Gulf of Alaska longliners targeting sablefish (black cod) will get protection from hook-robbing whales by being able to fish with pots starting next year. 

Pots strung together on longlines have been used in the Bering Sea to protect sablefish catches from killer whales since 2008.  An analysis by North Pacific Fishery Management Council staff in 2013 showed that when killer whales were present when gear  was retrieved during the annual stock survey, the whales removed 54 to 72 percent of the sablefish from hooks.

At prices ranging from $4 to more than $9 a pound, depending on fish size, “getting whaled” adds up to a bad pay day for fishermen.

“A study in the Western Gulf and Bering Sea on six vessels a few years ago estimated an additional $980 per vessel day for additional fuel, food and costs for lost time because of sablefish loss. Estimated fuel costs associated with those sets were 82 percent higher,” said Rachel Baker, a fisheries management specialist at 

Total estimated sablefish catch removals by killer whales during 1995-2016 ranged from 1,235 tons to 2,450 tons in western Alaska areas, according to Council documents.

Killer whale depredation was more severe (catch rates declined by 45 percent-70 percent) than sperm whale depredation (the decline was 24 percent-29 percent).

It’s sperm whales that are the sablefish pirates in the Gulf, where an estimated 651 tons to 1,204 tons of sablefish have taken between from 2001-2016.

The new gear can be used throughout the Gulf, with some added protections to prevent conflicts between pots and longlines in the Eastern portion.

“In the Southeast area, anyone using longline pot gear for sablefish will have to remove all of their gear from the fishing grounds when they go in to make a landing,” Baker said.

The sablefish and halibut fisheries occur at the same time and many longliners hold quota shares of each. In that case, Baker said fishermen catching legal sized halibut in pots can retain it. 

“As long as they have sufficient shares of the catch, they are required to keep that halibut,” Baker explained. “The Council thought it was an important concept from a management perspective to reduce discards and promote efficiency in fishing.” 

Many fishermen who want to switch to pot gear will likely be stymied by the cost. Buying pots and making the necessary vessel conversions could cost as much as $100,000.

“So we're likely to have limited numbers of fishermen switching to pot gear right away and possibly even down the road,” Baker said. “In fact, most sablefish fishermen in the Gulf are likely to continue to use hook-and-line gear due to the costs and the infeasibility of using pot gear on smaller vessels.”

The new rules go into effect next March and will be reviewed fully after three years.

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