TRANSCRIPT - Dr. Jonathan Heifetz
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 dont know exactly how elsewhere
its been done in the past but I can tell you the way things
have gone in Alaska since Ive been here, about 20 years. I
started out here when the groundfish fishery was pretty much prosecuted
by the foreign fishery in the 70s, 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
There were a
few years when we didnt 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. Its been a quota
management system where the fishery has been set by quota and not
trying to regulate fishing effort. And thats something thats
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 Ive recommended
a catch quota the council has set their catch quota less than or
equal to what weve 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
theyve dropped down lower because weve 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
wont be over-fished because you cant 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 TACs 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
And most of
the fisheries in Alaska tend to be set at levels that I believe
are very conservative, and I think youd 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, Im sure, but it hasnt
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 its happened in New England?
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 Ive
mentioned, the catch quotas here have been set less than at or equal
to what the scientists are recommending. Im 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,
"Its just bad science." Theres a general attitude
of discounting the assessment data that the scientists are coming
up with. That hasnt been your experience here?
No, that hasnt
been my experience here at all. Theyve 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 whats going on also, but usually weve
been able to come to grips with it.
which is our sablefish fishery right now, weve just instituted
a voluntary logbook program where the fishermens input is
actually being put into the model as observations so theyre
being listened to, and if they feel that theyre part of everything
I think it goes a long ways to building a repoire between the fishermen
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 its a good idea to get the fishermen involved in this,
because that means therell be that many more people out on
the water doing this. Is this something the NMFS in Alaska is open
I think you
can never have too much data as a scientist. When youre doing
a stock assessment, the more data you have the better. Were
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 weve
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 theres
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?
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 theyd 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.
you mention Carl Walters concept about what Im 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 thats something that weve 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 wouldnt 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 cant fish.
Its a great concept but I think were 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 theres a Bristol Bay closure, which is a large area, and
theres what is known as the Great King Crab closure area
its another large area right in the middle of the Bering Sea.
Its known as a nursery area for Red King Crab, juveniles rear
there and thats 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
In addition to some closed areas and in addition to some lower quotas
that youve 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 theres
quite a few things that have taken place that I believe has me believing
that the Alaskan fisheries are sustainable. Weve used quota
management in which the decision makers, that is the Council, have
generally listened to the scientists. I think thats helped
things a lot. The fishermen have been receptive to looking at the
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.
observers weve 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 arent 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 theres probably some luck involved
with the whole thing. Talking to most biologists up here, were
in a really good environmental trend for certain stocks. It hasnt
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 werent there.
that we really need to be looking towards in the future to ensure
that our fisheries are sustainable is protecting the bottom habitat.
Its one of the things were most uncertain about: the
role of the habitat in the long-term productivity with fisheries.
We know that were 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
Regarding rockfish and flatfish, to what degree is by-catch a problem
in the Bering Sea?
know if its a problem, but there are fish that dont
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 theyre
likely very important for the long-term productivity of the fishery.
And thats something thats been monitored by observers
so we have an idea what is coming to the surface, what is being
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 dont know a lot
whats going down on the seafloor. We know that theres
damage to the seafloor caused by trawling gear. Hook and line fisheries
catch by-catch of coral and things like that. So we really dont
have an idea of whats 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 dont 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 wouldnt 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
Where are the groundfish and pollock being sold?
Almost all the
groundfish thats caught in Alaskan waters is destined for
markets in Japan, Korea and China, but I believe most of its
going to Japan.