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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Obama Orders Closure of Oil Leases

President Obama has withdrawn offshore areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans from future oil and gas extraction to protect these ecologically sensitive marine environments from the potential impact of such activities. In the Arctic Ocean alone the withdrawal encompasses 3.8 million acres offshore.

The announcement from the White House was coordinated with similar action by Canadian Prime Minister to protect Canada’s Arctic waters from potential adverse impact of drilling activities.

While the announcement was applauded by various national environmental groups and criticized by Alaska’s congressional delegation, it is not expected to have any immediate impact on commercial fisheries in the Alaska Arctic.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council back in 2009 moved to prohibit most commercial fishing in that area of the Arctic until such time as research provides a better understanding of how such mineral extraction efforts would impact the marine habitat.

The president used the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to protect major areas of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic, as well as areas of the Atlantic Ocean from new offshore oil and gas exploration. The announcement does not affect existing leases in these federal offshore waters and would not affect nearshore areas of the Beaufort Sea, totaling about 2.8 million areas that has high oil and gas potential and is adjacent to existing state oil and gas activity and infrastructure. Canada’s measures likewise would not affect existing leases.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said that while there are concerns regarding oil and gas activity in this area it is subject to additional evaluation and study to determine if new leasing could be appropriate at some point in the future. Interior’s five-year offshore leasing program for 2017-2022 does not include lease sales in this area or the withdrawn areas.

Pacific Fisheries Act Signed Into Law

President Obama has signed into law H.R. 6452, the Ensuring Access to Pacific Fisheries Act. The bill implements the Convention on the Conservation and Management of High Seas Fisheries Resources in the North Pacific Ocean, the Convention on the Conservation and Management of High Seas Fishery Resources in the South Pacific Ocean, and amendments to the Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries.

In signing the legislation this past week, Obama urged the US Senate to ratify all of these treaties to help promote sound fishery management, and to better combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

The bill provides that the US will be represented on the North Pacific Fisheries Commission by five commissioners, two appointed by the president, plus three chairpersons of the North Pacific, Pacific and Western Pacific fisher management councils, who are selected by members of those councils.

The bipartisan legislation was introduced by Senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii, and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats, and Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska. Together with other existing treaties this bill will bring all high seas fisheries in the Pacific Ocean under international management bodies to ensure access for US fishermen and responsible management of ocean resources, the senators said.

Alaska, BC Begin Talks on Mining, Water

The governments of Alaska and British Columbia say they have begun implementing their statement of cooperation to address concerns over potential impact of mining near transboundary rivers over salmon habitat.

Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett were among those engaged this past week in the first bilateral working group teleconference on this issue.

A statement of cooperation signed by both governments in October provides for coordinating on a water quality monitoring program and exchange of information regarding the environmental performance of British Columbia mines.

While they have come a long way, with the help of residents of both countries in addressing these concerns, success will be measured only by how well the bilateral working group does going forward, Mallott said. A team of six technical staff representing both governments responsible for developing the joint monitoring program will work with tribes, First Nations, federal agencies and stakeholders over the next four months to prepare a draft program description and work plan for consideration by the bilateral working group. The statement of cooperation calls for the draft plans for the water quality monitoring program and the communication plan to be taken up by the bilateral working group no later than April 2017.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation plans to host a public workshop to provide opportunity for the public to give input to the technical staff of ADEC, the Alaska Departments of Fish and Game, and Natural Resources who are working on plans for the joint water quality monitoring program.

Salmon Beyond Borders, a campaign group of commercial harvesters and others, meanwhile is continuing to urge an agreement between the federal governments of the US and Canada that includes enforceable protections and financial guarantees for transboundary rivers, should the mines adversely impact salmon habitat.

ADF&G Announces Openings

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has new announcements this week regarding Pacific cod and Pollock fisheries in Prince William Sound.

The Prince William Sound area parallel Pacific cod seasons for pot and jig gear close at midnight on Dec. 31, and parallel Pacific cod fishing will open immediately on Jan. 1 for vessels using pot, jig and longline gear.

ADF&G is reminding harvesters that all fish must be landed within 24 hours following closure of the 2016 season and prior to participating in the 2017 season.

Prince William Sound parallel Pacific cod season closures for jig and pot gear will coincide with their respective closures in the adjacent federal Central Gulf of Alaska regulatory area. Also, the Prince William Sound parallel season closure for longline gear will coincide with the federal closure of less than 50 foot hook-and-line gear sector in the Central Gulf.

The directed fishery for walleye Pollock using pelagic trawl gear in the Prince William Sound registration area of Alaska opens at noon Jan. 20 with a guideline harvest level of 9.43 million pounds. The deadline to register for this fishery is 5 p.m. on Jan. 13, and registrations will be issued only to those who possess a 2017 miscellaneous saltwater finfish permit card for trawl gear.

Registration packets are available only at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game offices in Cordova, Homer and Kodiak.

ADF&G has also announced a solicitation for bids to contract a vessel to conduct a test fishery from Jan. 12 through Jan. 19, to harvest up to 900,000 pounds of Pollock in Prince William Sound. Eligible vessels must be registered for the 2017 Prince William Sound directed Pollock trawl fishery.

The minimum bid price is $0.030 a pound. Bids will be accepted for three individual lots of 300,000 pounds each. Bids must be received at ADF&G’s Homer office by noon on Jan. 6. Those interested in bidding should contact Jan Rumble or Elsa Russ at ADF&G in Homer, Alaska.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Alaska Pollock TAC up Slightly for BSAI, Down Significantly for GOA

Federal fisheries managers meeting in Anchorage in early December raised the total allowable catch of Alaska Pollock in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands by 5,000 metric tons, while lowering the TAC in the Gulf of Alaska by nearly 50,000 tons.

While the BSAI has a 2 million ton cap on total commercial groundfish harvests, there is no such cap for the Gulf.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Advisory Committee had recommended that the council adopt for the Gulf of Alaska TACS for both Alaska Pollock and Pacific cod that had been adjusted to account for the state water guideline harvest level fisheries for those species.

Council member Craig Cross, of Aleutian Spray Fisheries in Seattle, said it is important that the public and markets understand that the Alaska Pollock TAC in groundfish fisheries was not increased overall for the 2017 fisheries.

“If you looked at just the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, you would say the Pollock TAC is up,” Cross said, “but in reality the entire Alaska Pollock TAC is down by 40,000 metric tons.” While the council increased the Alaska Pollock TAC for the BSAI by about 5,000 MT, they decreased it by almost 50,000 MT in the Gulf, he said.

The overall Eastern Bering Sea 2016 Pollock catch as of Dec. 5 was 1,352,007 MT, while in the Gulf, the latest reports showed a harvest of 172,927 MT from a 2016 TAC of 257,872 MT.

The Pacific cod TAC for the Bering Sea was down from 238,680 MT in 2016 to 223,704 MT in 2017. The overall 2016 catch as of Dec. 5 was 220,039 MT. In the Gulf, the catch stood at 172,927 MT for 2016, out of a TAC of 257,872 MT.

Also in the BSAI, the council approved a 10,000 MT increase in the TAC of yellowfin sole, after the 2016 TAC of 144,000 MT yielded a harvest of 128,236 MT, and boosted the TAC for Greenland turbot from 2,873 MT to 4,500 MT, after a harvest of 2,205 MT.

The TAC for Pacific Ocean perch, with a harvest of 30,408 MT, rose from 31,900 MT to 34,900 MT, and the TAC for northern rockfish, for which there was a harvest of 4,532 MT, rose from 4,500 MT to 5,000 MT.

GHL Set for Sitka Sound Sac Roe Herring Fishery

A guideline harvest level of 14,649 tons has been set by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for the 2017 Sitka sound sac roe herring fishery.

The GHL, based on a 20 percent harvest rate of a forecast mature biomass of 73,245 tons, compares with the preliminary GHL of 15,674 tons for 2016, based on a 20 percent harvest rate of a forecast mature biomass of 78,372, of which just under 10,000 tons was landed.

ADF&G said that their forecast issued on Dec. 12 would not be updated with winter test fishery weights, as was the practice in previous years. The change was made to save on costs associated with processing winter test samples and staff time developing and reporting an updated forecast and GHL. The accuracy of the forecast was not expected to be impacted significantly by not updating the model with the winter test fishery weights at age due to the relatively small variability seen in weight at age, the agency said.

The forecast indication was that the mature biomass in 2017 would consist of 6 percent age-3, 6 percent age 4, 73 percent age-5, 2 percent age-6, 6 percent age-7 and 7 percent age-8+. The forecast used spring commercial purse seine weights at age from last year’s fishery and average weights were age-3, 64 grams; age-4, 95 grams; age-5, 104 grams; age-6, 132 grams,; age-7, 149 grams; and age 8+, 178 grams.

The department mapped 63.3 nautical miles of herring spawn in the Sitka Sound area in the spring of 2016, compared to the recent 10-year average of 65 nautical miles. The estimated post-fishery spawning biomass in 2016 was 74,676 tons, the total sac roe harvest was 9,833 tons, and an additional 223 tons were harvested in personal use and test fisheries.

Estimated age composition of spawning herring in 2016 was 2 percent age-3; 79 percent age-4; 2 percent age-5; 8 percent age-6; 1 percent age-7, and 8 percent age 8+.

State biologists said the mature biomass forecast for 2017 was similar to the spawning biomass in 2016 because the increase in maturity of the 2012 and 2013 cohorts and the additional age-3 recruits in 2017 balanced the decreases due to natural mortality.

NOAA: Unprecedented Warming in Arctic

A new NOAA-sponsored report identifies unprecedented Arctic warmth issues, including above average Arctic Ocean temperatures and changes in Arctic Ocean productivity, and predicts new stresses to marine fisheries. The Arctic Report Card released during the annual American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco on Dec. 13, is a report compiled from the work of scientists from 11 nations, and a key tool used worldwide to track changes in the Arctic.

The report notes that the Arctic Ocean, more than other oceanic areas, is more vulnerable to ocean acidification.

“Ocean acidification is expected to intensify in the Arctic, adding new stress to marine fisheries, particularly those that need calcium carbonate to build shells,” the report said. “This change affects Arctic communities that depend on fish for food security, livelihoods and culture.”

“Rarely have we seen the Arctic show a clearer, stronger or more pronounced signal of persistent warming and its cascading effects on the environment than this year,” said Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program.

“While the science is becoming clearer, we need to improve and extend sustained observations of the Arctic that can inform sound decisions on environmental health and food security as well as emerging opportunities for commerce.”

In a presentation at the Alaska Ocean Acidification State of the Science Workshop in Anchorage on Nov. 30, Mathis spoke of the important of NOAA’s beginning to work on ocean acidification adaptation strategies, saying that as yet there are no known answers on how to adapt.

Even small amounts of carbon dioxide can cause significant chemical changes that other areas do not experience. Current data indicates that certain areas of the Arctic shelves presently are experiencing prolonged ocean acidification events in shallow bottom waters, which are eventually transported off the shelf. As a result, the report said, corrosive conditions have been expanding deeper into the Arctic Basin over the last several decades. The inherently short Arctic food web linkages generate an increased urgency in the need to understand the impacts of ocean acidification on the Arctic marine ecosystem, the report said.

The new Arctic Report Card notes that Arctic air temperatures are continuing to increase at double the rate of the global temperature increase, and that contrary to conditions in much of the previous decade, neutral to cold temperature anomalies occurred across the central Arctic Ocean in the summer of 2016. Read more of the NOAA report at http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card/Report-Card-2016

NPFMC Approves Charter Halibut RQE Quota Entity

Action to set up regulations for a charter halibut recreational quota entity to purchase and hold commercial halibut quota share in International Pacific Halibut Commission Areas 2C and 3A has been approved by federal fisheries managers.

The controversial vote came during the December meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Anchorage after extensive testimony from set line harvesters opposed to the move and charter operators who favored it.

The council’s vote clears the way for regulations to be written and for the NPFMC to seek approval for the federal Department of Commerce. After that an RQE can be formed and the charter operators will have to find the financial means for purchasing halibut quota, “so it has quite a long way to go before we can anticipate seeing any transfers and purchasing ability out of the charter sector from the commercial fleet,” said council member Theresa Peterson, a commercial harvesters from Kodiak. Peterson estimated it would be at least two to three years before an RQE is formed and it could be longer than that before they have actually identified a means to raise the money to purchase quota.”

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, in Sitka, said that the council’s decision to establish the RQE as a qualified non-profit entity to purchase and hold commercial halibut quota share for use by the guided halibut sector gave the charter industry priority over subsistence, sport and commercial fishermen.

“As proposed, the subsidized reallocation will destabilize and undermine subsistence, non-guided sport and commercial sectors to provide a few more inches of halibut opportunity to guided sport clients,” Behnken said. “The very title, ‘recreational quota entity,’ is a misnomer. This amendment fosters charter client opportunity at the expense of non-guided recreation opportunity,” she said.

“The Halibut Catch Sharing Plan, which took the council over 20 years to develop and has only been in place for three years, balanced the concerns of all sectors in arriving at an allocation and provided charter operators with a market based opportunity to increase harvesting options for their clients,” she said. “The subsidized reallocation established through the RQE will raise the cost of entry to commercial halibut fisheries, undermine the viability of the commercial processors, support sectors and communities, and reduce public access to Alaska’s halibut.”

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

NMFS Seeks Comments on Proposed 2017, 2018 Groundfish Harvest Specifications

National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed 2017 and 2018 harvest specifications, apportionments and prohibited species catch allowances for groundfish for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.

The proposed rule, published in the Federal Register, seeks comments by Jan. 5.

NMFS said the action is necessary to establish harvest limits for groundfish for these fishing years and to accomplish the goals and objectives of the Fishery Management Plan for groundfish in the BSAI management area.

The intended effect of this action, said NMFS, is to conserve and manage the groundfish resources in this area in accordance with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Electronic copies of the Alaska Groundfish harvest specifications final environmental impact statement, record of decision, supplementary information report to the EIS and initial regulatory flexibility analysis prepared for this action are at http://www.regulations.gov or also available from the Alaska Region website at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov.

Submit comments electronically via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2016-0140, click the “Comment Now!” icon, complete the required fields and enter or attach comments.

Submit comments by mail to Glenn Merrill, Assistant Regional Administrator, Sustainable Fisheries Division, Alaska Region NMFS, Attn: Ellen Sebastian. Via P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668.

Comments sent by other methods may not be considered by NMFS.

For further information, contact Steve Whitney, at 1-907-586-7228.

Ocean Acidification Workshop Draws Seafood Harvesters, Researchers

Growing concern over increased acidity in the ocean and the need for adaptation strategies drew seafood harvesters, researchers and others to an ocean acidification workshop in Anchorage to learn how to enhance monitoring and engage communities.

“At least we know what we don’t know at this point,” said Jeremy Mathis, director of the Arctic Research Program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“There isn’t going to be one magic bullet,” Mathis said. “I don’t have the answer. We don’t know how we are going to adapt.” What Mathis and other speakers at the workshop are aiming to do is to educate the public on the processes and consequences of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems and northern societies that depend on them.

There is a need, said Mathis, to implement adaptation strategies that address all aspects of Arctic change, including ocean acidification, tailored to local and societal needs, and to develop strategies that will allow communities to be successful in the future.

“We have three options,” he said. “We can mitigate, we can adapt, or we can suffer. We can do something now or deal with the consequences later on.”

Acidity in the ocean is measured in terms of pH (potential of hydrogen) on a scale from 0 to 14. The level of pH tells how acidic or alkaline a substance is. The more acidic the solution, the lower the pH. More alkaline solutions have higher pH. Substances that aren’t acidic or alkaline – neutral solutions- usually have a pH of 7.

Ocean acidification refers to a reduction in the pH of the ocean over an extended period of time, caused primarily by uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Ocean acidification affects many species, including pteropods, small calcifying (or shelled) organisms that live as zooplankton in the water column and are an important prey species for many fish.

Researchers at NOAA’s Kodiak laboratory, led by Bob Foy, are doing extensive research on the physiological response of crab to ocean acidification, and the impact of ocean acidification on different life stages of the crab, including embryo, larvae and juveniles.

Studies have shown that in general crab survival decreased at every life stage when crab were exposed to lower pH water. The Alaska Fisheries Science Center crab scientists at Kodiak and Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation have worked cooperatively since 2004 on research relative to Bering Sea king, snow and southern Tanner crab surveys, biology and assessment. Learn more about ocean acidification and its biological impacts at http://www.aoos.org/alaska-ocean-acidification-network/

Alaska Issues Chinook Salmon Forecasts for Stikine, Taku Rivers

Directed Chinook salmon fisheries in Districts 8 and 11 in Southeast Alaska appear to be out in the coming year because forecasts for both districts are below the midpoint of the escapement goal range for both the Stikine and Taku rivers.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game this week issued preseason forecasts for Chinook salmon returning to the Stikine and Taku rivers in Southeast Alaska in 2017.

A 2017 preseason terminal run size forecast for the Stikine River large Chinook salmon is 18,300 fish. Biologists said that a preseason terminal run forecast of this size does not provide an allowable catch for either the United States or Canada, as the forecast is below the midpoint of the escapement goal range of 14,000 to 28,000 fish, and that no directed fisheries will be allowed in early May.

Inseason terminal run size estimates may be produced starting in late May of 2017, but biologists said it is unlikely that any directed Chinook salmon fisheries will be occurring in District 8 next year.

The 2017 preseason terminal run size forecast for the Taku River large Chinook salmon is 13,300 fish.

A preseason terminal run forecast of this size does not provide an allowable catch for either the US or Canada, since the forecast is below the lower end of the escapement goal range of 19,000 to 36,000 fish, and no directed fisheries will be allowed in early May, biologists said.

Inseason terminal run size estimates may be produced starting in late May, but again, biologists said, it is unlikely any directed Chinook salmon fisheries will occur in District 11, in 2017.

Marine Debris Removal Continues in Kodiak Archipelago

More than a quarter- century after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, oil on the shores of Shuyak Island in the Kodiak archipelago has been replaced by marine debris, prompting a long-term cleanup project set to conclude in September of 2017.

With a grant from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the Island Trails Network in Kodiak has been leading the two-year effort to remove marine debris from this remote island in the western Gulf of Alaska.

The ITN has assembled a team of 100 volunteers and trained crew to reach its goal of removing some 40,000 pounds of marine debris from Shuyak Island, an area that offers critical habitat for numerous species of fish, birds and marine mammals. A large amount of marine debris accumulates due to strong currents and high winds.

Following aerial surveys that identified numerous medium to large debris items and long stretches of high marine debris accumulation, specific areas of Shuyak Island were identified as high priority targets for removal of debris and selected as the focus of this project.

NOAA notes in its December newsletter on the Marine Debris Program that overall the ITN plans to clean up 60 miles of shoreline on Shuyak Island.

Because of the rugged terrain and active surf, debris can often be hard to reach and harder to remove. Sea kayaks are used to deploy qualified volunteers from around the world. They work in two-week shifts over an eight-week period, paddling to target areas and removing marine debris, collecting it in super-sacks and piling it at more accessible locations.

Later the collected super-sacks are loaded onto a large vessel for transport back to Kodiak, where the debris is sorted and later transported for disposal.

Following the field season, the crew, additional community volunteers and student groups analyze and sort the removed debris to determine its composition and quantity. The information is then documented in photographs videos and displays for use in local, statewide and national education and outreach on the impacts of marine debris, NOAA officials said.

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