Monday, January 08, 2007

Fishing technology in Alaska: too good?

This little look at fishing technology in Alaska ranges from a bone fish-hook found on the Missouri River recently, to chain mail trawls dropped miles down to rip the tops off seamounts in the open ocean. And it's not always technology that is the culprit.

This style of Alaska fishing boat is capable of staying out at sea and fishing for long periods of time, making the "smash and dash" fishing methods redundant.

Unless you consider dams and other degradation, of five thousand plus miles of salmon spawning grounds in each of Oregon and California, to be high-tech.

This came from a news article from a Middle East and African marine resources magazine: "Referring to bottom trawl fishing he said the method must be abandoned because it leads to the extinction of many species of maritime creatures.

Ninety-five percent of the material caught in deep sea bottom trawlers' steel nets that are dragged along the seabed, are thrown back overboard, dead, destroyed or dying. These trawls really do devastate the seabed, destroying everything in their paths, marine biologists maintain.

Deep sea bottom trawling has been compared to clear cutting ancient forests or using a bulldozer to catch rabbits. It is considered the most destructive form of fishing.

Only a handful of countries have deep sea bottom trawl fleets operating in international waters, the most prolific amongst these being Spain, other European countries and Russia. New Zealand is one of the only 11 countries that took approximately 95% of the reported high seas bottom trawl catch in 2001 and have been promoting and exporting this technology around the world."

There are already bottom trawlers(draggers) leaving the Gulf of Alaska fisheries. And there are smart people getting into pot fishing for cod there at the same time. Make no mistake, all the cod could be caught selectively with pots with no damage to the bottom ecosystem. The pots can be strung along a really heavy "ground-line" for good efficiency. A pot fisherman can haul up as many cod on a string as a trawler could bring up in a trawl. Also, make no mistake, the big companies want to lock in the status quo so their trawlers don't get phased out by more efficient and "greener" fishing methods.

I know something about this, since I found a design for a double-tunnel, collapsible cod pot and gave it to my brother to start fishing black cod in Clarence Straits in S.E. Alaska. That was in about 1971 or 72, and was the first cod pots used in Alaska as far as I know. He started fishing the pots between gillnet openings with his gillnetter. Every pot would have a whole school of cod in it. Just pull the pin on the money end of the pot to empty it, unsnap it from the ground-line and collapse it, and start hauling again.

The draggers make the rules now though, by dominating the management process, with the help of state and federal government, in a fisheries version of the military/industrial complex. On the plus side, there is a new Governor in Alaska that ran on an anit-corruption platform and if she appoints conscionable people to all Alaska seats, there would be a majority. AND Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young have said they are going to shelve their work on U.S. fisheries management issues, which are just special interest issues, to concentrate their last years working to end open ocean bottom trawling.

The vessels that bottom trawl are extremely inefficient in other ways as well. Check out the amount of steel and electronics and fuel they require. Fisheries managers aren't required to protect the investments of anyone who might have spent too much getting into a fishery. Big shock? And there is no comparison in quality to a smashed dead cod in a trawl to live ones in a pot. I even saw a load of live black cod come in to the Cold Storage I was working in once.

A previous chairman of the NPFMC is going around now trumpeting how the Council is made up of fishermen. Like hoohey it is. It takes at least an hour of reading a day, continually, to keep up with everything that's going on to be a council member. It's a mutually exclusive situation. This is a big problem, because your regular Joe Alaskan fisherman can't take the time to do it. So, you end up with non-fisherman hired guns making the rules that dictate fishing methods, the acceptable by-catch, quality of the harvest, fish prices for the Alaskans, etc.

Originally, the Council process for managing the 200 mile economic zone was to use fishermen who knew the fishing methods and had the local economy at heart. Someone should compensate Alaska fishermen for service on the Council, even if it's the State government. Take this scenario of the Gulf of Mexico snapper fisheries.

"Unfortunately, the counts for gulf snapper are hotly disputed.
We question the methods of collecting data. We rightly denounce the formula for extrapolating the health of fish stocks. We doubt the credibility of folks who interpret the data. We question the motivations of bureaucrats spinning the results.
Everybody thinks everyone else is lying. The search for truth becomes buried in layers of self-interests, legal wrangling and blame.
A good program demands an honest and objective accounting system. In Canada, this is accomplished either by independent on-board observers or by cameras on boats. Unbiased contractors monitor video footage.
We're a long way from this."

This might not be as sorry a situation as the illegal drift-net fishing that is going on around the world however. Those 40 - 50 mile long nets are designed to catch everything, kinda like the bottom trawlers of the sun-lit zone of the oceans. I've been stuck here in Los Angeles for a week and a half for a family medical emergency (the patient lived, but his body died) and ate at the big seafood restaurant at the Ontario Mills mall. I just couldn't bring myself to look at all the bill-fish, shark, and Atlantic salmon, on the menu. No Alaska salmon because "our purveyor doesn't carry it." Did you know a big grocery chain in England pulled Atlantic salmon over the dye/carcinogen scandal?

I find the fishing world down here quite facinating. Here, the saying is, "You can give a man a fish and it will feed him for a day, give that man a pole and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day." Seriously, some of these guys go down off San Diego and catch these 350 pound yellowfin tuna. And a 150 pound wahoo will jump 15 feet out of water. Then there's the 1000 lb. sturgeon practically caught in downtown Portland, OR recently. But I saw a picture of a 1100 lb. halibut out in Dutch Harbor once, so there.

In the Atlantic Ocean, some trawlers used to throw back these big halibut, because of the value for spawning purposes was so much greater than just killing them. The big ones can survive better than the 9 million lbs of halibut that get hauled up dead in trawls off Alaska every year and thrown back as prohibited species. And the "counters" don't count the ones under two feet long! So, why was it that the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council got ballyhooed as a eco-friendly rule making body?