Halibut, salmon bycatch subject of fisheries symposium


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Scientists, industry representatives and others interested in fisheries science, management and policy discussed all things bycatch at the Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium in Anchorage May 13-16.

From January through May 10, commercial fishermen targeting primarily pollock and other groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea have caught about 5,868 king salmon and 2,294 metric tons, or more than 5 million pounds, of halibut while targeting other species in federal fisheries offshore from Alaska.

Those fish are classified as prohibited species catch, or PSC, and can’t be sold although in the case of Bering Sea king salmon they are required to be retained for a full count. Other PSC is discarded or sometimes donated to an organization that funnels them to food banks and organizations feeding hungry Alaskans.

Symposium presenters talked about the value of those discarded fish, as well as ways to minimize discards and other possible uses for them, although the symposium took a somewhat wider view of bycatch, including fish released by sport anglers and other discards in the discussion.

Lee Benaka talked about the 2014 update to the National Bycatch Report, which updated the first edition of that bycatch report to provide more recent information — the report now goes through 2010 — and change some methodology.

The report includes information on discarded fish —not jut prohibited species — from about 76 percent of landings in Alaska fisheries, and about 58 percent of landings nationally.

Benaka said that in the newest version, seabird catch in the halibut longline fleet was down 50 percent from 2005 to 2010 primarily because of a change in the lines used. Generally, trawl fisheries also saw a reduction in incidentally-caught fish, he said.

Benaka also talked about the economic impacts of regulatory discards.

Nationally, Benaka figured that regulatory discards are worth about $427 million in direct revenue, based on about 27 or the 45 managed fisheries, and just 86 percent of the commercial landings in the nation. The estimate likely under represents the true value of discards, he said.

Examples of regulatory discards are releasing a halibut that is shorter than the legal size of 32 inches or female crab, because only males may be retained.

Most other presenters talked about reducing or changing bycatch in some fashion.

Martin Hall, from the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, said the key to addressing bycatch is thinking outside the box.

“Either you fish less, or you fish better,” he said.

Hall said that the old way of fishing was to kill a bunch of things, and keep the one you wanted to sell. Now, he said, fishing needs to find a way to capture fish alive, and then kill only the ones that will be kept and sold.

Hall said that gear improvements are occurring rapidly — what wasn’t even dreamed of a few years ago can now be implemented.

 “We’re having our minds opened up,” Hall said.

Steve Martell, from the International Pacific Halibut Commission, talked about how halibut bycatch is part of the IPHC’s management process, although that body primarily regulates the directed fishery, not halibut bycatch in other fisheries, which is left to the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Martell talked about an idea that could significantly change how halibut is managed: bringing trawlers into the IPHC’s management system, and allotting them a certain quota of halibut.

He asked the audience to consider whether that would result in targeting of halibut, or avoidance, and noted that halibut is a choke-species for the vessels targeting groundfish.

In recent years, longliners have seen a significant decrease in their halibut catch, while trawlers have had about half as much of a decrease in their halibut bycatch. Such a change would have decreased the trawl catch proportionately with the longline fleet’s, Martell said.

As-is, the IPHC has less ability to impact bycatch, Martell said. In the directed halibut fishery, size limits on retained halibut have actually resulted in more fishing effort, and more bycatch, because it takes longer to catch the allowable amount of legal halibut, he said.

Changes in size at age of the halibut have exacerbated that, as well, he said. Essentially, there are more halibut less than the legal size of 32 inches, which causes more discards of small fish.

That’s a trade-off considered necessary to conserve female halibut, which don’t reach reproductive maturity until age 11 and, unlike the males, continue growing.

Other individuals are working on a way to reduce the other source of halibut mortality: fish released by charter anglers.

UAF professor Terry Johnson is working on that project with representatives from the charter sector and the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, a nonprofit.

Johnson said the project is trying to develop best practices for releasing halibut, develop a multi-faceted outreach plan to share those practices, and then implement it.

The best practices list developed by the team includes minimizing handling, including unhooking the fish in the water if possible; avoid lifting the fish unsupported by the gill cover or tail; using circle hooks, and removing them by rolling out by hand; reel in the fish quickly to minimize exhaustion; and avoiding known “chicken patches” where fish are likely to be small.

Now the group is working on a plan to educate the public about those tactics.

Johnson said the team also did a survey to see how those practices are currently being used. According to the survey, a fifth of anglers and one-third of charter crews had seen potentially lethal behavior on the water. Almost none had seen the gentle release tactics utilized, he said.

Salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea

Jim Ianelli, a researcher at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Alaska Science Center in Seattle, discussed king salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery.

Ianelli talked about some of the complexities in modeling the impacts of the pollock fishery, including the lag between bycatch year and impact. When the pollock fleet took a record amount of more than 120,000 kings in 2007, the effects were felt in 2008 and 2009 as well, he said.

Ultimately, Ianelli tries to gauge the salmon loss due to the pollock fishery in each year’s runs, which is different than the total salmon caught in a year, and heavily reliant on the model.

Ianelli said that the pollock fishery has less than a 4 percent impact on the Upper Yukon king runs each year, and eliminating that bycatch entirely wouldn’t result in meeting the escapement goals.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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