North Pacific fisheries managers and policy-makers spent much of their time in 1999 dealing with two major issues: the lawsuit brought against NMFS challenging the actions taken to protect Steller sea lions, and the implementation of the American Fisheries Act (AFA) that resulted in the formation of pollock fishing cooperatives. While neither one of these issues has had a direct effect on the head-and-gut (H&G) fleet, Groundfish Forum has nonetheless, worked to ensure that they were protected. The association continued to direct a significant portion of its resources toward ongoing work in bycatch avoidance and mortality reduction.
Bycatch Avoidance and Reduction
Halibut Excluders – While halibut excluders have been used in some Alaska flatfish fisheries, exchange of information among fishermen has been limited. Groundfish Forum and the Alaska Draggers Association hosted a Halibut Excluder Workshop for fishermen and gear manufacturers. Groundfish Forum’s 1998 field work was presented as well as research done by Dr. Craig Rose, a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) gear specialist. Manufacturers provided examples of actual excluders. The workshop gave an overview of excluders and allowed “brain-storming” for fisheries where excluders are not currently being used.
Halibut Mortality Avoidance Program (HMAP) – During the 1999 experimental fishery permit (EFP), Groundfish Forum conducted another successful demonstration of the HMAP protocol to return halibut expeditiously to the sea. Under the proposed program, trawlers would limit the length of their tows and carefully remove halibut from the catch as soon as the net is on board. Observers would count and measure halibut before releasing them.
Groundfish Forum’s HMAP pilot was approved for analysis by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council), but the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has made little progress with the analysis due to limited resources. Groundfish Forum continued to press for implementation culminating in a meeting with Penny Dalton, head of NMFS in Washington DC, to request reprioritization of pending projects in order to allow HMAP to move forward.
Bairdi (tanner) Crab Rebuilding
Due to the decline in population, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) looked at options to lower trawl crab bycatch caps and create “habitat protection areas.” Groundfish Forum analyzed bycatch data for past years and determined that events of high bycatch were too dispersed over time and area to suggest any effective closures. This conclusion, as well as testimony outlining the fleet’s success in lowering its crab bycatch, was presented to the Council. In October, the Council approved a rebuilding plan that did not include area closures or reduced bycatch caps for the trawl sector.
1999 Experimental Fishery Permit (EFP)
Groundfish Forum conducted an experimental fishery, with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Observer Program, which examined how catch stratification influenced observer catch composition estimates. The project was carried out by the captain and crew of the F/T American No.1 with field supervision from NMFS and Groundfish Forum. The observers collected six random samples from every tow. The EFP personnel then quantified all crab, halibut, skates, and five groundfish species in order to compare the actual catch composition with the basket sample estimates. The data are still being analyzed, but the study will prove useful to NMFS and the industry in assessing the accuracy of the current sampling regime.
Effects of Trawl Gear in Alaska
Field research on the effects of trawling – 1999 marked the first stage of field work for a University of Alaska study that Groundfish Forum is funding. In May, the graduate student supported by association members was able to collect sediment samples and conduct side scan sonar imaging of the study area in the northwestern portion of Bristol Bay. This work was the final preparation for the actual trawl effects study employing a member vessel that will take place in the spring of 2000.
Review of scientific literature – In addition to empirical research on the effects of trawls on benthic habitat, Groundfish Forum successfully raised funds to hire a benthic ecologist and a physical oceanographer to review existing studies on the impacts of trawling. Much of the existing research involve habitats that are physically different from the North Pacific, fished at a higher relative frequency, or examine gear that is heavier or altogether different. This review will produce an analysis of information which are applicable to the trawl fisheries in Alaska.