Fed fisheries will open in spite of shutdown, but details hazy

The partial federal government shutdown has left some Alaska fishermen and others wondering whether federal fisheries set to start in January will open on time. The National Marine Fisheries Service has been affected by the shutdown and many employees aren’t there to answer phones, leaving some with more questions than answers.

Albert Duncan with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s law enforcement office said his division is still running during the shutdown.

“In our Kodiak office as well as our Southeast office in Juneau, we have received a couple of calls from fishermen wondering if there’s been any change as far as those fisheries that were set to open on Jan. 1,” Duncan explained.

The federal Pacific cod season is set to open on Jan. 1. The good news is that fishery and other federal fisheries due to open on Jan. 20 will open on time despite the shutdown.

That’s also good news for Homer-based commercial fisherman Ian Pitzman. He sent two of his boats out to Dutch Harbor prior to Christmas without knowing whether the Pacific cod season would start on time or not.

“You know a three-week season, if you were to wait, let’s say keep the boat at home to determine whether or not there would be an opening Jan. 1, you’d be a week behind best case scenario,” Pitzman said. “You have to get the boat out and ready. That’s a process. It takes time.”

State regulators were also left with questions. Elisa Russ with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game helps manage state commercial shellfish and groundfish fisheries in Southcentral Alaska, where the state first runs what’s called parallel Pacific cod seasons.

“These parallel Pacific Cod seasons are established in both the Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound areas to coincide with the season dates and gear types set in the federal central Gulf of Alaska regulatory area,” Russ said, “and for us, that is for pots, jig and longline gear.”

These parallel seasons allow fishermen with both federal and state permits to target Pacific cod in state waters three miles from shore. Once each federal fishery closes, the coinciding state fishery opens 24 hours later.

However, Russ said Fish and Game initially wasn’t sure whether the shutdown was going to affect federal openings and subsequently the state’s parallel seasons.

“We weren’t certain. Although, there has been another shutdown since I’ve been in this position that overlapped with a Jan. 1 Pacific cod season,” she added. “In that case, the fisheries also did open.”

Several fishermen expected just that, but the shutdown doesn’t come without its hiccups.

The National Marine Fisheries Service won’t be able to issue or renew any federal fishing permits during the shutdown, but permits for Pacific cod only need to be renewed once every three years.

Some large catcher-processor trawl vessels may also not receive some required inspections in time, leaving them with no choice but to tie up at the docks waiting for a resolution in Washington D.C.