Female observers roil some Alaskan fishermen

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Starting in 2013, Alaska's small-boat halibut fleet will carry on-board observers to record biological information and, according to at least one fisherman, stir up some other biological issues with women joining the small crews.

“Some people just don’t like women on the boat. It’s a distraction,” Unalaska small boat fisherman Dustan Dickerson told the Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman.

“I don’t want to be working in close quarters with somebody else’s wife,” he said at a meeting in Unalaska with International Pacific Halibut Commission executive director Bruce Leaman, according to the newspaper.

But gender discrimination is not an option when a boat is assigned an observer, according to Leaman, who said women can provide a “civilizing influence.” The observer profession employs a high percentage of women, frequently college biology graduates in their 20s, working in all groundfish sectors except halibut, typically on much larger vessels, monitoring the catches of pollock, cod, and other species.

Dickerson’s wife, Ebbe, also opposed female halibut observers, saying during the meeting at the community center that they could create conflict among an all-male fishing crew.

But with halibut stocks on the decline, regulators want a closer eye kept on what’s actually coming aboard. Starting Jan. 1, many halibut boats at least 40 feet long will join the costly program, which is federally funded in the first year and could eventually shift to lower-cost electronic monitoring.

When halibut hook-and-line fishermen blame trawlers, the trawlers point to a lack of data, Leaman said. Onboard observers could also correct a potential problem of the underreporting of halibut caught by the Individual Fishing Quota halibut fleet, Leaman said.

Brandee Gerke, of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau, said halibut boats will carry observers on probably 30 percent of their trips, although the exact percentage has not yet been determined. The boats will be randomly selected, and officials will review vessels to make sure they’re safe for observers, she said.

“I know there’s a lot of anxiety in the fleet about how to accommodate an observer,” Gerke told the paper. “We’re trying to pull this off without disrupting their business operations. It has to be collaborative on both sides to make it work.”

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