Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Struggling with Observer Program

Commercial harvesters in the Southeast Alaska salmon drift gillnet
fishery, mandated for observation under the federal Marine Mammal
Protection Act, say changes are needed in the program because it’s
disrupting their fishery.

“It’s just a colossal waste of money,”
said B.J. King, a veteran commercial fisherman from Kent, Washington.
“They’re not telling us what they’re really after.

“I was observed twice this year, and it wasn’t a very pleasant experience,” he said.

realizes observers are just trying to do their job, but having somebody
operating a small vessel 10 feet off the back of your boat when you are
trying to clean the net off, counting fish and following you to the
tender, it’s irritating, King said.

“We haven’t come out with a
position for or against it, but there are a lot of things I would like
to see changed,” said Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast
Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance. One issue, said Hansen, is that other
fisheries required to be included in this program are being observed for
two years, but the National Marine Fisheries Service is looking at
doing Southeast Alaska over a period of six to eight years, because the
area is so big and spread out.

Random drawings that determine who
will be observed is one item Hansen would like to see changed. “I would
rather see them grid out the district and observe whatever boats are in
the area, because then you get coverage over the whole district,” she

Bridget Mansfield, the NOAA coordinator of the marine mammal
observe program, based in Juneau, said there are good reasons for this
observer program, contracted to Saltwater Inc., in Anchorage, and that
the contractor has done a good job.

Commercial harvesters have to
realize “that this is a public resource, and our charge is to protect
not only the fisheries, but what else is there, including marine
mammals,” she said.
“We don’t want to overly burden the
fishermen,” she said. “If this fishery is clean, we are not going to
impose any restriction on what they are doing, so we want to have the
documentation that says we don’t need to do anything. We really need to
find that balance.”

For any fishermen with concerns about the program, Mansfield can be reached at 1-907-586-7642 or at

an effort to iron out some of these issues, Mansfield was to meet with
representatives of the commercial fleet in Juneau on Dec. 3, in
conjunction with a board meeting of the United Southeast Alaska
Gillnetters, said Tom Gemmell, executive director of the organization.

hoping they can reduce it to three years,” Gemmell said. “2012 was the
first year for districts 6 and 8.” Plans are to do districts 11 and 15
next for two years and then the Ketchikan area for two years.

“The gillnetters move around a lot so the same people could be observed over and over again,” Gemmell said.

who grew up in Fairbanks, spent 47 years in the state before getting
tired of the cold and moving south, he said. He now fishes in Southeast
Alaska from May to September on his 40-foot boat. Of the 475 permit
holders in the Southeast Alaska gillnet fleet, only 105 of them live in
the Lower 48, he said.

King, for one, said when he was being
observed he did not go to a place where he normally fishes. “I don’t
want them knowing that I’m doing,” said King, who wants to assure that
word doesn’t get out about his best harvesting spots.

“I can
understand what they are trying to do; the science is laudable,” said
King. “Getting into my back pocket is not. Every fisherman I know is a

“Whatever is good for the fish, we’re all for, he
says. “They want to know if there are a bunch of knotheads running
around running over seals and whales.

“We are not chasing whales
like the tour boat industry does. Interaction is pretty rare. National
Marine Fisheries Service’s main concern is whales and sea lions, and the
population is growing every year. They are adept are coming to the net
and taking a bite out of the fish and moving on to the next one. They
(NMFS) don’t ask how many fish I lost to the sea lions. I think about 20
fish, predominantly chums, and that is where we make our money. That is
what we target. And when the kings are running, that is all we’re going
to catch,” he said.

King is also concerned about the forms
fishermen being observed are required to fill out, asking if they have
observed a whale or a bird or other wildlife in their nets, and also
what color the net is, how much the lead line weighs and how many corks
are in the net.

“If I have an interaction with a whale, I don’t
have a problem with them knowing, but where I fish and what equipment I
use, I don’t want them knowing,” he said.

According to Mansfield,
there is a reason for requesting that information on the forms, which
are being used nationwide under the observation program.

certain gear types in certain places do take marine mammals, NMFS wants
certain information on the gear, including color, to see if there is a
connection between gear types and color and incidents with marine
mammals, she said.

“We are not thinking there is any huge problem going on in this fishery, she said.

far reports show that for areas 6 and 8 there was one incident
involving a Dall’s porpoise that was released unharmed, a couple of
incidents where humpback whales interacted with nets, and a handful of
seabirds taken, mostly dead.

As long as these incidents do not
affect the population of the marine mammals or seabirds involved in a
negative way, the incidents do not become population concerns, she said.

also said that the issue of data confidentiality had come up during
meetings of her agency with fishermen. “We take data confidentiality
very seriously,” she said. “By statute, by presidential administrative
order, by law we have to keep this information confidential and our
contractors do too.

“Everyone working with the contractor for the
observer program is required to sign a non-disclosure form, and there
are serious consequences when it is breached.
“To my knowledge, this has not happened,” she said.