FISH FACTOR: Observers track ‘substantial discards’ from halibut fleet


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Keeping tabs on how many and what kinds of fish are coming over the rails is a key tool in Alaska’s highly successful fishery management programs. For nearly four decades, that has been the job of fishery observers who track everything that is hauled aboard trawlers, crabbers and most other fishing vessels 60 feet and longer.

Starting this year and for the first time ever, observers were placed aboard smaller boats and Alaska’s hook and line fleet to start getting information about “removals” in that gear group’s fisheries.

The primary finding after eight months can be summed up as: “substantial discards.”

“The category with the most new coverage was the catcher vessel hook and line fleet in the Gulf of Alaska,” said Glenn Merrill, assistant regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries in Juneau. “In that fishery we did see some substantial discards compared to some other gear types — in the skate fisheries, rockfish, shark and in the directed halibut fishery, in particular.”   

From January through August, a total of 7 percent of all the hook and line fishing trips in the Gulf were monitored by observers, according to documents the agency provided for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, or NPFMC. Those trips produced an estimated 601 metric tons of directly observed discards in the directed halibut, sablefish and Pacific cod fisheries.

When that tonnage and the observer rate are extrapolated over the entire fleet, the discards add up to more than 20 million pounds of halibut, nearly 3 million pounds of cod and 5 million pounds of skates.

“That is not necessarily mortality, it is fish going over the rails,” Merrill explained.

The new catch and discard data could eventually result in new fishery management plans and bycatch caps, Merrill said, but any changes are a few years away.

“This is a brand new program for us,” he said. “I think we feel confident with the data, but it’s always nice to have at least a year or two of information under your belt before you start making decisions about future management — but ultimately, it could.”

Find links to the NPFMC observer documents at www.alaskafishradio.com.

Halt to halibut

It’s all over for this year’s halibut fishery — the eight-month season ended on Nov. 7, a week earlier than usual.  Early numbers show that there was more than 1 million pounds left of the nearly 22 million-pound harvest. 

Kodiak processors called the season “scratchy” and fishermen seemed to agree.

“As a whole it was kind of slow fishing,” said Rick Turvey, skipper of the Big Blue. “There is fish out there, they are just harder to get and they don’t seem like they are getting big. There are a lot of small fish.”

Prices to Kodiak fishermen averaged about $4.50 for the season, but ended as high as $5.65 at the closure.

Fishing was better down at the Panhandle, with one Petersburg buyer calling it “very good, historically good.”

A dollar drop in price also helped kept the market moving more steadily, after some early push back from buyers to the high priced fish. That, combined with overall lower halibut catches that have cleaned out any backlogs in freezers, bodes well for next year.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission will reveal the first peek at what next year’s catches might be in early December. The fishery will reopen in March.

Expo grows

Pacific Marine Expo (Fish Expo to most Alaskans) is one of the nation’s top 50 fastest growing trade shows, and it has expanded again this year.

“We’re at 492 companies displaying products in 69,000 square feet and that’s up from a little over 400 companies and 65,000 square feet last year,” said show director Bob Callahan, speaking of space at the CenturyLink Field Event Center in Seattle.

“We have exhibitors from 14 foreign countries and 107 brand new companies on the show floor,” he added.

Last year a scheduling conflict forced Expo to change its dates from a weekend to mid-week.

“We were concerned about it but it worked out so well that we have kept the mid-week dates based on feedback from exhibitors, visitors and our advisory board,” Callahan said. “It was overwhelmingly positive.”

Expo is celebrating its 47th year and Callahan credits its success to the direct contacts and networking a trade show provides.

“Plus it’s a learning environment — you can see what your competitors are doing, attend free education sessions and interact with your peers.” Callahan said. “You can’t get that from the internet. We think the trade show model is healthy and here to stay.”  

Pacific Marine Expo is Nov. 20 to 22 in Seattle. For more information visit www.pacificmarineexpo.

 Fish bucks give back

American Seafoods Co. is again calling for applications for its Community Grants program. A total of $30,000 will be given to projects addressing issues of hunger, housing, safety, education, research, natural resources and cultural activities. The majority of grant awards range from $500 to $3,000.

Deadline to apply is Nov. 22; recipients will be selected by a community advisory board on Dec. 5. Contact Kim Lynch at kim.lynch@americanseafoods.com or (206) 256-2659.

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact msfish@alaska.com for information.

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