FISH FACTOR: Groundfish stocks look mostly healthy as season begins
“Tis the season for even bigger Alaska fish catches when groundfish seasons open at the start of the New Year.
Catches of pollock, cod, flounders and other groundfish account for nearly 85 percent of Alaska’s harvest poundage, and 67 percent of the nation’s total groundfish harvests. Those numbers could increase due to boosts in several catch quotas in both the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea for the next two years.
For pollock, the nation’s largest fishery, the catch is up slightly to 1.3 million metric tons, or just under three billion pounds.
The Pacific cod quota is down a bit to 525 million pounds, not because of stock declines, but to accommodate the catches of competing gears and fleets, said Diana Stram, Bering Sea groundfish plan coordinator for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees fisheries from three to 200 miles offshore. Flatfish stocks also are very healthy, Stram said, but catches were lowered due to halibut bycatch concerns from trawl and longline vessels.
“The fisheries worked voluntarily last year to reduce their halibut bycatch and they did a good job, but it still remains a concern,” she said.
No matter how robust the stocks are, Alaska fish managers always opt for sustainable harvest numbers. In the Bering Sea, that means never exceeding a two million-metric ton harvest cap.
“The biomass overall in the Bering Sea is extremely healthy for all of the stocks. In terms of the catch quotas, the balancing act is really the constraint of the two million metric ton cap,” Stram explained. “While a lot of the stocks could have higher TACs (total allowable catches), the Council balances between the different stocks and the different fleets in order to meet that limit.”
There are 22 different species under the Council’s purview, Stram added, along, with non-targeted species like sharks, sculpin and squids taken incidentally in other fisheries.
Fish stocks also are booming in the Gulf of Alaska where catches will be up overall by 6 percent.
“It sure looks good. Pollock is up about 30 percent and Pacific cod is down just a smidge but nothing we’re too worried about,” said Jim Armstrong, plan coordinator for Gulf groundfish.
Gulf pollock catches will be 572 million pounds in 2016 and 2017, and cod at about 158 million pounds.
A total of 25 different species are tracked throughout the Gulf, he added, “and about 130 when various complexes, like rockfish, are broken out.”
One red flag, Armstrong said, is sablefish, which is managed both in the Gulf and Bering Sea as a single unit stock. A continued downward trend has decreased those catches by 14 percent.
“It’s a concern,” he said “One of the reassurances is that this coming year we’re going to have a sort of second opinion by the Center for Independent Experts who will review the sablefish stock assessment so we’ll better understand what’s behind the downward trend.”
Both coordinators credit the Council for its ecosystem approach to fisheries management and always deferring to the best available science.
“Our council has always valued the scientific input and the rigorous assessments that go into each fishing cycle, as well as taking into consideration other things that are going on in terms of bycatch of halibut, and also salmon and crab and herring. And just looking at the catch setting process on an annual basis is a really good example of that,” Stram said.
Armstrong credits the multi-levels of scrutiny and review the Council scientists and advisory panels contribute each year. He is a newcomer to the NPFMC staff since July, after a 10-year tenure with the mid-Atlantic council.
“This is the big leagues,” he said. “It’s 10 times greater in terms of the value and the quantity, the number of fish species that are managed, and I think it scales up the amount of energy that is put into management itself. Everything is bigger here.”
Millions more pounds of groundfish also will hail from state managed fisheries within three miles of shore.
Jellyfish abundances, or a lack thereof, can tell a lot about what is happening in the oceans on a larger scale. Researchers are now calling on “citizen scientists” to post jellyfish observations on a special website: jellywatch.org.
“Citizen science in general is valuable because it is multiplied with such large numbers. To tap into that pool of has huge advantages for a data set,” said Dr. Steven Haddock, a researcher from University of California at Santa Cruz who studies marine bioluminescence, zooplankton and deep sea jellyfish.
He hopes to gain more insights on near shore jellyfish varieties to model to add to the wider ocean range. Haddock also wants to test hypotheses that claim a warmer climate has boosted jellyfish blooms. There is a misconception that jellyfish thrive in warmer waters, but any seagoing Alaskan knows that’s not the case.
“A common belief is that jellyfish like warmer water for some reason, but in Alaska, the species like the lion’s mane, are really restricted to colder water,” he told KTOO in Juneau.
Haddock said it’s great if website postings include a photo, but descriptions alone are helpful, such as one from a Ketchikan diver.
“He didn’t have a photo, but he gave a description of this jelly that sounds like a deep-sea species that we discovered here in Monterey. It’s called Tiburonia and we call it ‘the big red’ because it’s the size of a beach ball,” Haddock explained. “So this guy diving said ‘I feel like I’m reporting a big-foot sighting.’ I think it actually could be a sighting of this relatively newly discovered deep-sea species that he saw while scuba diving off Ketchikan.”
Observations of no jellyfish sightings also are helpful. Haddock said “clean seas” reports make documented sightings more valid, as seeing none are as valuable as seeing many.
Give salmon a brake
Washington State is protecting salmon by removing copper from automotive brakes. A Better Brakes law passed in 2010 went into effect this year, and will phase out copper completely by 2025.
“You touch your brakes and a little bit of material gets deposited on the road. And from there it washes into a stream or river where salmon may be spawning or trying to go home or getting back to the ocean,” said Ian Wesley, Better Brakes Coordinator at the Washington Department of Ecology.
The program was spawned after years of research showed that even trace levels of copper in water will damage a salmon’s ability to smell.
“The Northwest Fisheries Science Center has done a lot of work on how copper affects a salmon’s ability to smell, and juvenile salmon are particularly susceptible to these effects,” Wesley explained. “Even trace levels of copper will damage their ability to smelling, which inhibits their ability to avoid predators. They will release a hormone into the water that alerts other fish when there is danger nearby, and it prevents other salmon from being able to smell that. So they won’t know when danger is in the water and they won’t hide from it.”
Wesley said the program was driven by a partnership between brake makers, water quality watchers and regulators. Brake manufacturers agreed that if it was shown their products were causing environmental harm, they would work to phase copper out of their brake pads. Now, any brakes sold in the state come with a Better Brake logo.
“If you want to sell brakes in Washington State you need to mark your products with a three leaf logo,” Wesley said. “The brake manufacturers have registered it, and it shows the level of copper concentration in a brake pad. If all three leafs are filled in, it means there is no copper in the product, when two are filled in, it means there is less than five percent copper, and when one is filled in, it means there is no asbestos or lead in the product.”
The copper-free brakes cost the same as the less fish friendly models, Wesley said. Penalties for noncompliance starting in 2025 will be applied to the brake makers, with a maximum penalty of $10,000 per violation.
California has followed suit and the Better Brake program is going nationwide.
“The break manufacturers have signed a memorandum of understanding with the EPA to voluntarily agree to comply with Washington’s requirements on a nationwide basis,” Wesley said. “The large retailers and distributors and manufacturers have agreed to only sell certified brakes throughout the country, and to make sure the copper requirements are met for all the brakes made.”
Wesley credits U.S. brake makers for willingly making changes to give salmon a break.
“The brake manufacturers really deserve a lot of credit, and they have been moving faster than we expected them to,” he said. “They’ve really gone above and beyond.”
Washington laws also strongly encourage grassy alternatives to drains and pipes that let road runoff become cleanses by percolating through the ground, as it did before urban areas were paved over.