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Feature: Cooperative Research to Reduce the Effects of Bering Sea Flatfish Trawling on Seafloor Habitat and Crabs

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Scientists and fisherman working together to repair a sweep recapture net on board the chartered fishing vessel Pacific Explorer. Photo by Diana Evans. 

CONSERVATION ENGINEERING, AS IT RELATES TO FISHERIES SCIENCE, is the research and development process to bring new and innovative techniques to commercial fishing operations that reduce bycatch and other unintended effects on non-target components of the marine ecosystem. For more than 50 years, conservation engineering has been part of the mission of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) and its predecessors. Continuing those efforts, scientists from the Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering (RACE) Division have actively collaborated with the Bering Sea flatfish fishing industry to develop fishing gear changes that reduce effects of flatfish trawling on seafloor habitats of the eastern Bering Sea shelf.

The cooperative research project to reduce the effects of Bering Sea flatfish trawling on seafloor habitat and crabs resulted in the development and demonstration of a relatively simple modification to trawl sweeps that reduces effects on seafloor animals while maintaining their ability to herd flatfish for capture. While from the outset, most in the flatfish industry were supportive of the modifications to reduce impacts on seafloor habitat and crabs, especially since the research showed no negative effects on target catch rates, implementation of this gear modification involved some cost to fishermen. In addition to the gear-up costs of the modified sweeps, these modifications make gear handling more difficult and may require some changes to deck machinery.

To level the playing field, avoid “free rider” (those not using modifications getting the same benefit as those that do) issues, and ensure that benefits were as large as possible, the flatfish industry group that had been involved in the research and development from the outset (through the Best Use Cooperative, a Bering Sea fishing cooperative targeting mostly flatfish) supported moving forward with the sweep modification as a requirement for any Bering Sea vessel targeting flatfish. With this support from industry, the task of creating regulations and specifying the exact requirements in regulations was greatly facilitated.

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