HOMER -- The federal cod season for pot boats and longliners opens Monday on the traditional date of Jan. 1, but that's about the only certainty for the new season, according to National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.
"We don't have any real clear picture yet about what's going to happen after that," said Ron Berg, assistant director of the Alaska Region of the fisheries service.
Among the questions: when the fishery will close, which gear type gets to fish where, and how the fishery will be managed after Jan. 20.
The uncertainty stems from conflicting orders passed in the last month by NMFS and Congress. On Nov. 30, the federal fisheries agency announced new measures to protect endangered Steller sea lions, including unexpected restrictions on the small-boat cod fishers of Homer and other coastal communities. The plan would force boats 20 miles offshore to keep them out of sea lion habitat -- so far out that cod can't be caught there.
Sen. Ted Stevens fired back with a budget rider calling for a phase-in of the restrictions. More specifically, he demanded that small-boat fishers be allowed virtually the same harvest they had in 2000. At the same time, the rider assures that sea lion protections will be adopted.
Since Congress passed Stevens' rider two weeks ago, federal officials have been meeting almost constantly to figure out a plan for the 2001 fisheries.
"We finally think we understand what our responsibilities are under this rider," Berg said Tuesday. Now other agencies must fill in some of the blanks, he added.
The biggest blank is reserved for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. By Jan. 20 it must propose new regulations that put fishers back to work -- as Stevens wants -- yet still protect sensitive sea lion habitat -- as NMFS has decreed.
One phrase in Stevens' rider appears to be crucial, Berg said.
"It says to implement the (sea lion protections) 'to the maximum extent practicable.'"
The council could interpret the phrase liberally and allow broad access to fishing grounds come Jan. 20. That might invite another lawsuit by the same environmental coalition that sued to win the original sea lion protections, however. Or the council could interpret the phrase conservatively and cut back on fishing time and area, which could draw Stevens' ire.
The council could also take the middle ground, Berg said, and adopt only some of the proposed restrictions.
Whatever it decides, the council has until Jan. 20 to propose the new regulations, which would then be in effect for the rest of the 2001 season. As of yesterday, the council had not yet set a meeting date, however.
After Jan. 20 it is possible, Berg said, that longliners and pot fishers would see no changes in fishing area or season. Or the council could split what had been one three-month-long season into two, three or four parts. Trawlers could be kicked out of their traditional fishing area, but fixed gear fishers be allowed to remain, which would give the latter group a higher percentage of the quota.
And depending on what course the North Pacific council takes, environmental groups could decide to sue again. At least one, Greenpeace, has said publicly that it doesn't believe small boats should be treated as harshly as trawlers, which take a far larger percentage of the harvest.
Voznesenka fisher Nazary Basargin, who has testified to the council on behalf of Cook Inlet longliners, said he hopes common sense prevails when the council meets in January, and that small-boat fishers can keep fishing through the spring.
"Hopefully they'll be a little more sympathetic to what this is going to do to small-boat fishermen," he said.
At the same time, he's hoping environmental groups don't force NMFS into squeezing small boats out of the Gulf of Alaska.
"I don't see why environmentalists will feel pressured to do anything drastic," Basargin said. "I hope they can see clearly through this that are they going to affect coastal communities terribly" if they push hard to keep small boats out of sea lion habitat. "It just doesn't make any sense."
While fishers may be nervous about their immediate future, the Jan. 1 opening date has spurred a furious rush of activity, said Ken Quinn of Kachemak Gear Shed. They are rebuilding pots and longline gear, taking their boats out of winter storage and readying themselves for winter fishing.
"They're going to hit the grounds hard on the first," he said. "There's a real hard push on -- everybody's trying to be ready."
The confusion that settled over the fleet during the last month has put many skippers behind schedule, Quinn said.
"Now they're going full-bore."
Prices are another uncertainty facing fishers. In recent years, cod has fetched upwards of 40 cents a pound -- more than some species of salmon -- but that could fall if effort is high, said Jeff Berger, owner of Deep Creek Custom Processing in Ninilchik.
"I'm currently paying 40 cents, but I'm a little worried I may be paying more than it's worth."
Berger said he hopes boats return to Homer with their catch, but expected that few will until later in the season. The big crab boats that fish with pots are due in the Bering Sea soon for opilio crab, though that season will only last a week or so. Longliners often head for Kodiak, where the cod are more closely schooled early in the winter, he said.
"I'm afraid we won't see much of it," he added.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is also waiting to see how the season plays out. State-waters fisheries -- those within three miles of shore -- open after the federal season closes. If federal seasons change with new regulations due out Jan. 20, it could have a dramatic effect on state fisheries, said Fish and Game groundfish biologist Charlie Trowbridge.
Until the Board of Fisheries changes regulations, however, the state fishery for Cook Inlet is still scheduled to open 24 hours after the federal season closes in the Central Gulf of Alaska. For Kodiak, state-waters cod fishing opens seven days after the Central Gulf closes.
Joel Gay is the managing editor of the Homer News.
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