How industry may help fund a "core program" of Bristol Bay management tools in 2017

Mar 31, 2017

Amidst state budget cuts, Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute, BBRSDA, and processors are looking to pool $720,000 to keep counting projects, test fisheries, surveys and ADF&G staff in place to avoid "conservative" management of world's largest sockeye salmon fishery.

An ADF&G biologist and tower tech are counting sockeye past the Wood River tower at the beginning of the 2013 fishing season. This has been the established way of counting salmon escapement in Bristol Bay since the 1950s.
Credit KDLG

The Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishing season is right around the corner. The Department of Fish and Game’s management of the fishery has not been immune to state budget cuts, and that has stakeholders increasingly concerned about how to keep the tools of a well-managed fishery in place. KDLG’s Dave Bendinger has more about a collaborative effort aiming to fund an agreed upon “core program” in the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

Audio Transcript: Michael Link is the executive director of the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute, a non-profit subsidiary of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. Prompting this industry-led discussion has been the state's fiscal crisis, Link said in an interview last week, pointing out that ADF&G’s Bristol Bay management budget has been reduced by about a third over the past five years.

“For the first couple of years they were creatively finding ways to save money, and the last two years they started to delete or cut assessment programs, staffing levels," Link said. "At that point industry definitely recognized that these things hit home in the fishery and how many fish can be caught.”

That’s because the Department of Fish and Game manages Bristol Bay intensively, not conservatively. As an example, during the season the counting tower technicians on the Togiak River relay the number of salmon counted past the tower, which gives managers precise escapement data to help decide whether to open or close the fishery. If ADF&G cuts the tower project, managers can use estimated data but do so conservatively, erring on the side of letting more than enough salmon past the fleet.

There are nine such counting projects in the Bay (eight towers and one sonar), plus an offshore test fishery at Port Moller, in-river test fisheries, aerial surveys, genetic sampling and processor liaisons all to keep real time tabs on salmon catch and escapement.

A technician counting salmon on the Igushik Tower.
Credit ADF&G

Wrestling with its budget cuts last year, ADF&G eliminated an assistant area management biologist and closed two towers. Some in the industry scrambled to find the money to keep those towers manned through 2016.

"That sort of piecemeal, last minute, running around passing the hat, precipitated this desire or initiative to get together and figure out which programs are the most valuable, which ones are worth doing, to benefit the management of the fishery and benefit the industry," Link said.  "Agree on that scope, and then figure out how much money is needed.”

Those agreed upon programs will constitute the "core program," and the collaborative effort between industry, BBSRI, and ADF&G estimates it will cost a total of $3.4 million annually to operate. The difference between that amount and what is in the budget currently (including from industry support) is a little over $720,000. BBSRI has agreed to contribute $360,000 as a matching amount if processors and the drift fishermen's association BBRSDA will contribute $180,000 each. 

Drift boats heading towards the line during a Naknek-Kvichak opener in 2016.
Credit KDLG

These stakeholders, says Link, believe these "core program" management tools belong in the fishery and are willing to help fund them, but only up to a point.

“All of them are paranoid, or feel, that if stepping up emboldens the legislature or a future administration to just cut the budget further, they’re going to back away from it," Link said. (At a recent meeting to discuss the options, one fisherman likened agreeing to pay more of the state's costs to manage the fishery to feeding a hungry bear that can be expected to keep coming back for more.) "So we’re in kind of a precarious spot, and hence why we haven’t been able to raise firm commitments for this season, because the budget process is ongoing and won’t be wrapped up for a while yet.”

The legislature has given Fish and Game the authority to catch and sell Bristol Bay salmon to offset its management costs. That is known as cost recovery fishing, and is despised by pretty much everybody but the lawmakers who allow it.

“Fishermen don’t like [cost recovery fishing] because it takes fish out of the water ahead of them," said Link. "It’s not a particularly efficient way to raise money. It costs a lot to do. And in recent years with the growing budget deficit it became a large number of fish."

Last year the BBRSDA agreed to buy out the cost recovery fishing by sending a $250,000 check to the state, some of which was later reimbursed by several processors. It was a risky move by the BBRSDA board, but kept some 800,000 pounds of sockeye in the water for the fleet to harvest at market value.

At the below market price the state sells the cost recovery fish, the current estimate is that ADF&G would need to catch $1.5 million worth of sockeye (at market value) to raise $400,000 for management this year.

The "working group" leading this private, collaborative funding effort is headed by Link and retired ADF&G Commercial Fisheries Division Director Jeff Regnart. Despite proposing a new Bristol Bay Fisheries Collaborative (BBFC), Link says they are trying to avoid creating any new level of bureaucracy, and have no intention of infringing on the state's authority to manage the fishery. Nor is the working group looking to fund any research not directly related to forecasts and protecting the stocks.

“Intensive in-season management and an ongoing ability to track productivity of all major sockeye stocks," he said of the overarching goal. "And make preseason forecasts with that information as well as evaluate escapement goals.”

This year an estimated 41 million sockeye will return to Bristol Bay's nine major drainages. With the traditional intensive management, fishermen hope to land 29 million of those sockeye, leaving an ample 12 million to spawn. With fewer management tools, it's likely more fish will go upriver and fewer will be harvested. BBSRI points out a smaller harvest usually means the fleet and industry suffer, as do the communities that rely on the tax revenue.

After months of discussion, BBSRI is moving forward with the tentative approval of its partners to develop the Bristol Bay Fisheries Collaborative and secure the funding. Perhaps waiting to see what happens with the state's budget in Juneau first, the processors and the BBRSDA have yet to chip in the $180,000 each to match the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute’s $360,000.

By Link's estimation, ADF&G only has a few more weeks to determine if they will line up cost recovery fishing contracts or start cancelling management programs that are not currently funded this summer. 

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.

A bag of chilled sockeye waiting for quality inspection before going into the refrigerated water of the F/V Lady Helen in Ugashik. Last year the Ugashik fleet had an exceptional season, in part because intensive management allowed for more fishing time than expected.
Credit KDLG