Ensuring Sustainable Fisheries
Because of our science and the cooperation of our stakeholders, Alaska fisheries are among the most well managed and profitable fisheries in the world. Our research is relied upon by commercial and recreational fishermen, fishery-dependent processing and retail businesses, and Alaska Native communities to maintain their way of life.
We collect biological, ecological and environmental data from our research surveys and from fishing catches. In the laboratory and in the field we study what fish eat, where they live and how fast they grow. These data are put into models to generate estimates of fish stock abundance and safe catch limits. We also collect socio-economic data on fisheries and coastal communities. Resource managers use all of this information to develop management measures ensuring healthy fisheries over the long term. Healthy marine resources help to ensure jobs and food security.
Our primary responsibility is to provide scientific data, analyses and expert technical advice to marine resource managers (i.e., the NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Regional Office, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the State of Alaska, the International Pacific Halibut Commission, and the Pacific Salmon Commission), Alaska tribal governments, public stakeholders, and U.S. representatives participating in international fishery and marine mammal negotiations. The work of monitoring and assessing fish, crab and marine mammal populations, fisheries and marine ecosystems is mandated by legislation, which includes the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the U.S Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Research Surveys and Stock Assessments Support Sustainable Management of Alaska Fisheries
Using commercial fishing and research vessels, we collect data to estimate the size of fish stocks in Alaska. Managers use these stock assessments to set sustainable fishing quotas and other management measures to protect Alaska fish stocks and fish habitats. In 2017, we conducted 19 fisheries-independent groundfish and crab surveys in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea, providing information on the abundance, sex, size and age of fish and crabs. Within a few weeks after the surveys were completed, assessment scientists used these data to produce fish stock assessments. This year, 54 fish stock assessments were produced by Alaska Fisheries Science Center scientists.
A new modelling tool was adopted this year for the St. Mathew blue king crab. Scientists are also planning to use it to develop the assessment for the Bristol Bay red king crab. With this versatile tool, scientists can develop assessments in situations where data and information on a crab species are abundant or limited.
Assessing the Value of Resources and Socio-Economic Well-Being of Communities
Having sustainable fisheries is about having healthy fish stocks and profitable fishing businesses, and preserving traditional ways of life for local fishing and Alaska Native communities. We conducted 3,649 socioeconomic surveys of Alaska fishing participants and businesses. We also assessed the level of dependence on marine resources of 329 Alaska communities and their socio-economic well-being to provide marine resource managers with a scientifically sound rapid assessment of community resiliency over time.
This year, our scientists conducted economic performance reports for 10 species. In these reports we summarized catch, discards, prohibited species catch, ex-vessel and first-wholesale production and value, participation by small entities, and effort in Alaska fisheries. These performance reports are in addition to the annual Economic Status Report which covers all fisheries and sectors participating in crab and groundfish fisheries.
Process Studies Enhance Stock Assessments
By analyzing data collected during research surveys and by observers on fishing boats we can learn a lot about growth and natural and human-caused mortality of fish to better estimate the size and health of fish stocks.
By examining otoliths (fish ear bones), which contain growth rings like trees, we can determine the age of a fish and glimpse environmental conditions that may have affected its growth. Age and length measurements of fish also enable us to track distinct “year classes” or age groups of fish and improve our stock assessment models. Models were improved for eastern Bering Sea Tanner and snow crabs because new growth rate information was
incorporated into the models.
When we look at stomach contents, we gain insights into fish diets, predator-prey relationships and other factors affecting the productivity of fish stocks.
This year we measured 375,000 fish, gathered data from 45,260 otoliths and examined 18,872 fish and crab stomachs.
Eyes on the Water: Fisheries Observers
Observer data are used to successfully manage dozens of groundfish stocks and to monitor and ultimately reduce the amount of prohibited species, such as Chinook salmon and Pacific halibut, caught in groundfish fisheries. The goal is to ensure that other fisheries and communities that target Chinook salmon and Pacific halibut are able to catch what they need while ensuring a healthy Alaska marine ecosystem.
In 2017 we trained, equipped, and debriefed over 450 observers who were deployed for over 45,000 days at sea in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska. This represents nearly half of all sea days observed in the U.S. Observers collected data on board approximately 342 fishing vessels. Observer data were used to successfully manage dozens of stocks accounting for 60% of all seafood harvested from U.S. waters with a wholesale value of more than $4.2 billion annually. Observers also collect data on marine
mammals, including Steller sea lions, killer whales, and harbor porpoise, and seabirds such as endangered short tail albatross, which is used to monitor populations of threatened and endangered species.
Collaboration to More Effectively Monitor Fisheries Bycatch
In 2017 we continued work with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission to improve the method for estimating halibut discard mortality rates in groundfish fisheries in Alaska. We track the amount of Pacific halibut incidentally caught in trawl and fixed gear fisheries. Resource managers close commercial fisheries when the total mortality reaches an annually established limit to prevent overfishing of the halibut stock.
Research to Address Bycatch Impacts
This year, our genetics laboratory was able to determine the stock of origin of Chinook and chum salmon captured as bycatch in groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. These data help resource managers better understand and address the impacts of bycatch on local stocks and fishing communities targeting salmon.
Our researchers conducted studies that improved scientific understanding of survival rates of octopus caught in cod pots and from trawls. This new information made it possible for resource managers to revise estimates of octopus bycatch mortality and increase the limit of bycatch allowed in commercial fisheries avoiding fisheries shutdowns.
Refined Essential Fish Habitat Maps for Alaska Fish and Crab Stocks
Scientists refined Essential Fish Habitat maps for all major species of groundfish, crabs, and salmon in Alaska. Information on the environmental influences on species distributions was incorporated into the models used to generate these maps. Center staff, with input from the Alaska Regional Office, also produced a five-year research plan to guide future research and further improve the level of information for larval, juvenile and adult fish and crab species.