Daily Sitka Sentinel

Fish Groups Agree on Rockfish Issues

The Alaska Board of Fisheries began formal deliberations Monday afternoon, reaching decisions on several proposals related to rockfish, sablefish and lingcod in areas of Southeast Alaska and Yakutat.
Board members voted unanimously to require charter anglers who are releasing non-pelagic rockfish (such as yelloweye, sometimes known locally as “red snapper”) to immediately use a deep-water release device to return the fish to a depth near which the fish was caught. The new requirement won’t take effect until 2013.
The board unanimously opposed a proposed shift in the overall allocation of demersal shelf rockfish from the commercial sector to the sport sector (Proposal 212).
In addition, the board repealed the nonresidents’ annual sport catch limit for sablefish in all areas of Southeast Alaska except for Chatham Strait north of Point Gardner (Proposal 216, amended).
Monday’s deliberations and votes occurred after the conclusion of the board’s “committee-of-the-whole” process that discussed 50 of the 145 proposals on the board’s agenda for its 10-day meeting in Ketchikan. The seven board members are considering changes to state management of finfish such as salmon, herring and rockfish in Southeast Alaska and Yakutat.
The board decided 10 proposals related to groundfish on Monday.
Deliberations resumed at 8 a.m. today at the Ted Ferry Civic Center, beginning with a proposal by Don Westlund of Ketchikan to create a commercial pot fishery for spiny dogfish in Southeast Alaska.
Several high-interest proposals are likely to be decided today. These include proposals to change the Sitka Sound commercial herring sac roe fishery to an “equal share” fishery, and to establish a subsistence-only harvest zone for herring along part of the north Sitka road system and adjacent islands.
The board also is expected to decide a Ketchikan Guided Sportfish Association proposal to raise the mature biomass threshold for allowing a commercial herring sac roe fishery in West Behm Canal from 7,000 tons to 15,000 tons.
Once the board concludes deliberations on the committee-of-the-whole proposals, it will begin its committee process regarding the remaining proposals.
Board Chairman Karl Johnstone set a deadline of 10:30 a.m. today for members of the public to sign up to participate on individual committees, such as Committee A (herring/groundfish), Committee B (salmon troll/net) and others.
Deliberations began Monday afternoon after three-plus days of staff reports, public comments and committee work on the issues before the board at this meeting.
The first proposal, submitted by the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, was an effort to reduce the mortality of demersal shelf rockfish that are released after being caught (Proposal 210).
Deep-water rockfish are subjected to a phenomenon called “barotrauma” when they’re brought up from depth — so much so that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game assumes for accounting purposes that all of this type of rockfish will die if released on the water’s surface.
Several  devices have been developed to quickly bring a rockfish down to the approximate depth at which it was caught and releasing it there.
According to Fish and Game, research indicates that using a deep-water release device can increase survival of yelloweye rockfish by more than 95 percent.
After questions arose about SEAGO’s original, and somewhat vague, proposal, an amended version was drafted by SEAGO and the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and submitted as a possible substitute for the board to consider.
The amendment proposed that a sport angler releasing a rockfish from a charter boat would immediately use a deep-water release mechanism to return the rockfish “to the bottom near where the fish was hooked.”
It would be the charter operator’s responsibility to have at least one working device aboard, according to the SEAGO/ALFA amendment.
Once the proposed amendment was on the table for discussion, board members Bill Brown, Sue Jeffrey and John Jensen said they had been skeptical about the proposal initially.
“The intent is outstanding, trying to help rockfish survive by releasing them at depth,” said Brown, noting the available science indicates that use of the devices results in a reduction in mortality rates.
Brown said he had concerns about highgrading — releasing smaller or undesired species of rockfish in order to keep a larger size or preferred species of fish. Overall, Brown said he believed it’s a good idea and he hoped it works, although it might not.
Jeffrey and Jensen said they had become convinced that it would work.
Board Member Tom Kluberton said fishing pressure on rockfish has increased as halibut stocks have changed, and the rockfish stocks could suffer long-term damage quickly.
Brown also noted that the department had requested that implementation of the proposed rule, if adopted, be delayed until 2013.
Fish and Game had requested the delay to “allow time for the department to provide information and instruction on the proper release at depth on nonpelagic rockfish, and for the public to become familiar with the technique,” according to the department’s staff comments on Proposal 210.
The board voted 7-0 in support of the amended proposal.
Based on that vote, the board took no action on a similar proposal (211) that would have required the release of rockfish at 40 feet.
The board then took up Proposal 212 from the Southeast Alaska Guides Association.
SEAGO proposed shifting the allocation of demersal shelf rockfish in the Southeast Outside Subdistrict from the commercial sector to the sport sector.
As proposed, the sport allocation would rise from 16 percent to 25 percent, while the commercial allocation would drop from 84 percent to 75 percent.
The commercial harvest has not reached the allowed allocation since it was implemented in 2006.
The primary component of the commercial harvest is as bycatch in the commercial halibut fishery. Large declines in the halibut quota have been a factor in the corresponding declines in the commercial rockfish harvest during the past couple of years.
SEAGO, noting that the sport sector has exceeded its allocation in three of the past five years although sport limits for demersal shelf rockfish have been reduced, sought to make use of some of the unused commercial allocation to avoid potential sport closures.
Board Member Kluberton said he’d raised the concept of a rollover, whereby unused commercial quota could be accessed by the sport fishery during that same year, but that there were timing and other circumstances that would tend to disallow that concept.
Jeffrey said she understood the proposal was intended to help the sport sector to keep from bumping up against it allocation. However, the passage of the deep-release mechanism requirement for rockfish would help the charter industry avoid bycatch, and it appeared that the number of sportfishing licenses for residents were remaining level while the number of licenses issued to nonresidents was tapering off.
“It sounds at this time (the reallocation) is not needed,” Jeffrey said.
Brown proposed an amendment to shift the allocation to 80 percent for commercial and 20 percent for sport, with a three-year sunset clause. The motion died for a lack of a second.
Before the final vote, Johnstone noted that the current commercial allocation of rockfish was a safety net for the commercial fleet, and there was no need to try to catch the unused portion. And if the commercial halibut quotas went up, the rockfish allocation buffer  would still be available.
The board voted 0-6 against Proposal 212. Jensen was not able to participate because of a conflict-of-interest ruling regarding the proposal.
The other issue of potentially broad interest decided Monday was Proposal 216.
Submitted by Petersburg charter operator Stan Malcom, Proposal 216 sought to repeal the state’s annual limit on sablefish (black cod) harvests by nonresidents in Southeast Alaska.
The existing limits are a bag and possession limit of four fish, with an annual limit of eight fish.
During the earlier staff report and public comment portion of the meeting, it was made clear that more than about 80 percent of the guided sportfishing catch for black cod occurred in Chatham Strait.
About 3 percent of all guided anglers harvested at least one black cod in all of Southeast Alaska during 2010, according to state records. About 1 percent of all nonresident guided anglers (328) harvested the annual harvest limit of eight black cod.
During public comment, the proposal had been opposed by commercial fishing interests concerned about the potential increase of sport catches of black cod.
Malcom submitted an amended proposal that would keep the annual limit in Chatham Strait north of Point Gardner, where most of guided sportfishing for black cod occurs, but still remove the nonresidents’ annual limits for black cod in the rest of the region.
“Annual limits are an unnecessary burden imposed on every nonresident angler and charter operator when most of the harvest is conducted by a handful of sport fishers and charter operators in a relatively small area of Southeast,” Malcolm wrote in his letter proposing the amended language.
The Board of Fisheries took up the amended language.
Brown said it’s his opinion that Alaska should treat nonresidents differently than residents only when there is a conservation issue, and “I don’t see this here.”
The sport catch of black cod is a “very tiny percentage” of the commercial catch, said Brown.
Jensen said he feels there is a conservation problem because the commercial fleet gets fewer fish every year due to Fish & Game’s conservation.
Jeffrey said she wasn’t going to support the amended language because federal and state stock assessments show a general declining trend in sablefish stocks, and there is anecdotal evidence of an increasing appreciation for black cod. She said she would like to see the limits in effect in a broader geographic area than the one proposed.
Board Member Vince Webster said the amended language was an attempt at a compromise to address a lot of the concerns voiced about the area where most of the annual limits were being reached by nonresident guided sport anglers, and leaves out the other areas.
It wasn’t perfect, said Webster, “but I think I’m going to support it.”
Jensen said he would prefer giving the sport sector a fixed percentage of the annual black cod harvest, which would result in an amount of fish that would float up or down depending on a given year’s stock assessment.
Johnstone said he didn’t think ending the annual limit in the non-Chatham Strait areas would be a conservation issue, and cautioned against focusing on nonresidents that produce a great amount of income for the state.
He added that fisheries evolve over time, and that evolution shouldn’t be discouraged.
The vote on Malcom’s amended language was 5-2, with Jensen and Jeffrey voting against it.
After further discussion, the final vote was 6-1, with Jeffrey joining the prevailing side.
In other actions, the board:
• Approved 5-2 a requirement for a permit for the subsistence and personal use harvest of sablefish (an amended proposal 270).
• Approved 7-0 an amended proposal to shift the allocation of lingcod between commercial fisheries in the Icy Bay Subdistrict (Proposal 217).
• Opposed 0-7 a proposal to boost the troll lingcod bycatch allocation in the North Southeast Outside Section (Proposal 219)
• Opposed 0-7 a proposal to change the allocation of lingcod in the East Yakutat Area (Proposal 220).
• Opposed 0-6 an increase of sport lingcod allocation in the Central Southeast Outside and Southern Southeast Outside sections (Proposal 221).

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