In Search of Full Retention

A Gutsy Experiments Pays Off for Everyone

By Mick Kronman, National Fisherman Magazine – September Issue, 1997 • Volume 78, No. 6


For H&G freezer trawlers that drag for sole in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, a federal regulation requires full retention of pollock and cod beginning next year.  The law cemented the fleet’s determination to avoid these fish and spawned a gear-modification experiment that may help achieve that goal.

“It was pure economics,” explains John Gauvin, director of the Groundfish Forum, a year-old group representing 14 H&G companies and their 20 trawlers, ranging from 100′ to 211′.  “The impetus was simple: it costs 40 cents/lb to produce H&G pollock, which sell for 30 cents/lb.  We had to minimize our pollock catch.”

Trawlers had already tested ways to avoid pollock and cod, but those efforts proved difficult during competitive fishing seasons, and results were scientifically questionable.  So last spring the forum successfully petitioned NMFS for extra fishing time and quotas outside the normal fishery to test a roundfish-excluder device.  Developed by Dr. Craig Rose at NMFS’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center, the device features a 20′-long hole in the hood of the intermediate section of a trawl (picture a convertible car, through which roundfish can escape unharmed while flatfish remain trapped in the bottom of the net.

In August, six boats, with 12 observers and a group of biologists armed with underwater video equipment, set to sea to test the gear.  At the forum’s insistence, the experiment was designed according to strict scientific protocol, including data comparison of vessels testing the modified gear and control-group vessels towing unmodified nets.

Preliminary results were encouraging.  Noted Gary McNabb, captain of the Ocean Peace, a vessel taking part in the experiment, “In heavy pollock sign during daytime, the bag would be full in one or two hours of towing without the open top-net, and the catch would be more pollock than flatfish.  With the open top-net, however, tows can be three hours before the bag is full, and most of the catch is flatfish.”

NMFS and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council contributed to the forum’s efforts by expediting the approval process, helping design the experiment and providing scientific oversight during trials.  Still boats taking part in the experiment bought their own nets and paid for observers (two per vessel) and all other fishing costs.  They got to keep their catch, but, notes Gauvin, “It was a break-even proposition at best.”

“From the beginning, this project has been steered by fishermen who care about sustaining their fishery, plain and simple,” says Dan Waldeck, a University of Washington grad student and forum intern who went to sea during the experiment.

Adds Gauvin, “We were encouraged by the support we got from the longliners, crabbers, cod potters and pollock factory trawlers.  They all see value in this type of proactive approach.”

If the gear works, regulations requiring the open top-net could follow.  As Gauvin sees it, however, they may not be necessary.  “Nobody will have to force H&G companies or anyone else to use it,” he predicts.  “The new deign would simply become a part of economic survival in the full-retention age.”