A well-intended new Alaska law has gone awry from a botched rollout that has turned thousands of Alaska fishing vessel, tender, barge and sport fish operators into lawbreakers.
Since the start of 2019, all vessels over 24 feet are required to be registered with the state at a Department of Motor Vehicles office. Previously, vessels that were documented with the US Coast Guard were not also required to register with the state. The registration costs $24 and is good for three years.
“You need to get down to the DMV whether you’re documented or not,” explained Frances Leach, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska. “If you’re documented you have to register, and if you’re not documented, you have to register and get a title.”
The new rule stems from Senate Bill 92, the Derelict Vessels Act, introduced last year by Senator Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) and passed by the legislature. It is intended to help harbormasters and others track down owners of abandoned vessels.
However, virtually no mariners know about the new registration requirement.
“We found out about it from a DMV personnel in Haines who told one of our gillnetters and he told me, and we both called the troopers and they didn’t know anything about it,” said fisherman Max Worhatch, of Petersburg. “Later, they got back to us and said it was indeed the law.”
Worhatch, who is executive director of United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters, said he’s directed queries to the Departments of Administration and Public Safety.
“Why weren’t we notified?” he asked. “Nobody found out about this and nobody would’ve found out about this if we hadn’t alerted people. There was no public notice, nothing.”
The new law states that a derelict vessel prevention program shall, to the extent that general funds are available, establish education and community outreach programs. But the only outreach is coming from fishermen’s groups, said UFA’s Leach in a June 18 letter to Department of Administration Commissioner Tshibaka.
“Since becoming aware of this new law in late May, UFA has been working with the Department of Motor Vehicles and State Wildlife Troopers to understand how they intend to implement the requirements of the law,” the letter says.
“We have notified thousands of fishermen of the law’s requirements through emails and social media posts. As far as we can tell, the commercial fishing industry, spearheaded by UFA, is the only sector actively working to inform commercial fishermen of the new requirements, even though this affects thousands of non-commercial fishing boat owners around the state. Who is informing them?’
It adds,“As fishermen attempt to comply with the law’s requirements they are discovering that many DMV offices are not ready to deal with the onslaught of this new bill.”
Leach and Worhatch also point out that requiring vessel registration at a DMV adds an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and is “reinventing the wheel.”
“All the information on the DMV registration is available on a public database website at the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission website. Everything,” Worhatch said.
UFA, which represents 36 fishing groups, requests a one year delay of the law “until all state agencies are better prepared and trained and adequate public notice and education are given prior to it going into effect.”
That has the support of Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka).
“Running the DMV gauntlet is the last thing fishermen need to be thinking about as salmon season heats up,” he said by email.
Kreiss-Tomkins voted against the new law, saying he was concerned that the bill, albeit well intentioned and addressing all too real of a problem, would create more paperwork than it would solutions.
“The fear about paperwork headaches is proving all too real,” he said, adding that it “makes heaps of sense” for the existing CFEC database to do “double duty” and relieve the DMV of those headaches.
“If sound legislation will be forthcoming to this end, I’ll certainly support it,” he said.
As to the botched rollout, Kreiss-Tomkins said: “There seems to be critical mass concern. Everyone — the fishermen, the agencies — is climbing a learning curve, so to some extent it’s understandable. I just hope that this recent attention can help everyone get on the same sheet of music.”
NAKNEK DOES NETS
Fishing net recycling is expanding to Naknek. Nicole Baker, founder and operator of Net Your Problem, plans to meet with net menders, processors, gear sellers and landfill managers in early July to begin formulating a program.
“These are people who have reached out to me, or I have been communicating with over the last year or so,” she said, adding that the recycling start-up is set for next summer.
Baker, who is in Dillingham for three weeks taking a class at the University of Washington salmon research camp, also has met with the local Curyung Tribe, which has managed a net recycle program at the Dillingham Harbor since 2008.
Since 2017, Net Your Problem has shipped over half a million pounds of plastic fishing nets from Dutch Harbor and Kodiak for renewed life in Europe.
“They grind them up, melt them down and turn them into plastic pellets that they then resell to buyers of recycled plastics who turn them into water bottles, phone cases or whatever they choose,” she said.
Other updates: nets are still being taken in at Dutch Harbor, and Kodiak has a net drop-off deadline this summer of September 1 due to shipping logistics. Petersburg will soon be sending out a container of nets collected by the Petersburg Indian Association.
The Haines Friends of Recycling has collected seven nets so far, and more are being dropped off at the Net Loft. Juneau will be sending out a container of nets at the end of summer collected by the Recycle Works Group.
Fishermen are closest to the changes brought by a warming climate and talking about it is a first step in finding solutions. That’s the thought behind The Nature Conservancy’s second collection of audio stories in its Tidal Change series.
“If we are not talking about the problems or the challenges ahead, we’re not going to start tackling them. This is a chance to generate conversation,” said spokesman Dustin Solberg of Cordova.
The stories reveal a swirl of emotions. Here’s a sampler:
“The environment is changing, undoubtedly. When I first fished there was a lot of ice and now most of the glaciers are receding,” said Leonard Leach of Ketchikan who has been fishing since 1961.
“If this whole warming trend keeps happening my understanding is that jellyfish will really come back and that would be a detriment to our gillnetting and seining.”
“The water’s warmer and the fish get confused and they don’t know when they’re supposed to run,” said Lia Cook, who fishes with her family at Bristol Bay. “It really affects the peak and the amount of fish that comes through because there is confusion in the school of when are we supposed to go and spawn and do all these things,”
Lauri Rootvik of Dillingham also spoke to the odd run timing at Bristol Bay.
“When I was a child it was the 4th of July run and it was pretty predictable. It’s not predictable anymore and it hasn’t been for quite a few years,” she said.
“Warm water produces more harmful algae blooms. It’s not something that’s coming, it’s something that we are experiencing,” said Bob Eder, a 45 year veteran of Dungeness crab fishing in Oregon. “In our industry there are people of all different political leanings but I don’t know any fishermen who don’t recognize climate change and the challenges coming.”
Katrina Leary grew up at a fishing camp along the Kuskokwim River and called it “magical.”
“It’s really emotional when you realize your livelihood is being threatened and your kids might not be able to do this. Fishing really is our life. I couldn’t imagine a summer without fishing and I hope I never have to.”