How fisheries are run in the Pacific Northeast - part 2

Samuel Stone By: Samuel Stone
Date posted: 22 November 2016

Alaskan Seafood: a visit to learn how fisheries are run in the Pacific northeast.

Competition vs team work

Purse Seiners

Purse seiners working a run, Sitka.

Whilst in Sitka, we were fortunate to be able to go out and watch some purse seining for salmon just a few minutes from town. I was amazed at just how close to shore the vessels were operating. Like any fishing, salmon fishing is incredibly competitive and fisheries and companies are constantly monitoring conditions and the movements of the fish to try find the busiest salmon runs. It seems difficult to predict when some spots will be working and I was surprised to see just how small an area might be targeted. The fish runs are very specific, so there isn’t much room for many boats to target a run, but in many cases the fishers actually work as a team according to unwritten rules which dictate who can fish and when. The first boat to arrive at an active run becomes the ‘warden’ and sets the rules for that site. Essentially, one boat will put a net across the run to block it and aggregate the fish, whilst other boats will then take it in turns of fishing. Using this strategy, it seems like they catch far more for less effort compared to just fishing by themselves and directly competing with each other. I was told though that when 30 boats arrive at 1 site, some argy-bargy can still take place.

Well managed There are few other places in the world that can boast so many green rated and certified fisheries across so many different species. For example, each year Alaska catches more seafood that is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (And also the Alaskan RFM) than what the UK catches in total (certified or not) – more than 3 times over! Certainly geography plays a big part in this, and access to some of the largest fish stocks in the world (Like the Alaskan pollock fishery), but management also plays a key part. We were able to meet with representatives from the Alaskan RFM certification programme and Alaskan Department of Fish and Game who are responsible for managing the State’s inshore fisheries to find out a little bit more.

It was clear that Alaskan fisheries are tightly controlled with restrictions on vessels, gear and licenses, with fishing limits set according to a Total Allowable Catch (TAC); access to which is granted through a ‘rights-based’ quota system. There are also hard limits on the amount of certain bycatch species that can be caught. This means that when a predetermined amount of a prohibited species is taken, the fishery is closed, regardless of whether it has reached the TAC of the target species.

As I’d heard earlier in the trip though, these controls are built on good data collection and scientific monitoring programmes and I heard again the expression, ‘data is our ally’ from Larry Cotter, who is Chair of the Alaskan RFM programme (among other things). Larry also noted though that the data that is collected must be available and it must be utilised in order to be beneficial.

Enhanced salmon fisheries

Enhanced salmon fisheries started in the 70s in Alaska and they now contribute about 36% (by number) to the total salmon harvest, so we were of course very keen to learn more about these fisheries. I had read about these fisheries in assessments beforehand, but seeing these fisheries in the flesh was an amazing experience

A lucrative product from the salmon fisheries is salmon roe / caviar, but each year the salmon hatcheries – which are private non-profit companies - collect and keep some of the roe for themselves in order to incubate and rear their own salmon, to be released and enter the fishery later on. Once hatched, the juvenile salmon are held for between 6-9months in tanks on land before being conditioned at a very specific site and then released.

Tanks

Land based tank holding juvenile salmon. Dipac hatchery, Juneau.

Before a hatchery is developed and a site considered, a comprehensive management feasibility assessment is undertaken to establish if – among other things - the local environment should be introduced to greater numbers of salmon. Sometimes sites are actually chosen for conservation and restoration purposes. There is also a requirement to harvest the hatchery fish so as to minimise the chance of them mixing with and increasing the salmon numbers where they weren’t intended. This sounds tricky; after all, once the fish are released in the wild, how can one be sure that they will be caught again?

This is where the innate homing skills of the Pacific salmon play an incredible role. Salmon don’t just return to their approximate home rivers. In most cases, the majority of them return to the exact river and site where they were released – and in huge numbers. The photo below shows some chum salmon returning to the exact hatchery where they were released just a few years earlier. I wouldn’t have believed it unless I’d witnessed it with my own eyes. The fish were literally jumping over each other to get back into the hatchery. There was no need for a boat – the fish simply returned home.

Tanks

Chum salmon literally jumping over each other to return to their home hatchery. Dipac hatchery Juneau.

Tanks

The water outside the Dipac hatchery was boiling with salmon on their return home. Juneau.

The enhanced fisheries are of course not natural, and there are some important questions to be considered with regards to potential environmental implications. In particular, could the enhanced fish weaken the genetic strength of the salmon stocks overall? It was pleasing to hear the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game take such questions very seriously and to learn that considerable research has been and is continuing to be undertaken to establish answers to questions like these. While research has indicated that the enhanced fish may not survive as well in the wild, there is no evidence thus far to suggest this has weakened wild populations. Ongoing research will be important to keep informing regulations and improving best practices and to ensure these fisheries stay sustainable for the whole ecosystem in the long-term. Something that’s important for all creatures who enjoy Pacific salmon.

Tanks

Brown bear in a bear sanctuary, Sitka. Bears are one of many native species that rely on the wild salmon populations for food.