Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 1:59 PM on Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bad weather slows, but doesn't stop crab fishery

The boats that braved the brutal weather to fish the bairdi tanner crab season in Kodiak, Chignik and the southern Alaska Peninsula are mostly done, in spite of a 10-day weather hold at the start of the season for the Chignik fleet.

It is a rather mixed fishery, with some areas operating under an open entry system with a 58-foot vessel size limit and other areas requiring a limited entry permit, the same as with Alaska's salmon fisheries, but open to vessels of any size.

There also were mixed guideline harvest levels compared to last season.

The Kodiak district had a GHL of 950,000 pounds, down from 1.49 million last season, and a 20-pot-per-boat limit.

The Chignik district GHL was 700,000 pounds, up from 600,000 pounds last season, and a 30-pot limit.

The Alaska Peninsula districts, eastern and western, had a combined GHL of 1.62 million pounds, down from 2.3 million pounds, and a 30-pot limit. The pot limit last season for this district was 75 pots per boat.

There were 65 boats that fished the limited entry Kodiak fishery, 28 boats registered for Chignik, and 57 boats for the Alaska Peninsula.

There is an overlap fishery in the Semidi Islands, which straddles the area between Kodiak and Chignik and does not have a set GHL. It can be fished by boats registered in either Chignik or Kodiak, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game area management biologist Mark Stichert. That area was still open as of Feb. 3, with five boats registered.

Because of the lack of a set quota, it is hard to say when that area might close.

"We don't do any surveying in that area, unlike Chignik and Kodiak and the (Alaska) Peninsula and other areas where we have quotas based on the survey data," Stichert said.

"It's designed as an exploratory fishery," he elaborated. "We manage it in-season, we have a mandatory call-up program with the boats, where we talk to each boat every day, and we largely monitor (catch per unit of effort)."

The effort of what few boats fish the area may largely be driven by curiosity and a sense of adventure from pre-GPS days, when the only way to navigate through the Semidis was with what was known as the "white chart," the paper chart issued by NOAA that had no depth soundings, only white areas surrounding the islands.

"The reality is a lot of people are intrigued by the Semidis, and the few people that have gone typically don't find a lot of crab," Stichert said. "Last year I think we had six or seven boats that did some exploring around, and had a total harvest of something less than 20,000 pounds."

He also said that weather last year limited most of the smaller boats to exploring around the bays, and small catch rates led to closing the waters inside 3 miles after a couple of weeks.

This year they will continue to watch the CPUE to decide when to close the fishery.

About half of the Chignik district was also still open last week, with about 80,000 pounds out of 140,000 pounds for the area west of Castle Bay still available. It could be open for awhile, Stichert said.

"Nothing eminent there, I think a lot of guys are just exploring right now, and fishing in areas they haven't fished in the past," he said.

He also noted that there are a lot of smaller boats fishing those waters, and the harsh winter and open waters are slowing things down.

"There's a lot of exposure in that part of Chignik area," he added.

Dock prices for the crab this season has ranged between $2.50 and $3.00 per pound.

A bill that is making its way through the state Legislature that is designed to increase Alaskans' participation in state fisheries is getting support from the Cordova District Fishermen United group.

According to the sponsor's statement, House Bill 261 "seeks to increase Alaskan ownership of Alaskan fisheries by enabling a larger number of state residents to purchase limited entry commercial fishing permits."

The bill doubles the amount of money available to Alaska residents for commercial fishing loans from $100,000 to $200,000, and would allow loans for entry permits at 2 percent below the prime rate with an interest floor of 3 percent.

The Cordova Times reports that Alexis Cooper, executive director of CDFU, praised the bill for "allow(ing) many young Alaskans a continued opportunity to obtain entrance into independent commercial fishing businesses by increasing finance opportunities unavailable to them from commercial lending institutions."

The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Bryce Edgmond, Charisse Millett and Steve Thompson, chair of the House Fisheries Committee.

Cooper noted in a letter to Thompson that since 2008 in Prince William Sound alone, the price of limited entry permits has increased more than 50 percent to values in excess of $100,000. According to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, estimated average value of a Prince William Sound drift gillnet permit for 2011 is $161,600.

"In this same time the lending maximum of the Commercial Fishing Loan Program has remained static, limiting the number of state residents' access to purchase limited entry permits," Cooper told the Times.

Not everyone is a fan of the bill, though. It drew criticism from Commercial Fishing and Agriculture Bank President Lela Klingert, who voiced her concerns in a Jan. 25 letter to the House Finance Committee.

Klingert said that at first glance the intent of HB 261 seems commendable, to provide residents with below market interest rate loans in order to boost their prospects of entering the Alaska commercial fishing industry, while addressing the looming issue of a graying fleet, and without competing with private sector lenders.

However, she noted, the opposite generally occurs.

"These types of programs generally result in driving up demand, which then drives up price. While this maybe good for the seller of the permit, it is generally not good for the buyer," she said.

Klingert said CFAB supports assisting residents in purchasing limited entry permits, but would encourage legislators to work toward preparing borrowers "to be able to operate on a level playing field so that they not only get into the fishery, but have the wherewithal and commitment to be competitive in it. Regretfully, we do not believe this change will do that," she told the Times.

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