Issues, Initiatives & Projects

Below details some of the issues the trawl industry faced early on and the initiatives that Groundfish Forum took to address them.  The drop-down menu items for this section break down the issues, initiatives and projects for Groundfish Forum and trawl industry on an annual basis.

Issue: Status of Groundfish Resources

Each year in December, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council reviews the current stock assessments for the groundfish resources of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.  Biologists on the Council’s “Plan Teams” prepare annual assessments of the individual fish stocks and the general health of the ecosystem.  The Council then establishes annual harvest levels based on these reports.

  • Key Findings Based on 1997 Assessments

Flatfish: Flatfish has been the lifeblood of the head and gut (H&G) fleet and almost all of the stocks were at historically high levels.  Stocks of yellowfin sole and rock sole increased steadily over ten years and to the point of stabilizing.  Overall abundance of flatfish increased to about 8 million metric tons (up from 2 million metric tons when the Magnuson Act was written in 1976).  Notably, however, Greenland turbot was not rebuilt as strongly as the other flatfish species.

Rockfish: Rockfish in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska were managed very conservatively and data suggested these stocks were increasing.  The most dramatic case was Pacific Ocean Perch in the Gulf of Alaska. This species was managed under a rebuilding plan since joint venture fishing ended and because of the success of the rebuilding plan, stocks of Pacific Ocean Perch exceeded the target abundance and therefore, allowable harvest levels increased significantly.

Pacific cod: Pacific Cod stocks were at all time high levels and a number of strong year classes entered the fishery.  This bode well for continued high levels of harvest.

Atka mackerel: Atka mackerel was a critically important species for many of the larger H&G vessels and in 1997, the allowable harvest of Aleutian Islands Atka mackerel was reduced by roughly 40%.  The Council approved the decrease due to uncertainty regarding the current survey methods and concern over the lack of legitimate survey techniques used to measure population abundance.  The trawl survey was generally considered to be unsuitable for Atka mackerel because of their unique characteristics and distribution of the stock.

Pollock: The most troubling news in 1997 was that the walleye pollock resource was possibly headed for a downturn in the following year because the year class structure of the stock was possibly not adequate enough to support the high yields that occurred over the past 15-20 years.  Concerns also existed over the extent of pollock catch by Russian and joint venture trawlers fishing on the Eastern Bering Sea stock just over the International Line.  Allowable fishing levels for pollock could decrease in the range of 25-40% over the next few years unless the 1992 and 1995 year classes were found to be stronger than current estimates indicate.

  • Initiatives of the Groundfish Forum

Atka mackerel: Members of the Groundfish Forum worked with National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) and University of Washington stock assessment scientists in 1997 to develop ways to improve the NMFS abundance survey for Atka mackerel.  Forum members worked with NMFS and the University of Washington to provide industry funding for the development of an alternative survey method design. Members of the Forum also contributed vessel sea time to NMFS stock assessment scientists to conduct the alternative survey once it was developed.

Sablefish:  In an effort to enhance the accuracy of the sablefish survey, the Groundfish Forum worked over the summer of 1997 to establish better communication between NMFS scientists conducting the sablefish longline survey in the Gulf of Alaska and trawl vessels engaged in fishing.  The purpose of the project was to inform industry members of the scheduled survey positions so that longline and trawl vessels could better avoid fishing locations close to the survey stations.

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Issue: Full Retention/Utilization

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved a requirement for full retention of cod and pollock starting in 1998 and yellowfin sole and rocksole starting in 2002.  This new regulation could have had huge consequences on smaller trawl and longline vessels with very limited product hold capacity because markets didn’t exist for much of the small flatfish that were commonly discarded.  In addition, prices for headed and gutted pollock didn’t cover the costs of producing this product on small processing vessels, not to mention the opportunity cost created when scarce hold capacity had to be devoted to lower valued products.

  • Initiatives of the Groundfish Forum

Members of the Forum wanted to reduce discards of marketable fish, but recognized that the economics of smaller head and gut vessels would be severely challenged by the requirement for full retention of cod and pollock.  Therefore, the Groundfish Forum prepared a request for an experimental fishing permit for H&G vessels to test net designs that would hopefully eliminate much or nearly all unwanted catch of pollock, cod, and small flatfish, while retaining larger flatfish.  The experimental fishing permit would provide time outside of the regular fishing season for vessels to test gear innovations in a systematic way so that the effects on catch composition could be verified.

The head and gut fleet had previously worked to reduce discards in the rocksole fishery, where discard rates were historically high.  Discards in the rocksole fishery occurred because of the large differential in value between the target fish and the other types and sizes of fish commonly caught.  With the implementation of a voluntary program to increase retention in 1995, the rocksole fleet was able to reduce its discard rate by over 30%.

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Issue: Incidental Catches of Halibut

Generally, flatfish and cod fisheries closed long before all of the total allowable catch was taken by the fleet. This occurred because in addition to caps on the target species, managers imposed limits on the number of tons of halibut that could be taken incidentally by vessels fishing for flatfish and cod.  Limits were placed on the kilograms of halibut caught incidentally per ton of target catch.  Halibut had to be returned to the sea by groundfish fishermen even if the fish was already dead.  The trawl industry had a total cap of halibut within which to conduct its bottom trawl fisheries.  Each year the halibut bycatch cap was achieved before many of the flatfish and other groundfish fisheries reached their total allowable catch limits.  The halibut cap was thus a huge obstacle to reaching optimal yield from the groundfish resources of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

One of the assessments in 1997 found that halibut abundance was significantly greater than previously estimated and in some areas halibut were three to five times more abundant than was previously believed.  This helped to explain why the fleet had such a difficult time avoiding incidental takes of halibut and provided impetus for a review of the trawl halibut cap.

  • Initiatives of the Groundfish Forum

Groundfish Forum members were greatly affected by incidental catch caps on halibut because of their relatively large dependence on fish species that coexist with halibut.  Over the next few years, efforts to refine methods of avoiding halibut catches and improve the survivability of halibut caught incidentally were critical to our ability to remain economically viable in the fisheries upon which we depended.

In the previous last two years, Groundfish Forum vessels used a halibut avoidance program that was proven very effective. The system relied on an independent contractor who received daily NMFS observer data from satellite communications systems aboard all vessels.  The contractor rapidly calculated bycatch rates from the observer data and sent plotted charts back to vessels in the avoidance program to identify incidental catch “hotspots”.  This allowed vessel operators to avoid areas where halibut rates were high.  The system, called Sea State, proved to be very effective in the reduction of incidental catch rates of halibut and became an industry standard.

Groundfish Forum members also began working with regulators to develop on-deck sorting techniques that lower the mortality of halibut taken incidentally.  This would allow better use of halibut available to the groundfish industry for incidental catches.  Groundfish Forum members also considered an innovative system of individual vessel limits on halibut catches.  Such a system would improve incentives for individual accountability and prevent a few companies that commonly fish with little regard for avoiding halibut from shutting down the entire fleet.

Another regulation change of great interest to Groundfish Forum members was allowing retention of halibut that are determined by NMFS observers to be dead as these fish could then be processed for donation to food banks.  Such a change would prevent the waste that resulted from the requirement to throw overboard all halibut, including those that are dead.

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Issue:  Crab Protection Areas and Limits on Crab Bycatch

With the downturn in crab stocks over the late 1990’s, a great many restrictions were imposed on the groundfish trawl fleet, as well as directed crab fishery.  Three areas amounting to thousands of square miles of productive groundfish areas in the Bering Sea were closed to trawling in an effort to protect crab populations.  Some of the areas were prime fishing grounds for the rocksole and yellowfin sole fisheries.

In addition, existing limits on the incidental take of crab by trawling were made even more restrictive for the trawl fleet. Initially, incidental catch of crab equated to an annual take of a small fraction of one percent of the population. Despite the already low levels of incidental take by trawls, the North Pacific Council approved a suite of further reductions of incidental catch limits for red king crab and bairdi tanner crab, and created a new incidental catch limit for opilio tanner crab.

Because the limits were such small fractions of the crab populations, they were generally construed by biologists to be allocational in nature, rather than affording biological protection.  Essentially, this was due to the fact that even if these small amounts of incidental catch were 10% or 50% higher they would not affect crab populations.  Like halibut, the regulations stipulated that crabs taken in trawls could not be retained and must be returned to the sea, even if they were already dead.

  • Initiatives of the Groundfish Forum

In 1995 and 1996, the incidental take of Bristol Bay red king crab in trawl fisheries was approximately one-tenth the average number taken during the five years prior to 1995.  This was accomplished through the implementation of closed areas, and with the industry’s efforts to develop a red king crab avoidance program for areas that remained open to trawling.  In fact, the industry’s red king crab avoidance program proved to be of critical importance in 1995 when incidental catch rates in the rocksole fishery were high at the start of the season.  This occurred despite the closed areas for red king crab protection that had been created.  When the high incidental catch rates became apparent, Groundfish Forum members quickly responded by shifting fishing effort to other fishing grounds where red king crab catch rates were low.  This timely response to high incidental catch rates at the start of the 1995 season was made possible by the use of Sea State.  As noted previously, Sea State is an industry-developed communications system designed to rapidly calculate incidental catch rates and identify halibut or crab “hot spots”.  Although Sea State was developed for halibut avoidance, it has proven equally effective for crab avoidance.

Members and staff of the Groundfish Forum were very involved in attempting to keep the suite of additional restrictions on the trawl fleet as limited as possible.  Members recognized that it was necessary to curtail trawling in most of the areas recently approved for closure because incidental catch rates of crab were too high in those areas.  Yet a few of the areas considered for closure did not have excessive incidental catch rates and Groundfish Forum members were able to convince regulators to leave those sub-areas open (some on a conditional basis in years when crab populations were high enough to allow directed crab fishing by the crab fleet).

Reductions in incidental crab catch limits were further negotiated by the trawl sector and the crab fleet. This approach allowed for a more balanced process whereby different groups could focus on the specific aspects that were most important to their constituents. This also allowed for new opilio tanner incidental catch limits to apply to a specific area so that only a limited portion of the Bering Sea would be closed to trawling if the opilio limit was reached.

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Issue:  Concerns Over the Effects of Trawling on Benthic Habitat

Very little was understood concerning the effect of trawling on bottom habitats, particularly sand and mud bottoms where flatfish abound.  In the North Pacific, tens of thousands of square miles of sensitive (coral, cobble, and other fragile substrates) habitat have been closed to trawling and commercial crabbing in recognition of the potential effects from habitat damage in these areas.  Conversely, mud and sand strata, the majority of the area left open to trawling, could show little or no negative impact from trawling.

Despite this dearth of information, some trawl opponents attempted to condemn trawling.  This “trawl bashing” attitude jeopardized an economically important fishery because no other gear was suitable for flatfish and other species pursued by members of the Groundfish Forum.  Further, future restrictions on trawling may have created even more imbalances in the relationships between species.  For instance, flatfish populations were known to grow very large in proportion to other groundfish and shellfish populations.  Some scientists believed restrictions on trawling for cod and flatfish may have created an over-abundance of crab predators.  This could serve to keep crab populations low because each flatfish can consume hundreds of larval and post-larval crab every day and cod are known to consume all crab stages including adults.

  • Initiatives of the Groundfish Forum

The membership of the Forum believed objective research should be performed to evaluate the impacts of today’s trawl gears on the types of mud and sand habitat where flatfish and other bottomfish trawling was allowed.  Groundfish Forum members had cooperated with NMFS surveys and gear experiments in the past, and association members remained committed to making their vessels and personnel available for legitimate research to increase the understanding of the effects of trawling.  We were also willing to modify the gears we used if it was legitimately deemed necessary or beneficial.  As new technologies for understanding the effects of trawling became available, we stood committed to cooperating with underwater studies using such devices as low-light cameras and other techniques that held promise for increasing scientific knowledge.

Groundfish Forum organized the resources to complete a review of existing literature on the effects of trawling.  This review focused on habitats similar to those where Alaskan Groundfish is harvested.  In addition, the members of Groundfish Forum funded a graduate student with the University of Alaska to empirically test the effects of trawls on yellowfin sole fishing areas.  The preliminary findings from both projects were presented by John Gauvin as part of his testimony at a House committee hearing on Essential Fish Habitat in Washington D.C.  Select here for the transcript text.

Forum members also took steps to document the number of lost crab pots that came up in trawls.  There was considerable concern regarding the numbers of lost pots that remained on the sea floor, as well as the possibility that these derelict pots might continue to “ghost fish” for crab.  The trawl industry took videos to record the number of lost pots and the number of crabs that were found in those pots in an effort to provide information documenting the potential negative effects of ghost fishing by pots lost by crab fishing vessels.

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Issue:  Allocation to Preferred Groups, Gear Types

The trawl industry felt the effects of numerous regulatory initiatives that favored other gear groups and imposed regulations on trawling even where scientific and economic evidence demonstrated that the benefits do not outweigh the costs.  These took the form of reductions in crab bycatch caps, requirements for the retention of fish for which there was no market, and the imposition of expansive closed areas far beyond the size needed for protection of fish and shellfish species or their habitat.

The largest potential effects on the businesses comprising the Groundfish Forum, however, resulted from decisions that directly set aside allocations of groundfish to gears or processing modes favored by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council or the State of Alaska.  These could be shoreside processors, as was the case with the pollock allocation for Inshore/Offshore, or small vessels and fixed gear groups in Alaska that never fished in the groundfish fisheries of the North Pacific or were very marginal players over time.  Any large reallocations and set asides for existing or new players further eroded the economics of at-sea processing and exacerbated the problem of too many fishing boats for the available sustainable yields from the fishery.

Alaska as a whole has only a small stake in the trawl and large-scale longline industry that processes at sea. Therefore, Alaskan voters on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council continued to favor the gears and vessels where Alaskans appear to have more of an economic interest.  For the flatfish fishery; pot, jig, and small-scale longline gears have not proven effective.  Hence, the potential for a reallocation to gears favored by Alaska appeared unlikely.

For the Pacific cod fishery, however, small pot and jig vessels demonstrated an ability to take a significant portion of the catch if it was set aside for those vessels.  For example, the State of Alaska’s Board of Fish approved a regulation to set aside up to 25% of the federal total allowable catch of Pacific cod to vessels that use pot and jig gear.  The catch from this “state waters” fishery was deducted off the top of the federal waters total allowable catch because federal fishery managers would not permit over harvest.  The North Pacific Fishery Management Council did not oppose such a reallocation. This was an example of the potential effects of allocation to preferred groups and was only the beginning.

Many industry participants, including Alaskans that trawl or have large scale longline vessels, feel cod produced by these small pot and jig vessels resulted in a net loss of value from the fish because typically only low-valued product forms result from cod caught by pot and jig gear.

  • Initiatives of the Groundfish Forum

It was recognized by members of the Groundfish Forum that a great deal of work needed to be done to inform the Alaskan political and regulatory bodies of the negative tradeoffs associated with potential large scale reallocations of fish from existing industry users.  In addition to aggravating overcapitalization, creating a new set of users or claimants to the resource, and possibly creating a net loss in revenue from the fish resource, reallocation affected service industries in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest that benefitted from the services they provide to “head and gut” trawlers, as well as other trawl vessels.

One purpose behind the formation of the Groundfish Forum was to develop a mechanism to explain the economic and employment benefits generated in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest by the head and gut trawler fleet.  One has only to read the Alaskan newspapers or talk to State legislators to understand how little was known about what the freezer trawler fleet produced, where it fished and what it fished for, how many jobs it provided, and how much it spent in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.  We felt that making sure the facts are understood could only help our cause.

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