Atka Mackerel: In late 1997, research done by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) suggested that the Atka Mackerel fishery was causing localized depletion of mackerel around Steller sea lion rookeries, hence possibly reducing foraging opportunities for sea lions. To address the situation, NMFS proposed to spread the fishery over time and area, restricting the fishery so it would not be viable for fishermen. Groundfish Forum commissioned two independent reviewers to examine the NMFS paper for scientific shortcomings. These reviewers saw flaws in the “evidence” NMFS was using and this helped the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s (Council) Scientific and Statistical Committee to conclude that revamping the fishery in the manner proposed by NMFS would not benefit sea lions. As a result, the Council did not implement the drastic changes, but did alter the fishery. However, these changes resulted in a finding of “no jeopardy” for the Endangered Species Act consultation.
Research on Trawl Gear: This year several environmental groups launched campaigns against bottom trawling. Most of the scientific studies used against trawling were done on the East coast or other areas that are exploited to a higher degree than the North Pacific. In 1998, Groundfish Forum members sponsored a fellowship for a University of Alaska graduate student to study the effects of bottom trawling on the ocean floor. The experiment will continue through the next year when the student will, in a submersible, study areas that have been trawled. In the years to come, Groundfish Forum plans to continue to provide solid scientific information to combat generalizations and anecdotal evidence.
Cod Assessment: Groundfish Forum teamed up with other associations and companies to hire two statisticians to review the National Marine Fisheries Services’ (NMFS) Pacific cod model. The review concluded that the estimates of biomass have been reasonably accurate in the past years though several suggestions were developed that could improve the model. The findings of this study were presented to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s (Council) Scientific Advisory Committee and hopefully, in the future, will increase the level of accuracy and help better manage the fishery.
Halibut Mortality Avoidance Program (HMAP): In the past years, flatfish fisheries have not been able to take their quotas due to halibut limits. In 1997 Groundfish Forum developed a system to reduce halibut mortality rates by removing halibut directly from the codend, measuring them and returning them to sea. Deck sorting halibut is currently not allowed because of observer sampling protocols. This year the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) reviewed Groundfish Forum’s plan and asked us to outline a voluntary pilot program for next year. It is likely that this test will be successful since the boats in Groundfish Forum’s 1997 and 1998 experimental fisheries were successful in lowering their halibut mortality bycatch by deck sorting. Deck sorting will not only lower halibut mortality but also produce more accurate estimates of halibut taken in a fishery.
Random Sampling: Sometimes an observer will sample only at the beginning of the haul and other times they will sample only when they see a high concentration of prohibited species. Biased sampling reduces the accuracy of catch estimates which affects industry interests as well as conservation objectives. Groundfish Forum met with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) observer program to discuss ways to make sampling more random. The most viable plan would likely be a mechanical sampling device such as a diverter chute. Groundfish Forum plans to apply for another experimental fishery in 1999 to test mechanical sampling methods.
American Fisheries Act (AFA): Three representatives of Groundfish Forum attended meetings in Washington DC while the AFA was being developed. Our concern was that pollock companies that were lobbying for a coop would have been able to fish more in non-pollock fisheries since they would no longer be competing for pollock. Groundfish Forum’s participation helped to ensure that sufficient limitations were placed on boats who were given exclusive access to the pollock quota. This reduces the potential impact on the Head and Gut (H&G) fleet.
Experimental Fishing Permit (EFP): In 1998, Groundfish Forum successfully conducted an EFP to test the effectiveness of a halibut excluder. The whole trawl fleet was invited to submit designs of excluders that they had developed and a panel of National Marine Fisheries Service gear experts selected the most promising. The selected excluder released 94% of halibut with only a 20-50% loss of target catch. The device is currently being adjusted so it will exclude even less target catch. Groundfish Forum predicts that with these excluders, the April Gulf of Alaska (GOA) deep water flatfish fishery could be nearly doubled.
Improved Retention/Improved Utilization (IR/IU): Through its efforts to provide objective information to regulators, Groundfish Forum was able to get an exemption for having to retain damaged and diseased fish from the IR/IU implementation committee. In addition, Groundfish Forum submitted a proposal to prohibit fishmeal as a primary product to ensure that all boats were making an effort to avoid bycatch rather than simply turning it into meal.
Atka Mackerel Research: The management plan approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) phases out the amount of Atka mackerel taken in sea lion critical habitat each year based on the assumption that the fishery is decreasing prey for sea lions. Because there is no concrete evidence that this localized depletion is happening, Groundfish Forum proposed that the density of mackerel in the rookery areas be tested before and after the season takes place. Groundfish Forum also successfully convinced Sen. Ted Stevens to allocate funding for this research and the experiment will begin this year.