Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 8:01 PM on Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Complaints follow change in fishing boundaries

Cod fishermen in Homer and Kodiak are up in arms after the federal government redrew the lines defining state waters, eliminating some prime state-waters fishing grounds in Kachemak Bay and Uyak Bay.

The changes came with the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act, which redefined some areas of federal waters (more than 3 miles from shore) primarily for the purpose of determining which vessels were required to have certain safety equipment. However, it also established a new line for federal waters for all other purposes, as well.

Prior to the reauthorization, the federal waters line crossed the mouth of some bays well outside of 3 miles. With the new rules, it more closely follows the 3-mile line.

While most provisions in the re-authorization are not yet being enforced until the Coast Guard is able to educate the public about the new rules, the National Marine Fisheries Service is actively enforcing the new line for fishermen beginning with the closure of federal waters to cod fishing and the start of the state-waters cod fishery. That fishery began in Homer and Kodiak Jan. 26.

The move has drawn sharp criticism from Alaska to Washington, D.C., fanning concerns over state sovereignty, and seems to have come out of the blue. Acting Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell sent a letter to Jim Balsinger, Alaska regional director of NMFS, questioning "whether or not this process and these boundary changes are warranted and valid."

The letter states that there was no consultation with the state of Alaska in making the changes, and no formal process for the state to provide comment on or influence the decision. It asks NMFS to hold off enforcing the new lines until a resolution can be found, which NMFS has declined to do.

State Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, was one of the first elected officials to get involved, and has called it a "federal takeover of state waters." He has been working with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office to try to find a solution at the federal level.

Austerman also said the state is standing behind the fishermen.

"The state is taking an aggressive position with the Feds, saying they'll defend any fishermen ticketed for fishing over the line," he posted on his blog. "But I know no fisherman wants to be in that situation."

The Homer fleet is frustrated by how suddenly it all happened, according to fisherman Alray Carroll.

"We just totally got blindsided on it," Carroll said. "There was absolutely no input from any of the local guys."

Carroll also said that there didn't seem to be any consideration on the upper level about the impact on the "little guy."

"Somebody had to realize that there were people using this water. To me, that would be the very first thing you would ask, 'is anybody going to be displaced in making a living?'"

Carroll also said that if something is not done before fall, there probably would not be a fall cod fishery, in November and December, because the waters removed from the fishery have the marketable-sized fish.

"There is nothing but small fish down on the Seldovia side, and that's the only area open to us," he said.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Homer area management biologist Charlie Trowbridge said his office estimates that Kachemak Bay cod fishermen have lost 79 square nautical miles of fishing area, and that 19 to 33 percent of the cod delivered in any given year come from the area now off-limits.

"It's a big impact on our local fishery," Trowbridge said.

Trowbridge also said that the state has been working on the issue almost non-stop since it broke.

That involves working with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which is currently meeting in Seattle. However, the council already had a full agenda and packed schedule, so that has meant meeting nights and weekends on the issue.

Trowbridge said he is encouraged by all the activity at the official level.

"It's far from being dropped. People are working on it and trying to come to some resolution."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has announced that NMFS is accepting applications for the crab Individual Fishing Quota loan program, which was finalized in December 2010.

The Bering Sea Aleutian Island Crab IFQ loan program will allow crab captains and crew to borrow up to 80 percent of the cost of purchasing crab quota shares, or refinance an existing IFQ loan. It is available to all former and current crab skippers and crewmen who meet eligibility requirements.

In the fiscal year 2010 budget, Murkowski provided the NMFS loan authority to lend up to $8 million for the crab IFQ loan program.

"I am pleased to see that the crab loan program is finally available for skippers and crewmen," Murkowski said. "They have been waiting a long time for this federal loan program that will assist them in purchasing crab quota shares."

To request an application or receive more information on the crab loan program contact NMFS at (206) 526-6122 or by e-mail at nw.finance@noaa.gov.

Fisherman also can mail requests for information or applications to: National Marine Fisheries Service, Financial Services Branch, 7600 Sand Point Way, N.W., (BIN C15700), Bldg. No. 1, Seattle, WA 98115, or contact Branch Chief Scott Houghtaling, at (206) 526-6126.

There is not a website to submit applications. All applications require original signatures so the applications need to be mailed in.

Applicants can submit supporting documentation via e-mail, however, to the e-mail address provided above.

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