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The [Bering Sea Alaska Pollock] fishery is acclaimed as an exemplary model of a responsibly managed fishery.
– The Marine Conservation Society (UK)
Upon implementation of the Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act in March of 1977, the U.S. extended its jurisdiction of U.S. fisheries (the Exclusive Economic Zone) from 12 to 200 miles from U.S. shores. This was a watershed moment for U.S. fisheries and for consumers around the world. In Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, fishery managers quickly set about developing and implementing fishery management plans for the fisheries within the newly expanded U.S. waters and in doing so, developed the open and transparent fisheries management systems that are the envy of the world and have resulted in decades of sustainable management.
Our fisheries are jointly managed by the Northwest and Alaska regional offices of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (see more at www.fakr.noaa.gov and www.nwr.noaa.gov), the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and, in the case of Pacific hake, the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The Councils are two of the eight regional management councils formed under the Magnuson Act. They are comprised of federal fisheries administrators, state fisheries agency personnel and knowledgeable private citizens (often officers of companies involved in the harvesting and processing of the resources within that Council’s jurisdiction). The Councils propose quotas, called total allowable catches (TACs) and other management measures to the Secretary of Commerce. Once approved, the measures are put into regulations by the NMFS regional administrators in Alaska and the Northwest Regional Offices.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s precautionary management approach is to apply judicious and responsible fisheries management practices, based on sound scientific research and analysis, proactively rather than reactively, to ensure the sustainability of fishery resources and associated ecosystems for the benefit of future, as well as current generations.
– Witherell and Woodby, Application of Marine Protected Areas for
Sustainable Production and Biodiversity off Alaska, Marine Fisheries Review
Fishery managers rely on scientific surveys to measure and estimate the overall size of, and any changes in, a species’ biomass (the total weight of fish in a specified area). Depending on the species, these surveys are either hydroacoustic (sonar that measure fish biomass in the water column), or bottom trawl (sample catches in specified areas). For some species, longline and pot gear may also be used in these surveys. The survey results are measured and then indexed against previous years’ results. In the case of Alaska Pollock, both surveys are used. Data from these surveys are then entered into a science-based analytical model. The model incorporates other year’s survey data, information collected from fishermen and what scientists know about the biology of the fish and produce a biomass estimate that does not overly rely on one year’s survey results, thereby minimizing the degree of error from any single year’s survey results.
As part of their annual quota setting process, these scientists also provide information on the latest research regarding impacts of the fishery on the ecosystem.
The Alaska pollock fishery is also a great example of science-based, adaptive management at work.
NMFS scientists assess and monitor the health of fishery stocks and recommend biologically safe harvest levels, known as ABCs. Teams of NMFS scientists submit these recommendations to “plan teams” made up of both scientists from NMFS’ Alaska and Northwest Fisheries Science Centers and other scientists from state fisheries agencies and regional universities. These plan teams set the ABCs and then forward them onto the Councils for their consideration. The plan team recommendations are also reviewed by a second panel of independent scientists – the Councils’ Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) – which then either approves the plan team’s recommendation or proposes different ones along with the rationale for the change. The Councils then approve either the joint plan team’s or SSC’s recommended ABC or, if different, the one they believe has the strongest scientific rationale. After the Council has arrived at its recommended ABC, it will then agree upon its recommended TAC for each species, which for the NPFMC and PFMC, has never been set higher than the SSC’s recommended ABC.
For Bering Sea groundfish, the Council further enhances protection for the Bering Sea ecosystem with what’s called the “Two million metric ton cap,” which has been in place for decades. This “cap” or limit on total annual groundfish harvests, has resulted in fishery harvests limits that are at, or often well below levels that are considered to be biologically safe. It also ensures that other demands for fish stocks (such as prey for other marine species) are met. At the same time the Councils set the TACs for the groundfish species, they also make the necessary allocations between gear types, sectors, seasons and areas.
Generally, the Alaska pollock, yellowfin sole, Pacific cod and Pacific whiting fisheries are considered to be quite “clean” (i.e. relatively low bycatches of non-target species). The Eastern Bering Sea pollock fishery is, in fact, one of the “cleanest” fisheries in the world. According to one study (see inset chart), the Eastern Bering Sea Alaska pollock fishery had the lowest discards with 99.5% of the catch retained. For the bycatch that does occur, the Council has set strict limits for bycatches of both other groundfish and non-groundfish species. In most cases, these limits, if reached, would result in the closure of particular areas of concern or the complete closure of the target fishery.
In fisheries in which harvesting cooperatives (see below) have been established, the industry members work together and share information during the season to avoid areas with high bycatch. In the Alaska pollock fishery, the industry has contracted with a company that provides real-time monitoring of bycatch rates of non-pollock species using satellite transmissions of observer data sent directly from the vessels. By doing this, fishing vessels can alter their fishing practices or move to different areas to avoid bycatch of other species. These proactive industry initiatives have enabled American Seafoods and other cooperative members to ensure that bycatch levels are kept at the lowest possible levels.
The Alaskan groundfish fisheries have also led the world in ensuring that the fish harvested are utilized to the maximum extent possible and that waste and discards approach zero. Regulations require the retention and utilization of virtually all of the fish that we catch. For fish we are not authorized to keep and sell, the industry works with a private non-profit organization called SeaShare, the only organization authorized to accept and distribute products made from those species. This allows vessels contracted with SeaShare to retain prohibited species like salmon and halibut and donate products made from them to food banks in the region and throughout America. (Learn more at www.seashare.org).
A sustainable fishery requires a high level of data and information on catches to ensure they are accurately measured and counted against the quota. One of the true “points of differentiation” between our fisheries and others around the world is our fishery observer program. Funded by industry but administered by NMFS, this program requires the presence of two government-approved observers on board our catcher-processors at all times they are fishing. These observers ensure not only that our groundfish catches are accurately measured, but they also document all the bycatch of all other species. Since there are two observers working onboard our vessels, there is always at least one on duty while they are fishing.
[U.S.] Alaska pollock is considered an ocean-friendly seafood choice because it is a fast-growing fish and the fishing gear used does not cause significant habitat destruction.
– The New England Aquarium
Once there are assurances that the target species of the fishery are adequately protected, it is important to ensure that the ecosystem overall is in sufficient health to support continued sustainable stocks of groundfish species. In this area our fisheries management agencies are on the cutting edge of ecosystem-based management. First, as noted above, the 2.0 million mt cap has provided additional assurances that the other demands for groundfish from the ecosystem are protected.
Second, both the Pacific and North Pacific Councils have taken significant steps to protect essential ocean habitat. The Council has established Marine protected areas (MPAs) to protect spawning areas, reduce bycatch of non-target species, protect benthic habitat from disturbance by fishing gear, ensure against uncertainties, and conserve genetic diversity. The Council has also closed 571,000 square nautical miles to bottom trawling to protect critical benthic habitat and closed 58,000 square nautical miles to all fishing to mitigate impact on Steller sea lions.
The [Pacific Whiting Conservation Cooperative] members allocate their catch quota among cooperative members to allow them to use the quota more efficiently compared to vessels competing for a share of the catch. The result is a less wasteful, more environmentally friendly fishery that produces a higher quality product.
American Seafoods Company is a member of both the Pollock Conservation Cooperative (PCC) and the Pacific Whiting Conservation Cooperative (PWCC). Allocations to co-ops and the basic structures were authorized by federal regulation. Allocations to members of these coops are established by voluntary private agreements, with enforcement provisions to ensure compliance. These co-ops’ structures have effectively ended the “race for fish” that existed previously under open-access systems. Within these co-ops participants have successfully reduced excess fishing and processing capacity, and supported important scientific research efforts.
The slower pace of fishing in a cooperative system has resulted in cleaner fishing and improved the utilization of the species harvested. Through improved fishing practices and significant investment in the latest technology, American Seafoods has increased the output of pollock products per pound of fish caught by almost 50 percent since the formation of the PCC.
In recognition of the profound environmental benefits of the cooperative system, the PCC received the 2006 Sustainability and Stewardship Award from NOAA, the parent agency of the National Marine Fisheries Service. More information on the PCC is available at the At-Sea Processors Association website at www.atsea.org.
Similar progress in reducing bycatch, improving yields and reducing excess capacity has been achieved by the PWCC. For more information on the PWCC, please go to www.pacificwhiting.org.
Sources: NOAA/NMFS, At Sea Processors Association, Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers