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Outreach in Alaska Fishing Communities: A Pilot Project in Sand Point

historical photo of sand point
Sand Point, Alaska, circa 1910. Crary-Henderson Collection, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. Library & Archives.
sandpoint community 2006
Sand Point, Alaska, in 2006. Photo by Martin Dorn.
chris wilson presenting to Sand Point school
Chris Wilson talked about fish diversity to first and second grade students at the Sand Point K-12 school. Photo by Martin Dorn.
martin dorn presents to community fishermen
Martin Dorn discussed the pollock assessment with Sand Point community members. Photo by Jennifer Sepez.
pie chart, see caption
Annual ex-vessel value of landings by Sand Point-based vessels with at least 100 metric tons of walleye pollock catch, 2003-05.

Scientists from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center participated in a pilot outreach program in Sand Point, Alaska on 23-24 May 2006. Seattle-based AFSC scientists frequently pass through larger fishing communities in Alaska, such as Kodiak and Dutch Harbor, on their way to research cruises. Occasionally they use this opportunity to provide briefings to interested community members on their research. Sand Point, while the chief groundfish port in the western Gulf of Alaska, has not been used to stage research cruises, and, therefore, is not visited often by AFSC scientists. Because commercial fishing and seafood processing are essential to the Sand Point economy, outreach from NMFS is particularly important. Outreach to resource-dependent communities helps build trust in the science that supports fisheries management decisions that have strong impact on local economies.

Sand Point it is a close-knit fishing community with a long history of participation in groundfish fisheries. More than 50% of the permanent residents are Alaska Natives (Unangan/Aleut). Sand Point was founded as a Pacific cod fishing station in the 1880s. The community was formed of Aleuts, who moved in from surrounding smaller communities, and immigrants of Scandinavian ancestry with their own fishing heritage. Many Native Alaskans in Sand Point have continued their livelihoods as fishermen and hunters by participation in commercial fisheries.

This participation has long historical roots, beginning with commercial cod fisheries in the later half of the 19th century, salmon and halibut fisheries beginning in the early 20th century, shrimp and crab fisheries in the last half of the 20th century, and most recently groundfish fisheries for cod and walleye pollock. The decline in the profitability of salmon fisheries and restrictions on cod and pollock fisheries to protect Steller sea lions have caused economic hardship in Sand Point. Because local government is supported by a tax on fish landings, reduced value of fish landings has an impact not only on individual households but also on the services that local government is able to provide.

The Sand Point fleet consists of small multipurpose vessels that participate in both federal- and state-managed fisheries, including fisheries for groundfish, halibut, herring, crab, and salmon. The vessels in the Sand Point fleet are exceptionally diversified. Vessels that participate in the pollock fishery also participate in fisheries for cod, herring, halibut, crab, and salmon. This diversification is in contrast to the common pattern of specialization due to management measures that restrict access to fisheries. Specialization can increase vulnerability of fishing communities. Since overall ecosystem productivity tends to be more stable than for individual species, a diversified fleet can more readily adapt to ecosystem changes than a highly specialized.

Participants in the Sand Point outreach program included Martin Dorn, (REFM stock assessment scientist), Libby Logerwell, (REFM Fisheries Interaction Team), Rebecca Reuter (AFSC Outreach Coordinator), Jennifer Sepez (REFM fishery anthropologist), Dave Somerton (Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering (RACE) Division groundfish program) and Chris Wilson (RACE/Midwater Assessment and Conservation Engineering program). The outreach program consisted of two components. One component was designed for the Sand Point K-12 school (enrollment 112) with the goal of educating students about the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem and its important biota. At the school, AFSC scientists gave talks to several classes on the diversity of marine life and NOAA’s research and forecasting work. They also met with teachers to discuss ways of bringing NOAA science into their classrooms. A special treat for the researchers was attending the end of the school year picnic with elementary school teachers and students on Sand Dollar Beach.

The other outreach component was designed to engage the fishing community with the goal of educating the community about how AFSC science leads to fisheries management decisions, and to build links between AFSC scientists and the community for potential cooperative research projects. Two evening sessions were held. The first session described the acoustic and bottom trawl survey programs in the Gulf of Alaska. The second session explained the Pacific cod and walleye pollock stock assessments and described work being done to assess fishing impacts on Steller sea lions.

At the community outreach meetings, fishermen raised a number of issues about the cod and pollock assessments. In general, the issues arise from the contrasting observational scales between fishermen and NMFS assessment surveys and modeling. NMFS resource assessment surveys have a large spatial scale (i.e., the entire Gulf of Alaska) and occur infrequently (every other year for trawl surveys). Stock assessment models for cod and pollock estimate stock abundance for the entire Gulf of Alaska. In contrast, the observational scale of fishermen is spatially restricted but temporally extensive, since they are on the water fishing throughout the year. For example, fishermen described the winter cod fishery as targeting unique cod runs that arrive at predicable times and places around the Shumagin Islands. These runs are of large cod that they do not see in the summer. As a result, the current practice of using summer bottom trawl data to apportion the Pacific cod total allowable catch between management areas in the winter did not seem reasonable to them.

Fishermen also expressed dismay at the economic waste caused by broad-scale management measures that are not consistent with local fish biology. For example, the A and B seasons for pollock are timed to occur prior to peak pollock spawning in Shelikof Strait. Fishermen observed that spawning occurs earlier in the western Gulf of Alaska. As a result, the pollock B-season occurs after peak spawning when spawned-out fish have much lower value.

The members of the fishing community of Sand Point also questioned whether NMFS assessment activities are appropriately designed to monitor the status of living marine resources in their area. They noted that additional surveys in different seasons and a more comprehensive acoustic survey effort in winter could help address seasonal issues. Cooperative research projects with the Sand Point fishing community were identified as a promising approach to addressing some of these issues, but fishermen will need to be confident their investment of time and effort will lead to improved management measures. Members of the outreach team noted the issues raised by fishermen and brought them to the attention of the AFSC leadership.

Community members were open, interested, and welcoming, and invited scientists into their homes. For some, the visit to the school was a highlight of the trip. The students were genuinely interested in marine science, and everyone had a fish story to tell.

By Martin Dorn

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