Wednesday, March 25, 2020

NOAA Fisheries Emergency Action Waives Some Observer Coverage

Federal fisheries officials responding to concerns voiced by longline halibut and black cod fishermen in Alaska have issued an emergency action providing authority, on a case by case basis, to waive observer coverage in some instances. The emergency action also waive some training and other program requirements while meeting conservation needs and providing an ongoing supply of fish to markets.

The emergency action is being taken for the stated purpose of protecting public health and to ensure the safety of fishermen, observers and others, according to NOAA Fisheries officials. The emergency action applies, however, only in three circumstances. These include:

• When the provider of observers does not have sufficient observers to staff a fleet, such as if the observers are under quarantine;

• When providers cannot physically get observers to fishing vessel departure points, perhaps because of travel restrictions or shelter in place guidance; or

• When providers don’t have enough trained observers because NOAA could not offer training due to building access restrictions or other limitations.

Alternative fishery management measures will be considered should such circumstances arise.

Concerns over putting observers on smaller vessels in the halibut and black cod fisheries arose because of lack of space allowing for adherence to precaution guidelines issued because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The problem with NOAA’s emergency action guidelines, said veteran halibut fisherman Dan Falvey of Sitka, Alaska, is that the waiver requests must come from the observer provider.

“You generally need electronic monitoring and observers to provide complete at-sea data, but in this emergency (the pandemic) it is prudent to not employ observers on boats where they don’t have separate bunk space or eating facilities,” he said. “The small boat fleet should receive a waiver.”

Falvey also noted that one of the mandates issued this week by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy requires quarantine when individuals first reach the state, but it doesn’t prevent the observers from traveling from community to community once they reach the state.

There are enough vessels with EM on board so that this year it would be prudent to waive observers unless the vessels chosen to carry observers can be provided with separate eating and sleeping facilities, he commented.

Processors Plan for a Complicated Season

Seafood processors preparing for robust wild Alaska salmon fisheries, which begin in May, are taking special precautions to assure the safety of people and their harvest in a season where a novel coronavirus pandemic is making life complicated.

Ocean Beauty Seafoods, for one, has advised its fleet they are taking some specific actions because of the pandemic that has sickened people worldwide and caused a number of deaths. Those precautionary steps include creation of a virus working group and a travel policy to reduce exposure.

Ocean Beauty has implemented a post travel self-quarantine, developed an enhanced sanitation program and is distributing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control to all employees and customers. Ocean Beauty is also communicating with all its customers to ensure that they understand that the processor is working to guarantee that they can provide an uninterrupted flow of product to them.

“We have been in business since 1910 and have never missed a salmon season in time of war, pandemic or for any other reason,” Ocean Beauty President Mark Palmer assured harvesters. “The salmon business is our core business and is in our DNA.” Palmer also noted that the company is currently operating at high capacity at its Kodiak facility on bottom fish and so far has been able to address any concerns as they have arisen.

“We very much look forward to providing a great salmon market for you and your crews,” Palmer wrote in a memo to the fishermen.

NPFMC to Plan June Meeting

Members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) are now planning to meet during the second week of April to decide on a revised agenda for their June meeting in Juneau, Alaska, following the cancellation of their April meeting in Anchorage, Alaska due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Dave Witherell, executive director of the federal fisheries council, said he received numerous calls and emails from the council family and public expressing appreciation for the decision to cancel the Anchorage meeting.

Witherell said the council’s community engagement and individual fishing quota committees would meet again when they can reconvene in person. The Crab Plan Team meeting is set for May 4–8 in Juneau, but may be remote only. The Climate Change taskforce is tentatively scheduled to meet via teleconference on May 18. while the Fishery Monitoring Advisory committee is planning to meet on May 18–19 and the trawl electronic monitoring committee will get together via teleconference on May 20.Other committee and plan team meeting are still in the process of being scheduled.

Witherell said council leadership would also decide then whether or not to hold the June meeting in person or remotely, and consider how to take public committee, should the meeting be held remotely. Several items at a minimum that will require timely council action were identified as final action of the St. Matthew blue king crab rebuilding plan, the scallop OFL/ABC (overfishing level/allowable biological catch; Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands crab specs and presumably the Cook Inlet salmon preliminary review.

Witherell said staff is exploring different possibilities for holding a remote meeting by teleconference, Webex or video conference platforms.

Council staff are also continuing to work on analyses and discussion papers listed for the April and June meeting agendas and working to address all tasks listed on the three-meeting outlook. As these documents are completed, they are to be set aside and not posted publicly until they are put on a council meeting agenda to avoid confusion, Witherell said.

On the plus side, he said, some analyses will be posted to a meeting agenda well before the normal posting date. Most council staff are teleworking and all may be as the coronavirus continues to spread in Anchorage. As of Tuesday, March 24, there were a total of 36 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in Alaska, including 17 in the Anchorage area, seven at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. All were adults and according to state medical officials, none were hospitalized.

Extended Deadline Requested for Final Pebble EIS

Commercial fishermen and other leaders of the Bristol Bay region are asking the US Army Corps of Engineers to formally relax the timeline for development of their final environmental impact statement (EIS) and extend the deadline for cooperating agencies to comment on the preliminary final EIS.

Given the major disruptions caused all across the nation as a result of the novel coronavirus, everyone’s immediate attention is focused, as it should be, on stemming its spread, the five Bristol Bay leaders told Colonel Phillip Borders, the district commander for the USACE at Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska.

Nevertheless, they said, there is also the reality for their other ongoing work, including the National Environmental Policy Act evaluation of the project. “With requirements for social distancing, offices shut down or minimally staffed, the challenges of teleworking and because the impacts of the COVID-19 virus will last for an uncertain amount of time, extensions of the timeline and preliminary final environmental impact statement comment deadline are necessary,” they said.

The letter was signed by Andy Wink, executive director of Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association; Katherine Carscallen, executive director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay; Norm Van Vactor, president and chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp.; Jason Metrokin, president and chief executive officer of Bristol Bay Native Corp.; Ralph Andersen, president and chief executive officer of Bristol Bay Native Association; Robert Heyano, president of United Tribes of Bristol Bay; and Robert Kehoe executive director of the Bristol Bay Reserve.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Seafood Industry Addresses Coronavirus

Alaska seafood industry officials say they have implemented a number of protocols and a communications framework to continue to assess risks and implement best practices to deal with the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. The virus has now reached all 50 of the United States, and Washington State has been particularly hard hit. To date six people in Alaska have tested positive for the virus.

Seafood industry officials in Alaska say they are optimistic that continued planning with local, state and federal partners and continued proactive risk management will allow them to keep their workforce and communities healthy and assure safe harvest and processing of millions of pounds of wild Alaska seafood.

Since the earliest days of the COVID-19 threat, companies have been working to minimize the impact of this public health threat on Alaska fishing communities, fishing crews and processing workers. They said that they have formed a layered, robust prevention and response network and ongoing development of industry best practices focused exclusively on challenges relating to the virus.

The industry is working with public health and safety officials from Alaska and Washington State, the CDC and the US Coast Guard in its prevention and response effort. They are also adopting screening and monitoring plans in conjunction with maritime health doctors to prevent anyone with a risk profile from traveling to these communities and preventing sick crew members from being placed in plants or on vessels. The network also includes planning with local officials in Unalaska, the nation’s biggest seafood port by volume, and intends to expand planning with other remote communities, to ensure prevention efforts are well developed and any needed responses are coordinated for potential incidents, they said.

The Centers for Disease Control has stated that there is no risk of contracting COVID-19 from any food, including seafood, and that food safety is of the utmost priority for their industry.

COVID-19 Prompts Postponement, Cancellation of Fisheries Meetings

Concerns over the spread of the coronavirus has prompted postponement or cancellation of fisheries meetings in Alaska, Washington and Oregon, including the 41st staging of ComFish Alaska, an annual trade show and forum for the fishing industry.

The Kodiak Chamber of Commerce ComFish Committee has postponed the three-day show scheduled for March 25 to 27. The chamber announced its revised ComFish plans this past week, saying they would welcome all their exhibitors, speakers and attendees to the convention center in September.

Still on the schedule will be the first ever fisheries-themed fashion show, hosted in conjunction with the Kodiak Arts Council, as well as the annual rockfish taco feed, public receptions, processor recognition events and Fishermen’s Showcase. ComFish forums include presentations and discussions on a range of topics from policy, technology and scientific issues to environmental and political matters.

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The pandemic has also prompted cancellation of the April meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Anchorage, Alaska, where final action was to be taken on a rebuilding plan for St. Matthew blue king crab. The council’s next scheduled meeting, June 1–9, will be in Juneau, Alaska. The council is expected to announce a revised schedule for that meeting.

The April 4–10 meeting of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, scheduled for Vancouver, Wash., will be conducted as a webinar only. Most of the scheduled ancillary advisory body meetings will also be by webinar only. In Salem, Ore., the Fish and Wildlife Commission has cancelled its public meeting set for March 20 because of concerns over COVID-19. ODFW Director Curt Melcher said the commission wants to keep its employees, the public and commissioners safe and plans to reschedule that meeting.

Alaska Board of Fisheries Reaches Norton Sound Crab Decision

The Alaska Board of Fisheries which met in Anchorage, Alaska in March, approved three proposals from the Northern Norton Sound Advisory Committee.

They voted 6–1 to change the start of the winter commercial crab fishery for Norton Sound from Jan 15 to Feb. 1. The proposal was amended to also close the commercial crab season east of 167 degrees west longitude for 2020. The closure goes into effect for the upcoming summer commercial crab season.

A second proposal to limit the number of crab pot tags per permit holder in the winter commercial fishery was approved by a vote of 7–0. Commercial permit holders in the winter through the ice commercial crab fishery will not be able to receive replacement tags for any crab pots lost after 20 crab pot tags are issued. The advisory committee told the fisheries board that when pots were more expensive in comparison to the catch in times of lower price the harvesters were more cautious in pot placement and tending, so pot loss was much less.

A third proposal, also approved 7–0, will allow a person or vessel to participate in the Norton Sound red king crab fishery after operating commercial Pacific cod pots in the Norton Sound Section within 14 days prior to the start of the Norton Sound red king crab fishery. That proposal was amended to allow a person or vessel to operate pots up to seven days prior to the Norton Sound red king crab fishery. The proposal contended that fishing for Pacific cod in pots offered a new opportunity and that the 14-day closure before the Norton Sound red king crab fishery was a significant amount of available fishing time.

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