Genetics study shows 68% of bycatch from Western Alaska

New genetics research on king salmon bycatch has provided industry and managers a little more insight into where they are headed when caught by pollock trawlers.

According to a recently released report from the National Marine Fisheries Service, about 68 percent of the king salmon caught by pollock trawlers in the Bering Sea in 2011 originated in Coastal Western Alaska.

The study, which was done by NMFS’ Auke Bay Laboratories in Juneau, looked at the pollock fleet’s king bycatch in both the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, but the Gulf of Alaska information is less representative of the fishery as a whole because samples are not collected in uniform fashion.

After Coastal Western Alaska, the North Alaska Peninsula stocks were the second largest grouping in the Bering Sea bycatch, at about 9 percent.

Based on the new information, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council took action April 8 to ask for an updated Bering Sea pollock fishery bycatch report that incorporates the new genetics information.

Council member Cora Campbell, Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game commissioner, made the motion asking for a report. The council approved her motion unanimously.

The council’s Advisory Panel recommended a discussion paper, which is often the first step toward an amendment package or possible action. Although she asked for a report rather than a discussion paper, the substance of her request was much the same.

During testimony, representatives from the pollock industry said they supported the request for information but didn’t want it characterized as a discussion paper, precisely because that could signal that action was coming down the pipeline.

 “I’m opposed to this discussion paper,” said United Catcher Boats’ John Gruver, who is an inter-cooperative manager. “This paper is the beginning of a new chinook bycatch reduction amendment. I don’t know how you can interpret it any other way.”

Gruver did, however, say he supported the idea of looking at the science regarding bycatch. The fleet would also benefit from knowing when and where it catches Western Alaska kings, he said.

Non-industry stakeholders provided the bulk of the testimony at the meeting, asking the council to look at the bycatch issue.

For 2011, the year the bycatch was studied, 25,499 kings were caught in the Bering Sea pollock fishery.

That’s well below the performance standard of 47,591 and the hard cap of 60,00 fish in the region. The performance standard is the number the industry targets to be under; exceeding it twice in a seven-year period automatically lowers the hard cap to 47,591.

Those standards were set in 2009, and took effect in 2011. Since then, including in 2011, fisheries disasters have been declared on the Yukon River due to a low return of kings for the last three years. The Kuskokwim River also received that designation for 2011 and 2012.

That means that each fish matters, Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association Policy Director Becca Robbins Gisclair told the council during testimony.

 “We’re at a point where on the Yukon River, the stock is barely replacing itself,” Gisclair said. “And every single removal is critically important. One hundred fish makes a big difference. And at this point, thousands of fish is the difference between meeting escapement goals or not, let alone the different between putting food on people’s tables.”

After the council made their motion, Gisclair, also a member of the council Advisory Panel, said she thought it was an important first step. Eventually, she said, the council may need to look at management measures in light of the recent declines.

The report that comes back to the council is expected to include several items, although much of it is already existing work that must be compiled.

The report should include a review of Alaska’s king stocks, including information on subsistence, sport and commercial fishery restrictions and whether escapement goals have been met, and data on bycatch rates per vessel within each sector for the last two years.

The council also asked for inclusion of the 2011 genetic stock identification report, and a stock-based adult-equivalency run reconstruction, harvest rate analyses, and estimated impacts of bycatch for stock specific groupings at the various limits and real bycatch levels. Additionally, the council asked for a description of the way the current bycatch avoidance incentives work.

The Bering Sea information was considered a systematic, random sample, meaning that the results could be extrapolated to represent all bycatch from that fishery.

Guyon, who worked on the genetics study and presented the results to the council, said that the sample was proportional in time and area to all the bycatch in the fishery.

Sampling in the Gulf of Alaska, however, was opportunistic and not representative of the entire fishery.

NMFS still has 2012 samples to analyze, which will provide the council with another year’s worth of information for both fisheries.

In response to a question from council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak, Guyon said that NMFS does not know yet whether or not the 2012 Gulf samples will be completely representative, but that the information should at least be better.

The 2011 Gulf genetics showed that the sample studied was primarily from British Columbia and the West Coast of the U.S., with those stocks making up 40 percent and 26 percent of the sample. respectively.

Because it wasn’t a representative sample, however, the results on apply to the sample itself, and cannot be used to characterize all bycatch in the Gulf.

Fields also questioned the timing of the work, and asked if the council might see 2012 results sooner than it saw the 2011 results. Ideally, he said, a six to nine month timeframe would be helpful for the council, rather than waiting more than a year.

NMFS Administrator Jim Balsiger, who is also a council member, told Fields that he would look into the timing for future genetics work.

Gisclair agreed that getting the information quickly would be helpful. In-season data, that could help the fleet determine where to move, would be particularly useful, she said. But any data will help.

Chum genetics reviewed

Guyon’s report to the council also included an update on chum genetics for the Bering Sea. Those numbers show a smaller percentage of Western Alaska stocks being caught, but it is still enough to worry some stakeholders, particularly those in Norton Sound, where king runs are largely gone, but chums remain.

Industry representatives talked about the difficulty of avoiding both chum and king bycatch, saying that when they avoid chum early in the season, it can push fishing later into the season, when it is harder to avoid kings.

Council members asked members of the public what they thought about that trade-off, and which species they would prioritize.

Most asked for a balance.

“Chinook versus chum? You’re going to ask us that we should choose between the two resources for bycatch? No. Both bycatches should be coming down,” Sky Starkey told the council. “…It reminds me a little bit, that question and the councils action’s so far, of the infamous quote that led to one of the most famous revolutions in history, and that’s the aristocracy saying to those who are trying to get food, ‘let them eat cake.’

“’Let them eat pinks, let them eat chums.’”

The same day the council asked for a report on bycatch from the Bering Sea pollock trawl fleet, the Alaska Senate passed a bill asking the council for action to reduce Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska bycatch.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, introduced that bill earlier in the session. It passed the Senate 18-0, with two abstentions.

The House had considered a similar bill, which was introduced in the House fisheries committee, but that was withdrawn by Fisheries Chair Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, after Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, prepared to amend it to request limits in the Cook Inlet East Side setnet fishery, as well.

The report isn’t the council’s only foray back into bycatch issues. In June, the council is scheduled to work on crafting an amendment package for Gulf of Alaska trawl bycatch management measures, and take final action on king bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska non-pollock trawl fleet.

12/06/2016 - 12:11pm