“Mid-water” trawls get a pass because the gear doesn’t fit “regulatory definitions”

OLE: "Pelagic trawl gear does contact the bottom, it is not defined as Bottom Contact Gear and it is not restricted in Habitat Conservation and Protection Areas."

by | June 10, 2023

No action was taken against trawl gear on bottom in protected zones, says NOAA in June report to NPFMC

In its June 2023 report to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council going on now in Sitka, NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) admits that current pelagic trawls (mid-water) are being fished on the bottom and there is little they can do about it — because the gear doesn’t fit the regulatory definition in the federal rule books.

The brief OLE report provides details of patrols and actions throughout Alaska waters from October 2022 to March 2023.

In January, NOAA agents, in partnership with the Coast Guard and Alaska Wildlife Troopers, initiated Operation Bottom Trawl “to inspect trawl vessels carrying Non Pelagic Trawl (NPT) gear in NPT restricted areas” in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea Aleutian Islands.

“OLE reviewed 802 trips demonstrating carriage and or use of trawl gear in waters that prohibit use or possession of NPT gear,” the report says.

702 were in the Bering Sea red king crab savings area and 100 were in the Gulf of Alaska Slope Habitat Conservation Area and at Marmot Island near Kodiak, a “no transit zone” to protect endangered sea lions.

The results?

● 26 vessels possessed installed flotation in excess of buoyancy authorized to accommodate a net‐sounder, primarily in the codend.
● 12 vessels had metallic components other than connectors or net‐sounder aft of fishing circle (e.g. chain riblines in the codend and/or forward of mesh >5.5”).
● 39 investigations

The 26 trawlers found using non-pelagic trawls in the red king crab savings area had no enforcement action taken against them, nor did five trawlers using non-pelagic trawls in the Gulf of Alaska protected areas.

The reason why, according to the OLE report, is that “national definitions include the codend within the definition of the trawl net, it’s unclear whether the codend was intended to be regulated within the Alaska fisheries”. [LW: Who decided that the codend wasn’t part of the trawl?] –

and —

“While pelagic trawl gear does contact the bottom, it is not defined as Bottom Contact Gear and it is not restricted in Habitat Conservation and Protection Areas.”

In short, current “pelagic/mid-water trawls” are being fished on the bottom because they’re not “pelagic/mid-water trawls” under the regulatory definition.

Sounds like more (un)familiar “fed-speak”

Twisting legal definitions also played out with NOAA and the NPFMC when it came to protecting Alaska crab.

The NPFMC and NOAA denied an emergency petition to prevent fishing in “savings zones” for six months to protect mating and molting king crab because it didn’t fit the definition of “emergency action.”

I agree most certainly that this is an emergency. It just doesn’t merit the criteria of the emergency action.”   


The NPFMC also ruled that the collapsed stock of Alaska snow crab is officially overfished “because there is not enough mature male crabs to reach what’s considered the minimum stock size to be a sustainable fishery.”

But the snow crab stock is “not subject to overfishing,” because the “fishery removals aren’t above the level considered to be sustainable — rather, it’s because the stock dropped for other reasons that scientists and managers aren’t entirely sure of yet.”

More from the Enforcement report on crab

Snow crab discarded as bycatch by Bering Sea trawlers as required by law

“Enforcing for the pelagic trawl gear performance standard at sea requires a large expenditure of OLE and partner agency resources. Monitoring also imposes significant intrusions into fishing operations – one complete haul back was monitored at sea during the operation.

“Historically, OLE has learned of trawl gear performance standard potential violations exclusively from observers. 54 incidents were reported during 2009 – 2020 and about 80% involved high numbers of crab in the forward portions of trawl nets. From the complaints received, OLE investigated at least 28 trawl gear performance standard cases and issued only 2 written warnings.

Most cases had to be closed because elements of the violation could not be proven (crab onboard at any particular time, total crab count, and size associated with each crab). Issues recorded by observers included prioritization of duties, dangers on deck, lack of crew cooperation, limited view of the trawl during haulback, and fragmented crab. Crab in the forward nets fell outside the observer sample population, and crab recorded within observer sample populations (limited to the codend) were most often limited to the crab in samples, not total catch. The requirement for vessels to discard prohibited species catch immediately with a minimum of injury further limited of crab onboard at any particular time.”

The OLE report concluded:

“OLE noted that while pelagic trawl gear does contact the bottom, it is not defined as Bottom Contact Gear and it is not restricted in Habitat Conservation and Protection Areas (e.g. Coral, Slope, Seamount areas).”

NOAA Office of law enforcement report to NPFmc, june 2023
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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.


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