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Alaska Fish Factor: Salmon Fishermen Face Layoff as Budget Stalled

Salmonids Sustainability Economics +5 more

US - Alaskas salmon industry is ready to get corked by the inability of state lawmakers to pass a budget.

Lucy Towers thumbnail

More than 20,000 state workers are bracing for 30 day layoff notices, meaning they’ll be off the job when the new fiscal year starts on July 1. The timing couldn’t be worse for Alaska’s salmon managers who are nearing the peak of a season that could set new records.

“There is some budget, about 27 percent of our normal amount for us to work in the field, and do our management responsibilities. But how we proceed from July 1 is what we’re working on,” said Jeff Regnart, director of Commercial Fisheries at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game.

“This year has some record forecasts and Alaska salmon is a multi-million dollar industry. That means we are going to be out there managing these fisheries,” Regnart said. “We might have to make some changes based on the fiscal climate, but we’re going to make sure that we do our very best to have the tools to maximize the opportunity in these fisheries. That, to me, is our main mission.”

Alaska’s 2015 salmon catch is projected at 221 million fish, totaling one billion pounds. That’s a bulk weight that has been topped only once before in 2013, according to the Seafood Market Bulletin by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Regnart said the major management focus would be on the “significant” salmon fisheries, such as pink salmon in Southeast Alaska and sockeyes at Bristol Bay, where a 40 million harvest is expected, a 41 percent increase. Statewide, a sockeye salmon forecast of nearly 60 million is the largest since 1995.

“The salmon fishery is short,” Regnart said. “In the next three months, it will all be over. It is compressed and we need to be able to respond to that. It might be different from past years, but we’ll do our darndest to make sure we can make the calls necessary to provide access to that resource.”

Other salmon fishing regions could feel even more of a management pinch.

“Kodiak, South and North Peninsula, Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, all those are significant fisheries and our plan is to put them in the water,” Regnart said. “We might have fewer enumeration programs, fewer aerial surveys, and fewer people at the front counters in some offices, all those are possibilities. But the essential function of allowing access to that resource in a sustainable way, we will try to preserve.”

“I have no idea which department employees, if any, would be prioritized over others,” said James Jackson, a regional salmon manager at ADF&G in Kodiak, where the fishery opens June 1.

“Reliable, in season, salmon escapement and catch data is the hallmark of a well-managed fishery,” he added. “Without department employees counting fish and keeping track of catch, it is very difficult to manage a commercial salmon fishery, especially one as large as Kodiak’s.”

Of course, lots of other fishing is going on besides salmon, such as cod, shrimp, rockfish and Dungeness crab. Those could simply be put on hold.

“I think there will be an impact across the board,” Regnart said. “We’re just going to put our resources where they make the most sense. With salmon, if you miss it, you’re done until next summer. Other fisheries that could be taken at another time, if it’s possible from a biological perspective, we’ll look at that.”

“The situation is changing every day,” Regnart added. “We’re going to do everything we can to make this work, and try and pull a rabbit out of the hat.”

Pirate Push - 'The US is getting tough on fisheries that are illegal, unreported and unregulated, or more simply, pirated by rogue fishing fleets.

A Presidential Task Force in March released an action plan that outlines aggressive steps federal agencies will take to stop pirate fishing. The public is being asked to weigh in on the criteria used to determine what species are at risk.

“We as consumers and as Americans don’t want to contribute to the depletion or extinction of any species, and so we need to figure out what are those species coming to our borders, and what are the red flags we should be watching out for,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

Alaska king crab is the global poster child for pirate fishing by Russian fleets. Trade data show that 40 percent of the king crab sold in world markets in 2012 was from illegal harvests, and conservative estimates peg the illegal crab harvest two years ago at 100 million pounds.

“One of the reasons there is so much Russian crab is that they don’t have strong governance in place, or good enforcement or the ability to differentiate between legal or illegal crab when it is exported. Those are the things to be watching for when we’re looking at a consignment of product coming to the US border,” Gleason explained.

The US will develop a list of protocols and species eligible for a tough traceability program from harvest to entry into the US. Along with Alaska crab, that might include grouper being tapped by Mexican or South American pirates, or tuna taken on the high seas.

Gleason said it is the first time the US is developing time lines, trade parameters and measurable objectives to make global governments accountable for pirate fishing fleets. He credits Alaska’s congressional delegation for relentlessly pushing for protections.

“And I applaud President Obama and the folks that work with him,” Gleason added. “They seem to really get this issue. The crabbers have been yelling about it for 20 some years and no seems to have listened. But in recent years, it’s gotten the attention of policy makers.”

Public comments will be accepted by NOAA Fisheries through June 8. The draft principles and list of “at risk” species will be published in July, and the Task Force will identify the next steps in expanding the program to all seafood entering U.S. commerce by December 2016.

R2AK - Kayaks, paddle boards, sail boats and other man powered water craft are geared up for the Race to Alaska, dubbed the Iditarod of the Sea. On June 4 more than 30 teams will leave Port Townsend, Washington and head north 750 miles to Ketchikan.

“It’s an adventure endurance race with very few rules,” said Joe Bersch, President of Premier Pacific Seafoods, a race entrant with partner Dalton Bergen on a 24-foot sailing outrigger called Pure & Wild.
“Our team is centered on promoting pure and wild, sustainable Alaska seafood along the race route,” Bersch said.

The race is expected to take seven to 10 days. If the Pure & Wild team crosses the finish line first, they will donate the $10,000 winnings to SeaShare, a nonprofit that has donated seafood to US hunger relief since 1994.

“The reach of this race is international, and it is a good opportunity to broaden awareness of SeaShare,” Bersch said. “We want people to see the benefits of sustainable fisheries management in Alaska; and that it isn’t just about harvesting resources, but to show that the industry gives back by providing seafood meals to hungry people across the nation.”

Track the race at