Fish Factor: Collapsible pots keep whales off of black cod catch

Collapsible black cod pots. Photo by Alexander Stubbs

Light-weight collapsible pots prevent whales from pirating pricey black cod from longline hooks and give a break to small boats.

“Getting whaled” is so pervasive fishery managers allowed black cod (sablefish) fishermen to switch from baited lines to rigid pots in the Bering Sea in 2008 and in the Gulf of Alaska starting in 2017. (Interestingly, killer whales rob the hooks in the Bering Sea, while sperm whales are the culprits in the Gulf.)

“The whale predation has just been so horrible,” said Frank Miles of Kodiak, owner of 58-foot and 78- foot fishing boats. “The last couple years I tried to do it with hooks, and it just got to the point to where we left tens of thousands of pounds of black cod unharvested because we were going backwards feeding the whales. You can spread your strings 10 miles apart, and you might get one or two skates up and they find you. And then they pretty much strip you blind.”

Analyses from federal surveys in 2013 showed that when killer whales were present during annual sablefish stock surveys, the whales removed 54 to 72 percent from the hooks.

But switching from lines to pots is no easy deal.

Miles said costs can run as high as a quarter million dollars to buy rigid pots and add hydraulics and all the peripherals needed to run the heavy gear. The traditional pots also are too big and heavy for smaller boats, and they don’t have the power to pull it off the bottom.


Leave it to fishermen’s ingenuity to solve the problem in the form of collapsible mesh pots with an added whale resistant twist.

“The pots that I’m producing now are a hot dip galvanized, high carbon steel wire that is formed into a helical spring with a closed end at both ends. They also use knotless PE webbing, and the idea there is to have a small mesh size,” said Alexander Stubbs of Stubbs Marine in San Francisco. “It fishes better, and it acoustically masks the fish in the pot. There’s a density difference between the PE mesh and water, and the idea is that it will obscure the acoustic echo return of fish trapped in the pot to try and prevent whales from messing with this gear.”

Stubbs also is a small boat fisherman and research biologist and said he first noticed the pot design while doing field work in Asia where small collapsible spring traps are commonly used to catch specimens.

“And I thought if we just size this up a lot, and make it way stronger, there might be a chance to use it in a black cod fishery,” he said. The pots cost about $150 each, roughly half the price of rigid pots.

Stubbs developed the concept and fished the gear over three years and last fall sent the first batch of pots to Alaska. Frank Miles was one of the first to try them out.

“The black cod pot limit is 300 and guys like to be able to bring their full complement and the big boats can do it. But you talk to the crew members that are working these heavy pots, or you’ve got two guys trying to stack pots 20 high in a rolling pitching sea, it can be an issue,” Miles said. “These coil pots weigh anywhere from seven to 10 pounds and they spring out 36 inches in height by five feet in length. So, you’re getting a lot of cubes that are actually fishing. And in the pot world, cubes mean everything — the bigger the pot, the more fish it attracts. The results have been incredible.”

Over the past year, Stubbs has sent several thousand pots to fishing operations throughout the Gulf and Bering Sea in collaboration with Pete Sawle at Fish Tech Inc.

“I hear many positive reports from fishermen that seem to be having success using them. Even some of the schooner fleet has started fishing with them,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. “Until these pots came along, the small boats didn’t really have many options. Many fishermen that had purchased sablefish quota saw their investments lose substantial value as quota prices declined with the increased difficulty in harvesting the resource.”

“We’ve been feeding the whales for a long time and these pots seem to be an effective tool against them,” Bowen said.

The ultimate goal of the new gear, Stubbs said, is to make fishermen’s businesses safer and more profitable.

“If somebody else comes up with a better design for a collapsible pot, and it helps the fishery, I’ll be stoked on that as well,” he said. “I really think that overall, there is clearly a need for thinking outside the box about different ways to make space saving fish traps. And my hope is that this can be the first in a series of designs from me or other people.”

Fish craze continues

One unexpected constant amid the COVID uncertainties is that people continue to buy and cook more seafood. Since March, when the pandemic led to lockdowns in the U.S. and elsewhere, consumer buying habits have busted several long-held beliefs, including that Americans are reluctant to cook seafood at home.

A poll of major retailers by the Global Aquaculture Alliance is consistent with other surveys that show evidence of the seafood-at-home craze is “overwhelming.” One U.S. supermarket chain reported a 40 percent increase in salmon and shrimp demand and a doubling in snow crab sales.

Seafood was the most susceptible protein to price collapse given its dependence on foodservice sales. Early on, prices and sales for salmon and shrimp, for example, fell to the lowest value in years. Urner Barry, the nation’s oldest commodity market tracker since 1858, said the drastic price declines may have been a big reason behind the remarkable increase in retail seafood sales. Home deliveries also have surged.

A silver lining is that people have found out that seafood is one of the easiest proteins to cook, said major buyers for Publix and Giant Eagle. And given the global health crisis, consumers also have switched for health reasons, such as boosting their immune system by eating a protein that is packed with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Polls also said that “food-at-home fatigue” is real and retailers are preparing marketing campaigns to keep the boom alive. A lot depends on the status of restaurants. As many as 100,000 outlets have closed long-term or for good, according to the National Restaurant Association, and the change of seasons will curtail less restrictive outdoor dining options.

The GAA poll said foodservice and retailers agree on one thing: the seafood marketplace has changed forever and companies that do the best will be those that embrace new consumer trends.

Salmon sales watch

The U.S. exported 9.2 million pounds of frozen H&G (headed and gutted) chum salmon worth $11 million in August, down 48 percent and 50 percent respectively, year over year. Undercurrent News reports the average price fell by 4 percent to $5.72 per pound from a year ago and by 10 percent from the previous month.

Based on U.S. trade data, exports of U.S. frozen H&G sockeye salmon totaled nearly 26.6 million pounds worth $97.2 million in August, down 19 percent in volume and 9 percent in value from the same time last year. The average price hit its highest level since the beginning of the year at $8.04 per kilogram, or $17.68 per pound.