Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Pacific ocean perch blues

Once in awhile you have a chance to connect the straight scoop with folks seriously looking for the straight scoop. I think now is that time in Alaska fisheries. The Obama Administration is now asking the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council to revisit all it's privatization programs; king crab privatization, the halibut and black cod individual quota systems, etc.

The President should look at everything the NPFMC has done, because little of their work helps the resource, the Alaska economy or the ecosystem as a whole. Except for providing a bunch of very low protein and eventually highly breaded and greasy fish sticks, the 'industry' is fouling it's own nest for short term profits.

There isn't time to beat around the bush. International treaty with Canada is being violated as well as violating care of the public common resources. But don't count on the issue with Canada being deprived of king salmon in their part of the Yukon River. Their government had no qualms over fishing their iconic cod stocks on their East coast into oblivion and putting tens of thousands of Canadians out of work. Corporate political influence in the North Pacific uses the same blunt instruments to get what they want as Canadian corporations.

Enter someone who the President really should talk to: John Finley of Kodiak. John was king crabbing when Kodiak was truly the King Crab Capital of the World. And crewed with that iconic and successful big boat owner, Ole Harder. Ole was prescient when it came to threats to the Alaska fisheries and wrote the Bill that has kept disease riddled and 'strange' DNA farmed salmon out of Alaska's salmon streams and coastal waters.

John fished with Ole for eight years. Two men who thought alike about protecting Alaska's fishing industry. John was equally as prescient as one of the first Kodiak fishermen to target halibut, as the author of the Bill that gave the small boat fleet in the Gulf of Alaska a crack at the Pacific cod in State waters, since the NPFMC wouldn't give them any in the much vaster Federal waters.

So when John stays on a fisheries issue, folks need to listen. His top of the list issue now is Pacific Ocean Perch, aka, POP. What's so great about POP? For one thing it is in huge demand by the Japanese for it's flamboyant red color. But it also is a very fine textured and flavorful rockfish, even compared to Yellow Eye rockfish, aka, Red Snapper. And with the fishing closure for 'the other red snapper,' those in the Gulf of Mexico, demand for POP in those markets has grown.

And POP is maybe the most numerous fish in the North Pacific, including salmon. You can't fish on them very hard, because unlike salmon who live a couple of years, POP, live for decades. They were what the Japanese were mostly after when they were trawling prior to 1976 in the GOA. And they caught a load of 'em. Now you can't find the catch data on POP in public documents, or that self-professed expert on trawl catches, the Groundfish Data Bank.

When you think about how valuable POP is as a resource, and the fact that the public isn't hip to this resource, you can figure the trawl fisheries/NMFS complex wouldn't want the catches divulged. What is the President going to do about that? We can figure what Alaska Governor Parnel is going to do: nothing at all.

But John says it doesn't end there. He says, "Why trawl for them at all and destroy the habitat when you can take them with no harm to the environment with hooks and pots?" I know a lot about both these methods of fishing even though we never saw many POP in Southeast Alaska where I come from. As for hooks, I spent a couple of years researching hooks and hooking methods and developing a low cost self-baiting machine for the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. And I procured blueprints of a double-tunnel, collapsible trap for fin-fish for the first use of such a device in Alaska. Longlining pots for black cod became so efficient that the practice was outlawed. That shoots down the argument that trawling is so efficient, even though this is a non-issue when you consider that salmon nets and boat size are limited in size to rein in efficiency.

Lets just cut the crap, the trawlers just have more political power. These are bigger operations by a magnitude of many hundreds. The drive and the money behind trawling can open doors like crazy. Even cut doors into solid walls. But lets just be honest. The POP should be harvested by smaller boats that can take care of the resource better. Pots don't have any bycatch that can't be returned alive to the sea. The bycatch is miniscule even compared to longlining hooks. And the bottom habitat is left intact.

The Pacific Ocean perch lives closer to shore when it is young, and they can get so thick that they have mass die-offs. You're talking a very abundant species. Then they move out to the edge of the continental shelf where the upwelling is strong and the living is good. There are many other species that recognize the good life there too, like black cod, king salmon, halibut, etc. You think bycatch is a problem now, just turn the trawlers loose on POP big time and see what happens.

One door the trawlers have carved out of the stone wall of ecosystem protection and sound fisheries management through their NPFMC is 'allowable bycatch.' An actual quota share of other fishermen's target species that they get to keep and sell. Like Pacific cod and black cod. Why do you think they even go out for arrowtooth flounder, which is a totally inedible species; for all the cod they can keep, irregardless of the millions of pounds of small halibut they kill and have to throw back.

I understand how these practices can continue: blinding greed and political ambition, and an apathetic public. Even some fishermen who have made deals with the devil, and don't know there are consequences of appeasement. Britain found that out in the '40s. Or at least hope they can retire before everything hits the fan like Eastern Canada experienced. Some people don't think there is any way to fish out the ocean. They thought that on the Grand Banks, especially when the early explorers had trouble rowing to shore through solid cod up shallow. Or on the Amur river when Captain Cook's ship was "stopped by a shoale of salmon." The 50% drop in halibut quotas in the last five years in the Gulf of Alaska is just the start of the pain.

The NPFMC has been having talks on the salmon bycatch problem, now that nobody can find much on the spawning grounds anymore. But the rhetoric is the same. "Oh, we don't know where they come from, so lets just not do anything except just enough to keep from being hung in effigy." The trawlers council will delay until the bycatch of salmon drops off to very little, problem solved. Although every other fisher and consumer of king salmon will really have a problem then. The problem with Eastern Canada is that they discovered that the vast cod stocks were actually hundreds of genetically distinct stocks, and even with no fishing on them at all for a decade, many small stocks are totally gone. And the overall stock will never come back no matter what they do.