Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 5:11 PM on Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sitka Sound herring harvest set at 29,008 tons

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has announced another eye-popping preliminary guideline harvest for Sitka Sound herring in 2012: 29,008 tons.

That puts it far, far into record territory, well beyond the previous record GHL in 2011 of 19,430 tons.

The forecast amount for this year is based on biomass estimates from last year. The forecasting model uses abundance and age composition data from surveys conducted after last year's spring fishery, along with data going back several years.

ADF&G documented more than 78 nautical miles of herring spawn in Sitka Sound last year.

Now the question is: Can fishermen sell them? Prices in 2011 took a precipitous dive to $150 per ton, down from $780 per ton in 2010. There is speculation by some fishermen that the 2012 price may be even lower.

However, people involved in the fishery say that with the increased quota there is still money to be made, even at the lower prices.

Along with product left unsold as a result of the high 2010 price, the earthquake disaster in Japan this spring is blamed in part for the price plummet, as well as changing tastes in Japanese culture. Japan is the primary market for the roe.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries declined to take action on a proposal to return Chitina dipnetting to subsistence status at this month's meeting in Valdez, as the Alaska Supreme Court takes up the issue.

The Chitina Dipnetters Association and Alaska Fish and Wildlife Conservation Fund were in court December 5 asking the Supreme Court to throw out a 1982 regulation that established eight criteria the Board of Fisheries used in making customary and traditional use findings, the basis for determining subsistence use under state law in Alaska.

The groups are arguing that those criteria all but guarantee a rural preference, and that the board made its ruling based on users, not use. They say the customary and traditional use of dipnetted Copper River fish is subsistence-based, and that the users should be granted subsistence status, regardless of lifestyle.

The Fairbanks Daily News Miner reports that Fairbanks attorney Mike Kramer, who represented the two groups, told the court that the only difference between personal-use fishermen and subsistence fishermen is the area they are allowed to fish, with subsistence fishermen confined to the area above the McCarthy Road bridge and personal-use below the bridge. However, subsistence fishermen are allowed to use fish wheels as well as dipnets.

Arguing for the state of Alaska, assistant attorney general Lance Nelson conceded that it was a close call distinguishing between the two user groups, but said that the Board of Fisheries should be the one making that call, not the courts.

"The board is the one the Legislature invested the authority in to make those judgment calls," Nelson said. "The real question in this case is will there continue to be a meaningful subsistence way of life in Alaska based on true subsistence use."

Nelson said that granting Chitina dip-netters a subsistence priority would create a "diluted preference" that would open the door to other dissatisfied groups to claim a subsistence priority when none exists.

There is no indication of when the court will make its ruling.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council took up the issue of active participation in the Bering Sea IFQ crab fisheries at its meeting earlier this month in Anchorage, with mixed results.

At issue is the way the fishery was set up that encouraged consolidation of quota shares by a comparative handful of boats, leaving many quota share owners able to stay home and collect as much as 70 percent of the gross from leasing their IFQs, lowering crew shares and making it difficult for others to break into the fishery.

At the end of the day, the council decided by a 6-5 vote to adopt the following problem statement:

"The Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI) Crab Rationalization Program is a comprehensive approach to rationalize an overcapitalized fishery. Conservation, safety, and efficiency goals have largely been met under the program. Provisions that allow for absentee ownership of crab harvest shares support long-term investment by persons or corporations with little or no involvement in the prosecution of the fisheries and limits the amount of quota available for active participants. This action is intended to ensure that ownership of quota transitions to persons who are actively involved in the prosecution of the fisheries."

The vote will allow for the production of a discussion paper to analyze the issue and come up with some alternative management options and "best practices" standards for crab cooperatives.

Those best practices could include minimum crew pay standards such as a minimum threshold of gross vessel revenue for crew compensation; maximum lease rate caps; maximum amount of lease rates that may be charged against crew compensation; and provisions to promote quota share ownership among crew and active participants.

Boat owners and cooperative members are recommending a "right of first refusal" option to allow skippers and crew members first shot at shares that come up for sale, as a way to encourage active participants to invest in the fishery.

However, as things stand now, with most IFQ holders able to collect harvest fees without getting their feet wet, there is little incentive to sell those shares.

The council would have to make drastic changes to the fishery to change that dynamic, such as requiring IFQ holders to be aboard the vessel fishing their shares, as is the case with the halibut and sablefish IFQ fisheries.

The council learned that many cooperative members have taken a proactive approach, voluntarily capping their percentage of the harvest fees at 65 percent for Bristol Bay red king crab and 50 percent for opilio, or snow crab.

The change to an IFQ fishery drastically reduced the number of vessels catching the crab, from almost 300 in the opilio fishery pre-IFQ to about 70, which reduced the number of crew jobs available.

However, the crew that do have jobs are making substantial paychecks, according to a recent survey of the fleet. About a quarter of the fleet participated in the survey, and said that crew shares from 2010 to 2011 were averaging about $1,900 per day for opilio crab and almost $1,600 per day for red king crab.

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