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Huge squid bycatch forces fishery to change course
The Associated Press
ANCHORAGE — They're pink, slippery and decidedly not cute, especially if you are a pollock fisherman in the Bering Sea pulling up a slew of unusable squid this summer.
The problem took on alarming proportions in early July when fishermen netted more than 500 tons of squid bycatch in one week, Josh Keaton, a resource management specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, said Friday.
The amount of squid was about four times what might be expected.
"We confirmed that the numbers were real and they really did catch that amount of squid. We then tried to find out where the squid were caught," Keaton said.
While high rates of squid bycatch had occurred before, this time it set off alarm bells because the squid were caught near the start of the mid-June-through-September pollock season.
"I just about had a heart attack. That is a lot of squid," said Karl Haflinger, president of Sea State Inc. of Seattle, which helps the industry manage bycatch, the unwanted and often wasted fish caught along with the targeted fish.
Fishermen in the Bering Sea are allowed a certain amount of squid bycatch each year. For 2006, the recommended amount was not to exceed 1,976 tons. As of July 15, the amount of bycatch was 1,403 tons. At 2,620 tons, the National Marine Fisheries Service would be looking at restricting the fishery.
"We don't want to get there," said Haflinger, who has helped craft an agreement with the pollock fleet to tackle the problem. "So we will keep out of the squid area for over the next month, probably."
The Bering Sea pollock fishery is the largest in the world with a total allowable catch of 1.5 million tons this year. The bland, white fish is what goes into a variety of popular products, including fast-food fish sandwiches, fish sticks and fake crabmeat.
John Gruver, with the trade organization United Catcher Boats, worked on the formal bycatch agreement with Haflinger. The agreement was presented Friday to the pollock cooperatives for review.
The small area in the southeastern Bering Sea tends to be very good for pollock, especially in the summer and fall, said Gruver, who fished the Bering Sea for nearly 20 years. It's not known exactly why so many squid are showing up in the area this summer.
Gruver said a letter was sent to the pollock fishing fleet about a week ago telling them to stay out of the Unmak Pass area.
"This is a sacrifice for the fleet," Gruver said.
Between 85 and 90 catcher boats — those that have to return to shore to drop off their fish for processing — could be fishing for pollock at any one time in the Bering Sea, he said. Most of the boats are out of Seattle, with some also coming from Oregon and California. Alaska has boats coming from Kodiak and other places.
Now, fishermen are having to travel hundreds of miles to find good fishing, Haflinger said, which is a hardship on the catcher boats that have only two or three days to get their fish to shore for processing.
"In order to stay out of the squid, they are running anywhere from 200 to 400 miles. They run that distance and fill up their boats and turn around and run back," he said.
The watery, gooey squid also are plugging up the trawlers' huge pollock nets, which typically measure 300 to 400 feet wide and 100 feet high, creating more drag and likely adding to fuel costs, said Rance Morrison, a fisheries biologist with NOAA in Dutch Harbor.
Some of the pollock fleet has moved 500 miles north to fish near the Russia-U.S. border.
"They are going to spend a great deal of time running back and forth to the fishing grounds," he said.
Even so, the strategy appears to be working. Squid bycatch plummeted from almost 550 tons in the first week of July to only about 4 tons so far this week, with the reporting period ending Saturday.
"I believe we have a handle on it," Gruver said.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company