While salmon is still the main species that pollock fishermen are trying to avoid taking as bycatch this summer, there’s another creature that’s been causing problems in the Bering Sea.
Along with their pollock, fishermen have pulled up about 1,100 metric tons of slimy, pink squid this summer. That’s more than four times their catch limit, according to Krista Milani. She’s a biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“The squid TAC or quota is supposed to last us for the whole year,” Milani says. “So it’s quite a bit to be taken already.”
Milani says there’s still some wiggle room before fishery managers get worried. A few hundred tons of squid are sitting in reserve, and they can be taken as bycatch.
It’s been a while since the fleet had to dig into those reserves, though. Back in 2006, pollock fishermen accidentally caught half their annual limit of squid in a single week. There were concernsthat the pollock harvest might get shut down.
So fishermen signed an agreement to stay out of the zone with the heaviest concentrations of squid — or face fines.
Now that squid are back in force, John Gruver has been dusting off the old agreement. He’s with United Catcher Boats. Gruver says he’s trying to craft a formal squid response plan for his vessels.
“We want something that’s on hand and available from one year to the next, that has a trigger mechanism that the fleet is comfortable with — without having to take a really deep introspective on the current squid conditions each year,” Gruver says.
Even that “introspective” exam is tough to pull off, according to Karl Haflinger. He tracks squid and other fisheries bycatch for a company called Sea State. And he says scientists don’t know a lot about squid.
“We don’t have any reliable assessment for how much squid there really is,” Haflinger says. “But whenever researchers look at the diets of animals all over the Bering Sea, they find squid in a huge variety of stomachs. They can backcalculate and make some guesstimates of how much squid there must be, and it’s a very large number.”
Until the pollock fleet starts fishing, Haflinger says they’re never really sure how many squid they’ll find.
One specific corner of the Bering Sea looked to be the source of the problem this month.
It’s a prime fishing location — close to Unalaska, and usually full of good-sized pollock. But squid were hanging around the same depth where most vessels were trying to put their trawl nets.
In the end, the squid won the turf war. Gruver says the United Catcher Boats moved north for the most part a few weeks ago. Since then, squid bycatch numbers have dropped dramatically.
But Gruver says that’s not the end of it: “When you start to have multiple species you’re trying to avoid, it gets to be more difficult.”
Those other species are salmon. Later in the fall, Chinook will start moving onto the fishing grounds. But for now, Gruver says chum salmon are the ones to look out for.
“There’s this squeeze of avoiding chums and staying away from squid,” Gruver says. “You know, reduced grounds.”
As of this week, about 2,100 square miles of the Bering Sea are shut down to pollock fishing to avoid chum salmon.
It’s part of a rolling hotspot closure program, run by Sea State — the monitoring group. They shut down areas where there’s a lot of salmon being taken as bycatch, before the problem gets worse.
Karl Haflinger, with Sea State, says it’s a little early for chum salmon to be triggering such big closures.
“If we get trips or individual hauls with hundreds of chums in them this early, then we are nervous because this honestly isn’t the time when you expect most of the chums,” Haflinger says. “We’re definitely worried about what we’re going to see in August.”
They’re not the only ones. As subsistence fishermen face major restrictions in the western part of the state this summer, there’s a lot of pressure on the Bering Sea pollock fleet to fish cleanly — and keep all their bycatch to a minimum.