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Summary for April 7 - April 11, 2008:

Monday, April 7, 2008 

Alaska Ranger: Terror on Easter

Coast Guard Petty Officer Alfred Musgrave strained to pull Byron Carrillo out of the rescue basket and into the helicopter hovering over the raging Bering Sea.

 "All I could see was his eyes. He looked terrified and rightly so," Musgrave said to a panel looking into the Easter-morning sinking of the fishing vessel Alaska Ranger.

 Then Carrillo was gone, falling some 40 feet through the pitch-black night back into the freezing sea. He was one of five Alaska Ranger crewmen who lost their lives that night.

Two Coast Guard helicopters and a fishing vessel managed to rescue 42 others despite nightmare conditions. The Coast Guard crews risked their own lives in high winds and roiling seas.

 But as the  Coast Guard hearing in Anchorage made clear, the rescue effort did have problems. There was a miscount in the number of rescued that led the Coast Guard to mistakenly believe all the Alaska Ranger crew had been accounted for. That led to a suspension of the helicopter search for hours, until officials realized that one crewmember remained missing.

 The missing man, fish master Satashi Konno of Japan, still has not been found. There's also Carrillo's fall from the rescue basket, an accident that caused Coast Guard rescuers to choke up as they testified about what happened.

 Conditions were outrageous the night of the accident. Coast Guard crews reported wind-whipped seas rising 20 to 25 feet when they arrived on the scene. They couldn't see anything without their lights on. But periodic snow squalls were blinding when reflected in the lights.

 "Once the heavy snow squalls came in our lights were like using your high beams on a snowy road," Lt. Brian McLaughlin, commander of the first helicopter on scene, told the investigators Saturday.

 The 203-foot Alaska Ranger, a catcher-processor, was on its way from Dutch Harbor to fish for mackerel in the Bering Sea when it first began taking water around 3 a.m. The cause hasn't been found.

 An H-65 Dolphin helicopter was the second on the scene. It plucked survivors from the water without big problems at first. The crew then spotted two others, one waving his arms.

 The second survivor, Carrillo, was in bad shape and showing the symptoms of hypothermia. He first wouldn't let go of nets he was clinging to, and then was unresponsive until rescue swimmer Abram Heller dragged him to the rescue basket.

 "He was in a panic, I struggled with him for about 10 minutes," said Heller, who recounted the scene for the investigators.

 Petty Officer Musgrave, watched from above. Musgrave said he lost sight of them about four times in the heavy seas.

 "He'd be in the basket, I'd think we'd be ready for pickup and then a wave would wash over him and he'd be back out," Musgrave said.

 Heller said he was still struggling to get Carrillo into a good position in the basket, and had not given any "ready for pickup signal," when the basket started to rise. But Carrillo looked to be in a fine position when the basket reached about 15 feet, Heller said, so he thought it was OK.

 Musgrave said Carrillo, who was from Los Angeles, looked stable on the way up, and Heller had been washed out of sight on a swell. So he kept raising the basket.

 But as he came closer to the helicopter, Carrillo slid and was hanging on by his arms. Musgrave said he brought him in as close as possible to the helicopter's cabin and tried to haul him in by his legs. He was too heavy, though, because the legs of his survival suit had filled with water.

 Musgrave went to get a knife to cut open the suit and drain the water. But Carrillo slipped again, and was hanging on by just his elbows.

 Musgrave ran back and grabbed hold of him.

 I held him like that two or three seconds and he slipped off and fell into the water," Musgrave said, his voice breaking.

 The crew repeatedly checked on Carrillo in the water. But he was floating face down and never moved. His body was recovered from the water later.

 The helicopter was running out of fuel and the pilot said they had to move on. The crew saved five men.

 The first helicopter on the scene, an HH-60 Jayhawk, was bigger and able to save more men. It spent eight hours on the rescue, battling the conditions and hoisting up crew members from the Bering Sea.

 But questions at Saturday's hearing showed that the crew reported its first group of survivors numbered 13. The Coast Guard Cutter Munro, though, only got 12 off the helicopter.

 The miscount led the Coast Guard to later think it had accounted for all the crew members, while Konno was still missing. The Jayhawk returned to St. Paul and the Dolphin turned back to the cutter as it appeared the search was over.

 The Coast Guard realized what happened and resumed searching. It cost hours of potential search time, according to the testimony, although Konno would have already been in the water for many hours by that point and rescuers were spent.

 Investigators asked McLaughlin, who was co-piloting the Jayhawk, about the miscount.

 "We checked and double checked, where the discrepancy comes from I don't know, sir," he said. "We were pretty sure we had 13, sir." – Anchorage Daily News

Biologist critiques Pebble Mine oversight

A former federal fisheries biologist is critiquing state regulators' oversight of mineral exploration at the massive copper and gold Pebble prospect in Southwest Alaska.

 The biologist, Carol Ann Woody, said state officials need to spell out the quantity and pattern of water used by Pebble exploratory drill rigs and explain whether it has the potential to harm incubating fish or contaminate the groundwater.

 Woody raised concerns that the drill rigs might be drawing up amounts of water that could be harmful to developing salmon, and mobilizing heavy metals in the groundwater.

 State officials said the company's drilling permit was approved after considering the impacts on fish-bearing streams and determining that those impacts would be negligible.

A spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, the company exploring the deposit, said there is no evidence that suggests that any of Woody's fears are true.

 But Woody, who does consulting for one of Pebble's major foes, the Anchorage-based Renewable Resources Coalition, questioned whether anyone is adequately monitoring the potential impacts of the drilling on groundwater and other waters used by salmon.

 Woody previously worked for the U.S. Geological Survey as a salmon researcher in the Bristol Bay region, and she worked on the agency's technical team assigned to review the Pebble project.  – Anchorage Daily News

Fishermen set sights on Arctic

WASHINGTON -- For Arctic nations, one of the so-called "benefits" of global warming has been the promise of opening up new fisheries in a remote part of the world choked by ice much of the year.

 But many worry that the new territory is also an unregulated one, and that if the United States doesn't act in the next few years, rogue fishermen from other nations could begin plying areas north of the Bering Strait in the summer, looking for new, unexploited fisheries.

 So far, there are no major commercial fisheries in the area of the Arctic Ocean closest to Alaska, said David Balton, the assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries at the State Department's Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science.

 Yet "as the climate changes, the ice recedes, the water warms, we should be expecting and anticipating that there could be major commercial fisheries north of the Bering Strait," Balton testified at a recent Senate Commerce Committee meeting.

 The United States needs to make an aggressive case for managing those Arctic Ocean fisheries before the ice thins enough for fishing vessels to access them in the summer without ice-breaking equipment, said U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.

 "It's time that we really worked on really an aggressive approach to protect the Arctic," the Alaska Republican said.

 There are just two or three years left to develop a plan, Stevens said. That will include talking to Russian counterparts to come up with a way to manage vessel traffic through the Bering Strait, said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Arthur Brooks, who oversees the Alaska region.

 The United States also needs an aggressive -- yet cooperative -- approach with both Russia and Canada on the issue, said Lisa Speer, of the Water and Oceans Program with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

 "Having a larger engagement with the Russians over the future of the Arctic is going to be very important," Speer said. "I don't know how to make that happen other than to have a much higher level engagement than we have now."

 Norway has not been entirely successful in preventing illegal fishing in some parts of the Arctic Ocean to its north, said David Benton, executive director of the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance.

 "When you look at the Arctic Basin, sort of look at the map, looking down from the top, we've got a real challenge ahead of us now," Benton said. "It seems to me we need to up the ante here. Time is not on our side."

 Already, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees fisheries off Alaska's coast, has proposed that all federal waters in the Arctic Ocean be off limits to commercial fishing.

 Those waters should remain closed until there's a stock assessment and a way to "do it smartly and in a sustainable fashion," said Stevens spokesman Steve Wackowski.

In October, the Senate passed a resolution urging the United States to begin international negotiations to manage Arctic Ocean fisheries.

 Until any agreements are in place, the United States will not support any efforts to expand commercial fishing in international waters of the Arctic Ocean McClatchy News Service

Southeast Chinook quota down sharply this year

JUNEAU – The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced that under the guidelines of the abundance-based management system of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, this year’s all-gear Southeast Alaska Chinook salmon harvest quota is 170,000 fish.

 This is a decrease of 159,400 fish from last year’s quota, and is the lowest catch level since 2000.

 Utilizing data on the strength of West Coast Chinook salmon stocks that contribute to Southeast Alaska fisheries, the Pacific Salmon Commission’s Chinook Technical Committee has determined that the 2008 Abundance Index for Chinook salmon in Southeast Alaska is 1.07.

 As specified in the 1999 Pacific Salmon Treaty Agreement, this translates into an allowable all-gear catch for Southeast Alaska of 170,000 treaty Chinook. Most Chinook salmon produced in Alaska hatcheries are not factored into the Abundance Index, and may be caught by harvesters in addition to the treaty limit.

 Chinook salmon returns to many West Coast rivers from Oregon to Alaska have declined from the very high levels seen from 2003 to 2005. While the factors affecting the abundance of Chinook on the West Coast are complex, it is widely recognized that unfavorable ocean conditions in 2005 and 2006 likely were a significant cause of the poor survival of Chinook in the early part of their four to five year life-cycle. Some of these ocean conditions have moderated substantially and appear to be returning to a status more favorable to salmon populations.

 The treaty Chinook salmon harvest will be allocated to sport, commercial troll, and commercial net fisheries according to the management plans specified by the Alaska Board of Fisheries. – ADF&G

West Coast Chinook season all but dead

COOS BAY — To some commercial salmon fishermen, the season is over. The crystal ball is clear.

To other commercial trollers, sport fishermen, charter companies  and scientists, the work is just starting. Crisis management has begun for a summer that promises to be like no other in history.

Closure for most salmon fishing south of Cape Falcon on the northern Oregon coast is imminent, thanks mostly to low fall Chinook returns to the Sacramento River. The Pacific Fishery Management Council meets this week in Seattle to make final determinations.

The difference now is how various groups will react.

Last week, seven commercial trollers from Washington, Oregon and California traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk to lawmakers about problems on the Sacramento River — the river that contributes most of the fish to West Coast ocean salmon seasons.

But it’s not just the Sacramento they’re worried about. The Columbia River system has had ongoing problems and only two years ago, much of the commercial season in southern Oregon and northern California was closed due to low Chinook returns on the Klamath.

“The escapement index for north migrating Oregon coast fall Chinook has declined sharply for the past four years and the stocks failed to meet their post-season escapement goal in 2007 for the first time since 1983,” scientists wrote in a pre-season salmon report for the council.

Fishermen are asking for congressional hearings. They want an investigation. Why was this allowed to happen?

“What we see happening is what we see happening to all the major rivers,” California troller Duncan McClean said during a press conference call. “What was once determined to be a problem with Delta smelt is now working its way up to salmon.”

The trollers said more National Marine Fisheries oversight may be needed.

“At the fishermen’s level, there’s just an awful lot of questions about habitat conditions … as opposed to other reasons for fishery failure problems,” Newport troller Bob Kemp said.

In February, state and federal agencies noted that returns to most West Coast rivers and streams are down — for hatchery and wild fish, both Chinook and coho. Ocean conditions, specifically, a lack of upwelling that brings necessary nutrients to marine animals, were the main problem, the agencies said. Of more than 40 issues, the primary cause likely was changes in the ocean, but the combination of all of them could have contributed to low salmon returns.

The fact that it has happened to most stocks — not just the Sacramento — leads some to believe the main culprit could be ocean conditions.

Habitat, though, still is a major component in the Chinook life cycle, fishermen said.

“If the salmon were in a healthier condition, if the habitats were better … they’d be better able to withstand the ocean conditions,” Charleston troller Paavo Carroll said on the call.

Trollers still are hoping for disaster relief. The seven in Washington, D.C., also lobbied for that.

The first step, a letter from the governors of Washington, Oregon and California to U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez  requesting a fishery failure declaration, already has happened.

Governors Christine Gregoire, of Washington; Arnold Schwarzenegger, of California; and Oregon’s Gov. Ted Kulongoski sent that letter on March 14.

The next step is an actual declaration from the National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency within the Department of Commerce. That same agency — the one for which fishermen are asking for Congressional investigations and oversight — holds the key.

“There is absolutely no doubt there are very few fish out there,” NMFS Northwest Regional Administrator Bob Lohn said. “The ocean just didn’t provide the fish we expected to get.”

The agency already is working on the documentation to recommend a fishery failure declaration to Gutierrez.

“We know this is a bad year,” Lohn said. “And we know there is a strong interest in getting an answer back (to the states).”

Gutierrez would then have two options:

-- Declare the fishery a disaster under the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act, which would trigger some options for Small Business Administration loans and combined federal-state assistance programs; and

-- Declare the fishery a failure under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which would then pave the way for federal disaster funding to flow to affected fishermen, businesses, ports, charter boat companies, etc. — if lawmakers can appropriate money and structure it so those entities could take advantage of it.

“We’ve gotten very positive support from the delegations,” Eureka, Calif., salmon troller Dave Bitts said. – Coos Bay World

Tuesday, April 8, 2008 

Feds promise fortune to silence Columbia River tribes

Government dam operators on the Columbia River have agreed to pay up to $1 billion to Northwest tribes for fishery improvements in exchange for the tribes agreeing to back off a key lawsuit and support dam operations for a decade, salmon activists said Monday.

 An official announcement of the historic deal between four lower Columbia River tribes, the Bonneville Power Administration and the federal government agencies in charge of river operations was announced Monday.

 Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice, which represents the lead plaintiffs in the long-running lawsuit challenging dam operations, said he and other plaintiffs had seen drafts of the deal.

 According to True, the agreement sets aside up to $1 billion for habitat improvements on Columbia and Snake tributaries, and for improvements to tribal, state and federal hatcheries.

 It does not involve material changes to dam operations, True said, and requires the tribes to forgo litigation and support of dam removal for the next 10 years.

 True said the agreement fails to address the key issues affecting endangered fish runs on the river: Boosting water spills over dams for fish and considering removal of Snake River dams.

 "This agreement doesn't change the law," he said, "and it doesn't change the science."

 U.S. District Court Judge James Redden still has to rule on the federal government's draft biological opinion for dam operations. Environmental groups argue that the plan isn't adequate for fish survival.

 If the deal is as True described, it appears the tribes will no longer be making that argument. – The Oregonian

Canadian feds say no to Alexandra Morton

The federal government rejected an application Friday by biologist Alexandra Morton to evacuate wild salmon out of the path of Broughton Archipelago fish farms, putting the outspoken researcher in a precarious position: risk a $100,000 fine, or let migrating juvenile pink and chum salmon run a gauntlet of farms she says will ensure their destruction.

 Morton had applied to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) for a licence to transport salmon as part of her widely publicized plan to ferry young Ahta River pink and chum salmon past two fish farms operating in their migration path.

 "I must advise you that the department does not support your proposal to capture and transport Ahta River juveniles past the fish farms in the area," wrote Paul Sprout, Regional Director for DFO's Pacific Region in a prepared statement. "...the department believes that the capture, transport and release of these fish has the potential to do more harm than good."

 But even before Morton had read these words, she was already considering breaking the law if the decision did not go her way.

 "It's difficult to communicate the feeling of watching these fish be destroyed year after year," she said. "I know that down the line, I will want to know I've done everything I can to save these fish. I really don't want to do this without a permit, but yes, I am willing."

 Ask Morton why she is willing to face such penalties -- including an additional $100,000 and up to a year in jail for each subsequent offence -- and talk inevitably turns to the death of the Meetup River last year.

 The Meetup appears on most maps as the Viner River, a chum salmon stream that snakes across Gilford Island in the heart of the Broughton Archipelago, a cluster of islands set against the B.C. mainland east of Queen Charlotte Sound, not far from Port McNeill.

 "I've been following the Viner chum since 2001, and every year they emerge from the river and swim straight into the path of this fish farm just west of the Burdwood Islands," she says. "They get infected with sea lice from the fish farm and die."

 Viner chum have always run a precarious gauntlet on their path to the sea. In a run that once numbered 70,000 fish, they historically migrated into the waiting nets of the Alert Bay seine fleet at the mouth of the river, or were chased down by G-clan -- a pod of northern resident killer whales that returned to Viner Sound each spring to feast.

 But the seiners and the killer whales are gone. Last fall, when just 89 chum spawners returned to the Viner, Morton officially declared this once-great salmon river dead. But with that pronouncement came a desperate plan to scoop up tiny salmon fry as they emerged from a nearby salmon river in the spring of 2008, transporting them beyond the fish farms.

"I've focused on [moving fry from] the Ahta River only right now, because I love that river, but all of the rivers here need this," she says of her medevac plan. "My hope was that if I could concentrate on just one river, DFO just might let me start doing this."

But with today's announcement, DFO will not allow her to move forward legally, making an already complex plan that much more complicated.

 Morton originally planned to capture salmon as they emerged into the open ocean from the Ahta River using a 125-foot beach seine; one end of the net would be tied to the shore, and a speedboat would rive in a large circle to release the net. The net would be drawn increasingly smaller until a small pool remained full of baby fish. She planned to move them by bucket into a boat equipped with a water tank designed to continually refresh with fresh ocean water. –The Tyee, B.C.

Boat of missing fisherman found

MORRO BAY -- The Coast Guard has located the fishing vessel "Wild Thing," reported missing out of Morro Bay.

 Here are the facts:

  • No one has heard from the boat's captain, Joe Jones, since 7:00 a.m. Thursday morning.
  • A Coast Guard plane found the boat Saturday morning.
  • The boat was drifting about 240 miles west of Santa Barbara.
  • Rough seas made it difficult to reach the boat, so Air Force parajumpers landed on the boat Sunday afternoon.

 Those parajumpers took a quick look around the boat and said Jones was nowhere to be found.

 The Coast Guard called off the search Monday evening.

 Some Morro Bay fishermen say he's a victim of the fishing industry's economic crisis.

 "He was a very experienced fisherman," said Bill Blue, a commercial fisherman out of Morro Bay. "We kind of participate in the same fishery, the black cod fishery, which involves quite a bit of line and the traps going over the side."

 Those lines and traps are just two things that make fishing dangerous. Making matters worse, Jones set out alone Thursday morning, something even more dangerous but becoming more common.

 "Most of us do fish alone because of the economics," Blue said.

 "We have to carry life jackets aboard, if you fall over the side who's going to throw it to you?" said local fisherman Ed Sylvester.

 A video taken Saturday by Coast Guard aircraft shows the 30-foot fishing boat tossing in the waves. The engine was still on and there were lines hanging over the side.

The Coast Guard still doesn't know for sure what happened, but a monitoring system on board the boat provided some clues. – KSBY, Calif.

Cook Inlet fishery under siege in Alaska Legislature

JUNEAU -- Mat-Su legislators who say people in their area are getting shortchanged on salmon are pushing measures that could revolutionize fishery management in Cook Inlet, the state's most popular fishing hole.

 The lawmakers have rolled out a package of legislation to tilt the balance of power in the Inlet from commercial fishermen to sport anglers and other users. And with a week left in the legislative session, they're hoping to land something big.

 "What you're seeing is a manifestation of the frustration," said Chugiak Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze, who represents a chunk of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

 People in Mat-Su, the state's fastest growing region, are worried salmon numbers are dwindling in the Susitna River and other drainages and they want changes now, Stoltze said.

 He along with Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, and other Mat-Su lawmakers unveiled a trio of actions this session:

 • Language in next year's state budget would close down the Department of Fish and Game commercial and sport fish management office in Soldotna and move the staff to Anchorage, the state's population center. Backers suggest the managers are too close to commercial fishing interests in Soldotna.

 • Green introduced Senate Bill 284 to transform the makeup of the Board of Fisheries, which regulates commercial and sport salmon catches. The bill would change the board from seven to nine members, with six seats reserved for sport, dipnet and subsistence users and three for commercial fishing interests.

 • Resolutions are nearing a vote in the Senate and House to create a Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force, to be composed of 10 legislators appointed by Green and House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez. The task force would look at how to boost salmon returns to the Inlet's northern reaches -- that is, the Mat-Su region -- and would explore a buyout of commercial fishermen.

 The heart of the Mat-Su delegation's argument is that commercial fishermen are netting salmon that otherwise might swim to popular northern sportfish streams.

 It's an assertion commercial fishermen and some lawmakers dispute.

 Both sides can point to studies and statistics to bolster their argument, but the fisheries and the science are highly complex.

 Some studies say increased sports fishing pressure, storm water runoff and other byproducts of Mat-Su population growth and development are ruining salmon habitat, and voracious pike also are taking a toll.

 Of the three legislative items, the task force seems to have the best chance of passing this session.

 Millions of salmon return from the ocean to Cook Inlet streams each summer to spawn, and demand for the fish is intense. That's because more than half the state's population is clustered around the Inlet.

 Commercial gillnetters, guides who take tourists on sport fishing trips, dipnetters and other factions long have jockeyed for advantage in Cook Inlet's perpetual fish fight.

 In the middle are the managers -- the Board of Fisheries and the state Department of Fish and Game. Their job is to first protect the long-term health of the stocks, and then to divide the available fish among various users.

 The task force resolutions themselves are loaded with fighting words, declaring that Cook Inlet sport and dipnet fisheries "far exceed" the value of commercial harvests, and that the board and department are failing their duty.

 Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said Mat-Su residents have lost confidence in the managers.

 "Our people feel like they've been abandoned by the Board of Fisheries," said Huggins, who chairs the Senate Resources Committee. – Pacific Fishing columnist Wesley Loy writing in the Anchorage Daily News

Wednesday, April 9, 2008 

Feds take step toward oil rigs off Bristol Bay

The Bush administration took a first step Tuesday toward allowing oil and gas leasing in an area of the Bering Sea considered important for the recovery of the world's most endangered whale.

 The administration proposal opening up 5.6 million acres off the Alaska coast to energy development was published in the Federal Register by the Minerals Management Service.

 The area, which had been protected from drilling since 1990, is north of the Aleutian Islands near Bristol Bay. The administration lifted the ban last year.

 Under the leasing proposal, the North Aleutian Basin lease sale would be held in 2011. Exploratory drilling could begin the next year.

 The publication of the proposal marks the start of the process, which will involve a public comment period and months of gathering information for an environmental impact statement, said Robin Cacy, an MMS spokeswoman in Anchorage.

 "No decisions have been made on the sale. This is just the beginning," she said.

The issuing of the proposal came on the same day that the National Marine Fisheries Service published its final decision reaffirming portions of the lease area as critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale.

 The Center for Biological Diversity, which sued to get the federal government in 2006 to designate critical habitat for the whales, is suing to shut down the Bering Sea lease sale.

 The problem, according to the center, is that more than half of the proposed lease sale area is designated critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale -- long believed to be on certain road to extinction. That gloomy scenario has brightened somewhat with a surprising number of right whales found recently in the Bering Sea.

 Center spokesman Brendan Cummings said allowing drilling in the critical habitat is a bad omen for other endangered animals.

Alaska Senate votes for Cook Inlet panel

After a vigorous floor debate, the Alaska Senate has just voted 11-8 to pass a resolution creating a legislative task force to study Cook Inlet salmon fisheries.

 Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, and other Mat-Su lawmakers want the task force because they believe salmon are disappearing from their streams. They suspect commercial fishermen working farther south in the Inlet are to blame.

 Senate Concurrent Resolution 21 would establish a task force made up of five senators and five House members. The task force would hold meetings and report back to the Legislature by the start of the 2009 session.

 A similar resolution is pending in the House.

 Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, said he worked his way through college on a commercial fishing boat. He said he worries the task force would set a precedent of legislators getting into the dicey business of allocating fish among users.

 “We have scientists and biologists in this state who can do a better job than we can do,” he said.

 Wasilla Republican Sen. Charlie Huggins, chairman of the Senate Resources Committee, said members need not fear the task force. He said Mat-Su waters he’s traditionally fished are now a waste of time because of a lack of salmon, and study is needed.

 “This is about doing a report,” he said. “This is about a group of people getting together, hearing from experts, from stakeholders.” – Pacific Fishing columnist Wesley Loy, writing as The Highliner for the Anchorage Daily News

B.C. pol in hot water over pro-farm, no-fishing idea

Liberal MLA for Nanaimo-Parksville Ron Cantelon has landed himself in some 'salty' water over his recent statement that British Columbia's commercial salmon fishery should be abandoned.

 Cantelon recently told a reporter that essentially the commercial fishing of wild salmon should stop and the province should do more to promote fish farming, a comment the MLA is standing behind -- claiming he was trying to suggest a greater balance is needed between utilizing wild salmon stocks and harvesting farmed salmon.

 Last week, the provincial government refused to renounce Cantelon's statement, after New Democrat MLA Scott Fraser challenged Agriculture Minister Pat Bell by asking if it was "his government's policy or plan to bring an end to the commercial fishery in favour of fish farms?"

 Bell didn't directly answer the question, saying that fisheries licencing is the responsibility of the federal government, and refused to denounce Cantelon's earlier comments.

 North Coast MLA Gary Coons was one of many people shocked and dismayed by the government's position on the issue, as his constituency contains one of the province's important commercial fisheries.

 "It is completely unacceptable for this government to pretend that the problems being caused by fish farms are somehow attributed to the commercial fishery," said Coons. "This is a whole new level of dishonesty." – Prince Rupert Daily News

B.C. fish farm giant ramping up advertising campaign

British Columbia's largest aquaculture company Marine Harvest Canada is doing all it can to deflect the negative connotations associated with salmon farming, including taking out full-page newspaper ads.

 The company took out full-page advertisements in Thursday's North Island Gazette and yesterday's Victoria Times-Colonist, aimed at updating the public on what it says is its success in minimizing the number of sea lice on its farmed fish in the Broughton Archipelago area during the current out-migration of wild juvenile salmon.

 The ads state that the company understands the public concern for wild juvenile salmon, and has therefore taken action to reduce or eliminate the potential for sea lice transfers from their farms.

 "Although we recognize that the state of scientific knowledge is inconclusive about the threat of sea lice to wild salmon, we maintain that conservation is the best policy," states the ad.

 "Therefore, we would like to update you on the results of specific management plans that help ensure our salmon farms are not adding to the multitude of threats already posed to young, juvenile salmon."

 The ad shows that four of the company's Broughton farm sites are now empty, and that six other farms in the area currently show sea lice levels of no more than 0.2 lice per farmed fish, falling under the provincial government's threshold limit of three lice per fish. The ad also states that, through monthly monitoring, Marine Harvest Canada ensures the number of sea lice per fish does not reach the threshold limit during out-migration months.

 "These data have been available on our website since 2004," said Clare Backman, director of environmental compliance and community relations.

 "We monitor for sea lice levels diligently and we manage our operations closely to ensure that our fish do not add to the many other threats that young wild salmon face."

 The ad also explains that farmed salmon spend their first year in freshwater hatcheries and are free of sea lice when they enter saltwater farms, and that sea lice may be passed from wild sources to farmed salmon. The ad states if salmon on the farm are too small for harvest and sea lice are approaching threshold levels during the out-migration months, fish may be treated with veterinarian prescribed Slice, provided in feed to effectively kill the lice.

 "This is the second ad we have run updating the public on our sea lice management plan since the out-migration began in March. It is part of our commitment to being open with those interested in our business, about what we are doing and what results we are attaining," said Backman. "We do not pretend to have all the answers, but we are committed to reviewing and supporting science and improving our practices so that we minimize risk to our salmon and wild stocks." – Prince Rupert Daily News

Tough time for B.C. fish farms

It's been a bruising fortnight for fish farmers. First, a blockbuster story March 27 in the New York Times outlined the difficulties plaguing Chile's salmon farms.

 Then provincial Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Pat Bell announced a moratorium on expansion of fish farms to the north coast "until we figure out how to move forward with a long-term vision for aquaculture."

 Next, Scotland's Sunday Herald newspaper reported that the Scottish government's Fisheries Research Services found "strong evidence that sea lice from caged salmon contaminate wild fish -- and the problem seems to be getting worse."

 And this week, word that research in Clayoquot Sound suggests an increased sea lice presence in proximity to salmon farms in a region that was previously considered a "zero lice" zone.

 Michael Price, fish biologist for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, insisted work was preliminary and samples small but confirmed that sea lice loads in plankton trawls near three fish farm sites were an average of 28 times those found at control sites.

 This follows other research indicating elevated burdens of sea lice on immature wild salmon in the Broughton archipelago and in the Discovery Islands off Campbell River where fish farms are concentrated.

 The big story, though, is the aftershock from mainstream American media paying attention to Chile, where a lethal, highly communicable and so far incurable virus has been raging through farmed salmon stocks since last July.

 According to the Times story, infectious salmon anemia has killed millions of fish, resulted in more than a thousand layoffs by one major employer -- about one in four workers -- as infected sites closed, and is sending tremors through retail markets in Japan, Europe and the United States.

 There's no evidence that ISA is transmissible from fish to mammals or that it affects humans in any way, but reassuring customers still twitchy in the aftermath of concerns about mad cow disease is likely to pose a significant marketing challenge.

 Consider ISA the hoof and mouth disease of the global salmon farming industry.

 According to an information leaflet from the U.S. government's National Fish Health Research Laboratory, infected blood, feces, urine and mucus, animal wastes, contaminated slaughter facilities, transport vessels and workers all easily transmit it from fish to fish and from site to site.

 As with hoof and mouth, the standard treatment is to kill all infected or exposed stocks within designated containment zones, disinfect all equipment and facilities and then keep fingers crossed.

 What does an outbreak of ISA in Chile have to do with salmon farmers on Canada's West Coast? Think bird flu in Indonesia.

 Despite vigorous hygiene control, its virulence, transmissibility, rapid mutation and genetic recombination make it a continuing threat -- in the case of ISA not to people but to farmed and possibly also wild fish stocks.

 Since ISA first emerged in Norway in 1984, it has marched halfway around the planet. Known outbreaks have occurred in New Brunswick, 1996, Nova Scotia and Scotland, 1998, Chile, 1999, Faroe Islands, 2000, U.S., 2001 and Chile again, 2007.

 Thus far the disease has been limited to Atlantic salmon, but there are gloomy hints that it might be extending its reach. The U.S. government notes "other wild fish are also susceptible to infection" including both sea run and freshwater brown and rainbow trout, and herring, all of which are important B.C. species. It also says ISA has affected coho and Chinook salmon in some isolated cases.

 Furthermore, it says sea lice, already the source of debate in B.C., may also play a role as vectors that can enhance contagion during epidemics. That promises to stoke the discussion. And so it should. – Vancouver Sun

Thursday, April 10, 2008 

Plan to allow S.E. charters to lease halibut quota

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is trying a new way to fix allocation disputes between the charter and commercial halibut fleets -- not by allocating charter operators more fish, but by allowing them to lease halibut quota shares from commercial fishermen.

 The council moved forward this week on a management package, now released for public review, that includes allocations for charter boats. It would impose gradually stricter regulations on charter operators if they exceeded their limits.

 "We want to be allocated more fish, and we see the leasing option as an excuse to allocate us less fish," said Rick Bierman, who runs the charter business Whales' Eye Lodge on Shelter Island.

 Bierman also said charter boat operators were wary of relying on commercial fishermen, who would have to choose to lease their quotas to charters. When prices are good, he said, there might be no quota to lease because fishermen would use it themselves.

But commercial fishermen argue that the charters shouldn't be getting fish for free that they have to pay for.

 "From the commercial side, we think it's a really good thing, because (charter boats) are obviously going over their allocation," said Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance.

 According to a biologist with the Department of Fish and Game, charter boats have exceeded soft guideline harvest limits for the last several years.

 If the council approves the management package in October, it will be forwarded to the National Marine Fisheries Service for review and possible adoption. It would likely be implemented no sooner than 2010.

 Commercial halibut fishermen are on an individual quota system.

 Tiered restrictions on charter boats would only be triggered if they exceeded their allocations. Less severely, charter boat employees could be forbidden from taking fish; more severely, clients could be limited to a one-fish bag limit.

 After years of a two-fish bag limit, charter boats were restricted to a smaller-size second fish last year.

 Charter captains have said that any reduction in the two-fish bag limit would severely hurt their business, because clients come up expecting two fish. – Juneau Empire

B.C. fish farmer says insecticide applied

Sea lice control measures in the Broughton Archipelago were completed a week ahead of schedule, reported Marine Harvest Canada after it harvested fish from its Wicklow Point Farm on March 25.

 “All of our Broughton area farms are now either empty of fish or have been managed to eliminate the possible contribution of sea lice to wild salmon,” said Clare Backman, the Director of Environmental Compliance and Community Relations at the company.

 “Although we recognize that the state of scientific knowledge is inconclusive about the threat of sea lice to wild salmon, we maintain that conservation is the best policy,” Backman added.

 “To publicly demonstrate this commitment we have, for the past several years, controlled sea lice through the application of Slice much earlier than required under the provincial guidelines, and by harvesting fish from our farms where this is possible -- even though there is a financial cost to us when we could be harvesting larger fish from other farms.”

 Marine Harvest Canada employs about 500 people on Vancouver Island and the mid-coast of B.C.  – North Island Gazette, B.C.

Decision nears for Mid-Coast salmon trollers

SEATTLE — Returning Sacramento fall Chinook numbers are down — and so follows the numbers of fishermen returning to fishery management meetings this year to talk about ocean salmon seasons.

The issue is simple: There are so few fall salmon swimming back up the Sacramento River that traveling to another meeting to ask for any fishing season is practically a moot point.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, meeting this week in Seattle to work on salmon and other fishery issues, tackled the issue head-on as the subject of scientific research took center stage.

“The situation with the Sacramento is truly unprecedented,” said Frank Lockhart, the National Marine Fisheries Service representative on the council, reiterating what he told the council and audience a month earlier.

“It’s going to take some serious thought to come up with any justification (for any fishery),” he said.

The room was packed. Only a few of the 100 or so seats in the audience were empty. Scientists, advisors, state, federal and tribal agency staff and a few members of the press sat in those chairs.

But this year, in stark contrast to two years ago, only a handful of fishermen sat to listen. Most paced or stood in the back of the room or talked in hushed tones in the corridors.

Many of those who attended the March council meeting in Sacramento chose to save money or, for others, continue fishing for Dungeness crab instead of making the trip north.

The April council meeting often is the most contentious. It’s when the council makes its final decision on salmon seasons. It’s the last chance for members of the public to plead their cases and craft seasons that will work for various groups.

Hundreds of fishermen did just that in 2006. The Klamath River crisis was only beginning to be understood but the immediacy resonated with sport and commercial fleets. More than 300 anglers and trollers arrived at the meeting in California with picket signs in hand, statements ready to be made, rallies calling for the government to declare the fishery a disaster, begging and pleading for any fishing opportunity they could get. – Pacific Fishing columnist Susan Chambers writing for the Coos Bay World

Graying of the fleet & and biologists

The “graying of the fleet” has been at the forefront in meetings around Alaska, where stakeholders strategize ways to secure future generations of Alaskan fishermen.

 Getting less attention is the drifting away of fishery scientists and managers due to retirement -- and Alaska is having a heck of a time filling those ranks.

 Nearly half of the state's area biologists will retire soon, said John Hilsinger, director of the commercial fisheries division.

 "It's even higher for our division leadership group, which is all the regional supervisors, chief fishery scientists and directors. Eighty percent of those could retire now, or they will be eligible within five years," he said.

 The commercial fisheries division now has 300 permanent full time staff and and a vacancy of 14%.

 "Some of these jobs will be filled, but that's a pretty high vacancy rate," he said, adding that the toughest jobs to fill are the more technical positions, such as biometricians and analyst programmers.

 "We are still able to hire good people but it's definitely becoming more difficult. We have to recruit longer for fewer applicants. Sometimes we give up trying to fill a position after a year or two," Hilsinger said.

 "If we don't have sufficient expertise, the natural tendency would be to be more conservative in management of the fisheries," ADF&G Commissioner Denby Lloyd said at a town meeting in Kodiak. – SitNews, Ketchikan

Friday, April 11, 2008 

Alaska fleets reeling from cuts in Chinook quota

Charter boats and commercial fishermen are reeling from reductions in this year's king salmon harvest quota.

 "This is going to touch all fleets," said Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association.

 The Pacific Salmon Commission allotted Southeast troll, seine, set and gillnet, and sport fishermen 170,000 king salmon, also known as Chinook. The number is based on the abundance of fish. It is a reduction of about 48 percent from last year and the smallest allowable catch since the 1999 start of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, which the commission implements. The treaty covers British Columbia, Oregon and Washington, as well as Alaska.

 King salmon stocks in California and Oregon were closed this year, but those closures aren't directly related because the fish stocks are different.

 The state Department of Fish and Game has the task of managing salmon according to the treaty allocation.

 How much of the total allocation each fishing sector gets is decided by the state Board of Fisheries. The board allotted 125,410 for trollers, 7,310 for seiners, 5,930 for set and drift gillnetters, totaling 138,650 for commercial fishing. Sport fishing was allotted 31,350 fish.

 Fish and Game announced that trollers would likely have less fishing time this year.

 "This is way deeper than we thought we'd end up this year," Kelley said of her fellow trollers.

 Kelley was hopeful that the cut would be a one-year blip in the abundance and not a long-term problem with the health of kings.

 Trollers' two target species are coho and king salmon. Trollers catch more cohos, but kings are "the money fish," she said.

 On Wednesday, Fish and Game released its management plan for the summer sport fishing season. Charter captains learned that from May 1 through June 30, they'll be limited to four lines per boat instead of the six allowed in past years. – Juneau Empire

Mid-Coast fishermen plead for Chinook forecast probe

SEATTLE — Sport and commercial salmon fishermen met with staff from Washington lawmakers’ offices, pleading their case for a Congressional investigation into failed biological opinions on the three major West Coast rivers and other issues.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Salmon Advisory Subpanel was discussing the investigation and other issues that included a fisheries failure declaration, the need for federal funding to help coastal communities and increased efforts to keep hatcheries producing fish.

The U.S. Commerce Department already is working on plans to make the fisheries failure determination, but getting funding from the government is whole other issue, staff members said. Proposed legislation should be introduced within the next month for it to get any traction, the said.

“Budgets are really tight,” said Clark Mather, the district director for Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who is on the House Appropriations Committee. “We have to fill a lot of holes. We have a lot of work to do.”

He said more money for habitat and hatchery work may be difficult to come by — several agencies’ budgets have been cut in recent years — but said lawmakers will “definitely track your disaster request.” – Coos Bay World

Norwegians work to build eco-trawls

The Norwegian fisheries magnate Kjell Inge Røkke and the industry have lately spent around NOK 10 million (EUR 1.25 million) on developing eco-friendlier trawls. One trawler operating off the west coast of Norway and a shrimp trawler fishing in the Oslo fjord in Eastern Norway are helping to develop the new trawl technology.

  According to the Norwegian press, one unnamed marine scientist has been recruited to assist in the development of the technology.

Through the company Aker Biomarine, Røkke funded the development of a technology in which krill is pumped directly from the trawl to the vessel factory. A hose goes from the vessel down to the trawl. Through a small hose, air is pumped down and mixed in with the catch. The air then pushes the catch up through the pipe. The system has revolutionized krill fishing.

Røkke is now aiming to develop a trawling system that is more selective in terms of what is kept and what parts of the catch should be released unharmed through the assistance of electronic devices. Today, the global fishing fleet kills millions of tonnes of unwanted by-catch by emptying the trawl on the deck and throwing back the unwanted catch -- often already dead -- to the sea. The new technology will reduce by-catch, and then apply the system used for air pumping krill in fish and shrimp trawling.

Although it has not yet been mentioned in the reports, if pelagic trawlers pump the catch directly from the trawl net, this will reduce fuel consumption substantially. A pelagic trawler today has to empty the trawl net every time the catch is large enough or trawling for a maximum period of time. The new technology will allow trawlers to operate non-stop until the desired volume has been caught. This will save both fuel and time.

If successfully developed, the selection process will prove valuable for bottom fish trawlers looking to automatically release small fish unharmed. Today the trawlers either discontinue fishing if they are catching too many undersized fish, or throw the by-catch back to the sea.

The new technology is also supposed to identify both the size and species of the fish yet nothing is known on how this can be done. By identifying the mix of species, it is possible to optimise fishing. For example, as different schools of species are identified, which often swim at different heights from the sea floor, trawl fishing can target different schools depending on the height from the sea bottom. If a sensitivity to the right size is added to this, trawl fishing may become highly eco-friendly if Røkke succeeds. – MercoPress, Uruguay

Oregon to hold lottery for commercial urchin permits

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will hold a lottery on April 28 to award six commercial sea urchin permits.

The commercial sea urchin fishery in Oregon is limited to 30 permits, a press release said. When the number of permits falls below 30, ODFW holds a lottery to bring the number back up to 30. Six permits are available.

 Permit applicants must be at least 18 years old. Only one application per individual will be accepted.  Applications must be received in the Salem office only or postmarked no later than April 15. – Coos Bay Daily World