Story last updated at 4:06 p.m. Thursday, October 24, 2002

Top dollars paid for Bristol Bay red king crabs
Sepp Jannotta
KING CRAB TOPPED $6 a pound in Dutch Harbor for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery which began and ended in the space of just under three days last week. The Alaska Marketing Association, negotiating for the crabbers, accepted a price of $6.12 a pound from Unisea Inc. According to The Associated Press, that deal was followed by an offering of $6.15 from Trident Seafoods, which led the way for a number of other fish processors. The best price for red kings came in 1999 when crabbers got $6.25 on speculation that millennial celebrations would heighten crab consumption. Erling Jacobson with the Alaska Marketing Association pointed to overfishing of the Russian stocks as the reason for this year's high price. The 142-boat fleet began dropping pots in the water at 4 p.m. on Oct 15. By 8 p.m. on the 17th they had pulled more than 6 million pounds of crab off the Bering Sea floor. The fishery closed at noon on Friday with a total catch of approximately 8.8 million pounds, according to Forrest Bowers, an area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dutch Harbor. The catch was around 300,000 pounds over the fishery's guideline harvest level. The two-day, 20 hour fishery is the shortest on record, Bowers said. It edged last year's record-breaking effort, which closed after three days, eight hours.

THE UNITED FISHERMEN OF ALASKA is seeking to intervene in a lawsuit filed by three environmental organizations against the National Marine Fisheries Service. UFA claims the lawsuit, filed by The Center for Biological Diversity, the Turtle Island Restoration Network, and Oceana, could affect Alaskan commercial fisheries because it seeks to compel NMFS to develop "take-reduction plans" that could restrict fisheries in order to reduce fishery impacts on marine mammals, according to the Ketchikan Web site Sitnews. "This lawsuit blindsided us," said Bob Thorstenson, President of UFA. "It reaches our salmon fisheries in the Alaska Peninsula, Bristol Bay, Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet and Southeast. When they found out about it, fishermen felt they had to get involved."

FISHING GROUPS around the state largely contend that they have repeatedly worked with managers to assist conservation efforts for marine mammals. They say fishermen are concerned that the lawsuit will lead to added limits to what are already difficult fisheries in which to make a living. "This lawsuit puts the cart before the horse," said Sue Aspelund, Executive Director of Cordova District Fishermen United. "Before they sue to force NMFS to produce 'take-reduction plans' we should first find out if there is any take to reduce." With the help of commercial fishermen, NMFS is studying the state's fisheries to find out they are having an impact on marine mammals. "By helping design programs to observe the salmon fisheries and taking NMFS observers on their fishing boats, salmon fishermen are putting 110 percent into gathering the information needed to determine whether we have any real impact on marine mammals," Aspelund said.

"Outside environmentalists don't understand Alaska or Alaska's fisheries," said Thorstenson. "We've joined this lawsuit to try to make sure that this time they do more good than harm."

GULF GROUNDFISH RATIONALIZATION was one of many hot topics aired during the North Pacific Fishery Management Council's recent Seattle meetings. The so-called Gulf of Alaska Working Group is making the rounds with a list of possible alternatives for managing the groundfish fisheries there. In addition, the group has held six public meetings, during which coastal communities have had a chance to weigh in on the process. There will be an additional meeting during this week's Alaska Federation of Natives meeting in Anchorage, allowing the working group to discuss possible changes with tribal leaders. Final draft recommendations are expected to be hammered out at Friday and Saturday meetings in Anchorage. Among the proposed options are one- and two-pie allocation plans that could be developed as either cooperative or quota share systems.

THE NORTH PACIFIC COUNCIL unanimously re-elected David Benton and Dennis Austin as council chairman and vice-chairman, respectively.

THE COAST GUARD has suspended its search for a number of people lost in a pair of mishaps in the Bering Sea fisheries this past week. The U.S. Coast Guard announced on Tuesday that it had suspended the search for the two missing crewmembers from the disabled Galaxy, which exploded and caught fire on Sunday some 30 miles southwest of St. Paul Island. Coast Guard officials also announced that they had ceased searching for Daniel Schmiedt, a crewman on the F/V Clipper Express, from Arlington, Wash. Schmiedt was swept overboard 90 miles south of St. Paul after being struck by a rogue wave. The Coast Guard and the Clipper Express searched for over 10 hours for Schmiedt. He was reportedly not wearing a life jacket or survival suit. George Karn and Jerry Stephens were identified as two crewmen reported missing after the Galaxy explosion. The Coast Guard, 210th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard, U.S. Air Force, fishing vessels Glacier Bay, Blue Pacific and Clipper Express searched for over 50 hours for the two missing men. "The deciding factor for suspending the search was the extremely low probability of survival this long after entering the water," said Capt. Mike Neussl, Chief of Search and Rescue for the 17th Coast Guard District, in a news release. "We did the absolute best we could to find the two missing crewmembers, but unfortunately we have not been able to locate them."

THE KNOWLES ADMINISTRATION has declared an economic emergency covering the state's salmon industry and offered assistance for the fishing families of Southeast, Yakutat, Kotzebue, and other salmon ports. Gov. Tony Knowles announced the move last week. The emergency assistance is comparable to that previously extended to Western Alaska fishermen and includes temporary assistance for families, help with food and heating oil, and job training and placement assistance. "Alaska's salmon industry is in distress not just regionally, but across our state," Knowles said, in a press release. "It is increasingly difficult for many dependent on commercial salmon fishing for their livelihoods to make ends meet. The statewide ex-vessel salmon value this year is about $150 million, compared to $216 million last year and down from $728 million in 1988. Prices for salmon are so low that 100 Southeast Alaska seiners, approximately a third of the fleet, did not fish this year. In Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay the situation is equally dire: the market price of salmon is so low many fishing boats did not even leave the docks." Knowles directed the Department of Community and Economic Development to coordinate state assistance programs and federal services, with direct outreach to salmon fishing families in each impacted region.

LT. GOV. FRAN ULMER recently wrote the National Park Service seeking payment of compensation to fishermen who have been denied access to fish in Glacier Bay National Park. "Southeast Alaska fishermen need help now, and the Park Service should make good on its commitments," said Ulmer. Some 800 fishermen and others affected by the closure are eligible for $23 million in compensation, but payment has been on hold pending the resolution of appeals. In recognition of the salmon emergency, Ulmer asked the Park Service to expedite the hearing process or offer interim payments to affected fishermen.