The Panhandle plans to be the next Alaska region to give new life to old fishing gear by sending it to plastic recycling centers. The tons of nets and lines piled up in local lots and landfills will become the raw material for soda bottles, cell phone cases, sunglasses, skateboards, swimsuits and more.
Juneau, Haines, Petersburg and possibly Sitka have partnered with Net Your Problem to launch an effort this year to send old or derelict seine and gillnets to a recycler in Richmond, British Columbia.
"We’re going to be working in a new location with a new material and sending it to a new recycler,” said Nicole Baker, founder of Net Your Problem and the force behind fishing gear recycling in Alaska.
Baker, a former fisheries observer who also is a research assistant for Ray Hilborn at the University of Washington, jumpstarted recycling programs for trawl nets, crab and halibut line two years ago at Dutch Harbor and Kodiak quickly followed. The nets can weigh from 5,000 to 25,000 tons and can cost $350-$500 per ton for disposal in landfills. The community/industry collaborations in both towns have so far sent 300,000 pounds of gear in seven vans to Europe for recycling.
"Each fishing port will have its own special logistics plan but the general role is the same,” she said. “You need somebody to give you the nets, truck them around, load them and ship them.”
No two plastics are the same, and the B.C. recycler opened the door for removals of seine and gillnets made from nylon. Baker said only gear that contains lead, such as longline gear or leaded lines, cannot be accepted for recycling.
"The recycler I have been using in Europe told me it is illegal to import lead into the EU. So that is something that is still a bit of a struggle,” she said. “But as far as polyethylene and polypropylene trawl gear, or nylon seine or gillnet gear, I can recycle all of those at the moment.”
The pace of the fishing seasons will determine the best time for the Southeast towns to begin collecting the nets from fishermen, Baker said, and she hopes to hear from other communities that have net pile ups.
“If you are dealing with this issue please feel free to reach out to me because I am happy to try to establish the logistics for a program in your community,” she said. “My goal is to expand slowly but surely and add one new location every year while still continuing support for recycling efforts at the previous locations.”
Baker will start off the Southeast tour in Haines during its Earth Day events on April 19.
Salmon that got their start in Alaska hatcheries are maintaining a decade long trend of comprising one third of the statewide catch.
In 2018, a hatchery harvest of 39 million salmon — mostly chums and pinks — was 34 percent of the total statewide take, valued at $176 million to Alaska fishermen.
Forty one million adult salmon returned to Alaska’s 29 hatcheries last year, shy of the 54 million fish forecast, and below the 61 million 10 year average.
That’s according to the 2018 salmon enhancement report released each year by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Prince William Sound is Alaska’s largest hatchery salmon producer and last year’s catch of 19 million fish accounted for 76 percent of the region’s total, and 75 percent of the value to fishermen at $65 million.
Southeast is the second biggest hatchery producer. The 2018 catch of about 8 million fish was 46 percent of the region’s harvest, and 59 percent of the value to fishermen at $63 million. $53 million of that was from chums.
At Kodiak, just under four million fish from two hatcheries made up 42 percent of the Island’s total catch last year. The fish were valued at $7 million, 25 percent of the salmon value
At Cook Inlet, a catch of just over half a million hatchery salmon accounted for 26 percent of the total harvest and 30 percent of the dockside value of $5.3 million. About 70 percent of those fish were pinks.
Nearly 1.8 billion tiny salmon were released to the sea in 2018 from pink and chum salmon eggs collected in 2017, and from Chinook, sockeye, and coho eggs collected in 2016.
Alaska hatchery operators forecast a return of about 79 million fish in 2019. This includes returns of 54 million pink, 21 million chum, 2.5 million sockeye, 1.5 million coho, and 109,000 king salmon.
Personal glimpses that chronicle the fishing life make up the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Almanac and the call is out for submissions. The second version of the Almanac is in the works and sales of the first run last year were so good, it’s covering costs for the whole project.
"People loved it. They’d ask which submission is yours. And you’d be eternally flipping to the picture of the fillets and peanut butter you fed your crew all summer,” said Jamie O’Connor, a Homer-based fishermen and head of the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Network for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “It’s a really fun way to communicate to people outside of this community about the culture of fishing, especially from the perspective of the young fishermen.”
Last year’s 141 page Almanac featured nearly 60 items from almost every region of the state. “Everything from essays to recipes to photos, poems and art. There’s also a lot of useful stuff in there. Plus, fun stories, a little bit of mischief, pro tips from more mature fishermen to people who want to get into the industry.”
The Almanac is styled similar to a younger version of a publication for farmers that dates back to 1792.
"It’s modeled after the Young Farmer’s Almanac as a way to share the culture and put out a touchstone every year that people can refer back to or share with their families,” O’Connor said. “That’s what we’re hoping to do for young fishermen as well.”
"We’re looking for anything people want to send in. We’re hoping they really flex their creativity, she added.
Lots of April fishing is underway all across Alaska.
One sad exception is the roe herring fishery at Sitka Sound where seiners have yet to wet their nets. Typically the fishery has come and gone by mid-March and the harvest this year called for a nearly 13,000 ton haul. The herring, which are valued for their eggs, are showing up but they are too small to call an opener. The last time a fishery was called off at Sitka Sound was in 1977.
Golden king crab also has been slow going — ten to 15 crabbers have pulled up less than 50,000 pounds out of a 76,000 pound limit. The crabs have paid out at $11 per pound, making each worth $70 to $80 to fishermen, reported KFSK in Petersburg.
Southeast’s winter Tanner crab catch of 1.3 million pounds was the third best in 15 years. The month-long fishery was valued at $4.2 million for a fleet of 69 crabbers.
Divers are still going down for geoduck clams and Southeast’s spring troll fishery for Chinook begins on May 1 in some districts.
There’s lots of fishing action at Prince William Sound — a shrimp pot fishery opens April 15 through the 23rd. Ninety-nine boats will compete for 68,100 pounds of the popular prawns.
A sablefish season also opens on April 15 for 134,000 pounds. And due to weather, the Tanner crab fishery was extended in parts of Prince William Sound to April 18.
A one day a week herring fishery opens at Upper Cook Inlet on April 20 through May 31, and a small smelt fishery opens on May 1.
Kodiak’s herring fishery kicks off on April 15 with a harvest set at just over 1,400 tons. And spotters are already flying at Togiak looking for early herring arrivals there. That herring fishery, which should come in at around 23,000 tons, usually opens in May.
Halibut and sablefish are still crossing the docks and fisheries for cod, pollock, flounders and other whitefish and more are ongoing throughout the Gulf and Bering Sea.
Believe it or not, in just a few weeks Alaska’s salmon season will officially begin with runs of reds and kings to the Copper River in mid-May.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based journalist who writes a weekly column, Fish Factor, that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally. Contact her at email@example.com.