Commercial fisheries scramble to get permitted

Industry relies on federal employees now furloughed for required paperwork, inspections so they can harvest

A government shutdown called by President Trump to force funding of a border wall is now impacting Alaska’s multi-million-dollar seafood industry, which relies on federal employees now furloughed to process mandatory permits and participate in critical fisheries research.

As the shutdown headed into its third week, worries abounded over whether skeleton staffs at the National Marine Fisheries Service would be able to complete the required inspections to issue a variety of permits for vessels, flow scales, observer sampling stations, video monitoring equipment and more.

Between pressures being brought on the federal agencies who have furloughed a number of employees by the seafood industry and the economy, there has emerged a little bit of flexibility, according to a major provider of observers for commercial fishing vessels.

National Marine Fisheries Service has made available limited staff who don’t normally schedule people for (required annual) briefings to get people registered, said Stacey Hansen, North Pacific and West Coast program manager for Saltwater Inc., which hires and deploys marine biologists as fisheries observers in Alaska, the West Coast and Hawaii.

NMFS has agreed to allow for changes to the roster for briefing classes, so that those who had not signed up by the Dec. 26 deadline can fill spots for registered observers who decided to opt out of the briefings.

“As things stand, we will have the observers to fill the immediate need,” Hansen said. “As time goes on, I can’t predict what our capability is. If it extends into late January or early February, I can’t predict what it will be.”

But even before permitted, qualified observers can board fishing vessels, these boats must be permitted to go fishing, with scales checked and approved for accuracy, and observer sampling stations approved. Last week two vessels were held up waiting for those sampling station and scale permits, she said.

Some sectors of the industry, because of their fishing and shipyard maintenance and repair schedules, are not impacted at this time.

“We had most of our scales inspected in the past summer and fall because our vessels were in shipyards at that time,” said Chad See executive director of the Freezer Longline Coalition, an alliance of freezer longline companies, vessel owners and related businesses who harvest groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.

This coalition’s members have no issues with permits at this time, “but if the shutdown continues, one issue will be deployment of observers,” See said.

They need to be debriefed by NMFS and there is concern about this for a number of observers for the longline and catcher-processor fleets, including bottom trawlers, he said.

For the At-sea Processors Association, a trade association representing six member companies who own and operate 16 U.S.-flagged catcher/processor vessels participating in the Alaska Pollock fishery and West Coast Pacific whiting fishery, the issue is getting permits for flow scales, video monitoring and observer sampling stations, said Jim Gilmore, director of public affairs. Most of this is done, Gilmore said. A few vessels still need those permits, but members are telling the At-sea Processors that this will be taken care of on time, so it appears that thus fleet will be able to start fishing on Jan. 20, he said.

Another industry insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, also expressed concern about getting all required permits on time. For those needing to get their permits at Dutch Harbor, it was not as big an issue because the U.S. Coast Guard is on active duty, and in Seattle, where federal inspectors are civilians, there are also Coast Guard personnel available to do the required inspections to issue permits, he said. Many of the vessels represented by this group of catcher-processors had submitted their permit applications in November, and so were optimistic about having them by mid-January, he said.

Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, organization of groundfish harvesters who trawl, was also somewhat optimistic about having all permits in place by the Jan. 20 start date for UCB member vessels. Paine noted that some NMFS staff had been able to go back to work because of cost recovery fees paid by American Fisheries Act inshore coops and Amendment 80 boats to cover the cost of rationalized fishery programs. “Their goal is to get it done before Jan. 20,” he said.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, based in Anchorage, meanwhile is dealing with a different sort of impact, involving several reports that are scheduled to be presented Feb. 4-11 during the council’s meeting in Portland, OR.

The council has already issued an advisory to those planning to attend that the government shutdown may create additional changes to its schedule because council staff, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and federal fisheries agencies often work together to produce reports on economic data, sustainability, observer programs, fees and more. Some reports that require collaboration scheduled to be presented at the February meeting include medical lease, and beneficiary designation provisions set for final action in February, and discussions on crab eLogbooks for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and economic data reports as well as Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation (SAFE) report.