Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 8:48 PM on Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bountiful catches mark cod season

The Homer pot cod fleet wrapped up a whirlwind state-waters season last weekend under blue skies with bountiful catches.

The cod quota for state waters in Cook Inlet was up 9 percent from 2010, and set at 4.45 million pounds, of which 75 percent is allocated to pots, and the rest to jig gear. Within that pot quota, boats over 58 feet are allowed to catch up to 25 percent. The pot quota was up by 300,000 pounds over last year.

The season opened Jan. 30 and closed March 19, 10 days earlier than last season in spite of the larger quota and the same number of boats fishing. Nine boats participated in the pot fishery.

"Things picked up. We had good production," Charlie Trowbridge, area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, commented. "I think that's what the (fishermen) would tell you, too. I don't know if it was record-breaking, but we had some really good fishing here."

There were two boats over 58 feet that participated in the fishery, and they had reached their 25 percent limit by March 13.

The jig fishery remains open, and Trowbridge was encouraged by an increase in participation.

"We're certainly seeing more interest," he said. "There's a fishery here. There's some real opportunity."

The fishery also can be a good shake-down before the high-dollar and higher pressure fisheries later in the season, Trowbridge said.

"You've got a way to go out and get everything working," he said. "It's not your high-dollar fishery, if you take a break from it you're not beating yourself up."

There were two boats that fished the 2010 jig fishery, although six were registered. This year four boats are currently fishing, although 10 are registered, and Trowbridge expects to see more. The jig quota has never been filled, and stands at 1.1 million pounds this year.

Prices for the cod started out around 30 to 32 cents per pound, but finished up the season around 40 cents for pot-caught fish and 42 cents for jig-caught fish.

The fishery started amid anger and confusion over a federal re-drawing of the boundary line between state (within 3 miles of shore) and federal (beyond 3 miles) waters that eliminated some of the best fishing grounds and created crowded conditions for the gear.

That conflict was temporarily resolved with the federal side backing down more than halfway into the season and allowing boats back into the disputed territory for the rest of the 2011 season.

However, the issue is far from over, although it is possible the resolution could favor the local fishermen.

In a letter to ADF&G commissioner Cora Campbell calling the temporary truce, the head of National Marine Fisheries Service Eric Schwab stated, "I assure you that we will proceed as expeditiously as possible to resolve the underlying questions, and that we will cooperate with the State, the North Pacific Council, and other agencies in considering what, if any, changes may be appropriate for long-term State and Federal management of the fishery."

Trowbridge said re-opening the area was a relief for the fishermen.

"I figure at the very least it gave everyone just a little more breathing room," he said.

Pacific Fishing Magazine editor Don McManman is sounding the alarm about the Obama administration's plans for eliminating $1.5 million in funding for safety research in commercial fishing in its latest budget proposal.

The program is run by the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, and is the only program in the country that does this type of work.

McManman points out that recently the safety program has researched unobtrusive life vests for fishermen, emergency stops for deck winches (especially on seiners), and monitoring systems that ensure hatches that should be shut and dogged are, in fact, shut and dogged.

In an open letter, McManman states that the program is not regulatory, and does not issue edicts or rules. Rather, it researches problems with fishing safety and suggests solutions.

He adds that the NIOSH safety program is represented by an official, Jennifer Lincoln, who lives and works where fishermen live and work. But, although she is in Alaska, her work covers the entire West Coast.

McManman explains the problem this way: "Lincoln's program is part of a larger research group – AFF, which stands for Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing. The AFF group has been budgeted at $23 million a year. Fishing has the smallest piece of a very small pie: $1.5 million. Someone has suggested elimination of the entire program because of a mediocre review. However, in that review, the fishing program received exemplary grades in efficiency and effectiveness. But because they're all tied together, the fishing program may die as politicians yank funding for the entire research area."

In a report released in 2008, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences called the fishing safety program, "An exemplary research program with concentrated research topics, clear goals, and adequate resources."

McManman urges fishermen to contact senators and congressmen from states and districts in Alaska and on the West Coast urging them to support the NIOSH fishing safety research program. Those representatives and their contact information can be found here: www.govtrack.us/congress/findyourreps.xpd.

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

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