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Fishery council slashes Northwest whiting harvest by 42%
A federal fishery council on Tuesday approved a 42 percent cut in the annual whiting harvest off Northwest coasts, an action spurred by...
Seattle Times staff reporter
A federal fishery council on Tuesday approved a 42 percent cut in the annual whiting harvest off Northwest coasts, an action spurred by surveys showing a long, steep decline in the ocean-spawning stocks of one of the region's most important commercial species.
Northwest and Canadian trawlers last year scooped up more than 322,000 metric tons (more than 700 million pounds) of whiting that was turned into fillets, the fish paste known as surimi and other products.
Under the harvest plan approved Tuesday by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, this year's harvest of the gray-skinned whiting would be about 184,000 metric tons.
"We had to make a change and take a more conservative approach," said Phil Anderson, the interim director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife who serves on the federal council.
He said surveys indicate the whiting's spawning biomass had fallen to the lowest levels ever observed.
The fish is caught by a mix of factory trawlers — many based in Seattle — that process at sea, and smaller trawlers that deliver to factory ships and shore plants, including the 600-employee Ocean Gold Seafoods in Grays Harbor.
The fishery last year enjoyed strong prices, with a harvest value of more than $50 million and much greater economic impact in the shoreside communities where the fish is processed and the fleet is based.
"This is a tough nut to swallow," said Brent Paine, of United Catcher Boats, which represents 17 boats. He said the cut will be a double whammy since it is expected to be accompanied by a substantial reduction in the price of whiting during this tough economy.
Even with the smaller harvest, scientific projections forecast that the whiting next year would be just above the levels considered to fit the legal definitions of an overfished stock.
Some conservationists thought the council should have been slashed still further.
"We recommended a 100,000-metric-ton harvest," said Ben Enticknap, a representative of Oceana, a marine-conservation group. "Any higher than that and you're walking right to the edge of the cliff."
Paine said fishermen were surprised by the scope of the approved reductions.
Last year, many fishermen reported a significant population of smaller fish in the harvest grounds, and they are hopeful that a biannual acoustic survey later this year will show that situation is not as dire as the forecasts.
It is unclear just what has caused the harvest decline. But the concerns have been building over the years.
In 2006, Bob Alverson, a Seattle-based member of the fishing industry who was then on the council, sought to scale back harvests. "I think we are pushing the limits," he said at the time.
But his proposal was rejected by the mix of industry, state and federal officials who sit on the council.
The council's recommendation Tuesday will be passed on to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which generally approves the council's actions.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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