Board of Fish postpones Southeast meeting, new time TBD
Update: The Board of Fisheries announced Jan. 11 the Southeast finfish and shellfish meeting will be held March 10-22 in Anchorage to balance the challenges of logistics, other board meetings, the timing of fisheries and the latest surge in COVID-19 cases in Alaska, according to a statement from Department of Fish and Game officials.
Original story: The Alaska Board of Fisheries kicked off the new year by postponing its Southeast regulatory meeting.
The meeting was supposed to run from Jan. 4–15 in Ketchikan. It would have been the first in-person Board of Fisheries meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic started forcing cancellations in March 2020. A Jan. 1 announcement from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the postponement of the Southeast meeting was out of “abundance of caution due to the record-breaking rise of COVID-19 cases in the United States, and a concerning sharp rise in Southeast Alaska.”
Like most regions of the United States, COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Southeast Alaska. Several Fish and Game staff members who were supposed to participate in the meeting recently tested positive for COVID-19 as well, according to the announcement.
“Conducting this intensely public 12-day meeting with potential attendance of over 200 people from around the state has the potential to cause a significant case spike in Ketchikan and lead to overrunning its hospital capacity already expected to strain from local infections from the holiday season,” the announcement states.
ADFG did not announce a new date or location, but the Board of Fisheries intends to finish its regulatory cycle within this year, according to the Jan. 1 statement.
Herring management is at the top of the list of concerns for the Southeast Alaska meeting, with a raft of proposals dividing users primarily between the subsistence and commercial groups.
The largest commercial herring fishery in Southeast is in Sitka Sound, though there are smaller fisheries spread across the region. They’re harvested in a number of different ways for several purposes, including as sac-roe and for commercial bait or food, and the spawn is harvested on kelp for both commercial purposes and subsistence. The sac-roe fishery and spawn-on-kelp fisheries all typically take place in the spring, when herring are spawning in Southeast, while the bait and food fishery typically takes place in the fall and winter.
A set of 15 proposals before the board at this meeting offer changes to the harvest rate strategy, time and area, quota shares, gear and management plans. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska offered several of the proposals to change the strategy for the Sitka Sound fishery, primarily to preserve the stock for subsistence use. All three proposals received dozens of public comments in support from commercial fishermen, subsistence users and tribal members, among others.
The Sitka Tribe of Alaska sued ADFG officials in 2018 over the state’s herring management strategies, which Tribe officials contend favor commercial interests. The case is now before the Alaska Supreme Court.
The recent biomass in Sitka Sound has been increasing, which means the harvest rate has been near that 20 percent recently, but the amount of remaining harvestable surplus for subsistence users and ecosystem use is based on old data and is not enough, according to the Sitka Tribe.
The first proposes to limit commercial harvest of the Sitka Sound herring stock to less than 20 percent of the total spawning biomass, and the other two seek to limit the harvest of the older fish, which are larger. In their rationale, Sitka Tribe of Alaska officials wrote that the demands of the commercial fishery mean larger fish are the ones being most heavily targeted.
“Currently, many herring captured by the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery are young and small and do not meet market demands,” the Tribe’s proposal states. “Consequently, the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery consistently targets and harvests the oldest, largest, most fecund females in the population. These are the very fish we should protect to ensure the long-term health of the population.”
A dozen other proposals seek to change the regulations of the herring fisheries as well. Those from the Sitka Herring Conservation Alliance, a fishing industry group, ask for reduced closed areas to commercial fishing in Sitka Sound and a new requirement for a subsistence fishing permit to harvest herring roe on branches in Sitka Sound. Several individuals are asking for an increase in the possession limit for subsistence spawn-on-kelp and the establishment of equal-share quotas for the Sitka sac roe purse seine fishery.
Herring aren’t the only topic of contention, though. Several proposals targeting the operation of salmon hatcheries in Southeast would set up a list of requirements for hatchery operations, including limiting straying rates — hatchery salmon that return to nearby streams and mix with wild stocks — and setting controls on production if straying rates exceed a certain amount. The author of the proposal, Pioneer Alaskan Fisheries, Inc., notes concern about the mixing of hatchery salmon stocks with wild stocks out of Silver Bay near Sitka.
“This remaining pristine quadrant of (Southeast Alaska) is getting hammered by stray hatchery fish,” the Pioneer Alaskan’s proposal states.
The hatchery proposals have both received opposition from commercial fishing interests and hatchery operators, who say the actions could severely limit the ability of hatcheries to operate in Southeast and to support commercial fisheries.
A pair of proposals dealing with the region’s currently scarce king salmon garnered significant attention in comments prior to the meeting.
The first, submitted by ADFG, would have the commissioner set limits in the king salmon sport fishery in Southeast based on harvest rate in the winter king troll commercial fishery. The changes would come with the continued objective of providing 20 percent of the annual king harvest set by the Pacific Salmon Commission for the sport fishery, while also keeping the overall harvest within the Pacific Salmon Treaty allocations. Fish and Game notes in the proposal that without modification of the current plan, the sport fishery will exceed its allocation more often and by larger amounts.
A proposal by the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization would set the king salmon allocation between commercial trolling and sport fishing to 80-20, aiming for a 20 percent sport harvest allocation over time. The organization says this plan, which could take a variety of forms in bag and possession limits for residents and nonresidents, would help stabilize king salmon fishing opportunity that has been sharply curtailed in recent years.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].