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Trawler ban for Unalaska Bay moves ahead

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman
A fishing boat returns to harbor in Unalaska. The island's port of Dutch Harbor is the busiest fisheries port in the U.S., and a major shipping hub. August 31, 2012 Loren Holmes photo

UNALASKA -- While a trawler lobbyist doubts his boats would risk tearing up a $100,000 net on a crab pot in Unalaska Bay, local small boat fishermen have a simple solution. In their view, the pollock boats should drag their nets someplace else, outside the bay in the wide open Bering Sea.

By a 5-2 vote late last month, the Unalaska Dutch Harbor Fish and Game Advisory Committee endorsed a complete ban on trawling inside the Aleutian island's bay, in the city of Unalaska and including the famous body of water known as Dutch Harbor.

“Trawlers have the whole Bering Sea to fish in. They should not be fishing off our beaches in our community,” said Vincent Tutiakoff, representing both the Unalaska Native Fisherman’s Association and the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska.

Tutiakoff questioned the pollock fishery’s claim that trawl nets avoid the bottom, saying they can snag and move crab pots where they can’t be found. But trawler advocate Brent Paine said that the average price of over $100,000 for a midwater pollock net provides a “huge disincentive to have a net come in contact with the sea floor where there are so many rough hazards that can damage and destroy the nets, particularly in the area in question.”

Tutiakoff complained of a steep decline in local subsistence halibut catches, and an overall reduction in subsistence food gathering activity in Unalaska.

The decision drew a round of applause from the crowd of about 30 people packed into a conference room at the public library Jan. 24. The vote is only advisory, however, and any new restrictions require the approval of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, at its Feb. 26 – March 3 meeting in Anchorage.

Voting in favor were chair Frank Kelty, and members Mike Holman, Jennifer Shockley, Steven Gregory, and Augie Kochuten. Opposed were local fisherman Roger Rowland and Alyeska Seafoods plant manager Don Goodfellow.

Compromise or incomplete ban?

The outer portion of the bay was closed in early summer by the fish board in 2010, but trawling was allowed to continue in the late B season, from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31., a move described as a compromise by trawler advocates, but seen as an unfinished job by others. The latest proposal calls for a year-round bay wide closure south of a line between Cape Cheerful and Cape Kalekta.

“We think coming to the table and making a compromise is the same as making a deal. We’ve kept our part, and we’re asking that the small boats here do the same,” said Sylvia Ettefagh, representing Alyeska Seafoods trawlers.

“I’ve been around a long time. I’ve seen it all,” as a fisheries biologist and observer since 1982, Ettefagh said.

Local public works equipment operator Brian Rankin said he had to travel all the way to Akutan in his 18-foot skiff to catch a halibut. Ettefagh said halibut stocks have declined statewide, even around her hometown of Wrangell in Southeast Alaska, where she said there is no trawling.

Frank Kelty, the city of Unalaska’s fisheries lobbyist, said local fish taxes are unaffected. He said most of the bay pollock is processed outside city limits in Beaver Inlet, and on the neighboring island of Akutan. “It’s not really going to impact our economy,” said Kelty.

Goodfellow disputed the notion that trawlers have unlimited access to fishing grounds outside the bay. Bering Sea areas open for trawling have steadily shrunk due to environmental restrictions aimed at protecting Steller sea lions and salmon, he said.

“I would err on the side of caution,” said local school teacher Steven Gregory. “The trawlers don’t have to fish in the bay. The local people do.” Gregory said food is a basis of culture, and if people don’t have local food, that represents the elimination of a culture.

Local police officer Jennifer Shockley recalled her history as a fisheries observer, and said there’s not enough information to say if pollock trawling is impacting other fish, but called the proposed ban “a good first start.”

Perfect pollock lurk

Attending by teleconference were Brent Paine of Seattle-based United Catcher Boats, Icicle Seafoods executive Kris Norosc who listened silently, and fisherman Dave Martin of the pollock trawler Commodore who called in from his boat.

Paine said there’s no evidence that bay pollock fishing has caused other fish species to decline, and wrote in a letter that a ban “would unfairly impact the catcher vessel trawl fleet.” UCB boats deliver to shore plants and offshore motherships. The pollock fishery overall has an annual value of about a billion dollars.

Martin said that Unalaska Bay is the home of exceptionally large pollock, with an average weight of over four pounds, compared to just under two pounds outside the bay. The large size is ideal for fillet production, he said, at Beaver Inlet, an Unalaska Island bay where Icicle Seafoods operates a floating processor. While 2,500 grams is a good size for cutting into fillets, it’s too large for the surimi machinery at Unalaska plants, designed for the average pollock weighing 800 to 850 grams, he said.

Surimi is a processed fish paste used in the manufacture of imitation crab and other seafood products.

In the past five years, the bay pollock harvest averaged 3.2 million pounds netted by six trawlers, according to biologist Chuck Trebesch, representing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Unalaska office.

By contrast, the ten-year average was higher, with an average of ten trawlers harvesting 4.2 million pounds of bay pollock per year. The same chart also showed bycatch for ten other species in the same time period, all in pounds: Pacific cod, 20,141; Atka mackerel, 14,793; Tanner crab, 4; halibut, 1,103; herring, 8,649.

Of greater local interest, perhaps, is the ten-year average salmon bycatch, in pounds: chum, 4,638; pink, 95; Chinook, 3,108; coho 6; and no sockeye at all. However, salmon bycatch has declined significantly in the past three years, a move Paine attributes to tough new federal rules that could force the pollock fleet to go home early. Chinook bycatch, for instance, fell from highs of 11,939 pounds in 2004 and 8,005 in 2007 to just 104 in 2010 and 144 in 2011, according to Fish and Game’s observer reports.

Next stop: City Council

Tutiakoff said the next forum is the Unalaska City Council. At least one ‘no’ vote is likely from city councilor Roger Rowland, who opposed the ban as an advisory committee member.

“It’s easy to point a finger at an easy target,” Rowland said, adding that halibut stocks have “plummeted” statewide. He added that the bay supports a healthy crab population.

But board member Augie Kochuten said local seafood is “not healthy, not safe.”

Local resident Rufina Shaishnikoff said people avoid eating mussels and other local foods for fear of contamination. That contributes to more cases of diabetes and cancer, when the bay’s bounty is replaced by processed food from the supermarket, she said.

Also endorsing a ban were local residents Dustan Dickerson and Tom Robinson.

In other business, the committee accepted the resignation of fisherman Zac Nehus, and appointed new members to fill two, one-year vacancies. Augie Kochuten was named to the committee, as was marine agent Reid Brewer, formerly an alternate member, while harbor officer and fisherman Tim Mahoney was chosen as the new alternate.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman. Jim Paulin can be reached at jpaulin@reportalaska.com.