Story last updated at 3:31 p.m. Thursday, May 16, 2002

Fish board frozen by Legislature's inaction
By Joel Gay
BRETT HUBER and the other nominees to the Board of Fisheries may not make it onto the board after all. The Alaska Legislature failed to confirm Huber, Gerry Merrigan of Petersburg and Art Nelson of Anchorage, along with numerous other nominations to the Board of Game, the state school board and other panels made by Gov. Tony Knowles. The Anchorage Daily News reported Tuesday that the Legislature's decision to kill the confirmation process was aimed at giving the nominations to the next governor.

BOARD CHAIRMAN ED DERSHAM said he was disappointed in the Legislature's action. "I'm very upset," he said Tuesday. "This might serve the narrow-minded interest of a few people, but it's not good for the state, it's not good for the resource, and it's not good for the user groups. Nobody in the state benefits from this," he said. According to Dersham, Knowles can appoint three people to temporarily fill the board until the next session, but because the Legislature in essence nixed Huber, Merrigan and Nelson, they can't be reappointed. It's possible that current board members Dan Coffey, Grant Miller and Virgil Umphenour might be asked to stay on, Dersham said. "Anything's possible." But, he added, "It's a mess. The way these three got treated, it's hard to imagine three new people would want to be named."

ALASKA'S SALMON SEASON starts tomorrow with the first opening on the Copper River flats, and excitement is high in Cordova, said Dan Ash, who manages the sockeye fishery for the Department of Fish and Game. "It's getting busy here in town," he said, although nobody is happy that the first opening is just six hours long. "I wasn't happy doing it," he added, but it was necessary because water levels in the Copper River are low, and low water typically correlates with a high catch. "Early season management is tough," Ash said. But with a harvest forecast of just 800,000 reds and a higher subsistence quota upstream, a conservative approach was called for. Another opening is expected Monday or Tuesday, he said.

PRICES LOOK SOFTER than last year, but Bill Webber, president of the Copper River Salmon Producers Association. Negotiations were underway Tuesday, but he said he expected a slight reduction from 2001. Prices in the first opening last year were $2.55 to $2.75, but after several periods dropped to $1 to $1.20. "It's going to be down a little from last year for certain," Webber said, although he added, "We're starting to see some positive indicators" that prices might strengthen.

COPPER RIVER FISHERMEN are starting to embrace their quality control program, which started mid-season in 2000, Webber said. Only a handful of fishermen participated the first year, but 40 to 50 signed up last year, and Webber said he expects more than 100 and perhaps as many as 200 of the Copper River's 475-boat fleet to sign on in 2002. Only fish that are bled and chilled qualify as "program fish," he said, and careless handling by a tender or processor can negate a fisherman's care. That happened the first year, Webber said, but it's getting better. The quality standards for fishermen, tenders and processors are set by Surefish, the same company that will oversee the Cook Inlet brand this summer. Four Cordova processors, including Norquest, Copper River Seafoods and Ocean Beauty, are participating, and at least one is paying an extra nickel a pound for program fish, he said.

BUT AN EXTRA NICKEL a pound is not the reason to sign up for the Copper River quality program, Webber said. "We've gotta get beyond that. An individual has to embrace quality with passion. You've got to want to do it," he said. It's not something every fisherman embraces, Webber said, but eventually it will be necessary for the industry to survive. "We've got to push the bar up as high as possible, regardless of the price we're getting."

RUSSIAN PROCESSING SHIPS won't be coming to Cook Inlet or the Alaska Peninsula either, Gov. Tony Knowles decided last week. Global Seafoods had applied for permission to bring several Russian processors to Southeast, saying there was a need for additional buying power. Knowles nixed that after a review of American processors showed there was plenty of capacity to harvest pinks. Global then turned its attention to Cook Inlet and the south peninsula. Nyet, said the governor, citing Global's plans to use an international labor force and to pay a minimum for pinks. "I do not want to accelerate a 'race to the bottom' in salmon prices, particularly at a time when all market indicators suggest salmon markets are saturated, with significant inventories remaining unsold," Knowles wrote to the company. "We have great difficulty competing economic with foreign fish farms that operate with cheap labor and inadequate business and environmental regulation," he continued. "It's bad enough that it is allowed overseas, but it would be unconscionable to allow such practices in our own waters."

TANNER CRAB RESEARCH shows that wind may play a major role in the survival of entire age classes of crab. A group of crab experts from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Alaska have come up with a theory that suggests northeast winds during the spring in Bristol Bay mean good survival of that year's larvae, which in turn is reflected in strong age classes down the line. The exact correlation isn't known, said UAF science writer Ned Rozell, but perhaps the winds keep that year's larvae offshore, allowing them to settle in their preferred habitat of mud and sand. Winds from other directions cause the larvae to settle in the shallow, rocky zone closer to shore, which is better for red king crab. Another factor might be a pool of cold water that lingers in the Bering Sea every summer. In years when that cold pool is larger than usual, crab populations dwindle. Fishermen feel the results seven years later, when the crab recruit to legal size. There hasn't been a Tanner crab fishery in the Bering Sea since 1996.