The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Charter, commercial fishery divisions resolved


Captain Andy Mezirow made a guest appearance at one of three City Council 2013 budget adjustment work sessions last week to share some of his considerable fisheries knowledge and insight. Mezirow is owner and operator of Crackerjack Charters, an instructor at AVTEC Maritime Training Center, and a representative on the advisory panel for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC). The NPFMC regulates commercial fisheries in Alaska. He addressed growing concern by local residents and charter boat operators about the past few summers of poor fishing due to comparatively weak returns of silvers, reds, kings and various other species to Resurrection Bay.

When salmon returns have been plentiful in Seward the Small Boat Harbor, beaches and town teem with visitors, and everyone benefits, said Mezirow. But lately, the charter fleet has suffered from declines in returning salmon, and restrictions in the number of vessels that can participate in the halibut fishery. Now there’s also serious talk by fisheries managers about the possibility of limiting the number of halibut that can be caught to one per person in upcoming years.

A one-fish bag limit for halibut would result in a dramatic decline in business and tax revenues to Seward, said Mezirow. It would be a “do or die” situation for charter boat operators as most tourists, especially those who live in Alaska, simply won’t book charters for only one halibut, he said.

The best way to help the charter fleet, and sport fishing locally, is to step up efforts to enhance the local salmon fishery so that in the future those returns may increase, he said.

CrackerJack Sport Fishing Charters, which is just a medium sized fishing operation, brought in $492,000 in taxable income to Seward last year for example. The council might consider increasing its passenger fee by a dollar, and dedicating that amount to salmon enhancement efforts in each of the following years, he said. Various grants available for fisheries enhancement and restoration.

The NPFMC has for many years been trying to figure out how best to regulate Alaska’s halibut fisheries in light of an apparent decline in halibut population and slower growth rates of halibut. The charter boat industry’s years of unchecked growth and fishing, known as overcapitalization, has also taken its toll. To date, harvest restrictions have been placed on the commercial fleets, but many had come to believe that the charter boat industry also should take its share of restrictions.

The main problem is that the coastal biomass of exploitable halibut has declined by approximately 50 percent over the past decade, according to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Meanwhile commercial catches have been on a downward spiral in recent years, especially in Southeast Alaska where the 2011 harvest is a mere 2.3 million pounds down by 47 percent from the previous year, according to Laine Welch, author of the LOG’s Fish Factor column. In the Central Gulf, a harvest of 14 million pounds meant a drop of 28 percent, Welch states.

At the same time, the Southeast Alaska charter sector has exceeded the guideline harvest level every year since 2003, and by nearly 60 percent last year. The charter catch in the central Gulf of Alaska topped the harvest guideline by an average of about 3 percent from 2004 to 2007. However, from 2008 through 2010, the harvest has ranged from about 7.5 percent to 24 percent below the guideline.

In 2008, the NPFMC took final action on its catch management plan for the charter industry, said Mezirow. The council received 6,000 comments from both sectors and finally came up with a plan. Last month, final action was taken during its meeting in Anchorage. The plan indexed the charter boat industry into the same metric of abundance as the longline sector had operated under. Thus, when abundance increases, the charter operators get to harvest more halibut and vice versa. The plan also includes provisions to make charter operators responsible for their own bycatch mortality or wastage, and allows them to arrange to lease fish back into the sector to protect their bag limits.

“We’re hoping to preserve that bag limit with these lease agreements,” said Mezirow.

The good news for coastal communities in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska which heretofor have been split apart with animosities between the two industries over this issue is that these arguments won’t happen anymore, said Mezirow. Seward, with only a small commercial fishing fleet, had managed to avoid those divisive battles.

Meanwhile, the Seward Chamber of Commerce’s Silver Salmon Derby Fish Restoration committee recently gave the chamber the go ahead to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association to raise 50,000 coho smolt at the Trail Lakes Hatchery near Moose Pass to boost its salmon enhancement efforts. The eggs have been gathered at Bear Creek Weir, with a release date planned for 2014. The idea is to take smolts from the hatchery when they’re ready for transport in early May, but rather than place them directly into Bear Creek, to keep them in floating rearing pens in saltwater for an additional month or so, according to Chamber Executive Director Cindy Clock. They would be fed, and allowed to grow further before being released, which would also help their survival and imprinting, she said. The chamber is looking for pens to use for that endeavor.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will provide the remainder of coho smolts, which will be able to be reared to larger sizes at its newly-built state hatchery. The state had lost its warm water salmon rearing hatchery capabilities at Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base, so the coho smolts they provided in recent years were generally smaller, and less likely to survive their ocean journey home.


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