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Alaska Fish Factor: Bering Sea Crab Fishers May Face Delays Again

28 September 2015
 Alaska Fish Factor: Laine Welch Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry for print and broadcast since 1988. She also has worked ‘behind the counter’ in wholesale and retail seafood businesses in Alaska and Cape Cod, MA. Laine lives in Kodiak, Alaska.

US - Bering Sea crabbers are again facing the possibility of a delayed fishery as Congressional Republicans threaten to shut down the government, this time over federal funding of Planned Parenthood.

A shutdown two years ago stalled the crab opener by two days, costing the fleet more than $5 million in food, fuel and other fees as the boats stood idly by for a week or more awaiting an outcome.

“It was a huge mess last time,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of the trade group, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. “We have a very tight time frame – when the fishery opens on October 15, we need to be out there getting that crab caught, processed and on its way to Japan to take advantage of the holiday market.”

A shutdown means no federal workers are on the job to issue permits for those holding catch shares of the crab. No permits, no fishery.

“You have a situation where you not only have harm to the crab fishermen, but also to the processors in the area. You have an economic impact to a whole region because you don’t have somebody in an agency who is there to pick up the phone, sign the piece of paper to issue the harvest limits, nothing can happen,” said Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski.

The thing is, the Bering Sea crab fisheries are not beholden to federal dollars. The crabbers pay an annual fee each July based on their catches which covers all management and enforcement costs. (Alaska longliners with shares of halibut and sablefish do the same.)

“We’ve made the case that we pay our bills up front, we cover the costs of management, the money is in the bank and because this money is not subject to federal appropriations, the workers shouldn’t be subject to the furloughs and we should have the quotas issue on time,” Gleason said.

In fact, according to the Federal Register, the fee was increased from .65 percent in 2013 to 1.48 percent last year and this year to cover increased costs to maintain and upgrade the permitting and Internet landings systems. That’s yielded more than $3 million in fishery coverage costs.

“This is a program where the user fees cover the costs. It pays for itself, so you don’t need to wait around for a budget,” Murkowski added.

The crabbers are hopeful senior fishery managers get the message, Gleason said.

A government shutdown will have adverse impacts on all federally managed fisheries, meaning from three to 200 miles offshore. More than 80 percent of Alaska’s seafood by volume comes from federal waters.

Train at home - Many a fishing trip has been cut short by a hydraulics or electrical system break down, from a single pot hauler on a skiff to freezers on huge floating processors. That’s why self-paced, basic courses in both are offered to fishermen and other mariners on line from the University of Alaska/Southeast at Sitka.

“There’s no class meetings, so whenever you have the time to get on line and work through the material, as long as you have it finished in three months, you’re good to go,” said Teal Gordon, a UAS Program Support Specialist.

Fishermen brought the need for the training courses to university program planners, said Paul Rioux, who teaches the hydraulics course, the first of its kind, which was launched in 2011.

“We jokingly refer to the hydraulics as the ‘ghost of the machine’ because a lot of fishermen have a real understanding of their engines and most of their gear, but few have a really good working knowledge of the technical side of how the hydraulics actually work,” Rioux said.

“The real simple trollers or gillnetters only have an anchor winch or a set of gurdies or a net reel, but some boats have multiple systems with components controlling water pumps and freezer compressors and deck cranes and all sorts of things.”

The hydraulics course takes six hours to complete on average and costs just $90.
The Boat Electrical course includes basic theory, power generation and distribution, safety and wiring.

“You get a 30 year old boat and somebody adds something or takes something out and they leave the old wiring behind. Some of the wiring is just amazing,” said Alan Sorum, a former longtime Valdez harbormaster and port director who collaborated on the Boat Electrical course, now in its second year.

A top feature, Sorum said, is the focus on troubleshooting. Just knowing the rights and wrongs of basic bonding and grounding, for example, would prevent a harbormaster’s biggest hassle.

“Boats have AC and DC systems and if they’re not wired correctly you end up getting voltage or current in the wrong places and it causes all kinds of problems – for your boat and your neighbor’s boat – such as electrolysis,” Sorum said.

“For me that was always the biggest hassle – someone would complain about having a hot harbor or a prop getting eaten up and it’s so hard to track down who’s causing the problem.

The Boat electrical course takes up to 15 hours to complete and costs $125.
Both courses also count for continuing education credits and are available now. Visit the University of Southeast at Sitka or call 907-747-7762 to register.

Fish watch – Alaska’s salmon catch is nearing 256 million fish, well above the preseason forecast of 221 million.

Hundreds of divers at Southeast Alaska will head down for geoduck clams starting October 1 with a harvest set at 534,000 pounds in all regions but Sitka, which may not open. A sea urchin haul of more than 3.8 million pounds also opens that same day. The region’s sea cucumber dive fishery opens on October 5 with a harvest of nearly 1.5 million pounds. Dungeness crabbing opens on October 1 throughout the Panhandle.

Kodiak and the Westward Region also will open for a sea cucumber fishery on October with a combined harvest 185,000 pounds.

Alaska’s halibut catch has just over two million pounds remaining in this year’s 17 million pound catch limit. That fishery will close this year on November 7.

Fishing continues in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea for pollock, cod and other groundfish.

Finally, 11 Alaskans are in the running for one seat on the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

They include the incumbent Don Lane of Homer, Hunter Mann-Dempster of Sitka; Doug Vincent-Lang, former state Director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation; Karl Johnstone, former chair of the Board of Fish; Richard Yamada, a Juneau charter operator; Bob King of Juneau, former legislative assistant to Sen. Begich; Stephanie Madsen of Juneau, director of the At-Sea Processors Association; Linda Behnken of Sitka, director of the Alaska Longline Fisheries Association; Jeff Kauffman, CEO of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association; Rob Edwardson, a former state environmental program manager and Dan Hull (Alternate only), chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Comments and support letters may be sent to by October 23.

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