A federal court judge has questioned whether the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is doing enough to protect salmon and halibut from trawlers whose massive nets strip mine the ocean off the Gulf of Alaska coast.
District Court Judge H. Russel Holland's opinion comes in the wake of a decision by the agency that led to a significant cut in the number of independent observers tracking salmon and halibut bycatch on Gulf trawlers. NOAA, which oversees the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, two years ago went along with a North Pacific council plan that ended up halving the number of people monitoring the trawl fisheries.
Trawlers are 100- to 250-foot-long fishing vessels that drag large nets to catch tons of pollock, Pacific Ocean perch and other species. They operate with bycatch limits designed to force closures if too many salmon or halibut are caught. Lacking observers to track bycatch, there is nothing to stop trawl skippers from rolling salmon and halibut overboard and pretending like they were never caught in order to ensure fisheries remain open.
Most trawl-caught fish dumped back into the sea die.
When observer coverage fell from about 30 percent of the trawl fleet to less than 20 percent because of program changes, a group called The Boat Company sued NOAA. The Boat Company is a Southeast Alaska-based nonprofit funded by sport fishing and eco-tourism interests that wants to clean up the Gulf fisheries.
"One hundred percent observer coverage is what we would prefer,'' Joel Hanson, the organization's director of conservation programs, said Thursday.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has argued that 100 percent coverage is financially unreasonable, because trawlers pay the full cost of posting observers on board. The federal agency now pegs the cost of an observer day at $872, and contends it can collect adequate data with observers on just a few boats.
Noting the latter conclusion originally came when observer costs were estimated at only $472 per day -- not nearly twice that -- The Boat Company argued that even if the limited observer plan as written was adequate, it needed to be reviewed before being cut in half due to increased observer costs.
Holland of Anchorage agreed. He ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to prove that the shrunken program was adequate.
“NMFS must prepare a supplemental EA (environmental assessment) that addresses the question of when data being gathered by the restructured Observer Program ceases to be reliable, or of high quality, because the rate of observer coverage is too low,'' he wrote in an opinion issued Thursday.
"Hopefully, it will get NOAA to go back and do a decent analysis,'' said Hanson, who noted that trawlers drag huge nets through the water and then basically crush fish as those stuffed nets are pulled aboard. There are often cleaner ways to fish, he said, and he hoped the NPFMC and NMFS encourage cleaner fisheries.
"The more public scrutiny there is,'' he said, "the higher the chances they'll adopt a better program.''
He noted that there is now 100 percent observer coverage on trawlers in the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands area. That came after Alaska Native fishermen on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers made a huge stink about declining numbers of king salmon. King catches in the Bering Sea-Aleutian trawl fleet have fallen since the political heat was turned up.
"But it's been a challenge to get the National Marine Fisheries Service to recognize the need to do anything in the Gulf (of Alaska),'' Hanson said.
He fears the current situation with limited observer coverage could drag on until the trawlers push to change the regulatory system. Canada shifted from area-wide bycatch quotas in its trawl fisheries to individual boat quotas, which favor trawl skippers who can figure out how to fish with a minimum of bycatch. Responsible boat owners in Canada found the new system benefited them.
But, Hanson noted, there's no chance of talking about individual boat quotas for bycatch in Alaska before there is 100 percent observer coverage, because without such coverage some commercial fishermen could simply lie and say they never caught any bycatch species.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com