COMMENTARY: Salmon improvement project paying dividends in Bristol Bay

Fishermen in the world’s largest salmon fishery at Bristol Bay are getting good grades for improving the quality of their salmon, and it’s boosting their bottom line.

Starting in 2008, two projects have tracked fish quality based on specific handling practices, and given individual fishermen scores on their improvements (or not).

“The two studies go hand in glove. First you get a score and understand where you are, and secondly, if you wish to improve, then you can start changing the way you handle your fish out on the water to bring your score up,” said Mark Buckley of Digital Observer Inc., who created and oversees the project. “Of course, the bottom line is that higher quality fish sell for more in the marketplace. We have been seeing the level of quality has been rising steadily in Bristol Bay over the past four or five years and at the same time, fish prices have come up. I’m not going to claim that the entire rise in fish prices is due strictly to quality, but I challenge anyone to claim the opposite.” 

The Handling Practices project in 2010 and 2011 studied 20 variables among the driftnet fleet in three districts: Naknek, Egegik and Ugashik. 

“If there are two things you can do in Bristol Bay to really improve quality, the top priority is to chill your fish. The second thing is to lower the weight in the brailers. Try to distribute your fish among as many brailers as you can to try and keep the weight down around 200 pounds,” Buckley said. “We were really surprised how much brailer weight affected fish quality.”

A third thing is to simply put a mat on the deck, or use a salmon slide that slides the fish from the roller toward the fish hold.

“That keeps the fish from bouncing around on the hard deck. We proved with more than 20,000 fish sampled that it can make a big difference,” Buckley said.

 The study also produced some startling and unexpected discoveries. Namely, fish quality is more than a function of handling practices aboard fishing boats — it varies directly with time and distance from the fishing grounds to the processing plant — and rough weather can result in significantly degraded quality.

“I was not prepared for how stark the differences were. You could really see how time and distance had an effect,” Buckley said.

While fish sampled for the Handling Practices Study came from a wide variety of boats, those selected for the Report Card Study were tracked every time they delivered fish to the tenders. In 2010/2011, a total of 22,033 salmon were tagged, placed in chilled fishing holds and delivered to one of two processing plants at Naknek. The tagged salmon were headed/gutted, then pulled from the line and graded. (16,458 tagged fish were retrieved, a 75 percent recovery rate.)

The results? In 2010, 69 percent of the salmon were graded No. 1 quality; in 2011 the number rose to 75 percent.

Buckley said in theory everyone wants to see fish prices go up, but many fishermen believe the rewards come from delivering more poundage.

“They are not held accountable for the quality of the fish they deliver,” he said. “There are those who are trying hard to improve their quality and others who really don’t care very much. All they want to do is put in the pounds, and they are dragging the other people down. Those are the free riders in the system.

Buckley called it, “the dilemma of collective action.”

Buckley, who is a 30-year Bristol Bay fishing veteran, outspokenly advocates that fishermen who take the extra steps to improve quality should be rewarded with a higher price.

Fishermen initially receive a grounds price from processors when they deliver their fish. Then, retro checks are given out in the spring after salmon sales are completed and bonuses are given based on production and profits, which can sometimes be as much as 25 cents per pound.

“I believe that retro payment should be apportioned differently, not just by the pound, but there also should be a quality score where some people deserve 45 cents a pound and others 15 cents a pound. This would be a further incentive for people to be motivated to handle their fish better,” Buckley said. “But for that to happen, first you need to initiate a program of grading the fish, either at the time they are transferred to the tender or tagging the fish and grading them at the plant, so you have a fair and transparent system that also is statistically valid and people can believe in.”

Contact Buckley for a copy of the Quantifying Quality in Bristol Bay report at [email protected].

More observer coverage

New rules set to begin next year will change how observers are placed on fishing boats, and for the first time, they will be aboard the halibut longline fleet.

Fishery observers do not play an enforcement role; rather, they take biological samples of the catch, track bycatch and collect other data for fishery managers and scientists. Observers also are on the job in Alaska processing plants during fish deliveries. Currently, there are about 400 observers working in Alaska’s seafood industry.

Onboard observers have been deployed on larger U.S. vessels since the early 1990’s and were originally deployed according to vessel length. By regulation, boats less than 60 feet were exempt from coverage; vessels from 60 feet to 125 feet carried observers 30 percent of the time, and larger vessels had 100 percent or more coverage.

“It has been up to the boats to arrange for an observer from a certified contractor, the industry had the responsibility to take their observer coverage within any calendar quarter, and they had to get 30 percent of their fishing days covered. They got to pick the fishing days. And that selection of the fishing days really led to some concerns about the quality of the data that was coming out of it,” said Martin Loefflad, director of the Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis Division of the North Pacific Fishery Observer Program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

In 2010, the North Pacific Fishery Management council voted unanimously to restructure the program, and collect a fee by all participants to pay for the coverage. All boats, even if they are less than 60 feet, will pay the same fee of 1.25 percent based on their ex-vessel landings.

“From the fee, we will develop a pool of money to contract with observer providers and that provider will put observers on vessels at the selection of the agency (NOAA Fisheries). So we can really institute a randomized vessel selection process that will really improve the scientific underpinnings of the data we collect,” Loefflad said. “So under this new model, the less than 100 percent coverage fleet won’t have to find their own observers and arrange for coverage to achieve a regulatory requirement. They will have to notify us when they are taking a trip and we will then let them know if that trip has been selected for coverage or not, and then we will assign an observer to that vessel.”

For the first time, boats in the directed halibut fishery will be covered by onboard observers.

“This is a new fleet to us and we’re new to them. So we are expecting to start off slowly, dip our toe in the water, and build some successes before we jump into it in a really big way. So we’ll scale up in the first year,” Loefflad said. “Smaller boats have challenges. It’s hard to take on another person. So we are going to be cautious and careful about the imposition we’ll be creating for that fleet. But we still need the information.”

Loefflad said the restructured program will, “improve the science,” and relieve the industry of the burden of trying to comply with challenging regulations.

“I think we will see a big improvement in the quality of data and it will be a better system for the industry to comply with,” he said. “Ultimately, our responsibility is to try and figure out as best we can how many fish are coming out of the ocean. Alaska’s fisheries management in general has been the hallmark of the world and this will help us maintain that hallmark.”

Proposal call

The Alaska Board of Fisheries is accepting proposals for changes in regulations to the subsistence, commercial, personal use, and sport regulations for the Bristol Bay, Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim, and Alaska Peninsula/Aleutian Islands management areas.  Deadline to submit proposals is April 10. The BOF meetings begin in October. See more at

03/29/2012 - 8:44am