Alaska Fisheries Report February 17, 2022

On this week’s Alaska Fisheries Report with Terry Haines: Managers consider controversial changes in how halibut is allocated between charter and harvest fishermen. Pelican is selling its City owned processing plant. And another weak forecast for the sockeye salmon run in Upper Cook Inlet.

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Halibut

Sabine Poux/KDLL

Federal fishery managers might change how they divvy up halibut available for harvest in the Gulf of Alaska. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted this week to review its current plan and consider sending more of the resource to the charter fishing fleet when halibut abundance is low.

It’s a divisive issue that drew heated testimony from stakeholders across Southeast and Southcentral Alaska this week. But proponents of the plan hope it can be a backstop in case a preferred approach to compensate commercial fishermen for quota falls through.

KDLL’s Sabine Poux has more.

Homer is among the Alaska communities that will be impacted by any changes in allocation.

Brian Ritchie is a charter operator out of Homer and vice president of the Homer Charter Association. He says he helped council member Andy Mezirow draw up some potential ways that allocation could be divided.

“I’m 31 years old, so I wasn’t here for a lot of the original fights that happened over allocations in the past several decades. But I understand there are still some deep wounds and a lot of people are afraid of seeing that divisiveness again, especially in local communities.”

Think about halibut allocation like a pizza.

The pie in its entirety represents the total amount of halibut that fishermen from all sectors are allowed to catch in a given season.

Each sector, commercial or charter, gets its own slice of the pie. [WEB: In the central Gulf of Alaska last year, for example, the charter sector was allowed to take about 17.5 percent of the 11 million pounds of halibut allocated. The remaining 82.5 percent went to the commercial fleet.

But 11 million pounds is on the larger end of total allocation.] Some years, when halibut abundance is worse off, that pizza is smaller, so the slices are, too.

That’s why council member Mezirow, who runs a charter business out of Seward, says the council should consider recutting the pizza. When it’s too small, they get left with very little and have to close or limit trips.

[WEB: It’s a concern guides like Ritchie brought up during the hours of testimony at the meeting this week.

“The year after the original catch share plan was implemented, there was – I don’t know if I would call it a crash in the halibut stock, but there was a large decline in observed abundance in the Fishery-Independent Setline Survey, which led to lower allocation.”

That survey is performed annually by the joint U.S. and Canadian commission that oversees catches coast wide.]

The council was due to consider reviewing its current catch-sharing plan [WEB – first set in 2014 –] this year. Mezirow says it was a good time to reconsider how the plan was hurting charter operators.

He suggested the council consider making the charter sector’s slice bigger when abundance is low, simultaneously shrinking the commercial slice. In times of greater abundance, he says the charter slice should get smaller.

But commercial halibut fishermen say that’s unfair. They want to get paid for the pizza, not give it away for free.

Pizza metaphor aside, commercial fisherman Malcolm Milne says he’s disappointed the council took a step further than its advisory panel did. Milne fishes for halibut out of Homer and heads the North Pacific Fisheries Association, a group for Cook Inlet commercial fishermen.

“I thought the ranges were a little excessive. And people who have quota are understandably nervous that the quota they thought they were investing in under a regime or a stated policy is now subject to change. [WEB and so people are nervous that their investment may lose value all of a sudden.”]

Last year, commercial fisherman Erik Velsko, of Homer, suggested to the council’s advisory panel that it factor another figure into the equation: bycatch, or the incidental take of halibut in other fisheries.

Bycatch has historically been responsible for 7 to 14 percent of area-wide halibut mortality. Of that bycatch, the majority comes from the trawl fleet, according to the council’s report.

“They keep dividing up these communities. We live with these guys. Our kids go to school together with charter operators. And I just think it’s crazy, we totally disregard the bycatch waste and constantly start these fights among user groups that are largely the same people, you know?”

The panel voted against incorporating Velsko’s amendment into the plan.

There is a chance, however, that another plan goes into place altogether. That plan would allow charter operators to buy quota from willing commercial fishermen, something called compensated reallocation

That program would be one of the first of its kind but is again waiting on federal approval. The bill passed through Congress in 2020 but was vetoed by Former President Donald Trump two weeks before he left office.

The council says it would prefer that method and would likely table any conversations about uncompensated allocation if it passes.

Mezirow says he wants to make sure there’s a policy placeholder in case it doesn’t go through right away.

“Uncompensated reallocation is not our first choice. But getting a look at this one more time, giving us a chance to see if there’s a landing place, is doing our due diligence.”

Council member Cora Campbell wasn’t convinced.

Campbell, who’s the CEO of processing company Silver Bay Seafoods, says rehashing the allocation debate will be destabilizing.

“Unfortunately, this further analysis comes at a real human cost. I live in the community of Sitka and that community was torn apart by this allocation dispute. And some of those wounds have not yet healed. And the idea that we would do something like this, just – we shouldn’t do it lightly.”

She was one of three “no” votes on Mezirow’s motion.

Mezirow says it’s important to note that a reconsideration of allocation does not mean the council will definitely change how it slices the pie.

A review of the current plan is expected to come before the council in December.

 

 

PELICAN

TASH KIMMELL, KCAW

 

The Chichagof Island  community of Pelican is negotiating the sale of the city-owned  processing plant to its current tenant, Yakobi Fisheries, the sole processor in town.  But as KCAW’s Tash Kimmell reports, this comes after city leaders rejected a half-million dollar offer from an investor group seeking to buy the commercial property. ____________________________________________________________

 

Pelican is a small community. But it is a fishing community. And for five years it was a fish town without a processor to buy the local fleet’s salmon catch. That changed in 2015 when Yakobi Fisheries, owned by Pelican resident Seth Stewart, restarted operations in a former crab plant owned by the city. Today they’re the economic engine of the town of about 55 permanent residents, processing about a million and a half dollars in fish last season.

 

Now the city is negotiating the sale of the former crab plant which Yakobi Fisheries has been leasing for the past eight years. Stewart says Yakobi Fisheries is invested in Pelican.

 

we’d like to be in control of the future of our business and not have someone else in control of it. 

 

That specter of outside control was raised in recent months. An investor partnership had offered a half-million dollars for the crab plant building but the city wasn’t interested.

 

Kent Craford, co-owner of Alaska Seaplanes was involved. The other half of the partnership is Steve Daniels who owns a charter fishing lodge in town. Daniels says the city never acknowledged their offer.

 

I waited for some kind of response from the city for over five weeks, I believe. And then finally there was a meeting. And it wasn’t on the agenda

 

The pair is now threatening legal action if the city doesn’t consider their offer, which they say would allow Yakobi Fisheries to remain as a long-term tenant.

 

Pelican Mayor Patricia Phillips didn’t want to be recorded for this story. But in an interview, she said that the city council feels Yakobi owning the property would be the best option for a community which is rooted in commercial fishing.

 

Critics are concerned about a new city ordinance that would allow the sale of the Crab plant to Yakobi for below market value-so long as it fosters economic development. The ordinance was passed unanimously by the city council in December.

 

One of the most vocal critics has been Pelican resident Gerald Foss. He’s concerned the city council is acting against the long-term interests of the community by crafting what he fears could be a sweetheart deal for the biggest business in town. He notes that a majority on the council are  linked to the commercial fishing industry.

 

It makes it so a small group of people can pretty much take over the town with their votes/ Four votes on a council, they can do anything they want

 

Kent Craford, one of the spurned investors, says the issue is not that the city has apparently chosen to sell to Yakobi, but rather that they’ve failed to be transparent with other potential buyers.

 

they have one opportunity to maximize the return on the sale of that asset for the people of Pelican. They have a responsibility of fiduciary responsibility that people are pelican. And so what’s just confusing to me is why they why they haven’t given our proposal,  It’s due and equal consideration

 

But Pelican’s Mayor, Patricia Phillips insists the city council is following the will of its citizens. She says the city has received some 40 letters supporting the sale to Yakobi Fisheries.

 

Yakobi Fisheries has invested in Pelican and the city recognizes that, says owner Seth Stewart.

 

Generations of fishermen have delivered fish and Pelican. And it’s amazing to have these people that have been fishing for 40 years to process fish with  us. And how happy they are that they can do that again/There’s a real community that’s based in commercial fishing, that lasts more than just a season or more than just, you know, that one delivery

 

Pelican’s mayor says negotiations over terms of a sale are ongoing and no decision has been made.There will be public meetings before anything’s final. In the meantime, would-be investor, Steve Daniels says he’s shopping for an attorney.

 

Reporting in Sitka I’m Tash Kimmell.

 

Upper Cook Inlet Forecast

Sabine Poux

A “weak” run is again forecasted for Upper Cook Inlet sockeye – continuing a trend of poor runs that has fishermen worried about the future of the fishery.

KDLL’s Sabine Poux has the story.

Setnetter Ken Coleman is vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, which represents east-side set netters. He’s among the commercial fishermen disappointed with the forecast released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Monday [2/7], which projects a run of under 5 million [4.97 m ] sockeye in 2022. About 3 million of those fish, the forecast says, will be available for harvest by all users.

“It unfortunately may be a harbinger of the future”

The forecasted run is weak by historical standards. The inlet’s 20-year average is about 6 million fish.

But runs over the last few years have been below that. The sockeye run in 2020 was so bad that the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared it a disaster[, along with several other Alaska fisheries.] In its request for help from the feds, the state cited changing ocean conditions as a reason for the drop.

Fishermen also criticize Fish and Game for overescaping the Kenai River several years in a row, which they say can cause poorer runs down the road.

Managers say that might be true. But they also say they’re following their management plan to conserve struggling king salmon.

Coleman worries that plan will put sockeye in peril, too.

“We’re trying to protect one stock, but we may be harming the other one – the sockeye, as part of that regime. And then you’ve got two stocks in peril. It’s a difficult management issue to juggle, quite frankly.”

A large part of the inlet will also be closed to commercial salmon fishing this year. A federal council voted to close that part of the inlet in 2020 after the state said it was unwilling to manage the area alongside the federal government.

The Kenai and Susitna River forecasts are also below average for 2022. And the sockeye projections come at the heels of a dismal king forecast. The Department of Fish and Game, predicting a low late run of about 16,000 large kings , is limiting the sportfishery to retention only in July.

Ray Debardelaben owns Long Live the Kings lodge on the Kenai and is president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association. He says even though both forecasts are bad, he’ll be sending his guides on sockeye trips.

“We have to do the best what’s for the fishery. And at this point, we’re going to go out and try to catch some sockeye. And if there are available king trips, we’ll go fishing. If not, we’ll go with plan B.”

Brian Marston, Fish and Game’s area manager for Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries, says the  fish forecasts are not to be taken as gospel. There is some information about the runs that the department can only glean once they pick up.

“The one thing that this forecast doesnt do – and never does – is it doesn’t predict run timing. … That can significantly change the way we manage the fishery. But we won’t know that until in-season numbers come in.”

Last year’s sockeye run performed better than expected, with nearly 6 million fish. Commercial fishermen, who netted about 1.4 million sockeye that year, largely considered it a below-average season.

In the meantime, there are multiple lawsuits in motion over the management of the commercial fishery, including a lawsuit over the Cook Inlet closure.

Separately, a coalition of fishermen took state fishery managers to court in 2019, alleging the Dunleavy administration was deliberately putting commercial fishermen out of business in favor of sportfish interests.

 

 

 

 

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