Alaska Fleet Reduces Its Ground Impact

Fishing News International – February 2008, page 23

“This year we’re going to have to hit the ground cleaner than we’ve ever been,” says a US skipper during a break at a flume tank session in Hirtshals, Denmark, organised by gearmaker Dantrawl.

There were more than a few worried faces at the series of meetings, discussions and lectures organised by the Seattle trawl maker for its customers as fishermen and owners come to terms with the difficulties the Alaska H&G fleet has to face.

Dantrawl’s Elias Olafsson tells FNI that a flume tank session is all very well but, even with a highly interested group, it’s not easy to maintain enthusiasm for trawl models for a whole day.

“So the decision was taken to break up the four-day event into a program that inevitably centered around the changes the fleet will have to make to its ways of working as requirements for reducing ground impact become stricter and the burdens of Amendments 80 and 85 become tougher.

“With wide-ranging discussions extending from the meeting rooms to the bar in the evenings, there was plenty to talk through. Dantrawl also added to the mix by bringing in speakers such as SINTEF’s Kurt Hansen and Roger Larsen from the University of Tromsø to widen the perspective further.

Lori Swanson of Groundfish Forum, the association representing most of this fleet, explains that it comprises around 35 trawlers landing fish that has seen only limited processing.

The fleet is made up largely of single-vessel operators working in a variety of fisheries between late January and November 1 each year.

She says: “There are big changes taking place and this is a complex set of fisheries, with pot, line and jig fisheries, plus the factory and chilled fish trawlers, as well as the H&G vessels.”

This sector of the fleet – after being left in peace for many years – is now subject to a string of measures and requirements that it is going to have to adapt to quickly.

Lori Swanson tells FNI that a series of Amendments in recent years has added burdens to these trawlers’ owners. The 2003 Amendment 79 brought in the Groundfish Rotation Standard, set to increase incrementally up to 85% by 2011.

“This is being applied on a vessel-by-vessel basis. The smaller ones with less hold space fishing on mixed stocks are having a hard time, while the larger ones with more space are having less trouble. But those under 125 ft. are exempt because of this,” she says.

All catches are required to pass over a flow scale which measures the total volume of fish and two observers have to be carried at all times – even on vessels where there is hardly space for two extra people on board!

The big changes have taken place with Amendment 85, passed in April 2006 altered the Pacific cod allocations, taking much of the H&G fleet’s cod away. In June 2006, Amendment 80 also allocated yellowfin sole, rock sole, flathead sole, Aka mackerel and Pacific ocean perch in Aleutian Islands waters, along with allocations of prohibited stocks such as halibut and several crab species.

All this takes the H&G fleet into a new environment of individual quotas, although with the opportunity to pool quotas into co-ops.

Says Lori Swanson: “There are 28 vessels that qualify and at least nine from three companies are needed to form a co-op. So, in theory, there could be three co-operatives. In practice there will be only one.”

This changes the way of working, taking off some of the pressure. Under this new regime, fishermen will have to work together instead of competing against each other.

However, the downside is that – with some species hardcapped – if the quotas for those species are caught, then fishing for everything stops.

“Cod is the real challenge as cod quotas are down and flatfish quotas are up. So we are going through a big transition with the need to manage allocations carefully, especially with cod and halibut so tight.

“Cod could become an incidental species. There could even be years with no targeted cod fishery. It’s a real balancing act and everything has to mesh.”

It has to be said that Dantrawl has done a magnificent job of not only showing the fishing gear available but, also, in organising a forum for its customers in Hirtshals as they come to terms with a host of changes in management, ground contact issues and the new world of eco-labels as one of the fleet’s major resources, Gulf of Alaska flatfish, goes through the MSC certification process.

John Gauvin says that Moody Marine is handling this and comments that the initial assessments have gone very well, with no indications that approval will not be granted.

Says Lori Swanson: “We have to work in a very different way and we have already seen a big change in attitude as the thinking goes from dollars per fish to dollars per day.”

Smoothing the Sea Floor

The H&G fleet also has to deal with the big issue of habitat impact that has already limited access to some areas due to ground contact.

Craig Rose of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been working with fishermen on research into habitat impact on their grounds.

This has included both investigating damage to invertebrates on the seafloor and into different sweepline structures to reduce bottom contact.

He tells FNI that observation with side scan sonar from a towed sled before and after a trawl had been towed over a piece of ground showed the very clear indentations in the sea floor.

A closer investigation showed that these indentations are often very minor – often amounting to little more than a smoothing of the sea floor.

He says: “We tested this after a day, a week, a month and a year later. At the deeper end of the Bering Sea on softer mud that tends to hold a track longer, it was barely possible to make out any marks after a year.”

Working on board Cape Horn – the region’s only trawler fitted out for twin rigging – Craig Rose and his team tested trawls with modified sweeps having 10 in. bobbins at 90 ft. intervals against the standard trawl on the same tow, allowing the two to be compared easily.

The modified gear used sweeplines fitted with bobbins at intervals to keep the combination wire clear of the seabed and the indications are that this gear actually fishes slightly better, while reduced impact on basketstars and sea whips was very positive.

“We were surprised that we didn’t lose more fish over the swept area,” he admits, adding that reduced ground contact has resulted in an insignificant loss of catch.

He says: “The issue now is to look at practical configurations and enforceable standards.”

This means examining the length between bobbins on the sweeps and possible trade-offs between larger bobbins against a longer spacing. A further issue is that in commercial use, with bobbins on the sweeps, there will be less space on drums.

This could mean that the overall sweep length may have to be shorter – possibly resulting in less efficient fishing.

John Gauvin, a former head of Groundfish Forum who is now a consultant, comments that he was surprised to begin with at how little effect on the seabed invertebrates the unmodified gear had.

However, with the alternative being more closed areas, there is the real possibility of the fleet being forced to work less productive grounds, leading to more fishing effort, a greater swept area and even more fuel burned!

He warns: “If we’re not ahead on this issue, we’re not going to be in good shape in the brave new world of Amendment 80.”