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Laine Welch: Pollock show promise as bait

Laine Welch

Bait is often a big expense for fishing businesses. Pollock could help cut some of that cost for halibut longliners who fish in the Gulf of Alaska.

Researchers have tested pollock in two projects to see if it might replace pricier chum salmon as halibut bait. Fish biologists use more than 300,000 pounds of chum in their stock surveys each year, costing nearly half a million dollars. The baits are used at more than 1,200 testing stations from Oregon to the Bering Sea.

A pilot study three years ago in the central Gulf and off British Columbia showed promising signs for pollock.

"We looked at several different baits -- our standard chum salmon, pink salmon, pollock and herring. Pollock showed a very strong indication of both better catch rates and lower bycatch rates, so we were very excited about that," said Bruce Leaman, executive director of the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

In 2012 the bait project was expanded coastwide, and that led to mixed results.

"One confirmed what we saw in the Gulf, in that pollock was a very effective bait there relative to chum salmon and we got good catch rates. But when we moved into the Bering Sea, we got completely opposite results where the salmon bait performed better than the pollock," Leaman said.

"In the Bering Sea, pollock is a very significant component of halibut diet, and we were speculating that it may be a sort of novelty seeing salmon down there as bait, and that may have been what the fish were responding to," he added.

When all the raw data were statistically compiled and corrected, Leaman said, the bait test results were inconsistent.

"We do a number of corrections to the data to actually compare apples to apples across areas. One of the things we correct for is the number of returned baits and the hook competition among areas," Leaman explained. "And when we did those comparisons, we found that the results were nowhere near as strong as with the raw data. The raw data showed pollock had much better catch rates, lower amounts of sub-legal fish and lower amounts of bycatch. But when we did corrections to the data we found that those results were not so consistent."

The pollock bait still caught fewer small fish, but overall, halibut catch rates were almost the same as with chum bait.

"That's not necessarily a bad result," Leaman said. It's just that pollock was not as grossly superior compared to what we had been using."

Studies will continue but for now chums will remain the bait of choice for science. Leaman does agree that pollock can be a good bait alternative for halibut in the Gulf.

"It's a good idea," he said. "It's far less expensive and can represent a significant savings. In fact some are already using pollock right now."

Call for fish techs

There is a severe shortage of fish technicians and biologists in Alaska's largest industry, and it is a trend that is predicted to continue for at least the next 10 years. A new statewide outreach programs started last fall aims to fill the bill.

"Some of the positions for fisheries technicians include fish culturists, fishery observers, fish and wildlife surveyors, habitat restoration technicians, stream surveyors, fishery management assistants and hatchery technicians," said Kaitlin Kramer of Valdez. She is one of six outreach coordinators. Others are in Petersburg, Kodiak, Homer, Sitka and Dillingham. They work for the University of Alaska Southeast. The Fish Tech program is headquartered at Sitka.

"Our role is to reach out to the communities where we live and help promote the fisheries technology program, try to recruit students and facilitate internships with local industries," Kramer added.

Two training programs are offered -- a Fisheries Technology certification and an Associates of Applied Science in Fisheries Technology. All classes are available to students on their computers.

The classes are recorded online with instructors in Sitka and as long as you have an internet connection, students can view them on their own time. Or they have the option of sitting in live as the class is being taught. Classes follow the college semester schedule, Kramer said but people can tune in when it's convenient.

She said most people are surprised at the wide range of good jobs in the seafood industry, beyond catching and processing fish.

"A lot of people don't realize anything about this degree, or even what people in the fisheries technician world do," Kramer said. "It's fun to let them know that there are options available and there are so many opportunities throughout the state. This program is really trying to reach out and let Alaskans know that in every community, there is a related job."

The Fish Tech program offers scholarships and internships. Registration opens April 21. Questions? Call (907) 747-7717, or go to www.uas.alaska.edu/career_ed/fisheries/

Fish and politics soiree

Energy, fisheries and politics will be served up at the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference's 26th Economic Development summit next month. The conference is a non-profit group that represents more than 50 communities, including Kodiak, Bristol Bay and the Aleutians.

Conference interim director Erik O'Brien said the group serves a network of more than 100 members and their main connection is fish.

"The one unifying need of the whole industry is making the most value out of our fisheries and seafood," O'Brien said. "That is really the one single thing everyone has in common."

The three-day summit will cover a wide range of topics.

"On our first day, the main thing we will look at is how do you bring down the overall cost of energy. Day two will focus on developing our human capital in our education, training and workforce development systems and how we can make those better. Then on the fisheries day, we will discuss how the maximum sustained yield benefits the people of Alaska," O'Brien said.

Gubernatorial candidates Bill Walker, and Byron Mallott will participate in a debate on the final night. Gov. Sean Parnell hasn't said whether he will attend. The Summit will runs March 5 to 7 at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage. For more information visit www.swamc.org.

Debate updates

Kodiak will feature two fishing-related debates this year, continuing a tradition that began in 1990.

The first will feature candidates for U.S. Senate on May 23. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, a Republican, and Democratic Sen. Mark Begich plan to attend. No word yet from Republican candidates Joe Miller or Dan Sullivan, according to Trevor Brown, director of the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the event.

A second debate on Aug. 28 will bring the candidates for governor to Kodiak.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at msfish@alaska.com.

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Laine Welch
FisheriesBy LAINE WELCH