Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 4:48 PM on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Quota cut expected in Togiak herring fishery

The Togiak herring fishery is expecting a cut in quota, with the preliminary guideline harvest level set at 21,622 tons, down from 24,805 in 2011. The quota is divided up with 70 percent going to seiners and 30 percent to gillnet boats.

The 2011 fishery was managed similarly to past years, with boats and processors forming cooperatives, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game allowing extended openings across wide areas. This allows processors to meet their daily processing capacity and fishermen to find the highest quality roe.

The seine fleet generally is given openings of several days, and the gillnetters generally are opened up when the necessary biomass has shown up and left to fish as much as their processors allow.

ADF&G generally uses a temperature model based on sea surface temperatures from Unimak Pass to predict run timing, and last year that model predicted the first spawn would be sighted in Togiak on April 28 and the first harvest would take place April 30. However, the herring had other plans.

Although ADF&G reported that air temperatures seemed warmer and sea ice seemed to be gone earlier than in previous years, the first opening was not until May 8, and the first significant harvest was May 11.

The seine fleet harvested 96 percent of its quota by May 19, leaving 611 tons in the water.

The gillnet fleet battled weather and had to wait for processors to clear large deliveries of seine-caught fish, slowing their fishery. Weather hampered fishing on May 20, and by May 21, processors and harvesters began dropping out of the fishery. May 21 and 22 saw fairly good fishing by the remaining fleet, but then another storm system moved in and fishing was light until May 26. By then there was only one processor left, and it quit buying on May 28, essentially closing the fishery with 1,500 tons, or 20 percent of the gillnet quota, left on the table.

The grounds price paid in 2011 was $100 per ton.

The state of Alaska, the Alaska Seafood Cooperative and the Freezer Longline Coalition have taken the National Marine Fisheries Service and director Jane Lubchenco to court over fishing closures and restrictions in the Aleutians that were hastily enacted to protect food sources for endangered Stellar sea lions.

The plaintiffs argue that there is "... factual and significant support for the faults found and the reckless manner in which NMFS Protected Resources division proceeded to rush forward a predetermined outcome based solely on political beliefs rather than scientific facts."

Their filing goes on to say, "Without proper leadership capable of exercising direction and authority over low level politically motivated researchers within National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS leadership has allowed the problem to explode, with devastating effects on crew members, captains, owners, operators and other participants in the fisheries, as well as the communities, suppliers, dealers and other businesses that depend on the fisheries — all to no demonstrable benefit, contrary to the administrative record, contrary to applicable law, science and reason, and without allowing for meaningful public comment."

The judge in the case, Alaska U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess, took the unusual step of handing the attorneys in the case a list of questions he expected them to answer prior to the December 28 hearing.

Among them was one essentially asking the defendants why, since it had already taken five years to determine the fisheries threaten Stellar sea lion populations, they felt it necessary to circumvent the normal public notice and comment process, and instead rushed to implement the restrictions? What's a few more months to collect comments after five years?

He also asked the defendants if the reason they did not take the time to complete an Environmental Impact Statement was because they were hurrying to get the restrictions in place in order to avoid being sued by Oceana and Greenpeace.

NMFS estimates that the closures and restrictions will cost the fishing industry between $44 million and $61 million per year, and between 250 and 750 jobs.

After hearing testimony to the U.S. House Resources Committee from the administration, state officials, scientists and the commercial fishing industry, Alaska Congressman Don Young railed against what the committee called "faulty science" saying, "Once again, the National Marine Fisheries Service cannot say with any certainty what is causing the Stellar sea lion population decline, but fishermen are again paying the price. While we have no idea if these closures and restrictions will benefit the sea lion, we do know that they will have devastating effects on the fishermen and fishing communities. From all the evidence I've seen, I can reasonably draw only one conclusion — we're confronted with an agency that has a premise, but a lack of information to prove or disprove it. ... As Alaska and Washington have aptly demonstrated, this NMFS doesn't have the best available science or even complete science, and, as a result, our fishermen and communities will suffer."

A publication by the National Academies Press called "The Decline of the Stellar Sea Lion in Alaska Waters: Untangling Food Webs and Fishing Nets," cites numerous anecdotes of sea lions being shot by the hundreds or more, as well as scooped up in trawl nets.

"There is a long history in Alaska of shooting sea lions for their meat and pelts, for sport, or to reduce sea lion interference with fishing operations," it states. "Prior to 1990, a prevalent attitude among many fishermen was that sea lions were a nuisance and a cause of damaged gear and lost catches. Currently, the presence of observers on factory trawlers makes it unlikely that these fisheries illegally shoot sea lions. The number of sea lions killed in other fisheries is unknown, but even small numbers of shootings could contribute to the decline of the small remaining populations. Except for subsistence harvest, shooting of sea lions has been illegal since 1990."

The anecdotes include these:

• Recently, a Russian orthodox priest who worked for years on Kodiak Island thought there was no mystery at all to the continuing decline of Steller sea lions. During confession, he often heard fishermen talk about shooting sea lions.

• The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward had planned a public display of Steller sea lions to be viewed from a plaza. The tank was initially designed so the public could view the animals from outside the building. However, the plan was abandoned out of concern that the sea lions would be shot if they were visible from the street.

There are many others. The publication, which came out in 2003, can be found at www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10576&page=R1.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.