Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Spending Bill Benefits West Coast Trawlers

A federal spending bill that passed the US House on Dec. 17 is being heralded by a bipartisan group of House members as a major victory for West Coast trawlers.

The provision secured in the legislation would forgive more than $10 million in accrued loan interest forced on the West Coast groundfishing fleet because of mismanagement by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the group said.

The bipartisan group said in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Dec. 9 that NMFS had mishandled implementation of a $36 million buyback program in the wake of the West Coast groundfish fishery economic disaster of 2000. Thirty-six million dollars of that amount was provided in the form of a loan that remaining vessel owners agreed to repay over 30 years based on a percentage fee on ex-vessel revenues.

After the buyback was approved by the fishing industry, NMFS expended $36 million in loan proceeds to retire fishing vessels in late 2003 and interest began accruing on March 1, 2004.

However, the letter said, NMFS failed to implement a repayment system until September 2005 and during that 18-month delay, NMFS prohibited the remaining vessels from making loan repayments, adding $3.8 million in interest from the outset.

This oversight and the resulting compounding interest had led to the remaining vessels owing over $13 million more than they would have owed had repayment started immediately.

The letter was signed by Senators Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; and Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; along with Representatives Jared Huffman, D-Calif.; Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.; Greg Walden, R-Ore.; Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash.; Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore.

The legislation is part of a package expected to be passed by both the House and Senate in the third week of December and signed into law prior to Dec. 20 to avert a government shutdown.

Pebble Told to Halt Use of DOI Insignia

Interior Department officials have identified unauthorized use of the insignia of that federal agency and others in an advertising campaign in support of the proposed Pebble mine and demanded that the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) cease such activity.

Lisa A. Kilday of the Interior Department’s Branch of Acquisitions and Intellectual Property advised Tom Collier, chief executive officer of the PLP, in her letter dated Dec. 13 that the company had until Dec. 27 to take action and agree not to use the names and logos of the Interior Department, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Fish & Wildlife Service or National Park Service.

Kilday also advised that the DOI reserves the right to require that the PLP prominently display a disclaimer that the PLP has no affiliation with any of these agencies. The issue came to DOI’s attention through advertisements sent by mail and published in Alaska newspapers, which included reproductions of department insignia, including a mailer in which the PLP incorrectly shows logos of 16 federal, state and tribal entities as being involved in the Pebble mine project draft environmental impact statement.

“It is misleading for PLP’s advertisements to attribute “production” of the DEIS to the bureaus, thereby suggesting that the department or other federal agencies endorse the DEIS,” she said.

“The bureaus have participated and will continue to participate in the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review of the proposed Pebble mine project in their respective roles as cooperating agencies. But their participation does not rise to the level of producing or controlling the documents released by the USACE (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) and their involvement in the environmental review of the proposed Pebble mine project does not represent the bureaus’ endorsement of the DEIS or any future FEIS (final environmental impact statement),” she told Collier.

Alaska Marine Science Symposium

Alaska’s premier marine research conference, the Alaska Marine Science Symposium, will be held Jan 27-31 in Anchorage, Alaska, at the Hotel Captain Cook. Several hundred scientists, educators and other participants will gather to hear reports on marine research.

Keynote speakers, whose names are to be announced later, will be featured on the opening day of the symposium. The second day will focus on the Gulf of Alaska, the third day on the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and the last day on the Arctic. Presentations for each day include research topics on ocean physics, fishes and invertebrates, seabirds, marine mammals and local traditional knowledge.

Presenters on Gulf of Alaska issues will include NOAA Fisheries biologist Steven Barbeaux, who will address heat waves and Pacific cod and University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor Emeritus Gordon Kruse who will talk about developing a NOAA Integrated Ecosystem Assessment Program for coastal communities in the Gulf.

For the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island session on Wednesday, Jan. 29, Lisa Eisner of NOAA’s Auke Bay Laboratories in Juneau, Alaska, will offer a presentation on oceanographic impacts on walleye Pollock distributions in the northern Bering Sea, and Phyllis Stabeno a physical oceanographer with the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Wash., will discuss the reduction of sea ice in the Bering Sea in 2018 and 2019 and its implications for the future of that ecosystem.

Topics for the Arctic session will range from the role of ocean waves and sea ice in the coastal erosion of the Arctic to evidence for massive and expanding harmful algal blooms in the Alaskan Arctic and algal toxins in the Arctic food web.

The complete list of presenters is available online at

The sponsor and key organizer of the annual event is the Anchorage-based North Pacific Research Board. Other supporters include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Pollock Conservation Cooperative and the World Wildlife Fund.

Those interested in attending should register online at

Partial Deliveries of Crab Approved by Federal Council

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has approved final action to allow vessels to deliver a partial load of crab and then continue harvesting under the crab rationalization program. The council reasoned during its December meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, that being able to resume fishing after a partial offload could help vessels faced with an advancing ice pack and also allow a vessel to maintain efficiency after delivering designated quota shares to the Pribilof Islands before continuing to fish and completing deliveries in the southern region.

An additional advantage would be that if an offloading vessel was forced out of a harbor by weather, this action would allow the vessel to fish rather than wait for multiple days at anchor waiting for the weather to calm down.

The council said it does not expect this provision to create any significant challenges for catch accounting or to substantially increase deadloss in the fishery. Still the council directed staff to specifically review the biological, economic and management impacts of this action during its next required crab rationalization program review, which is scheduled for completion in 2023.


Warming ocean waters have raised the metabolism of small Pacific cod, so that their appetites increase, but their prey is less available due to changing oceans. The result has been a lower survival rate of the Pacific cod into the adult stage.

Pacific cod stocks in the Gulf of Alaska have declined so dramatically that the council’s decision to shut down that fishery in the Gulf in 2020 came as no surprise.

When the biomass of Pacific cod falls below 20 percent of the long-term biomass of the Gulf of Alaska, the federal fishery must be closed to comply with Steller sea lion protection measures.

In the Bering Sea the NPFMC cut the Pacific cod TAC from 14,214 metric tons in 2019 to 13,796 MT for 2020. An error in the Dec. 11 online briefs incorrectly stated that the TAC was cut from 24,319,000 MT to 22,000 MT. Our apologies for the error.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Adak, Groundfish Trawlers at Odds on P-cod Processing

Pacific cod stocks hard hit by warming ocean temperatures are becoming a focal point at federal fisheries meetings, where harvesting sectors and processors fight over who gets to catch and process this versatile vitamin and protein packed white fish.

Stock assessments in the fall of 2019 put the population of P-cod in the Gulf of Alaska below the federal threshold that allows for commercial harvest, for the benefit of endangered Steller sea lions who rely on them as a food source.

The Gulf cod fishery was cancelled. The Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands TAC was cut from 24,319,000 metric tons in 2019 to 22,000 metric tons for 2020.

The lower quota is intensifying the race for fish, and a fight between the trawlers and the community of Adak, Alaska, over where that fish will be processed.

At the heart of the battle is Amendment 113 to the fishery management plan for BSAI groundfish. This amendment set aside a portion of the Aleutian Islands cod fishery TAC for harvest by vessels directed fishing for Aleutian Islands Pacific cod and delivering their catch for processing to a shoreside processor located on land in Adak. The 5,000 metric tons P-cod harvest set-aside was designed to provide the opportunity for vessels, Aleutian Islands shore plants and communities where Aleutian Islands shore plants are located to benefit from the P-cod fishery.

Litigation was brought against the federal Department of Commerce and the city of Adak by The Groundfish Forum in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., in which the judge ruled against Amendment 113. The case is now under appeal.

According to city manager Layton Lockett the money made by processing the cod pays for the plant the rest of the year, as efforts continue to diversify.

The plant is closed in December, and most of the golden king crab processed there has already been delivered. In other months the plant processes halibut and black cod and is trying sea urchins and geoducks, plus a test fishery for opilio crab, and pink salmon, Lockett said.

Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, backs the US District Court’s decision that Amendment 113 did not meet National Standards 4 and 8.

Paine also said that UCB boats prefer to deliver to processors at Dutch Harbor, where they get between 10 to 12 cents a pound more for their cod than at Adak. Paine said that while the allowable harvest of cod in the Bering Sea declines, the set aside portion for processing at Adak is a fixed amount of fish. “As the TAC goes down that represents a larger percentage of the catch of the trawl fishery,” he said.

There are other issues too, including closure of the cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska for 2020. Vessels that would have fished the Gulf with an Eastern Bering Sea trawl endorsement will be looking to establish a cod market for their trawl boats in the Eastern Bering Sea, because it is an open access fishery, he said.

A report issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes a NOAA forecast predicting reduced catches in 2020, 2021 and 2022, but said that after that biomass and catches should increase.

Meanwhile, the fishery economy of Adak has only the state waters fishery to depend on for P-cod, putting the future of Adak, the small westernmost municipality in the nation, at risk.

Togiak Herring Harvest Forecast 38,749 Tons

State of Alaska biologists are forecasting a 2020 Togiak sac roe herring harvest of 38,749 tons in purse seine and gillnet sac roe fisheries. The purse seine allocation is set to 30,999 tons, or 80 percent while he gillnet allocation is 7,750 tons, or 20 percent.

Biologists noted that the 2020 forecast uses a 20 percent exploitation rate because the department has greater confidence in the 2019 aerial survey biomass estimate than those of the last three years. The Togiak mature herring population biomass has been estimated by aerial surveys since the late 1970s.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADG&G) announcement on Dec. 6 said the 2020 forecasted biomass should be similar in size to the 2019 biomass and, like then, be dominated by partially mature age classes (age-6 and age-7 fish).

The forecast percentage composition of the mature population is comprised of mostly age-6 and age-7 fish by both number – 39 percent and 27 percent respectively – and biomass, 33 percent and 27 percent respectively. Projected average weight of the herring in the 2020 harvest is 329 grams. The age-structured assessment (ASA) model was used to forecast the Togiak herring population.

The 2019 preseason biomass forecast for Togiak was 217,548 tons with an exploitation rate of 14 percent, or 30,457 tons, due to three consecutive years of poor aerial surveys and the associated uncertainty. The purse seine season opened on April 16, 2019 with a harvest of 1,310 tons, and with weather conditions better than in previous years the fishing proceeded at a fast pace. ADF&G said the harvest was generally steady all season long, peaking on April 23 with a 4,430-ton purse seine harvest. Participation in the purse seine fishery documented 19 vessels, down from 20 in 2018. The gillnet fishery opened on April 18, and all harvest information remained confidential due to there being only one processor and three harvesters participating.

Projected ex-vessel value of the 2019 Togiak herring fishery was $1.73 million, based on an advance price estimate of $75 a ton, not including any post-season adjustments.

Bristol Bay Red King Crab Harvest Shows Average Weight of 7.1 Pounds

The 2019 Bristol Bay red king crab fishery has wrapped up with quota of 3,797,000 pounds with an average catch per unit effort (CPUE) of 15.6 crab in a pot and 7.1 pounds, the highest average weight per crab dating back to 1973.

“We’ve seen average weight increasing for several years now, which is a little concerning,” said Ethan Nichols, the state’s assistant area management biologist for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands. “We think we are fishing on the same group of adult male crab who are a year older and heavier.”

Biologists are seeing many recruits of small crab coming into the system, “but if we had a better mix of small crab, we would see a lower average weight,” he explained. “What is coming in is mostly large older males.”

The catch per unit effort also was a concern, as it compared with a CPUE of 20 in the last two seasons. The CPUE in 2019 was the lowest since crab rationalization went into effect in 2005, Nichols said.

Bottom fish in general, including Pacific cod and skate, will prey on small juvenile red king crab, so likely part of the predation is from bottom fish, but biologists have also noted very high bottom temperatures and think changes in the environment may affect the crab. Nichols said there is a lot of uncertainty around the impact of climate change in the Bering Sea on crab biomass.

NMFS Corrects Final Rule on P-cod Bycatch

Federal fisheries officials have issued a correction on a final rule published on Oct. 15 regarding on-deck sorting of Pacific halibut bycatch.

The final rule as published on Oct 15 consisted of regulations to implement catch handling and monitoring requirements to allow halibut bycatch to be sorted on the deck of trawl catcher/processors and motherships participating in the non-Pollock groundfish fisheries off the coast of Alaska.

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) noted on Dec. 9 that the agency erred in stating that collection of information requirements subject to the Paperwork Reduction Act had been approved by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the time that the final rule was published.

Although the proposed and final rule preambles explained that certain obsolete and unnecessary regulations would be removed, the final rule inadvertently omitted amendatory language to remove a now obsolete and unnecessary regulation.

The effective date for final rule’s collection of information requirements has been delayed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will publish a document in the Federal Register announcing an effective date for these information collection requirements, once approval is received from OMB.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Future of CGOA Rockfish Program Rests in
Hands of NPFMC

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) will decide this week at its winter meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, whether to reauthorize the Central Gulf of Alaska Rockfish (CGOA) Program, which would otherwise sunset on Dec. 31, 2021.

According to a problem statement adopted a year ago by the council, the rockfish plan has improved safety at sea, controlled fleet capacity, and enhanced the National Marine Fishery Service’s ability to conserve and manage species under that program. It has also increased vessel accountability, reduced sea floor contact, allowed for full retention of allocated species and reduced halibut and king salmon bycatch.

The council could reauthorize the program by either removing the current sunset date or establishing a new one. This would retain the current management, economic, safety and conservation gains to the extent practicable, consistent with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Alternatively, the council could decide to allow the rockfish program to sunset and return to management under the license limitation program. Should that option be selected, the council would need to provide some additional direction, including how to treat halibut prohibited species catch set-asides under the program.

The rockfish program was established for a decade back in 2012, replacing the rockfish pilot program that had been in place from 2007 through 2011.

Proposed Change Would Limit Access to BSAI P-cod Parallel State Waters Fishery

Federal fisheries managers are slated to take final action this week on whether to limit access by all federally permitted vessels to the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Pacific cod parallel state waters fishery in Alaska or not.

The proposed amendment would require that participating hook-and-line, pot, jig, and trawl vessels have a license limitation program (LLP) license with the correct P-cod endorsements and a designated federal fisheries permit. It was written with the intent of ensuring a robust catch accounting, while preventing vessels circumventing the intent of previous council decisions on license limitations and sector allocations. The amendment would also recognize that new entrants who do not hold federal fishery permits may participate in the parallel fishery.

Council documents note that the purpose of such action is to address inadvertent fishing in these parallel waters off a federal Pacific cod total allowable catch area when that sector’s Pacific cod allocation has been achieved.

There are currently no limits on entry by federally permitted catcher vessels into the BSAI parallel waters groundfish fisheries, and no limit on the amount of BSAI Pacific cod TAC that may be harvested in parallel waters. There is concern that harvests of Pacific cod in parallel waters by vessels who do not hold BSAI groundfish LLP licenses or the appropriate Pacific cod endorsement may continue to increase, complicating conservation and management measures holding sectors to their allocation.

Preseason Forecasts for Some SE Alaska Kings still not Enough for a Harvest

State fisheries biologists for Alaska say very low forecasts and recent poor runs of Chinook salmon returning to the Stikine and Taku rivers in Southeast Alaska do not provide for allowable catches on these transboundary rivers on either the United States or Canadian side of the border.

The 2020 preseason terminal run forecast for the Stikine River large Chinook salmon is 13,350 fish, which is below the lowest end of the escapement goal range of 14,000 to 28,000 fish.

For the Taku River, the preseason terminal run forecast for large kings is 12,400 fish, which is below that river’s lower end of the escapement goal range of 19,000 to 36,000 fish.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said all salmon fisheries in Districts 8 and 11 will follow extensive conservation measures through the duration of the 2020 Chinook runs.

Low as it is, this year’s numbers exceed the 2018 forecasts for these rivers, when biologists predicted 9,050 kings to spawn in the Taku and some 8,250 kings to do the same in the Stikine. Since the forecasts were below the low-end escapement goal range for those rivers, neither were deemed to have an allowable catch on either side of the border.

The record king salmon run for the Stikine occurred in 2006, with some 90,000 fish. For the Taku, the record run of nearly 115,000 kings occurred in 1997.

More Delays and a Possible End in Sight for Humpy Disaster Relief Payments

A legislator from Kodiak, Alaska, is urging the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) to start distributing crew shares in the 2016 Gulf of Alaska pink salmon disaster sooner than later.

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, acknowledges the issue of a systemic underreporting of applications for crew compensation but says that, in her opinion, that is due more to a poorly designed process than pervasive dishonesty or omissions among permit holders.

“The most serious issues seem to be a direct symptom of the application, appeal and distribution process running in sequential order instead of congruently,” Stutes said in a late November letter to ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, “or to put it simply, committing to funding before you have the necessary information.”

The most recent delay of payments is hardly the first, she noted. “Now, shortly before Christmas and after over three years of waiting, ADF&G is asking permit holders to wait at least an additional three months,” she told Vincent-Lang. “My constituents have already made significant budgeting and tax decisions, shipyard appointments, or simply cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Stutes proposed that more ADF&G staff be prioritized from elsewhere in the agency to review crew applications for disaster relief. Where no red flags exist and a normal number of crew are listed in a Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permit application, contact the crew, confirm what is on the application and barriers discrepancies, and put those applications in the approved pile, she said. Her point, she told Vincent-Lang, is that waiting until Jan. 31 to get the information needed from crew “seems like a very hands-off approach to a problem that warrants a full-scale response from the department.”

Vincent-Lang acknowledged in his response concerns over receiving only a two-thirds response by the initial deadline of applications to CFEC permit holders for disaster relief funds. He said ADF&G also heard from some crew members with concerns about the accuracy of crew share information submitted on a CFEC permit holder’s application. He said Stutes’ suggestions would be considered, and that ADF&G would work with the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission to determine if they can expedite the collection of crew information.

The situation is also complicated by the payout amounts being calculated without differentiating between the catch in drift gillnet, where the humpy catch is not high, and the seine fisheries, where most humpies were caught.

In Prince William Sound, a good portion of the fleet started out as drift gillnetters, but also bought seiner permits to diversify, noted Chelsea Haisman, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United. If a gillnet permit holder caught a low number of humpies in that fishery in one or more years, and then seined in 2016, when the overall harvest of pinks was very low, that harvester couldn’t show enough loss to qualify for disaster aid.

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