Groundfish fisheries slow to avoid king salmon bycatch

Posted: Monday, March 02, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Factory trawlers and other large vessels on the hunt for pollock and Pacific cod in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands have slowed their harvests in the wake of initial high incidental catch of prohibited king salmon and halibut, a NOAA Fisheries manager said.

Participants in the federal groundfish fishery, which got under way Jan. 20, started getting concerned right off the bat by the number of chinook salmon being harvested along with the pollock, said Josh Keaton, inseason manager for NOAA Fisheries.

"They don't want a repeat of 2007, when they caught 129,534 chinooks," he said in an interview Feb. 13. The limit is 26,825.

Keaton said that the fleet had voluntarily closed certain areas to fishing to avoid further incidental king salmon harvest. Other vessels fishing for Pacific cod found they were catching a lot of halibut incidentally, so several of the processing plants stopped fishing cod, Keaton said.

Major seafood processors involved in these fisheries include Westward, Alyeska, Unisea, Trident and Icicle. None of the processors were immediately available and did not return phone calls, but Keaton said they were all participating in programs to avoid catching king salmon and halibut.

"They are using the same gear (as last year) but there are a lot more salmon out there," he said. "The only thing these guys can do is try and avoid the salmon." In the Pacific cod fishery, similarly, some vessels have stood down from fishing because of the high halibut catch, he said.

Federal law requires harvesters to retain all catch until the amount is recorded, then discard it. A prohibited species donation program allows them to donate these fish to food banks, but because the salmon and halibut are prohibited species in the groundfish fisheries, they are not allowed to enter into commerce.

The incidental harvest of king salmon in particular has been a hot issue before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which has had hours of discussion on various ways to reduce that catch. The king salmon have a great value for both Bristol Bay and Yukon River commercial fishermen.

Commercial fishermen from villages lining the mouth of the Lower Yukon River were denied a king salmon harvest last year because of concern by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that a sufficient number of Chinooks be allowed to escape up to Canada to meet requirements of an international salmon treaty.

Through Feb. 7, the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands trawl fleet had netted 10,799 kings, or 39 percent of the maximum limit of 27,472 fish. Last week alone, the trawlers brought in 1,474 kings, according to NOAA reports.

In the Pacific cod fishery, non-trawl gear to date has harvested 210 metric tons of halibut, or 31 percent of an 833 metric ton halibut limit, while the trawl vessels netted 375 metric tons or 11 percent of a limit of 3,350 metric tons of halibut, according to NOAA reports. Exceeding the total allowable catch of halibut as a prohibited species in the groundfish fishery results in closure of the fishery, Keaton said.

Given that the prices being paid for Pacific cod are currently lower than they were at this time a year ago, harvesters are waiting for the halibut to move out of the area, he said.

Harvesters are tracking daily how much salmon is coming in from each area of the Bering Sea, Keaton said. "If the boat comes in with a lot of salmon from that area, they close that area," he said.

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