November 1, 2013 | Vol 69, No 11

The Take on Hake

Pacific whiting fleet shows others how to operate a viable, sustainable fishery

Any sense of dead reckoning indicates the Pacific Coast hake (whiting) fishery is alive and well, thanks to coordinated, collaborative efforts within the industry to avoid by-catch and enhance sustainability.

Terry Dillman
A group of fishermen from Mexico check out nets used aboard the F/V Perseverance as they seek to learn about eco-friendly approaches to catching hake from their United States counterparts.

Those efforts netted the attention of government officials and fishermen in Mexico as they try to decide how best to manage an emerging hake fishery in the Gulf of California.

In 2012, fishermen from Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point) asked the folks from the San Francisco-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to work with them to improve management of their growing hake fishery. A series of meetings ensued, with fishery and EDF leaders deciding to take initial steps to establish a catch share system based on the successful system launched in 2011 by the US fishery. Toward that end, more than 20 government officials and fishermen from Mexico converged on Newport, Oregon at the end of July to get the take on hake during a two-day exchange of information and ideas with their US counterparts.

The exchange in Newport focused on the first-hand experiences of the fishermen, managers and others involved in the US hake catch shares system. Dorothy Lowman, vice chair of the PFMC and a fisheries consultant, said EDF considered the exchange “essential” to getting the word out about “the process, benefits and challenges of establishing rights-based management” – something EDF and others earnestly promote.

The exchange offered the visitors a broad understanding of the regulations in place for the US hake fishery; gear modifications and other innovations, including perspective on monitoring requirements and technology; and fishery oversight and the process involved (Pacific Marine Fishery Council, fishery associations, government relations, and collaborations with marine scientists) in managing the fishery.

Under development for the past decade, the US whiting fleet first immersed itself in the hake catch share program in January 2011.

Fishery managers say it replaced the traditional all-out derby rush to catch as many fish as possible before the fleet reached the quota the US government sets each year. A catch share system divvies up that annual fish quota among individual fishermen based on their landings from previous years. Highly controversial when first introduced, catch shares are gaining momentum and support, although the system still has its detractors, who say it has a few obvious flaws. Overall, however, it works.

Heather Mann is executive director of the Newport, Oregon-based Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, an organization representing vessel owners who fish for hake off the Pacific coast, as well as pollock and cod in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. Currently serving on the PFMC Groundfish Advisory Subpanel and Electronic Monitoring Workgroup, Mann has worked with the fishing industry in a number of ways, including as an independent commercial fisheries consultant.

She participated extensively in the development of the quota program for the groundfish fishery.

“Each person who receives a quota can fish when it makes the most sense,” Mann noted. “You are guaranteed a certain amount unless you transfer it to someone else.”

The U.S. catch share system, with all of its nuances and ramifications, captured the attention of the Mexican fishermen, who wanted to learn all they could to enhance their efforts.

A Nascent Fishery

Mateo Lopez Leon, president of the Federation of Shipowners, who owns a boat that catches shrimp, finfish and hake, said they haven’t developed the potential of the hake fishery in the Gulf of California “the way we like it” and wanted “to see what fishermen in this region have done to better manage and sell” hake and “to see what fishermen in this region have done” to manage the fishery to their economic advantage with the least impact on the ecosystem.

Although the species is the same as whiting caught in the US Pacific region, researchers say it’s a different stock restricted to the upper Gulf of California region. Mexico’s National Fisheries Institute notes that scientists aren’t sure where the fish migrate. A study scheduled to begin in January 2014 will focus on making that determination.

Currently, the Mexican hake fishery is primarily a part-time venture for shrimp trawlers.

“Our boats are not whiting boats, but adapted shrimp boats,” said Leon. “The only thing we change is the net. We can fish whenever we want, and we don’t have quotas. You just go out there and trawl and catch what you catch.”

No specific regulations exist, and the only limiting factor is a required finfish permit, which about 65 shrimp trawlers currently have. Most boats (59) hail from Puerto Penasco, with four from San Felipe and 10 from Guaymas. Their boats are small industrial trawlers measuring between 62 and 92 feet. Fishing is done with modified shrimp or bottom fish trawl nets at depths of 90 to 200 fathoms. Catch volumes and effort have risen each year for the past four seasons. In 2011, 37 boats made 128 trips and hauled in more than 1,700 tons of hake. In 2012, more boats made more trips, bringing in more than 2,000 tons. This season, 57 boats made 251 trips and landed more than 4,800 tons. Average catch for a seven-day trip is 35,000 pounds.

About 70 percent of the catch goes to Eastern Europe, mostly Russia, 20 percent enters the domestic market, and 10 percent goes to the United States.

Marketing is a concern. “Our main fishery is shrimp, because we haven’t found the right market for distribution of whiting,” Leon said.

Without a good market to send to with diverse distribution, prices to the fishermen vary widely, anywhere from 40 cents to $1 per two pounds of gutted hake. With no shoreside processing plants available to them, the fishermen must offload their catches for transport to inland plants.

By-catch is another concern.

“Our initial research indicates that there is likely significant by-catch, but this has yet to be verified directly by onboard observers,” EDF noted. Additional studies and observations are needed, which is a main reason why the Mexican fishery managers and fishermen sought assistance from EDF, and ultimately reached out to their US counterparts.

“We want to be better – not just better whiting fishermen, but a better whiting industry to avoid running out of this valuable resource,” Leon said. “We want to preserve the biomass, and the only way is through a catch share program. We need to learn so we have a product that will be with us now and in the future.”

The foundation for establishing a catch share program and managing the whiting fishery in an eco-friendly way, Mann told them, is the science and “how scientists work with the industry and how the industry and managers work together.”

Putting “us” in US hake fishery

The hake fishery was once an every-fisherman-for himself derby-style race to harvest as many fish as possible before the overall quota was reached, usually within weeks. Much has changed during the past decade, especially since 2011, when the catch share system went into effect.

“It allows much more flexibility and adaptability for each sector to achieve its maximum catch level,” said Mann, noting that the fishery features four sectors: catcher/processor, mothership, shoreside and tribal. Each sector receives an allocation of whiting each year.

“This is the most abundant commercial fish species on the West Coast, and one of the largest fisheries by volume,” she added.

Landings have averaged almost 221,000 metric tons per season “for almost 50 years,” with a low of 90,000 metric tons in 1980 and a record high of 367,000 in 2005. The catch reached 157,000 metric tons in 2012, and the US fleet’s total allowable catch for 2013 is almost 265,000 metric tons, prior to the annual tribal set-aside allocation. If the tribes do not catch their allotted share, the remainder is reapportioned to the non-tribal fishery.

The fishery’s beginnings trace to the 1962 joint venture operations with Russia (then the Soviet Union). By 1989, foreign fishing was no longer allowed in US waters, and joint venture operations ceased in 1991. Japan’s development of surimi technology boosted the domestic hake fishery and it grew quickly in response to market demand. It also experienced the ups and downs engendered by market vagaries.

An altering ocean, changing political climate, and proliferating government regulations – especially in terms of limiting by-catch of non-targeted and sensitive species, required changes within the fishery itself.

Mann said NOAA and state enforcement of by-catch limits led to peer pressure among fishermen to reduce by-catch, and ultimately to adopt the catch share system incorporated with gear modifications and other efforts to avoid by-catch and keep the fishery viable. Net and other gear modifications and technological gadgetry alleviated some of the by-catch worries. But more was needed to turn the tide and make the fishery more viable. A proposal to introduce catch shares met with major opposition, but after innumerable public meetings, tweaks and turmoil, the system was adopted and went into effect two years ago.

By eliminating the need to make a mad dash for fish, catch shares opened the hatch to more cooperation and collaboration among fishermen, in what some say put more of the “us” into the US. hake fishery.

“Fishermen used to spend more time avoiding salmon and groundfish than catching whiting, because if you exceed by-catch levels, they shut down the fishery and you lose the chance at whiting,” Mann noted. “Fishermen now work together and share information, identifying hot spots to minimize and avoid by-catch.” They highlight closed area and advisory areas, which can shift around throughout the season.

Another component of the catch share system designed to cut down on by-catch is the requirement for monitoring.

Keeping Watch

“Every vessel must have an observer at all times,” stated Mann, noting that catcher/processors must have two observers on each vessel. “It ensures 100 percent accountability. Fishermen have to prove what’s caught and released.”

One drawback to observers, she added, is cost in both money and time. At $450 per day, it’s a spendy proposition. Initially funded completely by the federal government, the industry is obligated to take on more of the expense, and in 2014, government funding is likely to dwindle to a small stipend. Fishery participants must find a way to pay those costs.

Another problem with needing a human observer on board is the inability at times to find one when needed. A vessel cannot go out without the observer aboard, and dawdling at the dock waiting for one wastes time and costs the fisherman even more in lost catch.

“They are exploring electronic monitoring to replace human observers,” said Mann.

Dayna Matthews, NOAA’s west coast enforcement coordinator, said the hake fishery uses two types of observers: one for biological sampling, the other for by-catch oversight.

“Hake boats had science observers prior to the quota program, with about five to 20 percent of trips monitored,” said Matthews, who has 34 years of natural resource law enforcement experience, with expertise in west coast federal fisheries, Endangered Species Act enforcement, and catch shares and electronic monitoring and compliance. “With catch shares, they must have 100 percent observer coverage, both at sea and shoreside. They take samples and monitor discards at sea that are deducted from individual or co-op catch shares.”

Concerns remain over the value of data, and the costs ($300 to $600 per day, Matthews noted) and availability of observers, especially at isolated ports.

“Vessels have lost trips and market due to lack of observers,” he stated. “We need a mechanism to train and certify more observers.”

Monitoring via video cameras is the wave of the future. It, too, comes with a price tag, but Matthews said it could reduce observer costs and eliminate the issues of accessibility and lost trips. Initial cost can be high for the cameras (as many as 10), computer and software, sensors and battery backup. Electronic monitoring has several variables that can enhance or impede it, among them equipment reliability, data quality and timeliness, enforceability, and fleet behavior.

“Cameras will not work unless the fleet wants them to,” Matthews concluded. “Success depends on fleet cooperation.”

All of this, along with improved on-board and onshore technology and techniques for maintaining hake quality, indicate a bright future for the fishery – one the U.S. fishermen’s counterparts from Mexico hope to emulate.

Is the catch share system working?

Despite concerns and complaints, landings seem to indicate it is. As of press time, Pettinger said the Pacific fleet had hauled in 95 million pounds of hake – more than twice last season’s catch – and is on course to possibly reach 150 million pounds. Enough said for now.