Up in Alaska, longline fishermen view using streamer lines as a win-win proposition. These lines – strung from a mast, boom or pole above the hook lines and decked with orange plastic tubing that hangs to the water’s surface – scare off seabirds that would otherwise dive at the baited hooks. They don’t just prevent seabird bycatch, though that’s important in itself; a few takings of endangered short-tailed albatross could shut down the Alaska groundfish or Pacific halibut fisheries. They also save longline baits and ensure that hooks are still fishing when they reach the bottom.
“Streamer lines keep the birds off the gear, which means more bait on the bottom,” says sablefish and halibut fisherman and Fishing Vessel Owners Association member Dave Hedrick of the F/V Alrita. “It’s an easy and effective way to fish smart.”
Hedrick and other Fishing Vessel Owner’s Association members voluntarily use the sort of streamer lines that are required in Alaska when they catch sablefish off the West Coast. More than 250 streamer lines have been distributed free over the last few years to West Coast fishermen, both tribal and non-tribal, who are willing to try them. Nevertheless, many remain unaware of both the seabird bycatch problem and the streamer-line solution – as researchers at Washington Sea Grant are discovering as they try to recruit sablefish longliners to host seabird bycatch avoidance research. That means that many will be in for a rude surprise next year, when regulations under a year-old US Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion kick in. The opinion states that bycatch should not exceed two short-tailed albatrosses every two years in the entire Washington, Oregon, and California groundfish fisheries (longline, pots and trawl) – starting now, in the 2013 season. It also requires that every longliner 55 feet or longer deploy two streamer lines starting in 2014. These new regulations are scheduled for final action at the November 2013 Council meeting and are expected to take effect with the 2014 season.
This action was catalyzed by the 2011 hooking of an endangered short-tailed albatross by a boat catching sablefish off the Oregon coast and the ongoing takes of black-footed albatross (more than 40 per year on average) by West Coast longliners. Albatrosses are imperiled around the world, and particularly susceptible to bycatch. They take eight years to mature and lay just one egg every one or two years. Unlike many animals, they practice “high pair fidelity,” which means those that lose mates may take years to find new ones. And so their populations take a long time to recover after being reduced by threats such as bycatch – if they ever do.
Seventeen of the 22 albatross species are listed as threatened or endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, making them the most imperiled seabird group. The short-tailed albatross was once thought to be extinct; when, at the industry’s urging, the first seabird bycatch regulations were introduced in Alaska in the mid-1990s, there were fewer than 1,000. Today there are more than 4,000.
For all these reasons, Sea Grant and its partner Oregon State University want to test various streamer-line designs and other mitigation options on boats catching West Coast sablefish, the fishery most prone to seabird bycatch. This research will enable the industry to adapt designs originally developed for use in Alaska to the vessels and gear used by the West Coast longline fleet. It is modeled on research staged on Alaskan cod and sablefish/halibut longliners more than 10 years ago. “The research paid off for us,” says John McHenry, another Fishing Vessel Owners Association member, whose F/V Seymour was one of five sablefish-halibut vessels that hosted the research. “It was the right thing for us to do. Bird catches are way down, and together with the researchers we came up with a good way to avoid catching birds – streamer lines.”
NMFS is eager to see this collaborative research get underway and to use the results: “Given our stewardship responsibility for short-tailed albatross in West Coast groundfish fisheries,” says NMFS senior policy analyst Steve Copps, “NMFS has a vested interest in this collaborative research effort. We intend to use the results to craft seabird avoidance regulations for smaller longline vessels and, if necessary, revisit the streamer-line regulations for larger vessels.”
But when the new regulations go into effect next year they will limit efforts to test alternate designs on the larger boats without a special permit from the Council. Unfortunately, low sablefish prices, quotas, and fishing success have prevented us from recruiting any of the larger boats to host this research. But if any host vessels do come forward before the season ends on October 31, Sea Grant is keen to work with them. Vessels under 55 feet will be critical to continued research in 2014, so please contact Sea Grant before the 2014 season begins to arrange logistics.
Time is short, and the mission urgent. But fishermen can still benefit from being early adopters of streamer-line technology. The lines are available for free, with funding from NMFS, through the marine supplier LFSI in Seattle. Alaska fishermen must now pay for their lines; the updated design is available, for purchase, from LFSI.
Soon, streamer lines will be a fact of life for fishermen who longline for West Coast groundfish. But they still have a chance to help ensure that those lines will be well suited to their fishing conditions.
Where to get free streamer lines
West Coast longliners can obtain free streamer lines from LSI Outdoor and Marine:
LFS Seattle, 908 NW Ballard Way, Seattle. 206-789-8110 and 800-647-2135. Email: email@example.com
LFS Inc., 851 Coho Way, Suite 200, Bellingham. 800-426-8860. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
See a video on avoiding seabird bycatch and streamer lines: http://wsg.washington.edu/mas/resources/seabirdvideo.html
Read more about streamer lines:
Help design streamer lines that work best with your gear:
Fishermen interested in participating in streamer line research (with compensation on a per day basis) should contact Ed Melvin at 206-543-9968 or email@example.com
Read the USFWS biological opinion on short-tailed albatross in the West Coast groundfish fisheries: