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Alaska Fish Factor: preparing to go electric

the Fish Site Editor
10 April 2017, at 1:00am

Automation is coming to Alaska fishing boats in the form of cameras and sensors to track whats coming and going over the rails.

Starting next year, Electronic Monitoring systems (EM) can officially replace human observers as fishery data collectors on Alaska boats using longline and pot gear. Vessel operators who do not voluntarily switch to EMS remain subject to human observer coverage on randomly selected fishing trips.

The onboard observer requirement originally included vessels 59 feet and larger, but was restructured in 2013 to include boats down to 40 feet and, for the first time, was applied to the halibut fishery.

“Those smaller vessels have had a hard time accommodating human observers so we have been focused on that,” said Bill Tweit, vice-chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council which oversees the program.

Smaller boats also had a hard time with sky-rocketing observer costs under the restructured program, which in some cases, went from less than $300-$400 per day to over $1,000.

Starting in 2013, 15 pot cod boats aligned with the Homer-based North Pacific Fisherman’s Association and Saltwater, Inc. of Anchorage to field test EM in the Gulf of Alaska.

“We saw EM as a tool that could address many of the issues we had with the observer program. It has moved at a glacial pace, but it is finally moving and much more needs to be done,” said Malcolm Milne, NPFA president.

The EM systems were purchased with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and proved they could track and identify over 95 percent of species required for fishery management decisions.

“Overall, the reception of EM by participants in the pot cod fishery has been positive,” said Abigail Turner-Frank, NPFA project coordinator. “Fishermen have expressed their enthusiasm about the potential cost effectiveness, not having to worry about an extra person onboard and the utility of the cameras showing hi-def deck views of their crew and gear while fishing.”

Testing EM on longline vessels has been ongoing since 2011 via the Sitka-based Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, in collaboration with NFWF, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle and Archipelago Marine of Canada. The trials showed the costs, including data analysis, were $198 per day for six Sitka vessels and $332 per day for Homer boats.

The EM system most often used costs about $3,500 for hardware and installation, plus an additional $1,000 a year for data transfer fees from Alaska to Seattle.

Nancy Munro, Saltwater president, suggests that the data review could be done in Alaska to “create a tighter feedback loop.” She also strongly advocates that instead of losing their jobs, many fishery observers can be integrated into the EM program as data analysts to “keep their talent and experience in the fisheries.”

There are currently 458 fishery observers deployed in Alaska’s fisheries. The public has until May 22 to comment on the EM program to federal policy makers.

“We want to hear how well we did at tailoring this and secondly, we want to hear what their next priorities are,” said Bill Tweit. Comment at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/

Spring fishing

More Alaska fisheries get underway during the spring months while pollock, cod, ocean perch, rockfish, flounders and many more are ongoing throughout the Gulf and Bering Sea. Here are some highlights:

In Southeast Alaska, the roe herring fishery at Sitka Sound wrapped up on March 29 after seiners took the 14,600 ton quota after four openers in about one week.

The golden king crab fishery just wrapped up throughout the Panhandle with some of the lowest catches in 17 seasons. Pot pulls at Icy Strait and Northern Areas yielded just over half of the 20,000-pound limit for the two regions.

Lingcod opens in Southeast waters on May 16 for jig and troll gear with a 310,700-pound harvest limit.

At Prince William Sound an exclusive sablefish fishery kicks off on April 15 with a 117,000-pound quota. That same day, a trawl fishery begins for sidestripe shrimp in the Sound with a catch set at just under 113,000 pounds.

Kodiak’s herring season begins on April 15, with a lower harvest this year of 1,645 tons. Managers said they expect an uptick in the herring stock of mostly small, three to five-year-old fish. Thus, the smaller quota.

Halibut catches are picking up slightly with over one million pounds taken out of the 18 million pound catch limit. Landings are down 27 percent from the same time last year, while prices are up 10 percent in the $6.50-$7.00 range.

The Bering Sea snow crab fishery should wrap up its 19 million pound catch quota any day.

Hope for climate change

A new book that is part fast-paced adventure, part philosophy and provides a road map to climate change ‘hope spots’ is drawing rave reviews.

“I am a firm believer that you have to find reasons for moving the needle, and being hopeful that you can still make a difference in this world,” said Kate Troll of Juneau, the author of “The Great Unconformity: Reflections of Hope in an Imperiled World.”

Troll draws on her 22 years of experience in climate and energy policy, elected office, coastal management and fisheries. As a former director of the Southeast Seiners Association and United Fishermen of Alaska, she was instrumental in getting 100 foot buffers along salmon streams in Southeast Alaska.

“That was a monumental step taken in an era of large scale clear cutting. Now we have those streams protected and it serves as a model for other areas. It’s become the norm, and that’s key to the sustainability of our fisheries.”

“We have daunting challenges,” she added. “Whoever reads the book, your eyes are going to be opened wide. But I want to arm you with hope and resilience for the future.”

One way to seed “hope spots”, she said, is “using our wallets” to support sustainable fisheries and other earth friendly causes. Another already is yielding big results.

“Capitalism has progressed in renewable energy and wind and solar are now cost competitive with fossil fuels and natural gas. We’ve reached what is called grid parity with a lot of renewable energies and that’s an important development,” she said.

Troll also documents how the “love of place” plays out in making major impacts in the crusade for sustainability.

“It’s important to protect the right of regeneration of our species, salmon being one of those most iconic, and to talk about how we have done so in Alaska,” she said.

What makes this book unique and fun to read is that Troll combines her messages with amazing adventures.

“I’m a firm believer that if I can tell some really entertaining stories, the messages stick a lot better,” she said. “You’re climbing Denali with me, we’re running wild rivers, we’re kayaking among whales, we’re climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – I’m intent on entertaining the reader and taking you on a really good ride.”