By Mary Pemberton
Sunday, July 23, 2006; A07
ANCHORAGE -- They're pink, slippery and decidedly not cute, especially if you're a pollock fisherman in the Bering Sea pulling up a slew of unusable squid this summer.
The problem took on alarming proportions in early July when fishermen netted more than 500 tons of squid bycatch in a week -- about four times what might be expected, Josh Keaton, a resource-management specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Friday.
It is not known exactly why so many squid are showing up in the area this summer, but a recent agreement among fisherman seems to have limited the problem.
"I just about had a heart attack. That is a lot of squid," said Karl Haflinger, president of Sea State Inc. of Vashon, Wash., which helps the industry manage bycatch, the unwanted and often wasted fish caught along with the targeted fish.
Bering Sea fishermen are allowed a certain amount of squid bycatch each year. For 2006, the recommended amount was not to exceed 1,976 tons. As of July 15, the amount of bycatch was 1,403 tons. At 2,620 tons, the National Marine Fisheries Service would be looking at restricting the fishery.
"We don't want to get there," said Haflinger, who has helped craft an agreement with the pollock fleet to tackle the problem. "So we will keep out of the squid area for over the next month probably."
The Bering Sea pollock fishery is the largest in the world, with a total allowable catch of 1.5 million tons this year. The bland, white fish goes into a variety of popular products, including fast-food fish sandwiches and fish sticks.
John Gruver of the trade group United Catcher Boats worked with Haflinger on the bycatch agreement, which was presented to pollock cooperatives for review Friday.
Once signed, it requires that fishermen steer clear of about a 500-square-mile area where most of the squid were found. First-time violators would be fined $10,000, with fines increasing to $15,000 and $20,000 for repeat violations.
The small area in the southeastern Bering Sea tends to be very good for pollock, especially in the summer and fall, said Gruver, who has fished the sea for nearly 20 years.
Between 85 and 90 catcher boats -- those that have to return to shore to drop off their fish for processing -- could be fishing for pollock at any one time in the sea, he said. Most are from Seattle, with some also coming from Oregon and California.
Now fishermen have to travel hundreds of miles to find good fishing, Haflinger said, which is a hardship on the catcher boats, which have only two or three days to get their fish to shore for processing.
The strategy appears to be working: Squid bycatch plummeted from almost 550 tons in the first week of July to only about four tons last week.
"I believe we have a handle on it," Gruver said.