Train wreck is coming: Poor management, fishing decisions endanger halibut

Voices of Alaska

Posted: Monday, September 18, 2006

On Sept. 1, the Gulf of Alaska opened to commercial cod fishing. Fishermen, processors and local economies should enjoy the benefits of a strong cod market and price.

This sounds great until you realize that along with this annual event comes a “train wreck.” By this I mean we all know it is coming and somehow cannot seem to end the inevitable carnage. I’m referring to a group of about 30 boats that will trawl for cod. If history is any indicator, they will head up to an area between Kodiak and Homer known as Port Lock Banks and “throw caution to the wind,” to steal a phrase from a National Marine Fisheries Service manager familiar with the fishery.

The problem lies in that this area is the “mother of all halibut” grounds in the Gulf of Alaska, if not the planet. September is exactly the time of year incredible amounts of halibut will be killed with a bottom trawl if you choose to fish this area. And choosing to fish this area is exactly what goes on each year.

Halibut bycatch rates are enormous — more than 1.7 million pounds in nine days. Some years the value of the dead halibut thrown back exceeds the value of the targeted codfish. It is not unusual to have tows of 30 to 40 percent dead halibut. That’s 30 to 40 pounds of dead halibut for every 100 pounds of codfish retained.

Some vessel tows have actually posted more than 300 percent bycatch rates with one vessel hitting 1,410 percent bycatch.

Observers are placed on these vessels to collect data for NMFS. There are vessel-specific bycatch rates posted on the NMFS Web site. These numbers tell the ugly story of an incredible waste-and-pillage attitude by some members of the trawl fleet.

I am not anti-trawler. I am an anti-bad behavior bottom trawler. The economy of Kodiak and the Gulf of Alaska needs all of the various gear types and diversified fisheries.

I have trawled for cod, flatfish, pollock and shrimp — and made a lot of money doing it. My friends own, operate and crew on local trawl vessels and I receive plenty of firsthand reports on what is really happening in some of the bottom fisheries. I realize there are both good and bad types of operators. However, when you deploy a bottom trawl, the operator of the vessel makes a conscious decision on location and duration of his set and must be held accountable for his actions.

All Alaskans, whether they pole fish, subsistence fish, sport fish, charter fish or commercial fish halibut, should be outraged at this train wreck that continues every year. It is blatant wanton waste and should be prosecuted as a criminal offense.

Incidentally, rationalization is not going to cure this problem. When I look at the makeup of the trawl fleet, it becomes very clear that the majority of the Alaska-based vessel skippers are hired skippers. Very few, if any, owner/operators prosecute this fishery anymore. A large segment of out-of-state operators fish here and take their money to Oregon. Ending the “race for fish” is not going to stop the trawl operator that has years of “kill it all and sort it out later” mentality.

The Canadians proved bycatch reduction is achievable while fully harvesting their target species. Factors include individual bycatch accountability and more observer coverage. The Canadian model has made a significant positive impact on behavioral changes within the Canadian trawl fleet. Behavioral changes are needed in the Alaskan trawl fleet.

Alaska’s last two administrations failed in their fishery policies and I can only hope that if our next governor is Sarah Palin, she will see through the special interest and lobbying groups stacking the decision- and policy-making bodies of the various fisheries. Alaska needs a stronger hand to control its own resources.

Not all bottom trawlers are bad stewards. I don’t intend to paint the whole trawl gear group with one broad brush. To the “dirty” fishermen I can only hope that you will learn to better stewardship of Alaska’s fishing resources.

Alaskans deserve better than the current destruction of our halibut resources while pursuing bottom trawl-caught codfish.

Peter Thompson is the owner-operator of a small combination boat. He has lived and fished out of Kodiak for 26 years. He has fished most of the major fisheries around the state. He is currently involved with salmon and halibut.

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