Small-boat salmon fisheries the next to bear scrutiny of federal observers
Alaska has the strictest and largest fishery observer program in the world, primarily on large vessels that haul aboard huge catches of groundfish or crab. Observers work on board fishing boats throughout the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, collecting the samples and data that give a sketch of what’s really going on out there.
The information is used to provide state and federal fishery scientists and policy makers with the status and health of the various stocks, so they can manage the fisheries wisely and effectively.
Federal law requires the government to collect data on all activities that affect marine mammals. It’s common knowledge that Alaska’s groundfish fisheries are bearing the brunt of such data collection, as they’re the ones accused of taking too much food out of the mouths of endangered sea lions.
But as predicted, small-boat salmon fisheries in parts of Alaska will be the next to bear the scrutiny of observers, as the feds ramp up programs on how set and drift gillnets "interact" with marine mammals.
"Our bottom line is to make stock assessments and to come up with an estimate of fishing mortalities and injuries," said Amy Van Atten, a project director for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"We’ll look at how much fishing is going on, where in the water column, and how long the nets are soaked and picked," she said. "We’ll also look at everything that’s caught in the net, and collect samples to see what the large predators are feeding on."
Salmon fishery observations have been spotty at best in Alaska in the past 10 years.
Some coverage began in Prince William Sound in 1990-91, but the program "kind of got lost," Van Atten said. A "reconnaissance study" was expanded in 1995 to observe set and gillnet and some small purse seine fisheries in regions of Kodiak, Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet, Southeast and Yakutat, she said.
These are regarded by NMFS as "Category Two" fisheries, meaning they are known to have a moderate level of interaction with marine mammals. Interestingly, trawlers are listed as a "Category Three," which denotes little or no interaction.
In 1999/2000, a small salmon observer program was conducted in Cook Inlet, and next up is Kodiak in 2002. NMFS recently postponed a pilot program from starting there this summer in order to allow the affected fishermen to become more involved in its design and implementation. The program is expected to deploy up to 15 observers to cover about 30 days of fishing.
The delay will also give Van Atten more time to survey the region and give her "more confidence about what I can expect observers to realistically achieve, and what results I can obtain," she said.
Van Atten said she knows there will be continued resistance to the salmon observer program.
"But it’s a federally mandated program and we have our jobs to do. We have to ensure that marine mammals are not being killed while a fishery is ongoing," she said.
Van Atten said she understands the salmon fishermen’s fears that they could be next to feel the squeeze of restrictions designed to protect sea lions.
She offered this consolation to Kodiak salmon harvesters: "I don’t expect there to be a problem, as I believe there is a relatively small take of marine mammals. Sea lions have never been reported taken in a gillnet in Kodiak. There have been reports of harbor porpoises, harbor seals and sea otters. What the data will do is provide evidence to appease everyone’s mind -- the scientists, managers and fishermen. This is not a high profile program that’s intended to expose the fisheries to environmentalists."
Van Atten said if there are interactions with marine mammals in Kodiak, it won’t shut down the salmon fisheries.
"If there’s a problem, recommendations will be brought forth by industry and fishermen on how to reduce interactions," she said. "We’ll work cooperatively on how to adjust fishing techniques."
NMFS will meet with Kodiak salmon fishermen starting this month to begin plans for implementing the observer program next summer.
Halibut road show
The Board of Fish is sending out a scouting committee to Sitka, Kodiak, Cordova and Homer this month to hear comments about proposed subsistence regulations for halibut. Last October federal fish managers adopted options that defined eligibility, gear and daily limits.
Gear could include up to 30 hooks on a longline per angler, with daily limits of up to 20 halibut per day. At the same time, the feds tasked the board with coming up with more recommendations.
The full Fish Board will meet May 7 to 8 to formally adopt recommendations on halibut subsistence regulations for specific areas of the state. The recommendations will be presented to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its June 2001 meeting in Kodiak.
Sea lion studies
Some of the most far-reaching research on Steller sea lions is taking place close to home. The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward has a coveted federal permit to study Stellers in captivity, and researchers are undertaking some of the largest and most comprehensive programs ever attempted.
Since so much of the controversy surrounding sea lions involves their diet, the center’s core research project involves long-term feeding trials on three captive Stellers. The program also has pioneered the use of using remote-controlled video cameras to monitor sea lions every day in the wild, in this case on a rookery 35 miles away.
"Fishing Hurts," and, "Seafood Is Murder on Fish" are two of the messages that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals brought to the International Boston Seafood Show. Spokesperson Dawn Carr claims PETA advocates eradicating all forms of fishing, as well as the consumption of seafood. Carr said she believes that fish feel pain, have "neurochemical systems" like humans and sensitive nerve endings in their lips and mouths.
Carr was recently quoted in The Wall Street Journal as equating serving seafood at the National Aquarium to "eating poodle burgers at a dog show."