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PUBLISHED: 5:02 PM on Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Fish refuge proposed to state policy makers

A first of its kind fish refuge is being proposed to state policy makers as a way to protect fish habitat in headwaters of Bristol Bay. It includes lower and upper Talarik Creek and the Koktuli River, waters that are adjacent to the site of the open pit gold and copper mine being proposed by Northern Dynasty of Canada.

"The law has been on the books for a long time that the state Board of Fisheries can establish sanctuaries, reserves or refuges," said George Matz of Homer, sponsor of Proposal 121. "I chose a refuge because it allows for consumptive use. Basically, we need some kind of protection for fish habitat to allow for continuing uses of commercial, sport and subsistence fishing," he added.

Matz, a retired state policy analyst and former game board member, said the concept is new to Alaska. "In the past, refuges have generally been set aside for both fish and game and included both water and land. Proposal 121 is specific to state waters and thereby avoids land use issues," he explained, adding that his request predates all others for water rights.

"A refuge also puts permitting authority into the hands of the AK Dept. of Fish and Game and not the Dept. of Natural Resources. With so many fish issues at stake, I think that's advisable in this case," Matz said. The proposal also mandates that a management plan for the fish refuge would be created by a citizen's advisory committee.

Matz said the refuge could not in and of itself stop the Pebble Mine, but it would hold the Canadian developers more accountable. "It makes them live up to their promises of no net loss of wild fish that spawn or rear in these waters. So it protects the habitat and basically says the fish come first. It will be a true test as to whether they can meet that standard," he said.

Deadline to comment on Proposal 121 to the Board of Fish is November 17. The BOF will rule on the fish refuge during its December 4-12 meeting in Dillingham. If it gets the nod, the refuge must then be approved by the Alaska legislature.

Crab market kick

Alaska king crab could get some relief from a ramped up marketing blitz during the peak holiday sales season. Alaska's king crab market has been badly pinched in recent years due primarily to an influx of cheaper crab from Russia to the U.S., much of it caught illegally.

At the same time, there is a lot of consumer awareness of Alaska king crab from the Discovery Channel's show Deadliest Catch. "We put the problem and an opportunity together and asked for a new injection of money to promote Alaska king crab in the U.S. marketplace," said Arni Thomson, director of the Alaska Crab Coalition.

In response, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute earmarked $500,000 from its budget and obtained $750,000 in matching funds from the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board. The $1.25 million will fuel a TV ad campaign to create more "brand awareness" of Alaska king crab on the Food Network, and other promotional outlets. The ads will begin next month and continue through the peak holiday sales season.

"We'll use the messages of sustainability, taste and uniqueness to try and separate Alaska king crab from the other stuff on the market, much as we've done for Alaska wild salmon over the past few years," said ASMI director, Ray Riutta.

The crab industry is hoping to soon merit an eco-label by the international Marine Stewardship Council to help buyers easily identify Alaska crab as coming from a well managed fishery.

"There is increasing consumer awareness and concern about seafood products being harvested in a responsible manner," said the ACC's Thomson. "Alaska crab is managed under sustainable principles and practices. That is not the case with Russian king crab and there is a lot of overfishing going on."

ASMI's Riutta said the fall promotion is a good first step to rebuilding Alaska's market niche, but it won't happen overnight: "It's going to take time and we'll need some more money downstream. But it's a good shot in the arm at the peak sales season and hopefully, it will boost the crab price." Riutta added.

The Alaska red king crab fishery got underway a few days after the October 15th opening date, after crabbers and buyers negotiated price agreements. Most settled on a base price of $3.65/lb, down almost one dollar from last year.

Aleutia brand expands

Aleutian Islands fishermen have sealed a deal that will expand sales of their Aleutia brand sockeye salmon, and allow more people to get involved in the local fishery.

The Aleutia group was formed five years ago by fishing families who wanted to spotlight the region's ocean run sockeye. This week Aleutia signed a six-figure licensing agreement with the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association. It allows APICDA to use the Aleutia name and logo to market sockeye from a new plant it is building in False Pass, expected to open next year. Fishermen also plan to expand into halibut, sablefish and other fisheries at the new plant.

"It's a boost to the local economies because it gets the local fleet out there fishing for their own brand of fish. It's a really good fit, and it will help us in our goal to be self-sustaining," said Aleutia president Bob Barnett of Sand Point.

This year 40 local fishing families from Sand Point and King Cove harvested roughly 130,000 pounds of sockeye salmon for the Aleutia program. Fishermen fetched 35 percent more for their Aleutia brand sockeye salmon this year, compared to the average price of 60 cents for other fish.

Welch, who lives in Kodiak, has written about Alaska's seafood industry since 1988.


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