Fishermen fear offshore farms

Alaskans wary of federal aquaculture legislation

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2005

Juneau resident Richard HofMann has been a salmon troller for almost 30 years and recalls long, noisy disputes with Canadians over transboundary salmon runs.

But HofMann said British Columbia fishermen have turned silent in recent years. They've been replaced by salmon farms, he told state officials at a Wednesday night hearing.

Alaska fishermen are busy trying to establish a high-value, wild-caught brand niche in the global salmon market, which expanded four-fold from 1993-2002 with the explosive growth of fish farms.

But they are also watching with concern the efforts to establish offshore aquaculture in U.S. federal waters, which could affect Alaska's other commercial fisheries. Enabling legislation will go to Congress this year.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game hosted a hearing Wednesday night at Centennial Hall to take residents' comments about what they think the state should do to address the global growth of offshore aquaculture.

Additional hearings are planned in Anchorage and Kodiak.

About 20 attended the Juneau hearing but only five testified.

"We need to do more and more to manage for value," testified Greg Fisk, a Juneau fisheries consultant who had a list of suggestions for how to protect Alaska fisheries.

Fisk said Alaska fishermen should be required to chill their fish at the point of capture to protect quality.

Three Alaska commercial species that could be affected by offshore aquaculture are black cod, halibut and pollock, according to Glenn Haight, a fisheries development specialist at the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

Fisk said the state should establish a year-round halibut fishery to keep farmed competitors from taking advantage of a gap in the fishing season. He said the state should also diversify its marketing for black cod, now sold to Japan, to the rest of the United States and Europe.

Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska, said his organization of 31 fishing groups opposes new federal legislation to allow offshore fish farms.

Vinsel said offshore fish farms should not be allowed to adhere to "voluntary codes of conduct" as suggested by federal officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We don't want fisheries managed that way," he said.

Gov. Frank Murkowski's fisheries policy adviser Alan Austerman said the governor is displeased that federal offshore fish farm legislation is going forward without a socioeconomic analysis.

"(Murkowski's) main comment is 'no' to salmon ... but (he's) open to discussion on other species," Austerman said.

Don Bremner, of the Southeast Alaska Inter-Tribal Fish and Wildlife Commission, said rural communities should have the same footing as industry if offshore aquaculture is permitted in federal waters three to 200 miles off Alaska's coast. He suggested "exclusive community economic zones."

"We need to ask, who is really going to benefit," Bremner said.

Dave Bedford, Fish and Game deputy commissioner for fisheries, said Alaskans in the fishing industry have "a fairly rocky future in some regards ... . We think that it's time to start thinking about how we should prepare."

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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