PUBLISHED: 2:54 PM on Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Competition tracks best fishing gear

Laine Welch

Fishermen from around the world appear more interested than ever in sharing ways to become more selective with their fishing gear.

This year's International Smart Gear competition attracted 83 entries from 26 countries, up from 50 entries from 16 countries last year. The contest, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, pays cash prizes for practical, low cost solutions that allow fishermen to target their intended catches while letting marine mammals, sea turtles, birds and small fish swim away unharmed.

For the first time, Alaskans have joined the challenge offering four entries. "I'm not surprised to see good ideas on bycatch reduction coming out of Alaska," said Scott Burns, director of WWF's marine conservation program. "It's a state that has a pretty successful track record, so it's great to see some ideas surfacing in this competition."

One idea comes from Ace Callaway, who runs a disabled veterans custom metal fabrication shop in Fairbanks. During the summer, he also operates Alaskacat Sportfish Charters based in Valdez ( Callaway has developed an inexpensive device (about $100) that allows fragile rockfish to be returned to the depths in a way that allows them to decompress and not die.

"When rockfish are pulled up from deep water, their air bladders expand and it pushes their eyes out of the sockets, and their stomachs out of their mouths. When they're thrown back, it's like having a buoy that keeps them on the surface and they can't get back down," Callaway said in a phone interview.

Callaway said tests done by Oregon fishery managers showed that if rockfish can be re-submerged quickly, their mortality can be prevented by almost 100 percent. "It's similar to putting a diver with the bends into a decompression chamber," he explained.

Last year he developed and tested a prototype device in Prince William Sound that uses a simple system of small, jaw-like grippers attached to weighted pulleys that works on a continuous loop. "I put a video camera on a downrigger cable and we lowered the rockfish back down. At about 75 feet, their body pressure equalized to the point where their stomach deflated and they swallowed it back down, their eyes went back into their heads, and they started flopping around and getting active," he said.

Callaway said longliners, for example, could use multiple grippers to hook onto the lips of each rockfish as it's brought aboard, and they would immediately and continuously be returned to the water. "It would be a bit more work, but it would help save the rockfish resource, so it's worth it in my book," he said, adding that the device also could be used with other fish species.

Regardless of how it fares in the Smart Gear contest, Callaway has already gotten support from Alaska Sea Grant, which has committed to helping him refine and further test his new gear.

Results of the International Smart Gear competition will be announced May 11 at the Brussels Seafood Show. First prize is $25,000 along with two $5,000 runners up awards.

Governor's selection

In a move that raised many eyebrows, Governor Murkowski last week named Bonnie Williams of Fairbanks to the state Board of Fish. She replaces Fred Bouse (also of Fairbanks) whose seat expires in June. Williams, who served nine years on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly, has no fisheries background but told the "Fairbanks Daily News Miner" that she "has been enjoying sport fishing since she was ten and is now 65."

Although state law requires that Fish Board appointments must be made by April 1, the governor declined to name someone to a second seat that also is up in June. According to the weekly publication "Laws for the Sea" by Bob Tkacz, Murkowski said he "planned to break the law in the best interest of the board," and that he would make an appointment "well in advance" of the October start of the Board's annual meeting cycle.

In all, 14 people have applied for a Fish Board seat: Larry Van Ray of Soldotna, Michael Smith of Fairbanks, Paul Shadura of Kenai, Gerg Befus of North Pole, Jeremiah Campbell of Seward, Michael Heimbuch of Homer, Mark Hem of Chitina, Robert Heinrichs of Cordova, Dan Hull of Anchorage, Bruce Knowles of Wasilla, Marshall Linthwaite of Juneau, Jim Preston of Juneau, Ron Rainey of Kenai and Carl Rosier of Juneau.

Others tapped by the Governor include Arne Fuglvog of Petersburg and Ed Rasmuson of Anchorage as reappointments to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council; Dave Bedford of Juneau (deputy commissioner of the AK Dept. of Fish and Game) as a U.S. rep on the Pacific Salmon Commission; and Bobby Thorstenson, Jr. will fill a seat on the Pacific Salmon Commission's U.S. Northern Panel.

Welch, who lives in Kodiak, has written about Alaska's seafood industry since 1988.