Fisheries

ADFG opens early run of Kenai kings to catch-and-release

After years of depressed stocks and depressed fishermen, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has opened the early king salmon sport fishery for the first time since 2012. This accompanies several other early king runs throughout Southcentral and in the Arctic, correlating with warmer marine temperatures. ““We’re seeing stronger numbers of early-run kings returning to the Kenai,” Robert Begich, the area management biologist in Soldotna, said in a release. “This has allowed us to ease pre-season restrictions, and provide opportunity for anglers to fish for early-run king salmon.” Sport fishing for king salmon in the Kenai River will be from its mouth up to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulatory marker at the outlet of Skilak Lake. Fishing will be restricted to catch-and-release from June 4 through June 30 using only one, unbaited, barbless, single-hook, artificial fly or lure. Numbers for the early run have been promising. On the Kenai River, sonar has counted 1,834 fish as of May 30 — more than double the 702 fish seen at the same time last year and nearly ten times more than in 2013. ADFG closed the Kenai River early king salmon run to sport fisheries on Feb. 18 due to a low forecast. Only 5,206 fish were expected, which would rank 29th of the last 31 years ADFG has been counting. The optimal escapement goal for early-run Kenai River king salmon is 5,300 to 9,000. “Things are looking very promising right now,” said Jason Pawluk, Kenai area assistant management biologist. “The question is it a really early, below average run, or is it a big run? That’s the ultimate question right now.” Other oddities are popping up with the early run. Pawluk said the returning fish are younger than usual. ADFG uses size measurements as a proxy for age. By these measurements, Pawluk notes more two-ocean and four-ocean fish than typically return this early. On other rivers, king salmon have seen promising numbers. The Deshka River’s weir counted 3,150 king salmon by June 1, a massive improvement over the 533 and 248 counted by the same date in 2014 and 2013, respectively. On the Anchor River, video weirs counted 1,614 by June 1, almost dead even with last year’s measure of 1,599. Kings and chums are also coming back early farther north on the Yukon River, according to Kwik’Pak Fisheries sales manager Jack Schultheis. “We’ve been catching fish here for the last two weeks,” Schultheis said. Environmental changes accompany, and may explain, the early runs. In the Gulf of Alaska, surface temperatures average one degree Celsius above the average temperature. This is a leftover effect of the Gulf’s infamous Blob in 2015, which warmed Gulf of Alaska surface temperatures two degrees Celsius and ushered in a red tide of toxic algae. On the Yukon River, ice floes have vanished already with the same early run effects as in Southcentral, as predicted by ADFG in an earlier forecast. “This is a very unusual year, for the ice to go out as soon as it did,” said Schultheis. In 2013, for example, he said ice was still present on the river on July 10. “Then we got into this pattern lately when it would go out the 27th or 28th of May,” he said. “Now it’s going back to earlier breakups. Fish come in right after the ice goes out.” The fish could be returning earlier to beat the heat. Anecdotal evidence of warming trends adds up. “We monitor Hidden Lake when the ice goes out,” said Pawluk. “This year, we went on April 7, but it was completely open. Jean Lake was open. It went out between April 1 and April 7. Typically it goes out the first week of May.”  Pawluk said ADFG has been monitoring stream temperatures as well. On the Russian River, he said temperature readings in April read between eight and nine degrees Celsius instead of the typical five degrees. For other Southcentral rivers not so sensitive to environmental changes, runs are decidedly slower. On the Copper River, sockeye returns are only a third of what they were at the same point in the last two years, and the early king salmon run is lackluster as well. “Our king salmon harvest was low,” said Jeremy Botz, the Copper River area management biologist. “Through Tuesday (May 31), we’ve got close to 9,000 harvested. The last five years we’ve had really small runs. Typical for this time period we had twice that. We would’ve wanted 13,400 by this time.” The Copper River, however, lacks the same environmental vulnerability its sister Southcentral rivers display. Glacial runoff forms the Copper River. When waters warm, the glacier simply pours more cold water into to the river to correct the imbalance. “That’s why the Copper River runs are so consistent,” said Botz. “A lot of it has to do with that regulation.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]  

Council convenes in Kodiak with Gulf catch shares in focus

Editor's note: this article has beeen updated to reflect that CFAs were part of council's considerations since 2014, not recently introduced as in an earlier article version. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet in Kodiak from June 6-14 to hear a discussion paper that has enraged the trawl industry since late 2015. Two proposals are engineered to prevent harmful impacts such as the job losses and high cost of entry that have occurred under previous such programs in halibut and crab. This is an official state position, and the North Pacific council holds a six-member majority of the 11-member body that governs federal Alaska waters. Gov. Bill Walker’s administration prioritizes coastal communities’ economic prospects during the state’s oil-driven financial calamity. Part of that stance concerns keeping the fishing industry, the state’s largest private employer, in Alaskan fishermen’s hands.  “The greatest challenge facing fishery managers and communities to date has been how to adequately protect communities and working fishermen from the effects of fisheries privatization, notably excessive consolidation and concentration of fishing privileges, crew job loss, rising entry costs, absentee ownership of quota and high leasing fees, and the flight of fishing rights and wealth from fishery dependent communities,” the council’s discussion paper reads. “Collectively, these impacts are altering and in some cases severing the connection between Alaska coastal communities and fisheries.” For years, the council has mulled over a regulations to install catch shares in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries. Mainly trawlers go after this fishery, which includes pollock, a midwater fish, and species such as Pacific cod and arrowtooth flounder, which are bottom, or pelagic, fish. Catch shares are a form of rationalization that can allocate fishing privileges for both direct harvest and bycatch to individual fishermen, or groups of fishermen through cooperatives.  Fisheries managers say these systems slow the so-called “race for fish” — the old-school derby fisheries that contribute to depleted stocks and dangerous conditions that inspired the title of the popular show Deadliest Catch. Catch share programs have also been shown to reduce bycatch, which includes prohibited species catch such as salmon or halibut taken by trawlers or sub-legal size species that cannot be retained known as regulatory discards. Bycatch is hot topic in Alaska as two iconic species, chinook salmon and Pacific halibut, have suffered decline in recent years either in numbers in the case of salmon or legal-sized fish in the case of halibut. Most North Pacific fisheries already have some form of catch share system. The Gulf of Alaska groundfish fishery is one of the last remaining without one. Gulf trawlers have fought one regulatory option since October 2015 when it was first introduced by Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner Sam Cotten. The option, known as Alternative 3, would give individual fishermen or groups of fishermen bycatch quota instead of target species quota. Trawlers say this does nothing to slow the race for fish, and will virtually guarantee that fishermen use every available pound of bycatch. The trawl industry feels slighted by the alternative and mistreated by an administration it believes unfairly demonizes the gear type. Trawl captains and crew traveled en masse to the council’s February meeting Portland to object. Trawlers also vociferously objected to Walker’s appointments of Buck Laukitis and Theresa Peterson to the council as members they believe embody an anti-trawl bias. As a kind of booster, the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association and Groundfish Data Bank — Kodiak’s main trawl industry groups — will hold a trawler appreciation parade and festival on the city’s docks during the council’s June meeting. Alternative 3’s supporters argue the council should at least consider the plan before it moves to more vigorous economic impact analysis. Catch shares, they say, will consolidate the Gulf’s groundfish into only the trawl fleet and disenfranchise other fishermen. In Kodiak, cost of entry into fisheries has risen, and local participation has fallen, according to council studies. Between 2000 and 2010, Kodiak’s locally held Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits dropped from 1,646 to 1,279; halibut quota holders from 304 to 224; active crew licenses from 1,263 to 884; and locally owned vessels from 719 to 452. Alternative 4 wants to try a kind of community protection. It would install a catch share system for both target and non-target species, but give the share to non-profit entities representing entire communities instead of directly to industry. “A community allocation provides a clear mechanism to retain local access and protect coastal communities by bolstering locally based vessels and locally based ownership through affordable access to more quota,” reads the paper. The Community Fishery Association, or CFA, would function like a non-profit, complete with governing board and executive director. To get quota, each CFA would have to submit a community sustainability plan to a larger board of directors. Elected borough members from Central and Western Gulf areas would comprise this board along with fishing industry representatives. To qualify as a CFA, a community must be adjacent to saltwater located within the Western, Central, or West Yakutat regulatory areas of the GOA coast of the North Pacific Ocean, have a population of less than 6,500 as of the year 2000, consist of residents having any Gulf groundfish commercial permit and/or fishing or processing activity as documented by CFEC. The CFAs harvesters would have to join a fishing cooperative. As a fitting preamble, the council’s other main agenda item will review the 10-year mark since the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab fishery was rationalized.  The review details the extent of consolidation, which has continued since the plan’s last review in 2011. When the council rationalized Bering Sea crab, the number of boats in the crab fleet shrank by two-thirds in one season and eliminated 1,000 crew jobs. “Catcher vessel consolidation has continued,” reads the report’s summary. “As shown, the number of vessels decreased in every region, while the direction of change in percentage of vessels varied by region.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]  

FISH FACTOR: Project underway to study impact of limited entry program

Alaska began issuing limited entry permits for salmon fishing in 1975. Originally 1,372 permits (out of 2,758) were issued to residents of Bristol Bay; by 2007, only 735 permits remained under local ownership. An ambitious project is underway to find out how the system has played out over 40 years for the people of Bristol Bay. “I think there is a sense that the permit system was in some ways a necessary evil and it protected the resource. Some people feel misled about the way it was implemented, and felt like they didn’t understand the way permits were being allocated. Those feelings still come out to this day,” said Jennifer Meredith of Eagle River, now a development economist at the University of Washington. Meredith, with assists from tribal councils and locals, has been doing random surveys since March, with people throughout the Bristol Bay region. “We started in Aleknagik, Iliamna, Togiak, Naknek, King Salmon, South Naknek, Kaliganik, Manoktotak and we’re finishing off now in Dillingham,” Meredith said enthusiastically. The survey targets original permit holders from 1975, those who have fished more recently, and those who have never held fishing permits. “We’re really trying to measure where do you live now, where do your descendants live, what occupation do you have now if there is not a permit in the family. We also talk about ties to subsistence fishing, their social networks and we do household assets,” Meredith explained. The response so far, she said, has been “incredible” – an 80 percent success rate with nearly 700 participants before doing Dillingham. “I think part of the reason people have been so willing to cooperate is we really are there in the community to hear their stories, and to allow them to give voice to the way their permits affected them,” Meredith said, adding that there is a great deal of optimism throughout the Bristol Bay region. “They are scrappy and they are going to find a way to make it work,” she said. “They are committed to their traditional way of life, to subsistence and they are definitely committed to the commercial salmon fishery in a big way. There is definitely a sense that programs are needed that allow locals to get back into fishing and that the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation is trying to do that.” As she headed out for another survey, Meredith said, “I’m here for your voice to be heard. My intention is to have some evidence of how this system has affected you and your family, for good and for bad.” Meredith hopes to finish her report within a year and has promised to reveal the results in Dillingham. Her project is funded by the Marine Resource Economic Scholarship through WA Sea Grant and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Fish board update The Alaska Board of Fisheries proposal process will remain as is, for now. During a May 24 teleconference meeting, the board considered streamlining the way it reviews proposals seeking management changes to commercial, sport, personal use and subsistence fisheries. The board reviews 400-500 proposals during its annual meeting cycles. The meeting was live streamed via the internet. The Board was considering moving to a consent agenda format for technical proposals, whereby they could be approved all at once. But written comments from fishermen and organizations swayed them otherwise. Kelly Stier, a Bristol Bay driftnet fisherman, summed it up best: “I understand the drive for making the Board of Fish process of reviewing proposals more streamlined as I sat through the painful hours of public testimony in December,” he wrote. “However, I do not agree with changing to a ‘consent-agenda concept.’ One of the things that became apparent while attending the BOF meeting was that seemingly small issues can often greatly affect large numbers of participants. It is clear that those issues are best understood by the end user.” Board member Fritz Johnson of Dillingham called the current process “robust, and said he didn’t want to change it right now. Sue Jeffrey agreed, saying “I wouldn’t be comfortable right now putting this in place.” Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.    

Robot lab to help ID toxic algae off Wash.

SEATTLE (AP) — After a massive toxic algae bloom closed lucrative shellfish fisheries off the West Coast last year, scientists are turning to a new tool that could provide an early warning of future problems. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington last week deployed the so-called ocean robot about 50 feet into waters off the coast of La Push, Washington, near a known hotspot for toxic algae blooms. The tool, dubbed “a laboratory in a can,” will remain in the water until mid-July, providing real-time measurements about the concentrations of six species of microscopic algae and toxins they produce, including domoic acid. The instrument is equipped with sensors and cellular modems that will allow it to take water samples and send that information to shore three times a week for the next several weeks. Scientists plan to deploy it again in the fall, another critical time for harmful algae blooms. Last year, dangerous levels of domoic acid were found in shellfish and prompted California, Washington and Oregon to delay its coastal Dungeness crabbing season. Washington and Oregon also canceled razor clam digs for much of the year. The domoic acid was produced by microscopic algae that flourished during the summer amid unusually warm Pacific Ocean temperatures. The massive algae bloom produced some of the highest concentrations of domoic acid observed along some parts of the West Coast. Shellfish managers, public health officials, coastal tribes and others will be able to access the algae data and get advanced warning of toxic algae blooms off the Washington coast before they move to the coastline and contaminate shellfish. Domoic acid is harmful to people, fish and marine life. It accumulates in shellfish, anchovies and other small fish that eat the algae. Marine mammals and fish-eating birds in turn can get sick from eating the contaminated fish. In people, it can trigger amnesic shellfish poisoning. Stephanie Moore, a scientist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, said the instrument will make it much easier to get crucial information about blooms and toxins sooner. Researchers typically would have to go out in a boat, collect water samples and bring them back to a lab to be analyzed, a process that could take days, she said. “We’re actually miniaturizing a lab, putting it in a can and then leaving it out in the field to do the work for us,” Moore said. “This is so great because in so many of these remote offshore locations, we can leave the lab out there and get this information in a matter of hours rather than days.” The tool, called an environmental sample processor, was developed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Dozens of engineers, scientists and others from multiple institutions worked for about a year and a half on the processor, which was sent out for the first time in the Pacific Northwest a week ago. Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, called the instrument “a huge step forward.” The state has a robust monitoring program on beaches, he said, but receiving data about offshore conditions would give people even more time to make decisions, such as when and where to sample shellfish for toxins or when and where to open beaches for razor clamming. “If we had more time and can give businesses more time to plan, staff and place orders, and residents to make decisions, the impacts would certainly be lessened,” he said. Last year’s toxic algae bloom roiled tourism in coastal communities and marine ecosystems and “hit us across the face,” he added. Vera Trainer, who manages the marine biotoxin program at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said this year appears to be a much more typical year for toxic algae blooms. The vision is to have multiple robots in multiple hotspots to track harmful algae blooms along the coast, she said.

Alaska holds its perennial spot atop NOAA fisheries rankings

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual report detailing national and regional economic impacts of U.S. fisheries and as usual Alaska produced both the greatest value and volume of any area. The report includes economic impacts in the harvesting, processing, wholesale, retail, and import sectors, as well as those from recreational saltwater fishing. In 2014, the nation’s commercial seafood industry produced 1.4 million full-and part-time jobs, $153 billion in sales (including imports), $42 billion in income and $64 billion in value-added impacts. Domestic harvests produced $54 billion in sales. Alaska’s seafood industry employs more people than any other private industry in the state. California supported most of the nation’s 1.4 million seafood jobs in 2014 with 143,440. Alaska’s industry supported 60,749 jobs. NOAA oversees all fisheries in U.S. waters from three to 200 miles off the coast, with management rules crafted by eight regional councils created under the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act. In 2014, U.S commercial fishermen harvested a total market value of $9.4 billion worth of finfish and shellfish, worth $5.5 billion in dockside value to fishermen. The U.S. most valuable seafood product in 2014 was shrimp, which represents $702 million in market value. Pacific salmon came in second, representing $617 million in overall value. Lobster and scallops came in third and fourth, representing $567 million and $424 million, respectively. North Pacific fisheries, dominated by walleye pollock and Pacific salmon, accounted for the greatest volume and value of the eight regions. NOAA separates seafood into finfish and shellfish. Finfish includes groundfish like walleye pollock. Alaska caught the most finfish, representing 68 percent of the nation’s total. California produced the most shellfish with 260 million pounds, followed by Louisiana and Maine’s shrimp and lobster catches. In volume terms, pollock produced three times more sheer poundage than the next species, menhaden. Fishermen in the North Pacific harvested 3.1 billion pounds of walleye pollock in 2014, around 55 percent of the region’s total seafood landings. Pacific salmon’s value adds to pollock’s volume to make the North Pacific region the U.S. seafood industry’s largest. Of the $5.5 billion in nationwide dockside revenue, the North Pacific region produced $1.7 billion, or 31 percent of the total. Half came of that from Pacific salmon and pollock revenue. North Pacific fishermen made the most income from salmon, pollock, and crab in 2014. For Alaska fishermen, the three species comprised 69 percent of the region’s total value. Salmon produced the most revenue with $546 million, followed by $400 million from pollock and $238 million from crab. North Pacific waters did display some marked reductions in certain seafood, however. From 2013 to 2014, the overall halibut harvest declined by 70 percent, and the Pacific sablefish harvest declined by 31 percent. Pacific salmon landings declined by 33 percent, attributable mainly to the difference between 2013 pink salmon — one of the largest harvests on record — and the corresponding down cycle in 2014. Pink salmon run strong every other year. Recreational fisheries also played a large role in the U.S. marine economy, though Alaska’s numbers make a small amount of the national participation. Nationwide, 11 million anglers participated in U.S. saltwater recreational fisheries, taking a total 68 million trips. The recreational fisheries created $60.6 billion in sales impacts from fishing trips and related equipment, a 4 percent increase. Jobs supported by recreational saltwater fisheries were concentrated heavily in Florida and California, which together represent 31 percent of overall jobs. Alaska supported 1.2 percent of these jobs. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]  

Recent trend of small sockeye continues at Copper River

Alaska’s earliest sockeye run could be a rerun. Copper River sockeye are even punier than last year’s record-setting slim fish, matching warnings from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s preseason forecast. “The fish are still small,” said Steve Moffitt, Cordova area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “So far, they’re even smaller than what we got last year.” The early trend could foretell small fish throughout the state. Last year, workers statewide from offices of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, noticed an early in-season trend of smaller-than-average fish. After the season ended, final tallies for each major salmon-producing area with brood stock from the Gulf of Alaska charted sockeye salmon an average pound less than the most recent 10-year averages. The Copper River run is still in its early stages, but Moffitt said the Copper River sockeye this year are following the same pattern. “First period we have about 4.4 pounds for sockeye, second period we had 4.3 pounds,” said Moffitt. “Last year, the year end was a little under 5.1 pounds. And that was the smallest we’d ever seen.” The average Copper River sockeye weighs an average 6 pounds, and hasn’t been measured smaller than 5.1 pounds anytime prior to 1966. The Copper River run precedes other major sockeye producing areas like Cook Inlet and Bristol Bay by several weeks. ADFG scientists in other areas have no data yet to compare sockeye size with the Copper River run. Moffitt emphasizes the fish are smaller across age classes, meaning scientists can’t attribute the size decrease to a prevalence of younger, smaller fish. More of the older and typically larger sockeye are returning this year than previous years, as predicted in ADFG’s area forecast. “The 2016 run of natural sockeye salmon to the Copper River will be composed primarily of returns from brood years 2011 and 2012. Five-year-old fish (brood year 2011) are expected to predominate Copper River Delta and upper Copper River runs,” the forecast reads. So far, Moffitt said ADFG forecast is spot on. “We’ve got a couple age class processed,” Moffitt said. “There’s been no change in the age composition. It pretty much matches the long-term average. We’re seeing the same age classes defining the run. The age five, which is usually predominant, is even more predominant this year.” Moffitt noted that adaptive fishing techniques could skew numbers downward. A reporting hitch has surfaced. In response to last year’s small fish, many Cordova area fishermen in 2016 swapped out gillnets for smaller mesh sizes to better catch the small fish. This could let the larger ones go unaccounted for and distort the true average, Moffitt said. This can produce commercial problems as well as statistical inaccuracies. Selling sockeye salmon nearly one-third beneath their average weight can be a problem for the Copper River brand, founded on high-end fillets that must meet certain marketability requirements for processors and retailers, including size. The change in mesh size could also affect harvest volume. Fishermen cannot drop smaller mesh sizes as deeply into the water column to snag salmon; many will swim underneath the net to escape warmer water, as fishermen reported last year from several Gulf-adjacent waters, potentially lessening the overall harvest. Limited supply comes with both benefits and drawbacks. As of May 24, Copper River gillnetters have harvested 72,733 sockeye, a slower beginning than average that has produced a $6.50 per pound price, more than a dollar better than last year’s opening price. Several factors could contribute to the small sockeye, according to Moffitt and other biologists who observed small fish in 2015. Most scientists link to warm water from the infamous Gulf of Alaska “Blob,” along with food competition between pink salmon and sockeye and among sockeye themselves. Warmer water has been the most visible marine change, and this year the trend is continuing, if on a smaller level than 2015. Through February 2016, Gulf of Alaska water was one degree Celsius greater than the most recent 10-year average, according to a majority of area buoy readings. This is an improvement from last year, when the same waters at that time were nearly two degrees Celsius above average. The so-called “Blob” has largely dissipated and mixed with colder water, though National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studies say the effects will linger until a La Niña weather cycle cools the North Pacific. Reports say the cycle has a 75 percent chance of beginning this fall. Warm water raises sockeye base metabolic rate, Moffitt said. Fish need more food, but the cold water-loving plankton they eat are more scarce. The sockeye can’t beef up as normal. Small fish also coincide with large runs, lending scientific credibility to the Cordova fisherman’s adage, “Big run, small fish.” Sockeye compete with pink salmon and other sockeye for less available food sources at a time when their metabolism demands more than normal. Of the seven largest sockeye runs to Copper River, five of them were in the last five years. Prince William Sound pink salmon run was the largest on record in 2015. This year’s forecast is tamer for the area.  The Alaska Department of Fish and Game 2016 total run forecast of sockeye salmon for the Copper River is 2.56 million, similar to the recent 10-year average total run 2.60 million. If realized, the 2016 forecast total run will be the 11th largest in the last 36 years. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Canada OK’s GE salmon; Senate panel requires labeling

A fast-growing, genetically-engineered salmon got Canada’s stamp of approval on May 19, the same day a U.S. Senate Appropriations committee approved language that requires the salmon be labeled as “genetically modified” in the U.S. Called AquAdvantage, the genetically-engineered fish has met massive resistance from the U.S. commercial fishing industry and politicians from fishing states. AquAdvantage grows to marketable size in half the time as conventional farmed salmon, and a fraction of the time and effort to harvest wild salmon. AquaBounty splices of Atlantic salmon and chinook salmon with a continual growth hormone from ocean pout, meaning it grows twice as fast. The U.S. still won’t see the new fast-growing fish on market shelves in the next year, both by federal design and by marketing needs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration passed ban on the import of genetically engineered fish in January, only to apply to fiscal year 2016. The ban itself is symbolic, not functional; AquaBounty said its product won’t be market ready for another year anyway. AquAdvantage is the first genetically-engineered animal product to be approved for human consumption, though the approval has taken the better part of a decade. AquaBounty has sought U.S. and Canadian approval for the product since 1996. Backlash from anti-GMO groups and the Alaska congressional delegation in particular has slowed the process. Despite fears of health and environmental impacts, however, both governments said in the last year that the fish is safe for humans to eat. The FDA approved AquAdvantage in February 2015, saying it has “no substantial nutritional difference” from wild or conventional farmed fish. Canada Health and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, that nation’s equivalent to the FDA, announced on May 19 that AquaBounty’s product is safe for human consumption. Canada has not yet required that the product be labeled, unlike the U.S. After AquAdvantage’s FDA approval, U.S. officials from fishing states, as well as environmental groups, have wrestled to force vendors to label the product as genetically engineered. On May 19, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Fiscal Year 2017 appropriations bill, sending it to the full Senate for consideration, currently unscheduled. Among other provisions, the bill includes language to make vendors prominently include “genetically-engineered” in the product’s market name. “The acceptable market name of any salmon that is genetically engineered shall include the words ’genetically engineered’ or ‘GE’ prior to the existing acceptable market name,” reads the provision. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s senior U.S. Senator and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, added the language. Murkowski has doggedly pursued labeling mandates after a drawn-out fight with the FDA, which currently makes GE labeling voluntary. Murkowski had held the nomination of Dr. Richard Califf as FDA chief until the FDA agreed to labeling mandates. Murkowski attributes a list of problems to what she and other critics have dubbed “Frankenfish.” She said leaving the fish unlabeled would harm Alaska’s reputation and economy and the well being of Americans at large. “Genetically engineered salmon pose a serious threat to the livelihoods of fisherman and the health and well-being of Americans across the nation,” said Murkowski in a statement. “Alaska is known around the world for our sustainably-caught, wild, delicious seafood. Requiring labeling of genetically engineered salmon helps us to maintain Alaska’s gold-standard reputation for years to come, and protects consumers.”  Alaska’s state legislators also heavily oppose the product. In a series of releases in January, they expressed doubt over scientific basis of the FDA’s decision and called for a mandatory labeling requirement. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Salmon small but prices high; US seafood demand still low

Alaska’s salmon season officially got underway on May 16 with the arrival of thousands of sockeye and king salmon at the Copper River near Cordova, and high prices were the talk of the town. The first opener produced a catch of 25,000 sockeye and about 1,500 kings. “It was pretty slow to start. Small fish, not too many of them,” said Kelsey Appleton with Cordova District Fishermen United. Following a trend seen over the past couple of years across Alaska, the salmon were healthy but much smaller.  Weights taken on several hundred samples after the 12-hour fishery showed sockeyes averaging just 4.2 pounds, 15 percent smaller than last year when fish size was the smallest seen in 50 years. Sockeye salmon normally average 6 pounds. “It’s bad for our economy and bad for our fishermen; it’s not necessarily bad for our fish,” said Dr. Rob Campbell, a biological oceanographer with the Prince William Sound Science Center. “It’s just been astoundingly warm in the entire North Pacific for two or three years now, and for most cold-blooded things like salmon or plankton or what have you, in warmer conditions they tend to reach a smaller final body size.” Of course, the biggest fish story of the day was the price for the first fish: $6.50 per pound for sockeyes and $9.50 for kings. That compares to starting prices last year of $5.15 and $6.50, respectively. “Crazy high prices, which is fantastic,” said Appleton. The prices typically drop as more salmon come on line across Alaska, but those starting prices are some of the highest ever. It will fuel optimism across the state after last season when the value to fishermen fell by 40 percent. Overall, Alaska’s salmon fishery this year calls for a harvest of 161 million fish, down by 40 percent from the 2015 catch. The shortfall stems from a huge decrease projected for pink salmon with a harvest forecast of 90 million, a drop of 100 million humpies from last year. Eat more fish! Eating trends show some big plusses for wild seafood, but will that make Americans eat more of it? According to the NPD Group, an international market tracker, the top trend is that consumers want to know where their foods and fish come from. The Group credits seafood for improved traceability and local sourcing, and says that will continue to boost sales. Good fats also are in. People now know that some fats are healthy, such as those found in eggs, avocados and seafood. “Consumers are seeking non-genetically modified foods in droves,” NPD said. That will benefit wild seafood as people are demanding natural foods with fewer additives of anything, let alone tweaked genes. Along that line, people want foods with “real” ingredients and are reading labels like never before. Healthy and light entrees are expected to grow at a faster rate through 2018, another opportunity for seafood. Technomic, another top market research firm lists “trash to treasure” fish as its No. 3 seafood trend, as more restaurants serve up lesser-known fish. Both market watchers said more people are cooking fish at home, Maybe that will help boost consumption, which has stalled at under 15 pounds a year per American. Despite all of the conclusive health benefits from eating fish, a study last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed only one in 10 Americans follow U.S. Dietary Guidelines to eat seafood at least once a week. Fish intake is associated with a 36 percent reduced mortality risk from heart disease and a 12 percent reduction in mortality. It improves children’s brain and eye development, slows brain aging, lowers the risk of depression and mood disorders, helps with weight management and more. So why are so many Americans taking a pass? According to the Washington Post, Americans have a fear of mercury, buying fish, and cooking it. For those worried about avoiding mercury, government guidelines suggest not eating tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel. Instead, choose salmon, shrimp, pollock, light canned tuna, tilapia, catfish, cod, sardines, sole and trout. “Put in proper perspective, most of us should be more concerned with eating enough fish rather than worrying about mercury,” the Post article said. In terms of not buying more fish, a survey in the Journal of Food Service showed that affordability was a top reason, and most people said they did not have the knowledge to select the best quality. The survey added that most people said they don’t know how to cook fish. “I can see that people understand that seafood is good for them. The hurdles come from knowing how to buy it and cook it and really understand the different varieties of seafood that they can include in their diet,” said Linda Cornish, director of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership. The move away from fish is showing troubling signs in Japan, traditionally one of the world’s biggest seafood eating nations and a top customer for Alaska seafood. Seafood.com reports that a new government study states that Japan’s seafood consumption has declined drastically, especially among younger generations. The report reveals that total per-capita seafood consumption has declined to 60 pounds per year, down 30 percent from a peak of over 88 pounds in 2001. The trend is especially prevalent among people younger than 40, who are increasingly replacing Japan’s once most common food with meat, the report revealed. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.  

Report: Optimism for salmon prices in ‘16

A new market analysis has an optimistic outlook for the 2016 salmon season — and goes a long way in explaining why Bristol Bay sockeye salmon received a low dockside price for last year’s catch. Juneau-based economics firm McDowell Group completed the report under contract from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. ASMI is a state- and private-funded marketing organization specifically set up to increase the foreign and domestic demand and prices for Alaska’s seafood. ASMI’s report responds in part to fishermen’s concerns about salmon prices paid to fishermen by processors, called the ex-vessel price. In 2015, fishermen in the state’s most valuable fishery, Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon, only received half their usual ex-vessel price for fish while the processing and retail industries appeared to maintain their prices. The report says processors simply had less capital to spread to fishermen in 2015, as they were beset by a host of negative market factors. Strong U.S. currency values lessened purchasing power for key foreign export markets, important export markets vanished, and massive supply caused led to a decrease in overall value. Combined with 2013 and 2014, two of the largest volume years on record for statewide salmon harvest, last summer’s harvest created downward market pressure as processors were left with an oversupply. Researchers have a hard time gathering as much first wholesale data as they can with ex-vessel value data. Net processing revenue, they say, makes for the best widely available data to analyze processors’ financials. Even though wholesale price and corresponding retail prices may not have seemed to vary along with the ex-vessel price, total processing revenue for 2015 was very low. Ex-vessel prices dropped to control costs. “Net processing revenue averaged $706 million in 2013 and 2014 (about 10 percent below the previous three-year average), and net processing revenue per pound dropped 21 percent (inflation-adjusted basis),” the report reads. “This left many processors in a relatively poor financial position heading into 2015. With less working capital, a large 2015 salmon forecast, mounting canned inventories, and a declining wholesale market, processors were far more conservative with ex-vessel price commitments in 2015.” The report details that the 2015 ex-vessel price of 50 cents per pound is only the latest in a series of annual price drops. Ex-vessel value for Alaska salmon has declined sharply since 2013, when economists adjusted prices for inflation. “Ex-vessel value fell by approximately 41 percent between 2013 and 2015 - years which produced the two largest Alaska salmon harvest volumes on record,” explains the report. “Ex-vessel prices fell for all five salmon species during this time: sockeye (-61 percent), pinks (-51 percent), coho (-45 percent), chinook (-19 percent), and chum (-17 percent).” Dockside prices reached a peak in 2013 not seen since 1995. In 2013, the total inflation-adjusted value of Alaska salmon was more than $750 million, a level only reached twice in the last 20 years. The McDowell Group believes prices will stabilize this year, as supply will shrink. “There are several reasons to be cautiously optimistic that prices for most key products/species will at least stabilize and likely rise somewhat in both ex-vessel and wholesale market,” according to the report. “However, even if prices do increase somewhat, the smaller expected harvest in 2016 will probably result in a lower overall resource value.” This year, both pinks and reds are set to decline in production. Chinook and coho salmon will increase, but processors rely far more on reds and pinks. Together, the two species make up 84 percent of salmon volume and 78 percent of salmon value. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the sockeye salmon harvest — which makes up 55 percent of the state’s salmon sales by value — is expected to be about 7.3 million fewer than in 2015. ADFG forecasts the Bristol Bay sockeye harvest — the most valuable in the state — to be 29.5 million, far less than the 2015 harvest of more than 36 million but still greater than the 20-year average of 23.2 million. Both reds and pinks contributed last year to one of the largest overall salmon harvests on record. Statewide, the commercial salmon harvest of all species was 247 million fish, greater than the 2015 harvest projection of 220 million and the 2005-14 average of 179 million fish. The harvest was the second highest since 1994, following only 2013, when the harvest was 273 million fish. The projected harvest of pink salmon — which run strong every other year — is about 100 million fewer than in 2015 at 190.5 million. In Prince William Sound where pink salmon is the major harvest, the forecast is 23.4 million, less than average and a change of pace from the 2015 season that broke the 20-year record for the largest harvest with 96 million fish. Southeast Alaska will have a harvest of 34 million pinks. In Kodiak, 16.2 million is projected, and 13.4 million is forecast for the South Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. Chile’s farmed salmon situation should also benefit Alaska fishermen as the nation’s large farmed salmon export industry is beset by environmental damage and protests. Chile is the world’s second largest farmer of salmon, and one of the three main exporters of farmed salmon into the U.S. market along with Norway and Canada. In 2016, a massive red algal bloom killed upwards of 100,000 tons of Chilean Atlantic and coho salmon stocks — between 12 and 17 percent of the total output, according to various reports — representing tens of millions of dollars of lost product. The massive supply loss came with a price spike of upwards of 65 cents per pound, according to seafood industry news source Intrafish. Bristol Bay sockeye fishermen, who compete directly with Chilean farmed salmon, say the price spike should make Alaska exports that much easier both in domestic and foreign markets. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Port State Measures targeting IUU fishing takes effect June 5

The international Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing will go into effect next month as one more step in curbing a worldwide network of fish piracy. On May 16, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization announced that 29 nations and the European Union have joined the international agreement, representing 62 percent of worldwide fish imports and 49 percent of fish exports, that were $133 billion and $139 billion in 2013, according to official state estimates. The agreement only needs 25 countries to enter into force. It will go into effect on June 5. The agreement is an international attempt to control illegal, unreported and unregulated, or IUU, fishing by tightening port controls for member nations. It requires participating nations designate specific ports for foreign vessels. Foreign vessels may only enter with permission after providing a host of fishing documentation, and participating nations must compile lists of vessels known as IUU fishermen. These vessels should be refused port entry. President Barack Obama ratified the U.S. agreement in November 2015 as part of the IUU Enforcement Act of 2015, but U.S. behaviors changed very little as a result, according to officials’ statements from 2015. The U.S. already bars foreign fishing vessels from offloading at its ports.  Rather than focusing on domestic changes, the port agreement wants to tighten a noose around IUU deliveries worldwide before multiple nations can launder illegal fish among several processors and make their way into the U.S. market as mislabeled fish. The more countries that join the agreement, the fewer worldwide ports that serve as offload points for IUU seafood. “To have maximum impact, we need more countries to join the fight against IUU fishing,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement. “As countries close off ports to illicit fishing products, those involved in IUU fishing will have to incur more expense and travel greater distances to land and sell their illegally caught fish.” Estimates vary regarding the economic impact of IUU fishing. Economists have a hard time compiling the expansive and elusive data required. “There have been numerous studies about the impact of IUU fishing but NOAA does not single out any specific study for reference,” wrote Katherine Brogan, a public affairs officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Division. “A survey of the literature indicates the challenge and variety of approaches associated with quantifying the value and impacts of IUU fishing. That said, one would certainly conclude that the economic impacts, social costs, and environmental threats resulting from IUU fishing are significant.” The U.S. Coast Guard, however, estimates IUU fishing annually drains $10 billion to $23 billion away from the legitimate seafood industry worldwide. One of the major IUU sources, the Russian Federation, has still not joined the agreement, though it signed intent to join in April 2010, according to FAO records. Russia and the U.S. did enter a bilateral agreement in 2015 involving IUU fishing. The agreement instructs Russian and U.S. law enforcement to share the names and information of vessels and vessel owners involved in IUU fishing. Alaska’s congressional delegation has emphasized the importance of Russia joining the agreement. Rep. Don Young introduced and passed the IUU Enforcement Act of 2015, which added the U.S. to the Port State Measure Agreement among other changes. In Alaska, the largest fishing region in the U.S. with an annual $2 billion to $4 billion value, IUU cuts into the bottom line of pollock and crab, two of the most valuable species. According to a GMA Research consumer report, up to 40 percent of what has been sold as “Alaska pollock” is in fact from Russian waters. Young and Rep. Jaime Beutler, R-Wash., introduced legislation on Oct. 22, 2015 to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to change the term “Alaska pollock” to “pollock.” The FDA subsequently announced Jan. 21 that only pollock caught in Alaska waters can be labeled “Alaska pollock.” Alaska waters are defined the Alaska-adjacent Exclusive Economic Zone three to 200 miles offshore, according to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs U.S. federal fisheries. Pollock is the largest fishery in the U.S., producing 2.9 billions pounds and accounting for 11 percent of U.S. seafood intake. In the North Pacific management region, pollock accounted for $406 million worth of landings. Similar to pollock, North Pacific crab is often mislabeled as Alaskan. Russian IUU crab alone has cost Alaska Bering Sea crab fishermen up to $560 million, according to one estimate by United Fishermen of Alaska, the state’s largest commercial fishing industry group. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Rosier outlook for salmon prices; board changes considered

Alaska’s salmon season has gotten underway with lots of optimism, a far cry from the bleak feelings of a year ago. Last year’s fishery was blown asunder by a perfect storm of depressed currencies, salmon backlogs and global markets awash with farmed fish. Prices to fishermen fell by nearly 41 percent between 2013 and 2015, years, which produced the two largest Alaska salmon harvest volumes on record. But in the past six months, those trends have turned around. “Based on current market conditions and harvest expectations, it appears probable that prices will begin improving in 2016 and there is an excellent chance total ex-vessel (dockside) value will rebound in 2017,” heralds the Salmon Market Information Service just released by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. The user-friendly reports include a salmon industry analysis, harvest and forecast summaries, salmon market overviews and Alaska seafood exports. One of the biggest turn arounds this year is with global currencies. “Going into last year the dollar was getting stronger against our major customers and competitors. That makes our salmon more expensive to foreign buyers and the competing imports less expensive,” said Andy Wink, a fisheries economist with the McDowell Group. That trend has reversed and the dollar has weakened against other currencies, notably with the Euro (slightly) and the Japanese Yen, which has strengthened about 13 percent from a year ago. “That will make our products less expensive to those two key Alaska salmon markets,” Wink said. Another positive turnaround is with salmon supplies. “If you want to see what’s happening with fish prices, look at supply and demand. Look at how much was produced in Alaska and how much our competitors produced,” advised fisheries economist Gunnar Knapp, director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The loss of tens of millions of Chilean farmed salmon from an ongoing toxic algae brew caused by warming oceans has taken the biggest bite out of world supplies. The U.S. is Chile’s largest customer, last year importing 295 million pounds of farmed salmon valued at $1.16 billion. “In Japan, Alaska sockeye’s biggest competition is farmed Chilean coho salmon and it is estimated 20 to 30 percent has died in the algae bloom,” Wink said. Japan buys 80 percent of Chile’s farmed coho salmon and wholesale prices last month skyrocketed to $3.10-$3.35 per pound, up 20 percent from the same time last year. A failure of Japan’s wild and farmed salmon fisheries also has spawned a surge of sockeye demand. Alaska sockeye exports to Japan at the end of 2015 were up 320 percent over the previous year, and are expected to remain high as holdings clear out prior to the new fishing season. That’s another plus: backlogs of Alaska salmon, primarily sockeye, have moved briskly all year at retail. “Promotions during Lent pretty much cleaned out the freezers,” Wink said. “I definitely think things will be better than a year ago,” agreed Norm Van Vactor, President of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and former manager at Leader Creek and Peter Pan Seafoods. “Last year we would be talking about all the frozen fish in inventory. This year things moved smoother and we’re sitting in good shape.” Other supply and demand indicators: Alaska’s projected salmon catch this year of 161 million fish year is a 40 percent decrease, due to an off year for pinks. Salmon fisheries along the West Coast will be at a fraction of their former selves this year, and Russia’s catches also are expected to be down. Some of the supply shortfall will be made up by Norway which is battling its own fish losses caused from salmon lice. Another reason to choose wild salmon: the FDA last month lifted the ban on U.S. imports by Norway and other countries that use lice killing chemicals (azamethiphos) in their fish farms.  It comes after years of pushing by the Fish Vet Group, bankrolled by Benchmark, a lice treatment producer. (By law, all seafood sold in the U.S. must be labeled as wild or farmed and list the country of origin.) Pick up the pace The state Board of Fisheries could vote this month to streamline the way it reviews proposals that deal with oversight of Alaska’s commercial, sport, personal use and subsistence fisheries. The seven-member BOF addresses several hundred regulation change proposals during its annual meeting cycle each year and fishery management is based on its decisions. During a May 24 teleconference, the board could vote to deal with some proposals in a more timely way.  “We want to see if there is a way to speed up the proposal review process on certain proposals at board meetings,” said Glenn Haight, executive director for the BOF. In the face of tightening budgets, time is money. Haight said the board is looking at quicker ways to deal with technical proposals, often submitted by fishery managers. “Things like marker identifications – rather than using the old stump that’s down by the point across the bluff as an identifier, they might use GPS,” he explained. “Those kinds of things get introduced, they’re reported on before meetings, then discussed in committee…It would be an attempt to streamline that.” The BOF could vote on a “consent agenda concept” for technical proposals, commonly used by local governments. “Where things that are fairly pro forma and aren’t terribly controversial. The board would try and identify those things in advance and make them known, and if none of the proposals raised concern, the board could take them under consent agenda and vote them all in the affirmative at one time,” Haight explained, adding that “it would allow more time to work on the more substantive proposals.” The May 24 teleconference is listen only, but the public can comment on the revised proposal process through May 20. Blowhole blunder Toothed whales do have blowholes; I incorrectly implied they do not in last week’s pinger story. Baleen whales have not one, but two blowholes. Thanks to naturalist interpreter Lani Lockwood for the correction. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

FISH FACTOR: Pingers get a whale of a rebate; new report out on Kodiak

Alaska salmon fishermen can get rebates on pingers aimed at keeping baleen whales away from their gear. The six inch, battery operated tubes are tied into fishing nets and transmit animal-specific signals every five seconds to alert the animals to keep their distance. “Pingers can be really helpful to alert the whales to something in front of them so you have less entanglements,” said Kathy Hansen, director of the Southeast Alaska Fisheries Alliance. SEAFA received a $25,000 Hollings Grant from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation to fund the pinger program, which offers a $25 rebate for up to five pingers per permit per vessel on units purchased after May 1. The pingers can retail for up to $100 each and the cost can deter fishermen from buying them. “A Southeast gillnet that is 200 fathoms long needs at least five,” Hansen said, adding that the rebates apply to any Alaska salmon fishery. The pinger signal in this case signal is aimed primarily at preventing entanglements of baleen whales. “Baleen whales don’t have sonar like people think all marine mammals have. They actually just hear,” Hansen said. “So the pinger emits a noise at a frequency that is not harmful and doesn’t scare the whales — it just lets them know something is there.” Baleen whales are the largest animals on earth, yet they feed on the smallest creatures in the ocean. They are named for the long plates of baleen, which hang like flexible teeth of a comb from their upper jaws, which strain huge volumes of ocean water through their plates to capture tons of zooplankton, crustaceans, and small fish. The whales also have blowholes; both features distinguish them from toothed whales. Hansen said she has used pingers in her salmon driftnet gear for six over years and swears by them. “You must be sure they are not spaced too far apart or the whales think there is an opening between them,” she advised. She added that the pingers do not act like a “dinner bell” for whales, nor do they scare away the salmon. Gear encounters by whales are rare in Alaska, with 130 large whale entanglement reports on the books since 1998. According to NOAA’s Protected Resources Division. Find rebate forms from the SEAFA website and wherever pingers are purchased. Hansen said it’s “first come, first served until the money runs out.” Kodiak runs on fish Kodiak ranks second in the U.S. for volume of fish landings and third for value. Now residents want to make sure new ways of running the fisheries sustain that status. Federal fishery managers are crafting a new management plan designed to give about 70 Gulf trawlers better tools to reduce halibut and salmon bycatch in their groundfish hauls. It will include some form of catch shares for to 25 different fish species, which together make up over 80 percent of Kodiak’s annual landings. To provide guidance, a new economic impact report breaks down how the entire seafood industry plays out throughout the Kodiak Island Borough, which includes six outlying villages for a total population of 14,000 residents. The draft report done by the McDowell Group gives a 10-year snapshot starting in 2005. Some highlights: Nearly 500 million pounds of seafood worth $150 million to fishermen was delivered to Kodiak Island in 2014. The seafood industry accounted for 38 percent of total Island employment. Kodiak’s eight seafood processors handle year-round deliveries of fish caught by boats from all parts of the Gulf and Bering Sea, and employ the highest percentage of local residents of any Alaska region. Fish landings in Kodiak have trended up over the last decade, increasing 34 percent since 2005.  Groundfish deliveries of cod, rockfish and flounders have doubled, and pollock landings have increased by 162 percent. The value of salmon permits held by Island residents has increased substantially over the last decade, while permit ownership has dropped. In 2005, 398 Kodiak residents owned permits worth about $11 million. Ten years later, local ownership was at 289 permits valued at $29 million. The study concludes that any management policies or priorities that change the volumes or values of fish harvested and processed in the Kodiak borough will have direct, indirect and induced economic effects over time. Fish tech training to go Fish Tech courses have gone mobile with iPads that allow students to start their training anywhere. The waterproof iPads are the latest tool offered by the University of Alaska/Southeast to prepare students for jobs as fish culturists, hatchery operators, field technicians and managers. “You don’t need accessibility to the internet because all the lectures, videos, readings and exams are preloaded on the iPad. So you could be out at sea and still have access to your classes,” said Ashley Burns in Kodiak, one of six UAS outreach coordinators also in Bethel, Valdez, Petersburg, Homer and Dillingham. The first iPad course is an introduction to fisheries of Alaska, and other classes will be added throughout the year. Each course earns credits toward occupational endorsements, certificates and other degrees. Jobs in Fish Tech fields are readily available due to a shortage of trained workers in Alaska, a trend expected to last for at least a decade. “Our program works heavily with the industry to make sure that our classes being offered are exactly what they are looking for in potential employees,” Burns said, adding that registration for new students is open now. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Canadian firm buys Icicle; Sealaska acquires share in Seattle processor

KETCHIKAN — Icicle Seafoods, a prominent Alaska fishing company with its roots in Petersburg, has been bought by a Canadian company that primarily raises farmed Atlantic salmon. Cooke Seafood Inc., based on Canada’s east coast, announced on May 9 that it had purchased Icicle for an undisclosed amount. The deal is expected to be concluded in less than a month. Icicle’s operations have expanded from its original operations in Petersburg to include both wild Alaskan salmon and salmon farming operations, but its purchase represents Cooke Seafood’s entry into the wild market. “We have tremendous respect for the Alaska fishery and its highly valued brand in the seafood marketplace,” said Cooke Seafood President Glenn Cooke in the May 9 announcement. Icicle Seafood, now based in Seattle, processes more than 330 million pounds of seafood every year, and it harvests wild salmon, crab, halibut and other groundfish. The company runs two large processing vessels, the Gordon Jensen and the R.M. Thorstensen, and 11 fishing vessels starting at 103 feet long. Its purchase will push Cooke Seafood’s production to more than 606 million pounds and $1.8 billion in sales, according to the announcement. Icicle Seafood’s salmon farming operations are based in Washington state. Christopher Ruettgers, CEO of Icicle Seafoods, said the purchase would allow the company to “focus on the expansion of our footprint in Alaska” and offer “access to capital to further modernize our platform, expanded market access for the products harvested by our fleets and a broader product offering for our customer base.” — Ketchikan Daily News staff Sealaska acquires share of Independent Packers Corp. JUNEAU — Southeast regional Native corporation Sealaska has announced the purchase of a minority stake in Independent Packers Corp., a Seattle-based seafood processor. The announcement, made by email May 9, comes a week after the company announced 2015 results that show in-house revenue on the rise. Sealaska Chief Operating Officer Terry Downes said the purchase is “our first foray” into seafood and part of Sealaska’s shift into businesses familiar to its 22,000 shareholders. “It straddles Southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest,” Downes said. “We want to have our businesses be really relevant to the ownership.” In the 1980s, Sealaska owned (through a subsidiary) Seattle Seafoods and Seafood Packers Inc., two Washington-based firms that were subsequently sold to Trident Seafoods. It has also previously invested in mariculture operations to grow shellfish. Downes declined to disclose the size of Sealaska’s investment or what percentage the minority share will be. Independent Packers president Jeff Buske did not respond to inquiries before press time. Independent Packers is a custom-processing company that works “in the middle of the supply chain,” Downes said. It doesn’t catch fish and it doesn’t sell them in stores. Rather, it finishes filets and products on behalf of other companies, effectively acting as a third-party contractor. According to Sealaska’s initial announcement, IPC has approximately 130 employees in Seattle and works principally with red and king salmon. The purchase is part of a new business strategy begun by Sealaska in 2012. In that strategy, Sealaska decided to focus on three corporate groups: natural resources (a group that includes timber), natural foods (home to the IPC stake) and Sealaska Government Services, which will focus on “water, energy and maritime services,” according to the company’s 2015 annual report. Sealaska posted a $73 million loss in 2013, but that loss was partially offset by income received through the 7(i) program, which requires Alaska Native regional corporations to share revenue from mineral development. Sealaska makes money when 7(i) money is included on its balance sheets, but the company’s own operations still post a loss. Last week, Sealaska CEO Anthony Mallott said the company is on track to break even on its own operations by 2017. He said the acquisition of two businesses would be part of that effort. Downes said IPC is one of those businesses. The other, an oceanography corporation, will fit into Sealaska’s government services grouping. A deal is expected to close on that acquisition by the end of the month, he said. — James Brooks, Morris News Service-Alaska/Juneau Empire

AOOS launches portal for Cook Inlet beluga whale data

KENAI — There’s a lot of research happening on Cook Inlet beluga whales at any given time. Unfortunately, a lot of the data has stayed isolated, held by the entities that collect it. The Alaska Ocean Observing System, an organization that monitors ocean and coastal conditions, is trying to link some of the data with a new online portal called the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Ecosystem Portal. Varying information about the endangered whales, ranging from sightings to ocean conditions in their habitats, is presented in a map available to the public on AOOS’s website. Holly Kent, the program coordinator for AOOS, said some of the information — such as the records of sightings in Cook Inlet — has never been made available to the public before. Anyone can log onto the portal and use the data, mapped like color-coded honeycomb cells, showing the frequency of beluga sightings in any one area of northern Cook Inlet, Turnagain Arm or Knik Arm. The map allows for layers to be stacked, too, juxtaposing historical data from agencies like the Alaska Department of Fish and Game with other information pertaining to beluga whales, such as water temperature and the Marine Exchange of Alaska’ ship tracking information. “(The portal) gives you more information on how the whales interact within their ecosystem, which gives you a handle on how to better manage that resource, when you’re also dealing with development going on,” Kent said. “This is the first time that agency people and resource managers have had the ability to look at all of these things in one place at one site.” The public may find it interesting, too, Kent said. The data sets are available to be downloaded for research purposes as well. “We’re just trying to make the information easier and more accessible to more people,” Kent said. “That includes agencies.” The AOOS is one of a network of ocean observation system organizations in the Integrated Ocean Observing System, spanning from Alaska along the coasts of the U.S., reaching to Puerto Rico. Though these organizations receive funding from, and are overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they function separately, Kent said. AOOS had collected significant data on the Cook Inlet beluga whales, which are considered one of eight species most at risk of extinction in the near future, according to a February announcement from NOAA. The agency recently issued a five-year plan for managing the belugas, which have an estimated population of about 340 as of 2014. The priorities listed in the plan include reducing human-generated noise in the whales’ habitat, habitat protection to encourage foraging and reproduction, research on the whales’ population characteristics, ensuring prey is available and improving the stranding response program. Cook Inlet beluga whale managers from NOAA had initiated the process of accumulating information on beluga whale sightings from different sources several years ago, said Mandy Migura, the Cook Inlet beluga whale manager for NOAA’s Alaska Region. NOAA made contact with groups such as the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and the Port of Anchorage to use their data from beluga sightings, she said. “There were all these different data sets of monitoring for beluga whales, but they hadn’t actually been compiled and made available … we wanted to go for the scientific sightings so we had some quality control over what was actually a beluga,” Migura said. “I’m not going to say it’s comprehensive of every potential data set that is out there, but these are the ones for the initial effort that we got permission to use.” Migura said AOOS approached NOAA to use its data for the beluga whale portal as part of an ecosystem-based management. Although the map tool is useful, it will not be a single stop for all the information about Cook Inlet beluga whales — there are still caveats to the information available there, she said. “I think this would be one tool in our toolbox,” Migura said. “We don’t expect that’s every single sighting. Just because there’s one area that doesn’t show beluga presence, it doesn’t mean there are no belugas there. (The map shows) just positive sightings. If there are not sightings, we can’t assume that means there’s no belugas there.” The portal links together data and allows viewers to see different data points in layers, possibly illuminating connections that bear implications for the whales, Kent said. With NOAA’s data available on the portal as well as other data, agencies and researchers can network on how to best manage the whales, she said. “We have now got (NOAA’s data) out on a map, open to the public, for lots of researchers and agency resource managers to do what’s called ecosystem based management, where they can manage that resource by using the ecosystem factors,” Kent said. “They can see if there’s any kind of connections.” The Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Ecosystem Portal can be accessed at portal.aoos.org/cibw.php. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Yukon, Kuskokwim king rules will remain cautious in ‘16

Along the states most heavily used subsistence waterways, Alaska’s lack of chinook salmon complicates food access in 2016. Despite an upward looking forecast for chinook on the Kuskokwim River, managers are still gun shy from the 2010 drop in king salmon recruitment. One average forecast, they say, does not merit a move to looser management. The 2016 Kuskokwim River king salmon forecast is for a range of 125,000 to 219,000 fish. The drainage-wide Chinook salmon escapement goal is 65,000 to 120,000. Average subsistence Chinook salmon harvest is 84,000. If the run comes back within the forecast range, then there may be enough chinook salmon to provide for escapement and subsistence needs. Managers are still uncertain how many kings actually came upriver in 2015. Unlike many other widely used Alaska waterways, the Kuskokwim River does not yet have a functional Alaska Department of Fish and Game sonar system to count returns. Other less accurate methods prevail, and even these disagree with each other over the amount of kings returning to the system in 2015. Weir counts and aerial surveys from a dozen Kuskokwim tributaries set a range of between 129,000 to 229,000 chinook returning to the river, or 172,000 as the median. Mark recapture studies say differently. They estimate 124,000 kings came up the river. Between the two, managers say, it pays to keep vigilant. “Given the uncertainty in the estimate of the 2015 run size, the large forecast range of the 2016 run, and consecutive years of low chinook salmon runs to the Kuskokwim River, a precautionary management strategy remains warranted,” according to the forecast. Managers say they will continue considering several of the tools used in the past several years to conserve chinook salmon, including early season chinook salmon subsistence fishery closure, tributary closures, restrictions on gillnet mesh size and length, live release of chinook salmon from fishing gear, time and area restrictions, and subsistence hook and line bag and possession limits. These restrictions could produce much the same season in 2016 as in 2015: a poor one. Management during low abundance of kings hobbled the 2015 Kuskokwim season. The Kuskokwim River produced some surplus chinook for subsistence, but nowhere near the official amount needed for subsistence, or ANS. The ANS, a number set by the Board of Fisheries, is 67,200 to 109,800, and hasn’t been met in five years. The average subsistence harvest is 84,000. ADFG estimates the Kuskokwim River chinook salmon subsistence harvest in 2015 was between 17,000 and 25,000. Native communities along the river continue to appeal to the federal government to manage the run. The Akiak Native Community has asked Federal Subsistence Board to close off all salmon harvest in the Kuskokwim River’s federal waters in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge to anyone but federally qualified subsistence users. In 2015, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service closed all chinook fishing opportunities, including federally-qualified subsistence, in waters within and adjacent to the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, and put gear and time restrictions for all other salmon to protect the chinook run. Yukon River ADFG hasn’t released Yukon River forecasts yet, but management plans from the area’s Board of Fisheries meeting aided commercial fisheries while still protecting kings.  During the Alaska Board of Fisheries Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim meeting in January, the board adopted several restrictions for the Yukon, but also opened new opportunities for commercial users. To provide more opportunity at the behest of Kwik’pak Fisheries, the board opened up a commercial pink salmon fishery for the lower Yukon River — provided there are enough chum and pink salmon forecasted to satisfy subsistence demands. The board also allowed for beach seines for the commercial chum harvest, subject to chinook-sensitive mesh size and depth restrictions. Each fishery and gear type has strict orders to closely watch for caught kings and live release them back into the river. This now applies to subsistence fish wheels for the first time. The Yukon River has a substantially greater commercial fishing industry than the Kuskokwim, and subsistence management has to strike a balance between the two user groups. Long before king salmon declines materialized starting around 2010, the Yukon River saw a precipitous decline in king salmon abundance beginning at the turn of the century that has led to restrictive management measures ever since and resulted in three federal disaster declarations for poor returns. These measures appear to be working, or at least not making things worse. In 2015, the Yukon River restrictions coincided with one of the best escapements in years. At the Eagle sonar station near the Canadian border, ADFG counted 83,372 chinook salmon, 20,000 more than 2014 and 50,000 more than the Canadian escapements in 2013 and 2012. The trick for ADFG will be to continue the evidently successful king restrictions while supporting commercial fishing, one of the region’s only employers. The 2015 Yukon River commercial harvest — only considering chum, the river’s main commercial crop — netted $1.3 million, up from the 2005-2014 summer chum value average of $832,055. Subsistence needs for chum were met, but at the expense of chinook subsistence harvest. Chum salmon are the Yukon River’s only commercial species, as ADFG discontinued the commercial chinook fishery in 2011 in response to poor returns. Prices were down in 2015, and the upper river’s only processor shut down. The lower Yukon will continue to hold processing capability for its new pink fishery. A fire took much of Kwik-Pak’s office and housing in 2015, but general manager Jack Schultheis said the company won’t lose a step before the 2016 season. None of the processing capability was affected. “We did not lose any production facilities,” said Schultheis. “We’re not going to miss anything.” In the meantime, Schultheis said Lynden Transport is shipping a barge with new housing and office materials to the lower Yukon to be ready for the season.

FISH FACTOR: Cuts force ADFG to make unpopular move to contract fishing

In the face of Alaska’s multi-billion dollar budget shortfalls, state policy makers are putting the onus on fishermen to cover the costs of going fishing. “One of the sources we have to offset general fund decreases is increased test fishing. We don’t like to catch fish or crab or anything just to raise money, but in this climate we’re having to look at that long and hard,” said Scott Kelley, director of the Commercial Fisheries for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Test fishing is typically done by department-chartered vessels to assess stocks, run strength and other projects. Now in many regions costs for those management necessities are being shunted to fishermen and processors. “I’m not 100 percent sure when we first started fishing specifically for money, but I do know we did so in Southeast for herring in 2003,” Kelley said. “We’ve also done some test fishing for revenue in Upper Cook Inlet. Such fisheries are not popular with anyone and in times of greater budget prosperity, the Legislature has provided general fund increments to allow us to not do such projects.” Nowhere is the practice more unpopular than at Bristol Bay. “The Legislature cuts the budget and says Bristol Bay can catch fish with a private contract with a processor, and use that money to pay for operating expenses like in-river test fish projects or counting towers or the Port Moller test boat,” fumed Tim Sands, area manager at Dillingham, adding that the price paid for the fish is a fraction of its true value. Last year’s contract for $100,000 paid out at 30 cents a pound shared by fishermen, processors and the state. That compared to a base sockeye price of 50 cents a pound for non-contract fish. “So you have to catch at least three times as many fish to pay the bills as you would if they had a regular flat tax,” Sands said. “It drives me nuts because it is so inefficient. They could have had a 25 percent tax in Bristol Bay and raised all the money we needed last year. Nobody likes taxes. But taking fish away from the fishermen before they catch them is just as much of a tax as taking money out of their pockets after they catch the fish. At least they can write that tax off.” This year’s $250,000 test fishing contract was covered by the fishermen-funded Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, a group funded by a one percent tax on their catches. Fishermen would have to catch up to 1.8 million pounds of sockeye this summer to cover the test fishing contract costs. Sands said the contract next year could reach $400,000. “That’s sockeye that would’ve been caught by industry and instead goes into department contract vessels and things like that. That doesn’t go over very well for reasons I totally understand,” Kelley said. Other sources also have stepped up to fund local fishing needs. The Bristol Bay Salmon Research Initiative provided $60,000 to keep the salmon counting tower at Togiak operating. “Our tower escapement projects are the basic backbone of our management,” Sands said. “To not have them means we can’t forecast for the system. We don’t have information to adjust escapement goals, or fish counts with the accompanying age compositions we get from the sampling tower. I figure we would lose 8-15 percent of our annual harvest because we would not be able to extend fishing periods at Togiak if we didn’t have that tower in.” Elsewhere, costs to save the Coghill River lake weir at Prince William Sound were covered for this year by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation. Test fisheries also will be used in several other regions to raise money, including a $200,000 tab for Southeast salmon seiners to cover costs for aerial surveys, Scott Kelley said. “I’ll bet that won’t be the end of the list when all is said and done,” he added. Salmon starts Alaska’s salmon season officially kicks off soon with runs of reds and kings at Copper River. State managers have put the 500-plus fleet on notice that the famous fishery will likely open on May 16. “Oh my gosh, it’s so exciting to see all the boats coming in and out of the harbor. A lot of our seasonal cannery workers are returning and everyone’s got nets strewn out in their front yards getting mended. You can feel the energy pulsating,” said Erica Thompson-Clark, project assistant and social media whiz at the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association, funded by area fishermen. No region celebrates their salmon better than the media savvy fishery forces from Cordova, highlighted with “familiarity tours” throughout the year with chefs, magazine writers and foodies from the Lower 48. “You name it, we bring ‘em,” Thompson-Clark said. “We tour them through Cordova and the Copper River area, and we have them meet with fishermen and management officials and other entities invested in the fishery. They learn what it takes to have this sustainable salmon run continue every year.” The group also features educational campaigns called “Know Your Fisherman” and “Salmon Fishing 101” on Facebook and Instagram. “We show fish being iced, short videos and interviews with fishermen. We are trying to educate consumers about how these salmon are being harvested by single boats, each salmon being picked out of the net,” Thompson-Clark said. “We talk to them about how every time they buy Copper River salmon, they are supporting a small business owner. We really want to drive that home.” The Copper River salmon website offers locator tabs to help customers find the famous fish in their regions. Those tabs will be getting clicks like crazy when Cordova again pulls off its most headline making media move: partnering with Alaska Airlines for a First Fish promotion that on opening day whisks salmon to awaiting chefs in Seattle and the Lower 48. The Copper River harvest this year calls for 1.6 million sockeyes, 21,000 kings and 201,000 coho salmon. Salmon love Salmon love letters best describes a new book called Made of Salmon: Alaska Stories from The Salmon Project. It is a compilation of essays from many of Alaska’s more well known writers, along with everyday salmon lovers. “These aren’t reports or essays about how we should do this or that, they are a reflection of their own lives and the way salmon fits into them,” said Erin Harrington, Salmon Project director. “Some of the most imaginative, insightful and creative authors living in Alaska have contributed to this book, and to make it so personal with their beautiful words is really out of this world.” A sampler from “Let nothing be wasted” by Leslie Leyland Fields of Kodiak: “When I walk a salmon in each hand up to my house to the kitchen, I will carve every bit of flesh from its bones…Every bite will taste of ocean and care; and look how filled we are. Let nothing be wasted, not this ocean, not any lake or sea, not a single fish.” Find the Made of Salmon book at The Salmon Project website. The book is also available at local bookstores and online at University of Alaska Press. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

FISH FACTOR: Processors pony up to fund herring surveys as budget cuts bite

Cuts affecting Alaska’s fisheries will be spread across all regions and species, depending on the final budget that is approved by state legislators. As it stands now, the total commercial fisheries budget for fiscal year 2017 from all state and federal funding sources is about $64 million, a drop of $10 million over two years. “With cuts of that magnitude, everything is on the table,” said Scott Kelley, director of the Commercial Fisheries Division at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Last year 109 fishery projects were axed, and another 65 are on the cut list for the upcoming fiscal year that begins on July 1, Kelley said. They include a golden king crab observer project and coho salmon evaluation plans in the Southeast region, a major salmon stock assessment program near Nome, numerous salmon enhancement pilot projects, crab research at Chignik, reduced time on the Nushagak River and loss of counting towers at Bristol Bay, cutbacks at the genetics lab and positions left unfilled at fish headquarters in Juneau, to name a few. “That’s just a flavor of what we are talking about. Once the governor signs off on a budget and the dust settles, we will know our allocations from all funding sources,” Kelley said. Some relief has come from funds generated by fees on purchases of limited entry permits and crew licenses, and Kelley credits industry members for stepping up to the plate. That was clearly the case at Togiak in Bristol Bay, where the state’s largest herring fishery is underway. When swarms of fish arrived on April 17, the earliest date ever, everyone was caught off guard. But with all herring management budgets zeroed out last year (except for Sitka Sound), there was little money for flyovers to assess the run. “We have a threshold biomass we are supposed to document before we open the fishery, and that requires flying and looking at the area,” said Tim Sands, area management biologist at Dillingham. The processors “immediately shook the bushes,” to come up with money to fly herring surveys, Sands said, with Silver Bay, Trident, North Pacific and Icicle Seafoods each contributing $2,500. That will provide for about 10 flights during the fishery, down by more than half. The lack of flying time has meant missed opportunities for fishermen further west at Good News Bay and Security Cove, as no surveys mean the fishery cannot be opened. Sands is worried that the zeroed herring budget means managers won’t be able to produce a forecast for next year’s herring run at Togiak, due to a lack of flying and fish sampling. “In order to forecast we need two things: biomass estimates from aerial surveys, and samples to run our age structure analysis models.” Sands explained. “This year’s data gap will cycle through our whole population estimate for at least eight years. It’s very problematic.” Budget boosters Along with marijuana, mariculture is in line to be one of Alaska’s most profitable new industries and plans call for it to get moving fast. The Alaska Mariculture Task Force Mariculture, created by Gov. Bill Walker’s Administrative Order in February, will hold its first meeting soon and fill out agency and public seats on the 11-member panel. “The state has a different mindset now about diversifying the economy, and looking at developing resources that weren’t as prominent in the past when we had a lot of oil money around,” said Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. AFDF believes mariculture could be a $1 billion industry in Alaska in 30 years. There are 56 sea farms operating in Alaska now, with sales topping $1 million for the first time last year. Oysters by far make up the main crop — one that could easily be supplemented with seaweeds. “It’s an excellent cash crop for aquatic farmers because you grow it, you harvest it, you sell it. Every year you’ve got some cash flow, which is really difficult for shellfish farmers because they have to wait three to five years with various shellfish, or up to 10 years with geoducks, to start seeing a return on your investment. So seaweed can play a really big role,” Decker said. Seaweeds are some of the fastest growing plants in the world. Kelp, for example, grows up to 9 feet to 12 feet in just three months. Seaweed prices depend on what it is being used for and where it is grown. Growers in Maine, for example, fetch 50 to 60 cents a pound for edible grades; their rock weed crop brings in $20 million a year. Chile estimates a kelp industry would bring in $540 million annually. Japan’s $2 billion nori industry is one of the world’s most valuable crops. Demand for seaweeds has soared over the past 50 years, far outstripping wild supplies, says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The task force will brainstorm a statewide strategic plan, and one area of focus will be Western Alaska. Decker said some village groups are backing data collection on possible growing sites, processing and transportation options and community interest. “I believe there is a lot of potential out there that we haven’t even recognized yet,” Decker said. Walker wants the mariculture task force plan on his desk by March 1, 2018. Fishing chronicles Outwitting fish swiping killer whales…fights aboard 300 foot factory trawlers…falling overboard…waves in the wheelhouse — a new book titled  “Chronicles of a Bering Sea Captain” captures five decades of crabbing, trawling and longlining in the Bering Sea. The motivation for the book came from a health scare 20 years ago at sea, said author Jake Jacobsen. “The thought struck me that I have six kids and they know very little about what I have done out at sea, and I wanted to leave some stories for them,” he said in a phone interview. Jacobsen began jotting down stories in fits and starts, put it down for about a decade, and became inspired again last fall when he came upon old notebooks and photos. He wrote furiously for three months and two weeks ago Chronicles was released on Amazon.com. One of Jacobsen’s favorite stories describes trying to outwit killer whales from robbing fish from longline hooks. “You try and develop strategies,” he said with a laugh. “You cut your line, anchor it off, run away for a while and stop the engines and then come back. The whales leave sentries around at your strings, and then they call each other. So you can’t get very far hauling gear again because here come the whales.” In writing the book, Jacobsen said he wanted to correct some misconceptions people might have about fishing the Bering Sea. “When I tell stories about staying up for three days in a row and working until we’re just exhausted, we are not talking about decimating the resource,” he said. “We are talking about a fishery that takes a small percentage of the stock, and it is all controlled by the best science available. In Alaska we are very proud of the sustainable seafood programs we have.” Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.  

Package of tax hikes on fishing, mining and fuel stalls

A bill to raise taxes on fisheries, fuel and mining remains unscheduled for a House Finance Committee hearing after public objections. Gov. Bill Walker introduced a suite of proposals at the beginning of the session designed to hitch up taxes on state industries and individuals to help close the $4.1 billion budget gap. Fisheries, fuel, and mining tax increases had varied levels of support. Each remained on the committee backburners after being recommended to it weeks or even months ago. Senate Bill 132 and its mirror House Bill 249 were passed to their chambers’ finance committees on Feb. 29 and Feb. 24, respectively. The fisheries tax moved out of a lengthy House Fisheries Committee holding pattern on April 5. Mining taxes moved to the committee on April 1. To keep legislators from having to muster individual votes, the House Finance Committee folded the three industry tax increases into a three-part minibus on April 14. The adjusted tax minibus did not provide new estimates for the state’s likely revenue. Previous estimates for the three taxes indicated $80 million for the state. The bills’ complexities brought mixed receptions. Industry leaders acknowledged the need to pay for state services, but contested portions of the package they found inequitable.   At an April 16 hearing, the House Finance Committee responded to concerns by postponing a discussion scheduled for the next day. “After hearing public testimony last night,” said committee co-chair Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, “We’ve realized there are a lot of problems with the tax bill HB 249, and we’re going to set it aside for the time being.” In an April 15 committee hearing, the Alaska Chamber testified against the newly bundled tax increases. Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Curtis Thayer said the state needs to look to its own finances before raiding the private sector.  “The public won’t support a host of new taxes,” Thayer said. “Not while the state is handing out double-digit raises. How can they when their friends and family members are losing their jobs?” Thayer said public employee contracts promise too much. He said that pay raises between 3.25 percent and 10.5 percent over three years are still being considered.  “They’re trying to fill a $4 billion dollar budget gap by hammering fishing and mining with $49 million in new taxes,” Thayer said. “Meanwhile, another $70 million in pay raises just widens the gap.” Fisheries tax increases in the omnibus received much of the same treatment as the standalone bill. Industry representatives repeated many of the same concerns they had voiced in the House Fisheries Committee. Objections were widespread concerning the various fishing sectors that would each be impacted by tax increases differently: canned salmon simply cannot handle a tax increase, floating processors and inshore processors need different treatment, developing fisheries cannot handle a tax increase, the state’s reputed fiscal loss on fisheries management is a red herring, and tax increases will make it harder for young fishermen to enter the industry. Fishermen previously wanted to make sure they would not be alone in tax increases. Committee chair Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, held the bill earlier in session, saying she needed assurances that other industries would be taxed as well and that the existing fisheries taxes would be reexamined to maximize revenue to the state. With a modified bill and promises from the Department of Revenue to maximize existing fisheries taxes, the bill moved on to the House Finance Committee without opposition. Though the inclusion of the fisheries bill into an omnibus is a “step in the right direction,” said United Fishermen of Alaska, the states largest fishing industry group, they still do not support the package. Walker’s original bill would impose a 1 percent increase on both landings taxes and fisheries taxes on each fishery sector. The amended bill keeps the 1 percent increase for every fishery sector except the shore-based salmon cannery sector and the developing fisheries sector. A negative market outlook for Alaska fisheries caused many fishermen to reject the bill outright, saying they have little room to have more revenue scraped from their decks. Certain bill changes address two of the larger concerns for salmon canneries and developing fisheries. In previous testimony, representatives from the Pacific Seafood Processors Association spoke of the tax’s tone-deafness regarding the 2016 salmon market and how a tax increase could cripple canneries. Back-to-back years of large sockeye runs in the state’s largest salmon fishery, Bristol Bay, left salmon processors with a price-lowering glut of product. The U.S. dollar’s strength against key export market currencies added to the overstock to create a tough market outlook for salmon in 2016. Walker’s bill to increase state fuel taxes had support from some industry groups it would directly impact. The Senate Transportation Committee passed the bill onto the Finance Committee with lukewarm support on a 3-2 vote. Senate Bill 132, and its mirror House Bill 249, would raise the per gallon state fuel taxes as follows: highway fuel tax from 8 cents to 16 cents; marine fuel tax from 5 cents to 10 cents; aviation gasoline from 4.7 cents to 10 cents; and jet fuel from 3.2 cents to 10 cents. The legislation would correspondingly increase the per gallon highway fuel tax rebate for off-road use from 6 cents to 12 cents. In all, the tax hikes are projected to raise $49 million per year, according to the Revenue Department. The mining tax increase, originally HB 253, was badly received when introduced. It would raise the tax rate for mines with a net income of $100,000 or greater from 7 percent to 9 percent. This includes 14 mines statewide. The bill would eliminate a 3½-year tax exemption for new mines and implement a fee for mining licenses. Mining taxes collected $38.6 million in 2015 according to state records. The increase would collect another $6 million per year. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Subsistence group files opposition to Ninilchik gillnet

Federal subsistence groups upriver from a controversial subsistence gillnet have asked that the Federal Subsistence Board rescind its 2015 to allow it. The Cooper Landing and Hope Federal Subsistence Community has filed a proposal change in the 2017-2019 Federal Subsistence Board proposal book that would eliminate Ninilchik Traditional Council’s gillnet on the Kenai River. The gillnet, the Cooper Landing and Hope filers said, has a direct impact on them. The gillnet has not yet been in the water on the Kenai after the operational plan was not approved last summer and fishing for king salmon was prohibited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager. “We maintain firmly that the Federal Subsistence Board’s approval, which allows Ninilchik to place a community gillnet in the Kenai River, aggrieves the federal subsistence priority and right of Cooper Landing and Hope subsistence users,” the proposal states. The subsistence users echo biologists’ concerns that the gillnet is not “consistence with sound management principles and the conservation of healthy populations of fish and wildlife.” “The nonselective nature of a gillnet does no allow for close management or control of fish harvests by either the subsistence user of river management personnel,” reads the proposal,” and will likely result in chinook harvest numbers that are above sustainable population levels.” They also said the gillnet creates a priority for one set of subsistence users, which is specifically forbidden by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which established subsistence laws in the state in 1980. According to ANILCA protocol, authorities must give equal priority to subsistence users in the same area. Because they both fish the waters of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Cooper Landing and Hope subsistence fishermen are entitled to the same gillnet allowance. However, conservation concerns take the forefront. “While we firmly maintain that (the gillnet) adversely affects our subsistence priority by allowing Ninilchik an exclusive priority to place a community net in the Kenai River, we do not believe allowing all three communities to place a gillnet in the Kenai would rectify this adverse effect,” reads the proposal. Cooper Landing and Hope subsistence users claim in their proposal that the Ninilchik Traditional Council already has a host of methods and means of harvesting fish including rod and reel and dipnets, but the council underutilizes them. Only 2 percent of 807 year-round Ninilchik residents aged 20-69 applied for federal fishing permits. This excludes those who applied for a gillnet permit on the Kasilof River, which was passed by the Federal Subsistence Board and put in the water during the summer of 2015. In Cooper Landing in 2015, 40 percent of 214 resident 20-69 year olds participated in federal subsistence fishing. In Hope, 21 percent participated of 149 residents.  “An increased participation rate by the community of Ninilchik alone in the other available subsistence fishery methods and means on the Kenai River using selective gear will most likely result in a more than sufficient harvest result,” the proposal reads, “without the burden of incidentally targeting other fisheries with conservation concerns.” The Ninilchik Traditional Council gillnet has caused a heated and tangled legal battle. In January 2015, the Federal Subsistence Board, a multi-agency board that governs Alaska subsistence use, allowed NTC two community subsistence gillnets, one each on the federally managed portions of the Kasilof and Kenai rivers in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The proposal allocated 4,000 sockeye — a small portion of the total Kenai River sockeye run — but king salmon form the center of the debate. State and federal biologists advised the board against passing the proposal over conservation concerns. In an era when king salmon are at a statewide low point, they said, a gillnet could indiscriminately snap up valuable king salmon along with the sockeye. As a condition, NTC would have to submit operational plans for each gillnet. The federal in-season manager Anderson, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, must approve the plan before either net can go in the water. The proposal passed 5-3, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service voting against. Few besides NTC itself appreciated the gillnets. State and federal biologists opposed the gillnet idea on conservation grounds. More than 700 requests for reconsideration have flooded the Office of Subsistence Management urging a repeal; the previous record for such requests of a single proposal was six. Anderson reviewed and approved an operational plan for the Kasilof River sockeye gillnet on July 13, but did not approve the operational plan submitted for the gillnet on the Kenai River. In an emergency order, Anderson also closed all chinook fishing in the area, including subsistence fishing. Anderson argued that while the early chinook run did meet the lower end of the escapement goal, the low statewide numbers for chinook returns merited a conservation-minded approach. NTC Executive Director Ivan Encelewski said there were no conservation concerns, and that Anderson unfairly halted the fishery for political reasons. With a week to go in July, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game liberalized commercial fishing time for sockeye salmon and allowed the recreational take of Kenai River chinook salmon based on estimates that the minimum escapement goal would be met. The Ninilchik Traditional Council submitted two requests on July 17 and July 21 asking the subsistence board not only to rescind Anderson’s orders, but to remove Cook Inlet area subsistence fishing from the federal in-season manager’s authority. Further, NTC wanted to rewrite the proposal, requesting that the federal manager be forced to accept their operational plan. At a July 28 meeting in Anchorage, the board upheld Anderson’s decision to deny the operational plan and kept him as the manager of the fishery despite the council’s request to remove him. The special action request failed on a tie vote. Last fall, NTC filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior seeking to order the Kenai River operational plan approved and to remove Anderson as the FWS manager for the refuge. The suit is ongoing. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]  

FISH FACTOR: Another study shows ocean acidification bad for crab stocks

Increasingly corrosive oceans are raising more red flags for Bering Sea crab stocks. Results from a first ever, two year project on baby Tanner crabs show that higher ocean acidity (pH) affects both their shell production and the immune systems. Bairdi Tanner crab, the larger cousins of snow crab, are growing into one of Alaska’s largest crab fisheries with a nearly 20 million pound harvest this season. “We put mom crabs from the Bering Sea in a tank, and allowed her embryos to grow and hatch in an acidified treatment,” explained project leader Bob Foy, director of the NOAA Fisheries laboratory at Kodiak. “We took the tiny crab and put them in different levels of pH to represent acidification and let them grow. We then took the moms and mated them and ran them again for another year. What that means is the full reproductive development of those females occurred in acidified conditions,” he said. The first year of exposure didn’t show many effects, he said, but the second year really had an impact on the tiny crabs’ ability to molt, which they do weekly or monthly depending on their growth stage. It takes five to seven years for a Bairdi Tanner to reach its mature, two-pound size. “Those larval and juvenile animals are constantly going through physiologically stressful times to build a shell,” Foy said. “And that’s where we are seeing the effects.” Researchers also studied the baby crab blood cells, which bring calcium to the shell and also help fight off illnesses. Those functions went down as well. “The bottom line is long-term exposure to acidified seawater negatively impacts Tanner crabs’ ability to grow and survive, and likely impacts their ability to defend against disease,” Foy said. Based on population modeling, which managers use to set annual catch limits, researchers can predict potential impacts the increasing corrosion will have on the crab stocks. “We can take data collected from surveys, such as the abundance and size of adult crab, and estimate how many crab will survive and recruit to a fishery seven years later,” Foy explained. “To estimate the effects of climate change and ocean acidification, we include the mortality of larval and juvenile crab we observed in the laboratory.” Based on global estimates of ocean acidification, the Bering Sea may reach a pH level of 7.5 to 7.8 in the next 75 to 100 years if not earlier, Foy said. Once that level is reached, the crab stocks are likely to begin a countdown. “For Tanner crab, the timeline for estimated effects on fishery yields and profits is on a scale of 20 years, but only if all life stages of Tanners are exposed to corrosive lower pH water,” Foy explained. He added that studies on red king crab from Bristol Bay show a double whammy from higher acidity and warming oceans. “Once the Bering Sea reaches those pH levels,” Foy said, “there will be significant decreases in survival and subsequent fishery yields and profits within 20 years.” Crab ka-ching! The last pots are being pulled in the Bering Sea crab fisheries and crews can count on good prices for their catch. “It’s been a really good year for crab all around,” said Jake Jacobsen, executive director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, a harvester group that catches 70 percent of the Bering Sea crab quota. Boats are finishing off the Tanner and snow crab fisheries, and final prices won’t be settled for a few months after sales are made. But advances of $2 per pound for snow crab and $2.20 for Tanners were on par with ending prices last season. “We expect to see a substantial increase when we complete negotiations for final prices,” Jacobsen said. “Prices for snow crab started to climb significantly last fall when it was announced the quota would be slashed 40 percent to just over 40 million pounds. And prices are still going up.” Snow crab sales are usually split between Japan and U.S. markets, whereas nearly all of the Bairdi Tanners are sold at home, where it’s really starting to catch on. “We’re really excited about it,” Jacobsen said. “We’d like things to go more to the domestic side, so our countrymen can appreciate this crab. It’s just got such a great, distinct flavor.” The red king crab fishery at Bristol Bay last fall also yielded a better payday. Crabbers averaged $8.18 per pound for their catch, compared to $6.86 the previous year. “That was due primarily to the crackdown on illegal fishing in Russia, which resulted in a reduced influx of Russian crab into the U.S. As supplies diminished, the price rose and it became a very favorable market for us. It’s been a long effort and it’s very satisfying to see some payoff,” Jacobsen said. Fish brush off When it comes to Alaska lawmakers cutting fishing related budgets, little discussion takes place on the trickle down effects to local communities. So claims Gunnar Knapp, a fisheries economist and director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Knapp also has been an advisor to the Alaska Legislature this session. “The kinds of conversations are not rational, careful considerations of the implications various cuts have on the industry,” he said during a visit to Kodiak. “Nobody says if you cut Fish and Game, they are going to close this counting tower and this research program, and they’re not going to not have these managers. There is no discussion as to whether cuts are penny wise and pound foolish, as I think a lot probably are.” Knapp pointed to the folly of gutting funds for the state’s lone seafood marketing arm, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, as an example. “ASMI increases the value of Alaska fish products, and taxes are based on the value of the fish. There is likely a direct trade-off between funding for ASMI and fish value and fish taxes. But no one is thinking about that,” he said. With Alaska’s commercial catches on the order of 5 to 6 billion pounds per year, adding just one penny per pound to fish prices makes a difference of nearly $1 million dollars for state and local governments each. Knapp also called it “maddening” that lawmakers think of the seafood industry as a single entity. “It drives me nuts when people say ‘the fishing industry.’ Our industry is very diverse, from small skiffs to huge floating processors, and what it costs to manage them varies widely,’ he said. Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak), chair of the House Fisheries Committee, agreed. “They just don’t get it. It is the most bizarre thing I have ever seen. Some legislators are just anti-commercial fishing, and it is so apparent. It’s really bad. What do they think held this state up before oil?” Stutes said during a recent trip home. To Knapp, the most important point lawmakers miss is that Alaska’s fishing industry maximizes community and cultural objectives more than any other. “We have never in Alaska managed fisheries for the purpose of making it a cash cow of the state, as with oil,” Knapp said. “The Constitution says the ‘legislature shall manage natural resources for the maximum benefit of the people.’ For fisheries, we try to maximize employment, fishing income and a variety of social objectives.” Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

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