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 or contact [email protected] for information.

COMMENTARY: 40 years after Magnuson-Stevens, not all promises kept

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act turned 40 last week and federal and state fishery managers marked that event with an opinion piece in the Alaska Dispatch News on April 12 extolling the successes of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and its implementation in Alaska as a “global model of sustainability.” As the authors point out, the Magnuson-Stevens Act sets up a “transparent governing process” intended to ensure that “science is behind every fishery management decision” in Alaska. Indeed, the Magnuson-Stevens Act sets up national standards ensuring that all fisheries are managed to achieve “optimum yield from each fishery” with management decisions “based on the best scientific information available,” and guided by carefully considered fishery management plans. We can all find common ground in recognizing the benefits associated with management under the Act, as well as many of the successes of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (the council) and NOAA Fisheries in ensuring the long-term stewardship of Alaska’s fisheries. The problem is that many important fisheries have been left out of the fold of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The Cook Inlet salmon fishery is a prime example. Every year, some 10 to 30 million salmon pass through federal waters in Cook Inlet, in route to their native streams. These are some of the largest wild salmon runs in the world, and they go largely unharvested. But the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries plainly don’t want anything to do with Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, despite their obligation under federal law. The council never took an active role in managing the fishery, and in 2012, with approval from NOAA Fisheries, removed Cook Inlet from the council’s Fishery Management Plan, despite the objections of the commercial fishing industry. The result is that the benefits of Magnuson-Stevens Act have never come to pass in Cook Inlet. Cook Inlet does not get the benefit of “drawing on NOAA’s environmental intelligence to improve stock assessments and assess the impact of climate change on fish population.” Cook Inlet does not get to draw upon the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s “transparent governing process” or the robust “public-private management process founded under MSA.” Cook Inlet does not get to draw on the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s promises of optimum yield for each fishery, or the promise that “science is behind every fishery management decision” in Alaska. Instead, Cook Inlet is left with the Board of Fisheries. Regardless of whether you believe those who claim the Board of Fish “isn’t broken” (ADN commentary March 16, 2016) or others who believe it certainly is broken (ADN commentary March 30, 2016), no one can reasonably argue that the Board of Fisheries process can match the transparency of the council, or claim that “science is behind every fishery management decision” made by the Board of Fisheries. There should not be any real doubt, of course, why the council doesn’t want to deal with salmon management in Cook Inlet. The resource disputes between user groups are contentious and longstanding. But the need for the scientific rigor and transparency that the council can provide has never been greater. The Board of Fisheries has made no real effort to find solutions to managing Cook Inlet salmon fisheries in light of poor returns of some stocks, the identification of several “stocks of concern,” impacts from invasive species, and growing habitat problems from both urbanization and climate change. The result in recent years has been sport and commercial fishery closures and restrictions, the loss of millions of unharvested salmon, the loss of tens of millions of dollars to the regional economy and the loss of millions of dollars to the State treasury. All Cook Inlet salmon fisheries would plainly benefit from coordinating the State’s long-standing salmon management experience with the council’s transparent, science-based process. This is precisely what the Magnuson-Stevens Act contemplates. Hopefully, the sport and commercial fishermen and the coastal communities in Cook Inlet won’t have to wait another 40 years for the promises of the Magnuson-Stevens Act to be fulfilled. David Martin is the president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association.  

FISH FACTOR: Sen. Sullivan talks fisheries accomplishments in Kodiak

Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan has scored seats on nearly every Congressional committee that deal with issues on, over, and under the oceans. That fulfills a commitment he made to Kodiak when he ran for office two years ago, he said at a ComFish town meeting during a two-day stay on “the Rock.” Sullivan ticked off a list of fishery related actions he’s had a hand in getting accomplished over the past year: passage of an enforcement act that combats global fish pirating and seafood fraud; adding language to bills that lifts pricey classification requirements on new fishing vessels; and a one-year water discharge exemption so fishermen don’t need special permits to hose down their decks. He said he is “working to make sure new regulations are not an undue burden on the industry.” “We hear about overregulation in terms of costs from every single group I’ve met with,” Sullivan said. “We all want clean water and a safe environment, but we have federal agencies that are taking a one-size-fits-all approach to these regulations and it can be crushing on what you all do. I hear it loud and clear.” Sullivan said when it comes to Alaska’s fisheries, he is guided by three core principles: science is the foundation for sustainability, seafood is the engine for strong coastal economies, and the need to create more markets for what he dubs the “superpower of seafood.” “We’ve been looking at ways structurally to create more demand for Alaska seafood,” he said, citing recent legislation that was added to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement to fix a seafood oversight. “The authorizing legislation said our trade negotiators have to achieve objectives to open markets for different industry groups, such as agriculture, high tech, textiles…” Sullivan said. “Guess what industry was not in the bill — seafood. So my team drafted legislation that said in any future trade agreements, the U.S. has to get access for our fisheries and fish products in foreign markets, and go after the subsidies of foreign fleets that unfairly compete against us. It passed and was signed by the president. “So all trade agreements for the next six years must have major provisions focused on opening markets for U.S. seafood products. It also is included in a European trade agreement being negotiated now.” On the home front, Sullivan said he is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to require the nation’s school lunch program to only include fish that is caught in U.S. waters. “Believe it or not, there are loopholes in the program that don’t require that,” Sullivan said. “In my view, we should not be feeding our kids fish that is caught in Russian waters and then processed in China and injected with phosphates. If our kids get fed fish that is not very good, you turn off a generation until they get about 30 or 40 and get over the fact that the fish sticks they had in second grade made them not like seafood.” In a separate media interview, Sullivan took exception to allegations that he and Alaska’s delegation aim to stymie U.S. and global protections for an increasingly off kilter climate to benefit the fossil fuel industry. “On the science side we’re trying to make sure that ocean acidification and other issues that impact the fisheries are completely and fully funded. I’m all over that,” he asserted. “In Alaska we’re seeing the impacts of climate change and a warming ocean. I have been very focused on making sure the agencies have the applied science capability to manage the stocks accordingly.” Sullivan agreed that human activity has an impact on climate change, to some degree. “With seven billion human inhabitants there is certainly a human impact, but to what degree, I don’t think the science is ever settled on that,” he said. Sullivan said he supports an “all of the above energy strategy, crediting the “natural gas revolution” of the past few years (fracking) for “driving down America’s greenhouse gas emissions significantly.” Sullivan said Alaska’s roads, ports and harbors will benefit from a $2.6 billion highway bill passed by Congress, and another in the pipeline will provide “significant” money for airports. The Coast Guard’s biggest airbase at Kodiak also is set for some upgrades, including new aircraft and cutters. Hatchery hauls Each year more than one third of Alaska’s salmon catch and value comes from fish that started out in hatcheries. It’s very different from fish farming, where salmon are crammed into nets or pens until they’re ready for market. In Alaska’s salmon enhancement program — which began in the early 1970s in response to low statewide runs — all fish originate as eggs from wild stocks, and are released as fingerlings to the sea. In the state’s 29 hatcheries operating today, most of the homegrown fish are pinks and chums. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s annual Alaska Fisheries Enhancement Report, the 2015 salmon season produced the second-highest catch for hatchery stocks at 93 million fish with a dockside value of $125 million. Pink salmon accounted for 47 percent of the value of the statewide hatchery harvest, followed by chum salmon at 31 percent, sockeyes at 17 percent, cohos at 3 percent and chinook salmon at two percent of the value. By far most of Alaska’s hatchery production is in Prince William Sound, where last year’s 74 million hatchery harvest was worth nearly $80 million, or 67 percent of the Sound’s total salmon value. Southeast ranks second for hatchery production, which last year yielded about 11 million fish worth $37 million, or 42 percent of the total exvessel salmon value for the region. Kodiak’s two hatcheries produced over 5 million pink salmon last season, valued at $4.5 million, or 12 percent of the total salmon value. At Cook Inlet, about 2.4 million hatchery sockeyes were caught, valued at more than $3 million, or 10 percent of the fishery value. Nearly 150 Alaska schools K-12 participate in hatchery egg take and salmon release programs. Fish watch Kodiak’s roe herring fishery begins on April 15 with a low 1,670-ton harvest limit. Alaska’s biggest herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay will follow with a catch pegged at nearly 30,000 tons. There’s lots of herring in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region but no buyers. A small herring fishery may occur this summer at Norton Sound. A fleet of 84 vessels signed up for a six day, 47,061-pound pot shrimp fishery set to open at Prince William Sound on April 15. In Southeast Alaska, salmon trollers will be back out targeting spring kings by May 1 at the Stikine River. Southeast crabbers had their second best Tanner fishery ever, topping 1.3 million pounds in just 12 days. The crab averaged $2.23 for 74 permit holders, 30 cents higher than last year. To the contrary, dwindling stocks of golden king crab yielded a catch of just 155,000 pounds, down by half from last year. The 17 crabbers got $10.50 a pound, compared to $11.86 last season. Crabbing was about over in the Bering Sea, where just 2.5 million pounds of snow crab remained in the 36.5 million pound quota. Also, the 17 million pound Tanner crab quota is a wrap. Halibut landings were approaching 2 million pounds of the 17 million pound catch limit. Ten percent of the 20.3 million pound sablefish quota had crossed the docks. Fishing for cod, pollock, rockfish, flounders and other groundfish continues throughout the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.   Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

Washington rep, trawlers scuttle rumors of Gulf legislation

A Washington congresswoman’s office and members of the North Pacific trawl industry deny rumors that they are collaborating on federal fishing legislation that would circumvent the North Pacific Fishery Management Council process. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council regulates federal fisheries from three to 200 miles off the Alaska coast. Currently, the council is considering a regulatory package of several options to implement a quota share system for Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries, one of the last remaining North Pacific fisheries without such a system. Word surfaced that a Washington legislator had crafted language at the behest of the trawl industry to implement a preferred industry alternative at the congressional level. The congressperson named in fisheries circles, Rep. Jaime Hererra Beutler, R-Wash., sits on the House Appropriations Committee. Fisheries legislation dictating North Pacific council actions regarding Bering Sea crab and Gulf of Alaska rockfish catch share programs have previously been passed through appropriations bills amended by the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. Hererra Beutler’s office said it has no such legislation, and that anything resembling a federal order would have to come from Alaska. “Rep. Herrera Beutler’s office hasn’t drafted any legislation relating to this issue and Jaime believes that any potential legislative solution would need to come from and be led by the Alaskan delegation,” read a statement from Amy Pennington, Hererra Beutler’s communications director. Though the office has no legislation, Pennington did acknowledge that Hererra Beutler’s office — along with other congressional offices — does receive concerned pleas from trawl industry members based in the Pacific Northwest. The North Pacific trawl industry is largely ported in Seattle, though many independent trawlers operate in the Gulf of Alaska out of Kodiak. “We continue to hear from a variety of stakeholders in the fishery, from harvesters to processors in Northwestern states, who are frustrated with the long council process and we have encouraged them to continue work towards a solution with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council,” Pennington wrote. “Members of Congress from Washington and several other impacted states have been hearing complaints about this issue for some time, and Jaime continues to monitor the situation closely.” Trawl industry members echo Pennington. They said they have ongoing relationships with several members and their staff, and while they have expressed concern over the Gulf of Alaska issue they have made no request to draft federal legislation. “I’ve talked to anybody who would listen,” said Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank. “I talked to (Sen. Maria) Cantwell’s staffer, Jordan Evich (of Hererra Beutler’s office), and the Alaska congressional delegation as well. But it was basically expressing concern, not having any particular ask.” Brent Paine, executive director of United Catch Boats, also said he isn’t aware of any drafted legislation. Paine said he has an ongoing relationship with Hererra Beutler’s office regarding West Coast fisheries, but hasn’t discussed this particular North Pacific issue. Both Paine and Bonney said such efforts wouldn’t be unusual given the council’s pace; the groundfish fleet in the Gulf of Alaska began discussions of a catch share program as early as 2001. Many North Pacific fisheries regulatory changes have depended on congressional action, including crab rationalization, the American Fisheries Act that ended Japanese ownership of vessels harvesting pollock in U.S. waters, and the Gulf of Alaska rockfish pilot program. Trawl vessels mainly prosecute the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fishery, which includes the midwater species pollock, and non-pelagic, or bottom trawl, species such as Pacific cod and arrowtooth flounder. The trawl industry vehemently opposes one particular regulatory option — allocating quota shares for bycatch species but not for the target species — while assorted Gulf of Alaska fishermen and residents support its consideration, if not its passage. The rumors of congressional language culminated in a petition circulated at the annual ComFish gathering in Kodiak. A letter circulated by the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and signed by 250 Gulf of Alaska fishermen and residents was sent to each of Alaska’s three congressional delegation members in early April. The letter suggested that congressional actions could potentially be underway, and urged representatives to not support any such actions.  “Specifically, we request our Alaska delegation to support development of a Gulf of Alaska Trawl Bycatch Management Program (aka catch share) in the Council process so all stakeholders may contribute to a transparent process,” the letter asks. “Please do not support any attempt to circumvent the council process through legislation in Washington, D.C., as that would effectively preclude Alaskan coastal communities and stakeholders from having a direct voice in the process.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Gulf fishermen wary of Congressional intrusion into council process

Editor's note: Stephen Taufen of Groudswell Fisheries Movement did not write the petition distributed by AMCC. This article refers to a seperate memo of his own distributed to interested parties in which he alludes to Rep. Beutler.  Gulf of Alaska fishermen suspect that Washington, D.C., politics might come into play for fisheries regulations they want left to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. A letter circulated by the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and signed by 250 Gulf of Alaska fishermen and residents was sent to each of Alaska’s three congressional delegation members. The letter asks that the Alaska’s representatives in the nation’s capital oppose any legislation intended to press Gulf of Alaska fisheries regulations. “Specifically, we request our Alaska delegation to support development of a Gulf of Alaska Trawl Bycatch Management Program (aka catch share) in the Council process so all stakeholders may contribute to a transparent process,” the letter asks. “Please do not support any attempt to circumvent the council process through legislation in Washington, D.C., as that would effectively preclude Alaskan coastal communities and stakeholders from having a direct voice in the process.” During ComFish, an annual Kodiak commercial fisheries booster event, Stephen Taufen of Groundswell Fisheries Movement said that the Congresswoman in question is Rep. Jaime Hererra Beutler, R-Wash. Beutler, a representative of southwest Washington, sits on the House Appropriations Committee. Much of the Gulf trawl industry is based in Seattle. In the address and his own letter, Taufen alleged that Beutler’s office was contacted by trawl industry representatives and has drafted legislation. “It is most likely they helped draft the closeted legislation,” Taufen said. Beutler’s office did not respond to calls for comment. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, one of six Alaskans who make up the majority of the 11 voting council members, said he hasn’t seen any evidence, only rumor, and that members of Congress from Washington or Oregon would be unlikely to force such legislation at the federal level. Legislative action directing North Pacific council actions would not be unprecedented in Alaska’s history. Two North Pacific federal fisheries programs came from federal legislative action either in addition to or instead of council action. Crab rationalization — which assigned individual quota shares to vessel owners, captains and processors to replace the derby-style fishing that made it the most dangerous fishery in the nation — depended in part on the late Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens to implement. In 2001, Stevens urged the North Pacific council to examine whether the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab fishery should be rationalized. In 2002, the North Pacific council was in unanimous support of crab rationalization and approved it with an 11-0 vote. Stevens’ rider in the Consolidated Appropriations Bill of 2003 ordered the Secretary of Commerce to approve the council’s action on crab rationalization. The Commerce secretary must approve all council actions as meeting national standards and other applicable laws before they can be implemented, but Stevens’ rider removed any discretion from the cabinet position in the case of crab rationalization. Stevens put a similar mandate into the 2004 consolidated appropriations bill, this time directing the North Pacific council to establish a Gulf rockfish pilot program. The five-year pilot program ran from 2007-12 and was reauthorized by the council with significant changes in 2012. The letter to Alaska’s delegation aiming to stave off an intervention in council action is the latest in a protracted regulations dispute. The Gulf of Alaska forms the core of a contentious fishery management argument that has gotten more heated since an October 2015 North Pacific meeting. The trawl industry insists the council’s Alaska membership has an embedded antagonism towards it, evidenced by Gov. Bill Walker’s council nominations and an unpopular regulation option. At the October 2015 meeting, Cotten introduced a new management alternative into a broader regulations package that has been under consideration for years in its most recent iteration and traces its council roots to the early 2000s. The overall package contains a series of options to lower bycatch rates and increase safety in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries, potentially by creating a quota system. These fisheries are some of the last remaining in the North Pacific without a quota system assigning fishing privileges to harvesters. The trawl industry has adamantly opposed Cotten’s Alternative 3, and feels that the council erred in moving it forward in the regulations process. Alternative 3 would implement a bycatch quota system rather than a traditional catch share program, which allocates individual target species quota to fishermen based on historical catch and other factors. Instead of target species, Alternative 3 would only create a bycatch quota system. Trawlers say the bycatch quota system in Alternative 3 would cripple their industry, instead favoring Alternative 2, a more traditional catch share program that would assign both directed species quota and bycatch quota. Trawlers flocked to the council’s Portland meeting in February to urge the council to not move Alternative 3 forward into the environmental impact analysis process. Opponents of the catch share program fear job losses and widespread consolidation of capital and ownership, observed byproducts of past quota system implementations. Cotten’s alternative intends to avoid some of these consequences. The council did move Alternative 3 into analysis, saying it deserved thorough review despite its unpopularity with the trawl industry. Against this backdrop, Walker appointed two new members of the North Pacific council in March to fill seats that will expire in June. The nominations of Buck Laukitis of Homer and Theresa Peterson of Kodiak infuriated the trawl industry, which believes both are fundamentally opposed to large vessels, Outside fishermen, and trawlers. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]  

Anglers want personal use to pay share

As always, fishermen want to know revenue generating bills won’t single them out, and that they will actually benefit the area from which fees are taken. House Bill 137 from Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy, would raise fishing and hunting license fees in addition to creating a sockeye salmon stamp for Kenai and Kasilof rivers users. However, only sportfishermen on the state’s most heavily used rivers would have to pay the $15 resident or $150 non-resident stamp fee, while personal use fishermen who dipnet would continue paying nothing. The bill is part of the landslide of bills intended to snag as much spare cash as possible to help reduce the state’s $4.1 billion budget deficit and its ensuing budget reductions. Sportfishing advocates say the measure could potentially deter tourists from dropping money into the Alaska fishery. In addition to raising the non-resident annual fishing license fee from $100 to $150, the non-resident sockeye stamp would cost another $150. Only Alaska residents may participate in the personal use fisheries. Anglers also say they want assurances that the stamp, which only applies to the Kasilof and Kenai rivers, will only be used for management on the same rivers. “We don’t mind helping,” said Dwight Kramer, secretary and treasurer of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition. “We just don’t want to be singled out.” HB 137 would raise prices for resident and non-resident hunting, trapping, and fishing licenses, running the gamut from a $5 increase for resident fishing licenses up to a $500 increase for non-resident grizzly bear tags. The bill would also increase the age at which Alaska residents would require a license from 16 year old to 18 years old. In 2015, the bill was approved by the House and sent to the Senate, where it stopped in the Resources Committee at the end of the session. Last year, the stamp applied to both sportfishing and personal use fisheries. The personal use addition had been dropped when the bill was taken up in 2016. Kramer said his organization has begun a letter writing campaign to bend state representatives against the bill’s provision to only apply the sockeye stamp to sport users. Kramer is also a board member of the Kenai River Special Management Area board, which he said will reconsider its support of the bill in future discussions. Fishing and hunting licenses, permits, and stamp fees feed directly back into the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for management purposes. Kramer said that sportfishing is a self-contained expense directly proportionate to the amount of anglers engaging in the fishery. Personal use fisheries, however, generate no revenue despite raising department costs. Kramer said burdening sportfishermen alone is inequitable. “We just don’t think that’s right,” said Kramer. “When you look at the whole thing in perspective, the sportfishing isn’t generating new expenses. All its expenses are generated for years…on the other end of the spectrum, the (personal use) fishery is generating a lot of management expense. It just doesn’t make any sense.” Personal use comes from Alaska’s constitution, which declares residents owners of state resources. On the Cook Inlet rivers in question, the personal use sockeye fishery has become increasingly popular. In 2015, Cook Inlet personal use fisheries harvested 533,000 salmon. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued just less than 35,000 personal use permits. To deal with increased personal use of the Kasilof River — a record 89,000 salmon were harvested in 2015 — the Department of Natural Resources has appropriated $2.8 million to invest toward site improvements. As the personal use fishery on the Kasilof River grows, Kramer said it’s only fair that the personal use fisheries contribute. During a bill hearing in the Senate Resources Committee, Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, a vocal personal use fishery proponent, said he appreciated the personal use stamp requirement being dropped from the bill. Personal use fishermen, he said, contribute to local economies around the rivers through local retail spending. Kramer said Stoltze misses the point; while personal use fishermen do indeed contribute to municipal coffers, much of the area management and upkeep come from the state. The Department of Natural Resources is planning several projects to accommodate the personal use fisheries, including the Kasilof River Improvement Project set to begin construction this summer. For the growing Kasilof River fishery, the state has yet to install sanitation and garbage disposal, however. Infrastructure developments like boat launch installation cost money the department will no likely have in the future due to budget cuts. Kenai River bank erosion associated with the personal use fishery will require walkway installation, another expense whose funding may not be secure.   DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Fishing groups voice opposition to CFEC reorganization

Following an April 4 hearing that drew unanimous opposition from fishing groups, the House Resources Committee held a bill that would make statutory changes to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. The bill is a relatively simple administrative fix, but sits in a tangle created by an administrative order by Gov. Bill Walker that has attracted criticism over its legality, a legislative audit of the agency, and opposition from fishermen. Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, introduced the bill, but drastically scaled down the original version introduced last year to simply meet the needs of a 2015 legislative audit recommending some of the changes directed by Walker’s order. Now, the bill’s main elements address administrative fixes: moving the CFEC commissioners to part-time pay and changing CFEC employees’ statutory designations. “It changes (commissioners) from being on a monthly rate to a daily rate,” summarized Stutes’ staffer Reid Harris. It also changes CFEC employees’ designation from “exempt” to “classified,” another statutory change. “This bill is drafted to the recommendations of the audit,” Harris said. Both recommendations enable Walker’s order, which folded CFEC duties into the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Walker’s order mandated the CFEC to fold some of its duties into the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The CFEC creates and licenses the limited entry commercial fisheries in Alaska state waters. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, manages the fisheries in season and performs the scientific studies necessary to do so. The order folded several of CFEC’s administrative duties into ADFG’s domain, including: licensing and permitting services (ministerial services only); information technology services; accounting services; payroll services; procurement services; and budget services. Walker’s order was intended to be a cost-saving measure, and follows two bills introduced in the last two years that would have dismantled CFEC altogether, including Stutes’ bill. A legislative audit completed by former Administrative Services director Tom Lawson recommended several changes to CFEC structure that Walker’s order incorporated along with several changes independent of the audit. CFEC commissioners circulated two letters following the order, saying it exceeded the audit’s recommendations. They also said it borders on unconstitutional. Legislators took up the query. Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, asked the legislative law office for its opinion of Walker’s order. The opinion, drafted by Legislative Affairs Director of Legal Services Doug Gardner, found a potential constitutional snag. According to the Alaska Constitution, the governor is indeed authorized to “reorganize” administrative duties in the executive branch, which includes both ADFG and CFEC. If the reorganization requires “force of law” — a change in statute — then it requires an executive order subject to the Legislature’s approval. Most CFEC duties are statutory, put in place by the Limited Entry Act. In particular, Walker’s administrative order could give ADFG the statutory duty to issue licenses under certain circumstances. This would require a statutory change — a force of law — which means Walker’s order should have been executive, according to Gardner. “Based on the language in (Walker’s order),” wrote Gardner, “it is hard to evaluate how ADFG can perform either of these licensing functions which are 1) specific statutory duties of CFEC that in some cases affect the rights and liabilities of permit holders; and 2) where these statutory functions could be more that purely ‘ministerial.’” The Resources Committee will hold another hearing for the bill on April 6. Fishermen spoke unanimously against the bill during the hearing, mostly because it relates to an administrative order they oppose but have no direct recourse to change. During the hearing, the scant public commentary mostly addressed the related administrative order rather than the bill’s elements. “We’re opposed to anything in this bill, as it’s helping the administrative order,” said Martin Lunde of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association, or SEAS, who added that they believe it should have been done as an executive order. Bob Thorstensen, the executive director of SEAS, called Walker’s administrative order “far, far, far deeper and more destructive than even the audit.” Jerry McCune, president of the United Fishermen of Alaska, the largest fishing industry group in the state, said the agency crossover would present new problems as the State of Alaska develops new fisheries in the Bering Sea’s federal waters, that are controlled by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. ADFG Commissioner Sam Cotten sits on that council, as per federal law. McCune and others voiced a concern that conflict would occur if Cotten makes licensing calls in both the federal and the state fisheries. Ben Brown, one of two currently sitting CFEC commissioners, said he could support the bill, and did not speak directly of the administrative order itself. “The debate that’s started to happen doesn’t address the four corners of this bill,” said Brown.” Brown said the bill’s intent to lower commissioners to part-time pay and part-time workloads was acceptable, given that it falls in line with the legislative audit’s recommendation to streamline CFEC but maintain its existence. “I don’t know what the practical end result of the administrative order will be,” said Brown. “We commissioners can support (this version) of this bill.”   DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]  

Hatcheries made up one-third of 2015 salmon harvest

KENAI — Though hatcheries are a major part of the commercial fishing industry statewide, they’ve remained a small portion of the harvest in Cook Inlet. Fish from Alaska’s salmon hatcheries made up a third of the total commercial fishery harvest in 2015, mostly in pink and chum salmon. However, in Cook Inlet, hatchery fish made up less than 2 percent, according to a report from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The report, which is updated annually, provides a broad picture of the state of Alaska’s 28 producing hatcheries. Since their beginnings in the 1970s, the hatcheries have grown to be a substantial part of the fishing industry and contributed 93 million salmon to the commercial fishery last year, nearly a third of the 264 million total fish, according to the report. Cook Inlet’s hatcheries carried a total ex-vessel value of approximately $3.2 million in 2015, with approximately $1.7 million coming from sockeye and the remainder coming from pink salmon. However, Cook Inlet has the smallest hatchery value in the state — Prince William Sound led the market with a total of $79.5 million in ex-vessel value, followed by Southeast with $37.5 million and Kodiak with $4.5 million, according to the report. The commercial fisheries in Cook Inlet harvested 144,000 hatchery-produced salmon in 2015, approximately 2 percent of the total catch. Most of the return was harvested for cost recovery, approximately 2.2 million fish. One of the reasons for the smaller harvest is the recently reopened Tutka Bay and Port Graham hatcheries, operated by Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association. Both are building up their broodstock over time to reach the returns the facilities can handle. In 2015, only enough fish to fulfill broodstock and cost recovery returned to those two stocks, according to the report. Cook Inlet’s hatcheries mostly produce sockeye salmon, which garner a higher price per pound than pink and chum. Most of the hatcheries rely on pink and chum salmon, which are lower-value fish. However, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association is in the process of diversifying its stock to include both pink salmon and sockeye. Sockeye are more expensive to raise because they must be retained in freshwater longer, requiring the hatcheries managers to overwinter them, said Mark Stopha, a fisheries biologist with Fish and Game in Juneau who wrote the report. They are more expensive to feed and run a higher risk of mortality, possibly because of the longer rearing time. Pink and chum salmon, on the other hand, can hatch in the spring and go directly to salt water, providing a faster return on investment, he said. The number of hatchery fish harvested in other fisheries is much smaller — the sport, personal-use and subsistence fisheries harvested about 275,000 salmon, rainbow trout, arctic char and grayling in 2015. The hatcheries are managed with the wild stocks as a priority, according to the report. Coded wire tags and thermal marking, which is the process of marking the earbones of hatchery fish to determine their origin and brood year, allow fisheries managers to sample returning fish during the season and estimate the total return for hatchery fish and thus more accurately estimate wild stock escapements. Straying of hatchery fish into wild fish systems has long been a concern with the programs statewide. There have been straying reports conducted on most systems where hatcheries operate, but not on Cook Inlet. Stopha said the relatively small hatchery operation did not necessitate a straying study. “I don’t know of any that have been done in Cook Inlet … and maybe that’s because we don’t have any concerns there because of the low level of hatchery production in some of the areas,” Stopha said. “I don’t think it has come up as a concern.” Fish and Game originally began evaluating all the hatcheries in the state as part of the Marine Stewardship Council certification process in 2012, but eventually reviewed them all, Stopha said. One of the main things he said he’s seen is that the hatcheries do not seem to have been damaging salmon runs. Many of the hatchery programs have enhanced the already existing stocks rather than shipping eggs in from elsewhere, he said. “I think the main thing, when I’ve looked at these over 40 years, no one just went in and put in a 100, 200, 300 million egg hatchery and said, ‘We’re just going to do it,’” Stopha said. “In truth, there’s been a lot of bad press about hatcheries over the years, and hatcheries down south have not followed the same protocols we have. 2013 and 2015 were some of the highest returns over the state.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]    

FISH FACTOR: USCG improves distress call system; Frankenfish lawsuit filed

Alaska fishermen can send an SOS call directly to the Coast Guard, but many are not hooking up to the new lifeline. Digital Selective Calling, or DSC, instantly signals a distress call over VHF radios to other vessels, and the feature has been a required part of the hand-held units since 1996. In Alaska, the ability for mariners to hook up with the Coast Guard was acquired just last year when transceiver and antenna “high sites” in Southeast and Southcentral regions came on line (more are scheduled soon). “There was a lot of rumor going around that DSC didn’t work in Alaska. In reality, DSC does and has worked since the technology was introduced, but the Coast Guard couldn’t hear it. And that’s what we are in the process of improving now,” said Mike Folkerts, a USCG Guard Boating Safety Specialist based in Juneau. “Most mariners didn’t realize that they could actually use a DSC-equipped VHF radio and send a digital signal instead of a voice signal.” During safety training classes, it was discovered that many fishermen are not hooking up the DSC systems properly and completely, said Julie Matweyou, a Sea Grant Marine Advisor and trainer with the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association. “So the distress button can’t broadcast their location in the event that they can’t get off a full mayday,” she said. In fact, the Coast Guard learned that 90 percent of VHF radio distress calls they received do not contain vessel position information and 60 percent have no identity. With that discovery, they launched Operation Distress Connect. “We learned that many DSC/VHF radios are not connected to GPS,” Folkerts explained, adding that it takes a simple two-wire fix. Then, a Mobile Maritime Safety Information (MMSI) identification number must be obtained and registered with United States Power Squadrons, and the MMSI number entered into the VHF radio. “It’s like a personalized telephone number for your VHF radio, and when you press the distress button all the information on that MMSI form is automatically available to the Coast Guard so they are not calling you every two minutes to find out your emergency information,” Folkerts said. Pushing the distress button on your DSC radio without having the GPS connected and MMSI registered results in an “uncorrelated” distress call, says a USCG pamphlet. It adds: the search ‘box’ for the rescuers can be huge and without more specific location information, our Command Centers cannot launch a rescue. If we know where you are and who you are, we can come and get you. Making your DSC VHF radio fully functional will help take the “Search out of Search and Rescue”. Overall, Folkerts added that DSC is a far better system. “You can push that distress button and send out a DSC signal and your radio will continue to send out the all the positioning and personal information,” Folkerts said. “You’re not hooked by the microphone umbilical cord, you can actually go about taking care of business if you have a boat fire or person overboard or you’re taking on water. So it’s a huge advantage in that regard alone.” Frankenfish lawsuit A diverse coalition of environmental, consumer, and fishing organizations has sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approving AquaBounty’s genetically engineered, or GE, salmon. The complaint, which was filed March 31 in a district court in California, claims that the FDA did not have proper authority to approve GM salmon last November. AquaBounty, which will grow the manmade salmon in pens located in Canada and Panama, pushed for 20 years to get the ok for the fish to be sold in U.S. markets. The larger and faster growing AquAdvantage fish is made by inserting genes from two fish — a chinook salmon and an ocean pout — into an Atlantic salmon. It is the first animal approved for human consumption. The lawsuit challenges FDA’s claim that it has authority to approve and regulate GE animals as “animal drugs” under the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, said seafood market expert John Sackton. “It argues that those provisions were meant to ensure the safety of veterinary drugs administered to treat disease in livestock and were not intended to address entirely new GM animals that can pass along their altered genes to the next generation,” he wrote. The lawsuit also highlights FDA’s failure to protect the environment and consult wildlife agencies in its review process, as required by federal law. “FDA’s decision is as unlawful as it is irresponsible,” George Kimbrell, senior attorney for Center for Food Safety told SeafoodSource. “This case is about protecting our fisheries and ocean ecosystems from the foreseeable harms of the first-ever GM fish, harms FDA refused to even consider. It’s also about the future of our food: FDA should not, and cannot, responsibly regulate this GM animal, nor any future GM animals, by treating them as drugs under a 1938 law.” More than 1.5 million people wrote to the FDA in opposition to the so-called Frankenfish, and 65 supermarkets so far have said they won’t carry it. Mariculture money Loans up to $100 million are available from the federal government for businesses involved in fishing, aquaculture, mariculture or seafood processing for the purchase or improvement of facilities or equipment. The money comes from NOAA’s Fisheries Finance Program in loans ranging from five to 25 years at low interest rates. “We can do loans for everything but building a new boat or activities that contribute to overfishing,” said Paul Marx, NOAA Fisheries financial services division chief. The NOAA loans may be used to purchase a vessel as long as it is not brand new and does not increase overall harvesting capacity. The loans also can refinance existing debt under certain circumstances. Alaskans also can get state loans for mariculture ventures, as part of an initiative launched by Gov. Bill Walker. In February Walker created the Alaska Mariculture Task Force, a diverse group of 11 people with expertise in mariculture and business in remote areas. The group is set to have its first meeting this month and name more interested people to open seats. The task force is chaired by Julie Decker, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation which believes an Alaska mariculture industry can be worth $1 billion in 30 years. Meanwhile, the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development has launched a $5 million Mariculture Revolving Loan Program aimed at helping start-ups or expanding mariculture businesses. Companies can borrow $100,000 per year with a $300,000 cap. Loans must be for the planning, construction, and operation of a permitted mariculture business. The state provides pre-approved tidal tracts for Alaskans interested in growing shellfish and seaweeds, and takes applications each year through April 30. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

Alaskans take 553K Cook Inlet salmon in PU fisheries

JUNEAU — Fishermen harvested nearly 533,000 salmon in Cook Inlet personal-use fisheries last year and the Kasilof River saw its highest sockeye salmon harvest to date. Personal use fishing was established by Alaska’s Board of Fisheries as a means of complying with federal subsistence requirements. It allows Alaskans to take certain types of finfish, shellfish or aquatic plants for use as food for themselves or their immediate families. According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data, both the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers have continued to see heavy use. Both are located on the road system on the Kenai Peninsula, about 15 miles apart and about 160 miles south of Anchorage. While personal use fishermen can harvest multiple species of salmon on the two rivers, sockeye salmon typically make up the majority of their take. On the Kasilof River, anglers dipnetted more than 89,000, while on the Kenai River, they took nearly 378,000. More than 34,920 permits were issued in 2015, according to Fish and Game data. While the vast majority of the dipnet fishing effort occurs on the Kenai River, the Kasilof River has become increasingly popular. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources has received more than $2.8 million in funding from the state Legislature for site improvements. They’ve proposed adding more parking, an access road, portable toilets and dune fencing to the area.

Larger expected king run loosens restrictions on setnets, drifters

Commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet will be somewhat freer to fish at the outset of the 2016 season thanks to a larger projected king salmon run. For the past few years, Alaska Department of Fish & Game commercial fisheries managers have had to work around restrictions on their fisheries because of low king salmon runs to the stream systems across Upper Cook Inlet. However, with a projected late-run return of 30,000 king salmon to the Kenai River and improved runs to the Deshka and Little Susitna rivers, managers will be able to operate under normal restrictions, according to the 2016 Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fisheries outlook. “This will be the first year we’ve had the luxury of operating those fisheries without the restrictions,” said Pat Shields, the area management biologists for the Commercial Fisheries Division in Soldotna. For the first time in three years, setnetters in the Upper Subdistrict will be managed by the Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan, restricted only by inseason assessments of sockeye salmon runs and the escapements of late-run kings to the Kenai. In the past, they have been constricted by the low projected run of king salmon to the Kenai River, limiting the number of hours they can fish. This year, they will be able to operate with an additional 84 hours of fishing each week, with a mandatory 36-hour closure each week beginning between 7 p.m. Thursdays and 7 a.m. Fridays, Shields said. The season is set to open June 27 unless opened earlier by emergency order, based on an inriver estimate of 50,000 Kasilof River sockeye salmon before the opener. The earliest it could open would be June 20, according to the outlook. As the season progresses, managers will be carefully watching both the number of sockeye salmon and king salmon in the rivers. “What we’ll do is watch the king salmon numbers as they come in each day in July, and we’ll plan our strategy for how to fish based on the combination of those two sets of numbers,” Shields said. Additionally, commercial setnetters in the Northern District of Cook Inlet will be able to target king salmon again at the season opening. King salmon escapements in the Northern District, which includes all of Cook Inlet north of Boulder Point, have improved in the last few years. More king salmon have been returning to the to the Deshka and Little Susitna rivers as well, and Fish & Game is willing to open up the fishery as well. Shields said it is a relatively limited fishery targeting kings specifically early in the season, with limited fishing periods and fewer nets allowed. The commercial setnet fishery in the Northern District will open with four fishing periods in the 2016 season: May 30, June 3, June 13 and June 20, according to the outlook. After June 27, there will be two 12-hour fishing periods per week with a full complement of gear with at least 600 feet between nets. However, the area from the wood chip dock to the Susitna River will remain closed, reducing the king salmon harvest by approximately half, and the Deshka River will be watched closely. Any closures will come from inseason counts, according to the outlook. The drift gillnet fishery will open by the third Monday in June or June 19, whichever is later. There will be an additional 12-hour fishing period in the Expanded Kenai and Expanded Kasilof sections and Drift Gillnet Area 1 because the Kenai River sockeye run is projected to be greater than 2.3 million fish, according to the outlook. Between July 16 and July 31, there will be an additional 12-hour fishing period each week in the Expanded Kenai, Expanded Kasilof and Anchor Point sections, and no additional restrictions on the remaining regular 12-hour fishing period. One of the challenges of managing this season will be balancing the king run, which is projected to be above the 22,500 target set in the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan, with the sockeye salmon run. A larger than average sockeye return is projected for this year — 7.1 million total, with a 4.1 million commercial fishery harvest, 1.2 million more than the 10-year average annual harvest. Shields said the department has a number of tools for managing the sockeye overescapement if the fisheries are restricted by emergency order again. “It’ll be an interesting year to watch,” Shields said. “Everybody will be watching those two numbers really closely. Our strategy and challenge here will be how many of those extra (setnet) hours will we need to use to keep the sockeye salmon escapement in check.” Last year, both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers saw large overescapements of sockeye salmon, partially due to the closures of the setnet fishery. Managers tried to control the escapement by opening up the drift gillnet fleet for more fishing, which worked “moderately well,” Shields said. “It’s going to put the department in a difficult position — how far do you let the sockeye salmon run go above your escapement objective while you still maintain all the provisions in the (management) plan?” Shields said. One option the managers have is to discuss going outside the Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plan to control escapement, which has been done before. It is a serious decision and requires input from the upper echelons of Fish & Game, but it was done as recently as last year, Shields said. A proviso in the management plan allows Fish & Game to deviate from the management plan to make their escapement goals, he said. However, that doesn’t mean the decisions are always clear. Shields said the decisions to go outside the management plans often generate disagreements within the department and commentary from the public. “When you start exceeding (escapement goals) by quite a bit on the upper end, you see a likelihood for smaller returns,” Shields said. “I wished it was a square decision with nice straight 90-degree corners, but sometimes the lines get a little fuzzy.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

After bumper years, fewer reds forecast

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has released statewide forecasts for salmon, and 2016 promises fewer fish than last year’s price-deadening sockeye glut.  Statewide, ADFG said 2016 will see a drop in the total salmon harvest, led by an especially sharp decline in pink salmon. Projections are for 161 million total salmon: 99,000 chinook in areas outside Southeast Alaska, 47.7 million sockeye, 4.4 million coho, 90.1 million pink, and 18.7 million chum. Southeast Alaska chinook salmon harvests are set by the Pacific Salmon Commission between the U.S. and Canada, and have not yet been released. Rivers will see a half-million more chum and coho salmon, but pinks and reds — Alaska’s money crops — will both decline. 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. The sockeye salmon harvest is expected to be about 7.3 million fewer than in 2015, which could prove a benefit for the industry after Bristol Bay’s surplus driven ex-vessel price crash 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 Alaska all-species salmon harvest for 2015 totaled 268.3 million, about 47.5 million salmon more than the 220.8 million forecast. This included 522,000 chinook, 55 million sockeye, 3.9 million coho, 190.6 million pink, and 18.2 million chum salmon. Bristol Bay sockeye led in value with an immense but oddly timed run of sub-average-sized fish, while a bumper pink salmon harvest in the Prince William Sound matched exactly an inexplicable lag of Southeast pink salmon runs. Meanwhile, the international salmon market contended with price forces that included the U.S. dollar’s relative strength, Russian import bans, farmed fish and oversupply from the 2014 harvest. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]  

FISH FACTOR: Salmon forecasts down 40% overall; early halibut prices up

Alaska’s 2016 salmon harvest will be down by 40 percent from last year’s catch, if the fish show up as predicted. The preliminary numbers released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game call for a total catch of 161 million salmon this year; the 2015 harvest topped 268 million fish. The shortfall stems from a projected big decrease for pink salmon. A humpy harvest forecast of 90 million would be a drop of 100 million fish from last summer. Here’s the statewide catch breakdown for the other salmon species: For sockeye, the forecast calls for a catch just shy of 48 million, down by more than 7 million reds from last year. A coho catch of 4.4 million would be a half million fish increase; likewise, for chum salmon, a catch of nearly 19 million would be a similar increase over last season. For chinook, a catch of 99,000 fish is projected for all areas except Southeast, where the harvest will be determined according to Pacific Treaty agreements with Canada. Last year’s statewide chinook catch was 521,612. It all adds up to fewer salmon being available to global buyers this year — and some hopeful market signs for Alaska salmon are starting to surface. A failure of both farmed and wild salmon fisheries in Japan has spawned a surge of demand for Alaska sockeyes. Exports to Japan from October through December were up 320 percent over the previous year, reported, and sales are expected to remain “substantially” higher as inventories clear prior to the new fishing season. Alaska could also benefit from the misfortunes of the world’s top farmed salmon producers, a scenario that is steadily pushing up salmon prices. Farmed fish sales from Chile, the largest supplier to the U.S., are expected to drop by up to 20 percent this year due to a toxic algal bloom, and production is expected to be affected well into 2017. According to Chile’s National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service, 38 salmon farms have been affected, with nearly 24 million fish killed — enough to fill 14 Olympic swimming pools. Financial Times reported that Chilean salmon prices have increased 25 percent to nearly $5 a pound since December. Norway, the world’s largest farmed fish producer, is unlikely to fill the salmon shortfall, as that country is dealing with severe fish loss from sea lice.  “We expect to see a global supply shock,” warned Kolbjørn Giskeødegård, director of seafood at Nordea Bank. Halibut highs Dock prices for halibut started out in the mid-$6 range at major ports, about 25 cents per pound higher than last year. The fishery opened March 19 and first deliveries were sketchy, except in Southeast Alaska. “Fishing is fantastic,” said Dave Ohmer, manager at Trident Seafoods in Petersburg. Halibut prices are usually broken into three weight categories. They were reported at $6.45 for 1- to 20-pounders, $6.65 for 20-40s and $6.85 a pound for “40 ups.” The payout at Icicle was reported at $6.50-$6.75 with a 20 pound split. Halibut prices usually drop a bit after the first week or so into the fishery. In recent years, the dock price has seldom fallen below $5 a pound. Federal data show that 676,000 pounds of halibut crossed Alaska docks through March 25, slightly higher than at the same time last year. Alaska’s share of the Pacific halibut catch this year is 21.45 million pounds, an increase of 200,000 pounds from 2015. The fishery runs through November 7. Fishing slows growth It turns out that fishing appears to be a prime cause of shrinking halibut. A Pacific halibut that weighed 120 pounds 30 years ago tips the scales at less than 45 pounds today. That’s especially true for fish in the biggest fishing holes: the Central and Western Gulf of Alaska. “We found that fishing can explain between 30 and 100 percent of the observed declines in size at age in the Gulf of Alaska, depending on which area you’re looking at,” said Jane Sullivan, a University of Alaska graduate student who is investigating the impacts of fishing on halibut growth for the first time. “We took all the information that we knew about the halibut population in the 1980s when fish were big, and used a computer model to fish this population at different harvest levels to see how fishing affects size at age,” she explained. “And we found that resulting declines in size at age become greater with age because fishing effects compound with each year of fishing.” Sullivan modeled several scenarios, including reducing the 32-inch minimum size in the fishery, and releasing halibut over a maximum of 60 inches. Neither appeared to make any difference in fishing impacts on the fish size at age. The research also found that bycatch of halibut in other fisheries is not a key factor in the slower growing fish. “The majority of halibut caught as bycatch in these other fisheries are much smaller sized halibut, so we don’t think there would be the same selective fishing going on as there is in the commercial halibut fishery,” Sullivan said. In terms of potential changes to the fishery to protect the slow growing halibut, the science points to an unpopular solution. The only management action that appears to make any difference is to reduce fishing effort or harvest. By reducing effort, you reduce the selective harvest of large halibut, she said. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

Board of Fisheries hopefuls, legislators playing nice in 2016

The 2016 Board of Fisheries appointees represent no one, and everyone, they insist. 2015 and 2016 took a toll on fisheries leadership. The last 12 months include one botched interview, one forced resignation, three failed nominations – including one denied by the Walker Administration – a fistful of felony charges, and two recent resignations – one of which chairman Tom Kluberton said comes from political burnout and stress, the other, Bob Mumford, coming before he even had the chance to be confirmed by the Legislature.  Gear group and regional allegiance bubbled underneath it all, and what the board should look like to best reflect them all. This year, Gov. Bill Walker’s appointees are eager to explain what little bias they carry onto a board that oversees Alaska’s largest source of private employment. Legislators offer none of the fire seen last year, public comments are gentle, and none of last year’s regional and gear group tensions have boiled over. The Senate Resources Committee forwarded Israel Payton on March 21 to a joint session hearing, moving the Mat-Su resident one step closer to being confirmed as a board member. Payton, along with former Alaska Wildlife Trooper Al Cain and Kenai area conservationist Robert Ruffner, was nominated to fill one of three available positions on the board left Kluberton, Mumford, and Fritz Johnson. This leaves Bristol Bay without a representative. Bay groups are angry, but so far haven’t led the same kind of campaign that derailed board nominations last year. Payton came out of the gate speaking directly of a lack of allegiance to user groups, gear types, and regions, describing a good board member as neutral above all else. A good board member, he said, “should be careful not to be seen as one user’s advocate,” and “realize that board members do not represent any specific interest group, fishery, but represent all Alaskans equally, and we all have very unique differences and perspectives.” Payton’s fisheries involvement extends to subsistence and sport, and he currently serves on the Board of Fisheries’ Mat-Su Fish and Game Advisory Committee. The committee, public commentators, and Payton himself focused mostly on affiliation, specifically, which if any he holds. Payton insists his time as a sportfishing guide has no bearing on his Board of Fisheries plans. “I’ve worked as a sportfishing guide in the past,” said Payton, “but it’s been 11 years since I’ve made any money related to any type of fisheries resource, and it does not define who I am or how I will vote.” Though he has little direct commercial fishing experience, Payton claims he will benefit commercial fisheries. Without any connections, he has no loyalties or prejudices. “I will not bring any preconceived ideas or conflicts between different commercial users or fisheries,” he said. Sen. Pete Micciche, R-Soldotna, the only committee member to question Payton, probed for Payton’s backbone, asking whether he would have trouble making tough allocative calls when needed. “You know the pressure that comes on you in the Board of Fisheries,” Micciche said. “Do you have any hesitation on limiting harvest opportunities to any or all of the four user groups to meet the (maximum sustainable yield) requirement?” Payton said his alliance was to Alaska’s Constitution first, not to user groups. “If there’s a biological concern, and there’s a resource in crisis or not meeting the MSY, I think that it’s time to act accordingly,” he said. “I realize the amount of pressure that the commissioners and managers currently face when they do things like emergency orders, but we are mandated by the statues, by the Legislature, and we have to follow it.” In the midst of the interview, Payton acknowledged the pressure Micciche spoke about. “I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t nervous about serving on this board,” he said, but that he could only try. Along with the committee itself, the public had little input. Only three people called in to the committee, two in support of Payton and one neutral. A March 10 hearing was similarly mild compared to last year. A Senate Committee Hearing for Al Cain and Robert Ruffner met calm receptions from Sens. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, and Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak. Both senators counted among the most vociferous of Ruffner’s critics during his 2015 confirmation hearing, but recanted their earlier opposition. In 2015, they said, Walker had nominated Ruffner to fill a seat they feel sportfishermen had traditionally held. This time around, that’s not a problem. Both Stoltze and Wielechowski said they were glad to see Ruffner back and nominated for a commercial fisherman’s spot. The senators, representing the largely sportfishing and personal use interests of Southcentral Alaska’s largest urban population centers, had opposed Ruffner’s appointment on the grounds that it should go to an Anchorage resident and a sportfisherman. Wielechowski acknowledged that Ruffner’s failed confirmation – the joint committee failed to confirm him by a single vote – had less to do with Ruffner’s undisputed credentials and more to do with fish politics. “Last year was rough and it really had nothing to do with you at all, it was just simply concern over the seat designation,” Wielechowski said. “I’m certainly more open to this entry now that you’re applying for a different seat,” Stolze said. “The seat you are applying for is traditionally thought to be a commercial seat.” Ruffner, director of the habitat restoration focused Kenai Watershed Forum, reaffirmed what he’d said last year. The health of the fish and habitat are first and foremost in his mind. Likewise, Cain responded to committee questions maintaining a neutral position in the endless Cook Inlet fisheries allocation battles. “I’d like to hear input on all sides, and if we can improve something, make something more sustainable, I’m not interested in disenfranchising any user group or individual but seeing that the allocations … are as equally distributed as they can be is my goal,” Cain told the committee. “That is why I’m not opposed to listening to suggested changes for any user group.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska trawlers furious about Walker’s council nominations

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include comment from Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten. Two months after a heated meeting, trawlers are again accusing Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten of short-changing their industry.  Gov. Bill Walker submitted nominations to fill two seats of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on March 9, sending waves of dissatisfaction throughout an industry segment that claims Walker’s administration is forcing it out of the process at the worst time possible. Walker nominated Buck Laukitis of Homer and Theresa Peterson of Kodiak to replace Duncan Fields and David Long among the 11 voting members of the council, one of eight regional councils established by the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act to oversee federal fisheries from three to 200 miles off the coast. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce ultimately selects each member, choosing either the governor’s stated preference or from his list of alternates. Of 11 voting members, six seats are reserved for Alaskans, including the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, currently held by Cotten. The remaining seats are reserved for the fish and game officials from Washington and Oregon, as well as a designated seat for the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region. Fields has served his maximum of three consecutive, three-year terms. Long only served one term after being appointed by former Gov. Sean Parnell in 2013. Since Walker announced the nominations, trawl industry representatives have voiced a steadily building frustration with the his administration’s fisheries policy.  “There’s a strong anti-trawl message coming from this administration,” said Glenn Reed, executive director of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “The two appointees illustrate that really clearly.” Cotten did not respond to requests for comment before press time, but said on on March 17 that the Washington and Oregon council seats already provide ample represenatation for trawlers, the majority of whom port in the Lower 48, not Alaska. He reiterated his comments from the contentious February meeting, saying that the economic and cultural welfare of Alaska communities is the administration's goal. "We are trying to look out for the health of coastal communities," he said.  ‘Fair and balanced’ Trawl representatives say they bring in too much seafood to be left completely off the Alaska council delegation. “Right now, 90 percent of the 5 billion pounds caught off Alaska is caught with trawl gear,” said Julie Bonney, executive director of Alaska Groundfish Data Bank. “Now we have bycatch management tools in front of the council for Gulf of Alaska fisheries, and yet on the Alaska side of the council we don’t have anyone that really understands those fisheries.” In a release, Walker said his nominations provide “balanced and insightful experience.” Trawl representatives insist that Walker’s nominations run afoul of the clause of the Magnuson-Stevens Act which calls for “the Secretary, in making appointments under this section, shall, to the extent practicable, ensure a fair and balanced apportionment, on a rotating or other basis, of the active participants (or their representatives) in the commercial and recreational fisheries.” Both Peterson and Laukitis have opposed many policies in recent years supported by the trawl industry, and promoted others in opposition to the industry’s stakeholders. Most recently, Peterson opposed a proposal to establish rationalization programs in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries favored by the trawl industry during a February council meeting as a member of the Advisory Panel that’s made up of 21 fisheries stakeholders. Instead, Peterson voted to continue studying a proposal the trawl industry loathes which does not allocate harvest quota. Peterson said “large scale fishing operations and the processing sector are well represented both on the council and through dedicated participation,” and that she believes small-scale coastal residents need more help. “Through my years participating in the Council process, seven of them serving as an Advisory Panel member, I find the voice of the small-scale, independent fishing operations to be the most underrepresented group in the process,” said Peterson. “In order to maintain fair and equitable representation on the council we need to have council members who represent coastal community members and understand the challenges of living in remote regions.” Laukitis does not have experience on the council’s Advisory Panel, but has gone on record during council process opposing trawl-backed regulatory proposals. In an 2014 Homer News editorial addressing halibut bycatch, Laukitis advocated for deep halibut bycatch cuts for the Bering Sea groundfish trawlers, referring to Clem Tillion, former Gov. Jay Hammond, and former Sen. Ted Stevens as examples of sound fisheries management. As alternates to Laukitis and Peterson, Walker forwarded Eric Olson, Paul Gronholdt, Linda Behnken, and Art Nelson. None directly represent trawlers or processors. Screening process Trawlers claim nominees were chosen based on fealty to a specific vision of Alaska fisheries rather than experience. John Whiddon, a Kodiak city council member, had applied and was interviewed by Cotten along with Barbara Blake and Walker’s Deputy Chief of Staff John Hozey. Whiddon said the interview had two components. One asked a list of basic questions to determine fisheries management experience and familiarity with council process. The second probed for something deeper. “The second part was how supportive I’d be as a potential candidate of the state’s position towards the various fisheries,” said Whiddon. Whiddon said Walker’s team seemed to want to engineer the council so that “there wouldn’t be any real strong outliers in the Alaska contingent.” “It’s obvious the state has a direction they want to go,” said Whiddon. Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, was interviewed for a council seat. “It seemed to me they were looking for people who were all going to agree with a particular vision,” she said. “My feeling was, there’s two sides of fish. One is social justice and access and the mantra coming out of fish policy now, and the other side, which is economics. Fishing is about making money. I think they’re looking not so much about the division of return of dollars…but access to opportunities for small boat participants.” Certain applicants received no interviews at all, including trawler Jason Chandler, Anne Vanderhoeven, and Rebecca Skinner, an attorney and Kodiak Borough co-chair of the Kodiak Fisheries Work Group. Trawl representatives suspect the timing and reveals what they say is a pattern. “That’s sort of the way the commissioner is stacking the deck,” said Paddy O’Donnell, Kodiak resident and trawl operator who serves on the council’s Advisory Panel. At its December meeting, the council removed Mitch Kilborn of Kodiak’s International Seafoods of Alaska, and Anne Vanderhoeven, fisheries quota manager for Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., a Community Development Quota group. In place, the council appointed Ben Stevens of the Tanana Chiefs Conference and Angel Drobnica of the Aleutians Pribilof Islands Community Development Association, another CDQ group, both of whom trawlers describe as “anti-trawl.” Before the Portland meeting, the AP changed leadership roles, voting to replace Ruth Christiansen with Ernie Weiss of Aleutians East Borough as chair, with co-chairs Matt Upton from U.S. Seafoods and Art Nelson from Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. Trawl representation Trawlers argue their fisheries are the most important part of the Kodiak economy and other coastal economies with fish processing capability. In Kodiak, groundfish fisheries contribute to a year-round processor workforce, rather than the seasonal employment used by many other processing hubs. In Kodiak, an average of 1,500 employees work in processors per month. In all months except June-August — salmon fishing months — the majority of Kodiak’s processor poundage is delivered by trawl vessels. More Alaskans fish the Gulf of Alaska federal fisheries than non-Alaskans, though more non-Alaskans use trawl gear. According to permit data from the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region, twice as many Alaskans fish groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska than do non-residents — which includes pollock, Pacific cod, and flatfish. NOAA federal permit manager Tracy Buck clarified that the agency does not monitor permits according to resident status, exactly. Rather, each permit is attached to a physical address; 65 percent of groundfish permits are attached to an Alaska address. Gulf of Alaska groundfish can be harvested by trawl or non-trawl gear, though the majority of the catch is taken by trawl. There are 1,209 limited license permits, or LLPs, for groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska: 1,062 non-trawl LLPs and 152 trawl LLPs. The numbers favor Alaska addresses, but the difference between trawl and non-trawl residency speaks to the nature of fisheries. Of the non-trawl permits, a majority of 70 percent trace back to Alaska addresses while just a third of the trawl LLPs have an Alaska address. Non-trawl permits include longline and pot vessels — typically smaller than trawl vessels with a substantially lower barrier to entry where cost is concerned. Larger and more expensive trawlers have the ability to move between Pacific Northwest and Alaska waters, leaving homeport in Seattle or Portland to prosecute groundfish in the Gulf.

Victors in suit against NMFS want hired skipper rule scrapped

The victorious plaintiffs in a case challenging a federal rule over hired skippers in the sablefish and halibut fisheries filed a motion Feb. 24 to vacate the National Marine Fisheries Service action. Fairweather Fish Inc. and Ray Welsh filed suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, in 2014, following the finalization of a regulation that prohibited the use of hired skippers to harvest halibut and sablefish quota acquired after Feb. 12, 2010. A U.S. District Court judge in the Western Washington District ruled in their favor on Jan. 13, finding that the regulation didn’t meet legal muster. The court ruled that NMFS violated the Administrative Procedures Act, and failed to ensure the new rule complied with National Standards 9 and 10 of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Judge Benjamin Settle asked the parties for briefings regarding remedy, and the plaintiffs are now requesting that the court simply throw the rule out. “To remedy these violations of law,” the motion reads, “plaintiffs respectfully request that the court vacate the final rule and remand to NMFS for further review.” The Magnuson-Stevens Act was passed in 1976 to govern all federal fisheries in the U.S. It established an Exclusive Economic Zone from three to 200 miles off the U.S. coast, and created eight regional fishery management councils to govern. The act, or MSA, has 10 National Standards, or guidelines that mandate fisheries management goals. National Standard 9 requires regulations to minimize bycatch and bycatch mortality; National Standard 10 requires regulations to prioritize human safety at sea. The court ruled that NMFS failed to consider either when it approved the hired master prohibition. “A fundamental purpose of the halibut and sablefish IFQ program is to reduce bycatch in those fisheries. Yet, the final rule increased bycatch,” reads the plaintiffs’ motion to vacate the rule. “Likewise, by forcing disabled individuals to be onboard their vessels, the final rule decreased safety at sea.” Rather than tune up the rule, the plaintiffs argue that it should be scrapped, citing an earlier case against the U.S. Department of Energy: “When a court determines that an agency’s action failed to follow Congress’s clear mandate the appropriate remedy is to vacate that action.” The hired master rule was a perceived loophole in the federal quota systems installed in the North Pacific, following a derby-style fishery that was both dangerous and over-capitalized. In 1993, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council created an Individual Fishing Quota, or IFQ, program for halibut and sablefish in the North Pacific. The program, ultimately approved by NMFS through the Secretary of Commerce, assigned quota shares to fishermen based on their historical participation in the fishery, and provided for the transfer or sale of those shares among fishermen. The IFQ system allowed for some initial quota recipients to use hired skippers to fish quota for them as long as the quota holder retained more than 20 percent interest in the vessel. They also had to have traditionally used a hired skipper to fish. The North Pacific council, believing that the hired skipper exception was allowing for overconsolidation of quota shares among owners not required to be onboard the vessel, passed a rule in 2013 that prohibited the use of hired masters to harvest any quota acquired after Feb. 12, 2010. However, the council did not set the control date until February 2011, which was after several share transfers had occurred and been approved by NMFS. The plaintiffs argued that the council’s action was an illegal retroactive rule, and that it violated the Rehabilitation Act by disqualifying a disabled quota share owner from the fishery by requiring them to be on board the vessel. The judge did not rule on either the retroactive or Rehabilitation Act claims, stating that the violations of National Standards were enough to determine the final rule was improperly implemented. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Salmon permit values sink; halibut quota prices spike

Firesale salmon prices last year and a dim outlook for the upcoming season have caused the value of Alaska fishing permits to plummet. To another extreme, the prices for halibut catch shares have soared to “unheard of levels.” Starting with salmon permits: “A lot of people had disastrous seasons last year, whether it was drift gillnet or seine permits, and the values have declined dramatically,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. At Alaska’s bellwether fishery at Bristol Bay, a base sockeye prices of 50 cents per pound helped push drift gillnet permit prices into the $98,000 range, down from $175,000 last spring. “That may be the bottom; they seem to have come up a bit,” Bowen said, “but it’s still way below what they were trading for at this time last year.” The lower prices have spawned little interest in Bay drift permits; likewise, for salmon seine cards across the state. Seine permits at Prince William Sound are priced in the $150,000 range, down from over $200,000 a year ago. Kodiak seine permits have sunk into the mid $30,000s, and a Cook Inlet drift permit is valued in the $60,000 range. Bowen doesn’t expect the tide to turn anytime soon. “I’m afraid a lot of the same factors that contributed to the low prices we saw last year are pretty much the same this year. It’s not an optimistic outlook for salmon, and that is depressing the market for permits, and also the boats,” he added. “There are lots on the market, lots of sellers, not that many buyers. “There’s not a lot of extra money floating around in the salmon industry. So folks wanting to upgrade their vessels or pick up permits in another area, we’re just not seeing that happening.” The situation is slightly better in Southeast Alaska, where driftnet permits are getting a plug of interest. “More than I thought compared to all the other salmon areas,” said Olivia Olsen of Alaskan Quota and Permits at Petersburg. “We started at $78,000 in November and drifts now are going for $85,000 and they may creep up from there. Same with power troll permits. They’ve been pretty steady sales at about $35,000, which is down about $6,000 from last year, but still a pretty good price when you listen to all the talk about bad salmon prices. Hand troll permits also are on the upswing to $12,000.” Both brokers said salmon permit prices tend to tick upwards the closer it gets to salmon season. “I think the main issue is what we are going to see for prices, Bowen and Olsen said. Halibut share shocker This year’s small increase in halibut catches combined with hopes of a repeat of $6-$7 per pound prices was enough to send quota share prices skyrocketing. “There was a big rush after the halibut numbers were announced in late January,” said Olsen at Alaskan Quota and Permits in Petersburg. For the first time in nearly two decades, the coast-wide halibut catch was increased by 2.3 percent to nearly 30 million pounds. Alaska’s share of 21.45 million pounds is up 200,000 pounds from 2015. “I would say quota prices shot up $10 a pound since December,” Olsen said of Southeast shares. “We have current sales pending at $63 and $65 per pound, with rumors of going higher. Those prices are just unheard of, and to jump up that high in that short period of time — oh, my golly!” Are people buying at those nosebleed prices? “There’s a lot of people drawing the line, but there are a few who have bought. They’ve been waiting a long time for it and are just going to bite the bullet,” Olsen said. The same holds true for quota prices in the Central Gulf, Alaska’s largest halibut fishing hole. “Those are bumping up to $60,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. “We’ve had offers of $59 but no takers. Quota shares for the Western Gulf have increased by around $5 and are in the $40s if you can find it. There is strong interest there and also in Bering Sea regions. But it’s the same scenario: more buyers than sellers and the market is really tight.” Olsen added: “It will be interesting to see if these prices will last.” Got ice? A grass roots push is underway in Kodiak for a self-pay icehouse and crane at Oscars Dock at its downtown harbor. “It’s common in fishing communities throughout Alaska and the nation,” said Theresa Peterson, a fisherman and outreach director for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “It’s kind of strange that Kodiak doesn’t have this facility, being that we are the No. 2 port in the nation, and home to the largest and most diversified fleet in Alaska.” The need and benefits go far beyond commercial fishing, Peterson stressed. It would serve Kodiak’s five outlying villages, whose residents travel by boat to town and load/offload provisions, sport charter operators, recreational anglers and hunters. Fisherman Darius Kasprzak, who calls Kodiak’s lack of a public icehouse “flabbergasting,” is worried that a lack of it will drive the island’s fleet of small salmon boats out of business. “More processors are requiring RSW (refrigerated sea water) systems and are phasing out all the ice boats. Only a few processors are still accepting fish iced in holds, and most of those are grandfathered in,” Kasprzak said. “So all these little boats that don’t have room for RSW or don’t have the money are walking on pins and needles. But if there’s public ice that will change things dramatically.” Boat owners with RSW also would like to be able to grab ice so they could shut down the systems at night “and not have to listen to it,” he added.  “It’s worth it to buy some ice and chill off the top of the fish and not have to buy fuel and put wear and tear on the RSW,” he explained. Kasprzak said there is another reason ice is even more important for a water faring community. “Our waters are warming. Right now temperatures are at 7 degrees over normal. Last summer the water at Prince William Sound reached 60 degrees. Our RSW systems aren’t built to handle those temperatures. The Kodiak processors didn’t have enough ice for boats last salmon season because it was so hot. There’s more of a need now for a community ice house than ever.” The Kodiak City Council will hear the issue on March 15. Weigh in on water The Alaska Department of Natural Resources is considering revising its water management practices and wants input from the public. It includes regulations on water rights in streams, lakes, wells and other bodies. A DNR announcement said: “The department is soliciting feedback and comments from the public on how they would change or improve the existing regulatory framework related to water management or for suggestions and proposals which would improve the regulations related to water management before the formal process of drafting any proposed changes begins.” Comments are accepted through March 18. Send via email to [email protected] Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

Feds file to dismiss suit over Kenai River subsistence gillnet

The Ninilchik Traditional Council filed a response March 3 to a motion by the Federal Subsistence Board and U.S. Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture seeking to dismiss a lawsuit filed last October. NTC filed the complaint after requests were denied by the board to remove federal fishing manager Jeff Anderson and to approve a subsistence gillnet on the Kenai River. According to the motion seeking dismissal by the federal defendants filed Jan. 25, the court should not take up the lawsuit because the Kenai River approval is ongoing. “Plaintiff lacks standing, and its claims are unripe,” reads the motion, “because its claims center around the (Federal Subsistence) Board and the in-season manager’s actions related to a gillnet fishery on the Kenai river, and the decision to authorize that fishery is not yet final.” NTC filed the complaint against Federal Subsistence Board Chair Tim Towarak, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. NTC disputes federal actions that closed subsistence fishing for chinook salmon last summer on the Kenai River because of conservation concerns and the refusal of Anderson to approve an operational plan for a gillnet on the Kenai River within the federal Kenai River Wildlife Refuge. In a divided vote, the Federal Subsistence Board approved the use of a subsistence gillnet on both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in January 2015, drawing strong opposition from other stakeholders linked to Cook Inlet commercial and recreational fishing. So many people have challenged the proposal, the defendants argue among other administrative points, that the board still hasn’t authorized the operational plan for the fishery. “The board has not yet completed the process of determining whether to authorize the gillnet fishery,” reads the motion. “While it initially decided to authorize the fishery, multiple parties have filed requests for consideration, and that reconsideration process is still underway.” According to a previous Supreme Court decision, “when a motion for reconsideration is pending, an order under reconsideration is nonfinal.” NTC denies this argument on several grounds. First, NTC challenges that the 700-plus requests for reconsideration already filed don’t meet the criteria for the legal definition of a request, which can only be filed by a party “aggrieved by a (board) failure…to provide the priority for subsistence uses.” Because none of the request filers are subsistence communities directly impacted by Federal Subsistence Board actions, their requests cannot hold the process, according to the NTC response. “Defendant’s interpretation…would deny NTC the right to a meaningful subsistence fishing opportunity merely because someone who disagrees with the board, and who has no right to a judicial review, takes advantage of an ambiguous administrative position to delay the fishery for year,” the response reads. Further, NTC argues that the board characterized its two early special action requests as requests for reconsideration, and denied them. That makes the matter final, and the complaint timely. “The claims in NTC’s complaint stem from these final administrative actions…NTC’s claims relate to final actions and are ripe even under defendants’ reading of the applicable regulations,” the motion argues. NTC argues that the dismissal motion is disingenuous as the approval of the Kenai and Kasilof gillnets regulation already appeared on the Federal Register. “Indeed, the 2015 Federal Register notice in which the final gillnet fishery regulations were published makes the Board’s position clear: the gillnet regulations were effective, and thus final and ripe for the purposes of this litigation, on the date they were published,” according to the NTC motion. The denial is the latest in a back-and-forth between the federal government, NTC, and non-subsistence fishermen on the Kenai River. In January 2015, the Federal Subsistence Board, a multi-agency board that governs Alaska subsistence users, 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. 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. Ninilchik Tribal elder and Council President Greg Encelewski later spared no venom, describing the board and Anderson’s management as “shameful.” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @djsummersmma.

Federal Subsistence Board restores Saxman’s rural status

The Federal Subsistence Board has ended a decade-long struggle for the Southeast Alaska village of Saxman by restoring its rural designation. As a formally recognized rural village, Saxman residents now regain subsistence hunting and fishing rights they lost in 2007 when the board declared the village “nonrural.” Tribal leaders expressed relief, saying their practical survival and cultural survival depend on subsistence rights. “The importance of being recognized as a rural community is acute for Saxman and is crucial to survival,” said Lee Wallace, Tribal President of the Organized Village of Saxman, in a release. “Subsistence is an essential cultural practice, a traditional worldview that is at the heart of surviving and thriving in Saxman,” In 2013, the Village of Saxman in Southeast Alaska filed a lawsuit against the board, the Department of Interior, and the Department of Agriculture over a 2007 board ruling that stripped the village of federal subsistence rights with a nonrural designation. A key part of qualifying for federal subsistence rights means having a rural designation. In 2007, the Federal Subsistence Board ruled that Saxman and its largely-Tlingit inhabitants would incorporate into the Ketchikan urban area two miles north and lose rural status, and therefore not qualify for federal subsistence rights. The Department of the Interior updated regulations in November 2015 defining which parts of Alaska are designated as rural. The new regulations restore Southeast Alaska’s village Saxman as rural, and establish a new process for making rural designations. The Federal Subsistence Board voted unanimously to adopt the rule proposed by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture giving the board the authority to restore subsistence rights to Saxman under a new flexibility to make the numerous designations in Alaska that require rural or nonrural designation as a matter of policy. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]


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