Sue Salveson is the Assistant Regional Administrator for Sustainable Fisheries at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau, Alaska.


Fishery managers say the pollock fishery in Alaska has some of the lowest percentage bycatch of any trawl fisher. Is this true?

Yes, the pollock fishery is primarily a pelagic trawl fishery. They fish off the bottom, but they do fish close to the bottom. And the bycatch rates in that fishery are very low relative to other trawl fisheries -- 2 to 4% of the overall harvest. The volume of the pollock fishery is high. So some of the bycatch amounts could be perceived as being large, but if you look at the overall rate relative to harvest, it is very, very small. And it is a well-monitored fishery. We have a lot of observers and a lot of catch reporting so we feel that we do have a pretty good feedback on what is actually being caught in that fishery through a monitoring program as well.

I've heard also that pollock fishery is the largest fishery in the world in terms of volume.

We have two fisheries -- one in the Gulf and one in the Bering Sea, and in total we probably harvest about 1.3 million metric tons. And the overall x-vessel value, in terms of value and volume, is probably the highest of Alaska, as well as in the United States.

Do you know offhand how much bycatch 2 to 4% of that is?

When they fish for pollock with pelagic trawl gear, it's close to 98%, if not higher, pollock. And when people talk about bycatch in the pollock fishery, they are primarily concerned about salmon bycatch, particularly recently, off western Alaska. Some of the runs have been very, very low and the governor has declared a state of emergency, basically, in those villages of western Alaska.

So there's a lot of attention being turned towards salmon bycatch in pollock fisheries and in the Bering Sea they're regulated by number. We have bycatch limits and when they're reached, we close certain areas off to further fishing. And those limits are right now about 42,000 Chinook salmon and a similar number of other species, like chum salmon. And we monitor these. I think last year we had about 13,000 Chinook salmon taken in the fishery estimate.

Halibut bycatch is also of concern. About 100 metric tons might be taken in the pollock fishery annually. And we recently passed regulations to prohibit anything but pelagic trawl gear in the Bering Sea pollock fishery and there may be interest to do this similar in the Gulf of Alaska.

But the Gulf of Alaska fishery is much smaller in terms of volume and the bycatch. And that fishery is smaller as well. But when you are comparing the million-plus metric tons taken in the pollock fishery -- and we're talking about 100 to 150 metric tons of bycatch of halibut perhaps -- we're talking about numbers of salmon that is very low.

What's in the rest of the bycatch?

There can be other species, miscellaneous fin fish, but to the extent that they are actually fishing off the bottom, we don't get much other fish. There might be some cod, very little flatfish. It's a pretty pure fishery when it's being conducted in a pelagic trawl mode.

There are some situations, in the Gulf particularly because it's not prohibited, where they do fish with bottom trawl gear. It's a smaller size fleet in terms of vessel size. Some of the vessels have difficulty using pelagic trawl gear and often the fleet or vessel operators will fish close to bottom to get a desired size of fish. And when you do fish close to the bottom your bycatch of other species increases accordingly. But still, relative to other fisheries it is a fairly clean fishery.

You mentioned that part of the management regime is to close a certain area when bycatch gets up to a certain level? Is that a spatial area? Can you speak to what degree areas in Southeast Alaska are closed?

We have quite a few trawl closures and general fishery closures that have been implemented for different reasons. We've got numerous areas that have been closed to fishing, specifically to trawl fishing, to protect sensitive habitat both in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

A lot of these closures have been predicated on concern about crab habitat -- sensitive areas during certain times of the crab lifespan that they want to protect. We have closures that are triggered by attainment of a particular fishery of an authorized bycatch amount of say, a species of crab, or halibut, or even salmon. And these are pre-designated areas that are known to have high bycatch rates.

So when a fishery reaches a bycatch limit of a particular species, large areas will be shut off, if not the whole entire Bering Sea or Gulf of Alaska, which is in the case of halibut. We closed the entire management area of that particular halibut bycatch. When it is reached, we close sub-areas when a crab, or herring, or salmon bycatch limit is reached. And it's tailored to our ability to manage bycatch and bycatch rates, in terms of which area we're actually going to close.

How do pollock trawlers and skippers have such great success in capturing only 98% of targeted fisheries?

I think it's the nature of the resource they are targeting on and the time of the year they are targeting on. Pollock are a schooling fish. And they typically target on dense schools, so there's not much else but pollock when you hit a ball of pollock.

But there's also a great deal of communication among the vessel operators, particularly in the Bering Sea where you have fishing co-ops which have been very, very conducive to exchange of information, with respect to salmon bycatch. And salmon bycatch is often a difficult thing for the fleet to deal with because salmon move around and you can have a hotspot in one particular, very defined area that moves.

So the extent that the fleet communicates among themselves, they can avoid areas of bycatch. And it appears to have been pretty effective -- in terms of the communication and the willingness of the fleet to communicate as a whole -- to try to reduce bycatch.

Carl Walters talked about how the cod fishery was thriving for centuries but that it was compromised by the technological advances implemented by fishermen. Do you think the management efforts are sufficient when they are up against boats out there that are so large?

I don't want to sound arrogant and never say never but I think that the way the North Pacific fisheries have been able to mesh science with management is fairly unique and it's certainly a different situation from the East Coast. And we have routine resource assessments through the Alaska Fishery Science Center to develop annual estimates of biomass. And the management of these fisheries, through the North Pacific Council with input from the industry and certainly the Agency, listen to the scientists. And I don't think ever have supported any quota that exceeds what the scientists feel the best information would support in terms of removals.

So there is a very close tie between the science and the management in these fisheries. And I think that probably minimizes the potential for mistakes for overfishing. And I can't say that it won't ever happen. But I think that largely, we are following a mode of management here that hopefully will prevent that.

The reliance on the observer information as an independent source of catch removals and mortality has been invaluable in gauging these harvests relative to quotas, and I think is also unique in this nation in terms of our monitoring system and our ability to actually understand what's going on.

In setting the quotas, the fishery scientists must have a sense on how quickly pollock replenish their numbers and so forth. Do they also look at the effect of removing huge numbers, just in terms of sheer biomass, from this part of the ocean and what effects that might have on other fisheries or other wild life?

There is a very definite recognition on the part of the scientists and the management agencies that we need to move towards an ecosystem's perspective -- interfacing the management with the science, with the needs of the ecosystem and predator-prey relationships. And each year, we actually develop an update to our knowledge base on an ecosystem's perspective -- on the status of the resource, the interface of the fishery and the needs of the ecosystem. And we're taking steps towards increasing our knowledge and we are doing so every year, but we've got a long ways to go.

Are the quotas set each year for pollock?

Yes. Each year we go through a process where we review the best available new information on status of stocks. Sometimes that new information involves resource assessments that had been completed the previous summer. Sometimes it's a new modeling approach that the scientists have come up with.

All this information is put together by our scientists, presented to the Council, reviewed and from that comes an allowable biological catch recommendations. And those are adjusted further by the Council to develop the quotas. And those adjustments are usually downward or they are the same as ABC and they are never over and above what the scientists feel the best available information supports in terms of a harvest.

Do you anticipate that the National Marine Fisheries Service might find some resistance when they start fine-tuning and looking for other impact on wildlife?

Sure. I want to state up front that the industry and the Council that we work with are very cognizant of resource conservation. But at the same time, as we move towards actions to affect fishing behavior -- how fisheries can conduct themselves and taking a precautionary approach -- we may not have the facts. But because we may not have the facts, we may be asking the fishery to cut back or to move out from desirable fishing areas to avoid a potential problem. And the science gets questioned because we are affecting people's ability to fish or hitting their pocketbook.

So understandably, we're being questioned; we're being challenged on the science probably from both ends. People who don't believe we're doing enough, people who believe we are doing too much and when you're not dealing in an environment where you don't have all the facts before you, you're doing the best that you can trying to meet the objective that you want to meet. And taking a precautionary approach that hurts people's pocketbooks certainly will be challenged.

I hear that most of the flatfish and the rockfish are being exported to Asia, mostly to Japan. How about the pollock? There's a huge amount of pollock being harvested. Where's it going?

There are three main products that are being produced from the pollock industry. The highest value product is roe, and that's harvested when the fish are just prior to spawning in the February/March period. And that mostly goes to Asia.

Surimi is a product that's a flesh product that primarily goes back East as well. And then there's some fillet market and that's what primarily is used in this country in terms of the fish burgers that you see at McDonald's or whatever. It's kind of a replacement product that's used interchangeably with cod, in terms of a fillet product.

Some of the companies that are involved in these fisheries might exert pressure through their lobbies in Washington that may at times constrain or influence your Agency, or try to water down some of your recommendations?

I think there is definitely influence in Washington DC, but I think that might be allocative ramifications. I feel pretty confident that the agency I work for is not compromised in terms of conservation of the resource. Certainly things go on back in DC in terms of who might get the right to fish and things like that, but in terms of the bottom line in removals, based on the best available science, I don't think we're compromised in that.

I am aware of the case in Gloucester, where on the one hand, the National Marine Fisheries Service is being sued by Gloucester because they say that they are not allowed to open enough cod fisheries that have been closed, and then on the other hand by some environmental groups that feel that they are not living up to the Sustainable Fisheries Act and they are not closing enough fisheries. How does it feel as a part of this Agency to be taking it from both sides?

We have entered an era of litigation that has been unprecedented, to my knowledge, with this Agency. And to be quite candid, it's bringing us to our knees in terms of diverting staff time. Staff work to respond to litigation issues, declarations, court time, et cetera. So it is a concern, I think to a lot of us, where our resources are diverted from where we should go in terms of focusing on new information, status of resources and science or whatever, and focusing more on just litigation.

But you're right; both sides hit you at any one time. It is frustrating and I don't see us beginning to dig our way out of it for some time.

With these local fishery management councils, it seems like a lot of environmental groups sue because they feel that the industry has too much influence on policy-makers and the management, and if they don't sue it will be business as usual. Is there an inherent weakness in the way that we have set up the National Marine Fisheries Service that people always have to be suing the federal government?

I don't know if it's a weakness. I think there's legitimacy to a concern about lack of representation on some councils, from an environmental perspective. I don't know about all councils, but there's not an environmentalist on our Council. And I also believe that they probably have some concern that they may be heard but not really listened to in the Council forum.

But we have to remember that the Council forum and the recommendations that come from that is just one part of the public process and the public environmental groups do have plenty of opportunity for input at the federal level, because whatever comes out of the Council has to come through us through rule-making opportunity for public review and comment. And that's where they do a very good job in terms of laying out their issues and forcing us to respond to them. And of course, if they don't like the response that they get, there are lawsuits.

I think overall, the environmental groups are quite powerful. I mean they are literally bringing this region to its knees, in terms of responding. I don't think it's a bad thing. It forces us all to be introspective about how we approach our job and what we do. But it is frustrating as a fellow employee to hear the people I work with and my Agency being chastised for decades and decades of mismanagement, because I don't think that's true. Nonetheless, I think that our eyes are being open and we are perhaps taking a different perspective on how we do business.

In another recent suit, the ruling told NMFS it didn't do enough research on which areas to open and close in terms of it having potential impacts on critical habitat for steller sea lions. Do you want to respond to this suit?

Our response to the court order, which was to close all commercial groundfish trawling in steller sea lion critical habitat, is to issue notice and rule-making to carry out the judge's order. We have no choice; we have to do that. And that order and those closures will be in effect until we prepare a comprehensive biological opinion looking at all the effects of not only the groundfish fisheries, but all fisheries in our waters in terms of their impact on the endangered steller sea lion.

And we are scheduled to complete that document at the end of October and my understanding is that the judge is going to have to review that and make some assessment as to whether it's legally adequate, and then decide whether or not to lift the court order.

The more unique facets of our fishery are our monitoring and our observer program and I want to highlight that we are very fortunate, I think, to have an industry that pays for this program so that we can benefit from the quality data. And I think that enhances our knowledge and our ability to say that this is one of the best-managed fisheries in the world.

Did you say that industry pays for the cost of this program?

Yes, industry pays for the cost of observers. We pay the administrative costs certainly, in terms of our staff and what all, but industry pays, through private observer providers, the cost of getting a person out on the boat and paying for them. And those costs average about $300 a day. And they can go higher.