Arctic Science Journeys
Radio Script

trawler photo
A factory trawler offloads its catch of pollock at Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Photo courtesy At-sea Processors Association.

Industry Funds Sea Lion Science

INTRO: While scientists insist they don’t have enough information to blame anyone for the decline of Alaska’s Steller sea lions, fishermen—who catch the fish sea lions eat—have taken the brunt of the blame. Now, as Doug Schneider reports in this week’s Arctic Science Journeys Radio, fishermen themselves are paying for research aimed at understanding their role in Bering Sea declines.

STORY: This summer, scientists will head out to Alaska's Bering Sea in hopes of learning why Steller sea lion populations and other marine species have plummeted. You might think money for such research would come from any of several state and federal agencies that manage these resources. But in fact, the research is being funded by commercial fishermen themselves.

Heather McCarty is the Alaska Affairs director for the At-sea Processors Association, an industry organization of factory trawlers that catch and process pollock in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.

McCARTY: "There seems to be a lot of scientific uncertainly about the Bering Sea in particular and the Gulf (of Alaska) as to the condition of the resources, both the fish resources and the marine mammal and other resources. We don't have the information that we need as an industry—and I'm saying 'we' including the management folks—to properly sort out the scientific issues that confront us now."

To help scientists do that, the Pollock Conservation Cooperative, an arm of the At-sea Processors, recently donated more than one million dollars to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to study everything from sea lion diets and ocean currents, to the distribution of pollock in waters off Alaska. Dr. Andrew Trites is a marine mammal researcher at the University of British Columbia. He received a grant to study whether pollock that fishermen catch are also fish needed by sea lions.

TRITES: "The central issue is how much competition is actually occurring between Steller sea lions and commercial fisheries. And what we want to do is try to estimate how much overlap there is between the foraging range of Steller sea lions—in other words, where they're going to get food—and where commercial fisheries are operating. The other thing we want to look at is the distribution of Steller sea lions within critical sea lion habitat relative to the distribution of fishing."

Another project entails installing devices called acoustic data loggers on pollock vessels. The device works much like a fish finder, allowing scientists to plot the location, size and depth of fish schools encountered by the pollock fleet. Dr. Terry Quinn, a UAF fisheries scientist, will lead the study.

QUINN: "Ideally, if you have these things on all the time as the fishermen are going about their business, they're encountering (pollock) schools all along their way. Over time, what you're seeing is the effect of fishing on the distribution of fish schools. You see if they're (pollock stocks) becoming smaller, if they're becoming less dense."

Other researchers will study the distribution of pollock, the role of killer whales in sea lion declines, and near-shore survival of sockeye salmon in Kvichak Bay, Alaska. In all, 17 projects received funding.

Money for the research comes from a self-imposed levy on the pollock association's seven member fishing companies. The Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center, established last year at the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, administers the research grants. Scientists submit proposals, which are peer-reviewed by a team of university and federal scientists, as well as industry representatives.

But not everyone is happy with the industry-funded research program. Environmental organizations say it's inappropriate for the university to conduct research on behalf of a special interest group.

Niaz Dorry is a fisheries campaigner with Greenpeace.

DORRY: "It might affect the university's credibility, frankly. It might affect how people will perceive whatever document the university produces at the end of their studies on the Steller sea lion and the Bering Sea, and the effect of fishing."

Heather McCarty, of the At-sea Processors, disagrees. She says some 59 Alaska communities are part owners of the association's companies. Because so many Alaskans rely on fishing for their livelihoods, she says industry needs to be involved in finding solutions to the declines.

McCARTY: "The scientific research that probably needed to be more intense over the last 10 or 15 years probably would have given us a lot of answers that we need now."

The pollock industry donated an additional $380,000 to Alaska Pacific University and Sheldon Jackson College for their fisheries and oceanography programs. Altogether, the Pollock Conservation Cooperative gave 1.5 million dollars to research and higher education in the state.

OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I'm Doug Schneider.

Audio version and related Web sites
Thanks to the following individuals for help preparing this script:

Niaz Dorry, Fisheries Campaigner
Greenpeace Oceans Campaign
9A Harbor Loop
Gloucester, Massachusetts 01930
Phone: 978-283-5893

Heather McCarty, Director
Alaska Affairs
At-sea Processors Association
Juneau, Alaska,
Phone: (907) 586-4260

Dr. Terrance Quinn, Professor
University of Alaska Fairbanks
School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences
Fisheries Division
Juneau, Alaska
Phone: 907-465-5389

Dr. Andrew Trites, Director
Marine Mammal Research Unit
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC Canada
Hut B-3 Rm. 20
Phone: 604-822-8182

Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Related Web sites

Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center

At-sea Processors Association