Gov. Bill Walker has requested the federal government declare a disaster for four Alaska regions hurt by one of the poorest pink salmon returns in decades.
In a Sept. 19 letter to U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Walker said fishery failures that occurred this summer in the Kodiak, Prince William Sound, Lower Cook Inlet and Chignik areas are having a "significant impact on those who depend on the fishery for their livelihood" and asks for the "soonest possible review" due to the economic importance of these fisheries.
How bad were the humpy hauls?
In Kodiak, fishing remained closed during 70 percent of the pink salmon run, and the catch of 3.2 million fish was 28 percent of the expected harvest. The estimated value to fishermen, Walker wrote in his letter, is $2.2 million, compared to a five-year average of $14.6 million.
In the Sound, the total pink catch of 12 million was 46 percent below the preseason forecast. The dockside value of $6.6 million compares to an average of nearly $44 million over the past five years.
In the lower Inlet, the pink salmon catch of 97,000 fish was 13 percent of the 759,000 forecast. That means a pay day of $78,000 for Inlet fishermen, who have averaged $501,000 in recent years.
Fishermen at Chignik did not even get any directed openers for pink salmon this summer. The 140,000 humpies taken during the region's sockeye fishery were valued at $110,000, down from a five-year average of $740,000.
Should it occur, the pink salmon disaster declaration won't set a precedent. Alaska received $20.8 million in federal money for fishery failures due to three years of low king salmon returns on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers as well as the Inlet region.
The money was paid in two installments over two years, with an initial grant of $7.8 million divided among commercial fishermen. A second grant of $13 million was distributed as $4.5 million to the sportfishing sector, $7.5 million for research and restoration, and $700,000 to Inlet processors and salmon buyers who demonstrated income losses due to the fisheries failure.
"This is not going to be a blanket money grab for anybody who fished pinks. If you're in the disaster area and a large portion of your income was based on pink salmon, then I believe you will be eligible," said Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who spearheaded the push for the pink disaster declaration.
Stutes said her office is now compiling details for applicants, should the move get a greenlight from the federal government.
Affected fishermen also can apply for a waiver of this year's state loan payments, which would be tacked on to the end of the loan term.
A memo from Walker directs the state Department of Economic Development to "commit as many resources as possible to assisting pink salmon fishery permit holders, and that review of individual loan payment waivers be expedited."
Cameras count fish
To get better data on what's coming over the rails, three years ago fishery managers expanded onboard observer coverage to include halibut longline vessels less than 50 feet for the first time.
That's prompted a push to replace observer bodies that draw paychecks with electronic monitoring systems that don't. Such systems are already in use in other U.S. and Canadian fisheries.
"Those of us who live here know that some of these boats are too small to carry an extra person. There are bunk space issues, the wheel house is too small for them to spread all their stuff out and still be able to eat at the galley table and sometimes there's just nowhere to put them on deck safely," said Dan Falvey, program director for the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association in Sitka.
Armed with funding from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the association has been recruiting boats to field test an EMS that includes a control center connected to GPS, cameras to monitor the lines, a deck camera to track discards and a seabird camera. The system, provided at no cost through the EM Cooperative Research Program, is turned on only if a vessel is selected randomly for coverage prior to a fishing trip.
"We'll get it installed … and next year before they go fishing, they log in their trip in and if the system says they have to have at-sea monitoring, they just flip the switch and fish like they normally do," Falvey explained.
The goal is to equip up to 90 longline vessels and 30-pot boats of all sizes with electronic monitoring next year; about 70 from Kodiak, Homer, Sitka, Seward and Petersburg had signed up by the Sept. 20 deadline.
Anyone interested should register, Falvey said. They can also be part of future programs. Contact Liz Chilton at 206-526-4197.
Tipping the scales
In its quest to streamline catch accountings and end the use of paper fish tickets, state managers plan to integrate salmon weights with hopper scales aboard tender boats next summer.
"We were approached by industry to see if we could modify one of our eLandings application onboard tenders to allow for automatic documentation of the scale weights," said Gail Smith, eLandings program coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, adding that Trident Seafoods and Rice Lake Weights are collaborating with the pilot project in Cordova.
About 20 percent of Alaska's 600-700 tender boats use hoppers rather than hanging scales, Smith said, but more are moving towards vacuuming the fish from the catcher boats and conveying them to a hopper scale for better weighing accuracy.
"A brailer bag that is hung from a hanging scale has quite a lot of weight associated with the fish inside and bounces up and down more, so it's hard to get a good accurate weight," she explained.
Trial tests last year on tendered cod and pollock taken near Sand Point were very successful, Smith said, and the department is eager to try out the new system on salmon. It will be used in Bristol Bay next summer.
"Now we want to modify it to salmon landings because we've got more species and different delivery conditions, so we want to make sure it provides rapid, efficient documentation of the catch," she added.
"This will accommodate setnetters and beach-based deliveries to trucks or to smaller tenders," Smith said.
Both projects are funded by NOAA Fisheries and Pacific State Marine Fisheries Commission.