Alaska News

NOAA alters walrus-related boat travel restrictions around Cape Peirce, Round Island

Some fishermen in the Togiak area will see changes to vessel transit regulations next season. A Jan. 5 amendment released by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration changes restrictions on travel through specific areas of the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary and the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.

The amendment restores transit access to areas near Round Island and Cape Peirce, important haulouts for the Bristol Bay walrus population during the summer and fall breeding months. The regulation change does not alter the current ban on vessel traffic within three miles of shore, and it does not open any of the sanctuary designated waters to fishing.

Not all vessels will be impacted by the amendment. The directive only applies to federal waters, and to vessels that hold a federal fishing permit. Under the new regulations, federally permitted vessels will be allowed to travel through the area north of Round Island and near Cape Peirce between April 1 and Aug. 16.

The amendment intends to allow vessels to continue to act as tenders during the fishing season without affecting local walrus activities.

The vessel restrictions near Round Island and Cape Peirce trace back to the yellowfin sole fishery in the late 1980s. People noticed that the number of walrus at common haulouts was drastically reduced, and in 1990 the area was closed to all federal fishing vessel traffic, although non-permitted vessels could still move through the protected area.

Following this legislation, NOAA allowed tenders who held federal fishing permits to temporarily surrender their permits in order to travel through the walrus protection zones in northern Bristol Bay. This meant tenders could deliver their catch to processing plants on the mainland shore. However, a 2012 action in the Gulf of Alaska changed that policy, and any vessel that surrendered its federal permit was prohibited from picking up a new permit for three years.

Many vessels in the area are involved in both the federal and state fisheries. The revised amendment now allows permitted vessels -- mostly tenders -- to transit waters in Walrus Protection Areas.

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NOAA hopes that the new amendment will actually lessen interactions between boats and walrus by directing boats away from a major migration route between the haulouts and walrus feeding grounds further out in the bay.

"Typically, walrus head south and west into Bristol Bay to feed. By moving vessel traffic north, we reduce the likelihood of intercepting those walrus," said Steve Maclean, protected species coordinator for the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.

The amendment won't change any of the existing bans on fishing within the area, and will hopefully allow those boats with federal permits to move faster and more safely from processing plants on the mainland into federal fishing waters.

The vessel transit area was discussed at a recent Alaska Seafood Cooperative captain's meeting.

"We showed a copy of the new map and notified them of what the regs say," said cooperative manager Jason Anderson.

"It just saves us time and exposure by allowing us to go north of Round Island," Anderson said.

Located about 65 miles southwest of Dillingham, the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary contains some of the largest Pacific walrus haulout sites on the continent. More than 4,000 walrus, mostly males, arrive on Round Island's beaches each summer. Nine villages in the area participate in a fall subsistence walrus hunt on Round Island. The hunt is managed by the Qayassiq Walrus Commission.

Round Island is managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Cape Peirce extends out toward Hagemeister Island and is part of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. Both areas also host important habitat for the endangered Stellar's sea lion and numerous species of seabird alongside the walrus populations.

Fish and Game does have concerns about the Round Island walrus, but these are not connected to the NOAA amendment. Funding for the longstanding walrus research program was cut this year, and if no alternative money sources appear, scientists may not be able to monitor the island.

"There are concerns about disturbances... but that's connected to the fact that there will be no researchers out there," said Ed Weiss, biologist in charge of the game sanctuary.

In the past, it had been the job of researchers to hail vessels that entered into the three mile zone and notify them of the limitations. Without a research presence on the island next season Fish and Game will have to rely on public education to maintain adequate protective measures for the walrus population.

Still, neither NOAA nor Fish and Game anticipate that the increase in boat traffic in the protection areas will have much negative impact.

According to Maclean, there isn't an incentive for vessels to travel near Round Island, as most of their processing deliveries are on the mainland shore or near Hagemeister Strait. Boats with federal permits are also required to carry VMS positioning systems on board. These transmit locations to NOAA, and can prevent vessels from entering the prohibited three mile protection zone.

As for fears that the walrus will be impacted, Weiss says there may be potential for issues, but these mostly come from sudden noises or poaching, and not from the steady drone of boat engines in transit.

There has been no conclusive data showing that boat traffic beyond three miles has much of an effect on walrus.

"Out beyond three miles we haven't documented any vessel traffic that we can attribute any disturbances to," said Weiss.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Steve Maclean was incorrectly identified as a NOAA spokesperson. His job title is protected species coordinator for the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. The article has been updated to reflect the accurate information.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.

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