Groundfish Forum Not Formed Over Full Retention Issue

By John Gauvin, Dutch Harbor Fisherman – July 10, 1997, Volume 5, Number 30

I feel that parts of your recent front page story entitled “Pollock processor coalition formed” (June 12, 1997) were misleading. One section inferred that only head and gut trawl vessels use bottom gear. In addition, I feel the story inaccurately depicted the position of the head and gut fleet on upcoming full retention regulations. The portions of the story that concerned me were in the latter part of the article and specifically the statement that “bottom trawling vessels left (AFTA) in part because of dissatisfaction with the mid-water pollock trawlers’ support of full retention of bycatch.”

I often encounter questions about different types of trawl vessels, and would like to clarify some of these differences and explain who uses bottom trawls as well as how some groups will be affected by the new full retention regulations. I hope this information broadens your readers’ understanding of the trawl industry in the Bering Sea.

Types of Trawl Vessels

Head and gut boats are so named because they perform limited processing on board consisting of heading, eviscerating, and freezing. The fleet consists of roughly 30 smaller factory trawlers, 110 to 210 feet in length. Head and gut vessels target flatfish, Atka mackerel, rockfish, and Pacific cod, and almost never target pollock because headed and gutted pollock sells for less than the cost of production. By the Bering Sea trawl standards, these are low horsepower vessels, most falling into the 1,200 to 3,000 HP range. According to the Coast Guard definition, head and gut boats are not processors and thus are not required to have a load line classification. All of these vessels are too small to have fish meal plants on board and are not classed to do so.

As your article stated, pollock factory trawlers are larger than head and gut factory trawlers, generally ranging from 260 to 370 feet. Pollock factory trawlers perform more sophisticated processing such as making fillets or surimi (fish protein paste) and are classed as processors by the Coast Guard definition. Most pollock factory trawlers have fish meal plants on board.

The other type of trawl vessel is the catcher vessel that delivers unprocessed fish to shoreside or at-sea processors (motherships). In the Bering Sea, these vessels generally range in size from 70 to 190 feet in length. The larger catcher vessels can compete on a catch per day basis with the large pollock factory trawlers because they are powered up to 5,000 to 6,000 horse-power. They can tow the larger nets, just like the large pollock factory trawlers.

Types of Trawl Gear

The type of trawl gear a vessel uses does not depend on its length as much as it depends on the species targeted. When most pollock boats – whether factory trawler or shoreside catcher vessel – target pollock, they use a “mid-water” net designed to fish off the bottom. Pollock swim off the bottom more than any other groundfish species in the North Pacific.

Only a fraction of the pollock in the Bering Sea is targeted by vessels using bottom trawl gear. Generally, the vessels using bottom trawl gear for pollock are fillet factory trawlers since that gear is thought to produce larger pollock which is better for fillet products. The difference in bycatch between mid-water and bottom trawls for pollock fishing is somewhat murky. A recent analysis by the staff of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council indicated that there would be little or no savings in halibut bycatch if the Council mandated the use of mid-water nets for pollock fishing because both modes catch some halibut. Salmon and herring bycatch might actually increase.

When fishing for flatfish, codfish, or Atka mackerel, any trawl vessel – pollock factory trawler, shoreside catcher vessel, or the head and gut boat – will use a bottom trawl since that’s the only gear that can be used for those species. This leads to the question of which types of vessels depend on bottom trawling. It is incorrect to imply that pollock factory trawlers do not use bottom trawls because most pollock factory trawlers and catcher vessels fish Pacific cod, yellowfin sole or the flatfish fisheries after pollock seasons.

I recently put together a “back of the envelope” analysis of the total amount of groundfish caught with bottom trawls in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, broken out by: catcher vessel, head and gut factory trawlers, and pollock factory trawlers. The results were interesting. Of the roughly 350,000 metric tons taken thus far this year by bottom trawls, roughly 25% was caught by catcher vessels, and the rest was almost an even split (37 percent vs. 38 percent) between head and gut boats and pollock factory trawlers. Clearly, each of the three groups depend on bottom trawls.

In terms of relative dependence, pollock factory trawlers caught most of their 500,000 metric tons of pollock per year with mid-water gear. So compared to their overall catch of pollock, the catch with bottom trawls is relatively small even if it is a large share of the total amount of fish caught with bottom trawls. The same goes for catcher vessels that fish for pollock and cod or yellowfin sole in the off seasons.

Full Retention

The article links the departure of head and gut vessels from AFTA and the formation of the Groundfish Forum – a trade association for head and gut vessels formed in 1996 – to the issue of full retention. The Groundfish Forum was not formed for this reason, and again some background information is warranted.

Regulations to require full retention of cod and pollock started in 1998 and yellowfin and rocksole start in 2003. As mentioned above, there are no head and gut vessels with fish meal plants, and a number of practical obstacles, as well as Coast Guard and NMFS regulations on vessel upgrades effectively prevent head and gut vessels from making fish meal. This means that these vessels will be severely impacted if they are unable to avoid catching pollock because they lose money on pollock.

Instead of fighting the full retention regime, however, the members of the Groundfish Forum have been devising methods to avoid pollock bycatch, which is the lion’s share of our discards. The Groundfish Forum has set up an Experimental Fishing Permit to find a way of avoiding pollock catches in flatfish fishing. The EFP was recently approved by the North Pacific Council. It sets aside a week of fishing time this fall for participating vessels to field test an experimental net. The new net has a 24ft x 8ft opening in the top portion of the trawl intermediate designed to let pollock swim out of the net unharmed. The test involves rigorous experimental design parameters so that the effects of the experimental net can be compared to a control net. If successful, the device could be the key to the economic survival of head and gut boats under full retention.

The reason the Groundfish Forum was formed, was to create an association dedicated to the interests of the head and gut sector. The Forum is solving problems facing the head and gut industry and the trawl industry in general. Prior to the Forum’s creation, many of our members worked together in voluntary programs to reduce crab and halibut bycatch. The Groundfish Forum has worked to expand these efforts. In one such program, participants send their daily observer sampling and production data electronically to a contractor called Sea State. The fleet then receives daily charts and tables from Sea State showing how each boat is doing and identifying the areas where bycatch rates are high.

It is true that head and gut vessels do have a different perspective on some issues than pollock factory trawlers or shoreside trawlers for that matter. For instance, the ability of those sectors to make fish meal out of the fish they catch and the ability to sell profitably means that they will have an easier time adjusting to full retention than the head and gut boats.

The reason the Groundfish Forum was formed was not an issue of full retention. Simply put, members felt that projects to improve the performance of head and gut vessels such as Sea State and our Experimental Fishing Permit could only be undertaken by an association fully dedicated to working full time on the problems facing the head and gut fleet.