The black and white underwater video shows hundreds of small shrimp streaming down the throat of the net and through a metal grate. Then a halibut comes into view and is deflected off the grate and out a v-shaped hole at the top of the net to live another day. The halibut is followed by an even larger halibut that also escapes the net.
“That is the footage that changed the fishery.” said Jeff Boardman. “It sold the idea of using grates to the fishermen on the coast.”
Boardman is captain of the Miss Yvonne out of Newport, Ore. He started fishing for Oregon pink shrimp in 1980. Several years ago, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife marine biologists attached an underwater video camera to a trawl net towed by the Miss Yvonne that captured what was actually going on underwater.
Called a bycatch reduction device, or sometimes simply as an excluder, by the ODFW biologists working at ODFW’s Marine Resources Program, the device is a circular metal grate with evenly-spaced bars placed in the throat of a trawl net at a slight angle. The spacing of the bars is large enough to let the pink shrimp through, but small enough to deflect fish up and out a v-shaped escape hole at the top of the net.
The resulting catch contains pink shrimp and very little else. This trawl fishing method helped make Oregon pink shrimp the world’s first sustainable shrimp fishery certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. The certification was official in December 2007.
Now a small fish, called eulachon or sometimes Pacific smelt or Columbia River smelt by Oregonians, is putting the fishery at risk. In March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed the eulachon population off the California, Oregon and Washington coasts as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Eulachon once swarmed from the ocean up the Columbia, Cowlitz, Lewis and Sandy rivers in huge spring migrations. These runs were a mainstay of Northwest Native Americans, the fish became known as the savior fish because they provided a plentiful food source, rich in fat, after lean winters.
In recent years the eulachon’s numbers have dwindled to near historic lows.
The smelt are small enough they can sometimes slip through larger excluder grates and become bycatch in the pink shrimp fishery. In fact, that is one of the threats to the fish NOAA listed – along with climate change, reduced water flows in spawning streams, predation by seals, sea lions and birds, water management and habitat changes in the Klamath and Columbia river basins.
“We don’t know why the eulachon population is in decline,” said biologist Bob Hannah, the pink shrimp project leader for ODFW. Part of their life is in saltwater before returning to freshwater to spawn. “Like other fish that spend part of their life in the ocean and part in the rivers, ocean conditions and river conditions play a huge role. If one of them is out of whack, populations can drop.”
Hannah and his co-worker Steve Jones have studied pink shrimp for ODFW for more than two decades. They started developing bycatch reduction devices in collaboration with the industry in 1994, stepping up research after the Pacific Fisheries Management Council listed some species of Oregon rockfish as over fished around 2001. The grate virtually eliminated rockfish bycatch, now they aim to do the same with eulachon by further reducing the spacing between bars.
In a 2010 study, Hannah and Jones showed a greater than 16 percent reduction of eulachon bycatch by going from a grate with one-inch spacing to one with ¾-inch spacing. The good part is there was no reduction in the shrimp catch.
“The feds have already singled out the shrimp fishery as one that may have an impact on the rebuilding of the smelt population,” Boardman said. “So it’s really important that we get ahead of this.”
To that end the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission this month mandated smaller spacing between the bars of the excluder grates to further reduce the bycatch of eulachon. The maximum bar spacing will be one inch during the 2011 season and go down to ¾ inches in the 2012 season.
“Some of the top producers on the coast used the ¾-inch grates this last season, so it was a pretty easy sell,” Boardman said.
But not all the shrimpers agree with the decision.
A shrimper for 31 years, Nick Edwards, of Coos Bay, is one of the largest producers on the West Coast. He said his catch last season was 1.8 million pounds.
“My suggestion was that we go to a 7/8-inch and then go to ¾ if need be,” Edwards said. “Don’t get me wrong, the grate is the best thing to come along. It’s really made it a sustainable fishery and a better product as well. But we really don’t have any place to go once we start using ¾.”
Edwards said he and the other Oregon shrimpers have had some of the biggest catch per unit effort in history in the last couple of years. This last year the Oregon fishery landed 31.4 million pounds of pink shrimp, the best season since 2002 when landings were 40 million pounds.
“With those big catches you won’t notice the 8 or 10 percent loss from the smaller ¾-inch grate, but in other years it may make a difference,” he said.
“I’m not saying the grates are a bad thing,” Edwards continued. “It’s the best thing we could ever do for our fishery to make it clean and sustainable. Being the first shrimp fishery to be MSC certified is huge for us.”
Jones, a biologist, said that in the ODFW studies the smaller grate size did not decrease the size of the catch. He and Hannah are also looking at other changes to shrimp trawl gear, like changes in footrope configuration, which may result in reducing eulachon bycatch still further.
Boardman hopes the California and Washington shrimp fisheries will follow Oregon’s lead and adopt the same regulations for bycatch reduction devices.
“Even if the state said you didn’t have to use them, I don’t think anyone in the fleet would take them off,” Boardman said. “The fishery has come a long ways in the last 10 years. It’s a fishery that’s well managed and ahead of many other fisheries.”
To see the video of the halibut escape described at the beginning of this story, please go to: http://www.dfw.state.or.us/MRP/research/index.asp