Whiting anglers wait for bigger fish

ASTORIA — After struggling to catch big enough fish while avoiding bycatch, fishermen targeting Pacific whiting have agreed to tie up their boats until July 20.

Pacific whiting, also known as hake, is one of the largest commercial fisheries in Oregon and Washington. Astoria is home to about a half-dozen whiting processing plants.

The cod-like whiting fish is around 2 feet in length and are often ground up into surimi, which is used to make imitation crab and other processed seafood products. They are also used in fish sticks and fillets.

Whiting boats started fishing June 15 and quickly found there were too many small fish in their nets to make their trips profitable. Pockets of larger whiting off the coast turned out to be intermingled with canary rockfish, which has very low catch limits because it is considered overfished.

Chinook, Wash., trawler Rob Seitz said the fleet voluntarily agreed to stop fishing last week and wait until July 20 to see if conditions improve.

"We did a voluntary stand down because we were landing the canary quota a lot faster than the whiting quota," he said. "If the big fish haven't shown up by July 20, we'll wait a little longer. We're going to do what we need to to try to land the whiting quota without going over the canary quota."

The precautionary stand down is designed to prevent an early season closure. In 2008, the whiting season closed with 60,000 pounds still uncaught when the fleet hit its canary rockfish quota. In 2007, the season shut down early because boats had caught too much of another protected species, widow rockfish.

Whiting boats use a mid-water trawl net that does not touch the sea floor. Boats delivering whiting to shoreside processing plants are allowed to catch around 59,000 metric tons (130 million pounds) of whiting this year, but are limited to less than 6 tons (around 13,000 pounds) of canary rockfish, which are caught in trawl nets incidentally.

Warrenton whiting trawler Gary Wintersteen said during the first two weeks of the season too many hauls were coming in half-full of whiting that were less than 14 inches long, which aren't as desirable in the market and, hence, don't pay the usual eight to 12 cents a pound that larger whiting do.

In the places where bigger whiting could be caught, he said, there were also a lot of canary rockfish.

"There's a lot of things going sideways with this fishery right now," Wintersteen said. "It's very unfortunate because the hake in the areas with known canary rockfish bycatch are really nice, big hake."

Sometimes, the bigger whiting don't separate from the smaller fish and the rockfish until later in the season, said Brad Pettinger, administrator for the industry-funded Oregon Trawl Commission.

"Summer is late in getting here," Pettinger said. "Usually the further into the season you get, the more the whiting separate from rockfish, and you can fish a lot cleaner." Pettinger estimated about a third of Oregon's whiting fleet is based in the Astoria-Warrenton area, while two-thirds is based in Newport.

Under a new plan scheduled to launch in January 2011, permit holders in the whiting fishery — along with other West Coast groundfish boats — will receive individual quota shares and will be allowed to fish their allocated percentage of the total catch when they please.

Pettinger said under the individual fishing quota plan, whiting boats may stay tied up until mid-July when the fish are easier to catch.

"You won't have to worry that if you don't go someone else is going to catch your fish," he said.

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