2016 hauled in mixed bag for commercial fisheries

As with any season, 2016 had plenty of winners and losers in the Alaska commercial fishing industry.

The year started off with a huge sigh of relief from Upper Cook Inlet salmon setnet fishermen when the Alaska Supreme Court over-ruled a decision by a Superior Court judge that would have allowed a ballot measure to ban setnets in “urban areas,” but was targeted at Cook Inlet.

If the ballot measure had been allowed to go to a vote and had won, it not only would have made it more difficult to manage the sockeye fishery, but it also would have eliminated the livelihood of the 700 Upper Cook Inlet setnet permit holders, 85 percent of which are Alaska residents.

At the beginning of the year, halibut fishermen were feeling optimistic that stocks had leveled off after steep declines over the past 15 years, when the coast-wide stock saw an overall increase, although a couple of areas went down slightly.

Area 2C, Southeast Alaska, went up 6 percent.

Those hopes were rattled at the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s fall interim meeting when the staff recommendations called for a sharp decrease in 2C for 2017.

Halibut prices, however, started high and stayed there, with some loads hitting a record of $7.80 per pound for fish over 40 pounds, and the price staying above $6.50 per pound throughout most of the season.

Coast Guard regulations that had been in the works for years finally took effect this year, including commercial fishing vessels under 36 feet being required to carry a life raft when operating more than 3 miles from shore, and mandatory dockside safety exams.

Boats fishing for cod with pot, jig and longline gear in Cook Inlet and elsewhere reported low prices, small fish, lousy weather and spotty catches during the January/February part of the season, lowering the effort for a fishery that fills in between salmon seasons for many boats.

Homer fisherman Buck Laukitis was one of two Alaskans tapped by Gov. Bill Walker in March to serve on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a role to which he was well since he has attended meetings for more than a decade as a concerned fisherman.

He said at the time that his main goal in being on the council is “more accountability.”

Another prominent Alaska fisherman, Linda Behnkin of Sitka, was named to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Behnkin had previously served nine years on the NPFMC.

In April, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game released a fairly robust forecast for the Upper Cook Inlet salmon season, with a pre-season forecast of a return of 7.1 million sockeye salmon, and a 4.1 million sockeye harvest by the commercial fleet. However, that was not to be.

The commercial sockeye harvest came in at 3 million fish, and the total run fell short by 27 percent.

Salmon fisheries across the state fell far short of expectations, with the exception of Bristol Bay.

In September, Gov. Walker requested a disaster declaration from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for the salmon fisheries in Prince William Sound, Kodiak Management Area, Chignik Management Area, and Lower Cook Inlet Management Areas.

In Lower Cook Inlet, the 2016 pink salmon commercial harvest of approximately 97,000 fish was 13 percent of the 753,000 pink salmon forecast and 17 percent of the five year average harvest of even-year pink salmon.

The Copper River salmon drift fishery also fell short of the forecast, in spite of increased fishing time and effort.

The sockeye salmon fishery on the Copper River flats had a harvest of 1.14 million fish, 22 percent below the previous 10-year average, in spite of being open 96 hours more than that most recent average.

Meanwhile the harvest of 11,600 chinook salmon was below the previous 10-year average of 17,200.

The spring herring fisheries met with mixed success, with the Sitka Sound sac roe fishery catching only 4,700 tons of a 10,000 ton quota when the fish showed up and spawned in too short of time to catch the quota.

Kodiak saw limited effort due to low prices, and Togiak caught most of their 29,000 ton quota.

The Bering Sea opilio crab fishery, which starts in earnest after the first of the year, had a quota of 40.7 million pounds, but then dropped 47 percent for the upcoming 2017 season.

Red king crab, which is generally fished in October, dropped 15 percent for this fall, but saw a record dock price of $9.50 per pound before retroactive payments.

The bairdi Tanner crab fishery was eliminated this year due to the female biomass not reaching the necessary threshold, but the Alaska Board of Fisheries may allow for a limited harvest at their January meeting in Kodiak.

In October, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association won a court battle to require the Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery be managed according to the standards set out in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which has thrown the fishery into uncertainty.

It means the state and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council will have to work together to come up with a fisheries management plan that fits the criteria of the MSA, but so far no clear vision of what that means has been brought forward.

One issue weighing heavily on the minds of many fishermen and fisheries scientists is the high ocean temperatures recorded, especially in the Bering Sea.

Bering Sea surface and bottom temperatures are higher than they have been in 35 years.

Federal data show a 2016 mean surface temperature of 49.1 degrees, compared to an average of 43.5 degrees over the long term. The mean bottom temperature in the Bering Sea was just below 40 degrees, compared to an average of 36.3 degrees.

Higher temperatures reduce the fat content of the tiny ocean creatures that feed the salmon, pollock, cod and other fish, which is believed to be the cause of the smaller-than-average sizes for those species.

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.