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Fish Factor

Fishery observers program "restructured"


November 18, 2011

Coming soon to a small halibut boat near you: fishery observers.

New rules set for 2013 will change how observers are placed on fishing boats as small as 40 feet – and for the first time, they will be aboard longliners.

Onboard observers have been deployed on larger U.S. vessels since the early 1990’s, when fisheries were “Americanized” and all foreign fishing within a 200 mile zone of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska was terminated. Prior to that, fleets from Japan, Russia, Poland and other nations were tapping Alaska’s groundfish and crab resources starting in 1933.

Fishery observers, who are trained and overseen by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Monitoring and Analysis Division, do not play an enforcement role; rather, they take biological samples of the catch, track bycatch and collect other data for fishery managers and scientists. Observers also are on the job in Alaska processing plants during fish deliveries. Currently, there are about 400 observers working in Alaska’s seafood industry.

Observers were originally deployed according to vessel length. Boats less than 60 feet were exempt from coverage; vessels from 60-125 feet carried observers 30% of the time, and larger vessels had 100% or more coverage.

The “restructured” observer program will expand coverage to vessels “all the way down to 40 feet, and NMFS has the authority to place observers on vessels below that,” explained Julie Bonney, a trawl  industry consultant and director of Alaska Groundfish Data Bank in Kodiak.

And for the first time observers will be aboard longline vessels.

“There’s never been observer coverage in the IFQ halibut fisheries, so now we’ll have information from that sector, as well as all the small vessels,” Bonney said.  “We all have issues and we all need to work hard to address those. So getting that information will help us understand how we can move forward in the best practices.”

Another fisheries first - for both Alaska and the U.S. – collecting data via video cameras that monitor the catch.

“Vessels in the 40 to 57.5 foot sector that are not capable of carrying another person on board  can have that as an option,” Bonney explained.   

 “It’s kind of exciting because electronic monitoring has not been approved in any regional areas in the US as a monitoring tool. So this will really push the envelope to move that technology forward through the observer restructuring package.”

The 2013 launch of the retooled observer program depends on getting a $3.8 million jump start from Congress. Alaska is the only state where for over 20 years, the seafood industry has paid for fishery observer coverage.   Senator Mark Begich said it is time for the federal government to kick in a little.

 “We’ve been doing it all along with our own money. This is an important national resource it is a small amount that can be added to make sure we maintain our sustainable fisheries,” Begich said at a press conference.

 “The good news is that it has made it through the process to date, which is very positive. They are working under the financial limitations and caps of the budget, so that’s good,” he added.

Learn more about Alaska’s fishery observer program at .

AK opinions

A statewide poll of 802 Alaska voters done last month asked opinions of various public figures, industries and issues. The poll was done by research powerhouse Strategies 360 for the Bristol Bay Native Corporation and included voters from all demographics and regions.

A sampler:  54% said they believe Alaska is heading in the right direction; 27% said the economy and jobs is the most important issue facing Alaska today. 

The fishing industry got the highest favorable rating at 79% followed by the Alaska gas pipeline at 75%, and the oil and gas industry at 66%. 

Senator Lisa Murkowski had a 61% favorable rating, Governor Parnell was at 52%, Rep. Don Young at 51% and Sen. Mark Begich at 48%.   The Alaska legislature had a 45% favorable rating by voters. 

The proposed Pebble Mine ranked last among voters with an unfavorable rating of 54%.

Meanwhile, as exploration at the Pebble site expands, BBNC President and CEO Jason Metrokin said he worries that the state Dept. of Natural Resources simply doesn’t have the manpower to monitor a project the size of Pebble, along with other big development projects.

“From what we’ve seen the DNR has not been able to handle sizeable projects that are on the time and horizon today. The project is expanding, the potential footprint is getting larger, and there is a lot of activity happening in Bristol Bay today. We are not convinced the state is doing its part to monitor this exploration,” Metrokin said in a phone interview.  “But beyond that, if the Pebble project continues to go forward and they  get into a permit application phase late next year, is the state prepared to take on that process, knowing that there are several other development projects happening around the state? The DNR should be gearing up and staffing up and resourcing up now in order to prepare for something like that, and we just don’t see that happening.”

See the voter survey at

Fish watch

The Southeast red king crab fishery (201,000 pounds) ended Nov. 13. The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery (7.8 million pounds) wrapped up on the15th.  The halibut fishery ended on Nov. 18 and when all the final numbers are tallied, the catch should hit the 30 million pound target. Industry will find out at the end of November how much halibut might be available in 2012 when preliminary catch limits are unveiled by the International Pacific Halibut Commission in Seattle. The sablefish (black cod) fishery also ended on the 18th and it looks like nearly 3 million pounds might be left in the water from the nearly 27 million pound quota. The Bering Sea 2012 pollock catch is likely to be set at 1.08 million tons, down 180,000 tons from this year. 





This year marks the 21st year for this weekly column that focuses on Alaska’s seafood industry. It began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites. A daily spin off – Fish Radio – airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. My goal is to make all people aware of the economic, social and cultural importance of Alaska’s fishing industry to our state, the nation and the world. 


Laine can be reached at msfish[AT]
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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska


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