For years fishery managers and those concerned about bycatch have been plagued by a lack of real numbers on how many king salmon, crab and halibut are being discarded in some of the dirtiest fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska. In the struggle to reduce bycatch of these critical species, we haven't even had an accurate body count.
After prolonged frustration with the current system, a solution appeared to be on the horizon when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council took action to restructure the observer program two years ago. At its meeting in Anchorage next week, the council will review plans for implementation of the new program in 2013. However, what is proposed may fall far short of that accurate body count needed to get a handle on bycatch.
Observer programs have been utilized in Alaska's federal fisheries for years as a critical tool for sustainable fisheries management. By deploying trained human observers on fishing vessels, an independent witness monitors the vessel's catch and discards. This data is used to calculate the fishery's bycatch numbers and, where limits are in place, tells managers when it's time to close the fishery.
The quality of the bycatch rate calculation depends on how much of the catch is observed, and how representative of regular fishing that catch is. In the Bering Sea, most fisheries including pollock and bottom trawl fisheries are required to carry 100 percent observer coverage (one observer at all times), and catcher processors (factory trawlers) are required to carry 200 percent coverage (two observers at all times). In the Gulf, however, most vessels in the trawl fisheries have only been required to carry observers 30 percent of the time. This level of coverage has meant that a very small portion of the catch is observed and, more importantly, because the vessel picks when to carry the observer, the data may not be representative of how much waste is actually occurring.
Organizations like the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and concerned small-boat fishermen had hopes that the restructured program would greatly improve our knowledge on bycatch occurring in trawl fisheries that scoop up king salmon, halibut and crab by the thousands of fish, or millions of pounds. However, the program design currently does not appear to increase coverage for Gulf trawl fisheries with major bycatch concerns. Rather it proposes to apply coverage equally across all observed vessels, regardless of gear type and based on a random selection process.
While vessels will no longer pick when to carry an observer, a low coverage rate will mean that we will still get very limited -- and perhaps not representative -- data from the Gulf trawl fleet. In fact if program funding is low, observer coverage could be even lower than it was previously for some of the Gulf's most wasteful fisheries.
Our coastal communities, sport fishermen, subsistence harvesters and commercial fishermen have been feeling the dramatic impacts from low king salmon returns this summer, and the pain from declines in the halibut population and resulting cuts in catch limits is ongoing. In this context, it's particularly important to accurately assess the impact to these populations as a result of bycatch.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has an opportunity to influence the 2013 observer plan at its upcoming meeting. They're scheduled to take up the issue on Friday, Oct. 5 and Saturday, Oct. 6, at the Anchorage Hilton Hotel. For more information, and a full meeting agenda, see http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/. You can provide public comment at the meeting or by calling Gov. Sean Parnell and letting him know that this issue is important to Alaskans.
Good data is an important first step in getting bycatch issues under control. All trawl fisheries in the Gulf should be required to carry a high level of observer coverage -- ideally 100 percent. This issue is critical to the state of Alaska, our economy, our coastal communities and our ways of life that all depend on healthy fisheries. Let the council and the governor know that we demand an accurate body count of the bycatch occurring in Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries.
Dave Kubiak fishes for halibut and cod from his home port of Kodiak aboard his boat the F/V Mythos. He also is vice chairman of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council board of directors.