions,” said Melissa Good, a Sea Grant agent in Unalaska, speaking to KFSK in Petersburg. “We are living within an extreme environment; they call it the birthplace of the winds for a very good reason. So, we need to show that this can be done here.” “People also are calling from St. Paul and St. George in the Bering Sea,” said Julie Decker, AFDF executive director. “They want to know what they need to do to get started.” The is projected to top $22 billion by 2024, with human consumption as the largest segment. Growers in Maine fetch 50 to 60 cents per pound for edible grades; their rock weed crop brings in $20 million per year. Chile estimates a kelp industry would bring in $540 million annually. And Japan’s $2 billion nori industry is one of the world’s most valuable crops. Seaweed also benefits the planet by absorbing five times more carbon from the atmosphere than land-based plants. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

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]

Opposite forecasts for SE pinks, Bristol Bay reds; Cook Inlet busts

Biologists are forecasting another weak pink salmon year for Southeast and another strong sockeye salmon run for Bristol Bay coming in the 2020 season. The forecasts for Southeast Alaska and for Bristol Bay, released in late November, continue the trends of the past few years in both areas. In Southeast, biologists are forecasting about 12 million fish to be harvested, with a range of 7 million to 19 million fish. That’s in the second-lowest forecast percentile, or just more than 20 percent of the fishery’s historic volume. A harvest of 12 million would be about a third of the region’s recent 10-year average harvest, according to the forecast. The forecast number, produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Auke Bay Lab in Juneau in collaboration with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Southeast regional hatcheries, is calculated from surveys of juvenile pink salmon in June and July in northern Southeast Alaska waters. The survey data from 2019 turned up the third-lowest index in the last 23 years, according to the forecast. “The low juvenile abundance index in 2019 was not unexpected. Pink salmon escapements in the parent year (2018) were very poor throughout northern Southeast Alaska inside waters and the escapement goal was not met in that subregion, which may have resulted in below optimal egg deposition,” the forecast states. “Escapement and harvest of pink salmon in the Northern Southeast Inside subregion have been very poor since 2012 and the 2020 forecast indicates this pattern is likely to continue.” Though escapement goals were met in the Southern Southeast and the Northern Southeast Outside regions in 2018, harvests were poor there as well. The reason for the low abundance in the 2019 survey isn’t clear, but it could be due to poor freshwater survival conditions or poorer marine conditions, leading to higher mortality, the forecast states. Drought conditions also lasted from 2018 into spring 2019 in Southeast. The juveniles caught in the survey were all large and healthy-looking, the forecast states, but so were the juveniles from 2014-16, when the returns were also less than average. The summer’s unusually warm and dry conditions may also have an effect, as well as the anomalously high sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska. “The impact of warm sea surface temperatures on the survival of pink salmon that went to sea in 2019 is unknown and adds uncertainty,” the forecast states. Southeast Alaska has had a series of poor pink salmon harvests for the past few years. In 2019, fishermen landed an estimate 21.1 million pink salmon for a total ex-vessel value of $23.7 million, according to a preliminary season summary from Fish and Game. The fish weighed an average of 3.68 pounds. Pink salmon are Southeast’s major volume fishery, but the fish are worth significantly less than other salmon fisheries. Chum, which are significantly larger, came in at an average weight of 7.99 pounds in Southeast. A total of 8.4 million of them landed came to about $37.5 million in ex-vessel value, according to ADFG. The total salmon ex-vessel value of $101 million in 2019 in Southeast was about $32 million less than the total 2018 value, with the shortfall mostly in chums. Bristol Bay Bristol Bay, on the other hand, is predicted to see another better than-average run. The forecast of 48.95 million sockeye is about 6 percent better than the recent 10-year average. If the prediction comes true, it would be yet another big year for Bristol Bay, which has broken harvest and value records for sockeye two years running. The 2018 season brought an estimated 62.5 million sockeye home to the rivers of Bristol Bay; the 2019 season brought more than 50 million. A run of 48.95 million sockeye would allow for a harvest of 36.9 million fish, with 34.56 million in the bay and 2.35 million in the South Peninsula fisheries, according to the forecast. As always, biologists warn caution when reading forecasts, as they may not be accurate, particularly for individual rivers. “Forecasting future salmon returns is inherently difficult and uncertain,” the forecast states. “We have used similar methods since 2001 to produce the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon forecast which have performed well when applied to Bristol Bay as a whole.” Another bust year for Cook Inlet Upper Cook Inlet’s salmon fishermen had another disappointing season, with only 2.1 million salmon landed. That’s about 37 percent less than the recent 10-year average. That brought in a total of about $18 million in ex-vessel value, which is about 40 percent less than the recent 10-year average in the fishery, according to ADFG season summary released Nov. 25. It’s better than the 2018 season, when fishermen in the area only landed about 1.3 million salmon total, about 815,000 of which were sockeye. The sockeye showed up erratically late in 2018, throwing management procedures for a loop and frustrating fishermen. This year, the fish were an estimated two days late, but both the Kasilof River and Kenai River sockeye salmon escapement goals were exceeded in part because of restrictions on commercial fishermen due to weak Kenai River late-run king salmon numbers. The sockeye salmon harvest of about 1.7 million was the second-smallest in the last decade, according to the season summary. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Salmon permits fluctuating based on 2019 harvests

The value of Alaska salmon permits has ticked upwards in regions that experienced a good fishery this year while others have tanked. Not surprisingly, the record sockeye fishery at Bristol Bay has boosted sales of driftnet permits to nearly $200,000, up from the mid-$170,000 range prior to the 2019 season. Another strong run forecast of 48.9 million sockeyes for 2020 with a projected harvest of 36.9 million could increase the value even more, said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. What’s really raising eyebrows, Bowen said, is values for driftnet permits at Area M (False Pass) on the Alaska Peninsula where lots of people want in and not many want out. “We sold one at $235,000 which is amazing; $40,000 more than a Bay permit,” Bowen said. Listings by other brokers reflect the same trend with Area M seine permits also commanding more than $180,000. Wanting in are fishermen at Cook Inlet where another poor season has seen the value of driftnet permits plummet. “They got up as high as $40,000 before the season, we’ve sold a couple at $28,000 and they are down around $25,000 to $26,000,” Bowen said. “You have folks in Cook Inlet that have hung on for years and they’re trying to get out and go to Area M or Bristol Bay where they can hopefully make a living.” At Kodiak, which had a strong 2019 fishery, the value of seine permits value increased for the first time in many years from $30,000 to $40,000. The Kodiak fishery produced more than 36 million salmon, well better than the 10-year average of 21 million fish, of which nearly 33 million were pinks. The value to fishermen was nearly $46 million compared to the recent 10-year average of $38 million. A fleet of 176 seiners accounted for most of the harvest with each averaging $227,552 per permit, an increase of $80,000 versus 2018. Conversely, at Prince William Sound seine permit values remain lackluster in the $175,000 range with drifts upwards of $145,000. The estimated preliminary dockside value of the total salmon harvest was nearly $114 million, an increase of about $19 million from 2018. Contrary to expectations, Southeast Alaska had a disappointing salmon fishery that has put a downward press on permit prices. “With the preseason optimism there, the Southeast drift was around $90,000 to $92,000. We have one now at $87,000 so that’s a lower asking price than what the preseason sales were. But there is no action there,” Bowen said, adding that Southeast seine cards are holding at $230,000 also with little activity. Southeast’s 2019 salmon fishery was valued at less than $102 million compared to nearly $134 million in 2018. Meanwhile, the Panhandle is projected to see pink salmon numbers catches plummet next summer. State fishery managers are forecasting a 2020 catch of just 12 million pinks, one-third of the 10 year average, and down from 21 million taken in 2019. An advisory from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stated: “It is possible that drought conditions present in Southeast Alaska from the parent year 2018 spawn through the spring of 2019 reduced spawning success or negatively impacted overwinter survival of developing juvenile salmon, but the exact reasons for the low juvenile abundance are not known.” It added: “Like many recent years, a potential source of uncertainty regarding the 2020 pink salmon return is the anomalously warm sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska in 2019. Compared to sea surface temperatures since 1997, when NOAA first started the Southeast Coastal Monitoring project, surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska in 2019, immediately offshore of Southeast Alaska, were the warmest of the time series in July, the 4th warmest in August, and 3rd warmest in September.” Uni undone Uni, or roe from sea urchins, is a popular delicacy with sushi lovers but it draws little interest by Alaska harvesters. Alaska has a red urchin fishery in Southeast with a harvest guideline of 3.5 million pounds, although that number is based on older stock surveys, said Phil Doherty, co-director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association. “That’s a bit of a ghost guideline average level, because there aren’t that many sea urchins still here,” he said, adding that since the 1980s and ‘90s the bulk of the urchin beds have been wiped out by sea otters. “That’s the No. 1 factor in the lack of production in Southeast, and there’s nothing that’s going to happen here in the foreseeable future to change that,” he added. A second reason for the lack of interest, Doherty said, is the difficulty in getting the delicate uni from the softball sized urchins to Japanese markets in top condition. “The Japanese market is very particular on how seafood looks and it’s very difficult to crack open the urchins and get the roe out and pack it into special containers and get it onto the airlines and over to Japan, which is the main market,” he explained. For the most recent Southeast harvest of about 700,000 pounds of red urchins in 2015, a handful of divers got 49 cents a pound. Smaller, hockey puck sized green urchins found around Kodiak are preferred over the reds, but a lack of markets also has stalled fishing interest there. There’s been no urchin harvest since 2001, said Nat Nichols area manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Kodiak. “It’s not that the harvest stopped because we had concerns about the stock – it was largely market driven. I think the major barrier for even a small scale fishery is finding a market and getting them there in good condition,” he said. In the 1980s, landings of green urchins reached about 80,000 pounds; now the harvest limit is 55,000 pounds. Only one Kodiak permit was issued last year and this year by a diver collecting samples for potential buyers. Nichols said urchin uni is now more familiar to U.S. buyers and perhaps there might be interest from more local markets. “If you could develop a smaller local market, that would alleviate the issue of getting bigger loads of product sent out in good condition,” he said. “That might spur more participation.” Ocean awards The Alaska Sealife Center is accepting nominations through Dec. 10 to recognize those who have made special contributions to ocean sciences, education and management. Awards and cash prizes will be given in five categories, including for youths aged 12 to 19. Nominations can be made online at alaskasealife.org or by email at [email protected] Tongass correction In the comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and proposed rollback of the Tongass roadless rule, more than 80,000 comments have been received so far; not more than 140,000 as was previously stated. According to Paul Robbins, Jr., U.S. Forest Service/Tongass public affairs officer, those comments were from the scoping period last year and were not in reference to the current proposed rule. Comments are now being accepted online through Dec. 17, by email to [email protected]/ or by mail to the US Forest Service, Attn: Alaska Roadless Rule, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau, 99802. ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

FISH FACTOR: Overall salmon value jumps in 2019; Kodiak gets Tanner fishery

Alaska’s 2019 salmon season was worth $657.6 million to fishermen, a 10 percent increase from the 2018 fishery. Sockeye salmon accounted for nearly 64 percent of the total value, topping $421 million, and 27 percent of the harvest at 55.2 million fish. Those are the lead takeaways in a summary from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that reveals preliminary estimates of salmon harvests and values by region. The final values will be determined in 2020 after processors, buyers, and direct marketers submit their totals paid to fishermen. Pink salmon were the second most valuable species representing 20 percent of the total dockside value at $128.6 million, and 62 percent of the harvest at just more than 129 million fish. Chum salmon accounted for 10 percent of the value at $63.8 million and 9 percent of the harvest at 18.5 million. Coho salmon contributed about 5 percent of the fishery value at $29.6 million and 2 percent of the harvest at 3.8 million fish. The chinook salmon harvest of just more than 272,000 was worth $14.4 million to fishermen, the third lowest value since limited entry began in 1975. Salmon prices for 2019 took a dip for all but sockeyes, which averaged $1.45 per pound, an increase from $1.33. The average price for chinook was $4.48 per pound, down from $5.98 in 2018. Cohos at $1.15 dropped from $1.34; pink salmon at 30 cents declined from 45 cents, and chums at 49 cents took a big dip from the 78 cents paid on average last year. The price drops, especially for pinks and chums, likely stemmed from the huge Russian harvest that was expected to approach 1.8 billion pounds this year. That compares to a 2019 Alaska salmon catch of just more than 872 million pounds. Average salmon weights this year were 11.84 pounds for chinook, up from 11.59 pounds in 2018. Sockeye weight of 5.24 pounds was down slightly from 5.26 pounds. Coho salmon averaged 6.77 pounds, down from 7.42; pinks averaged 3.27 pounds, down from 3.76 and chum weight at 7.07 pounds declined from 8 pounds on average. At Southeast Alaska, fishermen caught 32.2 million salmon valued at more than $101.8 million. That compares to 21.2 million fish valued at $133.6 million in 2018. Prince William Sound fishermen harvested 57.75 million salmon this valued at just under $115 million. Last year’s take was just more than 29 million fish valued at nearly $95 million. At Cook Inlet, fishermen caught more than 4.3 million salmon valued at nearly $23 million. That’s a slight improvement over the nearly 3.3 million fish valued at $18 million in 2018. Bristol Bay fishermen had a total salmon catch of nearly 44.5 million salmon of which almost 43 million were sockeyes. The value of more than $306.5 million was a record and compares to 43.5 million fish worth $281 million at the docks in 2018. Kodiak’s salmon fishery produced 35.7 million fish valued at $47 million. That compares to fewer than 9 million salmon worth $27.8 million last year. At Chignik, fishermen fared far better with a catch of 3.5 million salmon valued at $8 million. Last year harvesters took just more than 1,000 salmon (only 128 sockeyes!) worth less than $4,000. At the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands region, a bumper catch of nearly 21 million pinks in the southern district pushed the total salmon catch to nearly 27 million salmon valued at more than $49 million. Last year fishermen there took just more than 6 million salmon worth more than $29 million. On the Yukon, fishermen took 561,644 fish, mostly chums, for a total fishery value topping $2.5 million. That compares to more than 1 million salmon valued at nearly $4.7 million in 2018. Norton Sound harvesters landed 381,124 salmon worth just more than $2 million at the docks. That compares to 540,796 salmon valued at $4 million last year. At Kotzebue, fishermen caught 493,340 salmon, nearly all chums, valued at more than $1.5 million. That’s down from 695,000 fish last year, worth nearly $2.3 million at the docks. Once again, there was no salmon fishing opportunity for fishermen at the Kuskokwim. The region’s Community Development Quota group, Coastal Villages Region Fund, abruptly closed its plant at Platinum a few years ago. No buyer means no commercial salmon fishing. Kodiak gets some crab It’s a go for Kodiak’s Tanner crab fishery, albeit a small one, but better catches aren’t far off. The mid-January fishery will have a combined 400,000 pounds catch limit in two areas, the minimum to open a fishery. At average weights of 2.2 pounds, the fishery should produce 182,000 crabs. That’s down from a harvest of 615,000 pounds last season. Crabbers are tapping on the tail end of a big Tanner year class from 2013, said Natura Richardson, assistant area manager for the westward region at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office at Kodiak. “The east side’s going to have a 300,000-pound harvest and the southeast is going to have 100,000 pounds. And particularly on the east side, this definitely is fishing on the same crab that they’ve been targeting for the last two seasons,” she explained. “We first saw this big cohort from 2013 in the survey, and that’s what we fished on in 2018 and 2019. And 2020 is probably going to be the last hit on this specific cohort. Despite the low catch, she said managers don’t expect the fishery to go fast. “We don’t have any conservation concerns because there are so many mature crabs in the water that we still feel that we are leaving a good standing stock to reproduce,” she said. (Only mature male crabs can be retained for sale.) “But because of that people are going to be seeing a lot of non- target crab and not as many legal crabs, so it is probably not going to be really hot and heavy with high catches per pot. I think that it’s going to be a little bit more work to get to the legal males.” Looking ahead, the future bodes well for westward region Tanners. Surveys have been tracking the biggest pulse of crab they’ve ever seen for several years, and the crabs seem to be growing faster than usual. It can take more than five years for the crab to grow to harvestable size. “The next pulse in the water has definitely retained,” Richardson said. “We saw them in the survey last year and again this year. So we have a lot of hope that they will continue to track through the population. They have survived at a higher rate relative to the previous 2013 pulse, so that definitely looks promising for future fisheries.” The big pulse of crab should enter the fishery within a couple of years. Richardson agreed that the 80 percent cod crash in the Gulf last year might be a reason that the recruits are showing better survival, as cod eat lots of small crab. Fisheries at Chignik and the South Peninsula will remain closed although the outlook for those regions appears hopeful. Last season 82 crabbers dropped pots for Tanners at Kodiak. The statewide average price was $3.94 per pound. By the way, Tanner crab is spelled with a capitol “T” because it is named after discoverer Zera Luther Tanner, commander of the research vessel Albatross that explored Alaska waters in the late 1800s. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Bering Sea halibut bycatch increases as council considers cod options

Editor's note: This article has been edited to correct the coastwide bycatch numbers. The bycatch numbers across Alaska exceeded the fishery limits, but in individual areas the bycatch was lower in 2019 than in 2018. Bycatch increase in areas 4 CDE+CA, in the Bering Sea. In the Bering Sea, commercial fishermen caught more halibut as bycatch this year, though overall bycatch in Alaska fell. Data released preceding the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s upcoming interim meeting shows that almost all the regulatory areas of Alaska from Southeast to the Bering Sea — areas 2C through 4E, respectively — caught less halibut as bycatch in 2019 than they did in 2018, though the areas all still exceeded their fishery limits, with the exception of Area 4B. Coastwide, from California and British Columbia through the Bering Sea, bycatch decreased from a little more than 6 million pounds to about 5.89 million pounds, though bycatch in areas 4 CDE+CA increased from about 2.98 million pounds to about 3.22 million pounds. Overall, commercial fishermen have landed about 16.5 million pounds of halibut in Alaska in the 2019 season, 13 percent less than the fishery limit. Alaska made up most of the non-directed commercial discard mortality, with about 5.56 million pounds. The IPHC will hold its interim meeting Nov. 25 in Seattle to review the stock assessment and season information, among other information, prior to its full annual meeting scheduled for Feb. 3-7, 2020, in Anchorage, where the commission adopts its season limits and regulations. Most of the non-directed commercial discard mortality — the technical IPHC term for bycatch — went to the trawl fleet, as it has in the past. There was also a small increase in Southeast Alaska’s bycatch numbers, though the area doesn’t have a trawl fleet and overall catch was down from the 2018 season. Halibut bycatch is a sticky problem throughout Alaska’s commercial fisheries. The high-volume trawl fleet targets a variety of species, including flatfish, that share habitat with halibut. While longliners can use larger hooks to avoid catching immature halibut, trawlers use large nets that don’t necessarily predict what will come up. To control the bycatch, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council sets prohibited species catch, or PSC, limits; when the limit on bycatch is reached, the fishery is restricted or closed. In the case of the Pacific cod fishery in the Bering Sea, this has been happening more and more often. Declining total allowable catch, or TAC, limits for Pacific cod increasingly shorten the season and pressure boats to work quickly, hoping to catch enough cod before the cap is reached. Because they work quickly, they increasingly may not take precautions to avoid bycatch, adding the pressure of the fishery closing more quickly as the PSC limit is reached. Combined with pressure on the stock from directed fishing and changing ocean conditions, researchers and stakeholders have raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of the stock. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is working on a major program aimed partially to control halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea: rationalizing the Pacific cod fishery in the Bering Sea, aiming to alleviate the pressure on the halibut there by eliminating what stakeholders call “the race for fish.” During the council’s meeting in October, the members approved a list of options and elements for preliminary analysis for the Pacific cod fishery, including a number of particulars for a cooperative-based limited access privilege program in the fishery. Within the purpose and need statement, reducing bycatch is identified as one of the goals. The North Pacific Fisheries Association’s members want to see permanent measures to reduce bycatch included in the program, including mechanisms to change the plan if bycatch isn’t reduced, and encouragement to transition to more selective gear types. “We are encouraged that bycatch reduction is a top priority for the Council, and an integral part of the Purpose and Needs Statement for this topic,” wrote NPFA President Malcolm Milne in a letter to the council. “However, we have increasing concerns about the council’s ability to achieve that intent through a program that, despite strategic design, still codifies use of and permanent access rights to gear with high bycatch rates.” Pacific cod is a high-volume fishery, while halibut, on the other hand, is a high-value fishery. To sustain the communities that depend on cod, the high volume needs to come in, wrote Pacific Seafood Processors Association President Chris Barrows in a letter to the council. The processors recognize that something needs to be done to address the race for fish but encouraged the council to consider the investment and dependence on cod of all sectors before moving forward with a cooperative based model for rationalizing the Pacific cod fishery. “All sectors are reliant on a healthy resource, improving bycatch, robust monitoring, and a safely prosecuted fishery,” he wrote. “As we make changes to better accomplish those objectives, we want to encourage inclusion and consideration of all dependent sectors, including shoreside processors and the communities in which we operate.” Both Pacific cod rationalization program and an abundance-based management program — which would allow PSC limits to flex with the biomass assessments in the Bering Sea rather than being fixed — have potential to address the issue, but the particulars are still unclear, said Peggy Parker, the executive director of the Halibut Association of North America. The abundance-based management program is meant to help alleviate the problem of a non-directed fishery still taking Pacific halibut when a directed fishery is shut down or curtailed because of a lack of sufficient fish. “We could have a situation where the directed fishery is shut down, but bycatch is still allowed,” she said. “I really recognize the strong feelings they have not to shut down the flatfish fishery, the pollock fishery, any of that … We don’t want to shut down these really important-to-the-national-economy fisheries, but we also don’t want to lend a hand to what could be severely damaging to the halibut stock.” The bycatch issue in the Bering Sea goes outside its geographic confines, too, she said — halibut migrate extensively from west to east. With heavy fishing pressure on all age groups in the Bering Sea, the question extends to the other regulatory areas whether the Pacific halibut stock can withstand that level of bycatch. In either case, both measures are far to implementation yet. “I don’t know if it’s going to be enough, because we don’t really have a good clear picture yet of what either of those are going to look like,” she said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Roadless Rule repeal gets pushback; halibut data on tap

The federal government’s plan to raze more roads through the Tongass National Forest is facing strong headwinds from fishermen, Native groups and coastal communities throughout Southeast Alaska. More than 220 Southeast Alaskan fishermen signed a letter to the Trump Administration last week opposing the abrupt push to exempt the Tongass National Forest from a “Roadless Rule” in place for over a decade. The exemption would release more than 9 million acres from protection and open nearly 200,000 acres to logging. The U.S. Forest Service made the announcement on October 15 that it is seeking a full exemption from rules that ban more road building in the nation’s largest forest. Alaska would be the only state exempted from the current federal law. The fishermen’s letter, spearheaded by the Sitka Conservation Society and Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, was sent to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue telling him that fishing is the backbone of local economies and it relies on intact watersheds and salmon spawning grounds in the Tongass, which produces 80 percent of the salmon caught in the Southeast region. The push has quickly generated support from other fronts. The Skagway Borough Assembly passed a resolution last week in support of maintaining the Roadless Rule, citing, among other things, the impact logging could have on tourism. “I wonder what happens to that experience when cruise ships are passing by clear cut areas, or when cruise ships dock in a port and people take a flight through an area that has been clear cut or a place that you used to be able to fish like I’ve done in Baranoff that you can no longer do because the stream has been compromised,” said Mayor Andrew Cremata as reported by radio station KHNS. Likewise, six tribal governments issued a joint statement condemning the roadless exemption. They include the Angoon Cooperative Association, Central Council of Tlingit &Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Hoonah Indian Association, Hydaburg Cooperative Association, and the Villages of Kake and Kasaan. Their statement accused the federal agencies of ignoring the concerns of the tribes and said they were “deeply disappointed” by the process, according to the Juneau Empire. The roll back of the Roadless Rule has the strong support of Alaska’s congressional delegation and “every statewide elected official in Alaska supports an exemption from the regulation,” wrote Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a Sept. 25 opinion piece in the Washington Post called “Why I support Trump’s proposal to lift restrictions in the Tongass.” “The one-size-fits-all Roadless Rule is an unnecessary layer of paralyzing regulation that should never have been applied to Alaska,” Murkowski wrote, adding that the rule has hurt the timber industry and also affects “mining, transportation, energy and more.” “When combined with national monument and other natural-setting land-use designations, more than 13 million acres of the Tongass are already explicitly restricted from resource development or are required to be managed as roadless areas. That’s nearly 80 percent of the forest,” Murkowski wrote. “It is also critical to understand that all of the designations listed above, and all of the protections they afford, will apply to the Tongass regardless of what happens with the Roadless Rule.” That doesn’t convince Sitka fisherman Eric Jordan, who was highly critical of the way in which the Forest Service began working on new rules shortly after Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy met with Donald Trump aboard Air Force One in July. (That meeting also resulted in the abrupt pullback of proposed protections for the Bristol Bay watershed by the EPA.) “Their record is one of irresponsible top down management without listening to their constituents,” Jordan said in a phone interview, adding that more people are actively meeting to make sure their voices are heard. “People are taking notice of the draconian policies of this state and Trump’s leadership and there’s going to be consequences at the polls and in the courts,” Jordan said. “There will not be logging activities that they are envisioning because we’re going to tie it up in courts and demonstrations forever.” The Forest Service has so far received over 140,000 public comments on the proposed Tongass Roadless Rule with the majority being opposed to the change. Comments are being accepted through Dec. 17 or by email to [email protected]/ Comments also can be sent to USDA Forest Service, Attn: Alaska Roadless Rule, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau 99802. Halibut happenings In a few weeks, the researchers who oversee and set the catch limits for the Pacific halibut stock will reveal how the fishery could play out next year. The interim meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission will take place Nov. 25-26 in Seattle. Nearly all of the documents related to the fishery are now posted including updates on the summer survey, minus stock assessments. That information will be revealed by Nov. 22. The Pacific halibut resource is modeled as a single stock and each year’s survey is divided into 31 regions extending from Northern California to British Columbia and the far reaches of the Bering Sea. From June through August, 18 longliners this year participated in surveys of nearly 1,370 stations, including 89 added to the Central Gulf of Alaska. The survey boats used 407,000 pounds of chum salmon as bait and caught nearly 860,000 pounds of halibut during the summer survey. Most of the vessel contracts receive a lump sum payment plus a 10 percent share of the halibut proceeds. Data show how much the halibut fetched at all ports, ranging from $3.71 per pound at St. Paul to $7.76 at Cordova. The total coastwide catch of Pacific Halibut for 2019 was increased by 6 percent to nearly 25 million pounds. Alaska’s share was just less than 20 million pounds, a three million pound boost from 2018. The catch numbers for 2020 will be revealed at the IPHC’s annual meeting set for Feb. 3-7 at the Captain Cook Hotel Anchorage. The eight-month halibut fishery opens in March. Up next: Expo! The Pebble mine will be the keynote presentation at Pacific Marine Expo set for Nov. 21-23 in Seattle. “Pebble has gone from an Alaska issue to something that has really become important to everyone in the fishing and seafood communities. This is something that can impact a lot of people,” said Denielle Christensen, Expo director. “A panel will look at the environmental impact statement, the science behind it and what this might mean. We’ve even including a chef who feels quite passionate about understanding what to communicate to consumers about the Pebble Mine.” Fishing safety also will be showcased; the U.S Coast Guard will advise about changing fishing vessel safety requirements along with crossing hazardous bars. Historically, such crossings have been one of the biggest risks inherent with commercial fishing in the Pacific Northwest. “Responders are going to cover everything from understanding bar condition reporting, how and when to request a Coast Guard escort and what they can expect during an escort,” Christensen explained. Over 400 Expo exhibiters are expected at the CenturyLink Center in Seattle. Other events include a Fishermen of the Year contest, Highliner Awards, Fisher Poets, daily happy hours and the first leg of the Alaska Symphony of Seafood competition where the top winners will be announced. See the Expo line up at www.pacificmarineexpo.com Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

FISH FACTOR: Otter impacts still frustrating Southeast divers, crabbers

They are certainly cute but the voracious appetites of sea otters continue to cause horrendous damage to some of Southeast Alaska’s most lucrative fisheries. How best to curtail those impacts will be the focus of a day-long stakeholders meeting set for November 6 in Juneau. “All of the people who have anything to do with the otters hopefully will all be in the same room at the same time,” said Phil Doherty, co-director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association based in Ketchikan. A 2011 report by the McDowell Group showed that otter predation on sea cucumbers, clams, urchins, crabs and other shellfish cost the Southeast economy nearly $30 million over 15 years. And their population has skyrocketed since then. Four hundred otters were reintroduced to Southeast by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from Amchitka Island in the 1960s after nearly being wiped out by fur traders at the turn of that century. The otters, which rose to nearly 26,000 in the latest assessment updated in 2014, are under federal protection and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The animals can grow up to 100 pounds and typically eat the equivalent of a quarter of their weight each day. Last year, at the urging of 20 Southeast towns, organizations and Native groups, the Alaska Senate passed a resolution asking for the state to take over otter management and to provide for more protections. “If the population continues to go unchecked, predation from sea otters inevitably threatens the future of dive and crab fisheries, jeopardizing hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in economic activity,” Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, wrote in a statement. One suggested solution has been to allow increased hunting by Native Alaskans, the only people allowed to do so, and lowering the Native blood “eligibility” to one-quarter of a percent. But Doherty said at a growth rate estimated at between 12 and 14 percent a year, hunting can’t keep up with the population. Another problem is restrictions on what Natives are allowed do with the otters they hunt. “The Marine Mammal Protection Act clearly states what Alaskan coastal Natives can do with sea otters,” Doherty explained. “They have to produce a finished product that is in the tradition of Native art and how they’ve used them over the years. They cannot harvest sea otters and sell just the pelt on the open market.” Patrick Lemons, Alaska chief of marine mammal management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said last year that the Marine Mammal Protection Act limits the agency’s response and they cannot intervene to protect commercial fisheries until a species is at “optimum sustainable population.” The agency recently put the Southeast region’s otter carrying capacity at 77,000, Doherty said. “Until we’re at that carrying capacity, they will manage the sea otters in a very conservative mode. And once we get to 77,000 otters, we can kiss some of these industries goodbye, and it is not just the dive fisheries. The Dungeness crab fishery here in Southeast is being severely impacted and otters eat king and Tanner crab, so there’s going to be impacts on all of the shellfish fisheries.” While the upcoming meeting will provide a valuable exchange, Doherty is not optimistic about the outcomes. “Because the otters are so protected within the Marine Mammal Protection Act, I don’t think anything is going to change the tide of the sea otter population here in Southeast Alaska,” he said. The day long Nov. 6 otter meeting will take place at the Andrew P. Kashevaroff Building in Juneau. It is free and open to the public. Pebble hearing in DC Threats posed to the Bristol Bay watershed by the proposed Pebble mine took center stage in Washington, D.C., at an Oct. 23 hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Opponents are hopeful the hearing might help put the brakes on the Pebble permitting process. “If Pebble is developed, there is no doubt it will forever change who I am, who my people are, where I come from. And it will rob our children’s children of their right to continue being Native people as we have for thousands of years in Bristol Bay,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay. Alaska Public Radio’s Liz Ruskin was at the hearing and reported that Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier, the only witness to support the mine, “tilted back in his chair and looked at the ceiling as Hurley spoke.” Alaska Congressman Don Young, who has not taken a position on the mine, criticized the witnesses for “not being scientists.” In a video of the hearing, Young said: “You’re not listening to the science. You are saying a lot of what ifs. Can and cannots. Should we or shouldn’t we. And this committee has a responsibility to review those that are directly involved. Not those that may be affected about it. It’s about science.” Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., an outspoken Pebble critic, questioned the permitting process. He had especially harsh words about the way in which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is assessing the project, which many have criticized as being rushed and sloppy. “What I first want is a proper review and a proper comment period, and I don’t believe the Corps is doing either of those things,” he said at the hearing. “And I’m going to push them very hard to push back, even if Donald Trump is pushing on the other side.” DeFazio was referring to a pull back of special protections the EPA had proposed on the Bristol Bay watershed in 2014. The proposed restrictions were abruptly withdrawn this year on July 30 after Trump had a brief meeting with Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy. That EPA pullback has prompted three lawsuits against the EPA by nearly 20 diverse groups. Last week’s hearing is “typically the first step before an investigation on the permitting process is launched,” said Molly Dischner, communications director for United Tribes of Bristol Bay. The Pebble Partnership has spent more than $2 million on federal lobbying so far this year according to public disclosure forms, Liz Ruskin reported. A final environmental impact statement on the project is expected in January. Fish game changer Just as farmed salmon grown in sea cages toppled markets for wild fish a few decades ago, land-based farming is set to change the game again over the next decade. It will come in the form of recirculating aquaculture systems, or RAS, and will cause even more disruption to world markets. That is the conclusion of Rabobank, a Netherlands-based leader in food and agriculture financing that is among the 30 largest groups in the world. A Rabobank report this month identified more than 50 RAS proposed projects around the world with an estimated output to equal 25 percent of current salmon production by the year 2030. That totals roughly 550 million pounds of fish; in comparison, Alaska’s 2018 salmon catch produced 605 million pounds of salmon. The report said most of the land-based farms are planned in Norway, but proposed production volumes are highest in the U.S. where six farms are planned. In the U.S. Maine is taking the lead where Portland-based company Whole Oceans has received two leases alongside and underneath the Penobscot River. It plans to break ground on a $180 million RAS facility next year and begin output of 11 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually. The report said RAS could disrupt traditional ocean-based fish farming over the next 10 years adding “it’s not a question of if, but of how much.” Blue opportunity The Alaska Ocean Cluster, an arm of the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, is seeking a manager for its Blue Pipeline Incubator, or BPI, in Seward. “This is a blended position made possible through a partnership between the Ocean Cluster, the City of Seward, the Seward Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Development Center,” said Casey Rangel, program manager. The BPI Manager will oversee all operations of the incubator and will act as the liaison to Seward’s ocean-based industries. Requirements include a bachelor’s degree in business administration or a related field. Salary is $65,000 to $75,000+ commensurate with experience. Applications will be accepted until the position is filled. Learn more at www.alaskaoceancluster.com/about/employment. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

FISH FACTOR: Kelp harvest rules under review; salmon summaries roll out

As more Alaskans eye the lucrative opportunities in growing kelp, many others are heading to beaches at Lower Cook Inlet to commercially harvest the detached bunches that wash ashore. That practice is now getting a closer look by state managers and scientists and could result in new regulations by year’s end. Detached kelp harvests have occurred at Lower Cook Inlet under special permits since the 1970s but matters of who needs permits, for how much and for what purposes are not clearly defined. Currently, a special permit is needed for commercial takes. “A commissioner’s permit is needed that describes where and when harvests will occur and how much will be taken. It needs to be documented thoroughly to make sure they are not taking the wrong species, or not taking from below the high tide line,” said Glenn Hollowell, area manager for finfish at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game office in Homer. Owners of the Anchor Point Greenhouse, for example, take 6,000 to 7,000 pounds from local beaches each September and over four decades they’ve created a booming business for a potting soil blend that is sold statewide. In the past, the detached seaweed has been considered dead. More recently, it’s been discovered that many clumps continue to release live spores. Hollowell said that may mean it’s important to sustaining those kelp populations, and all that beached seaweed might also serve other purposes. “Whether this is for reproductive reasons, or to provide shelter and food for a variety of wild animals, as well as a carbon source. It does feed a lot of other ecological needs. And we’re just not certain that the wholesale removal of this stuff in large quantities might not have a negative impact on the ecosystem in general. So, we’re approaching this very cautiously,” he explained. The state Board of Fisheries will take up two detached and live kelp proposals at its Dec. 10-13 meeting in Seward. One (No. 21) submitted by Al Poindexter of the Anchor Point Greenhouse, aims to better identify the commercial harvest of detached kelp off of beaches. “First, Fish and Game does not know production rates of seaweed and what keeps it sustainable…Another issue is what is commercial or home use and what amounts are those?” Poindexter wrote. “For instance, I will collect 6 small pickups and it is called commercial, but my neighbor will collect 10 pickups for his berry patch and that is called home use. Another may just collect a bucket full for his flower patch. Who needs a permit and who doesn’t? And for what purpose? Does anyone get grandfathered in or who decides by what criteria, amounts, geographic area or timing? Parameters would be based on what data?” “At this time, I believe that out of all the folks who collect seaweed from the beach, I have been the only one who has been required to get a permit for this activity,” he concluded. Another proposal (No. 241) would allow for the personal use harvest of aquatic plants in the Cook Inlet area outside of subsistence areas, similar to rules the Fish Board created in Southeast Alaska last year. Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are working with ADFG to learn what happens when kelp is removed from areas and how such harvests affect rejuvenation. “The department wants to be very cautious as we start doing new things with it, to make sure that we don’t allow something we will later regret. It might cause damage to that kelp population, or to other species of invertebrates or vertebrates that utilize it such as birds and fish,” Hollowell said. The outcome of those projects, he added, will likely shape future regulations. Comments can be made to the Board of Fisheries through Nov. 25. Eating fish boosts IQ For centuries what’s been regarded as an old wives’ tale has claimed that fish is brain food. Now there’s more proof that eating seafood does indeed make you smarter. A report out last week by 13 leading dietary scientists declared that children whose mothers ate seafood during pregnancy gained an average 7.7 IQ points compared to children of moms who did not. The findings came after a review of 44 different studies since 2000 that included nearly 103,000 mother-offspring pairs and more than 25,000 children. The brain benefits began with just one serving of seafood per week during pregnancy, and the beneficial outcomes appeared on tests given as early as three days of age and as late as 17 years. Along with IQ, measures included verbal, visual and motor skill development. Four studies looked at hyperactivity and ADHD diagnoses and showed that kids of moms not eating seafood had nearly three times greater risk of hyperactivity. The findings follow a report this year from the American Academy of Pediatrics that said U.S. children are not eating enough seafood. Dr. Tom Brenna, a professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, said it’s the omega-3s in seafood that boost brain growth. “The brain and the retina in the eye are omega-3 organs,” he said. “You can say that as calcium is to the bones, omega 3 is to the brain.” Brenna agreed it’s been tough to get the message to a wider audience. “We don’t have a good a way of getting the word out. Maybe we should have a contest to find a nice tag line that would identify seafood in the same way as ‘Got Milk’ or ‘Beef, it’s what’s for dinner,’” he added in a phone conversation. The IQ boost from eating fish report comes as the U.S. is updating its dietary guidelines through 2025. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee will meet five times through March 2020 and written comments are being accepted until the committee completes its work. Salmon summaries Prince William Sound’s salmon harvest this summer came in at nearly 58 million fish, of which almost 50 million were pinks. The estimated fishery value was $114 million, including hatchery sales, and paid out at $81,600 per permit on average for the fleet of 504 drift gillnetters; 238 seiners averaged $218,000 per permit. Revenue generated for hatchery operations was approximately $18.6 million. At Copper River, a catch of nearly 1.3 million sockeye salmon was 28 percent more than the previous 10-year average, and the average sockeye weight of 5.5 pounds was the largest in the last five years. Those are just a few of the details in season summaries that will continue to trickle in by region to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. At Lower Cook Inlet the 2019 salmon catch totaled 2.4 million fish, of which nearly 2 million were pinks. The commercial harvest value of nearly $3.6 million was above the 10-year average of $2.4 million. At Norton Sound, 145 permits were fished this summer, the second highest since 1993, and the fishery value topped $2 million for the third year in a row. The region saw well above average runs of chums, pinks, sockeyes and coho salmon. The chum salmon harvest of 157,035 was the third highest in the last 35 years. At Alaska’s farthest north salmon fishery at Kotzebue the chum harvest topped 400,000 fish for only the tenth time ever for 93 participants. The value of more than $1.5 million was down a third from last year due to lower prices, but it was the fifth time since 1988 that it exceeded $1 million. Fishery managers at Bristol Bay were the first to come out with a season summary showing a preliminary fishery value at $306.5 million, an all-time record. A total take of 44.5 million salmon, of which 43 million were sockeyes, was the second largest in history since the 45.4 million fish taken in 1995. Salmon summaries from other regions will soon follow and yield the preliminary dockside value for the entire 2019 fishery. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Efforts underway to streamline fisheries disaster relief

With an increasing number of fisheries disaster requests coming from all over the United States, members of Congress and the federal government are looking for ways to improve the relief process. Summer 2018 brought disappointing results for many fishermen across Alaska, particularly for sockeye salmon fishermen in the central Gulf of Alaska, but only two fisheries were officially granted federal disaster declarations: the 2018 Chignik sockeye salmon run and the 2018 Pacific cod fishery. While many other fishermen at least got a few fish to fill their wallets, Chignik fishermen had virtually no season, and Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishermen saw their total allowable catch reduced by 80 percent from 2017 because of low abundance. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced a dozen commercial fishery disaster declarations Sept. 25 for the 2018 calendar year. Congress appropriated $165 million for fisheries disaster relief, to be allocated according to the losses in revenue for the selected fisheries. It’s the second time in recent years there have been disastrously poor returns to some fisheries. In 2016, the failed pink salmon run across the Gulf of Alaska left many fishermen holding empty nets, particularly in Kodiak and Prince William Sound, resulting in a disaster declaration in 2017 and eventually $56 million in relief funds for stakeholders. However, because of the long federal application and funding process, fishermen just received those disbursements in July 2019, nearly three years after the disaster. The slow process isn’t unique to Alaska. Senate Bill 2346, introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., in July, seeks to speed up that process, in part by expediting relief funds being disbursed to fishermen. It also seeks to add avenues for relief for non-commercial fishermen, including charter operators. Fisheries disasters can be awarded in a variety of circumstances, including natural disasters, undetermined causes or causes beyond the control of fisheries managers. However, the current process only includes commercial fisheries, said Chris Oliver, the assistant administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “I think the law should provide clarity and direction to us as to whether we could and should include (charter or sport fisheries) revenue losses in the calculation,” he said in a Sept. 25 hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. NMFS is aware of the delay problem and is actively developing regulations for the disaster process that will streamline and improve it, Oliver wrote in his testimony to the committee. He wrote that SB 2346 aligns with many of the federal administration’s priorities for streamlining the process, such as providing deadlines for key steps in the process and clear requirements for what requestors need to submit. Rachel Baker, the deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, wrote in her testimony to the committee that while the process of declaring a disaster is well understood, distributing relief monies is less clear. The delay may make the process seem less useful to stakeholders, she wrote. “Under the current process, there is little to no guidance for requestors or the public describing the steps in the process or the criteria being used by the federal government to evaluate proposed spending plans for disaster relief funds,” she wrote. “This lack of clarity makes it challenging to navigate the process and inform affected fishery participants and the public about the potential outcomes and timelines for evaluation of a proposed spending plan and the distribution of disaster relief funds.” During the hearing, Sen. Dan Sullivan asked Oliver if the bill should provide more guidance to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NMFS on how to determine disaster declarations and funding. “I think part of the point of the bill is that NOAA and, significantly, (the Office of Management and Budget) might have too much discretion under current law and not enough direction when it comes to the fisheries disaster process,” Sullivan said. “(Wicker’s) bill remedies that.” Ron Warren, the director of fish policy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, wrote in his comments that Washington has seen an increase in both the frequency and severity of fisheries disasters due to natural disasters since 2008, disrupting the state’s significant fishing economy. The delay in relief funding following the 2015 coho disaster was “especially concerning,” he wrote, as the request from Washington had been fast-tracked. “Given that NOAA scientists have noted another marine heatwave occurring off Washington’s coasts since June of this year, which may be comparable to that observed in 2014, our fisheries could face another disastrous year in 2020,” he wrote. “If that occurs, the local businesses within our fishing communities cannot wait another three years for any potential relief. These processes must be streamlined and improved — it’s that simple.” The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife raised a few concerns about the bill in its current form, noting that the bill should ensure fast-tracked disaster relief funding shouldn’t come from other areas of NOAA operations and that fisheries remain a priority, especially when competing with aquaculture operations, Warren wrote. In their comments, multiple senators connect climate change impacts with increasing instability in fisheries. Outside Alaska, multiple Florida fisheries have been impacted for the past four years by increasingly pervasive algal blooms, and the flooding in the Mississippi River basin in 2019 led to freshwater incursion into the delta and Lake Pontchartrain, killing the majority of the oysters in the Mississippi Sound. Washington state has asked for two fisheries disaster declarations in 2018 and 2019, following a sweeping coho salmon disaster declaration from 2015. Warren told the committee that scientists have connected the recent decline in salmon runs to “the Blob,” a persistent ocean temperature anomaly in the Pacific Ocean from 2013-16 that was connected to a number of ecosystem disruptions. Oliver said in answer to a question that NMFS doesn’t have “the specific data” to say whether climate change will definitively increase fisheries disasters, though scientists have generally agreed that warmer ocean waters have contributed to an increase in harmful algal blooms and increased hurricane frequency. “I think that we are seeing movement of fish from one area to another,” Oliver said. “Whether those particular fish patterns of movements as they’re affected by warm water result in disasters would be difficult for me to speculate. Whether those changes result in fisheries disasters or not, we are in a constant pattern of trying to understand that so we can respond.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

North Pacific council votes to hike observer fees in 2021

The costs for on-board fisheries observers will be increasing, and no one in the industry is particularly happy about it. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to adjust the observer fee percentage to 1.65 percent of ex-vessel values. It was previously set at 1.25 percent. The increase is intended to cover additional observer services to reach the target coverage rate set out by the council for the various fisheries across the North Pacific region. Observers are hired through a federal contracting system. On board, the observers document the catches of both target species and bycatch, and take samples from the catch, among other responsibilities. Typically, they have training in biological sciences and fisheries. Federally managed fisheries are designated as either partial or full coverage, with the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, determining where observers need to go based on the necessary data for each year. Fishermen in the partial coverage category pay a 1.25 percent fee on their landings to cover the cost of observing and the deployment of electronic monitoring systems, collected by the processors on behalf of NMFS. After the program was restructured in 2013, NMFS provided about $4.5 million in funding to help cover operations, and the federal government has contributed funds every year since — about 32 percent of total costs, according to documents submitted to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. However, with the likelihood of federal support diminishing and costs increasing, the council has been looking for ways to fund the program through industry fees. The fee change will be delayed until 2021, making the funds available to pay for at-sea coverage by mid-2022, according to a memo from council staff member Diana Evans. “It should be noted that while the scope of this analysis is focused narrowly on the amount of the observer fee, the Council is also pursuing parallel initiatives with the Fishery Monitoring Advisory Committee (FMAC) to evaluate additional ways to improve cost efficiency for the program,” she wrote. Stakeholders were everywhere from fiercely opposed to begrudgingly supportive, but no one seems to be happy about the increase, particularly in the fixed-gear fleet. Most asked the council to cap the cost increase and instead pursue containment measures and efficiencies to avoid overburdening fishermen. Many recognized that the observer program is important enough to have to continue, but were concerned about the long-term trajectory. Partial coverage is more expensive per trip than full-coverage fisheries. In 2018, a single observer day cost $1,380, while full-coverage observer days cost $382 per day. In theory, the observer fee is supposed to be shared between the processors and fishermen, but the fee analysis completed by council staff indicates that the burden may be shifted more toward the harvesters than the processors, as the existence of a tax lowers the dockside price. The North Pacific Fisheries Association, a trade group based in Homer, pointed to this in connection with its opposition to a fee increase. “NPFA appreciates that the Observer Program is operating on a tight budget, but so are our members,” NPFA President Malcolm Milne wrote in a comment to the council. “We’ve put a lot of effort into the development of a workable Electronic Monitoring Program and have consistently participated in NPFMC committees and workgroups including the FMAC and its subgroups. It is imperative that the Observer Program control its costs and demonstrate some efficiencies and effectiveness before we would willing pay more money for it.” The trawl fleet agreed, though the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative “begrudgingly” supported the fee increase to sustain the observer program, said Heather Mann, the group’s executive director. “We need the observer program,” she said in testimony to the council. “We use it to manage fisheries. When I say begrudgingly (support), I also want to see cost containment measures … We can’t just let the program blow up; we need this program. So let’s fix it.” She added that the group supported the motion that raised fees equally across the fishing sectors, rather than varying rates across sectors. One alternative proposed in the fee analysis would have internalized the cost increase of vessels limited by protected species catch limits to those vessels — specifically, the prohibited catch species-limited trawl fleet. The analysis reasoned that PSC catch by trawl vessels imposes costs on other sectors, but Mann argued that it isn’t fair to single out the trawl vessels. Oceana, a national ocean conservation advocacy nonprofit, supported the fee increase to maintain coverage levels but also encouraged the council to pursue cost containment measures. In its comments, the organization advocated for the council to switch all Gulf of Alaska trawl vessels to the full-coverage category, particularly to control bias in sampling because of the presence of an observer and to make costs more efficient for broader coverage. The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association also opposed the fee increases until the council looks for efficiencies and cost containment measures. Project Coordinator Dan Falvey told the council that the organization favored the continued implementation of electronic monitoring, which has equipment costs but is generally cheaper than a human observer and easier for small vessels. With current costs increases, he said the program is unsustainable. “How would (the council) sharpen your pencil, shave off 10 percent of the program costs while still getting the coverage rate?” he said. Along with passing the 1.65 percent increase, the council passed a set of priorities for the partial coverage category focusing on cost containment. Among the immediate items for work are conversion of pelagic, or midwater, trawl fisheries to electronic monitoring with shoreside sampling, an integrated monitoring plan for fixed gear that combines electronic monitoring, shoreside sampling and at-sea coverage as needed, and optimizing the size and composition of the fixed gear observed and electronic monitoring. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Crabbers face another round of harvest cuts

Bering Sea crabbers started their 2019-20 season this week with a mixed harvest bag and an uncertain future for their fisheries. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which collaboratively manage the state’s crab fisheries, announced the catch limits and overfishing limit for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and Bristol Bay crab fisheries last week, just in time for the fisheries to open Oct. 15. While the eastern Bering Sea snow crab fishery’s total allowable catch is up, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery’s is down and there won’t be a Bering Sea Tanner crab fishery at all. The St. Matthew Island blue king crab and Pribilof blue and red king crab fisheries will remain closed due to stock depletion. Most of these were not terribly surprising to many crab fishermen and fishery stakeholders. The exception was in the Tanner crab fishery — also called the bairdi fishery, after the crab’s scientific name, said Jamie Goen, the executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association. “I would say we were surprised that we’re not having a bairdi fishery,” she said. “It’s discouraging, because our crab stocks in general are declining.” The survey data collected in the Bering Sea District Tanner crab fishery showed the stock didn’t have enough mature crab to justify a fishery, according to survey data provided to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. ADFG announced that there would be no fishery on Oct. 6, citing a lack of mature male crab biomass in the survey data. That means no Tanner crab can be kept in the snow crab fishery, either. The Tanner crab fishery has seesawed since rationalization was implemented there in 2005. The fishery was open through 2010, when it was determined to be overfished and closed. After it reopened in 2013, the total allowable catch, or TAC, climbed until 2016, when the fishery was closed due to a lack of available mature female biomass, according to the survey that year. The fishery west of 166 degrees West longitude reopened in 2017-18 and 2018-19, with TACs of 2.5 million pounds and 2.4 million pounds, respectively; the fishery east of that line has been closed since 2016. The survey data provided to the North Pacific council determined that the Bering Sea Tanner crab stock is not overfished, but biomass of male crabs has been steadily declining. “Since 2014 the trend has been a steady decline, with male biomass currently at its lowest point (28,000 (tons)) since 2000,” the survey states. The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery has been going through a similar decline over time. Though it’s not closed this year, the TAC is set at 3.797 million pounds, about 12 percent less than last year’s TAC. About 3.4 million pounds is allocated to individual fishing quota, or IFQ, holderss and 379,700 pounds to Community Development Quota, or CDQ, groups, according to ADFG. The survey data provided to the council notes that environmental conditions are likely playing a role in the red king crab’s decline, depressing recruitment. Crab stocks in Alaska generally spiked in the 1970s before swinging low again in the 1980s, then high again in the 1990s. “Due to lack of recruitment, mature and legal crab should continue to decline next year,” the survey report states. “Current crab abundance is still low relative to the late 1970s, and without favorable environmental conditions, recovery to the high levels of the late 1970s is unlikely.” The downward trend in the red king crab fishery is particularly concerning for the fleet. Wild Alaska red king crab commands a high market price and is consistently one of the highest-value fisheries in the United States. Ex-vessel prices have nearly doubled in the last 10 years, rising from an average of $5.11 per pound in 2008 to $9.27 per pound in 2018, according to Fish and Game. “It’s our highest-value stock,” Goen said. The Eastern Bering Sea snow crab fishery is a bright spot, though. Recent survey data has shown strong recruitment, and the 2020 TAC is set at just more than 34 million pounds — about 23 percent more than last year — apportioned with about 30.6 million pounds to IFQ fisheries and about 3.4 million pounds to CDQs, according to Fish and Game. The stock was previously declared overfished in 1999 and has steadily increased since, according to survey data provided to the council. After the observed mature male biomass dropped to an all-time low in 2017, it has increased again as a large recruitment moves through the age classes. The boost in the eastern Bering Sea snow crab biomass has helped offset some of the downturns in the fishery, but there’s a lot of uncertainty in the fleet about the future, Goen said. “It’s ocean acidification, it’s the warming ocean conditions, lack of sea ice, and all the data unknowns,” Goen said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty among the fleet. We’re definitely looking to the science. We’re trying to understand better how (the crab) move, and these stocks are moving further north now from where they normally are… I would say it’s too soon to know what the crab fishers are doing.” There are a lot of unknowns about the factors affecting crab life cycles, recruitment and maturity. Goen pointed to an ongoing National Marine Fisheries Service study using saildrones to track tagged red king crab, gathering more information about seasonal movement, habitat use and interactions with groundfish and trawl fisheries, as well as how crab movement is changing amid changing ocean conditions. If the study proves successful, it may be expanded to other crab stocks. Strong demand is pushing prices for crab higher, according to a presentation by the McDowell Group economist Garrett Evridge at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s All Hands meeting in Anchorage this week. However, threats to the market include tariffs overseas — particularly in China, one of Alaska’s three largest trading partners in seafood — and increasing competition. About 70 percent of the world’s supply of red king crab comes from Russia, while only 10 percent to 15 percent comes from Alaska. Similarly, Alaska produces about 10 percent of the world’s snow crab supply, while Canada produces 45 percent, according to the presentation. Hannah Lindoff, the international program director for ASMI, wrote in an email that the tariffs have driven Chinese consumers toward Chilean and Russian king crab and Canadian snow crab. “Traditionally, crab has been one of the most preferred seafood products in both mainland China and Hong Kong and demand outstrips supply for live king crab into Hong Kong,” she said. “Prior to the current trade situation, Alaska snow crab was an especially popular item at hotel restaurant buffets.” However, she added that recent concerns in Hong Kong about high metal levels in European brown crab have driven a shift toward Alaska seafood. Additionally, Evridge wrote in an email that some of the downward trend in red king crab can be replaced by Southeast’s golden king crab fisheries, where the stocks are doing somewhat better. “One thing that’s unique about the current period is that golden king crab volume is higher than red crab—it’s not usually like that,” he wrote. “Some substitution can occur between the two species. But the golden variety is smaller and generally more difficult to handle as it has sharper spines.” ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Board of Fisheries work session kicks off annual meeting cycle

Hundreds of fishery stakeholders and scientists will gather in Anchorage next week as the state Board of Fisheries begins its annual meeting cycle with a two-day work session. The seven-member board sets the rules for the state’s subsistence, commercial, sport and personal use fisheries. It meets four to six times each year in various communities on a three-year rotation; this year the focus is on Kodiak and Cook Inlet. The board and the public also will learn the latest on how a changing climate and off-kilter ocean chemistry are affecting some of Alaska’s most popular seafood items at an Oct. 23 “talk and Q&A” on ocean acidification, or OA, in Alaska. And they undoubtedly will be astounded to learn that despite salmon being Alaska’s most iconic fish, only two studies have looked at salmon response to OA, and both were conducted outside of Alaska. Most of the research to date has focused specifically on crab and fish stocks, said Bob Foy, director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Auke Bay lab in Juneau who will lead the Anchorage presentation. Ocean acidification is caused when carbon dioxide gas from the atmosphere dissolves in the ocean, lowering the water’s pH level and making it more acidic. The imbalance prevents marine creatures from forming shells and skeletons, among other things. “We’ve found effects on Tanner crab and red king crab in the laboratory. Interestingly, on a positive note, we have found very little effect, if any, in the early life stages of juvenile snow crab. So, there’s some hope for that species,” Foy said. “For fish, we’ve found limited if any effects on pollock, but we have found effects on cod and some flatfish species.” Most studies to date have focused on direct effects to an animal, Foy said, but future work will take a “bottoms up” approach to learn how ecosystem changes affect their metabolism and body functions. “We know more recently from the large changes we’ve seen in the climate and the increased warming, the heat waves we’ve seen in Alaska, that the lower trophic levels are dramatically affected by that heat. And those effects have been observed in the larger commercial fish species such as cod,” Foy said, referring to the 80 percent cod crash last year in the Gulf of Alaska that is blamed on imbalances caused by warmer water. The real concern, Foy said, is the speed at which changes are occurring. “It’s difficult to assess, difficult to manage,” he said. “Now we’ve got important commercial species moving thousands of kilometers over a couple of years in the Bering Sea, Northern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea. That shows us that these populations will try to adapt, they will move and push the ranges of their physiology and their tolerance. The unknown is whether or not they can adapt at the speed at which everything is changing.” Early victims of OA already are known to be pteropods, microscopic floating snails that make up a huge portion of the diets of juvenile pink salmon. Research elsewhere also has shown that acidity affects growth rates of pink salmon and impairs the sense of smell in cohos. Evaluating the risks to Alaska salmon will be part of the discussion by Toby Schwoerer, a research associate at the University of Alaska Institute for Social and Economic Research Associate. Being forewarned is being forearmed, said Bob Foy. “The importance of providing information and educating ourselves is critical,” he stressed. “Our goal is to get the word out to the commercial industry, coastal communities, to managers and policymakers so we can better understand how these changes in the environment may lead to changes in our economies, in our livelihoods and our ways of life in Alaska.” The OA talk will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 23 at the Egan Center starting at 5:30 p.m. Contact Darcy Dugan at the Alaska Ocean Acidification Network for more information at [email protected] Crab numbers As Bering Sea crab fisheries got underway on Oct. 15 the fleet has less crab to haul up overall. Crabbers were relieved to get an opener for Bristol Bay red king crab with a catch reduced to just less than 3.8 million pounds of mature male crabs, the only ones that can be retained for sale. As expected, the snow crab total catch was increased by 24 percent to 34 million pounds. There will be no fishery for bairdi Tanners, snow crab’s larger cousin. A catch of 2.4 million pounds was allowed last year but surveys showed there were not enough crab to meet a threshold for an opener. Likewise, closures will remain for blue king crab at St. Matthew Island, and for blue and red king crab at the Pribilof Islands where the stocks remain depleted. That’s not the case for Dungeness crab in the Gulf of Alaska and all along the Pacific coast where fisheries are booming. Southeast Alaska’s summer fishery produced over four million pounds for more than 185 crabbers and strong catches have continued in the fall opener that runs through November. At the westward region, which includes Kodiak, Chignik and the South Peninsula, Dungeness crab fisheries are booming and Kodiak is no exception. Since May, a fleet of 13 boats has hauled up 1.2 million pounds, double last year’s catch. “We’re certainly on track to break 1.3 million pounds if not more. We’ve got another few weeks left in the season that closes October 31,” said Nat Nichols, area manager at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office in Kodiak. “We knew that this year was going to be good based on reports from the fishery last year, Nichols added. “We knew that there was a big year class of small crab that were going to recruit into the fishery and we’re seeing the results of that now.” Crab abundance is quite cyclical, Nichols said, and at least for the short term, the outlook for Dungies is good. “It seems like when we get these pulses of crab coming through, they last for a season or three,” he explained. “I have hopes that the fishing we’re experiencing this year may carry into next year. What I’ve heard from some of the fleet is that they’re still seeing small crab and we may have a few more good seasons in front of us. So that’s something to look forward to.” Westward crabbers are reportedly getting $2.60 to $2.75 a pound for their Dungeness catches. Industry updates Alaska’s seafood industry includes more than 9,000 fishing vessels, 87 large shoreside processing plants and generates 60,000 jobs annually. Those are just a few of the fishing industry updates unveiled at the recent Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s All Hands meeting in Anchorage. Here’s a sampler compiled by the McDowell Group: Alaska’s catches in 2018 reached 5.8 billion pounds with Alaska pollock comprising 59 percent of the volume. The $2 billion value of the harvest was led by salmon at 36 percent. Nearly 80 percent of Alaska’s seafood is exported; through the first half of 2019 the value of exports to China declined 15 percent. The 2019 salmon catch ranks eighth for all-time harvests. Just 14 percent of the salmon was canned compared to 40 percent in the early 2000s. Alaska is the world’s largest producer of Pacific cod, which is at a 20-year low. Current halibut harvest levels are just 20 percent of what they were 20 years ago. The export value of sablefish is down 30 percent due mostly to small fish and losses from whale predation. Strong demand for crab is pushing prices higher. Alaska accounts for 10 percent to 15 percent of global red king crab supply with 70 percent coming from Russia; for snow crab, Alaska produces less than 10 percent of the supply with 45 percent coming from eastern Canada. About 500 million pounds of more than 10 different kinds of flatfish are caught each year in Alaska valued at $100 million. Pacific Ocean perch is the main rockfish taken at 100 million pounds valued at $25 million. Looking ahead, strong or stable pollock prices are a bright spot and the 2019 salmon catch will be one of the most valuable ever. One caution: trade disputes remain a threat and more tariffs could be coming this month or in mid-December. ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Fisheries