Can’t make it to important fish meetings that affect your future? If you have access to the Internet, you don’t have to miss a thing.

“We provide you with the ability to listen in, see who’s listening on line, and you can record sections of the meeting to your own computer,” said Maria Shawback, staff point person for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s online presence.

NPFMC has been using the technology and expanding its functions for a year. Shawback said a new feature provides the ability to download handouts that usually are available only at the meetings.

“So if there’s a motion on the table, you can actually follow along at home,” she said.

Reaction has been very favorable to the online meetings, Shawback said, not only from far-flung fishing regions, but also for those waiting to testify at the week-long meetings.

“If we have lengthy testimony and they are waiting for their time to come up, they don’t have to wait around in the meeting room. They can figure out where they are in the sign-up, and listen to who is up ahead of them at the same time. People really like it,” she said.

Shawback posts upcoming breaks and where the council is on the agenda. There also is a live question and answer section on the link where you can also advise of any technical problems.

Adding PowerPoint presentations is next in the lineup for listeners, but Shawback said there are no plans to provide live video.

“No one wants to be on camera,” she added with a laugh.

Go to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council home page at www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc and find the link in the agenda section.

“It’s less than a minute installation on your computer,” Shawback said, “and you can plug right in.”

NPFMC is meeting through Oct. 12 in Anchorage. Hot items on the agenda include revamping the observer program, bycatch of crab around Kodiak, and next year’s catch quotas.

The state Board of Fisheries meetings also are online. The Fish Board takes up Cook Inlet, Kodiak and Chignik finfish and statewide king and tanner crab issues starting on Oct. 13 at a two-day work session in Kenai. The first meeting, which will focus on Lower Cook Inlet, is set for Nov. 15-18 in Homer. Questions? Call (907) 465-4110.

Panhandle pushes for shellfish farms

A two-year Mariculture Initiative kicks off this week with two clear goals: to increase the number of farms in Southeast by five each year, starting in 2012, and to increase the value of the region’s farming sector from the current $183,000 in 2009 by 10 percent annually.

The initiative is being led by Alaska Sea Grant in partnership with state agencies, tribal and other organizations including the Audubon Society.

“They not only see it as an economic opportunity, but as an environmentally sustainable, healthy use of a marine system. That’s a win-win for everyone,” said Ray RaLonde, a Sea Grant mariculture specialist.

The major focus is training and education, technology assistance, and working with communities to help them develop local mariculture industries, RaLonde said.

“Many communities, especially in Southeast, view it as a way to provide jobs and boost local economies,” he said.

The initiative will target Kake, Prince of Wales, the Kuiu/Kupreanof region, Chatham Straits, Wrangell and Petersburg. RaLonde said the shellfish aquaculture program will use a multi-faceted approach that aims to help growers coordinate with each other.

“One of the problems with the way the program has worked historically is that an individual will choose a site and go through a screening process that leads to a farm lease. But that tends to generate a whole raft of isolated farmers that are doing everything themselves in remote areas,” he explained. “We want to link them together in some type of collective that allows sharing services between farmers and a community.

“We know from economic analyses of shellfish aquaculture that 72 percent of the income stays in the local area. So it has an amazing capacity to provide economic opportunities,” he added.

RaLonde points to the success of the Kachemak Bay Shellfish Growers Co-operative, which has been growing oysters near Homer for 15 years. The group has used federal and state grants to build its own centralized, fully equipped processing center that provides consistent quality, handling and distribution of the local oysters.

While oysters provide the bulk of Alaska’s shellfish crops, RaLonde said the project aims to include other species. A project under way in Sea Otter Sound is testing the feasibility of growing commercial amounts of steamer clams.

“That is a huge vacant market in Alaska and we want to do something about that. It looks very promising,” RaLonde said.

Another project at Annette Island is testing subtidal and intertidal farming of giant geoduck clams, which are now only harvested in deep waters by divers.

Economic analyses show that expanding mariculture in Southeast could return up to $70 million to the region annually, said John Sund, project director for the Oceans Alaska center in Ketchikan.

The Mariculture Initiative officially begins on Oct. 13 with technology training, business planning and new growing techniques that can reduce labor by 70 percent. The following evening features the famous Oyster Festival that also will include geoducks, sea cucumbers, weathervane scallops, spot prawns and dungeness crab. The Alaska Shellfish Growers Association will hold its annual meeting Oct. 15-16. All events are at the Cape Fox Lodge in Ketchikan and are open to the public. Contact RaLonde at (907)274-9697 or raymond.ralonde@alaska.edu.

Dollar drops

The dollar has been sinking against major currencies, falling last week to 82 yen (a 15-year low), and $1.02 against the Canadian loonie, a 4 percent decline. That will make seafood in the U.S. more expensive, predicts market expert John Sackton of Seafood.com.

“The US imports about 80 percent of its total seafood consumption, and as the dollar weakens, these imports become more expensive. It forces producers to raise prices and it allows foreign buyers, for example, Japanese buyers in Alaska and Canada, to bid for higher prices for seafood,” Sackton said.

The primary culprit is China, he added.

“China pegs its currency (yuan) to the US dollar and as the dollar falls, China’s exports get more price competitive,” Sackton said.

The Wall Street Journal reports that there are frustrations with the Chinese government’s unwillingness to allow its currency to significantly appreciate.

“This is becoming a major international issue, and it has the potential to lead to a lot more economic uncertainty over the next year as countries try and use their own currencies as leverage to improve their economies,” Sackton said. “For imports like seafood, this means a bigger discrepancy between the price you have to pay and the price you can sell it for.”

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