Strict new rules are now in place for Alaska fishermen and their vessels to protect against and prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the 2020 salmon season.
Effective April 24, Gov. Mike Dunleavy provided 11 pages of mandates that specifically apply to those who have not “agreed to operate under a fleet-wide plan submitted by a company, association or entity” representing them. Among other things, each independent skipper must sign a “Health Mandate Acknowledgement Form” prior to going fishing. They are required to maintain a written or time-stamped electronic log acknowledging they will comply with the mandates, along with a clear description of which protective plan they are enforcing on their vessel.
Skippers also must certify that crew members have been screened upon arrival and that they have completed self-quarantines.
Prior to accepting any fish or making any payment to a vessel, a tender or processor must receive a signed copy of the vessel’s Acknowledgement Form. It only needs to be done once during the season, but all parties must retain a signed copy until the end of the year.
Crew members and captains flying to Bristol Bay and other Alaska regions will undergo verbal and physical screenings upon arrival. They must wear masks while traveling on commercial or chartered aircraft, at air terminals, and go directly to where they will quarantine for two weeks and have their temperatures checked twice a day.
Crew members are allowed to quarantine onboard a vessel and participate in fishing as long as they restrict contact with other boats and people on shore as much as possible.
To protect communities, the mandates stipulate that crew can only leave the vessel for essential purposes.
If a fisherman becomes sick, they will be required to isolate themselves on the boat. If they are unable to do so, the entire vessel will be under isolation.
There are many other requirements, which the state will re-evaluate by May 30.
Meanwhile, to further explain the mandates and answer questions, United Fishermen of Alaska is holding a free webinar on Wednesday, April 29, at 10a.m. Participants include Tom Koloski and Charles Pelton with Alaska Unified Command; Jason Wiard, environmental health officer with the Division of Environmental Conservation; and John Moller, Dunleavy’s commercial fisheries policy adviser.
Fish Board brouhaha — The board that oversees management of Alaska’s subsistence, commercial, sport and personal use fisheries will include all but one inlanders if Dunleavy has his way. Some fear the surprising appointees may not be vetted by an absent Legislature and the public will be left out of the process.
On April 1, Dunleavy made two appointments to the Board of Fisheries: Abe Williams, an Anchorage-based Bristol Bay fisherman and director of regional affairs for the Pebble Mine; and McKenzie Mitchell, a self-claimed hunting/fishing guide and small-plane enthusiast from Fairbanks.
Others on the seven-member board hail from those same communities, along with Wasilla, Willow and Eagle River. Only John Jensen of Petersburg represents a coastal region.
Katherine Carscallen, director of Fishermen for Bristol Bay, said she thought naming Williams to the Fish Board was an April Fools’ joke.
“Yes, he’s a fisherman but he has been advocating on behalf of the Pebble mine for a decade and to give him that platform while we know this mining company is pushing hard to get a permit and an investor in the coming year - it seems really inappropriate in my mind,” she told KTUU.
Williams would replace Fritz Johnson of Dillingham. Carscallen’s said her biggest concern is that the new appointees will begin participating in the Fish Board process this fall with no formal confirmation by Alaska legislators.
“Under a normal process it goes through a vigorous vetting process. The governor will forward names and the legislature will take public testimony and consider the appointment. Because of the COVID situation, the Legislature has closed up shop and we’re kind of skipping that step,” Carscallen said.
The confirmations must take place before the legislature convenes in late January. A house bill (HB309) temporarily extends the time for them to meet and confirm appointments to state boards and commissions prior to the session. Plans are underway to reconvene in early May, potentially by videoconference, to approve plans for spending $1.25 billion in federal aid but it’s not known if confirmation hearings will be included.
Regardless, Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) is determined to make it happen.
“There’s hope and intent on behalf of the legislature to have the committee hearings and allow the public to weigh in. It’s imperative, especially when you look at the nominees on the Fish Board, public input is critical,” she said, adding that she will convene a virtual meeting if necessary.
Stutes has been openly critical of what she perceives as an anti-commercial bias on the Fish Board that she claims is led by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner.
“There needs to be a fair process and it appears to me clearly the Board of Fish is getting stacked. And I base that on my personal conversations and interactions with some of the board members,” she said.
Stutes added she also is concerned about Alaska policymakers being stacked with Pebble mine advocates.
“It’s concerning to me that our commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation is an ex-Pebble guy (Jason Brune, former head of Pebble’s public affairs and government relations), and now we’ve got a Board of Fish nominee that’s a Pebble guy? I mean, come on,” she said.
Williams, who was born in Naknek, was one of six fishermen who in 2019 sued the fishermen-funded Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association for using part of the 1% tax paid by its 1,650 members to oppose the Pebble mine. The lawsuit, funded by Pebble, was dismissed by an Anchorage judge.
Little information is available for McKenzie Mitchell, who would replace Reed Moriskey of Fairbanks on the board, and contact attempts were unsuccessful.
She is listed as adjunct faculty in “sport and recreation business” at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks School of Management. The Wilderness Beach Lodge on Kodiak Island says Mitchell “has fished with several remote lodges over the years and was looking to upgrade her captains license so joined our team. She goes to school in Fairbanks in the fall/winter where her and her boyfriend reside and enjoy flying their small planes into remote hunting/camping sites.”
Washington state lawsuit targets trollers — Nearly 1,600 trollers who fish for king salmon in Southeast Alaska could be beached this summer over a lawsuit to protect killer whales — in Puget Sound, Washington.
On April 16 the Wild Fish Conservancy filed an injunction against NOAA Fisheries to block the summer chinook salmon season set to open July 1 until the lawsuit is resolved.
KCAW in Sitka reported the conservancy claims NOAA has failed to allow enough king salmon to return to Puget Sound to feed endangered resident killer whales. Their lawsuit says that 97% of the kings caught in Southeast’s troll fishery are from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Alaska data show catches range from 30 to 80 percent, depending on the year.
Amy Daugherty, director of the Alaska Trollers Association, said her group is in shock and has intervened in the lawsuit.
“Our fishery is the backbone of Southeast Alaska economically,” she said. “We are 85% resident, small family businesses. We have challenges, which are the markets in this day and age, but we have to fish, even under the reduced allowances of the last treaty agreement.”
The lawsuit hits at a time when salmon fishermen are facing ruined markets from COVID-19 impacts. Wild Fish Conservancy spokesman Kurt Beardslee said that makes it a good time to call off fishing.
“If there were ever a time to do it, this may be the time also for fishermen. I know many of the processing plants are reducing their productivity. Some aren’t even working because of covid. We have to change the cycle, and this year is as good as any, if not better,” he said.
Beardslee added that the injunction doesn’t mean Alaska trollers are solely to blame for the decline of the Puget Sound killer whales, whose numbers are now down to 72. Rather, he said it’s an effort to force NOAA Fisheries to comply with the terms of the Endangered Species Act.
Daugherty pointed out that the lawsuit affects more than the commercial troll fleet.
“This legal matter is broader than just trolling,” she said. “I believe that all salmon fishermen, and anyone who bycatches salmon, are at risk, including sport fishermen. They need to realize that this is a pretty broad net in the lawsuit itself.”
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said the department is “exploring our options to intervene in the case.”