Report: Half of vessels in federally managed Alaska fisheries had observer coverage in 2023 

By: Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon

Alaska pollock, shown here from a harvest, make up the nation’s top-volume single-species commercial seafood catch. Pollock harvests are among those monitored through the North Pacific Observer Program. Alaska pollock is caught mostly in the Bering Sea, but harvests occur in the Gulf of Alaska as well. Pollock is processed into fish sticks, fish burgers, imitation crab meat and other common fish products. (Photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

On fishing vessels harvesting seafood from federal waters off Alaska, key information about performance and rule compliance comes from employees who observe the catches or from electronic equipment that monitors the amount and types of marine life that are brought aboard.

Because of concerns about salmon bycatch and the fishery-related deaths of marine mammals, there have been calls to increase observer coverage in the federally managed fisheries off Alaska.

About half the 463 vessels engaged in those federally managed fisheries last year had either human observers or electronic monitoring systems on board, said an annual report presented to fishery managers meeting this week in Kodiak. About 44% of the vessel trips were covered by such observations, the report said. Those percentages were a bit higher than those recorded in 2022, when about 44% of vessels had human observers or electronic monitoring, and about 40% of trips were covered.

The 2023 annual report for the North Pacific Observer Program was presented on Monday to the Scientific and Statistical Committee of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and on Tuesday to the council’s Advisory Panel. It is also to be presented in the coming days to the full council.

The report is produced by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

About 350 individual observers were trained and equipped to be deployed on vessels and report on the seafood catches in 2023, the annual report said. Their reporting duties included tallies of nontarget species accidentally netted, hooked or trapped, the annual report said. Those incidental catches, known as bycatch, include salmon and valuable fish, as well as marine mammals such as killer whales and seabirds. Some of the mammals and birds vulnerable to bycatch deaths have Endangered Species Act protections.

The cost of the program in 2023 was $11.7 million for full coverage, about $4.8 million for partial observer coverage and a little over $1 million for electronic monitoring of vessels in the partial-coverage category, the report said. Costs are borne by the fishing industry, though the federal government covers infrastructure costs, Jennifer Ferdinand, director of fisheries monitoring and analysis at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, told the committee.

While all vessels participating in federally managed harvests of groundfish are subject to observer requirements, actual coverage varies each year. Some vessels in 2023 had full coverage, meaning an observer or electronic monitoring system was always in place during harvesting, while others had partial coverage, meaning the observer or electronic monitoring was intermittent and random. Partial coverage was limited to vessels harvesting fish in the Gulf of Alaska, the report said.

Groundfish harvested in federal waters off Alaska and subject to observer requirements include pollock and Pacific cod. Also subject to those requirements are harvests of halibut.

This year, the agency is making some alterations to the observer program to gather better data in a cost-effective way, Geoff Mayhew, a biologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, told the committee.

“We want to make sure that we’re collecting the best and most data under this budget, keeping in mind that we have a limited budget, limited resources for monitoring. And so we wanted to find how could we have the best bang for the buck,” Mayhew said.

A key difference is that this year, there is observer coverage on vessels using multiple gear types, he said. Another difference concerns the geographic spacing, which is intended to avoid too-low sample sizes, he said.

Among the groups seeking an expansion of observer coverage is the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force. It has recommended full electronic monitoring coverage in Gulf of Alaska fisheries. The task force was established by Gov. Mike Dunleavy in 2021.