Wednesday, December 28, 2011

No Immediate Danger from ISA Virus Says Pathologist

By Margaret Bauman

Alaska’s chief fish pathologist said Dec. 7 that the state’s wild Pacific salmon stocks are in no immediate danger from the infectious salmon anemia virus, a pathogen linked to fish farming that has killed millions of salmon in Chile and Europe.

“I think science will prevail and at some point we will get some answers, but I don’t think our wild stocks are in immediate jeopardy,” said Ted Meyers, in a telephone interview from his Juneau office.

“I think we need to get more information. We need to first corroborate the research that has already been done (in Canada) and reexamine it. The current testing in Canada has looked at over 5,000 farmed fish and 500 wild fish and they have never found a pathogenic virus,” he said.

As for the newly released reports that the virus was detected a decade ago, Meyers said “ It would have been nice if the scientific community had been apprised of those results. If the information had been released then (in 2002) it would have diffused the hysteria of the rediscovery.”

Meyers, who has been in steady contact with his Canadian counterparts, spoke after news emerged of an unpublished report that the virus was detected a decade ago off British Columbia’s coast. The virus is not harmful to humans, but it is known to devastate farmed salmon stocks and there is concern that the ISA could spread to wild Pacific stocks.

Meyers noted that there are different strains of ISA virus, the pathogen strains found in Atlantic salmon, and the ancestral or wild strain, which is non-pathogenic and found in wild stocks in Norway.

The pathogenic strain causes destruction of cells and produces disease in the host fish, while the ancestral strain co-exists very nicely with the host fish without causing disease, he said.

“It’s like a virus in humans,” he said. “Some are benign and some are not.”
What likely happened is that when fish farming was put into place in Canada the ancestral strain mutated into the farmed Atlantic salmon, and it is entirely feasible that we have our own Pacific strain as well, he said.

Canadian authorities have been doing required testing of farmed salmon in that nation for about eight years and no pathogenic strains of the virus have been found, he said. The PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test is a molecular test to detect nucleonic acids from the target organism researchers are trying to detect.

“They have not, to their knowledge, imported any pathogenic virus from wherever they have gotten their Atlantic salmon eggs, he said, “so they need to corroborate the 2002 information of a non-pathogenic strain in wild stocks and then we can go from there,” he said.

Alaska, meanwhile is participating in a planning program with the state of Washington and federal agencies, for similar testing, but it will take a while to establish what will be done, what laboratories will do it, and to be sure surveillance tests are in place.

“We would sample our own fish in Alaska, incorporate those fish into our usual programs for other disease pathogens,” he said. “We do it every year. We look at our own stocks for different viruses and would incorporate ISA virus testing as one of those.”

News of the unpublished 2002 studies has prompted much concern, with the Los Angeles Times calling the issue “Salmongate,” and the News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington expressing its editorial viewpoint that there is something fishy about Canada’s response to salmon virus reports.

Almost a decade ago, it turns out, there were reports of a European strain of ISA in 117 fish from Alaska to Vancouver Island, though none of the fish were sick, the newspaper noted. This led the fisheries biologist Molly Kibenge to surmise that a nonlethal form of ISA may be present in Northwest wild salmon.

“The fear with ISA has always been that it could mutate into a lethal form. Yet Canadian fishery officials failed to follow up on Kibenge’s research and neglected to inform their American counterparts of her findings. The only reason the news is getting out now is that Kibenge and her husband, a noted fish virologist, went public after her request to publish her old data was denied.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, on Dec. 1 expressed her concern on the status of the virus reports. “These troubling reports reinforce the need for a coordinated, multi-national strategy to control the spread of this virus threat,” Cantwell said. “American and Canadian scientists need to have access to all relevant research on this deadly virus. We can’t afford to leave the Pacific Northwest’s fishery jobs at risk.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration what details, if any, were known by the US of the previous research, and how this new information is being taken into account in plans to expand testing efforts.

Murkowski said she was troubled when reports appeared earlier this fall of the ISA virus being in fisheries. “But now I am absolutely alarmed that this was not the first our neighbors to the east had heard of this, and had sat on critical information for ten years, putting us 10 years behind in addressing this situation,” she said.

Economic Value of Bristol Bay Fisheries Estimated at $4.1-$5.4 Billion Annually

Commercial fisheries in Southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay, with its highly productive marine ecosystems and bountiful fisheries, generate economic activity equivalent to $4.1billion to $5.4 billion annually, the World Wildlife Fund says.

The details are contained in a report prepared for the environmental organization by Ecotrust, in Portland, Oregon, and released in late December.

Study authors said that the health of Bristol Bay fisheries is not only economically important to the region, but to the nation and the world as a whole, because participants in that fishery and the retailers from whom consumers purchase these wild seafood products come from all over the world.

The Bristol Bay marine ecosystem is well known as the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. It also produces chum salmon, Chinook salmon, red king crab, Pacific halibut and other commercially valuable species.

Average annual landings value from 2005 to 2008 for Bristol Bay commercial fisheries was $463 million, including $154 million for the salmon fishery alone.

The total economic value of commercial harvest may range from a high of $889 million annually to a low of $673 million annually, with the Bristol Bay salmon fishery alone supporting total economic activity in the range of $246 million to $253 million per year, the report said.

Study authors note that the direct value of the fishery at every step supports secondary economic activities. They write that “as the fishery input moves along the value-chain, fishermen and their crew; bait and tackle shop owners and their employees, processors and their workers and suppliers, and retailers earn income,” the report notes. “To the extent that they spend that income on other consumer goods and services, they induce even more secondary economic activity. The multiplier effect captures the indirect and induced economic activity resulting from each step along the supply chain.”

Study Shows Unexpectedly High Ecological Effects of Oil Spills on Herring

A study published in the scientific journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) says bunker fuel spilled from a damaged cargo in 2007 had an unexpectedly lethal affect on Pacific herring embryos in San Francisco Bay.

The study, published Dec. 26, by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and their collaborators, suggests an interaction between sunlight and the chemicals in oil might be responsible.

The issue stems from the November 2007 spill of 54,000 gallons of bunker fuel, a combination of diesel and residual fuel oil, from the container ship Cosco Busan. The spill contaminated the shoreline near the spawning habitat of the largest population of Pacific herring on the West Coast. The Los Angeles Times noted that owners and operators of the vessel agreed in September to pay $44.4 million to cover government claims, cost of the cleanup and restoration programs. In addition to tarring about 30 percent of the herring spawning grounds in the bay, the spill killed some 6,800 seabirds and closed beaches for months, the Times said.

Two decades of toxicity research since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound has shown that fish embryos and larvae are particularly vulnerable to spilled oil.

Most catastrophic spills, such as the Exxon Valdez event, involve large volumes of crude oil. However, residual oils used in bunker fuels are the leftovers of crude oil refining, and are not as well studied as crude oils, the study notes. Bunker fuel is used in maritime shipping worldwide and accidental bunker spills are more and more common and widespread than large crude oil spills.

In this study, scientists found that herring embryos placed in cages in relatively deep water at oiled sites developed subtle but important heart defects consistent with findings in previous studies. In contrast, almost all the embryos that naturally spawned in nearby shallower waters in the same time period died. When scientists sampled naturally spawned embryos from the same sites two years later, mortality rates in both shallower and deeper waters had returned to pre-spill levels.

NOAA toxicologist John Incardona, lead author of the study, said based on what scientists know about the effects of crude oil on early life stages in fish, they expected to find live embryos with abnormal heart function, so it was a surprise to find so many embryos in the shallow waters literally falling apart.

“The study has given us a new perspective on oil threats in sunlit habitats, particularly for translucent animals such as herring embryos,” Incardona said. “The chemical composition of residual oils can vary widely, so the question remains whether we would see the same thing with other bunker fuels from around the world.”

Alaska Marine Science Symposium Begins Jan. 16 in Anchorage

Updates on a number of research activities in progress on marine regions off Alaska and more will be presented at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage Jan. 16-20. The annual event, which began in 2002, has a number of federal, state and other marine fisheries sponsors, ranging from the North Pacific Research Board and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees.

The sessions, including keynote speeches, numerous workshops and poster sessions, are all open to the public at no charge. Exhibiting sponsors are being charged at cost.

A list of venues, the agenda, workshops and exhibit information is posted online at

Keynote speeches this year, all scheduled for Monday, Jan. 16, include Eddy Carmack on Arctic issues; Carin Ashjian and Jeff Napp on the Bering Sea and Aleutians; Jamal Moss on the Gulf of Alaska, and Randy Olson on education and outreach.

Carmack will present on the interconnected roles of the Arctic and Subarctic oceans in global change. Ashjian and Napp will present on understanding ecosystem processes for the Bering Sea and Moss will speak on the Gulf of Alaska project, an integrated ecosystem research program. Olson has chosen to explore story telling as a way for scientists to communicate more effectively. Olson said he will explore what the structure of a story is, why it is such a crucial aspect of communication, and how scientists can do better at it at all scales, from five seconds to five hours.

Sitka Sound Sac Roe Herring Fishery Gets Preliminary GHL of 29,008 Tons

A final forecast won’t be announced until late February, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has put the preliminary guideline harvest level for the 2012 Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery at 29,008 tons. Last year’s guideline harvest level for that fishery was 19,430 tons.

Winter test fisheries for this lucrative harvest will take place in January. The forecast and GHL will be finalized using average weight-at-age from sampling of the winter test fishery, state officials said.

This GHL is based on a 20 percent harvest rate of the forecast biomass of 145,042 tons of mature herring. The forecast indicates that the spawning stock will consist of 13 percent age 3, 24 percent age 4, 25 percent age 5, 14 percent age 6, 11 percent age 7, and 13 percent age 8 and older herring.

State biologists use an age-structure-analysis model to estimate abundance, survival rates and maturation rates needed to forecast the biomass of mature herring expected to return to Sitka Sound during the upcoming spawning season. The model uses a long time series of abundance and age composition data from department surveys conducted during and following the spring fishery.

Herring abundance is estimated using aerial surveys designed to map the length of shoreline receiving spawn, and dive surveys, which estimate the density of eggs and the average width of the spawn. In the spring of 2011, the department documented 78.3 nautical miles of herring spawn in the greater Sitka Sound area.

Last year the ASA model estimated 132,000 tons of herring spawned in the Sitka Sound area and the commercial sac roe herring harvest was 19,430 tons for a total return of 151,430 tons.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pacific Seafood Antitrust Lawsuit Still On Course

By Terry Dillman

A class action antitrust lawsuit filed in June 2010 against Clackamas, Oregon-based Pacific Seafood Group (PSG) is still tacking toward a requested court showdown, despite some legal course changes along the way.

Initially filed by Portland law firm Haglund Kelley Horngren Jones & Wilder LLP for Brookings-based fishermen Lloyd Whaley and Todd Whaley and as many as 3,000 other “similarly situated fishermen and fishing vessel owners,” the lawsuit alleges monopolization of the Dungeness crab, Oregon coldwater (pink) shrimp, groundfish, and whiting seafood markets along the West Coast by PSG and its owner Frank Dulcich. Prices paid to fishermen are the central issue. The complaint alleges that PSG uses its market share of 50 to 70 percent in each of those four critical fisheries and coordinates with other processors to drive down those prices, thus violating federal antitrust laws.

The original complaint also featured an allegation of conspiracy to restrain trade, which disappeared in the filing of a first amended complaint in August 2010. The plaintiffs’ lead attorney Michael Haglund said they re-filed after learning that Dulcich owns PSG outright and is not just a majority partner.

Antitrust laws say “you can’t conspire with yourself,” said Haglund, noting that they weren’t aware of the 57-company conglomerate’s full organization at the time of the initial filing, and that it’s common to re-file a case after such discoveries.

The complaint has since undergone two more iterations, and the latest re-filing in July 2011 added Newport-based pink shrimp fisherman Jeff Boardman, Brookings-based fisherman Brian Nolte and Dynamik Fisheries, Inc. and Miss Sarah LLC as plaintiffs.

The monopoly allegations remain, and the law firm’s website prominently features a section devoted to the lawsuit. It describes the actions taken so far, a copy of the complaint to download and peruse, and lists seven categories of alleged anticompetitive conduct:

• Price fixing – using “multiple tactics to set and enforce low prices to fishermen, including “retaliation against processors who dare to deviate from Pacific’s set prices.”

• Theft from fishermen by manipulating scales, misreporting actual weights, or “arbitrarily designating a portion of a delivered catch as an unusable ‘weighback’” and deducting it from the paid poundage, yet still processing and selling the “unusable” fish.

• Acquiring 18 West Coast seafood processing plants – some through “predatory tactics” that set up a vulnerable company for acquisition “at a bargain price.”

• Widespread use of “exclusive dealing and tying arrangements.”

• Restricting crab, shrimp and groundfish harvest outputs.

• “False representations” to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council that “have impacted” council decisions.

• “Miscellaneous dirty tricks” – among them, “illegally targeting” threatened fish stocks (criminally prosecuted by the state in 2001), and “fraudulently manipulating a delay” in the start of the 2005-2006 crab season.

The lawsuit remains on course toward a potential courtroom showdown, despite a setback at the end of February.

During the discovery process, Haglund said they found out that Pacific aimed at boosting its market share even more by purchasing Westport, Washington-based Ocean Gold, the largest whiting processor and owner of the single largest seafood processing plant on the West Coast.

Founded in 1991 by Washington fisherman Dennis Rydman, Ocean Gold now employs 700 people and processes more than 100 million pounds of fish annually.

In 2006, Ocean Gold and Pacific inked a 10-year deal that made Pacific Seafood “solely responsible” for setting “raw material costs” (fishermen’s prices), and obligated Ocean Gold to sell all fish it buys from fishermen to Pacific. The companies split the profits 50-50. Dulcich currently owns 32 percent of Ocean Gold, and was recently negotiating to buy it outright until Haglund took legal action to try to stop it with a preliminary injunction, asking the court to keep the two companies from communicating with each other about the prices they are paying fishermen, except as needed for accounting. It also asked to halt any communications “intended to direct fishing vessels to particular seafood processing plants.”

Pacific Seafood put the purchase on hold in December 2010, awaiting the outcome.

At the end of February, US District Court Judge Owen Panner rejected the request to keep PSG from communicating with Ocean Gold about how much to pay for whiting, and from which boats to buy the fish.

The judge also noted that Haglund failed to prove that Pacific has used its market share to suppress prices paid to fishermen.

“Plaintiffs have not shown at this stage that they are being harmed by defendants’ alleged illegal price-fixing,” Panner wrote. “On the other hand, the defendants have presented evidence that the proposed injunction would interfere with their business operations.”

Haglund, who won an $82 million judgment against Weyerhaeuser in 2007 following a seven-year legal fight that went to the US Supreme Court, remained undaunted, noting that the decision did not reflect on the merits of his case. He said the case against Weyerhaeuser started out much weaker than the case against Pacific Seafood.

Ocean Gold is also now a named defendant in the antitrust lawsuit.

‘Without Merit’
Craig Urness, PSG’s general counsel, has said the claims “are completely without merit,” and the lawsuit contains “gross misinterpretations.”

Launched in 1941 as a small, fresh seafood retail operation, PSG has since expanded to encompass 57 companies that together put PSG at the top of the seafood seller food chain, with $1 billion in annual global sales. The group’s holdings include Pacific Shrimp in Newport, added to the fold in 1996.

“We plan to aggressively defend against the allegations,” Urness noted. “Pacific Seafood has a long history on the Oregon coast. For more than 25 years, we’ve prided ourselves on providing value, service and jobs on the Oregon coast to our partners in the fishing and seafood industries. We will continue this commitment into the future.”

Attorneys for PSG and Ocean Gold say that most of the complaint field by Haglund focuses on actions that took place outside the statute of limitations, and that neither company has hurt either the fishermen or the industry. They say the companies open up new markets, put more fishermen to work, and allow those fishermen “to earn substantially more money” than they could without the companies’ influence and purchasing power.

But Haglund said the evidence already on the record indicates that Dulcich built his conglomerate in violation of federal antitrust laws, and has used the network of companies to illegally dictate prices, harming not just the fishermen, but also the coastal communities that rely on their incomes.

And his team is still immersed in the discovery process.

In fact, the website offers a questionnaire for commercial fishermen to use to describe “any predatory tactic directed at you or known by you” pertaining to PSG. “Although we spent many months investigating this case, we believe there is considerable additional evidence of anticompetitive behavior by Pacific Seafood Group which is not detailed in the complaint,” it states. “We want to hear from everyone who has evidence of anticompetitive conduct by Pacific Seafood Group.”

Any fishermen with a tale to tell can go to and fill out the questionnaire.

Permit Limits?
State Rep. Wayne Krieger (R-Gold Beach) introduced Senate Bill 668 that would limit the number of commercial fishing permits any individual or company could hold in any fishery to no more than three. Krieger said the bill derived from his frustration over Pacific’s ability to hinder competition in fish prices.

PSG attorney Urness said the bill unfairly targets a successful, family-owned Oregon company that has developed new markets for fishermen.

Pacific Seafood was just named as one of Oregon’s 10 most admired companies in the agriculture and forest products category for 2011 during the seventh annual recognition event held Dec. 7 in Portland. The company earned similar honors in 2007 and 2009.

The Portland Business Journal sponsors the program aimed at recognizing Oregon’s “leading businesses.”

But fishermen claim PSG leads the way in much less flattering and admired categories. Several of them testified in favor of Krieger’s bill during the March 14 hearing of the Senate Committee on General Government, Consumer, and Small Business Protection, and repeated many of the accusations made in the antitrust case.

“I am fortunate not to have any mortgage on my fish boat, but it still has become harder and harder to make a decent living in my fishery over the last five years,” Newport-based Jeff Boardman, skipper of the F/V Miss Yvonne, told the committee. Boardman has been an Oregon coast shrimper since 1967.
“Although the wholesale and retail prices for our shrimp have been rising since 2006, the ex vessel prices paid to fishermen for pink shrimp have been on the decline during this same period,” he added. “I strongly believe that all of the fault for this disconnect between wholesale prices and ex vessel prices lies with Pacific Seafood. With more than three permits, any large processor just has too much power to dictate price. I believe we have been receiving prices that are 10 to 15 cents below what we would be paid if the processor market was truly competitive.”

With 30 million pounds of shrimp landings during an average year, that price difference means a loss of $3 million to $4.5 million to fishing families and Oregon coastal communities.

Steve Bodnar, executive director of the Coos Bay Trawlers (which favors the bill), testified as a private citizen in relation to specific comments about Pacific Seafood. He said Urness called the president of the organization and “asked him to stop me from testifying.” As a result, Bodnar said he “was told not to say anything negative about Pacific Seafood” in his testimony.

“I cannot in good conscience testify in a way that keeps this committee in the dark,” he said.

Emily Dunn has fished on the West Coast for 26 years, the past eight out of Garibaldi with her husband, Edward, primarily for Dungeness crab. She told the committee that it had become “increasingly difficult to make a good living” during the past five years as operating costs rose and prices paid to crabbers “flat-lined,” averaging about $2 per pound. At the same time, she noted, wholesale prices rose substantially.

“None of this increase has been shared with fishermen, and I place all the blame for this at the door of Pacific Seafood,” she stated. “Competing processors are intimidated by Pacific and wait to see what price Pacific Seafood will set at the beginning of each season. With their market share and reputation, Pacific Seafood can veto the higher prices that would be set in a competitive market.”

Darus Peake, who owns and operates Garibaldi-based Tillamook Bay Boathouse, which processes crab, tuna, salmon and some groundfish and has eight employees. He is currently chairman of the Oregon Salmon Commission, and has served as a port commissioner in Garibaldi.

Peake participated in the 2010 crab price negotiations sponsored by the Oregon Department of Agriculture, and said he “came away disgusted” over Pacific Seafood’s refusal to budge above $1.675 per pound, even though he and “a number of other processors” were willing to pay prices higher than the 2009 opening price of $1.75 per pound. PS representatives also insisted on delaying the season to Dec. 10 to set crab pots, and first deliveries in Dec. 12.

“Because of their market share and the practice of requiring complete consensus on the processor side in those negotiations, we ended up with no choice but to stick with the prices proposed by Pacific Seafood,” said Peake. “I see the financial stress encountered by many fishing families on Oregon’s north coast and I see the declining level of maintenance throughout the Oregon fleet. If competitive conditions do not improve, I fear that we will lose a significant share of our fleet, and it will gradually be taken over through acquisitions of fishing vessels and permits by Pacific Seafood.”

Unlike the PS business model, which he said aims to dominate and buy up fishermen, he has a vision “where free and fair competition results in more processors, more fresh as opposed to frozen product, and more fishing industry jobs in Oregon.”

Krieger’s bill is still stuck in the committee process.

Seeking Compensation
The lawsuit alleges that PSG uses vertically integrated acquisitions, multiple tactics to set and enforce ex-vessel prices, exclusive dealing and tying arrangements, restrictions on output, “theft of seafood commodities” from fishermen, “fraudulent representations” to public agencies, and “miscellaneous dirty tricks.” The lawsuit requests a trial by jury, and asks the court, among other things, to declare PSG’s conduct illegal, and award the fishermen and fishing vessel owners a class judgment of $131.5 million to $173.5 million for actual damages, and to triple those damages to between $394 million and $520 million “as a result of the antitrust violations.”

The attorneys squared off in front of Judge Panner in October, with PSG’s legal eagles trying to convince the judge that the lawsuit doesn’t merit class action status. As of this writing, Panner had yet to rule on motions from Ocean Gold and Pacific to dismiss the lawsuit, or determine whether or not it merits class action status.

The trial was originally scheduled to begin in February 2012.

Senate Hears Criticism of Genetically Engineered Salmon

Environmental risks of genetically engineered salmon were the subject of a Senate subcommittee hearing this past week. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who has labeled the product “Frankenfish,” chaired the session of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard. Begich and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced legislation in October to ban the interstate commerce of genetically engineered fish. Among those testifying with written and/or oral testimony were Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller, D- W. VA., Ron Stotish, president of AquaBounty Technologies; Illinois fisheries geneticist John Epifanio; fisheries author Paul Greenburg; and George Leonard, aquaculture program director for Ocean Conservancy.

Leonard told the subcommittee that genetically engineered salmon could potentially damage already-struggling wild salmon populations through competition for food and habitat, pathogen and disease transmission, disruption of reproduction and interbreeding. “If such impacts come to pass, they could have real-world and far-reaching impacts people, industries and the environment” Leonard said. “Congress should ensure that key questions are answered before GE salmon are approved for commercial production,” he said.
“It is clear to me that we need to operate under the assumption that these fish will escape, and that warrants a thorough examination of the harm that this could cause,” said Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Epifanio said a robust and formal risk assessment is warranted. “We need to consider the scientific issues surrounding the risks of genetically engineered salmon and other fishes based on the appropriate and full range of scientific fields to shape the policy discussions,” he said.

Greenberg called Begich’s decision to hold the hearing an important one toward achieving a better understanding of the full suite of environmental risks posed by genetically modified salmon. The environmental risks posed by genetically engineered salmon specifically and GE fish in general are real, he said.

Congress should take legislative action to ensure that the full weight of environmental risks is thoroughly understood before we proceed, he said.

AquaBounty Technologies’ Ron Stotish noted the high demand for seafood in the US has resulted in the nation importing some 300,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon each year from a variety of foreign producing countries, while producing less than 17,000 metric tons from aquaculture. Stotish said the cultivation of Atlantic salmon would not likely impact the wild caught Alaska salmon fishery market. Stotish also said the company’s facilities are located in areas that are highly unfavorable to the survival, establishment and spread of AquAdvantage salmon, should there be an escape.

NOAA Still Looking for Answers in Deaths of Ringed Seals, Walruses

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are still trying to determine what is killing ringed seals and walruses in Northwest and Arctic Alaska.

Since mid-July, more than 60 dead and 75 diseased seals – mostly ringed seals – have been reported in Alaska, and reports continue to come in. Scientists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service also identified diseased and dead walruses at the annual mass haul-out-at Point Lay on the Arctic Slope. It is not known whether the unidentified disease can be transmitted to humans or other sea life.
Necropsies and laboratory tests to date have found skin lesions in most cases, as well as fluid in the lungs, white spots on the liver, and abnormal growths in the brain. Some seals and walruses have undersize lymph nodes, which may indicate compromised immune systems, according to NOAA.

Federal agencies and partners have been consulting with the working group in marine mammal unusual mortality events to consider if the seal and walrus deaths met the criteria for an unusual mortality event.

Last week, the working group recommended that NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service declare an unusual mortality event for the ringed seals. That decision triggers a focused, expert investigation into the cause. A decision is pending with the US Fish and Wildlife Service for a similar for the walruses.

NPFMC Advances BSAI Alternatives for Analysis

Bering Sea and Aleutian Island crab issues continue to move slowly forward through the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. At its December meeting the council advanced for analysis alternatives that would require persons acquiring quota shares to meet minimum requirements for active participation in the crab fisheries.

Under the proposed alternatives, active participation requirements could be satisfied by the quota shareholder either maintaining a minimum ownership interest in a vessel or a minimum participation as a crewmember.

Council members also asked staff to prepare a discussion paper examining the potential for cooperatives to develop provisions that would establish minimum crew compensation standards, maximum lease rates, maximum lease charges or deductions against crew compensation, and measures to promote quota share ownership by crew and active participants in those fisheries.

In related action, the council considered stakeholder comments concerning the performance of the binding arbitration system, which is used to settle price harvester/processor disputes for individual fishing quota landings that must be delivered to holders of individual processing quota. The council asked their chairman to appoint a work group to consider development of a process for the price formula for the golden king crab fishery, and letters of nomination are being accepted at the council office until Jan. 10.

The council also reviewed its pending action to modify community provisions, including rights of first refusal on processor quota shares. After testimony, the council made minor technical revisions to one alternative concerning the lapse of rights and added an action to require processor quota share holders to provide certain notices to right holders and NMFS to ensure the right holders and the right agency are informed concerning the status of rights and whether those rights have been triggered.

Halibut Catch Sharing Plan Has Unanimous Support From Federal Council

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is unanimous in its continued support of a halibut catch sharing plan to resolve long standing allocation and management issues between the commercial and charter halibut sectors. The council also recognized during its December meeting in Anchorage that there are deficiencies in the current analysis that it needs to address before implementation can take place.

During the December meeting the council provided clarifications to six main issues raised in public comment to the proposed rule. The council asked for additional analysis and revisions to the halibut catch sharing plan that more specifically address public comments outlined in the National Marine Fishery Service report on the catch-sharing plan.

The council intends to review the supplemental analysis during its April meeting, to determine what, if any, additional changes are needed in order for the catch sharing plan to meet council objectives. The council also has asked NMFS for a report by the April meeting as to whether the additions and revisions to the catch sharing plan will require a new proposed rule, so that the council can establish a timeline for implementing the catch sharing plan.

The council also asked staff for a discussion paper analyzing several items for potential use in future halibut management, including the use of Alaska Department of Fish and Game log books for official harvest reporting, and the use of a common pool purchase of quota shares by the charter sector.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Red King Crab Prices Rocket to New Heights

By Margaret Bauman

A fast-paced Bristol Bay red king crab season, with the quota slashed to 7.8 million pounds, bodes well for the commercial harvesters and processors in the short term, as wholesale buyers scramble for as much as they can purchase.

Where this will all lead in the marketplace is the unanswered question.

The fishery began on Oct. 15 and by Nov. 1, 82 percent of the total allowable harvest for individual fishing quota shares was landed, with just 1.2 million pounds of IFQ to go, said Heather Fitch, area management biologist for shellfish at Dutch Harbor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Of the total 7.8 million pounds, 7,050,600 pounds went to the IFQ permit holders, with another 783,400 pounds to community development quota entities, whose harvest pace is generally the same as that of the IFQ entities, Fitch said.

Sixty-two vessels were participating in the 2011-2012 crab harvest, down three from a year ago, she said.

“It was a weird season,” said Rob George, of the Las Vegas based Crab Broker, who was there at Dutch Harbor to watch vessels deliver at that port. “It kind of reminded me a little bit of the old derby style days.

“Most of the boats were on the crab. A couple of boats came in with their quota after three to four days. Fishermen were saying there are crab all over the place.”

George, who generally spends 30 to 40 days at Dutch Harbor while the king crab are coming in, said he arrived on Oct. 20, saw his first delivery on Oct. 21 and departed on Oct. 28 this year.

“The weather wasn’t bad,” he said. “All of our planes of fresh got out on time. It was less stressful because we shipped less fresh crab daily, because of the high prices.”

That’s $20 a pound delivered to buyers in Japan this year, and domestic consumers “will be paying north of $20 (a pound), depending on what they are buying,” he said.

One harvester said he was getting $9 a pound for crab delivered, compared to about $7.50 a pound a year ago, not counting the additional retro money once prices were established.

A year ago, with the total allowable catch set at 13.4 million pounds for the IFQ program and 1.5 million pounds for the CDQ groups, Japanese prices were $14 a pound to wholesalers, and first wholesale prices domestically were $14.50 to $15.25 a pound.

There is no cheap crab on the market right now and most consumers won’t be able to find true Alaska king crab in most stores, George said.

Russian king crab is starting to come over and since the Japanese bought the vast majority of the Russian small king crab, the big king crab is coming in the United States, at price just below Alaska king crab prices, he said. “As long as people keep buying it, they will keep selling it at those prices,” he said.

Also on the bright side, George said, many skippers and crews told him they had a lot of undersized crab in their pots that they returned promptly to the ocean, which should bode well for the 2012-2013 red king crab season.

George said some skippers were telling him the water temperature this year was back up to where it was five or six years ago, and so they went to where they found an abundance of crab back then, and sure enough, there they were.

Kodiak harvester Mark Israelson, the skipper aboard the Island Mist, which delivered 100,000 pounds of red king crab at King Cove, was one of those concerned about the survey that led to the slashed quota. “They (ADF&G) go to the same areas (every year) and do their survey. They tow in exactly the same areas every year. We move around in those areas differently than they do,” to find the crab, he said.

The abundance of all that crab left some harvesters puzzled over why the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had slashed the quota by 47 percent, but Fitch, as well as Jeff Regnart, the department’s director of commercial fisheries, said the department was following standard procedures of several kinds of data, including that collected by trawl surveys, to determine the allowable catch. “They think we are being too conservative, but we try to do the best job possible with the money we have,” Regnart said.

In-season data from the 2011-12 fishery will be used to determine next year’s quota.

While harvesters are making more money per pound this year, they are mindful that that the quota was markedly lower, and were not that happy with the high prices, George said.

“Typically when you see these prices increase, they pay for it down the road. It gets taken off the menus. It’s not good for the industry at these prices,” he said.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at

NOAA Legislation Would Protect US Fishermen From Pirates

Sen. Daniel Innoye, D-Hawaii, has introduced legislation in Congress to stop pirate fishing vessels from unloading their illegally caught seafood at ports in the United States. The administration bill, which implements an international agreement the United States helped negotiate, would benefit American fishermen, seafood buyers and consumers by keeping illegal seafood out of global trade. Co-sponsors of the legislation include Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

The pirate fishing practices are also referred to as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Announcement of the new legislation came from NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who said illegal fishing undermines fishermen in the United States and other nations who fish sustainably and legally. These illegal practices also can result in devastating fish stocks and ocean ecosystems, Lubchenco said.

“As one of the top importers of seafood globally, the US is committed to combatting illegal fishing and ensuring a level playing field for our fishermen,” she said. “The international agreement and this bill will close the world’s ports to illegal fishing.”

The legislation is rooted in the first binding global agreement to focus on combatting these illegal fishing practices, the agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing. NOAA officials said this international accord is recognized globally as a landmark agreement.

Pollock Earns Certification for Meeting Fishery Management Standards

An independent auditing firm, Global Trust, has certified a fourth Alaska commercial fishery as being in compliance with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s responsible fisheries management criteria.

The announcement of certification of the Alaska Pollock fishery on Dec. 9 comes on the heels of similar certifications for Alaska salmon, halibut and black cod (sablefish). The certification of Alaska crab remains in process.

The announcement came this past week from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which was directed by its board of directors to contract with Global Trust to verify that all five fisheries were in compliance with the UN organization’s code of sustainable management practices.

The certification lasts for five years and entails annual surveillance assessments.

Randy Rice, ASMI”s technical program director, based in Seattle, said ASMI’s board wanted to offer the seafood industry in Alaska alternatives to eco-label certification.

“We are not in the logo selling business,” Rice said. “This is a service to verify that Alaska fishery management practices adhere to international standards of fishery management. This is a cost effective alternative using the FAO code of conduct.

How certification of the Pollock fishery will affect the marketability of Alaska Pollock remains to be determined, he said.

The certification covers the fishery management of Alaska Pollock commercial fishery employing pelagic trawl gear within 200 miles of Alaska shores under federal and state management.

A Global Trust certification committee, composed of fishery, certification and accreditation experts performed a qualitative review of the formal processes, assessment reports and recommendations provided by the fishery assessment team and peer reviewers appointed to assess the Pollock fishery. The certification committee unanimously agreed with the assessment team’s findings that the Alaska Pollock commercial fishery is responsibly managed by effective management organizations, using robust fishery management plans and practices based on objective science and information, ASMI officials said.

Groundfish Quotas Set by North Pacific Fishery Management Council

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, meeting in Anchorage, has set the 2012 quotas for groundfish in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska. All quotas are still subject to approval by US Commerce Secretary John Bryson. After much discussion, the federal panel set the Eastern Bering Sea Pollock quota at 1,200,000 metric tons, down 4.2 percent from a year ago. The Pacific cod quota was set at 261,000 metric tons, up 14.5 percent. Other quotas include yellowfin sole, 202,000 metric tons, up 3.1 percent; Atka mackerel, 50,763 metric tons, down 4.4 percent; Pacific Ocean perch, 24,700 metric tons, unchanged; and black cod (sablefish), 4,280 metric tons, down 9.9 percent.

In the Gulf of Alaska, the NPFMC set the total allowable catch at 116,444 metric tons for Pollock, up 21 percent. For Pacific cod, the quota was raised 0.9 percent to 65,700 metric tons. The quota for Pacific Ocean perch was dropped 0.5 percent to 16,918 metric tons, while the quota for black cod (sablefish) was raised 14.8 percent to 12,960 metric tons.

Alaska Seafood Promotions Fan Out Over Seattle, Anchorage and Juneau

Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is moving forward with plans for the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, to be held May 14 in Anchorage. Also on ASMI’s agenda in December was a fish taco photo shoot in Seattle, using recipes provided by the Alaska Seafood Chef Alliance and Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Fenigar of Bravo’s Top Chef, the Food Network’s Two Hot Tamales, and the owners of Border Grill restaurants. ASMI officals said the recipes feature Alaska black cod, cod, halibut, salmon, crab and Pollock. The images and recipes produced at Seattle’s Iridio Studios will be used to promote Alaska fish tacos during Leten and Cinco deMayo holiday promotions. ASMI’s food service division also shot 60 new photos featuring all five species of Alaska salmon, featuring raw portions, pan-seared, grilled and teamed/poaches cooking methods.

The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation meanwhile is gearing up for the 18th annual Alaska Symphony of Seafood, with events in Seattle, Anchorage and Juneau. In Seattle on Feb. 3, entries in the 2012 competition for retail, food service and smoked products will be sampled and judged, and participants in the gala soiree will be asked to vote for their favorite products too. Only the people’s choice awards will be revealed in Seattle. Then on Feb. 11 in Anchorage, AFDF will holds another gala soiree, where participants again will choose the people’s choice winners in retail, food service and smoked seafood categories, and the judges’ decisions for first, second and third place in all categories will be announced. Winners of first place in all three categories, plus the people’s choice winners, will win airfare and booth space at the International Boston Seafood Show in late March. AFDF will then conduct a third venue in Juneau on March 8, where participants again will get to vote for their people’s choice for the best entries.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Officials Delay Commercial Dungeness Crab Harvest

By Terry Dillman

December 2011

The commercial Dungeness crab season from Point Arena, Calif., to the Washington-Canada border is on hold until at least Dec. 15, due to recalcitrant crabs who failed their first two meat quality tests.

Officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) announced the delay in a Nov. 10 press release.

Commercial crab harvest in Oregon’s bays and estuaries closed on Dec. 1, but will reopen as soon as the commercial ocean fishery sets sail. Recreational ocean crabbing is also delayed, but remains open in the bays and estuaries.

Kelly Corbett from the ODFW Marine Resources Program located at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport said fishery managers from Washington, Oregon and California decided to delay the opening “to allow crab quality to improve.” Crabs in most test areas failed to meet the minimum preseason test criteria of at least 25 percent meat content (23 percent north of Cascade Head, Oregon) during early November testing. The next round of testing was expected in late November or early December.

What effect the delay might have on harvest numbers is anybody’s guess.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever guessed right,” said Nick Furman, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC) when asked to predict potential landings. “(The crabs) are on their own schedule. I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Furman said pushing back the start date should, however, ease some of the tension normally associated with price negotiations between fishermen and processors. Those negotiations, involving representatives from port crab marketing associations, seafood processing companies and the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA), were scheduled to start Nov. 16.

But Furman said everyone agreed that “it makes no sense to rush” the negotiations. “We decided it’s probably best to delay them to keep them in sync with the delayed opening,” he noted.

It also gives them a chance to glean more information, first providing what Furman deemed “a great opportunity” to spend at least an entire month observing what transpires from the central California Dungeness season, which opened Nov. 15, and to find out what the next round of meat quality tests reveals before heading to the negotiation table.

Under normal circumstances, the central California Dungeness fishery opens just a fortnight prior to the Oregon coast season. While that gives some indication of how things might go for the fleet from Oregon, Washington and northern California, the extra two weeks this year offers a chance to watch the effects in the marketplace and to get some initial answers to questions that are usually still open-ended when dickering about initial prices for Oregon crabbers, especially so close to the Thanksgiving holiday.

With the additional market and meat quality information in hand, Furman said, “There shouldn’t be much more to talk about except price. Everybody is looking forward to a good year.”

Crabbers say they would love a repeat of last season or better, but being pragmatic, they say they also know anything could happen, considering the vagaries of the market, weather and other factors, including crab quality.

Stellar Results
The season also started late last year as representatives from five port crab marketing associations and seven seafood processing companies negotiated, emerging from the bargaining process with an opening price of $1.65 per pound, pending a request from processors for additional pre-season testing by ODFW to determine crab meat quality. Processors also wanted crabbers to wait until Dec. 12, rather than venture out on traditional Dec. 1 opening date, and if they did, the negotiated price edged up to $1.675, which was still well below the 2009-2010 opening price of $1.75 per pound.

As it turned out, crabbers had a banner year value-wise as they caught fewer crabs than the previous season, but hauled in more money.

The season ended Aug. 14 with the fourth largest catch on record, as the 325-boat Oregon fleet landed 21.2 million pounds and exceeded 20 million pounds for the fifth time in the past 10 seasons.

Newport’s fleet helped the city live up to its designation as “The Dungeness Crab Capital of the World” by delivering 7.5 million pounds of crabs to the port’s seafood processors. Charleston’s fleet hauled in 5.3 million pounds, followed by Astoria with landings of 4.3 million pounds. While those were excellent numbers – well above the average annual harvest of about 10 million to 12 million pounds during the past three decades – numbers nearer and dearer to the crabbers’ hearts and wallets made the season a more resounding success.

“The real story is the landed value of this season’s catch,” said Furman when announcing the results in September. “Strong demand in the marketplace pushed boat prices up, so although fishermen caught fewer crabs, they made more money.”

The to-the-boat harvest value reached almost $49 million, which Furman said was the second most valuable Oregon crab season in history. Associated processing activity upped the economic impact for Oregon’s coastal communities from Astoria to Brookings to more than $100 million.

It fell short of the $52.9 million commercial crabbers gleaned from the 2004-2005 season, but that amount derived from a record-setting harvest of 33.6 million pounds. The 2009 landings reached 23.1 million pounds (Newport again led the way with 6.8 million pounds, edging out Charleston’s 6.7 million and outdistancing Astoria’s take of 4.6 million), the third largest ever, but with a lower to-the-boat harvest value of $44.6 million, and overall economic impact of $90 million.

Furman said crabbers are well aware of the cyclical nature of the Dungeness crab population, and they can expect drop-offs in landings after a boom. Harvests reached record levels from 2003 to 2006, peaking with the 2004 haul, followed by landings of 27.5 million worth $44.6 million in 2005, before dropping to 15.1 million pounds valued at $32.9 million in 2006. In 2007, crabbers hauled 12.3 million pounds of Dungies worth $29.3 million into Oregon ports, and the 2008 effort netted about 13 million pounds, before the 2009 rebound.

Those natural boom-and-bust cycles, crabbers note, puts them “at the mercy of” the marketplace, and Furman has said that successive high yield years can flood the market, pinching prices and leading to holdover inventories.

Fishery leaders have turned their attention to marketing efforts to help offset those drawbacks.

To Market, To Market
ODCC represents 433 limited entry crab permit holders, who fish primarily within 10 miles of Oregon’s coast. Those who go out are all vying for a piece of that market.

Oregon leads the way in Dungeness crab production, with harvested crabs sold live, whole fresh or frozen, or as picked meat, legs and sections. Products are shipped around the world, although the United States remains the main market.

Analysts say strong marketing and promotion efforts have heightened the image of Dungeness crab, creating demand that is transforming it from primarily a regional favorite to a more nationwide appeal in restaurants and other seafood outlets, including supermarket chains.

An industry marketing partnership with ODA is focused on promoting Dungeness crab in as many key markets as possible, including internationally. ODA officials, ODCC, fishermen and processors have collaborated to successfully introduce Dungies to many markets, including Japan and Korea.

ODA also plays a pivotal role by supervising negotiations for the season-opening crab price, which is vital to the crabbers’ livelihoods. Even with a set opening price, crabbers remain at the mercy of the markets, and the flow of crabs from pots to boats to docks to markets still hinges on bringing in most of the annual catch during the first two months, providing a surge that benefits processors, who depend on volume to meet holiday market demand.

They are working to change that, Furman said, and part of the effort involved obtaining certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a designation the fishery earned in 2010 – one of only three crab fisheries worldwide and the only one of the West Coast Dungeness crab fisheries (Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska, British Columbia) to do so – based on good management practices, sustainable harvest methods and neutral environmental impacts. MSC is the world’s leading independent certification program for sustainable fisheries, with science-based environmental standards and methodology, and a certification process that focuses on three principles: health of the fishery stock, fishery management, and the effects of the fishery on the overall ecosystem. The evaluation uses a number of performance measures and individual guidelines to determine certification.

“This sets the Oregon Dungeness brand apart from all other Dungeness in the marketplace,” Furman noted at the time. “This simply substantiates what we and a lot of other people have known all along – this is a well-managed, sustainably-harvested, environmentally-neutral fishery that just happens to also produce a wonderful gourmet product.”

Along those lines, they are following in the wake of two other unique Oregon fisheries. Oregon’s pink shrimp fishery received its initial MSC certification in 2007 and is currently immersing itself in the recertification process, and virtually all Oregon albacore tuna is MSC-certified.

“Oregon has been harvesting Dungeness crab for over a century,” Furman noted. “Landings this past decade have been off the charts, and nature continues to provide us with healthy stocks. But to attain MSC certification, we made some modifications and conducted additional scientific research to prove our sustainability.”

The next step, he noted, is creating consumer awareness and demand for the brand.

Furman believes the MSC certification could provide a definite economic boost for what is already the state’s most valuable fishery, due to a growing trend in the retail, food service, and restaurant trade to offer products from sustainable fisheries certified by an independent entity using a proven scientific process. He sees it as a big step in the right direction, as more consumers demand seafood from fisheries that can prove their harvest and management practices meet high standards for sustainability.

In fact, some wholesalers and retailers are committing to – sometime in the not-too-distant future - selling only certified seafood, so having the MSC blue label on Dungeness crab should translate into future successful marketing venues.

For now, crabbers say they are simply focused on the pending new season, and looking forward to getting gear in the water whenever they get the green light.

Grain Free Salmon Treats Now Include Fruits and Veggies

Gourmet pet food entrepreneur Brett Gibson, who recognized 13 years ago the marketing potential of thousands of pounds of salmon scraps, has added grain-free salmon treats to his canine offerings, complete with fruits and vegetables.

Offerings include Yummy Chummies salmon with cranberries and blueberries, salmon with sweet potato, salmon with carrots, kelp and spinach and the very popular Yummy Chummies Gold, complete with a dash of rosemary extract.

“I think it (grain-free) will be a hot item,” said Gibson, whose Anchorage firm also produces a supply of salmon and cod protein for pet food manufacturers, and salmon oil products. November, December and January are the highest demand period for the gourmet treats.

The fact that they are made in the USA is also a huge selling point, he said.
Yummy Chummies Original soft and chewy salmon treats, meanwhile, continue to grow in popularity, offering nutritious wild Alaska salmon and its omega-3 oils for canines, and an outlet for fish processors who need to dispose of the rest of the fish after filleting or roe stripping.

The pet treats are available nationwide, from retail giants like Costco and Wal-Mart to online companies who tell potential customers “A million dogs can’t be wrong. Yummy Chummies are the premiere gourmet dog treat.”

While market demand keeps on growing, Gibson said he’s continuing to fight the higher cost of doing business in Alaska, from his calculations nearly twice the cost he would face if his business were based in the Pacific Northwest.

While Arctic Paws keeps a good inventory of product ingredients on hand, an unexpected order recently forced the company to pay $3,600 to have two ingredients trucked north over the Alaska Highway, four times the cost of bringing it up on a barge.

Gibson said he would like to see more effort on the state’s part to reduce the cost of manufacturing in Alaska, to back up their claims that they want to see more value added manufacturing, with creative ways to reduce the cost of shipping to Alaska ingredients needed to manufacture his products and the cost of shipping out the finished products too.

Senators Want Answers on New Salmon Virus Reports

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washingotn, are voicing concern over new reports that Canada kept secret decade-old findings that a virus was detected in wild Pacific salmon.

“These troubling reports reinforce the need for a coordinated, multi-national strategy to control the spread of this virus threat,” Cantwell said. “American and Canadian scientists need to have access to all relevant research on this deadly virus. We can’t afford to leave the Pacific Northwest’s fishery jobs at risk.”

Murkowski meanwhile asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration what details, if any, were known by the U.S. about earlier detection of the infectious salmon anemia virus, which is not known to be harmful to humans, but has devastated fish stocks in South America and Europe.

“Call it Salmongate,” said the Los Angeles Times, writing about reports that Canadian authorities allegedly knew about the virus a decade ago.

The Canadian Press is also reporting on an unpublished paper by scientists at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island. The paper concluded that an asymptomatic form of ISA was occurring in some wild salmon stocks in the North Pacific as far back as 2002.

The report of earlier detection of ISA surfaced on the blog site in late November.

Canadian fisheries officials issued a statement weeks ago saying reports of ISA detected in British Columbia salmon had not been verified by federal officials through established processes. A state of Alaska fisheries pathologist, Ted Meyers, said he was in daily contact with his Canadian counterparts and once a second round of tests was complete, the state would take appropriate action. Meyers cautioned that state officials did not want to overreact before they had more definitive information from the Canadian authorities.

Canadian Report Ranks Eco-Labels on Seafood Products

A University of Victoria report released today (Dec. 7) ranks eco-labels intended to distinguish seafood produced with less damage to the environment. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, this is the first study to evaluate how eco-labels for farmed marine fish compare to unlabeled options for the marketplace.

“How Green is Your Eco-label?” is designed to help seafood buyers sort through competing sustainability claims and better identify those labels that result in farming methods with less damage to the ocean.

The report concludes that many eco-labels are not much better than conventional farmed seafood options when it comes to protecting the ocean environment.

“Scale is a big challenge for eco-labels,” the report said. “For the most part, eco-labels are awarded based on an individual farm’s environmental footprint.”

John Volpe, a marine ecologist at the University of Victoria and lead author of the report, said research shows that “most eco-labels for farmed marine fish offer no more than a 10 percent improvement over the status quo.

“With the exception of a few outstanding examples, one-third of the eco-labels evaluated for these fish utilize standards at the same level or below what we consider to be conventional or average practice in the industry.”

The authors used 10 environmental factors to assess the eco-labels, including antibiotic use, the ecological effect of farmed fish that escape from pens, sustainability of the fish that serve as feed, parasiticide used, and industrial energy needed in aquaculture production.

According to Chris Mann, director of Pew’s aquaculture standards project, the eco-labels can help fish farmers produce and consumers select environmentally preferable seafood, but only if the labels are based on meaningful standards that are enforced.

Man said that seafood buyers at the retail or wholesale level should demand that evidence of sustainability be demonstrates, no merely asserted.

The report concludes that government policies and regulations, as well as effective eco-labels, are necessary to limit the environmental impacts of production.

Funds Sought for Transition of Observer Program in Alaska

Alaska’s congressional delegation is asking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to provide $3.8 million in start up funds for the North Pacific Fishery management Council’s restructured groundfish observer program.

The delegation sent a letter to NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco this past week, noting that the restructured program will be funded by the industry, but that it requires start up funds.

Senators Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, with Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said that lacking federal funding in the first year, fishermen would have to pay for coverage under the existing program while being assessed a fee to support future observer coverage under the new program. It would also delay implementation of the new program for at least a year and prolong expected improvements in catch and bycatch estimates and annual catch limit management, they said.

The delegation noted that NOAA has made commitments to fund observers in other regions while the transition to catch share programs. They said they are concerned that funding observers in these other regions might jeopardize NOAA’s ability to provide start-up funds for the restructured North Pacific groundfish observer program, while imposing an unwarranted burden on fishermen in Alaska’s small boats and 60-125 foot vessel fleets.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Catch Shares Back Before NOAA Fisheries

By Margaret Bauman

A proposed halibut catch sharing plan for Southcentral and Southeast Alaska that many thought was in the bag is back under public scrutiny again, much to the dismay of the setline harvesters, and applause of sports fishermen.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced its decision on Sept. 29, citing some 4,000 public comments received on the proposed rule to implement a halibut catch sharing plan.

Those comments raise issues that may require additional input from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council before NOAA Fisheries can proceed to a final rule, said Glenn Merrill, head of NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Region division of sustainable fisheries.

“We are still moving forward with the rulemaking process, but we are getting some issues clarified and refining the rule based on public comments and additional council input,” he said.

Merrill cited concerns about management implications at lower levels of abundance, economic impacts of the catch sharing plan and methods for calculating the average weight for guided angler fish that may be leased from commercial individual fishing quota operators reporting guided angler fish.

Further review of public comments may also raise other technical issues that may require additional input from the council, he said. While certain issues could be resolved by NOAA Fisheries, others raise important policy and implementation questions that are best addressed by the council, he said.

The council has reserved time for the catch share issue at its December meeting in Anchorage.

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association at Sitka, said setline harvesters are very disappointed with the delay.

We believe it shows either a lack of understanding facing the serious issues facing the resource, or an inability of managers to stand up to political pressure,” Behnken said in a telephone interview. “It’s always politically safe to say we need to study this more and the sense that you can save the fish and the fishermen, but at some point, you have to save the fish.”

Commercial fishermen are taking a 76 percent reduction in area 2C (Southeast Alaska) and the guideline harvest level in 2C is down 45 percent, while the charter fleet meanwhile has exceeded their allocation by 22 percent to 115 percent on an annual basis, she said.

Behnken, herself a longline fish harvester, has spoken out often to advocate for protection of the halibut resource and for the charter halibut industry to share the burden of conservation with the setline fleet.

“The guideline harvest level has failed to prevent charter overage,” she said. “We have stocks in poor shape and huge impact to commercial fishing. The charter catch is disproportionate to abundance in areas 2C and 3A (Southcentral Alaska), ” she said. “The commercial fleet is being asked to carry the whole burden of conservation.”

The catch share program would level the playing field between the setline harvesters and the charter industry, she said. “The commercial sector provides fish to the public. It is a much broader based public than is serviced by the charter industry.”

Because NOAA fisheries has opted to delay implementation of the catch share plan, the International Pacific Halibut Commission has to take action in 2012 to make sure that the guideline harvest levels for halibut are not exceeded.

Behnken said the guideline harvest level for the charter fleet in area 3A is close to stair stepping down if abundance drops more and the commercial catch limit will likely take a 50 percent hit over the past six years.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association meanwhile applauded the decision, saying the proposed plan would have severely limited the guided halibut industry in Southcentral Alaska as early as next season.

“We feel it is appropriate to take the time to better understand how to optimize halibut stocks, and believe sportfishing plays an important role in making the most of the fish available,” said Ricky Gease, executive director of KRSA.

The economic battle between the commercial harvesters who sell their fish to the public and the guided sport fishing industry has been steaming for years and shows no sign of abating, despite the fact that some veteran charter operators have worked closely with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to come to compromise agreements that would work for both.

While both industries contribute millions of dollars to the state’s communities, in dollars taxed and spent, the debate continues on who delivers more. Advocates for commercial harvesters living on the Kenai Peninsula, for example, are quick to point out that while the fishermen sometimes work in Alaska fisheries far from home, they bring those dollars home and spend them on the Kenai Peninsula. Advocates for the charter halibut fisheries point to the significant sums spent by tourists beyond the fee for fishing on a charter, in hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

One commercial setline fisherman, Brent Western, in an opinion piece published recently in the Anchorage Daily News, noted that fisheries management is complex and the catch-sharing plan is no exception. The catch-sharing plan, said Western, “establishes a framework that provides resource protection management stability for the halibut industry and an essential mechanism for transfer between sectors. Well-informed public comment and discourse contributed to that decision, he said. Speculation and misinformation do nothing but fuel conflict,” said Western, whose family has fished for halibut, herring and salmon in Alaska since the 1960s.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at

IPHC to Announce Preliminary Recommended 2012 Catch Limits

The International Pacific Halibut Commission planned a webcast for today (Nov 30) to announce stock assessments and the IPHC staff preliminary recommended catch limits for halibut in 2012. Final action on catch limits will be made at the IPHC annual meeting in Anchorage Jan 24-27. This announcement, the IPHC notes, will impact both the commercial and charter sectors.

The Halibut Coalition, whose broad membership base includes more than a dozen fisheries associations, is planning a webcast of its own on IPHC research on Dec. 1. To sign up, follow the instructions given online at

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, at its December meeting next week in Anchorage, will be discussing and taking some action on the catch sharing plan and providing guidance to the IPHC for 2012.

The federal council is scheduled to hear the IPHC report on 2012 staff recommendations, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game report on 2010-2011 sport catch estimates, and logbook versus statewide harvest survey comparison. The council will also review the charter halibut committee report on revising the catch sharing plan tier 1 management measures and review the National Marine Fisheries Service report on catch sharing plan deficiencies and provide council direction.

Veteran halibut harvester Linda Behnken of Sitka, a spokesperson for the Halibut Coalition, noted that it’s all conjecture until the IPHC announces its annual limits.

If abundance is down, the commercial catch will be reduced more, and if abundance drops by a couple million more pounds, that will trigger a 15 percent reduction in the guideline harvest level for the charter fleet.

PSPA Says ‘No’ to Pebble Mine

An umbrella group representing seafood processors operating throughout coastal Alaska has had a change of heart about development of a massive copper, gold and molybdenum mine in Southwest Alaska.

After careful consideration of its initial stance four years ago, the Pacific Seafood Processors Association says it has concluded that the level of risk to fisheries posed by the Pebble mine is simply too high.

PSPA said that “while we acknowledge the potential short-term economic benefits of this enormous project, we can see no way that it can be developed, operated and concluded without – at some point- causing irreparable harm to the watersheds, ecosystems, fishery resources, businesses, people and communities of the region.

“Furthermore, we know from past experience that actual or perceived damage to the purity of the waters or fish of the Bristol Bay region would harm the marketability of Alaska salmon and other seafood species, even from other regions of the state.”

PSPA noted that since the organization became active in 1914 it had never before taken a position in opposition to any specific development project or category of projects of other natural resource industries.

Still, after careful consideration, PSPA said, the organization feels compelled to oppose development of the mine because of its unique location, size and potential harm.

Back in 2007, PSPA’s board of directors was generally supportive of allowing the project to proceed to the exploration, research and permit application stages, but even then noted that PSPA would oppose the mine unless the developer can ensure that there will be no negative impacts to the region’s water quality or to Alaska’s fishery resources and their marketability.

Corporate members of PSPA include those with a major presence in Bristol Bay, including Peter Pan Seafoods and Trident Seafoods. The association also has several dozen associate members doing business in the seafood industry.

Symphony of Seafood Comes to Seattle, Anchorage

The call is out for product entries for the 19th annual Alaska Symphony of Seafood, coming to Seattle on Feb. 2 and Anchorage on Feb. 10.

Entry information is online at Considered products must be market ready by the date of the competition. The entry deadline is Jan. 6, 2012.

The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation organizes the annual event.

For the 2012 competition, judging and a reception will be held on Seattle Feb. 2, with the annual gala soiree and awards presentation Feb. 10 in Anchorage.

The event’s multiple locations give fisheries and seafood promoters the opportunity to introduce new and innovative value-added seafood products from Alaska fisheries and to gain exposure with industry and culinary experts, seafood distributors and national media, said Jim Browning, executive director of AFDF.

Browning noted that AFDF is relying on industry sponsorship to a much greater degree this year as grant funding has declined, but that regular sponsors have increased their sponsorship level and new companies are stepping up to support the event.

Competition is grouped into one of three categories. Salmon, whitefish and shellfish compete in retail or food service competition, with a separate competition for smoked seafood products.

Entries will be judged on the product’s packaging and presentation, overall eating experience, price and potential for commercial success.

Once judges have finished their work, chefs, manufacturers, buyers, sellers and media will be invited to vote on their favorite product at the Seattle reception for the Seattle People’s Choice Award, which is announced at the end of that event in Seattle.

The overall grand prize, first, second and third place winners in each category are announced on Feb. 10, at Anchorage, where participants there also get to vote for the Anchorage People’s Choice Award.

Those who place first in each category receive complimentary booth space at the International Boston Seafood Show in March, the industry’s biggest event of the year, as well as free round trip airfare.

Canadian Study Focuses on Climate Change Effects on Fisheries

A new Canadian study on the effects of climate change on fisheries predicts that fisheries in the far north may benefit from climate change, while many other regions, particularly in the tropics, can expect revenue losses.

The University of British Columbia study quotes Rashid Sumaila, principal investigator of the Fisheries Economics Research unit at UBC, saying fisheries are already providing fewer fish and making less money than they could if overfishing was curbed. Sumaila also predicts that climate change likely will cause more losses unless such practices are curbed.

The study offers a broad view of the impact of climate changes on fisheries and their profitability. It was published on Nov. 20 online in the journal Nature Climate Change, (, based in London.

Over the last century, oceans have become warmer and more acidic. Other factors, such as pollution and overfishing, have also had adverse impacts on marine species. With ocean warming, many species will move further toward the poles and into deeper water, the study said.

While fisheries in a few regions, such as the far north, may benefit from climate change, many other regions, particularly those in the tropics, can expect losses in revenue, UBC scientists said.

UBC fisheries biologist William Cheung said changes in temperature and ocean chemistry directly affect the physiology, growth, reproduction and distribution of these organisms.

“Fish in warmer waters will probably have a smaller body size, be smaller at first maturity, with higher mortality rates and be caught in different areas,” he said.

The study also found that biologically, maintaining more abundant populations can help increase the capacity of fish to adapt to environmental change. Curbing overfishing is crucial to making marine systems more robust and ready for changes that are already underway, the study found. Fish stocks will also be more robust to climate change if the combined stresses from overfishing, habitat degradation, pollution runoff, land-use transformation, competing aquatic resource uses and other anthropogenic factors are minimized, researchers said.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Fatigue: Three Groundings in a Four-Month Period

By USCG Lt. Jon Lane

Commercial fishermen are not strangers to fatigue. Fatigue is a pervasive issue on all fishing boats, both big and small. In an industry where working hours are controlled by when the fishing is good, and not regulated by the Coast Guard, vessel owners and operators sometimes overlook the potential dangers associated with fatigued crew members for the sake of maximizing their catch. As a result, 16 to 18 hour workdays are common on most boats.

You don’t have to do much research to know that fatigue is prevalent in the fishing industry, and it was recently recognized by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as one of the top safety concerns for the entire transportation industry. The NTSB characterizes fatigue on their web site as a subtle condition that creeps up on airline pilots, motor coach drivers and vessel captains because they “do not realize until it is too late that they cannot safely complete their duties because of fatigue.” (Source:

In the four month period between June and September of 2011, three commercial fishing vessels ran aground in the waters around Washington State. The Coast Guard’s investigation of each of these groundings revealed a common causal factor – fatigue. Each one of these cases involved a tired fisherman that fell asleep at the helm. All of them were doing their very best to get the boat back home after a hard working trip.

The sinister thing about fatigue is that we all do our very best to try and “push through” it because we want to get the job done, but exhaustion doesn’t let up. Weariness, weakness and tiredness shadow us until it is too late. If mistakes and errors are like fire, fatigue is the catalyst that turns them into infernos.

Fortunately, not one of the aforementioned groundings resulted in injury; however, there were a few bruised egos and lost revenue. For the two “minor” groundings, the vessels incurred several thousand dollars worth of damage and precious lost time. The most serious of these groundings resulted in a total loss of the boat. It tipped over on the rock it was grounded on when the tide went out. It sank and subsequently discharged an undetermined amount of oil into the water.

Vessels and equipment are replaceable – lives are not. Fortunately for all involved, this recent spate of groundings did not hurt or kill anyone or cause significant damage to the environment. If this trend isn’t reversed or stopped, it’s just a matter of time before a fatigue-related incident will result in the loss of life and/or major environmental damage.

So, as the owner, operator, master or manager of a commercial fishing vessel, what can you do to combat fatigue on your boat? Educate yourself on the anti-fatigue strategies and tools that are available and take action.

The US Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center recognized the need to provide vessel owners, operators, managers and masters with a solution to the fatigue problem, so they developed the Crew Endurance Management (CEM) Practices Guide. The Guide provides proven practices for managing endurance risk factors (sleep loss, stress, heat, cold, etc.) that affect operational safety and crew member efficiency.

The CEM Guide and a whole lot of other useful CEM information is available free on the Coast Guard’s CEM website at

Our partner organizations, the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) and the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association (NPFVOA) are another great resource you can access for information about fatigue fighting strategies.

If the thought of being responsible for damaging your boat, or someone else’s boat, or even worse, injuring or killing a fellow fisherman does not give you reason enough to consider implementing a crew endurance management program, then consider this: If you operate your vessel without a proper look-out and an accident happens, you might incur the following criminal and/or civil penalties:

• Misconduct, negligence or inattention to duties by a vessel captain that results in the loss of life is a Class C Felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail and/or a $250,000 fine as per 18 U.S. C. § 1115.

• Operating a vessel in a grossly negligent manner that endangers life, limb or property of a person is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $100,000 fine as per 46 U. S. C. § 2302(b).

• Operating a non-recreational vessel in a negligent manner so as to endanger life limb or property of a person may result in a $25, 000 civil penalty as per 46 U.S.C. § 2303(a).

Your local Coast Guard Sector or Marine Safety Unit can assist you in getting the information you need to implement a CEM program. Once you have a program in place, Coast Guard personnel can use the CEM Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) No. 02-08 to help you assess the effectiveness of your CEM program. For more information, contact your local Coast Guard Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety or Marine Casualty Investigations Office.

Lieutenant Jon Lane is currently the Assistant Chief of the Investigations Division at U. S. Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound. Jon has been a marine casualty investigator for the last seven years and a Coastie for 24 years.

Lowering Of King Crab Lease Fees Under Discussion

A spokesperson for the Bering Sea Crabbers, Ed Poulsen, says the majority of quota share holders in the Bristol Bay crab fishery have voluntarily agreed to hold the cap on fees for leasing out their quota shares to 65 percent in the next season.

Poulsen said details on discussions involving lease rate fees and other topics that came up at the Nov. 21 meeting of the crab industry work group in Ballard, Washington, would be presented at the December meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Anchorage.

The industry standard for the lease rates has been about 70 percent, according to Poulsen, but in some cases they have been even higher, while lease rates for opilio crab quota shares have stayed at 50 percent.

Lease rates are one of several contentious issues that have been under discussion since the federal crab rationalization legislation was approved several years ago.

The NPFMC has scheduled eight hours of its December meeting to hear Bering Sea and Aleutian Island crab stakeholder reports, all five-year review issues.

Some industry harvesters, like Mark Israelson, skipper of the Island Mist out of Kodiak, have said they feel the Bristol Bay red king crab quota share should be 50 percent, just like that for the opies. Another option, said Israelson, would be a 65 percent lease fee, with all expenses for the crab trips paid by leaseholders.

Others, including the Crewman’s Association, based in Kodiak, are seeking more changes in the crab rationalization program to benefit the crew, including provisions to pay crew after normal expenses, including then taking the lease fees off for the crab quota after buyback and individual fishing quota taxes have been subtracted.

The association is also seeking redistribution of 35 percent of the crab quotas to a crew pool held by the state of Alaska and released to the industry after a fair and equitable compensation package for all crewmen that fish the region. The crab skipper quota would be subtracted so that it is 32 percent to allow the skippers access to fair contract for their labors.

Fuglvog Sentencing Now Scheduled for February

US District Court Judge H. Russel Holland has rescheduled the sentencing for former Senate fisheries aide Arne Fuglvog, of Petersburg, Alaska, to Feb. 7.

Fuglvog, who served on the staff of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, pleaded guilty in August in Anchorage to a single count of violating the Lacey Act by falsifying records of where he harvested sablefish intended for interstate commerce.

Fuglvog’s attorney, Jeffrey Feldman of Anchorage, confirmed that the sentencing, originally set for Nov. 18 and then for Dec. 7, had been postponed again, but declined comment on reason for another rescheduling.

Fuglvog is a veteran commercial fisherman from Petersburg who served on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. He was also for a while considered as one of three top candidates to head the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The initial plea agreement reached by Fuglvog with the court was to include ten months in prison, a $50,000 fine and a payment of $100,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which is engaged in wildlife preservation and restoration.
Fuglvog is currently free on his own recognizance.

Begich, Young Introduce Legislation to Sink Pirate Fishing Vessels

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, is pursuing through Congress his idea of sinking at sea unregistered fishing vessels operating in waters of the United States.

The Alaska Democrat first proposed the idea after the unregistered, rat-infected Bangun Perkasa was seized by the US Coast Guard, some 2,600 miles southwest of Kodiak.

Instead of just bringing it to shore and cleaning it up, Begich wanted the rats on board exterminated and the vessel sunk at sea. Since at the time of that vessel capture the Coast Guard lacked the resources to decontaminate the vessel, making it safe to sink, the vessel was salvaged.

Then on Nov. 18, Begich in the Senate, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, in the House, introduced the Pirate Fishing Vessel Disposal Act of 2011.

The legislation would give the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard authority to dispose of pirate fishing vessels engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Options include being sunk by the Coast Guard in live-fire training exercises; being transferred to developing nations for use in fisheries patrol and enforcement activities; being transferred to other government or non-profit institutions for training, education, or research, or scrapping and recycling the vessels.

For vessels to be sunk by live fire, the bill requires that the vessels have all fuel removed and that they be decontaminated of harmful substances; that all fishing gear and other potential marine debris be removed, and that they be sunk in US waters more than 50 miles offshore, in water more than a mile deep.

Begich worked with NOAA, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard and the US Maritime Administration to craft the bill.

Sponsors of the legislation can’t speculate on what it would cost at this time, as a pirate fishing vessel has never been dealt with like this before, a Begich aide said. The identified source of funds is the Oil Spill Liability Fund.

Alaska Pollock Fishery Assessment Enters Peer Review Stage

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute announced this week that the Alaska Pollock fishery assessment to the FAO-based responsible fisheries management certification has reached the peer review stage.

Based on the technical expertise required to carry out the assessment, Global Trust Certification Limited has confirmed an external peer review team of Herman Savikko and Dankert Skagen.

Savikko, who has a degree in biological sciences, was employed for 30 years with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, including the divisions of sport fish, fisheries rehabilitation, enhancement and development, and commercial fisheries. He helped to develop, draft and implement salmon bycatch limits for the Bering Sea Pollock fleet, as well as the foundation for bycatch measures in the Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries. Skagen is the owner of Kankert Skagen Fisheries Science Consultants in the Bergen area of Norway, and a former senior scientist at the Institute of Marine Research.

The peer review is a technical review of the evidence documented by the assessment team that demonstrates the level of conformity of the fishery to the FAO code and guides. The peer reviewers provide a critical evaluation of the consistency in the recommendation made by the assessment team as together the fishery is recommended for certification.

Alaska crab fisheries are also currently involved in the same certification process.
Alaska salmon earned responsible fisheries management certification under the same program on March 11. Alaska halibut was certified on April 29 and Alaska black cod (sablefish) was certificated on Oct. 11. This independent, third-party certification of the management of major Alaska commercial fisheries is directly based on the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization code of conduct for responsible fisheries and the FAO guidelines for eco-labeling of fish and fishery products from marine capture fisheries.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Voluntary Lowering of Lease Fees Offered By Some Crab Quota Share Holders

By Margaret Bauman

A report of the crew work group meeting at Dutch Harbor during the October meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council notes that some current crab quota shareholders have agreed to voluntarily lower lease rates.

The report, prepared by Edward Poulsen, distributed on Oct. 4 to members of the working group who participated in the Sept. 29 meeting, notes several issues covered by those in attendance and via teleconference, including a Kodiak connection.

It does not mention electronic data reporting, a subject on which the council will take final action at its December 5-13 meeting in Anchorage. Poulsen, former executive director and now an advisor to the Bering Sea Crabbers, said he was preparing an updated report on the meeting to deliver at the December meeting.

A number of people who crew on crab boats have expressed concern since the crab rationalization legislation went into effect several years ago about loss of jobs and income, mainly because of fleet consolidation and leasing of quota shares. Some crew members also feel they should have been allocated crew quota shares because of their long-term participation in this dangerous fishery, an opinion challenged by some vessel owners who said they have invested substantial capital in the fishery, as opposed to physical effort alone.

Several people representing crewmembers also want data reports made available that show specifically how much income crew members earned annually before the federal crab rationalization program was approved.

“What we would like to see on public record is the pay from pre-rationalization,” said Steve Branson, a veteran Kodiak fisherman. “It would be nice to be able to compare what was going on before and after privatization.”

Branson said after seven years of traveling from Kodiak to attend various meetings of the federal council he is not overly optimistic about change any more, even though ”the council now is more fair-minded. I don’t think it (crab rationalization) would have passed if it had been scrutinized more closely.”

Vessel owners held the Dutch Harbor meeting to discuss progress in development of measures to address crew issues, as a precursor to the industry’s report to the council in December.

First up on their agenda was a proposal of vessel owners to provide a right of first offer to active participants on 10 percent of the quota share being transferred in any transaction. The right is intended to increase the portion of the quota share pool held by persons actively fishing. The remaining 90 percent could be subject to a similar right of first offer for either people active in the fleet or owning a fishing vessel.

Proponents of the measure are still developing the specific agreement and suggested that a written description could be provided at the next meeting.

Vessel owners also reported that a substantial portion of current quota holders have agreed to voluntarily limit their lease rates to 65 percent in the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery and 50 percent in the Bering Sea opilio fishery, Poulsen said. The lower limit is intended to reduce the pressure on vessel owners that could arise under arrangements that only guarantee crew minimum shares of a vessel’s gross revenues, Poulsen said. In the absence of limits on lease rates, a reduction on the lease rates that may be charged to crew may disadvantage vessel owners that lease a substantial share of the quota that they harvest, he said.

Supporters of the limit on lease rates suggested that in the future cooperative agreements could be modified to include a limit on the lease rate percentage that may be charged to crew, Poulsen noted in his meeting report. However, it was also noted that affiliated coops would also need to implement similar changes that could be more difficult as they are not FCMA cooperatives, he said. In addition, provisions could be included in that agreement to prevent vessel owners from modifying crew contracts to pass on additional costs to crew that might offset the reduced charges on lease costs.

Before crab rationalization went into effect, crew made more money for their efforts because only a percentage of the vessel’s fuel, bait, food and pot loss were deducted before their percentage of the profit was calculated. Once crab rationalization went into effect, some vessels began fishing a great deal of leased quota shares, for which they were paying a lease fee of sometimes up to 80 percent of the harvest, and that lease fee was added to the list of vessel expenses deducted from crew pay.

Branson, who was not among those attending the Dutch Harbor meeting, said he would have made substantially more money the last time he crewed on a crab boat, had lease fees not been deducted.

Some crewmembers at the meeting expressed support for efforts of vessel owners to improve crew compensation through reduced lease fees. These representatives suggested that they would support allowing vessel owners to continue with the effort to use reduced lease rates to address the crew compensation issue.

Poulsen said meeting participants also discussed the means of evaluating the effects of the reduced lease rates on crew compensation.

Vessel owners offered to advance a list of quota holders and/or vessel owners who agreed to the arrangement, but opposed any effort to collect additional information on crew compensation.

These vessel owners expressed their opinion that the adequate information would be provided by the list of quota holders. Vessel owners said that, when available, electronic data reporting data would demonstrate specific effects on compensation.

Some crew representatives voiced concern that electronic data reporting data may not be available until more than a year after some seasons, which would limit the ability to address compensation, if the lease rate reduction measure fails to achieve its intended result. For this reason, they believe that some other means of demonstrating the effectiveness of the measure should be pursued, Poulsen said.

Vessel owners also offered to bring a written description of the agreement to limit lease rates to the next meeting for review by all participants. That description could help participants evaluate the measure, including the potential for reports to establish its effectiveness, Poulsen said.

It was suggested by staff that the group meet prior to the December meeting of the federal council, perhaps on Nov. 21, to ensure that all participants have the same understanding of the progress of discussions.

Poulsen said in an interview later that a loan program up and running since this summer allows crew to get low interest loans to purchase crab quota shares through the National Marine Fisheries service, with amortizations over a 20 year period. “The issue is the NMFS loan program is so low that there is not a lot of incentive for more programs, he said.

The federal crab rationalization program was the first and only program that gave 3 percent of the individual fishing quota shares to skippers. The quota share holders would not be supportive of reallocating quota shares, because it would be disruptive to their businesses now ongoing, he said.

Another Kodiak commercial fisheries veteran, Kodiak city council member Terry Haines, noted that efforts to get banks to offer reasonable interest rates to crew members seeking to buy into quota share did not work out well. “And you can’t blame them,” Haines said. ‘The whole concept makes the banks nervous, that crew might have rights to quota shares they have already given out loans on.”

Haines noted that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act identifies quota shares in the crab fishery as a privilege that can be taken back at any time, if there is enough reason. “It makes the banks very nervous,” he said.

Caps on leased quota share, Haines said, are on the other hand something that is quite doable.

Another issue the council has not discussed is caps on the amount of quota share that may be harvested on the same vessel, he said. When huge amounts of leased quota are harvested on the same vessel, it takes away from a crew’s ability to leverage pay. The bottom line is, what is their percentage of net profits now? Before rationalization is was 6-8 percent for the crew and the skipper got 15 percent (after expenses). Now with 80 percent lease fees off the top that leaves you 20 percent,” he said.

Haines and others are also eager to get the crab electronic data reporting up and running to provide data that provides more information.

Public comment submitted at the Dutch Harbor meeting by Stephen Taufen for the Groundswell Fisheries Movement urged that data collection should include reconciled fish settlement accountings, and inclusion of each crab vessel’s by-species/fisheries lay share contracts.

The reconciled fish settlement accountings should detail whose quota is consolidated on which vessel, the rents or leases charged to the vessel and portion passed along to crews by lease, as well as shared trip settlement expenses by categories, such as fuel, bait, and gear, the percentage for each crewmember by name, showing individual trip settlement costs as well as total personal deductions, Taufen said.

The electronic data collection should also include lay share contracts for all captain and crewmembers, as part of the collection of data that confirms both quantitative analysis and qualitative assessment of whether or not the Bering Sea –Aleutian Islands crab rationalization program meets the requirement that in order to hold quota rights, all applicable federal laws must be obeyed by each IFQ holder, Taufen said.

Haines said that from a community perspective, he looks at the reduced revenue going out of communities as a result of consolidation of the fleet after rationalization and lease fees. From a community perspective, vessel caps and a limit on lease fees would address capital flight form communities, he said.

Haines is a member of the Crewmen’s Association, which has been advocating for crew rights for several years, but said he is more focused at this time on Fish Heads, an advocacy group for the preservation of the vitality of Alaska’s fishing communities.

A number of people who work as crew members have been reluctant to speak out about their support of the Crewmen’s Association, led by Shawn Dochtermann, and other advocates for crew rights because if they were to put their names on a list of those groups they could lose their jobs, he said.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at

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