Fishing issues will take a back seat to budget cutting when the Alaska Legislature convenes Jan. 19, but two early fish bills (and one holdover) are getting attention already.
One new measure aims to stop the migration of commercial fishing permits out of Alaska.
"We lost over 50 percent of our permits (since) the 1973 original issuance of permits," said Robin Samuelsen of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., speaking at a two-day Alaska Sea Grant workshop last week in Anchorage called "Fisheries Access: Charting the Future."
Forty years ago at Bristol Bay, 36 percent of the more than nearly 2,000 permits were held by locals and 64 percent by nonresidents. By 2013, the numbers were 19 percent local and 81 percent nonresident. Similar trends, by varying degrees, are happening in other regions as well.
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said he intends to introduce a bill that would establish a permit bank to reverse the outmigration trend.
The bank would buy nonresident permits and lease them to young fishermen who otherwise could not afford them. It would offer several types of fishing permits (Alaska has 65) that would be proportional and reflective of regional fisheries. A permit bank would not cost the state any money, he said, because it would fall to local communities to raise the money.
"Rural Alaska communities are really struggling, and there aren't a lot of solutions that get talked about for how you solve the underlying problem, which is creating economic opportunity in rural Alaska," Kreiss-Tomkins said. "I think this is a rare solution that we in the Legislature can enact to help these communities."
Samuelsen said the corporation is already sponsoring permits for young fishermen and a permit bank would facilitate that effort.
A fish bill that has already been prefiled would let Alaskans take fisheries enhancement efforts into their own hands. House Bill 220 by Rep. David Talerico, R-Healy, would allow "fisheries-enhancement permits" as a "tool to support Fish and Game."
Permits would allow people to take eggs, grow them into smolt and release them wherever they want into the wild. The permit also would allow groups or individuals to "enhance habitat and augment nutrients" in state waterways to support fish," according to the bill.
If many smaller facilities can do the work of a handful of larger, more costly, facilities, it will help Alaska's budget, Talerico told the Juneau Empire.
Enhancement permits would be available to Native organizations and sportsmen's groups, Talerico said, adding, "Those guys know how to raise money in a hurry."
Another tool intended "to help fish managers" will resurface this year — "The Alaskans-First Fishing Act," which aims to give personal-use fisheries a priority over sport and commercial users when restrictions are imposed to achieve a management goal. As it stands now, the three fisheries are on equal footing in the eyes of state managers.
The bill (Senate Bill 42) has been introduced during each of the last seven legislative sessions by Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, and gone nowhere. (A duplicate law — HB 110 — has been filed by Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake.)
The bill states: "one thing all Alaskans can agree on is that we should have a priority over people coming from elsewhere in the country and the world to utilize and harvest our fisheries resources. Fisheries that are restricted to residents only are meant to enable Alaskans to access their fisheries resources for their personal use and consumption."
The United Fishermen of Alaska's position on personal use issue has been: The Legislature should leave prioritization of fishery allocations to the Alaska Board of Fisheries and management to the state Department of Fish and Game.
What price does that fish fetch?
The first thing fishermen want to know is fish prices. Usually, that information is tough to come by during fishing season, as final prices aren't settled until months after the catch is sold.
That's a tough way to run a business. There are some helpful price resources, albeit after the fact.
Each April, Fish and Game provides dock prices for 85 different fish species for the previous year, by gear type and region. It's called the Commercial Operator's Annual Report, or COAR, compiled from inputs by Alaska fish buyers.
Here's a 2014 sampler of prices for many of the species people seldom hear about.
• The statewide average herring price was 11 cents a pound.
• Octopus averaged 61 cents.
• Lingcod fetched $1.27 at the docks.
• Those billions of pounds of pollock in Alaska's largest fishery averaged 15 cents a pound.
• Those pesky arrowtooth flounder paid out at 6 cents.
• For Atka mackerel, the average price was a dime, and 17 cents for perch.
• On the more expensive end of the scale, sea cucumbers averaged $4.02.
• The state tracks 22 different kinds of rockfish, with yelloweye, or red snapper, the priciest at $1.31 a pound, and red stripe the cheapest at 14 cents.
• The lowest-priced Alaska fish of all were sculpin and yellowfin sole, each at 2 pennies a pound.
• The priciest were spot prawns, paying Southeast Alaska fishermen $8.65 a pound.
Why should you care about fish prices if you're far from the coast? With Alaska's commercial catches coming in at 5 billion to 6 billion pounds every year, adding just 1 penny per pound makes a difference of nearly $1 million in landing taxes for state and local governments.
Ice sightings wanted
We've all seen images of fishing boats in winter, where the rigging, wires and wheelhouse are literally turned into a solid block of ice. That freezing ocean spray and heavy icing can capsize a vessel in the blink of an eye.
Weather forecasters are in the fourth year of a project to fine-tune NOAA's Watches and Warnings about heavy freezing spray.
"We're trying to understand more about the dynamics and the atmospheric conditions, and even the types of boats that might be impacted by freezing spray," Lt. Joseph Phillips at NOAA's Ocean Prediction Center in Maryland told radio station KMXT. "What we are learning is that freezing spray is a very difficult thing to forecast. A lot of it has to deal with what direction a ship is moving in, the size and shape of the ship, the wind conditions. You can have warm waters and cold temperatures and still get freezing spray."
Forecasters from NOAA and Environment Canada are asking mariners for help in reporting icing conditions in Alaska, the Northeast and Great Lakes regions.
"Right now we just want to hear if there is freezing spray or not. But more information like the icing conditions, ice accretion rate, air temperature, sea and wind conditions, relative humidity — all that information is great," Phillips said.
"Then we can start tweaking and understanding why we're not forecasting or overforecasting, maybe adjust the models we are using here and there."
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.