Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Bering Sea Fisheries Conference Recap


The sixth annual Bering Sea Fisheries Conference took place in Seattle on April 21st. Aimed at the 400 big-boat commercial fishing fleet of the bering sea, the conference attracted 150 attendees representing the fishing, shipbuilding and maritime industries, as well as research and science professionals. Produced by Fishermen’s News with support of NOAA Fisheries and sponsors, the event provided ample learning and networking opportunities.

Peter Philips, the publisher of Fishermen’s News, opened the conference, by explaining its genesis with the impact of the reauthorization of the American Fisheries Act that spurred the recapitalization of the bering sea fleet. With an estimated value of $15 billion in economic activity, Philips said the vessels can be built or upgraded anywhere in the country. The conference is designed to help anchor its economic potential in our region. This year’s conference also celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and aimed to further the relationship between the science community and the industry.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee presented the keynote address. He stressed that the maritime and fishing industries are pivotal to Washington state’s economy. About 34,000 jobs are directly associated with the bering sea fleet and 150,000 jobs are associated with the maritime industry, which represents a $30 billion economic opportunity.

The governor said that the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council needs better representation from Washington State. His administration is increasing this capacity by creating a position in the Department of Commerce that will support the Washington state delegation to the Council, ensuring the state’s interests in Alaskan fisheries.

Recapitalization of the fishing fleet is a topical issue that the governor said he is addressing with a three-pronged approach. First, he is making sure the industry has access to a skilled workforce by supporting the expansion of the Core Plus program, the state’s new initiative that provides career and technical education programs. The governor also said he is working with Congress to maximize the federal loan guarantee program that will increase shipbuilding financing capacity. Finally, the administration will maintain the state’s competitive advantage by having supportive policies for shipbuilding in Washington. “We will keep working waterfronts,” the governor assured.

Building and Upgrades

Hal Hockema, President of Hockema and Whalen Associates, opened the next panel with an overview of building and upgrading vessels. A major retrofit, Hockema said, can take six months to a year and should be considered a 20-year life extension of the vessel. Building a new vessel takes one to two years, and can be expected to last 40 to 50 years with minimal maintenance in the first 10 to 15 years.

Keith Whittemore, Executive Vice President at Vigor, stressed that the key to a successful project is finding the right shipyard project manager and owner’s representative. It is important that they work together and are empowered to make timely decisions because of their many responsibilities. “My definition of a successful project,” Whittemore joked, “is where owners get a little bit more than they expected and paid for, and the shipyard builds exactly what they expected.”

Andy Aley and Erin Eliasen, attorneys with Garvey Schubert Barer, highlighted contractual and financial responsibilities that come along with building a vessel. Aley emphasized the importance of incorporating design and technical documents and explicit allocation of responsibilities in contracts. He suggested not only incorporating penalties for late deliveries, but also incentives for early ones.

Shipbuilding requires significant financing. Lenders are not interested in foreclosing on custom-designed vessels, Eliasen said, so they want an equity contribution from owners. Lenders typically request an independent party to monitor a vessel’s construction and on-time delivery.

The second panel addressed shipbuilding technology and design. Johan Sperling, Vice President of Jensen Maritime Consultants, underlined the challenges of designing vessels for Alaska. Making design and construction mistakes in Alaska costs more than anywhere else in the world. Sperling mentioned a perception by foreign ship designers that Pacific Northwest designers don’t have recent experience designing efficient, modern vessels. “Not true!” he said, showing examples of recent vessels designed by regional engineers with specific knowledge of Alaskan conditions.

Guido Perla, Chairman of Guido Perla Associates, compared diesel and diesel-electric engines. The main drawback of a diesel-electric engine is its lower efficiency compared to a mechanical system, especially for use in constant-power demand situations.

Still, diesel-electric engines have many advantages. They rely on a group of diesel generators that provide power to electric motors driving the propellers. They are more flexible, Perla said. The generators can be positioned on top of the deck, freeing the interior space and reducing noise and vibration. Diesel-electric motors are well suited for ships with variable-power demands. They have simplified construction and utilize plug-and-play, pre-assembled components.

The Washington/Alaska Relationship

Port of Seattle Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant expressed his passion for maintaining a healthy Northwest fishing industry and the importance of Washington state’s relationship with Alaska. Washington state barge traffic, for example, is a lifeline to Alaska, while decisions made in Alaska on taxes and regulations can affect jobs and investments in Washington State.

Bryant emphasized the need for collaborative leadership between the two states. Fishermen’s Terminal, home of the North Pacific fishing fleet, is a source of thousands of jobs. The Port of Seattle Commission allocated tens of millions of dollars to its improvements to solidify the facility for the future of the fleet.

At the luncheon, Dr. James Balsiger, NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Administrator, presented a historic overview of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). Before its enactment, mostly foreign vessels fished beyond three miles from shore, their catch not monitored or managed properly. American fishery managers would look at foreign fish markets to estimate their catch.

Signed into law on April 13, 1976, the MSA began a new era of American fishery management. It created an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from three to 200 miles from shore. The Act’s primary goals were to develop domestic fish harvest and phase out foreign fishing activities in the American EEZ.

The Act created national fishing standards and set up eight regional fish management councils. For Alaska, it was the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, its purpose - regional control and transparent and participatory management process. The Council consists of 11 voting members from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and NOAA Fisheries and 4 non-voting members. It receives direct input from the fishing industry, academic and regulatory experts and creates opportunities for public input.

When asked why the East Coast fisheries didn’t recover, Balsiger explained that the bering sea has been very productive for the past 40 years. Fishery managers on both coasts relied on the latest scientific thinking but it was easier to implement them in Alaska. It was also easier to phase out foreign fishing fleets in Alaska than our neighboring Canadian fleets on the East Coast.

Amendment 80 Fleet

Chris Woodley, Executive Director of the Groundfish Forum, a trade association of the Amendment 80 (A80) sector, opened the panel on bycatch management. He explained that the A80 sector is comprised of six Seattle-based companies participating in bottom trawl non-pollock groundfish fisheries. They operate catcher-processor vessels in the bering sea, the Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska.

The fleet operates 9 to 10 months a year. In Alaska, the fleet annually makes more than 550 port calls, buys $45 million worth of fuel and $1.7 million in food, pays $3.2 million in taxes and supports 2,900 jobs. In Washington State, the fleet buys $2.2 million of fuel and $3.7 million in food, spends $27.5 million on ship repairs and employs more than 3,900 people.

One concern with the A80 fleet, Woodley said, is halibut bycatch. The fleet’s reduction of almost 50 percent in halibut bycatch since the 1990s is due to fisheries rationalization, improvements in fishing gear and continued improvements to halibut excluding devices. One experimental measure that is currently being tested is deck sorting. The catch is dumped on deck and workers intensively sort the catch for the first 20 minutes. Halibut discarded in the first 20 minutes resulted in a drop of halibut mortality from 83 percent to 50 percent.

Carwyn Hammond, NOAA Fisheries biologist, talked about her Conservation Engineering Team’s development of mechanical devices for trawl bycatch reduction. The research is a collaborative effort, involving scientists, trawl manufacturers and fishermen. Developing underwater cameras has been an essential tool for research and development, allowing researchers to observe fish behavior and gear performance. The equipment is loaned to fishermen to help them make modifications to their own gear. This tool has proved so useful that many vessels invested in their own cameras.

Although the pollock fishery is one of the cleanest, salmon bycatch still presents a problem. A study using sonars and cameras showed that salmon tend to swim forward inside trawls, while pollock and other target species tend to fall back. After years of testing various designs, Hammond said putting openings that can only be used by fish swimming forward is proving effective at releasing salmon.

Halibut bycatch in trawls has been a problem for 40 years. Original excluders, developed in the 1990s for the bering sea trawls were rigid grids. They were heavy and cumbersome to use. The latest excluders funnel large halibut to escape holes and target species through a selection panel to the codend. They are much more effective in the cod trawl fishery than flatfish fisheries because of the difference in body shapes.

Bycatch Progress

John Gruver, the Intercoop Manager of the United Catcher Boats, talked about minimizing salmon bycatch in the bering sea pollock fishery through regulations. The American Fisheries Act rationalized the fishery in 1998 and the Intercooperative Agreement (ICA) was implemented in 2001. To reduce salmon bycatch, it relied on Rolling Hot Spots - temporary area closures for vessels with high bycatch rates, and Fixed Closure Areas with known high bycatch rates.

In 2011, new regulations for Chinook salmon bycatch transitioned to an Incentive Plan Agreement (IPA). IPA created a hard cap, providing incentives at the individual vessel level to avoid Chinook salmon bycatch, and penalized vessels that failed to avoid them.

Dave Fraser compared the Pacific Whiting Mothership and Shorebased Cooperatives, the two whiting fishery sectors he represents. The mothership sector was rationalized through a co-op, creating a common pool of target and bycatch quotas. The shorebased sector manages whiting and bycatch allocations through Individual Fishing Quotas.

There are five prohibited species that can shut down a whiting season. For 100 tons of whiting, Fraser said, It takes 22 pounds of Darkblotched rockfish, 19 pounds of Canary rockfish, 425 pounds of Widow rockfish, 25 pounds of Pacific Ocean Perch and three Chinook salmon. In the mothership sector, one bad tow that catches the limit of prohibited species can shut down the whole fleet for the season. In the shorebased sector, a bad tow can shut down an individual vessel for a year. Therefore, the mothership co-op’s task is to “individualize accountability while managing a common quota.” The shorebased coop’s task is to “collectivize risk while maintaining individual accountability.”

The concluding panel looked at climate change and its potential effects on bering sea fisheries. Anne Hollowed, a NOAA Fisheries biologist, provided an overview of the department’s climate science strategy. Hollowed said the bering sea regional plan, released last Fall, emphasized the need to identify vulnerable fish and shellfish species, along with data gaps and research priorities. It is challenging to project future impacts and set sustainable harvest goals under changing climate conditions and shifts in species distribution. It is therefore important to continue monitoring current conditions and conduct interdisciplinary research.

Changing Conditions

Lisa Eisner, a NOAA Fisheries research oceanographer, talked about the potential impact of ice loss on commercial fisheries. Eisner said that although overall sea ice coverage is decreasing, it is less consistent in the bering sea and we anticipate some ice will remain in the Arctic in the future.

The reduction in sea ice and increase in water temperature will result in some movement of fish, but will mostly depend on the species. salmon are very mobile and will move northward into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic. Most groundfish in the Eastern bering sea are projected to stay put, stopped by the cold water barrier.

Another important question, Eisner said, is how the warming temperatures will affect high-quality zooplankton prey for pollock. The results are not encouraging. In warm years, reduced sea ice and duration limit the availability of high-energy zooplankton and pollock tend to do worse.

Chris Long, a NOAA Fisheries research biologist, presented results of his laboratory experiments of water acidification on crab. He saw a 73 percent decrease in Tanner crab fecundity due to acidification. Water acidification also reduced juvenile growth and survival and altered shell formation, which can have important impacts on crab fisheries.

Long pointed out that laboratory experiments almost always overestimate the effects, but they do show general trends. Living organisms can evolve and adapt to the changing environment, but there is still a cause for concern.

Steve Kasperski, the NOAA Fisheries acting manager for the Economic and Social Sciences Research Program, also confirmed that the main finding of his research is that not all commercially-important fish species will move north with the warming seas. For example, they found no shift in the distribution of the pollock fishery in the winter season, but a northward shift was observed in the summer season.

Fishermen can adapt to stock shifts at a cost, so warmer climate conditions might result in increasing fishery costs. During recent Pacific cod summer and fall trips, fishing vessels traveled farther and set their gear more often. Predicting future behavior of commercially important fish stocks is a complex undertaking and will be determined by many types of uncertainties.

Kirstin Holsman, a NOAA Fisheries biologist, explained The Alaska Climate Change Integrated Modeling Project. Its goal is to identify impacts of climate change on Eastern bering sea fisheries and devise possible management solutions. There are many different scenarios of how climate change will look in 100 years.

Colder conditions are associated with higher productivity of common commercially important species. Warmer years result in lower survival of these species. As can be expected, there is a lot of uncertainty of what the future will look like. It’s not a problem, Holsman said, as long as we keep track of it and realize that there is a gamut of scenarios with a corresponding gamut of possible solutions.


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