The required permits are not yet in hand, but the U.S. Navy is moving full steam ahead on its plans to conduct war training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska for two weeks in early May.
Meanwhile, nine coastal communities have so far signed resolutions asking the Navy to instead conduct its training between September and mid-March, times that are less sensitive to migrating salmon, birds and marine mammals. Several more communities have indicated they will do the same by month’s end.
“It’s not that we don’t want the Navy to do their training – it’s the time and locations,” said Emily Stolarcyk, program director for the Eyak Preservation Council of Cordova.
“The community resolutions say that we are the people who depend on commercial, subsistence and recreational fishing,” she added. “The Navy exercises are planned during the most important breeding and migratory periods for salmon, birds, whales and marine mammals. About 90 percent of the training area is designated as essential fish habitat for all five species of Pacific salmon. May is the worst time to be doing this.”
The Navy contends that at least some of these resolutions contain false information, including that these field exercises are done on an annual basis, when in fact they are conducted every other year. There are also inaccuracies regarding the amount of munitions used, said Captain Anastasia Schmidt, director of public affairs for Alaskan NORAD Region/Alaskan Command/11th Air Force. NE 2017 is different from NE 2015, and the amount of munitions planned for this exercise is much smaller than what the environmental impact statement allows the Navy to use, she said.
In the 43 years that the Navy has conducted war games in the Gulf, only twice have they occurred in May (2007, 2008).
The Northern Edge joint training exercises include nearly 6,000 military participants “on and above central Alaska ranges and the Gulf of Alaska” according to the Alaskan Command Office of Public Affairs at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.
The Gulf portion includes an area from 12 miles off the Kenai Peninsula to 140 miles out. Live weapons will be used in and above the water, said Schmidt. She could not reveal specifics, but said weapons will include sonars, small arms, machine guns and naval gun shells. Two Navy destroyers, but no submarines will be on the water. No independent observers will be allowed to participate.
The Navy does not yet have a required letter of authorization to proceed from the National Marine Fisheries Service, nor have they published a final record of decision.
However, Schmidt said, “we are right on track to get them in mid-April. For the past several months, the Navy has been projecting that the permits will be received around mid-April.”
The Eyak Preservation Council is sending letters to all Alaska fishing permit holders asking them to contact decision makers about moving the time of the Navy training.
“It contains a letter for fishermen to sign and send to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, with an option to send a courtesy copy to the NMFS and Pacific Command,” Stolarcyk said.
Last September, Murkowski wrote a strongly worded letter to the Secretary of the Navy stating that they needed to do a better job of involving local communities and “listening to stakeholders.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also has encouraged more direct engagement with Alaskans to “clear up some of the confusion and misinformation being circulated.”
“As an Alaskan, Senator Sullivan understands the importance of our fisheries and our coastal communities, and would never support an exercise that he believed would adversely affect Alaska’s fish stocks or prevent fishermen from doing their jobs,” Sullivan’s office said in an email message. “The Senator will continue to encourage productive and science-based dialogue between the U.S. military and Alaska’s coastal communities.”
Despite the non-committal responses, Stolarcyk remains hopeful that the congressional delegation and the Navy will hear the unified voice of coastal Alaskans.
“This is the water that we depend upon at the time we depend on it most,” she said. “I am hopeful they can understand that it’s not just about what they need – it’s about including the needs of communities that depend on these waters for sustenance.”
Learn more about the Northern Edge exercises here and at www.summerisforsalmon.org/
High prices for halibut
Catches of Alaska halibut have picked up after wild weather got the fishery off to a slow start when it opened on March 11. Catches by March 24 topped 800,000 pounds from 137 landings with Sitka leading all ports, followed by Seward, Kodiak and Homer.
The prized flats were fetching big prices, up 30 cents a pound on average, compared to the early weeks of the fishery last year.
Halibut prices usually are broken into three weight categories. Kodiak prices were said to be fluctuating quite a bit with reports at $6.45 a pound for 10 to 20 pounders; $6.75 for 20 to 40’s and $7.00 a pound for “40 ups.”
Ports at Juneau and Homer were reporting a straight $7 per pound, and halibut deliveries in Southeast were paying fishermen $6.70, $6.90 and $7 per pound.
Buyers weren’t beating down the doors, said several major buyers, and there are reports of halibut holdovers in cold storage. It remains to be seen if the prices will remain as high throughout the eight-month season.
The best fish story comes from Southeast where halibut fishing is said to be “fantastic” and the fish are robust and big. One major buyer said nearly half of their halibut landings were in the most popular 20 to 40-pound weight class and just 31% were smaller sizes.
Nearly 2,000 hook and line fishermen hold quota shares of Alaska halibut. Alaska’s share of the coast wide catch this year is just over 18 million pounds. The Pacific halibut fishery remains open this year through November 7.
Sitka Sound traditionally kicks off Alaska’s roe herring circuit and this year’s harvest is lining up to be a good one.
The Sound was “boiling” with the most herring they had ever seen, said fishermen on the grounds. A three hour and 20-minute opener on March 19 was followed by a 15-minute opener on the 22nd, bringing the total catch to about half of the 14,647 ton quota. Fishermen were awaiting word of another opener while processors were hustling to handle the herring hauls.
The female herring are valued by Asian buyers for their roe as a percentage of body weight, and the Sitka fish were averaging good roe counts of 11 to 12 percent. Fishermen averaged $250 a ton last year and market reports indicate a good chance of higher prices this season.
A herring pound fishery could be the next to go near Craig and Klawock. Fishermen there can catch 349 tons this year and place them in enclosures that contain blades of kelp that hold the sticky herring spawn, prized by buyers.
Kodiak’s herring season begins in mid-April, and the harvest is set at a conservative 1,645 tons.
“We expect an increase in the herring biomass but it will be mostly younger, 3-5 year old fish. Thus, the smaller quota,” said area manager James Jackson at the local Alaska Department of Fish and Game office.
Alaska’s biggest herring fishery occurs in May at Togiak in Bristol Bay. The harvest this year is pegged at about 30,000 tons, based on “best guess-timates” by state managers.
Money for herring management for all areas but Sitka Sound was zeroed out in the state budget two seasons ago. That has eliminated the sampling necessary to accurately gauge herring stock abundance and age classes.
“For us the bigger impact is that we can’t produce a good forecast for Togiak herring because we didn’t do the sampling,” said regional manager Tim Sands at Dillingham. “The data gap will cycle through our whole population estimate. Togiak herring live more than 12 years, so even if we were to start sampling again this year, we’ll have that data gap for at least eight years.”
Togiak fishermen in 2016 received just $100 per ton for their roe herring.