Alaska News

Scientists blast fish council for Bering Sea data gap

Although Bering Sea pollock stocks remain strong and the huge multimillion-dollar commercial fishing quota was increased this month by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal panel's scientific advisers issued a report complaining about the lack of data on declining marine mammals, especially the northern fur seal.

"On-going declines in northern fur seals have the potential to impact the pollock in the eastern Bering Sea," warned the Scientific and Statistical Committee, which advises the NPFMC.

"There is a report that the fur seals are declining steadily, particularly on St. Paul Island, but there is little information  on progress that may been made in determining when and where in their life cycles threats to fur seal survival and successful reproduction are occurring," according to the Scientific and Statistical Committee, a panel of scientists from state and federal agencies and universities in Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Rhode Island.

Declines in Steller sea lions have impacted fisheries in the Aleutian Islands, and about 15 years ago major restrictions were imposed on Bering Sea pollock trawlers, resulting from a lawsuit brought against the National Marine Fisheries Service by Greenpeace and other environmental groups.

The Scientific and Statistical Committee scientists complained the seals and sea lions aren't getting enough attention:

"If the Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service are to manage fisheries to protect these marine mammal species, then the Marine Mammal Laboratory will have to become more proactive in providing information and in collaborating with the Council in the management and protection of these marine mammal stocks."

Not only is there a lack of information about what the fishermen may be doing to the marine mammals but also how the whales' seafood diet could affect the commercial fishing industry.


"There is virtually no information presented on the impacts of increasing numbers of baleen whales in any of the regions. It would be useful to know something about numbers of whales likely present in the various regions, their diets, and their potential prey consumption," according to the 19-member Scientific and Statistical Committee, which met Dec. 6-8 at the Anchorage Hilton Hotel along with the NPFMC but  in a separate conference room.

Next year's Bering Sea pollock quota remains huge, following this month's action by the NPFMC, when it split the pie among the various groundfish interests in Alaska's most financially valuable fishing sector.

The quota, or total allowable catch, was unanimously set at 1.345 million metric tons of pollock, up a bit from the 2016 total allowable catch of 1.340 million metric tons, and with all the industry sectors in agreement with the action that divided up all species of groundfish while staying within the 2 million-metric-ton limit.

Pollock catcher boats and factory trawlers, cod factory longliners and flatfish factory trawlers made a unified appearance before the regulatory body, to the satisfaction of council members who dread having to slice the pie in the absence of an industry agreement.

In past years, the industry couldn't reach agreement during negotiations that were "not fruitful," said Brent Paine, lobbyist for the United Catcher Boats, representing trawlers delivering to Bering Sea shore plants including Unisea and Westward in Unalaska and Trident in Akutan.

"This year we are very fruitful and have a very unified position," Paine said, seated at the same table with representatives of major groundfish participants including longliners, factory trawlers and shore plants.

Paine reported "phenomenal fishing" for pollock in 2016, the best in 30 years, citing Bering Sea fishing boat captains.

Alaska's groundfish in all areas last year were worth $819 million paid to fishermen for 52 percent of the value of all the fisheries in the state, according to the fish council. Salmon was a distant second at $413 million ex-vessel value, for 24 percent, with shellfish including crab worth $293 million for 17 percent, according to this year's Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.