Groundfish Forum’s Press Release on NMFS’ December 1, 2000 Biological Opinion

For Immediate Release • December 6, 2000

For more information, please contact:
John Gauvin, Director
Groundfish Forum (206) 213-5270

Alaska’s groundfish industry is reeling in light of sweeping new fishing restrictions revealed by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) last Friday.  The restrictions are the result of a lawsuit brought by Greenpeace and other environmental groups working to curtail commercial fishing off Alaska under the guise of protecting the Steller sea lion.  Although some 30,000 Steller sea lions remain in the western population off Alaska, Greenpeace’s lawsuit compelled the NMFS to develop the new regulations in a biological opinion written to fulfill the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

Among the new restrictions are closures of large portions of traditional fishing grounds in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea, and remote waters along the Aleutian Islands to fishing boats that harvest Pacific cod, pollock, and Atka mackerel.  Those species are the primary bottomfish species for Alaskan fishermen. In an unexpected twist, fishermen learned that the new restrictions apply to all fishing gears including longlines, pots and trawls.  Before this, pot and longline fishermen had not been targeted by Greenpeace and its allies.  NMFS based its actions on the unproven hypothesis brought forward by the environmental groups that fishing for pollock, cod, and mackerel competes with the sea lions’ ability to forage.

Among those most impacted by the new restrictions are 25 freezer-trawlers from Washington and Alaska ranging in length from 100 to over 200 feet.  In contrast to the larger and more well known factory trawlers and shore plants that produce fillets and fish paste, the smaller freezer-trawlers can only head, gut, and freeze their catch at-sea.  For this reason, the group’s vessels are often referred to as “head and gut” (H&G) boats.

While some of the H&G fisheries were spared direct impact from the biological opinion, others will be devastated by the new rules.  Atka mackerel harvests in 2001, for example, will decrease by up to ninety percent compared to recent years’ catches. Cod harvests will drop similarly.  John Gauvin, director of Groundfish Forum, a trade group representing the H&G boats, says the pain will spread to all of the vessels he represents.  “Boats that normally target mackerel and cod,” he predicts, “will move into the fisheries and areas not affected by the opinion, increasing effort in the flatfish fishery by 100%”.

Gauvin fears that total catch of flatfish will actually fall despite the increase in fishing boats.  He explains that H&G fisheries are governed mostly by limits on incidental catches or “bycatch,” and measures to reduce bycatch employed by the Groundfish Forum members could fall prey to the tremendous spike in effort.  Higher bycatch rates may mean earlier closure of the flatfish fisheries.  “We’ll still be doing the absolute best we can to avoid areas of high bycatch,” he adds, “but its really disheartening when new restrictions developed at Greenpeace’s urging, in effect, reduce our ability to fish cleanly.”

The group estimates that the H&G boats will lose approximately $70 million in revenue annually as a result of the new regulations.  Early closures could result in as many as 2,700 lost jobs in the H&G sector alone, most of which are held by Alaska and Pacific Northwest residents.  H&G boats spend millions of dollars annually in Alaskan coastal communities.  Cuts in these expenditures means more bad news for the precarious economies of these villages and small towns.

Gauvin worries that the smaller boats in his association will also be forced to fish farther from shore during the winter when the storms often hit fishermen with thirty to forty foot seas.  While the new rule creates potential safety problems for the H&G fleet, that problem is even worse for the smaller trawlers, pot boats, and longliners from Kodiak and Sand Point, Alaska.  “Those boats are considerably more vulnerable to loss of life at sea from the new measures.  It’s really bad for us and its a complete nightmare for the coastal communities of the Gulf of Alaska,” said Gauvin.