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Are women observers too big a distraction for halibut fishing crews?

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman

Starting in 2013, Alaska's small-boat halibut fleet will carry on-board observers to record biological information, and according to at least one fisherman, stir up some other biological issues with women joining the small crews. “Some people just don’t like women on the boat. It’s a distraction,” said Unalaska small boat fisherman Dustan Dickerson.

“I don’t want to be working in close quarters with somebody else’s wife,” he said at an Aug. 18 meeting in Unalaska with International Pacific Halibut Commission executive director Bruce Leaman.

But gender discrimination is not an option when a boat is assigned an observer, according to Leaman, who said women can provide a “civilizing influence.”

The observer profession employs a high percentage of women, frequently college biology graduates in their 20s, working in all groundfish sectors except halibut, typically on much larger vessels, monitoring the catches of pollock, cod, and other species. Dickerson’s wife Ebbe also opposed women halibut observers, saying during the meeting at the community center that they could create conflict among an all-male fishing crew.

But with halibut stocks on the decline, regulators want a closer eye kept on what’s actually coming aboard. Starting Jan. 1, many halibut boats at least 40 feet long will join the costly program that’s federally funded in the first year and could eventually shift to lower-cost electronic monitoring.

“We can’t throw rocks at other people if our fleet is completely unobserved,” said Leaman. When halibut hook-and-line fishermen blame trawlers, the trawlers point to a lack of data, he said. “I’m for it because it’s the right thing for us to be doing.”

Onboard observers could also correct a potential problem of the under-reporting of halibut caught by the IFQ halibut fleet, Leaman said.

“It’s going be a lot more expensive,” said Dickerson, owner of the fishing vessel Raven Bay. He said that even when the weather’s too rough for fishing, the observers continue receiving pay, while deckhands don’t. And putting a fifth person on the boat drives up food and insurance costs by 25 percent, he said.

Brandee Gerke of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Juneau said halibut boats will carry observers on probably 30 percent of their trips, although the exact percentage has not yet been determined. The boats will be randomly selected, and officials will review vessels to make sure they’re safe for observers, she said.

“I know there’s a lot of anxiety in the fleet about how to accommodate an observer,” Gerke said, adding that the agency hopes the program is adopted with minimal pain. “We’re trying to pull this off without disrupting their business operations. It has to be collaborative on both sides to make it work” she said.

The program will monitor the at-sea discards of both halibut and other species including rockfish, she said.

Gerke said the federal government will pay for the program’s first year with $3.8 million, for the program that expands observer coverage to some 1,200 vessels. Starting in 2014, the halibut industry will pay for observers based with fees based on a percentage of fish landings, she said.

The estimated per-day cost of an observer is $470, including wages and travel expenses, Gerke said.

The first year’s federal funding means higher pay for observers of about a hundred bucks a day, thanks to a federal mandate similar to the Davis-Bacon law that pays construction workers higher wages for work on federally-funded jobs.

NMFS looked at observer wages under the current program (where industry contracts with observer providers) and under a program where NMFS would contract with observer providers. The wage estimates are different between the two programs because the federal government must pay wages established by the U.S. Department of Labor for the “Fishery Observer” occupation class. Observer labor rates are estimated to be $171 for a 12-hour work day under the current program where industry contracts for observer coverage.

Under the program where NMFS will contract with observer providers, observer labor rates are estimated to range from $250 to $276, depending on experience, for a 12-hour work day, Gerke said, citing a 2010 study.

The halibut program will mean more at-sea work hours and more observers, although the amount is currently unknown, she said. In 2009, 380 observers in Alaska worked 35,681 days, on 267 vessels and in 19 fish processing plants, she said.

The halibut quota has declined about 50 percent in the past 12 years, from 74 million pounds in 1999 to 39 million this year, Leaman said.

Dickerson wondered if the pollock fleet isn’t a contributing factor to halibut decline, saying pollock is now less abundant near Unalaska, requiring trawlers to travel greater distances.

Pollock is a favored food of halibut, Dickerson and Leaman both said. IPHC studies have found pollock to be a very effective bait for hooking halibut, Leaman said.

Another issue raised at the meeting was killer whales snatching hooked halibut off longlines being hauled to the surface. Leaman said Alaska may end up following the Canadian system, where onboard video cameras replace human observers at lower cost. The cameras are activated when a vessel’s hydraulic system starts hauling in hooks and line in British Columbia. The cameras can outperform human observers with a replay advantage allowing a second look at fish whizzing by, too fast in real time to tell the difference between an arrowtooth or Kamchatka flounder, Leaman said.

Cameras not only provide regulatory compliance, but can also give captains a better understanding of what’s happening during a fishing operation, according to Leaman, who said he’s a big fan of cameras as a “useful tool.”

Leaman spoke at the meeting with fishermen and the local halibut commission staff at the PCR community center, while making his annual tour of halibut harvest monitoring operations around the state. While he said he’s been to Unalaska in past years, he said his last three Aleutian attempts were aborted because of weather conditions that caused canceled flights from Anchorage to the Dutch Harbor.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman. Jim Paulin can be reached at jpaulin@reportalaska.com.