Alaska Fisheries Report February 24, 2022

On this week’s Alaska Fisheries Report with Terry Haines:

Kirsten Dobroth goes off about House hearings on fed fish Ds,
Hope McKenney gets spinny on the skinny about rare whales at sea,
And Sage Smiley was wily in stalking her story on the Bycatch T:
Play

FisheriesHearing

Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT

Host intro: House lawmakers in Juneau gathered Tuesday for a special meeting on the latest fishery disasters issued by the federal government last month. More than a dozen fisheries in Alaska were designated as disasters by the secretary — including the Gulf of Alaska’s cod fishery in 2020. KMXT’s Kirsten Dobroth (KER-stin DOH-broth) reports there weren’t easy answers on speeding up payments to fishermen or the future viability of Alaska’s fisheries.

 

Fourteen fisheries across Alaska were approved as disasters between the years 2018 and 2021 by the federal Commerce Department last month. That’s a lot, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker told  members on the House Fisheries Committee on Tuesday.

Hearing01.wav

“Since about 2008 or 09, the volume of disaster requests appears to increase pretty substantially from across the country – not just Alaska. Up until that time from the 90s through then, quite often there was one or two requests for the whole country for the whole year.”

She said the state is still trying to understand the growing volume of fishery disasters. More fishermen could be accessing federal relief through disaster designations compared to previous years, but in Governor Mike Dunleavy’s most recent disaster request  …

Hearing02.wav

“We did note the warming ocean conditions in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska as a potential contributor.”

Alaska’s Fish and Game commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang told lawmakers his agency is trying to better understand what he described as a “general decline in ocean productivity.”

Hearing03.wav

“We understand that the ocean is a driving factor and we’re starting to put together a meaningful assessment program about what’s happening out there.”

He says Alaska scientists are currently working with their Russian counterparts as part of that assessment. And the state agency is using federal disaster money to invest in more comprehensive research.

There isn’t a standing fund to pay fishermen impacted by fishery disasters. The money has to be allocated by Congress. And skippers and crew who applied for financial relief for fishery disasters in 2018 are just starting to receive checks. Kodiak Republican House Speaker Louise Stutes questioned the slow pace of payments actually getting in the hands of fishermen through the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Hearing04.wav

“It seems like Alaska is always the last place that gets paid.”

But that’s not something the state controls. Fish and Game doesn’t have the administrative staff to process federal relief on its own, and Baker says that’s a typical timeline throughout the country – not just in Alaska.

Hearing05.wav

“As currently structured, the process to provide fishery disaster assistance is cumbersome and slow to execute. We understand and share the frustration of Alaska fisheries participants and committee members with this process.”

She said there is movement at the federal level to revamp the fisheries disaster program. Meantime, Alaska fishermen eligible for federal financial relief from the latest disaster designations will just have to wait out the process.

RightWhales

HOPE MCKENNEY

 

Fishermen in the Bering Sea reported spotting at least two North Pacific right whales about 80 miles from Unalaska earlier this month [FEB].

 

Scientists say it’s likely the first visual evidence of the highly endangered whales feeding in the Bering Sea in winter. And they’re urging fishing boats in the area to exercise caution.

 

 

Josh Trosvig [TRAWS-vig] is the captain of the Cerulean – a 58-foot boat currently fishing for cod in the Bering Sea, near Unimak Pass.

 

And on a bright sunny day earlier this month, out on the water, he was on the boat drifting and…. waiting for the tide to change.

 

And then he spotted… something that looked like a large tote bobbing on the surface of the water… about 300 feet from his boat. It turned out to be a group of whales.

 

15Right_1 I’ve seen a lot of whales – thousands, tens of thousands of whales in, you know, 35 years of fishing out here. And this was unique. I’ve never seen whales feed like that.”

 

Trosvig says the whales would pop their heads up and roll along the water’s surface like a “bulldozer” for minutes at a time – feeding behavior he says he’s never witnessed before.

 

At first, he says, he thought they might be bowhead whales, based on their color and size. But he wasn’t sure. So he took out his phone and recorded them. Then, he sent the video to an assistant area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

 

15Right_2 “I firmly believe that knowledge is power, especially when it comes to the oceans. We know more about the universe outside our solar system than we do about the depths of our own ocean. And, you know, for proper fisheries management and ecological management of the ocean, it’s critical for all of us to work together, from the commercial industry – from containerships to fishing vessels working with NOAA and National Marine Fisheries and Fish and Game to be good stewards of the ocean and to notify them of something like this.”

 

Asia Beder [BEE-der] manages groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands region. When she got the video from Trosvig, she dug through her marine mammal identification books, trying to identify the dark whales. But wasn’t completely sure what species they were.

 

So she forwarded the video to NOAA fisheries for help.

 

the simple email of, “Can you ID this?” which I’ve seen many times for fish and crab and other animals, turned into a big thing.

 

Beder was shocked to learn it was a North Pacific right whale.

 

15Right_3 “I don’t know anything about right whales, to be honest. I know they exist. And I knew the population was low. But I didn’t realize how low. So They are very little in the population. And so these sightings are really important.”

 

Beder’s forward of the video of the whales…  made its way to Jessica Crance who helped solve the mystery.

 

She’s  a research biologist with the Marine Mammal lab at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center – part of NOAA Fisheries. She says she helped identify the whales in the video as North Pacific right whales.

 

Right whales are among the rarest of all marine mammal species and have never been documented in the Bering Sea in winter months.

 

There are three different types of right whales – the North Atlantic, the Southern and the North Pacific. And the North Pacific right whales are split into two stocks: the eatern and the western.

 

15Right_4 “The western right whale is over in Japanese Russian waters. And they number somewhere in the low hundreds, maybe three to 500 animals. The Eastern stock is critically endangered.”

 

Scientists estimate there are only about 30 animals left in the eastern stock. That’s because the large [60 feet long] baleen whales became the target of whaling in the 1800s.

 

15Right_5 And it’s estimated that anywhere between 25 and 35,000 animals were taken in just a few decades. And so that brought the population to, you know, maybe around the high hundreds of animals. But then in the 1960s, the Soviets began hunting right whales illegally, and took over 700 additional right whales, and that decimated the population, and brought it down to what we think are their current numbers of roughly 30 animals.”

 

Crance – who has been studying right whales for more than a decade [nearly 13 years] – says the eastern stock feeds in the southeastern Bering Sea during the summer months. But because there are so few of them to track, where they go the rest of the year is still unknown.

 

And because there’s still so much about this population that scientists still don’t know, she says even a single sighting like this increases their knowledge considerably.

 

15Right_6 Prior to this, we assumed that they all migrated south, much like every other large whale population.

 

Now, because of Trosvig’s video, researchers are thinking some of the whales may stay in the Bering Sea through the winter.

 

That knowledge helps them continue to monitor and study the right whale population, says Crance.

 

NOAA Fisheries is also now working with the U.S. Coast Guard to urge boaters to be careful in the area of Unimak Pass – which is a major transit zone for ships not just in and out of Dutch Harbor, but also to the rest of the world. And, Crance says, she’s hoping fishermen will continue to document the whales when they see them, and send photos and videos to Fish and Game or NOAA.

 

15Right_7 “Because they’re so critically endangered, every animal is crucial to the health of this population. And every sighting that we get, it helps put one more piece of the puzzle together to try and understand the migration and movement patterns of these animals.”

 

Right Whales

HOPE MCKENNEY

 

Fishermen in the Bering Sea reported spotting at least two North Pacific right whales about 80 miles from Unalaska earlier this month [FEB].

 

Scientists say it’s likely the first visual evidence of the highly endangered whales feeding in the Bering Sea in winter. And they’re urging fishing boats in the area to exercise caution.

 

 

Josh Trosvig [TRAWS-vig] is the captain of the Cerulean – a 58-foot boat currently fishing for cod in the Bering Sea, near Unimak Pass.

 

And on a bright sunny day earlier this month, out on the water, he was on the boat drifting and…. waiting for the tide to change.

 

And then he spotted… something that looked like a large tote bobbing on the surface of the water… about 300 feet from his boat. It turned out to be a group of whales.

 

15Right_1 I’ve seen a lot of whales – thousands, tens of thousands of whales in, you know, 35 years of fishing out here. And this was unique. I’ve never seen whales feed like that.”

 

Trosvig says the whales would pop their heads up and roll along the water’s surface like a “bulldozer” for minutes at a time – feeding behavior he says he’s never witnessed before.

 

At first, he says, he thought they might be bowhead whales, based on their color and size. But he wasn’t sure. So he took out his phone and recorded them. Then, he sent the video to an assistant area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

 

15Right_2 “I firmly believe that knowledge is power, especially when it comes to the oceans. We know more about the universe outside our solar system than we do about the depths of our own ocean. And, you know, for proper fisheries management and ecological management of the ocean, it’s critical for all of us to work together, from the commercial industry – from containerships to fishing vessels working with NOAA and National Marine Fisheries and Fish and Game to be good stewards of the ocean and to notify them of something like this.”

 

Asia Beder [BEE-der] manages groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands region. When she got the video from Trosvig, she dug through her marine mammal identification books, trying to identify the dark whales. But wasn’t completely sure what species they were.

 

So she forwarded the video to NOAA fisheries for help.

 

the simple email of, “Can you ID this?” which I’ve seen many times for fish and crab and other animals, turned into a big thing.

 

Beder was shocked to learn it was a North Pacific right whale.

 

15Right_3 “I don’t know anything about right whales, to be honest. I know they exist. And I knew the population was low. But I didn’t realize how low. So They are very little in the population. And so these sightings are really important.”

 

Beder’s forward of the video of the whales…  made its way to Jessica Crance who helped solve the mystery.

 

She’s  a research biologist with the Marine Mammal lab at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center – part of NOAA Fisheries. She says she helped identify the whales in the video as North Pacific right whales.

 

Right whales are among the rarest of all marine mammal species and have never been documented in the Bering Sea in winter months.

 

There are three different types of right whales – the North Atlantic, the Southern and the North Pacific. And the North Pacific right whales are split into two stocks: the eatern and the western.

 

15Right_4 “The western right whale is over in Japanese Russian waters. And they number somewhere in the low hundreds, maybe three to 500 animals. The Eastern stock is critically endangered.”

 

Scientists estimate there are only about 30 animals left in the eastern stock. That’s because the large [60 feet long] baleen whales became the target of whaling in the 1800s.

 

15Right_5 And it’s estimated that anywhere between 25 and 35,000 animals were taken in just a few decades. And so that brought the population to, you know, maybe around the high hundreds of animals. But then in the 1960s, the Soviets began hunting right whales illegally, and took over 700 additional right whales, and that decimated the population, and brought it down to what we think are their current numbers of roughly 30 animals.”

 

Crance – who has been studying right whales for more than a decade [nearly 13 years] – says the eastern stock feeds in the southeastern Bering Sea during the summer months. But because there are so few of them to track, where they go the rest of the year is still unknown.

 

And because there’s still so much about this population that scientists still don’t know, she says even a single sighting like this increases their knowledge considerably.

 

15Right_6 Prior to this, we assumed that they all migrated south, much like every other large whale population.

 

Now, because of Trosvig’s video, researchers are thinking some of the whales may stay in the Bering Sea through the winter.

 

That knowledge helps them continue to monitor and study the right whale population, says Crance.

 

NOAA Fisheries is also now working with the U.S. Coast Guard to urge boaters to be careful in the area of Unimak Pass – which is a major transit zone for ships not just in and out of Dutch Harbor, but also to the rest of the world. And, Crance says, she’s hoping fishermen will continue to document the whales when they see them, and send photos and videos to Fish and Game or NOAA.

 

15Right_7 “Because they’re so critically endangered, every animal is crucial to the health of this population. And every sighting that we get, it helps put one more piece of the puzzle together to try and understand the migration and movement patterns of these animals.”

 

Bycatch Taskforce

Sage Smiley

 

The governor’s task force to review the effect of bycatch in Alaska fisheries is working to organize against its tight timeline for submitting recommendations to state and federal policymakers. As KSTK’s Sage Smiley reports, it also has to balance commercial and subsistence interests.

 

Bycatch is when fishing vessels catch something they’re not targeting. It could be tanner crab caught in a black cod pot, or halibut scooped up in a pollock trawl net. It’s been an incendiary issue in Alaska’s fisheries for decades. Now, as stocks of crab, salmon and halibut decline, trawl fisheries have come under fire for their role, which represents the vast majority of incidental catch in and around Alaska.

 

The governor’s office took notice. Gov. Mike Dunleavy established a task force late last year with a deadline to submit its recommendations in November.

 

But during that time, the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force also has to establish its own priorities, break into subcommittees, and decide what it’s going to focus on before its mandate expires in just nine months. And there’s a lot of information to sort through already as it plays catch-up.

 

At an almost six-hour meeting Friday (February 11), the task force heard presentations from state and federal fisheries managers, and questioned them about existing bycatch data. [WEB: state Department of Fish & Game, North Pacific Fishery Management Council staff, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with data and information about bycatch of a number of species, including salmon, crab and halibut.]

 

Kevin Delaney holds the seat on the task force designated for sport and personal use fishermen. He said the task force needs a clear focus to be effective.

 

If we just start throwing data at the wall hoping something sticks, we’re just going to spend the next nine meetings doing the same darn thing that the North [Pacific Fishery Management] Council has already done and the Board of Fish has already done. We’re here because a problem has risen to the top loud enough that the governor called us together.

 

Over the last year, some of the loudest voices advocating for action to reduce bycatch have come from tribal organizations in Western Alaska, in communities that have seen subsistence salmon harvests dramatically reduced, or stopped entirely.

 

Even early on in the task force’s process, frustrations are simmering about who’s in the loop. Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s [web: exec director] Mary Petlola says she wasn’t notified of the meeting in advance.

 

If there were real interest in hearing from the public, there would be a real effort, you know, put to letting the public know when and where the meeting is happening and how to provide their opinions or their feedback. The composition of the task force, the timing of the task force, 100% of the task force is a campaign charade.

 

[WEB: Peltola says the public outreach fell short; online portals and state public notices don’t reach the people most affected by declining fish populations. Peltola’s tribal organization is one of a number of Western Alaska tribal consortiums requesting state and federal support during salmon disasters.]

 

Peltola questioned the need for a task force at all. She says the Dunleavy administration through the Alaska Department of Fish & Game already has tools to manage fisheries to give relief to struggling subsistence stocks.

 

After decades of prioritizing ex-vessel value and commodifying our resources over Alaskan citizens’ own freezers, and own larders, now he’s doing a Food Security Task Force, and not including any subsistence users. That’s a total punch to the gut. It’s adding insult to injury. The bycatch issue is a food security issue. 

 

Peltola is referring to the Food Security Task Force, which is separate from the Bycatch Review Task Force. Gov. Dunleavy announced the task force on food security at his State of the State speech earlier this year.

 

But others expressed optimism. At its Friday meeting, the bycatch task force heard from a variety of fisheries stakeholders, including a number of trawl fishery representatives, who say they’re already using best practices to avoid bycatch.

 

United Catcher Boats – which represents pollock and cod trawlers – says its members are collecting data and are willing to share findings with the task force about what it’s found keeps salmon, halibut and crab out of nets.

 

But U-C-B Executive Director Brent Paine also told the task force he doesn’t see much room for improvement.

 

I gotta be honest with you, I don’t know if we can do a better job than what we’re doing right now. 

 

Paine explained the bycatch limits and system in the Bering Sea pollock fishery are very motivating to boat captains already:

 

We’re averaging about 13 to 15,000 Chinook to catch 1.4 million tonnes of Pollock a year. You know, if we get one or two Shinnok per 100 metric tons of salmon. That triggers an alarm that tells the rest of the fleet that it’s a high bycatch area. every single toe that goes in the water in the pollock fishery right now in the Bering Sea, those captains the first thing they’re thinking about is what the bycatch rate is. 

 

While it’s required to be reported, there isn’t a federal cap for chum salmon bycatch.

 

Last year, federal data show trawlers in the Bering Sea scooped up more than half a million chum, pink and silver salmon, and almost 14,000 king salmon. In the Gulf of Alaska, groundfish harvesters took even more king salmon as bycatch, which does fall within federal limits for bycatch.

 

Even so, critics say it represents tens of thousands of fish that aren’t in smokehouses feeding predominantly Native communities in western Alaska, or filling directed state commercial fishery quotas.

 

Karen Pletnikoff called in to demand concrete action from the task force to reduce incidental catch. She’s an Anchorage-based program manager for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association which represents some of Alaska’s most remote coastal communities. [WEB: a federally recognized tribal organization serving 13 tribes in the Aleutian Chain. She asked the task force to keep the focus on the effects of bycatch on directed fisheries and subsistence harvesters.]

 

Data and information are how we get to the truth, but we’re not going to be able to inform the people who are being impacted by this bycatch, that, you know, these other factors are at play, and that’s why this is happening. It’s really about the only thing that we do control, and that is the bycatch. 

 

When discussing how to divide subcommittees, the task force discussed dividing by fishing sector, or species. Pletnikoff questioned why the force would give outsized influence to the trawl industry.

 

[WEB: if the subcommittee’s are going to be offering opportunity for directed input from the those who have, you know, well funded and industry, spokes groups, you know, they have businesses that are built around supporting them, then, at least that much consideration should be given to the directed fisheries, the subsistence fisheries, the personal use and the sport fisheries all separately,] the industry has had the chance to mull it over themselves amongst themselves before and will continue to, but this opportunity to hear from the public is unique. 

 

Across gear groups, both Alaskans and representative of the Seattle-based trawl fleet called for a clear problem statement for the bycatch task force to address before it goes any further.

 

The task force assigned half of its members to get started on that. [WEB: That subcommittee will include task force chair John Jensen, and the members representing the Department of Fish & Game, the general public, the trawl industry, Alaska Native organizations, and the state Senate president.]

 

[WEB: The ADF&G commissioner’s office said Monday that the department is also looking into setting up a website for the Bycatch Review Task Force to improve access to documents and other task force publications.]

 

The next meeting of the task force is scheduled to take place over teleconference March 9. By then, there may be a clearer idea of what the governor’s bycatch task force will attempt to accomplish before its deadline to report back in November.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Check Also

Midday Report – February 23, 2024

On today’s Midday Report with host Brian Venua: Kodiak Electric Association suspects eagles for recent …

%d bloggers like this: