Story last updated at 3:19 p.m. Friday, April 12, 2002

VMS program for cod boats gets federal funding
COD FISHERMEN WILL BE reimbursed for the cost of installing VMS, or vessel monitoring systems, on their boats. National Marine Fisheries Service had proposed the idea, but had to find money to fund it. Details have yet to be fleshed out, said Sue Salveson of NMFS in Juneau, but it appears that the money will be funneled through the Pacific States Marine Commission. According to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the fisheries service has agreed to reimburse fishermen up to $2,000 for the cost of the units. The devices were required under an emergency rule issued Jan. 1 to help implement Steller sea lion protection measures and enforce no-fishing zones. Stevens said he urged the secretary of commerce during a recent Senate subcommittee hearing to consider the financial burden imposed on small-vessel fishermen by the requirement.

ANYONE WHO FISHES COD in the Gulf of Alaska should plan to attend an important meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at Homer City Hall on the vessel monitoring system, or VMS, program. Federal enforcement agent Jim Wisher of the National Marine Fisheries Service will conduct the informational meeting. The VMS program "is an evolving process," Wisher said, and information passed on earlier this winter by the media, fishermen and even federal authorities may no longer be correct. "Things have changed dramatically since Jan. 1," Wisher said.

AMONG THE CHANGES explained to Wisher and other enforcement agents by Jeff Passer, the special agent in charge of NMFS enforcement in Alaska, is that the VMS program is no longer area- and gear-specific. It is now fishery-specific, which means that beginning June 10 anyone with a federal fisheries permit for cod must have an operating VMS unit on their boat whenever any federal cod fishery is open in Alaska <> even the Bering Sea. A fisherman can call in and request that his federal fishery permit be canceled, however, which then allows him to disconnect the VMS unit.

MONDAY'S MEETING will feature a VMS unit, Wisher said. They cost $2,000 and are officially known as North American Collection Locating System, even though they are made by a French company. The units, which come in 24-volt and 12-volt versions, have a battery inside that allows the unit to keep transmitting for two weeks after it is disconnected from the boat's power. To activate one that has been turned off, the fisherman must call NMFS in Juneau 72 hours before leaving port, and is not supposed to leave port until receiving confirmation that the unit is back on line.

ATTORNEYS FOR PLAINTIFFS in the Exxon Valdez punitive damages case have asked U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland to settle their dispute with ExxonMobil to the tune of "at least $4 billion," plus interest. Even with the recent changes in punitive damage case law, an award of that size is constitutional, said lead attorney David Oesting of the Anchorage firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. Much has been made of the guidelines for punitive damages set out in two U.S. Supreme Court cases <> BMW and Cooper Industries <> which spell out that punitive damages should be within a certain ratio of actual damages. In his brief filed in Anchorage March 13, Oesting said $4 billion is below the 10:1 ratio outlined in the BMW case, and if other categories of harm are included in addition to actual harm the ratio is less than 4:1.

EXXONMOBIL RESPONDED by saying Holland should give it until June 17 to file its motion on what the correct size of the punitive damages verdict should be, and to set a hearing on the matter in October. Holland has given no indication what he might do.

CRAB RATIONALIZATION discussions will take up two full days of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting this week in Anchorage. Up for approval is the initial review of the staff's analysis. Presumably the council is expected to send four alternatives out for public review <> IFQs for fishermen, IFQs for fishermen and processors, voluntary co-ops and co-ops tied to specific processors. If the issue stays on track, the council will take public comment on the alternatives for the next two months and choose one as its preferred choice at the June meeting in Dutch Harbor. The issue comes before the council at 8 a.m. Friday at the Hilton Hotel.

ALSO ON THE COUNCIL'S AGENDA are extension of the observer program, final action on a measure that would allow certain Gulf of Alaska communities to buy halibut and blackcod quota shares, fine-tuning of American Fisheries Act provisions, and a review of progress of the Gulf of Alaska rationalization work group. The meeting runs through Wednesday, April 17. To view the agenda, see www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc.

THE KODIAK HERRING season kicks off Monday at noon, but the fish may not be ready, said Dennis Gretsch of the Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak. Cold water and air tempertures this spring could put a chill on activity for a few more days, he said. And the department doesn't want the action to heat up too much. In years past, seiners have exceeded the guideline harvest levels in several popular areas, such as Paramanoff Bay and outer Ugak Bay. This year, Gretsch said he will consider short openings to control the harvest. "I'm guessing it won't happen," he said, because it would require several conditions to be in place. There will have to be a large number of boats and a large biomass of fish that look ripe, he said. Then he might call for a 10-minute opening or two, "just to slow these guys down a little," he said. Most areas will have too few boats to worry about, however, he added.

Sea-lion feeder cited. A crew member of the Homer-based fishing boat Dynasty was cited last Friday for allegedly tossing fish carcasses to Steller sea lions in the Homer harbor. Dimitry Martusheff, 19 was cited by Jim Wisher, an enforcement officer with the National Marine Fisheries Service, after receiving a tip from an observer. Feeding the endangered sea lions is a violation of the Marine Mammal Act and local officials have been cracking down recently as the sea lions tend to congregate in the harbor, potentially endangering themselves or people who venture too close. The ticket, which carries a fine of up to $10,000, will be reviewed by the Fisheries Service counsel.

POLLOCK PELAGIC trawl fishing in the Port Bainbridge and Knight Island sections of the Prince William Sound management area was closed at midnight March 31 for the remainder of the year. Pollock harvest from the Port Bainbridge section is 897,900 pounds, or about half the 40 percent target level. Pollock harvest in the Knight Island section remains confidential due to limited entrants, but the Department of Fish and Game reports that fishing has not located commercial aggregations of fish in the section. Pollock will remain open as bycatch to other open fisheries.

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