Waste Not, Want Not

By Helen Jung, Anchorage Daily News – January 18, 1998, Page C1

Rule Aims to Trim Bycatch:  Fishermen Fear It Will Trip Their Numbers

Groundfish Forum’s Open Top Intermediate

Amendment 49 may lack the blast of a Bering Sea storm, but the new federal rule already has caused commotion in the fleet, chasing some boats out of Alaska waters and making others examine whether they’ll be fishing on the edges of bankruptcy.  The new federal rule, which took effect this month, targets wasteful fishing in the North Pacific, one of the world’s premier fishing holes and the source of 5 billion pounds of seafood annually.

But on top of the seafood that boats want to catch, fishermen also hook or net fish that are too small, the wrong gender, unwanted by seafood markets or otherwise unwelcome.  The fleet tosses about 655 million pounds of fish overboard each year in its quest for other seafood – not including the hundreds of millions of pounds of crab, herring, halibut and salmon that vessels must by law discard.

The rule now requires boats to keep all pollock and cod that they bring on board, even fish that are too small to make into traditional products.  That could reduce waste by as much as 75 percent, said the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that monitors fishing.  The rule would require boats to keep yellowfin sole and rock sole starting in 2003.

The requirement is the latest effort in the fishing industry to cut waste, or “bycatch”.  Mounting interest by the public, concern for fish stocks’ future by the industry, as well as new federal mandates have been pressuring fishermen to change the way they haul in their seafood catches.

The large factory trawlers and the boats that deliver catches to on-shore plants should have little trouble following the new law, fishery managers said.  Both at-sea and on-shore processors have plants that can at least make fish-meal out of otherwise unmarketable pollock.  But for some smaller boats without that fish-meal equipment or the cargo space to handle the excess fish, the rule may be the line between business and bankruptcy.

“I don’t think there’s any question that there are people who are going to be (victims) of the rule,” said Teressa Kandianis, who owns Kodiak Fish Co. with her husband, Mark.  “I hope I’m not one of them, but I don’t know.”

The adoption by the U.S. commerce secretary of Amendment 49 already has prompted a Seattle-based fishing company to pull out of the North Pacific.  Scan Sea Ltd., which runs two boats called Prosperity and Tenacity, will be flooded with fish it can’t sell, said Carsten Pagh, a partner in the fishing company.  Prosperity has already sailed to Mexico, he said.  Tenacity probably isn’t far behind, although the company is holding out hope that it may be able to fish a month or two in Alaska, he said.  “We feel very loyal to Alaska,” he said, “but you can’t go bankrupt out of loyalty.”

Prosperity and Tenacity are vessels in the “head and gut” fleet, the sector most heavily hit by the rule, which applies to hundreds of vessels that target bottom fish in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.  Generally smaller vessels owned by family companies, the 25-ship fleet targets high-value sole and other flatfish.  The ships do little processing beyond cutting off heads, removing guts and freezing them.

Once fishing starts this week, boats soon will find low-value pollock sucking up valuable cargo space now used for pricier fish, said John Gauvin, executive director of Groundfish Forum, a group that represents much of the fleet.

Among other things, that will require more frequent deliveries to empty the boat, tacking on fuel costs.  Processing pollock and storing the final product in a warehouse also raises costs, he said.  Then there’s the problem of finding someone who will buy that fish at a price to cover those expenses, he said.

These vessels also have had some of the highest rates of discards in the fisheries and, for example, account for more than half the pollock dumped in the Bering Sea flatfish fisheries – about 32 million pounds of fish in 1995.

“We accept there is an ethical dilemma there,” said Kandianis from Kodiak Fish Co.  “We’re not doing this because we’re unethical.  We do try to utilize things.”

But not all fish is easily converted to food, she said.  For example, arrowtooth flounder, which breaks down into a mushy mess when it’s cooked, has no significant market.  Dover sole, too, can be a problem, depending on when and how it’s handled.  Kandianis recalled one shipment that was in such poor condition, “you could have sucked it up with a straw.”

Some contend that the amendment doesn’t reduce waste but simply hides it.  The rule is a classic rematch of “the big guys against the little guys” and will help large companies chase smaller ones out of the fishery, said Thorn Smith, executive director of the North Pacific Longline Association, in a July letter to the fisheries service.

“It has nothing to do with conservation in any sense of the word,” he wrote.  “It does nothing to assure the long-term health of the stocks.”

Smith represents Bering Sea fishing vessels that deploy miles of baited hooks and have limited processing ability.  Although they don’t discard as much pollock and cod as the bottom-trawl fleet, he is still concerned that the new rule could have unintended effects and drive some of his members out of business.  He characterized the rule as “at best ‘the Emperor’s New Clothes’ of fishery management and at worst a cynical and misbegotten attempt by one sector of our industry to burden another. . . .  We are lying to ourselves and to the public if we claim that” the rule addresses bycatch, he said.

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council agrees.  Sure, the amount of fish that gets dumped overboard will decrease, said Dorothy Childers, executive director for the fishermen’s conservation group.  But except for those smaller vessels, the law doesn’t pose an incentive to avoid catching those small fish in the first place, she said.  “They’re going to keep on fishing the way they do,” she said, adding that fish normally tossed overboard will simply be turned into fish meal.  They “will claim a conservation victory where there is none.”

But Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, maintained that the law will spur boats to avoid that catch in the first place.  His group represents boats that deliver catches to on-shore plants and to larger factory trawlers.  Processors probably won’t pay high prices for small fish that would have otherwise been dumped, he said.

The rule encourages avoiding the small pollock, because no one wants to expend the cost or time in handling the low-value fish, said Paul MacGregor, executive director of the At-sea Processors Association, which represents larger factory trawlers.

“It doesn’t do anyone any good to catch fish they don’t want,” he said.

Bottom Trawlers Look For Ways to Avoid Unwanted Fish

Netmakers are experimenting with different weaves.  Skippers are varying their fishing strategies.  Even fish behaviorists are getting in on the action.  Faced with a new rule that threatens to sink some fishing companies under the weight of their own waste, everyone from fishing company owners to economists are trying to tinker up miracle solutions that will cut their catch of unwanted fish or find the customers to buy them.

The rule, which took effect this month, aims at cutting wasteful fishing.  It requires boats to keep all pollock and cod they catch, no matter the size, gender or whether they wanted it in the first place.  For the fleet of vessels targeting Alaska’s flatfish, that rule may write them out of the water.

These “bottom trawlers” catch fish by sweeping nets along the sea bottom, whisking up unwanted pollock and cod along with valuable sole and other flatfish.  They minimally process their catch, cutting off heads, removing the guts and freezing the fish for domestic and Asian markets.

But these 25 or so factory trawlers lack the size and equipment of their big brothers in the pollock fishery.  With limited cargo space and no markets for the unwanted fish, the fleet is scrambling to find ways to avoid catching those fish.

One of the biggest efforts to date has involved a net with a huge, gaping hole.  The idea grew from the underwater videos recorded by research fishery biologist Craig Rose with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.  For years Rose had been working on ways to reduce the accidental catch of halibut.  He noticed from watching videos that pollock tended to hover somewhat above the ocean floor, while flatfish stayed close to the bottom.  Could a net with an opening in the top allow pollock to escape while holding onto the more valuable flatfish?

The typical bottom trawler drags its net along the sea bottom.  The front end is shaped like a cone; the middle section narrows down to a tube and funnels the fish to the back of the net, where they collect in the “codend.”

Rose’s design involved building in a large hole on the top, along the tube section of the net.  Armed with the idea, Groundfish Forum, the industry group that represents much of the bottom-trawling fleet, received a permit from fishery managers to test the experimental net.  From a pool of applicants, the group selected six vessels of varying sizes for the two-week trial.  They towed the nets for long periods and short periods, altered the placement of the hole, and tried it during the day and during the night.

But in the two weeks vessels tested nets, the results were a letdown, said John Gauvin, executive director of Groundfish Forum.  The nets did catch a lot fewer pollock.  But they also caught a lot fewer flatfish.  A haul that would have collected 20 tons or so with a typical net instead gathered only five tons, he said.

The fishing companies weren’t the only ones disappointed.  So were the crew members who get a share of the boat’s sales.  Gauvin said he could see the discouragement on the crew members’ faces.

“It was obvious this wasn’t going to be our salvation,” Gauvin said.  The net was called an “open-top intermediate” or “OTI.”  The OTI was soon dubbed a “BFH” – B for big and H for hole.  Despite the results, Groundfish Forum received nods from industry and regulators for its efforts.

“John Gauvin deserves a green star award,” said Bob Mikol, a commercial fisherman and board member of the environmental group Alaska Marine Conservation Council.  Mikol, was also on the committee that developed the new rule.  “So does that whole Groundfish Forum fleet….  They are truly trying to work out their issue.”

He also is not convinced that the rule will be the death of the head-and-gut fleet.  Others have stepped to the fore to figure out what to do, he said.

The challenge of constructing a net to encourage some fish to escape while holding others captive intrigued Elias Olafsson of Seattle-based Dantrawl Inc., a net manufacturer.  Olafsson hired a Swedish fisheries behavior consultant to help devise a way to reduce the pollock catch.  They have come up with a net that allows the mesh to stay open, even when the net is being pulled taut, to let unwanted fish out and keep the higher-value fish inside.

“Initially, so far, the results are very promising,” he said.  Others are relying on nets that stay low to the bottom, in hopes of ducking below pollock completely, said Teressa Kandianis, who owns Kodiak Fish Co. with her husband, Mark.  And she and her husband are looking to contacts in Japan to help develop a market for pollock in China.

“There’s really no choice.  You have to go out and try your best,” she said.  No one wants to waste fish, she said.

Even if the public doesn’t believe the motivation behind their waste reduction, they should at least recognize the fiscal reality, she said.  “If not because our hearts tell us it’s the right thing to do, then economically our pocketbooks tell us it’s a good thing to do.”