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Troll effort low despite upcoming closure

Daily News Staff Writer

When the Alaska Board of Fisheries voted in January to end Southeast Alaska’s 2017-2018 winter king salmon troll season on March 15, about 6 weeks earlier than usual, it was clear that the lost fishing time would have a negative short-term impact on the industry.

According to Dale Kelly, the executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association, fishing typically ramps up toward the end of the season as weather improves, meaning that ending the fishery early removes valuable opportunities from the season.

“It’s essentially ripped the guts out of the winter fishery,” Kelly said.

But with the close date around the corner, Southeast Alaska is currently seeing less fishing than one might expect.

“It’s been a pretty slow winter, surprisingly,” said Rhea Ehresmann, the assistant troll fishery biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “I thought that we’d be seeing more effort, knowing that the fishery is going to be closing in less than a month.”

According to the department, both king harvests and effort are slightly lower this season than last winter. From Oct. 11 to Feb. 17 this year, Southeast Alaska trollers harvested 9,322 chinook, compared to 9,922 chinook in the same timeframe a year ago. And in January and February this year, the number of troll permit holders fishing in a given week ranged from 25 to 63, while during the same time last year the number ranged between 46 and 85.

According Ehresmann, the reason for the lower effort isn’t clear. She said she suspects that low king abundance and poor weather conditions could be responsible.

Kelly, the ATA’s executive director, cited unfavorable weather as a possible explanation, as well. She also noted that given similar closures, fishermen who can temporarily switch to other industries for the season often do.

Terry Hugo, a Ketchikan-based troller, is one such example. Hugo said that he would have fished this winter, but chose to pursue other work — carpentry — because of the early closure.

Some of his friends haven’t been so lucky. Hugo said that those who are strictly trollers are feeling the pressure to get their time in now, poor weather or not.

“It’s not the end of the world for me like it is for other guys,” Hugo said. “For the few guys I know that aren’t in town right now, they are fishing and they will be until the 15th.”

The Board of Fisheries’ decision to end Southeast Alaska’s winter troll season early was part of a plan that includes some of the most significant king salmon regulations ever implemented in the region. The plan was enacted in January, following several years of worsening king returns despite management actions aimed to counteract the issue.

According to Kelly, the early closure will “absolutely” have economic impacts on fishing communities.

“If fishermen aren’t fishing, everybody hurts,” she said. “You’ve got 850 (permit holders) distributed in these communities, buying goods and services in these communities every day and paying property tax. That has an impact on everybody, really.”

Non-permit holders involved in the industry, like deckhands and processing plant workers, are directly affected, as well.

Ketchikan is no exception to potential economic impacts, though Kelly noted that it is less reliant on trolling than other cities in the region, like Sitka or Craig. According to the Department of Fish and Game, more than 50 percent of the winter troll harvest occurs in the Sitka area.

Kelly said that trollers can only hope that the health of the stocks bounces back. The industries, and the economies of fishing towns, will have to face the restrictions in the meantime.

“They’re hopeful that maybe this is going to be a more short-term thing,” she said. “But in the interim, everybody’s really scared because you have to take action to protect these fish. And so we’re having to bite the bullet pretty hard.”