Prince William Sound will open to commercial salmon fishing next month under a state plan that would include extensive monitoring for signs of oil contamination.
State officials hope fishermen can catch at least 70 percent of what once was anticipated to be a record harvest of nearly 50 million pink, silver, chum and king salmon worth well over $50 million.
"I feel confident that we will be able to proceed with our salmon fisheries," said James Brady, a state biologist. "But we will have to sacrifice some harvest."
More than 10 million gallons of oil spilled into the Sound March 24 from the tanker Exxon Valdez. And the spill's "sacrifice" zones may include some of the prime fishing grounds on the Sound's outer edge, where salmon arrive still silverbright from their time at sea. Tentative closures include much of the Sound's southwest and western areas, frequented by wild salmon.
"A lot of the bigger slicks have moved out of the Sound, or are hard on the beach, but there's still a lot of oil on the water," Brady said.
The closures will make life difficult for the 760 drift and seine net fishermen by crowding them into much smaller fishing areas and forcing some into areas unsuited for their gear.
"We've heard a lot of politicians and even James Brady speak of a fishery as normal, and that concerns us," said Mike Schomer, general manager of the Cordovabased Copper River Fishermen's Cooperative. "I don't think we're going to have by any means a normal fishery."
The first of the year's harvests is scheduled to open May 15 for sockeyes and kings on the Copper River flats just south of the Sound. Prior to that harvest, and all that will follow, the state Department of Environmental Conservation will take test samples of the fish and analyze them for contamination. Fish also will be monitored for contamination during the harvest, and inspectors will be posted at the docks to check fish as it's unloaded.
So far no oil has been reported in the Copper River fishing area, and unless the fish are contaminated en route to the area, no pollution problems are expected with this harvest, said Keith Schultz, a Cordovabased fishery biologist.
Fishing boats, many of which have been involved in the spill cleanup, also must be free of oil, and DEC officials are working with fishermen and processors to design an inspection system.
"We have to make sure we don't have oily boats carrying clean fish," said Dennis Kelso, the agency's commissioner.
At a Thursday night meeting in Cordova, George Velikanje, a local resident, said he's been trying to set up a boatcleaning station but so far hasn't been able to get money from Exxon Co. USA to finance the operation.
Oil will be a much greater threat in the Sound fisheries scheduled to begin in June.
Even if fishermen stay out of closed areas, they still risk fouling their gear.
Ulyesse LeGrange, an Exxon senior vice president, said the company would try to stockpile extra nets for fishermen who run nets through oil.
But Brady said it might be difficult to find enough nets on such short notice. "If fishermen hit oil, we will run out of gear," he said.
Brady said he expects that fish can be harvested as scheduled from the water in front of Esther Island, Cannery Creek and Solomon Gulch hatcheries, which had been expected to provide about half of this year's harvest.
State officials expect nearly 6 million fish to return to the Sawmill Bay hatchery. But that fish probably will be offlimits to the fleet. There's too much oil near the fishing grounds, Brady said. But if all goes well, state officials will allow hatchery managers to harvest the fish in a small zone inside the bay to recoup expenses.
A fifth hatchery at Main Bay in the west central Sound, which normally sustains a run of 245,000 chums, probably will be closed due to the oil, Brady said.
Processors say fish buyers appear to be taking a waitandsee attitude toward the harvest, but they already face a more fundamental problem finding people to man the fish lines.
"It's just going to create a nightmare for us," said Ray Cesarini, president of Valdezbased Sea Hawk Seafoods Inc. Cesarini's payroll normally peaks at 300 at the height of the harvest, but this year, he said, all potential workers are being lured away by the high wages paid to spill cleanup workers.
Even if he could find workers, Cesarini said there's no place to house most of them.
Daily News reporter Charles Wohlforth contributed to this story.