A shuffle in some funding leaves Alaska's commercial fisheries division in good shape to manage the resources and target important projects across the state.
At first glance, the $69 million operating budget for FY19 appears to be down slightly from last year's $72.3 million, but that's not the case.
"Most of that difference is a sort of 'cleanup' in authority we no longer had funding for, such as the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund, test fishing and some interagency items. The rest is due to (a) $1.1 million shortfall in Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission revenue, which was made up from other department funds," said Scott Kelley, commercial fisheries division director.
Added to the budget was a nearly $1 million unrestricted increment offered by Rep. Dan Ortiz of Ketchikan, which got the nod from Alaska lawmakers.
The extra money will be distributed among 11 projects in four regions: Southeast, Central, Westward and the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim, or AYK.
The biggest project focuses on research to help determine the causes of declining chinook salmon.
"It's a $300,000 project for a juvenile chinook marine survey in the Bering Sea," Kelley said. "Almost the first thing I get asked at meetings around the state is what's going on with king salmon. That project looks at the early marine survival, which is where we think these mortality events are most affecting the species. It's the only project in the state that really gives us a first look at what's going on there."
Other projects back on the funding track include Southeast and Togiak herring research, westward salmon weirs, Southeast sablefish research and Prince William Sound Tanner crab.
One thing cut from the commercial fisheries budget was nearly $400,000 for unpopular test fishing programs, where portions of fishermen's catches are used to help cover management costs.
"We don't need to test fish because we got the general funds. I view that as a very positive development," Kelley said.
The entire state budget still awaits final approval, but Kelley expressed confidence in a good outcome.
"I do believe that the governor is strongly supportive, not just of the commercial fisheries division but for the Department of Fish and Game in general," he said.
Kelley also praised United Fishermen of Alaska and other fishing stakeholders for going to bat for their industry during the legislative session.
"Their advocating has been extremely beneficial for the division and greatly appreciated," Kelley said.
Crab share shuffle
It's slow going for brokers who deal in quota shares for crab in Bering Sea fisheries. Most holders are taking a wait-and-see approach on the crab stocks, hoping for an uptick before they sell.
Few sellers make it tough to place a value on the shares, said Jeff Osborn at Dock Street Brokers in Seattle, the "go-to guy" for crab quotas.
"Red crab is down from around $70 to between $60 and $65 per pound," Osborn said. "For opilio (snow crab) it's hard to say because there are no sellers to speak of. For vessel shares, I'll speculate somewhere in the $27 to $28 range. For bairdi Tanners, people see a lot of crab but nobody really knows what to expect for next season, so everyone is gun-shy on sales."
Crab shares are bought and sold in two categories: vessel shares and skipper shares.
"Skipper shares are reserved for people who are actively fishing on crab boats," he said. "You have to have participated in the crab fishery in the past 365 days to purchase those shares. Vessel shares are much more lenient and can be held by a qualified entity, corporation or business regardless of recent participation."
On the skipper side, Osborn said crabbers face a looming "use it or lose it" deadline.
"Basically, there needs to be participation in the crab fishery or another Alaska fishery within the past three years if you are an initial quota share recipient. Otherwise, effective June 30 for the upcoming season, they will not receive any quota to harvest. And then if they still have not satisfied the recency requirement by June 30, 2019, they will lose their quota share, it will just go away," Osborn said.
"It's to ensure that those who own skipper shares are actually participating and not accumulating it and leasing it out and collecting a check and depriving the market of shares that could be used by guys that are actively participating," he said.
Osborn estimates between 100 and 120 crabbers have transfer eligibility for skipper quota, but many could lose it under the new rules.
Another right of first offer option, or ROFO, also makes crab shares available to crew to help them become invested in the fishery.
"The intention of the ROFO is to set aside 10 percent of any transaction of vessel shares to be sold to qualified individuals. They can then purchase some or all at the same price that is sold to whoever is buying the 90 percent of the quota. So it provides an avenue for people to pick up smaller chunks than they might be able to otherwise."
Candidates come to Bristol Bay
Four candidates for Alaska governor will face off in a debate at the second annual Bristol Bay Fish Expo at Naknek in early June.
Naknek is the key logistics hub for 10 major seafood processors and a fleet of nearly 1,000 at the northeastern end of Bristol Bay.
The debate is just one of the events in a lively lineup that benefits child care in the community.
"We turned to our natural resource, salmon, to support Little Angels Childcare Academy and it has just been phenomenal," said Sharon Thompson, expo co-founder and organizer. "Salmon is supporting their early childhood education."
The first expo last year raised $17,000, enough to open the doors of the child care center. This year is likely to see even more donations.
"We are getting boat builders and engine manufacturers and others from Texas and Washington and Oregon — it's caught their eye. It just blows my mind," said co-organizer Katie Copps-Wilson.
The theme of the June 8-9 event is "Celebrating our Past, Sustaining our Future," and a history of the region's canneries will be highlighted.
Historian Katie Ringsmuth will kick things off June 8 with highlights of the Diamond NN Cannery History Project, which aims to document, preserve and share the unique experiences of cannery life. The Diamond plant was the first industrial processing plant on the Naknek River in 1890.
On that theme, Mug Up events will be ongoing during the two-day expo.
"Anyone who has ever worked in a cannery knows that 'mug up' is a colloquial term for coffee break. Coffee and doughnuts will be available along with storytelling, because we all know that's where the best stories are told," Thompson said, adding that archivists from the National Park Service and project curators will be on hand to scan, photograph and identify old photos, labels, maps and other artifacts.
The popular "speed hiring" will be back, which connects captains with potential crew members.
"It's like speed dating, and many happy matches were made last year. That face-to-face contact is so important. We expect it will be bigger than ever," Thompson said.
One of the biggest hits of the expo, Thompson said, is a fashion show and wearable art auction.
"We always joke that Bristol Bay has a style of its own. Grundens has donated lots of gear from their new line for women, so we're really stepping it up this year," she said.
"We are still accepting donations, and it is a great way for businesses to get their names and services out there. All the products and services will be listed in an online catalog that will be on social media everywhere," Thompson said.
The expo will end with a gubernatorial candidates debate — from 7 to 9 p.m. June 9 — that will include Gov. Bill Walker, Scott Hawkins, Mike Chenault and Mike Dunleavy. The debate will be broadcast live on KAKN and KDLG.
Looking ahead, the organizers plan to include more communities.
"From Togiak to Ugashik and everwhere in between and beyond, we would love to expand our expo to embrace crab, halibut, pollock, herring — all those other wild seafood products from Bristol Bay that are feeding the world," Thompson said.
"The bottom line is everything benefits Little Angels," said Copps-Wilson. "Our mantra is kids, fish, future."
Learn more at bristolbayfishexpo.com.