Defining "critical habitat" is a complex task these days, as fishery managers are required to take an entire marine ecosystem into account when making management decisions. Next month, information from tagged halibut could bring researchers increased understanding, at least for the big flats in the Gulf of Alaska.
As part of a project to assess critical marine habitat in the gulf, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Biological Science Center is conducting an experiment on halibut using satellite pop-up tags. The $77,000 project, funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, began last fall when 10 large halibut were captured in Resurrection Bay and taken to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, where the special tags were attached.
The 3-inch, cigar-shaped tags, attached to the halibuts’ backs by a tungsten wire, resemble fishing lures. But that’s where any resemblance stops. Inside the tags are digital memory cards, along with sensors that can record water pressure, light and temperature for up to three years.
In this case, however, the devices on five of the halibut are programmed to corrode their tungsten wires with acid on June 15 and float to the surface, where they will begin transmitting their stored information to passing satellites.
The remainder of the tags are scheduled to detach from the fish in mid-November. According to project director Jennifer Nielson, researchers will then use the information to figure out where the halibut have been swimming all winter.
The tags have been used on tuna and marlin nearer the equator, but this is the first test ever conducted so far north. The data that the tags yield will tell something about halibut behavior, especially their migratory patterns.
If the prototype project proves to be successful, the satellite tags will eventually be applied to other fish species like ling cod and king salmon.
Longliners can take advantage of free streamer lines, thanks to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s goal of helping fishermen avoid accidental takes of seabirds. While supplies last, paired streamer lines are available for free in Seward at Resurrection Bay Seafoods and Seward Fisheries, the Auction Block in Homer, Kodiak Marine Supply, the Department of Fish and Game in Sitka and from the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association.
On a related note, the Washington Sea Grant Program is preparing research results from a two-year study evaluating the effectiveness of seabird avoidance measures, as well as recommendations for changes to the current seabird regulations.
The presentation will be made to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its October 2001 meeting, according to Jim Balsiger, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska.
Help stop hoaxes
Eleven search and rescue hoaxes in Alaska last year cost taxpayers an estimated $134,500, or an average of $12,300 per episode. That was part of an estimated $18 million in false alarms nationwide. The Coast Guard takes every mayday call seriously, and hoaxes could cause some devastating problems if a real emergency were occurring elsewhere.
To try to stem the tide of prank calls, the Coast Guard is urging coastal states to pass their own laws to supplement federal rules that punish prank callers. Such legislation is pending in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. In New Jersey, creating "false public alarms" is illegal and punishable by up to five years in prison. The Coast Guard says Connecticut has penalties for maritime hoaxers, and Ohio also makes such calls illegal.
"The situation is getting worse," said Commander Jim McPherson, a Coast Guard spokesman stationed in Washington, D.C. "It’s for the same reason people pull fire alarms and make false 911 calls," he said, but instead of trucks, "we send out jets and boats." The Coast Guard investigates an average of four suspected hoaxes a day nationally, with summer the busiest season.
According to Sue Jorgensen, Alaska Fishing Vessel Safety Coordinator, very few of the pranksters are caught and even fewer are punished. The biggest problem is that many prank calls are done by juveniles, and such cases are rarely prosecuted in federal court.
For example, New England’s top Coast Guard official cited a case on Cape Cod last April. "Two youths, ages 14-15, made a 45-minute hoax call costing taxpayers $14,500," said Rear Admiral George Naccara.
Despite having signed confessions, the Coast Guard’s enforcement options were limited by the lack of a state law, he said. The hoaxers were given community service.
About three in 10 distress calls in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are hoaxes, according to the Coast Guard. Without state penalties, it’s often hard for the Coast Guard to even threaten punishment.