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Bering Sea fishery management needs to change for halibut users across Alaska

Buck Laukitis
OPINION: What happens in the Bering Sea affects all halibut users in Alaska, and the system need to change because it treats halibut as a currency to be spent, but never to be saved. Steven Betts / flickr

This year the Magnuson Stevens Act will be reauthorized by Congress. The MSA is the law by which the National Marine Fisheries Service and the North Pacific Fisheries Council manage the federal fisheries off of Alaska. In public hearings, the message that “all is well in Alaska waters” and “no major changes to the law are needed” has been echoed by many groundfish industry lobbyists. Although no one will dispute that the Bering Sea groundfish industry is a behemoth, its financial success is coming at the expense of other users. Halibut fishermen in all areas of the Bering Sea have a catch limit of 3.2 million pounds this year. The estimated bycatch cap in the Bering Sea is almost 8 million pounds.

The North Pacific Fisheries Association in Homer represents commercial halibut fishermen who fish throughout the state. Our members who fish in the Bering Sea have seen their halibut quotas reduced to the lowest levels since the advent of the modern halibut fishery -- which began to recover in the mid-1980’s after years of foreign trawling. Our members who fish for halibut in the Gulf of Alaska recognize that the best science shows that juvenile halibut in the Bering Sea later in life populate all areas of the Gulf and beyond to Canada and the West Coast. What happens in the Bering Sea affects all halibut users in Alaska.

The entire Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands directed halibut projected catch in 2014 has been reduced to only 3 million pounds from almost 8 million pounds three years ago. The three-year forecast looks like the prospect of no directed fishery in areas 4C, D, and E (an area from the Pribilof Islands north) is a very real and sobering possibility. At the same time the halibut bycatch limits in the Bering Sea have not been reduced appreciably since 1993 -- or at least not proportionally to the decline in the directed fishery.

The Bering Sea is huge, and it has the most productive marine shelf edges in the world with the largest groundfish industry in the world. The reality that there are only 3 million pounds of halibut for directed users is startling. The Bering Sea is entirely out of balance in this respect. The groundfish industry is winning, and the halibut resource and halibut fishermen (commercial, charter, sport and subsistence) all over the state have lost if the trend is not reversed.

The council must balance the requirements of National Standard 1, the requirement to achieve optimum yield, and National Standard 9, to minimize bycatch and bycatch mortality to the extent possible. When more halibut in the Bering Sea are being used as bycatch than in the directed fishery the balance has been lost.

It is often said by the groundfish industry that halibut is the currency that keeps them fishing. But the bycatch wastage is greater than the directed use of this resource. There have been many amendments to the Bering Sea management plan over the past 25 years that consider halibut in rationalization and co-op efforts, but there have never been provisions to have bycatch limits that float with abundance. The bottom line is that all of these amendments tipped by the natural fluctuations of the stock have culminated a free fall in the halibut population. (796 million pounds of total exploitable biomass in 1997 to 170 million pounds in 2014) The groundfish industry may be a billion-dollar-a-year fishery, but halibut in the Bering Sea has been reduced to only about $15 million in 2014 (3 million pounds at $5 per lb), and the downward trend will continue. The way the system is constructed, halibut are a currency to be spent, but never to be saved.

For too long the International Pacific Halibut Commission has only managed part of the removals. In the Bering Sea the IPHC is managing a smaller and smaller portion of the removals (5 million pounds of bycatch vs. 3 million pounds of directed fishery). Bycatch limits are so high vis-a-vis the biomass that the limits are not even constraining for many sectors in the Bering Sea. This disconnect between bycatch limits that do not fluctuate with abundance and a rapidly declining resource needs to be immediately addressed. The directed fishery in the Bering Sea regulatory areas are heading for no fishing while the groundfish fisheries operate business as usual. The directed halibut users are bearing all of the weight of the rebuilding and conservation efforts, but it is clear that without reduced mortality by ALL users there will be no recovery. Recovery will require reducing fishing mortality by all sectors.

If perpetuating a system where more of a resource is wasted than is used is legal, shouldn’t the law be changed to correct the system?

Buck Laukitis is a commercial fisherman who resides in Homer and has fished in the Bering Sea for halibut and salmon for over 20 years. He is director of the North Pacific Fisheries Association.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.