Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 4:55 PM on Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Feds to study Cook Inlet in effort to create habitat blueprint

Cook Inlet is one of seven regions nationwide that are the focus of a National Marine Fisheries Service effort to create a "Habitat Blueprint" in order to coordinate conservation efforts and provide a framework to improve habitat for fisheries, marine life and coastal communities.

At a presentation in Kenai last week, Jeanne Hanson, field office supervisor with the Habitat Conservation Division of NMFS, pointed out some of the unique qualities that put Cook Inlet in the program.

"Cook Inlet is an ecologically important area that supports a diverse array of fish and marine mammals, including an endangered population of beluga whales. Two-thirds of the population of the state lives within the watershed, and Cook Inlet includes the state's largest port, oil and gas development, and commercial, recreational and subsistence fishing."

She noted that while Cook Inlet habitats are relatively healthy and intact, they face mounting pressure from port expansion, a possible new bridge, large mine development, hydrokinetic energy generation, water quality effects from urban areas and more.

The program's purpose statement may sound a bit like government circle-speak: "The Habitat Blueprint provides a forward-looking framework for NOAA to think and act strategically across programs and with partner organizations to address the growing challenge of coastal and marine habitat loss and degradation."

However, several of those partner organizations were represented at the presentation, including Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, Kenai River Fisherman's Coalition, Cook Inlet Spill Prevention and Response, Kenai Watershed Forum, Fish Habitat Partnership and United Cook Inlet Drift Association.

The initiative is essentially an attempt to tie all those diverse groups together in a common purpose.

Hanson laid out the challenge: "How can we best respond and work with partners to conserve Cook Inlet habitat?" she asked. "We're striving to collaborate with partners to improve our understanding of management of Cook Inlet's marine habitats in the context of continued economic development and sustainable use."

Toward that end, Hanson said that there is a two-day workshop being developed by the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens' Advisory Council and NMFS to initiate a marine research framework for the inlet. The goal is to identify current knowledge and where gaps may lie, she said.

A date has not yet been set for the workshop, but it will be open to the public.

UCIDA Director Roland Maw expressed concern that commercial fishermen be included, citing the traditional knowledge gleaned from generations of Cook Inlet fishermen.

"Just on this side of the table we've probably got 200 year's experience," he said.

Hanson said she was not sure of the parameters of the stakeholders included in the workshop, but said she imagined that what they are looking for at this point are data sets.

Plans are being made to bring Hanson and her presentation to Homer. Seawatch will have details when a date is set.

More information about the initiative can be found at www.habitat.noaa.gov/blueprint/initiatives.html.

Halibut bycatch will be the subject of an informational workshop taking place in Seattle later this month.

Scientists and industry stakeholders will gather April 24 and 25 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel to examine several issues related to Pacific halibut bycatch and halibut migration patterns and life history.

One participant, Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association Executive Director Linda Behnken expects the workshop to be an information-gathering opportunity.

"I think there will be a really good general education on the IPHC (International Pacific Halibut Commission) process for estimating bycatch and its effect on current stock and the stocks in the future, how it will effect the dynamics of the stock over time," she said.

Timing of the workshop was arranged to allow the results to be disseminated prior to the June meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council where a final decision will be made on whether to reduce limits on halibut bycatch by the trawl fleet in the Gulf of Alaska.

Trawlers are one of the driving forces behind the workshop, according to Behnken.

"There seems to be a lot of people in the industry, particularly the trawl industry that have questions about the processes for estimating the impact of bycatch that are currently being used by IPHC and the basis for those estimates," she said. "It's an opportunity for them to learn more and pose their queries and engage in the discussion that will hopefully be productive and lead to a better understanding and a better process."

Behnken said that although many longliners are calling for trawl bycatch to be tied to the quota for the directed fishery, that may not be the best model.

"The weakness of that mode of managing bycatch is that the halibut killed in the trawl fishery is really a different segment of the population than is targeted in the directed fishery," she said. "A huge percentage of the trawl bycatch is fish under 26 inches, and almost all of it is under 32 inches. It's not what the commission currently calls exploitable biomass or what the commission uses when they set the catch limits for the directed fisheries."

The amount of fish that are under 26 inches or under 32 inches often has no relation to the exploitable biomass, Behnken noted.

"You can have a pretty big biomass of older fish, say, that are out there with very few small fish coming in behind them to fill in the population, in which case you wouldn't want your bycatch caps to be high as if there were lots of little fish," she said. "It's a different segment of the population and it's currently not a very thoroughly assessed segment of the population."

She said bycatch limits should be variable.

"I think it's clear that when the stocks are in trouble, there's an imperative to reduce bycatch impacts on the stock, but it's really important for managers, for the industry to understand that the two don't necessarily track and the allocations to bycatch and the allocations to the commercial fleet need to reflect the segments of the population on which those fleets are having an impact, and those are not the same (segments)."

The workshop is open to the public and will be webcast.

For a full agenda and list of participants, as well as to sign up for the webcast, visit www.iphc.int/home.html.

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