Environmental Hero

By Laine Welch, The Fish Factor

John Gauvin does not consider himself an environmental hero, but that’s what the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration considers him.

Gauvin is the executive director of Groundfish Forum, Inc., who was recently honored by the federal government agency for various efforts involving by-catch reduction and habitat research with the forum.

“I was somewhat surprised by the title of “environmental hero,” but I was happy that the agency recognized the efforts of the Groundfish Forum and its members to work on bycatch reduction and branching off into habitat impacts from fishing gear.”   Gauvin said, “I think it’s somewhat shocking to some people to see (the) fishing industry associated with environmental work…”

NMFS Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Penny Dalton cited several Groundfish Forum projects in her nomination letter for Gauvin.  Among the cites were: a halibut bycatch avoidance program that uses NMFS observer data to identify incidental catch “hot spots”; a halibut excluder device in trawl gear that released 94 percent of halibut with an acceptable loss of target catch, a study with the University of Alaska to assess trawl impacts on soft-bottom habitats where flatfish are harvested; and a device to lower halibut bycatch rates in Pacific cod trawl fisheries.

The cod project includes experimental fishing this summer.  “Pacific cod is not a target that all of our members engage in,” Gauvin explained.  “It’s a different problem from the halibut excluder for the flatfish fishery because cod are big (in terms) of head size compared to halibut.  It’s a more sophisticated excluder that’s needed and we’ve been struggling to come up with a design to test.  That’s probably going to be the most challenging bycatch problem for us and I hope we’ll come up with something that will work.”

A non-profit organization, Groundfish Forum is funded by all commercial fishing groups operating 19 vessels, all constrained by bycatch issues, and because of those constraints there’s no shortage of project ideas.  Gauvin said the member corporations have been very receptive to providing funding and vessels for field work.  Gauvin added the federal government has also been easy to work with.  “We’ve had great luck with the National Marine Fisheries Service, Gauvin said.  I think at first they were somewhat reluctant in approving our experimental fishing permits, but we’ve done a lot of work with good scientific approaches… and I think once they saw that we were willing to work at that level and it wasn’t just a few more fishing days, we were looked at under the guise of an experiment, which is the point they started to be very receptive to this work.”

Looking to the future, Gauvin expects Groundfish Forum will focus on halibut research and refining work already done in other areas.  He would also like to work with other segments of the fishing industry on mutually beneficial projects.

Groundfish Forum has already worked out a deal with another gear group on the Pacific cod project.  According to Gauvin, the At-Sea Processors Association will help with the experiments.  “We’ve got to learn as an industry to work together whether we’re using the same gear or not, or whether we’re fishing in the same area so we can do things to dispel the declining image of commercial fishing in the public’s mind.”  Gauvin said, “It’s a good industry, an industry that produces great products and can be done in very sustainable and environmentally friendly ways.  That’s what we should all be aiming at.”