John Heifetz is a fisheries research biologist at Auke Bay Fisheries Lab in Juneau, Alaska.

What is different in terms of how groundfish management is conducted in Alaskan waters and in New England?

Okay, I can answer that by saying first I don’t know exactly how elsewhere it’s been done in the past but I can tell you the way things have gone in Alaska since I’ve been here, about 20 years. I started out here when the groundfish fishery was pretty much prosecuted by the foreign fishery in the 70’s, and then with the Magnuson Act in 1976 became a domestication of the fishery. Even when the foreign fishery was here they tended to be pretty conservative and we had observers on the foreign boats so that sort of just came in when the domestic fishery started well that pretty much slid right in.

There were a few years when we didn’t have observers on the boats. And in the early 90s we were dealing with a large observer program, where basically people were watching the fishing. It’s been a quota management system where the fishery has been set by quota and not trying to regulate fishing effort. And that’s something that’s different between New England and Alaska — the use of more quota management here instead of trying to manage fishing effort.

As far as on the scientific end for the most part, every time I’ve recommended a catch quota the council has set their catch quota less than or equal to what we’ve recommended. I think the fishermen in Alaska are looking at this as a long-term sustainable fishery and they want it to be around a long time. And I think in other places in the world they want that also but maybe things have gotten a little bit out of hand.

Has the Pacific Fisheries Management Council really dropped the TAC for groundfish stocks lower than the scientists are recommending?

In some cases they’ve dropped down lower because we’ve got things like halibut and crab that are caught as by-catch in some of these other fisheries. So our TACs are often set at lower levels so those fisheries won’t be over-fished because you can’t just catch one species of fish. When you go fishing oftentimes you catch other kinds of fish that are being fished by other fishermen.

A major example of that is the flatfish fisheries — the ABC, which is the Acceptable Biological Catch, is often much, much higher than the TAC, the Total Allowable Catch, because of concerns about by-catch, like halibut and crab and other fisheries.

Carl Walters was saying that as a rule of thumb, talking about a series of different fisheries, the TAC’s ought to be set at 1/2 the mortality rate of adult fish in the population. Does that make sense to you?

It makes some sense. Our fishing rates are a little bit higher than that. Most of our fishing rates are set based on spawning potential and as far as natural mortality rate goes, some of our rockfish fisheries we set at about 3/4 of natural mortality rate or equal to the natural mortality rate.

And most of the fisheries in Alaska tend to be set at levels that I believe are very conservative, and I think you’d get that consensus talking to most of the scientists and biologists involved with it up here. Half of natural mortality, yes that would be very conservative and it would also work in the long run, I’m sure, but it hasn’t been that conservative here.

Is it your sense, as a part of the NMFS, that the fishing industry interests that are represented in the North Pacific Management Council have also had a pattern of resisting lower quotas or conservation measures like it’s happened in New England?

My dealings with the North Pacific Council have been that they have always been receptive to my dealings with them; to listening to the biologists and giving biologists the fair shake and for the most part, as I’ve mentioned, the catch quotas here have been set less than at or equal to what the scientists are recommending. I’m not saying that the scientists are necessarily right, but the Council has listened to the scientists.

Something we heard a lot in New England from fishermen and from people in the industry, regarding the assessment data and so on, "It’s just bad science." There’s a general attitude of discounting the assessment data that the scientists are coming up with. That hasn’t been your experience here?

No, that hasn’t been my experience here at all. They’ve often listened to us. Sometimes there are controversial things that come up and there are arguments here and there on whether the data is adequately representing the stocks. Fishermen are out there a lot more than we are, they have a sense of what’s going on also, but usually we’ve been able to come to grips with it.

Another example, which is our sablefish fishery right now, we’ve just instituted a voluntary logbook program where the fishermen’s input is actually being put into the model as observations so they’re being listened to, and if they feel that they’re part of everything I think it goes a long ways to building a repoire between the fishermen and scientists.

Carl Walters feels that basically fisheries management and data assessment need to increase not just by just adding a few dozen more people out there, but by orders in magnitude. Therefore he thinks it’s a good idea to get the fishermen involved in this, because that means there’ll be that many more people out on the water doing this. Is this something the NMFS in Alaska is open to?

I think you can never have too much data as a scientist. When you’re doing a stock assessment, the more data you have the better. We’re dealing with, in Alaska, a very large geographical area. We have surveys that are every other year for some groundfish, and then we have other surveys that take place every single year. And we’ve had advantage with some of these surveys. For example, the blackcod sablefish survey and I believe for halibut, where there was a charter vessel that was able to retain the catch and sell the catch, so the NMFS put scientists on the boat. We called the shots, but we were able to offset a lot of that cost by the value of the fish, which is a win-win situation.

We use the same type of gear that commercial fishermen use; we control it so there’s a lot of controls, but by doing that you can really get an idea whether the stocks are going up or down.

Can you comment on the large areas that are closed to fishing in the groundfish fishery here that you are managing, do you think it had a lot to do with the fact that the ground fishery here has been a sustainable fishery here?

Southeast Alaska, about 3 or 4 years ago I believe, was closed off to all bottom trawling and that was done, mostly I believe, with the idea of habitat protection. There was definitely some politics behind that. Southeast Alaska tends to be dominated by lots of small boat fishermen in Sitka, in Petersburg and the factory trawler fleet was coming up and in Sitka they’d see them outside on their fishing grounds.

So there was definitely some politics behind it but there was also the concern about the habitat. So outside the waters of Southeast Alaska was closed to bottom trawling.

It’s interesting you mention Carl Walters’ concept about what I’m calling open areas, instead of calling them closed areas. You just open part of the ocean to fishing and basically close the rest of it. And that’s something that we’ve been thinking about and looking at as a possibility. It would be great if you could have sustainable fisheries that take place in certain areas where you knew you wouldn’t be harming the habitat and still have your fisheries. So with that comes you need to really know what a habitat looks like, what areas you can fish what areas you can’t fish. It’s a great concept but I think we’re probably a long ways from there right now.

Are other areas beyond Southeast Alaska closed to factory trawlers that are ground fishing?

In the Bering Sea there’s a Bristol Bay closure, which is a large area, and there’s what is known as the Great King Crab closure area — it’s another large area right in the middle of the Bering Sea. It’s known as a nursery area for Red King Crab, juveniles rear there and that’s basically been closed to bottom trawling through the idea of protecting Red King Crab, which was a stock that basically declined due to environmental conditions and possible over-fishing in the 70s. It was one of the largest fisheries in the world at that time.

In addition to some closed areas and in addition to some lower quotas that you’ve already talked about, is there anything else that comes to mind on why you feel the ground fishery in Alaskan waters is pretty much operating in a sustainable way?

I think there’s quite a few things that have taken place that I believe has me believing that the Alaskan fisheries are sustainable. We’ve used quota management in which the decision makers, that is the Council, have generally listened to the scientists. I think that’s helped things a lot. The fishermen have been receptive to looking at the data.

And actually some of the council members were ex-fishermen, but some of them were actually scientists at one time. So I think that has helped things quite a bit.

The fisheries observers — we’ve had observers on most of the large boats, the domestic fisheries since the early 1990s and they were there for a number of reasons. They were not there really for enforcement reasons but to collect biological information, where things like the by-catch — the idea of not only what is being caught, what is targeted, but the animals that aren’t really being marketed but animals that are all part of the ecosystem — and we were able to monitor that.

And I think just in general the long-term outlook on things has really helped the fisheries up here, and there’s probably some luck involved with the whole thing. Talking to most biologists up here, we’re in a really good environmental trend for certain stocks. It hasn’t been beneficial to things like crab, but Pollock, Pacific Cod, things like that have been doing really, really well, and 25 years ago those stocks really weren’t there.

Another thing that we really need to be looking towards in the future to ensure that our fisheries are sustainable is protecting the bottom habitat. It’s one of the things we’re most uncertain about: the role of the habitat in the long-term productivity with fisheries. We know that we’re disturbing the habitat with some of our fisheries. So I think protecting the habitat is something that should be in these plans and it will help insure possible problems with environmental conditions. It just gives you more of a safeguard on things if you are protecting the areas actually where the fish live.

Regarding rockfish and flatfish, to what degree is by-catch a problem in the Bering Sea?

We don’t know if it’s a problem, but there are fish that don’t have a whole lot of commercial value that are caught in a lot of these fisheries — not only fish, there are invertebrates; corals are caught — and those are all part of the ecosystem and they’re likely very important for the long-term productivity of the fishery. And that’s something that’s been monitored by observers so we have an idea what is coming to the surface, what is being caught.

But a question that comes into my mind oftentimes is this is what we see on the surface; we catch a piece of coral, but we don’t know a lot what’s going down on the seafloor. We know that there’s damage to the seafloor caused by trawling gear. Hook and line fisheries catch by-catch of coral and things like that. So we really don’t have an idea of what’s going on down there on the seafloor.

In Alaska one of the things that we really need here is some idea of what the seafloor looks like. Oftentimes we just have the basic metric maps and we don’t have a really good idea of the habitat types. Different types of habitat are affected by different types of gears in different ways, and if we knew what the bottom looked like in areas we could manage the fisheries so we wouldn’t fish in these sensitive areas.

How big are boats going after these fish?

The boats range from large factory trawlers in the 200-foot and bigger range down to your smaller long-line vessels located in Southeast Alaska, which are in the 30-foot range. So we have a range of vessels, the whole gamut basically.

Where are the groundfish and pollock being sold?

Almost all the groundfish that’s caught in Alaskan waters is destined for markets in Japan, Korea and China, but I believe most of it’s going to Japan.