The West Coast challenge

09 Mar 2016
Researchers are studying what effect water temperatures have on sockeye salmon. Photo by Peter Westley.

Researchers are studying what effect water temperatures have on sockeye salmon. Photo by Peter Westley.

Fisheries on the West Coast of America have come under intense pressure after closures and a dramatic fall in stock levels. Adrian Tatum looks at the challenges over the last few years.

Sometimes when something is broken it seems almost impossible to fix. Commercial fishing on the West Coast of America is far from broken but parts of it do need fixing.

Nearly a year ago its commercial sardine fishery was closed after the population of Pacific sardines had fallen to alarming levels. In April last year, scientists made a recommendation for full closure after the population was estimated to be below 150,000 tonnes. It has been a dramatic decline, as in 2007 there were 1.4 million tonnes.

The sardine fishery has not only been a major revenue source for West Coast fishermen, but many other species of fish such as tuna also rely on a plentiful supply for food. Scientists believed that by closing it last year it would give the population a chance to recover. But just last month, it was revealed that the sardine population has not recovered, and is in fact still declining at a fast rate. Scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service say that by the summer, the population is likely to be 33% lower than in 2015.

Bycatch reduction
Like most fisheries around the world, West Coast fishermen are facing up to a bycatch reduction plan. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is considering a plan which would allocate individual bycatch caps to groundfish vessels in the Gulf of Alaska rather than targeting specific large species. Back in 2011, the council passed a series of salmon and halibut bycatch reductions which angered fleet owners and fishermen. Now many Gulf of Alaska fishermen feel the recent changes will have a ‘crippling’ affect on its groundfish fleet.

Approximately 85% of the North Pacific groundfish fisheries are rationalised. This means fish quotas are assigned to individual vessels or fishing cooperatives. It is widely believed by some experts that this is the best way to ensure minimal bycatch, meaning vessels can fish without a time limit and are therefore more likely to avoid some of the endangered species such as salmon and halibut. But this process can also have a negative effect on the industry. Recent years have seen rationalisation being applied to the Bering Sea crab fishery where the number of boats fishing for crab fell by two thirds in just one year, with the loss of over 1,000 jobs.

Salmon
It is also expected that the salmon sector will suffer a poor season, after estimates predicted stock levels to be 50% lower than originally expected at the start of the season, with less than 300,000 fish being the latest estimate. The previous year’s forecast was estimated to be around 650,000 but less than half that number were accounted for later that year. Some scientists believe this is largely due to unfavourable conditions for the salmon, including warmer than usual water and higher surface temperatures.

Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are currently studying what effect water temperatures have on sockeye salmon. They are using artificially fertilised salmon eggs to study the influence the water temperature has on the overall development of the salmon. Sockeye salmon is fished commercially along the west and southern coast of Alaska with the majority of the fish harvested in the Bristol Bay fishery. The work is carried out by closely monitoring hatch timing of the thousands of different eggs. One of the scientists involved, Assistant Professor Peter Westley, predicts that the research will reveal that the salmon will have a high capacity to be resilient against temperature change. He says that having the ability to modify hatch timing could allow sockeye salmon to successfully adapt to the trend of warmer water temperatures.

Morgan Sparkes, another scientist on the project and a master’s student at the University’s School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences says, “At the most basic level, hatch timing is dictated by temperature more than anything else.”

He adds, “Fish are cold-blooded, so their body temperature and metabolism depend on water temperature. When the water temperature is warmer, metabolism tends to be quicker, and vice versa. This could have important implications, given expected changes in the region. Typically at colder temperatures, metabolism will be slower, and as a result growth rate will be slower and the fish will hatch later.”

Researchers have a limited understanding of how warming temperatures might affect sockeye salmon growth and development. “Being able to see adaptive response is important because it might indicate the ability of sockeyes to adapt to changing temperatures. We know there are going to be tremendous changes in Alaska and the Arctic, so I want to know how well prepared the sockeye salmon are to face those changes,” Mr Sparks says.

Preliminary results, suggesting that genetics is an important driver in dictating hatch timing for the fish, indicate that it will be important for sockeye populations to maintain this genetic diversity so they can adapt as water temperature changes.

There is also good news for those involved in crab fishing on the coast. Recently new legislation was put forward that could provide a $140 million disaster relief fund for fishermen and associated organisations that were affected by the closure of this winter’s California crab fishery. The bill put forward would also deliver $1 million for sampling and monitoring of domoic acid, the biotoxin that caused the crab closure in the first place, alongside $5 million in grants for studying harmful algal blooms in the Pacific Ocean. The California Department of Health said that the crab fishery could resume on the Central Coast, including Bay Area, although most fishing companies will wait until the majority of the coast is clear of domoic acid.

Fishing practices
One project that has seen success over the past five years is the Nature Conservancy’s work with California’s central coast fishermen to help develop more environmentally sensitive fishing practices for the harvesting of groundfish species, including rockfish and sole. The programme is addressing the issue of overfishing and the destruction of the ocean habitats by pioneering new scientific tools and markets to encourage long-term stewardship where possible. Finding new and more sustainable ways to fish is where the project is heading and the organisation has even bought fishing permits which it leases back to fishermen in return for them following specific conservation practices.

Groundfish landings have supported many fishing communities along the West Coast for decades but that has meant the frequent use of bottom trawling which has a high level of bycatch associated with it. Collaboration between fishermen, scientists and The Nature Conservancy, has seen the creation of 3.8 million acres of no-trawl zones off California’s central coast. The Conservancy’s purchase of trawl permits is helping to reduce trawling in certain areas and mitigate the economic impact of these new closures. Fishermen can either choose to lease the permits or they can leave the fishery. This means that all the stakeholders in the area are working together to transform the groundfish harvest and change the business model for the better to help promote both economic and environmental sustainability. Three main areas that have been focused on in the project are:

Markets: There is a growing demand for sustainably caught local seafood. The partnership is creating new ways to fish to take advantage of this market and move past the traditional trawl-based model of catching and selling high volumes of fish for low values. This gives fishermen the economic incentive to participate in long-term conservation projects.

Local Fisheries Management: The Nature Conservancy is working with fishermen and fishery managers to pioneer a new management model that would rely on a more collaborative approach, secure local fishermen’s ability to fish, promote innovation in harvest practices and bring fresh local seafood to market for consumers.

Science and Harvest Innovation: The Conservancy and its partners are using fishing-demonstration projects as platforms for unprecedented cooperative research that will help evaluate and adapt efforts to build a sustainable fishery and pioneer new ways to catch groundfish.

Catch shares
It has also been reported that the catch share schemes used by many fishermen along the West Coast of the US may reduce the amount of accidents on fishing vessels. A new report on fisheries practices found that ‘risky’ behaviour on-board vessels in pursuit of catches dropped dramatically following the adoption of catch shares management on the West Coast fixed gear sablefish fishery. According to the report, as a result of catch share policies, fewer boats fished during stormiest waters, with fishing in the highest winds being reduced by 79%.

The decline in rough-weather fishing represents ‘a revolution in risk-taking behaviour by fishermen,’ according to the report authors, Lisa Pfeiffer of NOAA Fisheries' Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Trevor Gratz of the University of Washington. The researchers said they expect corresponding reductions in injuries, pollution events, vessel losses, search-and-rescue missions and deaths from fishing accidents under catch share management. The safer practices corresponded with an 87% reduction in the rate of safety incidents the US Coast Guard reported for the sablefish fishery before and after catch shares went into effect. According to the report, severe weather contributed to about four out of every five fishing vessel accidents on the West Coast from 2000-2009.

The West Coast Shorebased Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) Program was implemented in the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery in January 2011. This fishery operates off Washington, Oregon, and California and targets a diverse group of species, including Pacific whiting, sole, flounder, rockfish, lingcod, sablefish, and more. Whiting are caught with midwater trawl nets, while the other groundfish species are harvested mainly with bottom trawls. The Shorebased IFQ Program is a Limited Access Privilege Program as defined by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA).

Under the program, the limited entry trawl permit holders who make up the shorebased whiting and non-whiting sectors of the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery were merged into a single sector and managed with IFQs. The at-sea whiting sectors are managed by separate cooperative programs (for the mothership and catcher/processor trawl fleets). Although the Shorebased IFQ Program and cooperative programs manage two different components (shorebased whiting and non-whiting sector versus at-sea whiting) of the groundfish fishery, the programs are referred to collectively as the Pacific Groundfish Trawl Rationalisation Program. 

Prior to implementation of the West Coast Shorebased Individual Fishing Quota Program, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) managed the groundfish trawl fishery through a number of measures, including harvest guidelines, bimonthly cumulative trip limits, area restrictions, seasonal closures and gear restrictions. Many of these management measures were designed to keep the fishery within the catch limits for a number of species declared overfished under the MSA.

Stability
According to NOAA Fisheries, America’s fisheries industry is showing signs of continued stability overall and now makes a large contribution to the nation’s economy, thanks to the implementation of more sustainable fisheries management policies.

US fishermen landed 9.5 billion pounds of fish and shellfish, valued at $5.4 billion, in 2014, according to the latest edition of NOAA Fisheries' annual report, Fisheries of the United States 2014. These figures are similar to those from 2013; both the volume and value continue to remain higher than the average for the past five years.

The report shows the total landings for pollock was up 5% since 2013 to 3.1 billion pounds, valued at $400 million. The report also shows that for the eighteenth consecutive year, the Alaska port of Dutch Harbor led the nation with the highest amount of seafood landed - 761.8 million pounds, valued at $191.4 million. The Dutch Harbor catch was primarily walleye pollock, which accounted for 87% of the volume.

For the fifteenth consecutive year, New Bedford, Massachusetts, had the highest valued catch - $328.8 million for 140 million pounds - due mostly to the high price that sea scallops fetch on the market. Sea scallops accounted for more than 76.6% of the value of New Bedford landings.