Story last updated at 6/3/2009 - 12:14 pm
A plan by Alaska fishery "overseers" aims to put the brakes on commercial fishing in the Arctic until more is known about the region's fish stocks and marine environment. Now it's time for the public to weigh in.
The Arctic Ocean is the earth's smallest and least explored ocean. For Alaska, the Arctic waters straddle the North Slope, with the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea on either side of Barrow. The crown of ice in the Arctic is receding fast - in recent years even the Northwest Passage is navigable in late summer! The melting ice is unveiling all kinds of unexplored opportunities for resource development in this unexpected frontier, including fishing.
"Historically, there have been no commercial fisheries in our Arctic seas," said Doug Mecum, head of the Alaska region of NOAA's Fisheries Service in Juneau.
After two years of tinkering, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has given its unanimous stamp of approval to adopt a plan that strictly defines parameters before any fishing occurs in U.S. portions of the Arctic. The plan governs all fish and shellfish stocks federal waters, meaning from three to 200 miles offshore. It does not affect Arctic subsistence fishing or hunting.
Global environmental groups have applauded the NPFMC's precautionary "look before you leap" approach to the Arctic.
"This area is changing very rapidly, and we need to get a better understanding of how climate change and ocean acidification are going to affect U.S. Arctic waters," said Dr. Chris Krenz, Arctic Project Manager for Oceana in Juneau. "We also need basic information about the ecosystem, including what are the abundances of fishable species. We don't even have baseline information on that.
"We also need an understanding of how those interact in the ecosystem and how fisheries might affect the subsistence way of life. So those are the big things that we really need to know in order to be able to manage that region sustainably."
Krenz also credits the NPFMC's collaborative approach in developing the Arctic fishing plan.
"This is people coming together and thinking about how things are changing rapidly in the environment, what our future needs are, and really taking a proactive yet precautionary approach to ensure that our fisheries are sustainable into the future," Krenz said. "This is a great example for other nations, and other industries like oil and gas, to look at as well."
The public has until July 27 to comment on the Arctic fishing plan, before it heads to the Secretary of Commerce for approval. Find it at alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/arctic/. Comment online at the eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov. The contact person is Sue Salveson, AK Sustainable Fisheries Division at NMFS in Juneau.
More fish on the air
A new radio program is providing expanded fish news for the Bristol Bay region. The Bristol Bay Fisheries Report is a weekly program produced by veteran newsman Mike Mason at KDLG in Dillingham. (Hear it online at www.kdlg.org.)
"It's a 20 minute program dedicated to commercial fishing, the industry, habitat issues, those kinds of things," Mason said.
The first program, for example, featured the "three H's in the Bay: herring, halibut and Help Wanted." Mason said he's eager to hear fish stories from the communities.
"One of the things I'm excited about is to hear the smaller, individual stories of fishermen and women," he said. "So if people have a particular idea or something that is exciting or new, I would love to hear about it."
The Bristol Bay Fishing Report will continue through July, thanks to funding by the fishermen's Regional Seafood Development Association. After that, Mason said he may continue to provide coverage of fishery meetings in Anchorage for KDLG.
"None of that has been squared away, but I am definitely interested in covering Bristol Bay issues that come up in the regulatory meetings in Anchorage," he said, adding that he will also track Pebble Mine issues "as it relates to commercial fishing."
Meanwhile, it's been a long, hard winter in southwest Alaska, Mason said, and everyone is still struggling with high prices for goods and services. But heading into the salmon season, he said the mood is "hopeful."
"A lot of people are hopeful that the salmon will cooperate this year and return as expected and that the price will be ok, and that some of the energy concerns might be slightly alleviated from what they were last year," he said. "But everybody's really cautious because everyone is working right on the edge of their margins to make it a go out here."
Price trends to watch
As usual the prices paid to Copper River salmon fishermen adjusted downward after the opening hoopla in mid-May. Prices for sockeye salmon, which were coming on strong, took a big hit, going from $3.65/lb to $1.65/lb after the third opener last week. Chinook prices had dipped only slightly, going from $5.50/lb to $5/lb. Starting prices were down $1/lb for both kings and reds.
Looking ahead to pink salmon, catch projections are pegged at 113 million pinks, an increase of 34 percent from last year. And gone are the days when fishermen got a nickel a pound for pink salmon.
Market watcher Ken Talley points out that since 2005 the demand for pink salmon roe, frozen and canned products has grown steadily. Average prices ranged from 12 to 16 cents in 2006, they ticked up to 17 cents in 2007, and last year pinks averaged 29 cents statewide. Talley said the upward trend could depend on the amount of credit banks will extend to seafood processors this summer for pink salmon "pack loans."
Snow crab shocker
Alaska crabbers and fishery managers were said to be "blindsided" by news that the feds want to slash Bering Sea snow crab catches by half through 2011. Seafood.com reported that federal fish managers called the cuts a "stock rebuilding measure" at the recent industry Crab Plan Team meeting in Seattle.
"ADF&G and industry groups, such as the Alaska Crab Coalition (ACC), were both embarrassed and concerned about the NMFS' proposal which came as a surprise," the report said. Currently, Alaska snow crab catches are at 50 million pounds. A decision by fishery managers is expected by October.
Free videos for top quality
A series of nine videos on improving salmon quality is available from Alaska Sea Grant's Marine Advisory Program. The videos are available for free online while supply lasts, at www.MarineAdvisory.org or www.alaskaseagrant.org .
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around Alaska. Welch lives in Kodiak.