Fishery managers on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers can allow new gear this summer in an effort to conserve king salmon while still permitting local harvests of chums and sockeyes.
The decision came during the Alaska Board of Fisheries weeklong meeting in Anchorage, March 17-21, to discuss statewide king and tanner crab fisheries, as well as certain out-of-cycle proposals for other salmon and groundfish fisheries throughout the state.
Larger dipnets will be permitted on the Yukon and shorter gillnets on the Kuskokwim as a result. The decision was in response to emergency petitions and proposals for alternative means of fishing in western Alaska.
The Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group submitted two emergency petitions to the board asking that the subsistence fishery permit dipnetting from the Kusko -- a first for that river -- and also allow shorter gillnets.
The board agreed: both changes would allow greater sockeye and chum harvests while protecting the king run, which had record low returns in recent years.
Gillnets are the primary subsistence gear on the Kuskokwim, but fishers can also use beach seines, hook-and-line, and fish wheels.
The dipnet allowance could enable the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to open the fishery when it seems that fishing would be shut down otherwise to protect kings, according to Travis Ellison, an area management biologists for the department.
The gillnet proposal allows Fish and Game to have fishermen shorten from 50 fathom nets to 25 fathoms, likely by folding them under, permitting the harvest to be reduced as necessary in order to allow more fish farther up river.
The Kuskokwim changes are only good for 120 days, but the board also agreed to allow the commissioner to extend those regulations.
Last year, the board allowed dipnets and beach seines on the Yukon for the summer chum fishery. Beach seines did not catch on, but dipnets did.
According to the local processor Kwik'Pak Fisheries, about 25 percent of commercial permit holders in that fishery used dipnets last summer.
This year, the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association (YDFDA), came back and asked the board to allow larger dipnets, and consider purse seines.
Kwik'Pak is a subsidiary of YDFDA, which is the Community Development Quota group for the fishery.
Ultimately, the board agreed to just the larger dipnets, which fishers said would be more efficient at harvesting chums.
The board attempted to create a regulation that limited the depth of the new, larger dipnets, but had to rescind that after realizing the regulation as written would not help improve the dipnet fishery's efficiency.
The 2013 summer chum fishery was the largest on record, with 388,000 chums taken and still a harvestable surplus, according to the department.
PURSE SEINES AND DEAD KINGS
The proposal to allow purse seines failed in a 2-5 vote, with just board members John Jensen and Fritz Johnson supporting the new gear.
Board members opposing the new fishery said they would prefer to see fishers use commissioner's permits to test out the gear before creating an entire fishery, particularly given the unknown impacts to king salmon from the gear type.
The board also voted unanimously in favor of allowing leads on Yukon River commercial fish wheels and to remove the exception that allowed fishermen to keep, but not retain, dead king salmon in the lower river chum fishery.
Fish and Game proposed the king change after noting that allowing dead kings to be kept opened up a potential loophole that could encourage fishers to keep kings, when the purpose of the fishery is to avoid catching them. No dead kings were reported in the 2013 dipnet fishery, but an enforcement officer encountered a boat with three onboard and confiscated them.
The lead change aligns commercial and subsistence fishing wheel regulations. Fishers often use the same wheel for both types of fishing, and the alignment will simplify the regulations, according to the department.
COOK INLET PETITIONS ALSO CONSIDERED
Cook Inlet commercial fishermen also submitted emergency petitions asking the board to reconsider some of the regulations it changed in February.
The Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association petition asked the board to amend or remove the language that will restrict the East Side setnet fishery.
The South K Beach Independent Fishermen's Association petition asks for reconsideration of the shorter nets the board tried to implement. That group also submitted a second petition noting how different salmon harvests are at different setnet sites and beaches.
The petitions raise several issues with the process by which the board determined the restrictions, including the 2014 model of the forecast, the use of board-generated proposals, and the cost of the shorter nets.
Chair Karl Johnstone said he asked for staff comments from the department on those petitions to be submitted by March 27.
Then, the board will decide whether or not to hold an emergency meeting.
Board of Fisheries Executive Director Glenn Haight said he will email the board members with the petitions, staff comments and information on the petition process. They'll be expected to respond directly to him on whether or not they want to meet about the issue.
If two or more agree to meet, the board will hold an emergency meeting, likely via teleconference, Haight said.
"Agreeing to meet doesn't find the emergency," Haight said.
At the meeting, the board must first determine whether or not there is an emergency, and then consider the petitions.
BRISTOL BAY REGS CHANGED
The board also heard two proposals to change Bristol Bay regulations.
A proposal to change when single hooks are required on the Nushagak River passed in a unanimous vote.
Now, single hooks are required from May 1 to July 31.
Johnstone said he typically opposes using multiple hooks, but saw the fishery in question as providing subsistence-like opportunity for the area, and didn't want to reduce that opportunity for residents.
That change was proposed by the Nushagak Advisory Committee.
Fish and Game proposed a change to Ugashik setnet regulations to fix a navigational issue in the river, which carried in a unanimous vote.
The board had previously changed regulations in an attempt to resolve the issue, but they hadn't worked, so the department proposed another shift in net placement.
Setnetters and a tender boat captain, however, testified that there was no issue with navigation on that river, and the change would just reduce setnet efficiency and essentially allocate fish away from them.
The board gave breaks and opportunity for the setnetters and others in the community to come to an agreement on how to address the fishery, but the final compromise proposal that came forward did not have widespread enough support to satisfy the board.
GROUNDFISH ON THE TABLE
A proposal to change bycatch requirements from the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association failed in a 1-6 vote.
Jensen, of Petersburg, was the only yes vote.
The other members said they would prefer to wait and confer with their federal counterparts, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, before making a change.
Currently, bycatch is limited to a certain percentage of the total haul for vessels targeting groundfish and halibut.
Enforcement officers can check that at any time, and a boat must always be in compliance. The proposed change would have allowed fishers to potentially have a higher percentage of bycatch midway through their fishing trip, as long as they met the limit when they made a landing.
Fish and Game staff raised concerns that the change could result in higher bycatch overall, as the percent limit serves as a constant incentive to minimize it.
The council, which manages most fisheries from three to 200 miles offshore from Alaska, is working on reviewing a similar regulation in those federal waters.
National Marine Fisheries Service Assistant Regional Administrator Glenn Merrill said the council is early in the process, and has not yet indicated if it will change the regulation.
After several other bycatch management changes, including the implementation of catch share programs that slow down federal fisheries and sometimes help reduce bycatch, the body felt it was appropriate to take a look at the issue, Merrill said.
Any federal action would likely not be implemented for about two years, Merrill said.
Johnstone said his preference would be to wait and talk with the council about the issue at a joint protocol meeting tentatively planned for May, and then discuss the issue at the appropriate in-cycle board meeting.
The board received letters of support for the change from PVOA and other fishing groups, and it was mentioned during general public testimony, but there was no testimony on it during the committee of the whole process.
The board also created a new pollock workgroup, which will work discuss potential state-waters pollock fisheries, in part as a response to changes in the federal Gulf of Alaska pollock fisheries.
By Molly Dischner
Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage