Trawl Industry on West Coast Brings Rockfish to Market while Avoiding Salmon Bycatch

SEAFOODNEWS.COMĀ [Seafood News] by Susan Chambers – February 8, 2018

Two pilot programs in the West Coast groundfish industry have proven effective at harvesting valuable rockfish while avoiding bycatch of salmon species.

The annual catch limits (ACLs) for several rockfish species increase in 2017 as new stock assessments showed they were rebuilt — and in some cases had not been overfished at all. Regardless, the increase in harvestable rockfish in 2017 and subsequent years could have gone largely untouched without the industry pulling together to get exempted fishing permits (EFPs) into regulation. The trawl fleet was beholden to out-of-date management rules, even while operating under a new, rationalized program that included 100 percent observer coverage and accountability.

“U.S. West Coast rockfish had basically had been off the market for 16 years and then increased by magnitudes overnight,” Pacific Seafood’s Mike Okoniewski said. Pacific Seafood was one of the original EFP applicants.

The need then became to find a way to harvest a product that had lost retail attention since 2000 and to ignite market demand. Fishermen could harvest pelagic rockfish with midwater gear during the Pacific hake season — May 15-Dec. 31, but that coincided with pink shrimp, halibut, hake and salmon hitting peak production. Processors and distributors missed the opportunity to market for Lent earlier in the year.

“January 1 until May 1 arguably is the best time to hit the market with rockfish,” Okoniewski said. “The Lenten season arrives and seafood consumption spikes. Plants are looking for work for their employees at this time in order to stabilize their work forces.”

The 2017 EFP started late, in March, but the 2018 EFP started in January, giving fishermen and processors time to prepare for Lent.

Moreover, salmon bycatch in both EFPs turned out to be very low. In years where directed salmon fisheries were limited due to poor returns or poor forecasted returns of some species, this was a huge hurdle the trawl industry had to overcome.

Eleven vessels participated in the 2017 EFP fishing shoreward of the Rockfish Conservation Area that runs from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. They made 63 deliveries totaling close to 3 million pounds for an ex-vessel value of $1.6 million — all while catching only five salmon. Sixteen midwater trawlers fishing within the RCA boundaries during the primary hake season (May 15-Dec. 31) made 154 trips for a total of 12.5 million pounds of groundfish worth $3.5 million. Their incidental catch of salmon was 37 Chinook.

So far in 2018, preliminary figures near the end of January show five midwater trawlers made 13 trips, caught 1.3 million pounds of groundfish with an ex-vessel value of $351,858 — while encountering no salmon at all. Bottomfish trawlers also encountered no salmon while harvesting 181,716 pounds of groundfish worth $102,108.

“This EFP was the product of an unusual, but increasingly common collaboration on the West Coast among fishermen, processors and NGOs who understand the potential of this fishery and really want to maximize it,” Environmental Defense Fund spokesman Shems Jud said. EDF was an applicant for both the 2017 and 2018 EFPs.

“What we’re seeing is extremely promising,” Jud said. “At this point it looks like the EFP will enable more than 10 million additional pounds of rockfish to be landed with vanishingly low bycatch, leading to much greater revenue for industry and the creation of potentially hundreds of new jobs.”

The Oregon Trawl Commission was another applicant on both EFPs. The commission was one of the leaders on encouraging the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service to get rid of the archaic regulations hampering the trawl industry. The PFMC approved the so-called “gear package” in 2016 but NMFS has not yet implemented it. The EFPs effectively implement some of the changes included in that gear package.

“We’re finally getting a glimpse of what the fishery will look like once it’s fully rationalized,” OTC Director Brad Pettinger said. “This could be what it looks like once we get the gear package through — like we were promised.”

For now, while trawlers are bringing in rockfish via the EFPs, others are working on markets.

The Trawl Commission, EDF, processors such as Pacific Seafood, Bornstein Seafoods and California Shellfish; the Marine Stewardship Council, Oregon and Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon State University are finding ways to generate public interest in rockfish — again.

“The result, while far from completion, is full time employment for our teams, millions of additional pounds for our fishermen to harvest, and a comeback for U.S. seafood against the tidal wave of imports that now dominates U.S consumption,” Okoniewski said.

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