Fish council looks at Gulf of Alaska trawl plan

Salmon bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska trawl fishery has been under scrutiny since 2012, when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council proposed a revision in the Gulf trawl fishery’s management structure. The Council is slowly making headway on the issue. 

Pacific halibut and Chinook salmon are taken as prohibited species, or bycatch, by the Gulf groundfish trawl fleet, and the Council wants to provide tools for better managing the prohibited species catch.

In October of last year, the Council approved a motion proposing alternatives designed to protect fishing – dependent communities. One proposal would allocate groundfish and bycatch to voluntary fishing cooperatives; another would design a management model that would provide protections through a community association as defined by the Magnuson Stevens Act.

At it’s recent meeting in Anchorage, the Council brought back those ideas,  and added another one proposed by Alaska’s Council members.

Darrel Brannon is a fisheries consultant who works with the Council.

“What they did at this meeting is they added a fourth alternative, which would only allocate the prohibited species catches of Chinook salmon and halibut, and not allocate any of the directed fisheries. They are hoping by just doing that, it could reduce some of the negative impacts that traditional allocations have on communities and other entities.”

Under the newest proposal,  bycatch would be divided up rather than the target fish.

In the Gulf, a certain amount of bycatch is allowed in the fisheries targeting groundfish like Pacific cod, flounder or pollock. But when the fleet reaches the bycatch cap, the fishery is shut down. The newest proposal also establishes fishing cooperatives, so each cooperative would be given an allocation of the total bycatch limit.

Sam Cunningham, a Council economist, says that a cooperative contract would ensure that fishermen work together to optimize the harvest while they stay closely connected to monitor bycatch levels.

“And what the Council is looking to do through this action is to set up a framework of cooperatives within the Gulf trawl fleet, and that would allow fishermen to work together to prosecute their fishery within the constraints of those limits and also seek opportunities to fish in ways that result in less bycatch when possible. ”

The current Gulf trawl management  scheme is often referred to as “a race for fish”, with catch limits for each species, but few other directives. Cunningham says that under the present scenario, some fishermen would stand down to stay under the bycatch cap, while others would not.

“And the person who goes out to fish would benefit and potentially take some of those Chinook salmon or halibut bycatch, while the people who are standing down don’t have the benefit of fishing, but the bycatch limit is still moving towards a cap that would close the fishery.”

He says fishermen in cooperatives would be more likely to collectively decide not to fish, if they see  that the bycatch limit is close.

The recent option does not allocate targeted species to avoid disruption of historical patterns in the Gulf fisheries. Cunningham says that changes in how the fishery is managed might prompt vessel operators to change the time they fish, or change where they deliver their catch. Changes like that could cause loss of crew or processor jobs.

“It’s possible that if the fishery is managed in a way where each harvester has an allocation, they might change the way that they fish, or the timing or location of where they make their deliveries. And those sorts of changes from the way the fishery occurs right now, could have a downstream effect on the communities.”

Darrel Brannon says the Council realizes that allocating targeted catches could have a negative impact on communities which depend on processor jobs.

” What they are trying to do is keep the crews and the vessels in similar communities where they have historically been delivering to the similar processors so there is not a lot of disruption in the fishery.”

Brannon  says the Council at this point is only defining the alternatives it is considering. Those will go out for analysis, and come back for consideration for several meetings to come, before any final action is taken.

Sam Cunningham says that the Gulf trawl management proposals, four in all, are so complex that the Council has ordered a work plan setting a schedule for discussion. The Council meets again in December