Sea State Program

From the Publication Solving Bycatch: Considerations for Today and Tomorrow

University of Alaska Sea Grant Program, 1995

 By John R. Gauvin, Groundfish Forum and Karl Haflinger and Mary Nerini, Sea State


The bottom trawl industry in the North Pacific operates within a veritable labyrinth of regulations governing bycatch of prohibited species such as halibut, herring, and several species of crab.  In addition to closed areas to prevent bycatch, the industry must work within aggregate bycatch caps which close the fishery when a certain amount of bycatch occurs.  There are also individual bycatch rate regulations which attempt to create individual incentives for companies to minimize their bycatch by assessing violations when rates are above prescribed levels.  Data from NMFS at-sea observers are the backbone of this intricate management regime.  Unfortunately, observer data are not available to managers or the fleet on a fast-turn around basis.  For companies to attempt to minimize bycatch, information on their bycatch rates and bycatch hotspots needs to be available almost instantaneously.  Our talk will describe the bottom trawl industry’s voluntary use of a data reporting program called Sea State to identify bycatch hotspots.  The program functions through satellite transmissions of unprocessed observer data which are rapidly converted into plotted reports and bycatch rate assessments.  The goal of the program is to allow the fleet to rapidly respond (both individually and collectively) to high bycatch rates.  In this way, bycatch of prohibited species can be minimized and the industry can more effectively stay within its overall prohibited species bycatch caps.


Bottom trawl fisheries targeting flatfish pose an interesting challenge for bycatch reduction. Despite recent improvements to the selectivity of trawls, when the species to be avoided is another flatfish of approximately the same size and characteristics as the target species, the potential for gear modifications is inherently limited. Avoidance of crab in flatfish fisheries is also problematic because most species of crab live directly on the sea floor with flatfish.

Thus far, excluder devices and modifications in gear rigging for bottom trawls have tended to reduce bycatch of non-target flatfish and crab at a large cost in terms of reduction in target catch. This is why the flatfish fisheries of the North Pacific have begun experimenting with other bycatch reduction approaches instead of concentrating on gear modifications alone.

On January 20, 1995, factory trawlers fishing for rock sole in the Eastern Bering Sea began implementing a bycatch reduction program based on rapid communication of data to identify areas where bycatch rates are particularly high. The program is also in use for the fall of 1995 yellowfin sole fishery. The company contracted by the rock sole fishery to administer this information service is called Sea State, Inc. of Seattle. The fundamental idea is that the fleet can make use of bycatch rate information from all participants to avoid areas where high bycatch rates are likely to occur.

Program Implementation and Results

One necessary condition for success with this approach is that there must be a legitimate data source to systematically calculate bycatch rates and fishing locations on a tow by tow basis. National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) observers calculate catch and bycatch information in North Pacific fisheries where observer coverage is required. Observers also record location data for sample tows to the level of detail of one minute of latitude and longitude. The vast majority of vessels in the rock sole fishery are longer than 37 meters (120 feet) and thus are required to have 100% observer coverage. Approximately one-half of the hauls are sampled because although vessels carry an observer at all times, observer work schedules do not allow every haul to be sampled.

In our program, observer data on catch and bycatch are electronically transmitted from each vessel to the Sea State office in Seattle. Sea State conducts statistical expansions from observer data to calculate an average bycatch rate per vessel for the 24 hour period. Daily bycatch rates are then placed into a format where the relationship between bycatch rates and locations is accessible to skippers and their companies. The format currently in use plots each vessel’s daily bycatch rate on a chart of the fishing grounds. Sea State relays this information to the vessels and owner companies every 24 hours via fax or by a computer file loaded into a plotting program provided to the vessel.

The need for a private contractor to implement this program exists because NMFS does not have sufficient resources for data processing and transmission of bycatch information in a time frame suitable for bycatch avoidance. Further, government rules pertaining to confidentiality allow individual companies to receive only their own fishing data which is not always useful for establishing bycatch trends. The contract with Sea State works through a general clearance agreement between participating companies, NMFS, and Sea State. This allows for the calculation of bycatch rates per ton of target catch while providing protection from general dissemination of individual catch data.

Sea State chart

King crab bycatch rates in the Bering Sea rock sole fishery

For the identification of bycatch hot spots to be effective, there have to be identifiable patterns based on time and areas. This may seem obvious, but this is a condition that is not always met. Efforts to avoid chinook salmon in the trawl fisheries of the North Pacific have been thwarted by the simple fact that there is little or no time/area relationship to salmon bycatch that allows for salmon avoidance based on micro-adjustments to fishing locations. If the species to be avoided are, in effect, randomly located and randomly encountered with fishing gear, then the probability is very low that a solution other than gear modification will be successful.

For halibut, red king crab, and bairdi tanner crab bycatch in flatfish fisheries, there is ample evidence that bycatch rates are not random and in fact do vary by location and season. Figures 1-3 demonstrate this by showing different size circles depicting the magnitude of bycatch rates by location. Large circles depict high rates, medium size circles indicate moderate rates, small circles indicate low rates, and small cross symbols indicate rates approaching zero. Extremely high rates are indicated by numbers on the plots. In these figures, numbered rates as well as medium and large circles indicate high bycatch rates that could lead to a premature closure of the fishery. Sea State uses this circle format for FAX communications or shows rate differences through color patterns displayed on the Sea State plotting program. The color display is helpful when a large number of data points are depicted.

Examining Figures 1-3, it is fairly obvious that patterns of bycatch locations are clearer for red king crab than for halibut and bairdi tanner crab. In general, however, bairdi and halibut bycatch rates are higher to the west. A comparison of the1995 rock sole bycatch data to data corresponding to the same time period for the rock sole fishery over the last five years shows that some of the same areas have consistently high rates every year. Other areas are hot spots for a given year or season, but do not have particularly high rates in other years. Thus the fleet can make use of this information on a rapid turn-around basis to confirm known bycatch hotspots, to decide on areas that are consistently high and may be better off closed from the outset, and to identify on a real time basis new hotspots or areas that no longer appear to produce high bycatch rates.

Although the fleet’s use of Sea State is a relatively simple approach to bycatch reduction, a number of factors determine its success. One might expect that participation and cooperation would be easily obtained based on the common benefit of improved public image for the fishery through bycatch avoidance. Realistically, however, participation means that a company’s fishing locations and bycatch rates will be known to its competitors, even though Sea State keeps catch information confidential. Given the competitiveness of the commercial fishing industry, it is not difficult to imagine that some companies could be reluctant to participate.

Sea State chart

Bairdi tanner crab bycatch rates in the Bering Sea rock sole fishery

To understand the factors that determine participation, the systems in place to manage North Pacific bottom trawl fisheries must be considered. To regulate the incidental take of certain species reserved for non-trawl gears, prohibited species catch caps (PSCs) for the trawl fishery have been established. The PSCs of concern to the flatfish fishery of the North Pacific are halibut, red king crab, and bairdi tanner crab. Once annual PSC caps are reached, the fishery closes for the year regardless of whether the total allowable catch (TAC) has been taken. Because so many flatfish fisheries close for PSC bycatch instead of TACs, the fleet as a whole would benefit from collective avoidance of PSCs because more of the target species TACs would be processed.

A critical determinant of success for any voluntary program is to obtain a critical mass for participation. Further, there must be a legitimate reason why a company would want to participate because volunteerism normally wanes when there is no tangible reward. If the program successfully prevents premature closures of fisheries, then there is clearly a common benefit to the fishery. Our experience shows that sometimes the common benefit is adequate motivation for participation and sometimes the motivation for private gain can outstrip the incentive for common benefit.

A discrepancy between self interest and common interest occurs when catch rates for the target fishery are higher in the same locations where bycatch rates are high. Under these conditions, firms would have to sacrifice target catch to keep bycatch rates low if a location with high target catch rates and low bycatch rates cannot be found. Since the cap is a common pool, the economic benefits of high catch rates are individual while the economic consequences of high bycatch rates are shared. We believe this is a fundamental limitation to any voluntary bycatch reduction program based on common bycatch caps.

Sea State chart

Halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea rock sole fishery

Peer pressure stemming from an agreement to participate in the program is ample incentive for most companies to opt to avoid areas of high bycatch rates. If everyone holds the line and continues to move away from high bycatch areas regardless of the individual incentive for high target species catch rates, then the distribution of target catch between fishing vessels will not be affected by participation in the bycatch avoidance program. In fact, the fishery should remain open longer under that scenario because the PSC caps would not have been taken. Likewise, new fishing areas may be found where high catch rates and low bycatch rates occur.

The rock sole fleet encountered high red king crab bycatch rates at the outset of the fishery. As a response to high king crab rates, the fleet moved west and found that red king crab bycatch rates dropped. At the same time, the move west did not affect rock sole production rates significantly. Rock sole catch in the 1995 roe rock sole fishery was down from 1994 catch by approximately 35% (22,600 metric tons (mt) in 1995 compared to 34,841 mt in 1995), but the reduction is generally thought to be attributable to a closed area for king crab protection. Within the areas available to the fleet, the move west decreased red king crab bycatch at little or no reduction in rock sole catch.

One important side effect of the fleet’s move west was that higher halibut bycatch rates occurred. Hence the movement of the fleet effectively resulted in trading halibut for king crab. In response to those halibut rates, the fleet was later able to move away from several halibut hot spots by concentrating fishing to the south. This brought halibut bycatch rates down. As demonstrated by our video presentation, not only was the fishery extended by these avoidance actions, but the overall amount of bycatch used by the rock sole fishery in 1995 was lower than it would have been otherwise.

High bycatch rates can rapidly close a fishery because the PSC caps are designed to be binding constraints. In fact, the rock sole fishery exceeded its red king crab cap in 1994 because rates were so high that NMFS reporting system was unable to track the caps in a timely manner (Table 1). This year, the rock sole fleet supported a number of measures to prevent another overage. One was a proposal by the rock sole fleet to close an area where bycatch rates for red king crab have traditionally been high. The closure that was implemented by NMFS was, in fact, slightly larger than the one proposed by the fleet (by ten minutes of latitude). Another measure was to require 100% observer coverage for all vessels including those under 37 meters in the rock sole fishery and mandatory daily reporting of observer data to NMFS.

Numbers of red king crab, bairdi tanner crab and tons of halibut bycaught in the roe rock sole fishery

Numbers of red king crab, bairdi tanner crab and tons of halibut bycaught in the roe rock sole fishery

From the fleet’s perspective, the most important step to avoid an overage of the red king crab cap was the decision to adopt the Sea State voluntary bycatch avoidance program. Just prior to the 1995 season, the fleet agreed to systematically track its own caps and shut itself down in 1995 even if NMFS was unable to do so in a timely manner. Overall, the experience in the roe rock sole fishery was positive and cooperation was unprecedented. One of the most impressive accomplishments for the rock sole fleet was the reduction of red king crab bycatch to approximately 19,341 crab (a seven fold decrease from 1994, Table 1).


In other years, the PSC cap for red king crab would likely have been taken before the fleet could respond by moving away from the area with high bycatch. In the past, the rock sole fishery was frequently unable to control the pace of bycatch. Absent a formal bycatch avoidance program, a reluctance to respond to high bycatch rates occurs because skippers may believe their own rates are relatively low compared to others when this is not in fact the case. Another possibility is that skippers may feel that although they are not individually keeping bycatch rates low, other vessels are low so that a premature closure of the fishery is not at risk by fishing a particular area.

Despite underlying reasons or justifications, there is no way to respond to the collective incentive if there is no information on the implications of individual behavior and no means of creating peer pressure because rates are not general information. Under our program, each vessel’s bycatch rates are commonly known and fishermen can compare the bycatch implications of the fishing location and practices they are employing. The simple fact is that a skipper fishing a given location and encountering high bycatch rates should feel the pressure from others if his or her rates are high relative to others.

In contrast to the success in the rock sole fishery, collective incentives to induce participation in the bycatch avoidance program may not always work adequately. This is currently occurring in the yellowfin sole fishery. For the first four weeks of the fishery (August 1-31, 1995), one company with a total of five of the 20 vessels in the fishery elected not to participate in the program. Over 50% of the overall halibut bycatch in the fishery during the first four weeks of the yellowfin fishery is believed to have been taken by those five vessels. This figure was arrived at by calculating the rest of the fleet’s halibut bycatch for that time period (as reported to Sea State) and subtracting it from the NMFS total for the appropriate week. Further, the bycatch rates of those five vessels as reported by NMFS, have consistently been the among the highest in the fishery and as high as 20 times the legal level according to the NMFS vessel incentive program standard.

The consequences of a failure to keep bycatch of halibut low in the yellowfin fishery are large. The yellowfin sole fishery will almost certainly close with between 40,000-60,000 mt of yellowfin sole left unharvested. This is because only one-fourth of the 440 ton final semester halibut cap for the fishery is left and rates for the remainder of the fishing period would have to be next to nothing for the balance of the TAC to be taken. That quantity of yellowfin sole left unharvested would represent roughly 20-30% of the overall TAC. Valued at the current price of approximately $600 per ton (round weight), the loss to the fishery as a whole would be approximately $24 to $36 million (gross revenue).

Participants in the Sea State program for yellowfin sole firmly believe that the owner and skippers of non-participant vessels decided to put individual gain ahead of the collective interest. It is believed that these non-participant vessels are experiencing high yellowfin sole catch rates and high bycatch rates of halibut whereas the participating fleet has generally moved away from areas where catch rates and bycatch rates are both high. This has created a sacrifice for participant companies.

This situation has also created an enticement for participating vessels to stop participating in the program and begin sharing in the high target catch at any bycatch cost. Although participating companies have thus far continued to resist this temptation, if the fishery closes prematurely, some potentially severe economic consequences may befall participants. Despite this failure to get all parties to participate, the program has served to keep bycatch rates lower than they would have otherwise been. It is hoped that even more pressure can be applied to the non-participating company to curb their high bycatch rates before they force a closure of the fishery. If a premature closure is avoided, the program will provide benefits even if these benefits are smaller than are potentially obtainable.

The program has served another purpose as well. This year, as many as 14 boats that predominantly fish pollock have been fishing for yellowfin sole as well. Some of these vessels fished prior to the opening of the pollock B season and are planning to return to yellowfin sole after pollock closes. We have found that the bycatch incurred while a vessel searches for clean fishing grounds is often an order of magnitude higher than what can be achieved once clean fishing grounds have been located. Thus another benefit from the program will hopefully be realized when vessels re-entering the yellowfin fishery are provided with an overview of the bycatch conditions by area, based on data from vessels that have been continuously fishing for yellowfin sole.


The roe rock sole fishery in 1995 is a good example of the potential for voluntary efforts to reduce bycatch through avoidance of hot spots. The yellowfin sole fishery is a good example of the potential pitfalls of this approach when an individual company or group of companies puts self-interest before collective interest. The bottom trawl fleet targeting flatfish in the North Pacific is committed to further efforts to reduce bycatch rates through voluntary efforts, but also seeks ways to make bycatch reduction more effective and less potentially disadvantageous.

Some members of this fleet believe the only real solution, in the long run, will be a management system of individual accountability wherein an individual company directly affects its own economic performance by its efforts and ability to reduce bycatch. Such a system might be one where individual vessels have an annual allotment of PSC bycatch and must stop fishing as soon as that allotment is used up. Under such a system, companies would have incentives to use their bycatch wisely and lower their rates to the maximum extent practicable to extend their fishing time and increase production.

Under a system of individual accountability, a company doing its best to reduce bycatch, even at a cost of target species catch, would not be affected by a company unwilling to sacrifice target species catch to reduce bycatch. A system of individual bycatch quotas would not penalize the good actors while allowing bad actors to gain economically. While the spirit of cooperation characterized by the rock sole fishery demonstrated the potential for a voluntary approach to yield results, the experience in the yellowfin sole fishery has convinced many in the fleet that voluntary programs will never be completely successful. Lacking a system to penalize companies for non-participation in a bycatch reduction program opens the possibility for too much economic reward for failing to participate.