Fish board rejects most Alaska Peninsula changes

Mar 1, 2016

Few changes on the way for Alaska Peninsula salmon fisheries after triennial Board of Fish meeting.

Area M seiners are shown in this 2010 photo taken in Sand Point.
Credit Courtesy of Aleutians East Borough

Despite hearing requests from Bristol Bay stakeholders to limit the catch of Bay-bound fish swimming through Alaska Peninsula waters, the Alaska Board of Fisheries declined to do so, largely maintaining the status quo – and even added a little more fishing opportunity for Area M.

The seven-member board sets policy and makes allocative decisions for Alaska’s fisheries. In late February, it was tasked with considering 59 proposals suggesting changes to Alaska Peninsula, Aleutian Island and Chignik finfisheries during a weeklong meeting in Anchorage.

Many of the proposals pitted Area M and Bristol Bay, or Area T, fisherman against each other, continuing years of disagreement over who’s catching whose fish.

During public testimony, dozens of Bristol Bay residents asked the board to adopt regulations that would cut back on the amount of Bristol-Bay bound sockeye caught in Area M.

Gusty Wassillie Jr spoke in favor of proposal 155, which would have closed the Outer Port Heiden section, further limiting the Area M catch – and allowing more sockeye to return to Bristol Bay.

“I strongly feel Area T, Bristol Bay stocks, should be controlled by Area T fishermen, not Area M,” he said. “Bristol Bay fishermen should benefit from Bristol Bay stocks,” he said.

That proposal, 155, failed in a 3-4 vote, with Reed Morisky of Fairbanks, a guide, Orville Huntington of Huslia and Dillingham’s Fritz Johnson supporting it.

That was one of the most contentious proposals, and one of just a few split votes at the meeting.

Board chair Tom Kluberton was among the majority four who opposed closing the Outer Port Deiden area, noting that fisheries all across the state intercept fish from other areas.

“Salmon in transit are feeding, are moving through, they’re available for fisheries,” Kluberton said. “We have protections in place for the various stocks that are in transit. We need to always consider the economic value to the state and local economies. These fish, wherever they’re caught, are benefitting economies – borough economies, city economies.”

That echoed an argument made by Nelson Lagoon resident Theo Chesley, a longtime Area M fisherman.

"In 2015, Area M fishermen caught 867,000 sockeye in the Outer Port Heiden district," he said. "In 2015, Area T fishermen caught 5.3 million sockeye in the Ugashik District. In 2015, Area T fishermen caught 8.2 million sockeye in the Egegik district. Bristol Bay processors were at max capacity. Bristol Bay fishermen were on limits. Tender lines for delivering fish were excruciatingly long. All the while the quality of the fish, or lack thereof, rapidly became an issue. So my question to proposal authors that want to close Outer Port Heiden: How much fish do you want?”

The board also considered two proposals that would have directed Alaska Peninsula fisheries managers to consider escapements of non-local stocks in their management of northern Alaska Peninsula fishing effort.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game raised concerns about the practicality of doing so, an argument much of the board found compelling. But Dillingham’s Fritz Johnson spoke up in favor of the proposals.

“Perhaps the complexities of the way this is written now would make it impossible to really enact, but I think it’s worth at least putting on the record, that it may be a good idea to look at our systems holistically, and sometimes I think our management is segregated or silo-ed if you will,” he said.

Johnson was the sole yes vote on both of those.

Other efforts to limit Bristol Bay sockeye catches in other areas were unsuccessful.

The Native Village of Port Heiden had asked the board to consider moving the fishery near Port Heiden out of the Alaska Peninsula fishery, and into the Bristol Bay management area. That failed, 2-4.

Johnson was conflicted out of voting on the proposal, because he’s a Bristol Bay drift permit holder.

Port Heiden residents made the request, and Adrienne Christensen told the board that the community would benefit if local fishermen could fish the waters right outside their doors.

“The economy of Port Heiden and the fishery are suffering without our local fishery," she said. "The fishermen have to spend more money to get to their fishing areas up north. The fish that are caught outside of port heiden contribute nothing to our local economy. The tribe has created a market for fishermen and is completing a salmon processing plant in Port Heiden.”

Other Bristol Bay fishermen also supported the request.

During a week of at times heated deliberations, the board tended toward the status quo. Just a handful of proposals passed, two of which were submitted by Concerned Area M Fishermen.

Area M Fisherman Brad Barr, a member of CAMF, testified in support of proposal 159, which would re-open the part of the Outer Port Heiden section that was closed in 2013.

“Bristol Bay sockeye have migrated and been caught commercially along the Alaska Peninsula for over 100 years and the Area M fishermen have the right to fish our waters and our river systems," he said. "I hope the board recognizes that those fish are relatively more valuable to the small fisheries along the migratory route than they are to Bristol bay.”

That passed 5-2, with an amendment limiting some of the area compared to what the group had requested.

A genetics study presented to the board showed that there was not a significant difference between the fish caught in the open and closed portions of the section.

The board also agreed to repeal sequential closures of the Bear River, Three Hills and Ilnik sections, which that same group had requested – but not until 2019.

But not all of CAMF’s requests were favored by the board. The board also rejected some of the Area M fishermen’s requests to expand their fisheries.

The group had requested sockeye fishing in the Northern Alaska Peninsula’s Cinder River Section.

Pat Martin spoke up in favor of that proposal, number 149.

“All of these fish are a common property resource of the state,” Martin told the board. “The closure of the Cinder River sockeye fishery has had the effect of creating a marine sanctuary with a single interest group as the beneficiary: Bristol Bay stakeholders. Remember that sockeye leaving Bristol Bay are the size of your thumb, with zero market value. They gain all of their market value outside the waters of Bristol Bay. They breed ‘em, we feed ‘em.”

Bristol Bay Area advisory committees opposed that proposal – and ultimately, the board took no action on it.