Fisheries in Kodiak and the Gulf of Alaska had their ups and downs last year. Many uncertainties remain as the pandemic continues into the new year, but bright spots include additional federal COVID-19 relief for fishermen, the opening of previously closed fisheries and discussions about re-authorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Fishermen dealt with a slew of challenges in 2020, from low fish prices to increased pandemic-related costs.
Another challenge was the closure of the Gulf of Alaska’s federally managed Pacific cod fishery. But this year got off to a good start with the opening of the federal Pacific cod fishery on Jan. 1.
This means more fishing for the fleet. It also means that the timing of state-managed fisheries will go back to normal, said Nathaniel Nichols, a biologist with the Department of Fish and Game. Last year, the timing of seasons was delayed because they are based on the closures of federal fisheries.
Fishery participants will also see additional funding following the passage of the most recent federal COVID-19 stimulus package, which includes $300 million in relief for fishermen.
This comes as good news to many fishermen and seafood processors who have suffered from increased operational costs from COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, as well as from testing and personal protective equipment requirements.
Linda Kozak, a fisheries consultant from Kodiak, said she does not foresee the state lifting its mandates requiring specific testing and quarantine protocols for the fishing industry.
“We are waiting to see on the COVID-19 health orders that the state has in regard to quarantine and testing,” Kozak said. “They anticipate that we are still going to see the same situation as last year with the 14-day quarantine and the testing.”
The fishing fleets are also concerned about funding for stock assessments, the primary source of data about the status of fish populations. The data also informs managers about the overall health of a fishery, and is used to decide the opening or closure of fisheries as well as harvest limits.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration canceled five of its six surveys in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The canceled surveys included the Aleutian Island Bottom Trawl Survey, the Eastern Bering Sea Bottom Trawl Survey, the Northern Bering Sea Bottom Trawl Survey, the Bering Sea Pollock Acoustics Survey and the Fall Ecosystem Survey.
“With the new administration coming in and with a lack of funding access and funds being diverted here … we don’t know what their priority is going to be on stock assessments and surveys,” Kozak said.
She said the importance of the surveys is being transmitted to the NOAA through congressional delegations, senators, industry leaders and fisheries groups.
“We know the message is getting out. We just don’t know what the focus will be,” Kozak said.
Another big decision that will occur this year is whether to reauthorize the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law governing long-term and sustainable marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters.
“Each time the act has been reauthorized, it has improved fisheries management through ongoing commitment to sustainable management and support for fishing communities,” said Theresa Peterson, who works as the fisheries policy director for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
U.S. Reps. Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Ed Case (D-HI) introduced a discussion draft on Dec. 18 to reauthorize the MSA.
According to a press release from Huffman’s office, the draft has provisions and updates “to strengthen communities and support those whose lives and livelihoods depend on healthy oceans and fisheries.”
To draft the reauthorization, the two representatives heard from 80 different experts and stakeholders, and also collected comments from members of the public.
According to Huffman’s office, the reauthorization draft addresses concerns from fishery participants such as climate change and changing stocks, modernizing fisheries data, and increasing accountability and transparency in fisheries management.
The draft also addresses the need to better support fishing communities, fix the broken disaster relief system, increase seafood marketing, and encourage cooperation between industry and managers.
“As a fishery-dependent coastal community, it is important for Kodiak fishermen, local leaders, support businesses and others to pay attention to federal legislation guiding fishery management,” Peterson said.
“The discussion draft includes language concerning fishery management under a changing climate and the need to develop climate-ready fisheries management.”
Members of the public are able to submit feedback on the draft MSA reauthorization. Huffman and Case will consider all input on the draft to inform the introduction of a bill until Jan. 31.