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Fish Factor

Crab rationalization program's first report troubling
By Laine Welch


May 15, 2006

By design, the slower pace of a "rationalized" fishery is supposed to help preserve and protect the stocks. But that was not the case for the first fishery that operated under the new Bering Sea crab plan.

The industry received the troubling news in a report just released by state biologists titled: "Estimates of Red King Crab Bycatch during the 2005/2006 Bristol Bay Red King Crab Fishery with Comparisons to the 1999-2004 Seasons." The report concluded that data collected "provided no indication that the first fishery completed under the crab rationalization program achieved the goal of reducing bycatch and discarding females and sub-legal males."

Based on observer data obtained during last fall's three month fishery, an estimated 5.8 million king crabs were returned to the sea, or a whopping 68 percent of the total catch limit. Small male crabs made up the largest component of discards at 53 percent, while females accounted for 35 percent of the bycatch.

Even more troubling was the amount of legal sized male crabs that were tossed overboard - 20 percent of all captured, according to crab biologist Doug Pengilly with the AK Dept. of Fish and Game in Kodiak, who co-authored the report with biometrician David Barnard. That adds up to nearly 700,000 crabs, or 3.6 million pounds out of the 18.3 million pound catch limit.

A practice called high grading was a main driver behind the dump of market size crab. "The real correlate with whether a legal crab was retained or not was its shell condition," said Pengilly, referring to the new or old appearance of the crab shells. Many industry reports said the number of barnacle encrusted king crab was also quite high. Simply put, processors paid higher prices for better looking product and the result was wide spread high grading.

Fishery managers are also concerned about increased pot lifts in the red king crab fishery. "If more legal crabs are being discarded, that results in an increased number of pot lifts to get to the catch quota. That also increases the handling mortality of female and small crabs," Pengilly said.

Crab scientists estimate that up to 25 percent of all discarded crabs die. Accordingly, managers have suggested a 25 percent drop in this year's red king crab catch quota in order to ensure conservation of the resource. According to market analyst John Sackton, that reduction could cost each boat $20,000 - $30,000 from the fishery this year.

Meanwhile, industry members and managers are already discussing ways to improve the crab discard problem. Many crabbers are calling for 100 percent retention of legal king crab, and fleet wide use of more selective fishing gear.

Find the Pengilly/Barnard report at

SMART GEAR WINNERS - Magnets, flexi-grids and flying bottle brushes were the winning bycatch reduction ideas in this year's international Smart Gear competition.

A first prize of $25,000 went to Michael Hermann of New Jersey, whose gear idea takes advantage of a shark's unique ability to detect magnetic fields through its snout. He placed strong magnets just above baited hooks on longlines, and found that it repelled sharks, while not affecting catches of tuna and swordfish. Longlines are the most widespread fishing gear, and Smart Gear judges said Hermann's idea addresses a problem that affects sharks around the world. It's estimated that 20 percent of all shark species are nearing extinction, and bycatch is a major contributor to the decline.

Two other inventions were awarded $5,000 prizes. Kkristian Zachariassen of the Faroe Islands created a light, flexible filter grid that is inserted into a trawl net. Grids are already used by many trawlers; however, non-target fish still get caught in the sides of the net or in front of the grid. The flexi-grid that allows water to flow through the net differently and fewer fish become entangled.

A flying bottlebrush that scares away sea birds was the other winning idea. Invented by Chris Carey of New Zealand, the gear consists of a rope that is clipped on to cables that pull trawl nets through the water. The rope has stiff streamers made out of strapping tape that bristle out and make the rope look like a moving bottlebrush. It is highly visible and keeps birds away from the fishing gear.

Along with the cash prizes, the winners also receive help in further testing and refining their gear. The Smart Gear competition was created by the World Wildlife Fund to reward and inspire innovative ideas to reduce bycatch of all kinds in fisheries. This year's contest attracted 83 entries from 26 countries, including four from Alaska. [Pictures of winning entries to follow]

SEA LICE SPREAD - Sea lice from salmon farms do indeed transfer to wild fish, and the spread is more far reaching than people thought. For years, many have dismissed that claim, but the precise science used in a British Columbia study makes the findings irrefutable.

Dr. Mark Lewis, a mathematical ecologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and grad student Marty Krkosek were able to isolate the effect of a single fish farm on infection levels in wild salmon. The farm was anchored in an isolated fjord that the wild fish had to pass on their seaward migration.

Lewis and his team tested 12,000 live juvenile pink and chum salmon over a range of 40 miles. The tests showed that the fish had no sea lice prior to the farm. Lice infection levels became 73 times higher than normal when the salmon neared the farm, and remained high for the duration of the 40 mile migration route. Overall, the study showed sea lice levels from the salmon farm were 30,000 times higher than natural conditions and they spread out fast.

Sea lice are parasites that live in the slime that covers the fish. The lice create open lesions on the fish surface; when their numbers are high enough, the lice literally eat the fish alive. The sea lice study, which hit the scientific press in February has already prompted unprecedented cooperation between fish farmers and wild harvesters, neither of whom want sea lice. In British Columbia, Marine Harvest, one of Canada's major fish farmers, said it will move its adult salmon to a site far away from migration routes. Similar moves of so called "area management agreements" are also being reported in Norway and Scotland. The B.C. sea lice and salmon study, which was funded by Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, most recently appeared in the April edition of Fisherman Life magazine.



Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her Fish Factor column appears weekly in over a dozen papers and websites. Her Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations across Alaska.

Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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