Business/Economy

Here’s how smartphones are being used to track lost fishing gear

  • Author: Laine Welch
  • Updated: September 4
  • Published September 4

Cell phones are being used by fishermen to bounty hunt for lost fishing gear for pay.

California fishermen created the retrieval project last year along with the Nature Conservancy to get ropes, buoys, pots and anchors out of the water after the dungeness fishery so they wouldn't entangle whales, and Washington and Oregon quickly followed suit.

"They are using their cell phones and its GPS to take a picture of what the gear looked like, tell when they found it, and any identifying markings on the buoy – the vessel, the ID number, and also the latitude and longitude of exactly where they found it," said Nat Nichols, area manager for groundfish and shellfish at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game office in Kodiak. He added that gear loss rates in different fisheries can be "anywhere from 3 to 23 percent."

Under a special permit, the West Coast bounty hunters head out two weeks after the dungeness crab fishery closes to search for derelict gear.

"Dungies tend to be in shallower water and that means there is more wave energy and the gear can get lost or rolled up on the beach. A lot of it has a tendency to move around because it's in the tidal surge," Nichols said.

The fishermen get paid $65 for every pot they pull up. The gear then goes back to the original owners who pay $100 per pot for its return.

Saving whales was the prime motivator for pot retrievals on the West Coast. In Alaska's crab and pot cod fisheries, it's ghost fishing and gear conflicts.

"The animals go in the pots and starve and that rebaits the pot, so they will fish for years. That can kill a lot of animals because they're doing it 24/7 and always rebaiting themselves," Nichols said.

By Alaska law, all pots must use twine in escape panels that biodegrades in about 30 days. But sometimes the escape routes get blocked.

"At Kodiak, we average around 7,000 pots in the water for our small Dungeness fishery. If you lose 10 percent or even 5 percent, that's a lot. It starts to build up over the years and get in everyone's way. It's a burden on everyone out on the water if they constantly have to avoid all this gear that is out there doing nothing."

Gear recovery permits are issued to help with retrievals shortly after a crab or pot cod fishery closes; a state enforcement vessel also does a roundup of all the gear it finds. Nichols said the main focus is preventing the loss of pot gear in the first place

He believes a cell phone bounty program could work in Alaska and "it's been talked about" at the Kodiak office, although it would be on a much smaller scale.

"Even though we have quite a bit of gear in the water, I'm not sure it's enough to really incentivize people to go find it in compared to the West Coast," Nichols said. "Instead of retrieving hundreds of pots and having 20-30 people participating in the recovery, we may just have three or so."

The cell phone idea hasn't attracted any takers yet in Southeast Alaska, said Douglas-based shellfish biologist Adam Messmer in an email from a survey boat. Southeast is home to the state's largest Dungeness fishery, where about 45,000 pots are dropped each year.

Help with fish money

The state wants to hear how Alaskans feel that federal relief funds for the 2016 pink salmon disaster should be distributed.

Two years ago, the state's largest pink salmon regions at Prince William Sound, Kodiak and Southeast and lesser areas went bust from the worst pink returns in decades. At Governor Walker's request the fishery was declared a disaster and Congress appropriated $56.3 million for Alaska fishermen, processors and communities.

Alaska and NOAA have developed a draft distribution plan for the funds, according to Seafoodnews.com. Once approved, the money will be administered by the Pacific States Marine Commission.

There are four categories outlined in the draft spending plan: research, municipalities, fishery participants and processors. The suggested distribution is $4.18 million for research; for municipalities, $2.43 million is set aside for the coastal communities that would have received 1.5 percent of the landed value of the foregone catch. Processors would get $17.7 million for lost wages as a result of the disaster.

Alaska fishermen would get the biggest portion at $32 million. It would be distributed using a calculation that will restore lost ex-vessel (dockside) value equal to 82.5 percent of their five even year averages.

Comments on distributing the pink salmon disaster funds are due to the Fish and Game commissioner's office by Sept. 7.

Talk fish

Kodiak's famous fisheries debate featuring Alaska candidates for governor is set for October 22. Since 1991 all leading candidates have participated in the event, which focuses on the seafood industry and is broadcast statewide. Governor Bill Walker and Democratic candidate Mark Begich have confirmed they will be in Kodiak to "talk fish"; There's been no response yet from Republican candidate Mike Dunleavy, said Frank Shiro, director of the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce which hosts the fish debate.

Hatchery facts

Hatcheries in the southern portion of Southeast Alaska provide stability for the region's fishermen and processors, and a big chunk of fish for sports anglers.

A new economic impact report by the McDowell Group profiled the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, a 42-year-old non-profit that operates seven hatcheries and seven release sites from Dixon Entrance to Frederick Sound.

The combined operations produce and release around 170 million salmon smolts to the sea annually. Over the last 10 years, the hatchlings have contributed 19 percent of the volume and 28 percent of the value of the region's total harvests.

As a portion of the overall catches averaged over five years from 2008 through 2017, salmon that began their lives in local hatcheries accounted for 57 percent of chum catches, 39 percent for Chinook and 31 percent of the coho harvests, valued at $175 million to the local fisheries.

Fishermen averaged $84 million over the five years from hatchery catches, with most of the benefit going to salmon fishermen in the Petersburg-Wrangell area at 37 percent, followed by Ketchikan at 29 percent and Prince of Wales residents claiming 25 percent of the salmon's dockside value.

By gear type, 46 percent of the hatchery salmon harvest value is dominated by the seine fleet, 32 percent are gillnetters and 21 percent are trollers.

The report said that a key benefit of salmon returning home to local hatcheries is that it provides stability with the chums, balancing out the volatility of other species, notably, those tough-to-predict pinks.

Other findings: local processors earned an estimated gross margin of $134 million on hatchery salmon over the five years; chum roe accounted for nearly half.

The role of the fish in the sportfishing sector is especially prominent near Ketchikan. Creel surveys showed that roughly a third of the Chinook salmon caught were from local hatcheries along with 13 percent of the sport cohos.

The state closely monitors straying of hatchery fish into wild systems in all areas where the fish are released. An 11 year study at Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound is currently underway focused on interactions of hatchery and wild salmon to provide guidance for assessing Alaska's hatchery program.

Pollock possibilities

Researchers at Japan's National Institute for Materials Science have discovered that gelatin from pollock skins makes a sealant that is 12 times stronger than conventional uses.

A big plus is the fish gelatin remains liquid at room temperature and can be sprayed directly onto an open wound on any body organ.

Pollock skins also are an exciting new source for nanofibers that are similar to tissue in human organs and skin.

"Hopefully, if you have a damaged organ you can grow these cells outside the body and then reintroduce it into the wound to help improve the ability of an organs to heal itself," said Bor-Sen Chiou at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture lab in California. He added during a radio interview that studies show fish gelatins improve cell growth far better than traditional animal gels.

Along with pharmaceuticals, gelatin from pollock skins also has huge potential in the food industry.

"They have substances that can be used as a beverage thickener, a clarifier for juices, plus you can roll it out into great films," said former USDA food technologist Cindy Bower.

"When you test it against bovine and pig skin films there is decreased water vapor permeability, meaning the fish films are a better barrier to water. So there is application for using them to coat foods, to keep moisture in or out," Bower added. "Plus, they're fish so they satisfy kosher and Halal (Muslim) dietary restrictions. That opens markets for millions of people worldwide."

From skin to bones

Ground up pollock bones are being rototilled into the soil in California neighborhoods to neutralize toxic lead, a problem in nearly every U.S. urban area. Instead of digging up and disposing of contaminated soil, the calcium phosphate in tons of Alaska pollock bone meal is turning the lead into a harmless mineral. This reaction has been known for nearly 20 years and used mostly at mining sites and military bases.