Fish-stealing whales duck cameras but can’t hide from human observers

When it comes to counting how many sablefish that whales bite off of fishing hooks in the Gulf of Alaska, labor-saving cameras on small boats could be less accurate than human observers, according to a federal fisheries scientist and a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

That's important because next year, for the first time, the Gulf sablefish commercial fishing quota takes into consideration the number of sablefish lost to "depredation" by killer and sperm whales in the Gulf of Alaska, according to Jon Heifetz, a Juneau-based biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

While observers' pay is costly to the fishing boats, Heifetz said a camera focused only on the longline coming on deck wouldn't record whales in the distance. Laukitis said an empty hook can indicate whale action, though not as obviously as a hook with just a dangling fish head because the body was chewed off by a whale. Sometimes, he said, the whales can slurp the entire fish off the hook.

Cameras have been discussed as a lower-cost alternative to human observers.

In another regulatory move to help whale-impacted fishermen, Gulf of Alaska sablefish fishers can use pots, large steel cages similar to crab pots, starting next year. Pots have been used for years in the Bering Sea, replacing the long lines of baited hooks that attract hungry whales.

Heifetz said the gulf is split between two different species, sperm whales in the east, and killer whales in the west.

The NPFMC increased the sablefish quota in the Gulf for next year, at 10,074 metric tons, up from 9,087 metric tons this year, at its meeting in Anchorage earlier this month. The high-value sablefish is also known as black cod.

While the sablefish quota is up in the gulf, future years aren't so promising, according to the Scientific and Statistical Committee of the NPFMC. Other major gulf commercial fisheries took sizable cuts for next year and environmental factors may be responsible.

"Forage fishes and groundfish may be impacted by the aberrant environmental conditions and resulting impacts to foraging," in both the gulf and Bering Sea, according to the committee, reflecting on a year of increasingly warming ocean waters and seabird die-offs.

"There are several seabird-based indicators that suggest that foraging conditions were extremely poor in the eastern Bering Sea," according to the SSC. "In the (Gulf of Alaska), the apparent recruitment failure of multiple groundfish in 2015, including pollock, Pacific cod and several flatfishes and the predicted below average recruitment of sablefish are additional potential examples."

Gulf fishermen will have less cod and pollock next year. The 2017 pollock quota is 204,000 metric tons, down from 248,000 metric tons in 2016. The Pacific cod quota for the gulf dropped to 65,000 metric tons for 2017, down from 72,000 metric tons in 2016.

In a surprising bit of news involving gulf rockfish, Heifetz said, a tagged thornyhead was found in British Columbia, a long journey for a fish considered a weak swimmer.

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