Deckboss spent a good bit of time this weekend hanging around the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which is meeting through Tuesday here in Anchorage.
This is a meeting that lacks a really big, sexy headliner issue.
But lots of interesting currents are running through the council chamber, and even more through the corridors and bars of the downtown Hilton hotel, where the 11-member panel is encamped.
Here's a sampler:
• You know it's an election year when top politicians start showing up at the fish council. So it was no surprise to see Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell appear and give a little speech on Thursday. Naturally, after the speech came a fundraiser for Parnell, who is running for a new term.
• Jim Balsiger, Alaska chief for the National Marine Fisheries Service, announced it might be months longer before we see a new "biological opinion" on the status of the endangered Steller sea lion. This is a matter of considerable dread for Alaska's billion-dollar bottomfish industry, which very possibly could face painful new restrictions or even a shutdown if the agency determines commercial fishing is jeopardizing the sea lion's recovery or adversely modifying its habitat. Many industry players suspect internal conflict among NMFS scientists could explain the continual delays in rolling out this new BiOp.
• The island community of St. Paul, smack in the middle of the Bering Sea, is very worried about a pending change in crab management. You'll recall that, a few years ago, the king and snow crab fisheries were "rationalized" or divided into fishing, processing and regional shares. Under the rules, some of the crab must be delivered to northern ports including St. Paul, which heavily depends on landings taxes for its economic survival. Well, fishermen and processors want a change to allow crab to be delivered elsewhere in the event of an emergency, such as ice blocking the St. Paul harbor or a tsunami damaging the town's processing plants. St. Paul fears such an emergency exemption could be abused, however, draining the island of crab. Last I heard, a deal was in the works to compensate St. Paul somehow for lost crab landings, perhaps by requiring compensatory deliveries in future years.
• Maybe the hottest issue at this meeting concerns Gulf of Alaska rockfish. As with crab, rockfish was "rationalized," but only temporarily. The council now faces a universe of choices on how to manage the rockfish harvest after 2011. One option is awarding perhaps 20 percent of the catch rights directly to processors as "protection" for their historic investment in the fishery. This would be an unprecedented step in Alaska fisheries management, and a highly controversial one at that. So we can expect to see plenty of rockfish wrangling at future council meetings.
• Another hot topic is the proposed closure of some waters off Kodiak and Afognak islands to keep boats targeting bottomfish from accidentally catching, or mangling, bairdi Tanner crab. Supporters of the closures point the finger mainly at trawlers for this crab bycatch. Trawlers are saying, hey, we don't want to see vast areas closed without clear scientific justification. We've previously seen some pretty tough lobbying here. Remember those pictures of purported extreme crab bycatch from a few months ago? As with many issues before the council, final action on this one is still a long way off.
• Efforts to invent an excluder device to keep Chinook salmon out of pollock trawl nets apparently are coming along swimmingly. Researcher John Gauvin made a presentation on a "flapper-style" excluder to the council's Scientific and Statistical Committee. The committee wrote: "The concept for a salmon excluder has evolved over a number of years, and results of the most recent test appear to be the most promising to date." The excluder plays on salmon tendencies to allow them to exit the net through an escape hole, while most pollock stay inside. Gauvin said several vessels intend to use the excluder during next winter's pollock fishery.
• The council plans to hold its June 2011 meeting in a very unusual place: Nome! That's a big logistical challenge for the town, as a council meeting can attract hundreds of agency staffers and other people and bed space is limited. Folks in Nome believe they can handle the meeting like the Iditarod, which obviously brings scores of people to the shores of Norton Sound.
• And finally, from the rumor department, here's the very biggest buzz I heard at the council meeting (uh, in the bars) this weekend: Coastal Villages Region Fund and the company it partly owns, American Seafoods, possibly are going to divorce. This could involve part of American's mighty fleet of factory trawlers splitting off into a new company, knowledgeable and only slightly tipsy industry sources told me. Deckboss has not inquired of either Coastal Villages or American about this, so make of it what you will.