Story last updated at 2:02 p.m. Thursday, July 18, 2002

Commercial fleet cashing in on sockeyes

Seawatch

Sepp Jannotta
THE SOCKEYE CATCH in Upper Cook Inlet continues to be unexpectedly strong, and large waves of fish continue to push into the Kenai River, according to Fish and Game biologist Jeff Fox. The total catch for Monday's opening was 380,000 sockeye, with driftnetters catching 211,000 sockeye, an average of 554 per boat. The driftnet fishery's economics have been buoyed as the number of boats participating has dropped below 400 boats. Current dock prices for Cook Inlet sockeye are reported to be in the neighborhood of 53 cents a pound. Setnetters on the east side of Cook Inlet pulled 156,000 sockeye from their nets. Fox said the total number of fish escaping into the fresh water of the Kenai River was 300,000 through Monday. That puts the Kenai River sockeye fishery well on its way to Fish and Game's minimum escapement goal of 600,000 sockeye, Fox said.

THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT SOCKEYE harvest has topped 200,000 fish and should approach the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasted catch of 215,000 sockeye, according to Lee Hammarstrom, a commercial fish biologist for Fish and Game. "I would say we ought to be able to achieve that forecast and that perhaps we might even be able to exceed that forecast," Hammarstrom said. Seiners have accounted for 75,000 of those fish, though the fishery in China Poot and Neptune bays is likely winding down. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association has pulled in an additional 29,000 sockeye for its cost-recovery program. Over in English Bay, the cost-recovery total stands at 20,000 sockeye. The Southern District setnetters have taken 41,000 sockeye.

FISHERMEN ARE BEING RECRUITED to participate in a survey of Alaska killer whales taking place this week. The survey is open to anybody on the water Friday through Sunday. "We are asking anyone who is on the water in Alaska (this weekend) to participate by filling in a short survey about where you went and if you saw any killer whales or not," University of British Columbia researchers Andrew Trites and Kerry Irish said in an e-mail. Survey forms can be obtained on line at www.AlaskaKiller-Whales.org or by calling 604-822-8181.

PINK SALMON ARE RETURNING to Tutka Bay, but the hatchery run there looks to be weaker than expected. CIAA cost-recovery efforts have netted 634,000 fish as of Wednesday morning, with an additional 70,000 taken for brood stock. Preseason forecasts of a return of 2.2 million pinks was likely to go entirely to the cost-recovery catch, Hammarstrom said. Now, it looks unlikely that hatchery cost-recovery needs will be met. "I would venture to estimate that Tutka is not as strong as we originally forecast," he added. "It would really have to come on strong in a hurry to achieve that forecast." Hammarstrom said it's been more common in recent years for cost-recovery efforts in Tutka to fall short, as the percentage of fish surviving their travels on the high seas has fallen. The long-term average for survival of Tutka pinks is 2.2 percent. But in the last two years, 1.5 percent of the stocked fish have returned. "We haven't had a year above average for three or four years," said CIAA Executive Director Gary Fandrei. Biologists are uncertain why fewer fish are surviving, Hammarstrom said. "That generally leaves little (fishing) for the common property fleet, especially when you consider the shape of the salmon market," he added. CIAA is getting between 5.5 cents and 8.5 cents a pound for its Tutka pink salmon, Fandrei said. The declining survival rates and low prices are not a good combination for the Tutka hatchery, which, like most hatcheries in Alaska, operates to enhance the commercial opportunities for the common property fleet. "Usually, with the hatchery program, if the price of fish is below 10 cents a pound, it doesn't make sense to keep the hatchery going," Fandrei said. "The proportion of fish that we have to take (becomes) so large that we're not contributing to the common property fishery."

ON THE OUTER COAST of the Kenai Peninsula, a Fish and Game survey flight Tuesday showed pinks massing in Port Dick and several boats were plying the waters for sockeye at the mouths of Delight and Desire lakes in Nuka Bay. The seiners working Nuka Bay have pulled in 6,000 fish. There appeared to be a lot of fresh pinks showing in the deeper water off Port Dick, an encouraging sight that led Hammarstrom to believe Fish and Game might consider expanding fishing in the area as early as next week.

DEATHS IN ALASKA'S FISHING INDUSTRY declined 67 percent during the 1990s, from an average of 34 for 1990-92, to an average of 11 for 1997-99, according to a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, work-related deaths in Alaska declined 49 percent from 1990 to 1999, but with a death rate three times the national average, Alaska retains its dubious distinction as the nation's most dangerous place to work. Deaths in commercial fishing declined in part due to the introduction of new safety rules under the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act. The report also cites efforts by industry, labor and government to promote safer working environments and practices for commercial fishing workers. The report points specifically to a decline in fatalities from drowning and hypothermia associated with vessels capsizing.

GOV. TONY KNOWLES VETOED A BILL earlier this month that would have allowed seafood processors in remote Alaska villages to charge employees for room and board, a practice that has been banned since Alaska became a state. For many of those workers, the move would have negated the increase in minimum wage he signed the same day. "Lots of hard-working Alaska families rely on those jobs, which contribute to the economy of our state and add value to our natural resources. They rightfully should benefit from an increase in the minimum wage," said Knowles as he vetoed House Bill 504.

PETER PAN SEAFOODS has agreed to pay $15,000 in an out-of-court settlement stemming from charges of harassment of an NOAA observer at its King Cove fish processing plant. The seafood company agreed to a settlement of $40,000, with $25,000 of that to be suspended and waived after three years of compliance with federal rules governing the treatment of fisheries observers. In April of 2000, a female NOAA observer complained that, for nearly two months, she had been repeatedly subjected to sexual harassment, with plant workers clanging the knives together and cat calling each time she entered the workplace. She claimed that plant workers often banged on her window when she was trying to sleep. As a part of the settlement, Peter Pan agreed to up the level of sensitivity training for its plant employees. NOAA attorney Susan Auer said the company will also produce a training video addressing the problem of sexual harassment in the fish-processing plant environment.

HOMER HALIBUT LANDINGS have gone over 8 million pounds. The Halibut Capital is North America's top producer of Pacific Halibut. Seward is second at 6 million pounds. Homer's halibut fleet has pulled in 22 percent of its allotted catch.

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