Fisheries, Seafood and Maritime Initative-- Sitka
Industry and Agency Partners Show Strong FSMI Support During Board of Regents Meeting in Sitka
Story and photos by Monique Musick
Accented by the stunning backdrop of the Tongass national forest, the towering Mt. Edgecumbe volcano, islands and ocean stretching far as the eye can see, the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka campus on Japonski Island is well suited to host important partnerships with seafood, maritime and fishing companies, businesses and agencies. Although the Fisheries, Seafood, Maritime Initiative (FSMI) was not the lone focus of the Board of Regents meeting held at the campus April 11 and 12, stories and testimony related to the initiative dominated the two day meeting.
FSMI aims to attract, train and educate Alaskans for careers in these critical marine job sectors and to provide lifelong support and training to new, mid-career and professionals alike. Alaska’s current workforce in these areas is ‘graying out’, and opportunities are growing for young Alaskans to step into these fields. The objective is not only to assist with workforce development, but also to establish clear paths Alaskan residents can follow into secure, rewarding lifelong careers. The delivery of technical and trade skills related to a whole cross section of these marine subsectors is vital to the Alaska economy now and into the future.
Sitka enjoys one of the most diversified economies in the entire State of Alaska. Strong sectors exist in commercial fishing and fish processing, tourism, health care, education and government agencies. Although small, the city of Sitka is home to the ninth largest harbor system in the United States (the largest in Alaska) and is fifth largest in the U.S. by value of seafood harvest. Of the local population aged sixteen and over, 19 percent is directly involved in the seafood industry. To serve the commercial fishing fleet and other vessel owners, Sitka has marine industry support businesses including: boat builders and shipwrights, marine electronics, general marine repair, welding and fabrication, fishing gear sales, heating and refrigeration, industrial sewing, painting, fiberglass repair, parts and equipment sales, and marine safety equipment and training. Each have their own unique training needs in addition to basic skills that cross over all the industries.
Sitka Sound Science Center (SSSC)
Collaboration and partnerships between industry, government, Alaska Native entities and education providers—the heart of the FSMI—are nothing new to Sitka. The newly-founded Sitka Sound Science Center (SSSC), located in a building formerly part of the Sheldon Jackson College campus, illustrates how integrated industry, management, aquaculture and education really are. When Sheldon Jackson had to close its doors in 2007, the Sage Building, which was home to the college’s science labs and a full-scale salmon hatchery, was nearly abandoned. Experiments were left on lab tables, the students and faculty left and the doors were closed. In 2008, the SSSC reopened the doors with the mission of increasing understanding and awareness of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of the Gulf of Alaska through education and research. Researchers from around the globe come to the center to conduct studies ranging from ocean acidification and marine debris research to whale avoidance and salmon survival. SSSC is also a popular visitor destination, with thousands of people coming through each year to view the aquariums, orca skeleton, touch tanks and hatchery.
The hatchery at the Sitka Sound Science Center has a special partnership with the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (NSRAA) for their Deep Inlet fishery. SSSC provides training and research for NSRAA, and raises coho, pinks and chum salmon in the historic hatchery. This year they aim to raise 250,000 coho, 3 million pinks, and 10 million chums (with 9 million released at Deep Inlet). Throughout its history the hatchery has trained many of Alaska’s fisheries biologists, fisheries managers and aquaculture specialists, and it continues to play a vital role in aquaculture education.
SSSC has a special partnership with the University of Alaska Southeast Fisheries Technology Program. The Fish Tech program provides a Certificate and Associate degree for students throughout coastal Alaska who are interested in aquaculture and fisheries management. Most of the program is offered through eLearning, through UAS partnerships with Prince William Sound Community College, UAA’s Kachemak Bay Campus and the UAF Bristol Bay Campus. Faculty in the program include Kate Sullivan at the UAS Ketchikan Campus, SSSC chair Jim Seeland, and SSSC Aquaculture Director Lon Garrison. The SSSC provides on-the-job training opportunities for students in the programs. Workshops and internships occur out of the Science Center Hatchery through the program, giving UAS Fish Tech students hands-on learning opportunities.
The center also partners with K-12 educators to provide during and after school programs and activities. The center offers summer science camps and has recently partnered with the Sitka Whalefest, a major event held each November celebrating humpback whales and other marine life in the sound.
Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA); Fishery Conservation Network (FCN)
The Sage Building also houses the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) office. The non-profit association is composed of independent longline vessel owners and crewmembers who are committed to continuing the sustainable harvest of fish, healthy marine ecosystems, and supporting coastal communities through resource stewardship and collaboration with federal, state and private partners. By actively participating in the latest research, Fishery Conservation Network (FCN) fishermen work to protect marine mammal populations while maintaining viable coastal fisheries. ALFA’s Fishery Conservation Network has worked these past four years to collect bycatch data and to map the seafloor, compiling information to help commercial vessels reduce bycatch: the unintentional harvesting of a non-targeted species. Much of their focus has been on rockfish, a common bycatch in halibut fishing, in part because their long lifespans and low reproduction rate make them especially vulnerable to overharvesting. The research has helped keep the area’s commercial fleet under rockfish bycatch quotas, and the bycatch rates continue to decline as more data and mapping is acquired.
ALFA started a pilot program to develop an accurate, cost effective, electronic monitoring (EM) system for small longline vessels. The goal is to provide longliners with the option of either EM or human observers to fulfill the at-sea monitoring requirements set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2010. The program proved that EM systems are reliable and adaptable to a variety of vessel configurations; capable of identifying 94 percent of fish on reviewed hauls; and are a cost effective tool for fulfilling observer coverage requirements.
Working with the scientists, ALFA’s FCN fishermen also recorded acoustic data from sperm whales preying on longline hooked fish to assess the amount of depredation: fish taken off the line by predators. By being able to better quantify how many fish are lost to depredation, the fishery assessment process can be more accurate, and the catch limits based on fish population can more accurately reflect the abundance of the resource. New fishing gear and techniques were also developed and tested by fishermen to improve species selectivity and reduce interactions with marine mammals. They designed deterrents that were field tested in the summer of 2012 to keep whales away from fishing vessels. A similar study for killer whales is underway.
Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA)
Further up the Sitka Channel towards Halibut Point, a former residence houses the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA). This non-profit organization offers cold water safety and survival training throughout the U.S. Their Coast Guard-approved courses range from required emergency drill training classes to emergency procedures for boaters. Courses include children’s classes and a new ergonomics program designed to improve efficiencies and reduce damage and injury from repetitive motion. Their network of more than 1,200 active instructors allows them to deliver customized training throughout the country on demand. Since forming in 1985, AMSEA has trained nearly 200,000 people to be prepared to handle a variety of emergencies and increase their chances of surviving Alaska’s extreme conditions.
Representatives from each one of these organizations came to the Board of Regents meeting on the Sitka campus to testify in support of the FSMI mission of developing a strong and sustainable fisheries, seafood and maritime workforce in Alaska. They are advocates in the establishment of new marine programs at UA and in many cases will be the suppliers of educational coursework.
Of everyone who spoke before the Regents about FSMI, student Vene Stough, a UAS Fisheries Technology student, gave the most compelling testimony about the importance of the educational opportunity provided through the University of Alaska. She was clearly emotional as she recounted the journey that brought her from a childhood on the coast, to a student at Mat-Su College, back down to UAS Sitka and finally to a promising career with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Her real-life testimony and success story put a face to the importance of expanding UA’s presence in the many facets of fisheries, seafood and maritime training. She underscored why the university needs to attract students to these careers through early school outreach programs, prepare them for jobs in these critical industries, and provide continuing education and support necessary to sustain them through all stages of their careers.