Commercial cod fishermen get more space in Kachemak Bay

Commercial groundfish fishermen in Kachemak Bay will get more space to operate after the Board of Fisheries redefined the closed waters in the area.

In Lower Cook Inlet, commercial fishermen are allowed to use pots to fish for Pacific cod and have been allowed inside Kachemak Bay west of the Homer Spit and along the southern shore of the bay near Seldovia. However, the main section and a swath extending westward in the center of the bay have been closed by regulation because of concerns for the Tanner crab population, which has dropped off significantly in Kachemak Bay in the last two decades or so.

The fishery is mostly small boats, and because the fishery takes place in the fall on the edges of Kachemak Bay, they run the risk of bad weather, so to avoid the poor weather, they have limited area, said AlRay Carroll, the proposer, during his public comments during the Board of Fisheries’ meeting in Homer on Wednesday.

“More area, less crowding of gear, less tangled pots, less gear loss,” he said during his testimony.

The original proposal would have expanded the area by approximately 44 square nautical miles. Fish and Game opposed the original proposal because of the risk to Tanner crab, which Carroll acknowledged. However, the fishermen are targeting Pacific cod, not crab, and the fish prey on young Tanner crab, so allowing the fishermen to take Pacific cod could help the Tanner crab population, he said.

Janet Rumble, the groundfish area management biologist for Cook Inlet, told the Board of Fisheries during the deliberation process Friday that increasing the area for the Pacific cod fishery may increase mortality by an unknown amount, both in bycatch and in handling mortality. The last regular commercial fishery on Tanner crab in Kachemak Bay was conducted in 1994, and the population has continued to drop since then, she said.

The proposal had support from the Homer Fish and Game Advisory Committee and the North Pacific Fisheries Association, a Homer-based commercial fishing organization, as well as from a number of attendees at the meeting. After the committee discussion Thursday, Fish and Game worked with Carroll and the supporters to amend the proposal, striking a compromise and giving the fishermen a little more space in Kachemak Bay.

“It adjusts the current boundaries and will provide more (Pacific) cod fishing area, but it also changes the boundaries that were initially proposed to include some of the higher abundance areas of Tanner crab,” Rumble said. “So these boundaries were changed … and it was an agreement between us and the stakeholders.”

Over time, Kachemak Bay has transitioned from a habitat dominated by crab and shrimp to one dominated by pollock and Pacific cod, Rumble said.

“There’s a lot of feeling, which was supported by some of our pollock issues in the past, that catching (Pacific) cod and pollock would actually boost up the Tanner crab populations,” she said. “I don’t have any information about that, but that is the feeling of this place.”

The department will monitor the catch to see what is coming up with the pots, Rumble said. Unlike in federal waters, there is no mandatory on-board fisheries observers in state waters.

Carroll said after the vote that the fishermen were happy with the decision. Most of the local commercial fishermen grew up as crab fishermen and know how to handle the crabs when they come up with the pots. Losing gear is not only frustrating, but costly — some of the pots can cost between $800 and $1,000 each, he said.

The board also approved another proposal allowing sablefish fishermen to connect pots while they are fishing. Fishermen are allowed to use pots to fish for sablefish, sometimes called black cod, but no one has ever done in it Cook Inlet, Rumble said. They have all stuck with longlines.

However, elsewhere in the state, fishermen are using pot gear to ward off pilfering whales. Whales have begun to catch on to longline fishing gear and are stripping the black cod from the lines before fishermen can pull them up. Pots are protected and keep the whales from stealing the catch.

Dropping one pot at a time is inefficient and the change would bring Cook Inlet in line with other areas of the state, said Randy Arsenault, the proposal’s author, during his public comments Wednesday.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council changed its regulations to allow pots to be used in longline fisheries in federal waters, Rumble told the board Friday. Fish and Game struck a compromise with Arsenault on an amendment, setting a limit of 15 groundfish pots on a single longline with one buoy on each end of the longline.

“This is because of whale depredation that has been going on for awhile and whales learning how to strip lines,” she said. “Pots don’t have this kind of problem.”

Two requests from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game also won approval from the Board of Fisheries. Sablefish and rockfish commercial fishing vessels will now have to give Fish and Game a six-hour warning before landing so the biologists can get a port sampler out to the landing port to get size, weight and samples.

Rumble said this is important because the department wants to collect more information on rockfish and sablefish species, but when the vessel lands late at night or early in the morning in Seward, it is difficult to get a sampler there. It takes at least four hours to get to Seward from Homer, where the management office is. Other areas have these requirements, known as prior notice of landing requirements. Lower Cook Inlet managers have required them by emergency order for the last few seasons and it helped significantly, she said.

“Having this prior notice of landing will assist in achieving our sampling goals, particularly because there’s been a decline in effort and harvest in the sablefish fishery in recent years, which has resulted in a protracted season with fewer deliveries during a given time period,” she said.

Fish and Game can also waive the six-hour notice in certain situations, such as if a fishing vessel needs to land to avoid a storm or the biologists have already reached their sampling goals. The requirement provides flexibility to sample fish in a fishery without directed stock assessment, Rumble said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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