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Federal cash should soon be in hand for Alaska fishermen, processors and towns hurt by the 2016 pink salmon failure

It’s been a long time coming, but payments should soon be in hand for Alaska fishermen, processors and coastal communities hurt by the 2016 pink salmon run failure, the worst in 40 years.

The funds are earmarked for Kodiak, Prince William Sound, Chignik, Lower Cook Inlet, South Alaska Peninsula, Southeast Alaska and Yakutat.

Congress OK’d over $56 million in federal relief in 2017, but the authorization to cut the money loose languished on desks in D.C. for over two years.

The payouts got delayed again last October when salmon permit holders, who share the biggest chunk at nearly $32 million, were finally able to apply to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission for their checks.

But when it was discovered that the way in which the payouts were calculated was badly flawed, the commission put on the brakes.

“There was a big snafu because a lot of the crew was underreported by the skippers. So Pacific States said that until everything gets squared away, no one is going to get any checks,” said Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who has been watchdogging the payouts since the pink fishery was declared a disaster.

“That was just not acceptable,” Stutes said, quickly crediting leadership at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for coming up with a better solution.

“With the help of Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang and Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker, we worked with the commission and they agreed to send out checks to those individuals who they had no questions about,” Stutes explained, adding that checks should be in the mail by mid-February. “And they are going to send out letters to individuals they do have questions about to give them an opportunity to immediately reply rather than wait till the appeal period.”

Alaska pink salmon processors will split nearly $18 million in disaster relief funds.

“They are trying to figure out how to pay their employees and what employees qualify,” she said. “So it’s finally moving after three and a half years.”

About $2.4 million in disaster funds is set aside for municipalities and nearly $4 million will go to pink salmon research - $450,000 to Kodiak’s Kitoi Bay Hatchery for its Saltwater Marking Sampling project; $680,000 to the Southeast Alaska Coastal Monitoring Survey to help with pink salmon forecasting; and $2.5 million to the Alaska Hatchery Research Project that since 2010 has studied interactions of hatchery and wild salmon in Prince William Sound and Southeast.

Fishery disasters also were declared for the 2018 cod collapse in the Gulf of Alaska and the sockeye salmon failure at Chignik. Recipients should fare better if Congress approves a bipartisan bill introduced last week by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.. The bill, Fishery Failures: Urgently Needed Disaster Declarations Act (Fishery FUNDD Act), would improve the federal fishery disaster process and set a strict timeline for payout of funds.

As Rep. Stutes readied for Juneau for the start of the Alaska legislative session, she said she was “optimistic.”

“I feel like the people of Alaska have sent a message to the administration and I’m hoping the administration will be a little more willing to interact with the Legislature,” she said. “That was a big stumbling block last year. We did not have much communication between the administration and the Legislature. And you just don’t get anything done when you have such a divided body. I’m optimistic that we can come together as a unit and protect Alaskans.”

As chair of the fisheries committee, Stutes said a top priority will be ensuring a robust Fish and Game budget.

“When you cut the Fish and Game budget, you’re cutting revenue to the state,” she said.

In terms of fishery measures left over from last session, Stutes said a goal is to pass a bill (HB 35) that resolves conflict-of-interest protocols for the state Board of Fisheries.

“When you have a board member who has expertise in a certain area and is conflicted out and can’t even express his knowledge to other board members, what’s the point of having him on the board?” she explained. “This bill will allow them to participate in the conversation but will not allow them to vote on the issue. We’ve been trying to change this for 14 years and this is the closest we’ve come.”

Another Stutes bill (HB 185) aims to rewrite the 2018 Derelict Vessel Act to exempt boats already licensed with the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. The new law requires that owners of all boats over 24 feet register in person at a Department of Motor Vehicles office, including those already documented by the Coast Guard.

“That’s kind of a double whammy for individuals who already have registered through the CFEC. It’s a duplication of information,” Stutes explained. “The idea is not to create additional revenue for the state, but to create a database so they have access to ownership to vessels that are in Alaska waters.”

Forest fish

A first-ever, 10-year study estimates the numbers and values of what the Tongass and Chugach rivers and streams contribute to Alaska’s commercial salmon industry.

The Tongass is the largest national forest in the U.S. at nearly 27,000 square miles and covers most of Southeast Alaska. The adjacent Chugach at half the size ranks as the nation’s second largest forest and covers the Copper River delta, Prince William Sound, and part of the Kenai Peninsula.

The study results showed that from 2007 to 2016 the two forests contributed 48 million salmon on average each year to commercial fisheries, with a dockside value of $88 million.

These “forest fish” represented 25% of Alaska's total salmon catch for decade and 16% of the total commercial value.

For the Tongass, the most lucrative “forest fish” was pink salmon, averaging $42 million to fishermen each year. Cohos came next, averaging nearly $15 million, and chums at almost $9 million.

For the Chugach, the priciest returns came from sockeye salmon, which produced $10.5 million in local catches on average. Pinks were next at $6.2 million.

The study said it underestimates the value of salmon produced by the forests, as it takes into account only commercial harvests and not recreational or subsistence uses. It also counts only dockside value, and not the economic impacts of local fish processing.

The project was funded by the U.S. Forest Service, which is interested in estimating the different activities and services that national forests provide. Find Quantifying the Monetary Value of Alaska National Forests to Commercial Pacific Salmon Fisheries in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management.

Fish updates

Cod and a mix of groundfish kicked off the fishing year on Jan. 1 in the Bering Sea and throughout the Gulf of Alaska. Boats also are targeting black rockfish in Southeast, around Kodiak, Chignik and the Alaska Peninsula, and along the Aleutians.

Lingcod also is open in Southeast, where divers also have wrapped up a 2 million-pound sea cucumber fishery and are still tapping on giant geoduck clams. Over 100 Southeast trollers are still out on the water fishing for winter king salmon.

Alaska pollock opened Jan. 20 in the Gulf and Bering Sea, where the catch will again top 3 billion pounds. Prince William Sound also has a 5 million-pound pollock fishery.

Bering Sea crabbers are still out on the grounds, pulling up 34 million pounds of snow crab, a 24 percent increase.

Kodiak’s Jan. 15th Tanner crab fishery was pushed back a day due to high winds. Tanner and golden king crab fisheries open in Southeast on Feb. 17, and Tanners open on March 1 at Prince William Sound.

Alaska fish meetings.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council meets Jan. 27 through Feb. 2 in Seattle.

Halibut stakeholders are bracing for 2020 catches when they are announced in two weeks. The International Pacific Halibut Commission meeting is at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage this year from Feb. 3 through 7.

The Board of Fish put in an extra day at Kodiak and heads next to a marathon meeting on Upper Cook Inlet fishing issues. More than 170 management proposals are on deck Feb 7-19 at the Anchorage Egan Center.

The 40th annual ComFish Alaska trade show is set for March 26-28 in Kodiak.

The fourth annual Bristol Bay Fish Expo is scheduled for June 12-13 in Naknek.

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