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Feds sued over not managing king salmon, halibut bycatch adequately

Kathy Hough, NOAA photo

A nonprofit education organization that offers luxury eco-cruises in Southeast Alaska has filed a complaint in U.S. District Court over the new observer program for fishing vessels working Alaska waters.

The complaint by The Boat Company, in Juneau, challenges the National Marine Fisheries Service's program, which is supposed to monitor the discard of non-targeted species in large-volume trawl fisheries.

The complaint was filed Dec. 21, requesting that the court remand the final rule on the observer program back to National Marine Fisheries to develop a monitoring program that ensures the service has adequate data regarding the discard of halibut, salmon and other species important to commercial, recreational and subsistence fisheries in Alaska.

Paul Olson, an attorney for The Boat Company, said the company has concerns about the level of discard in federally regulated Gulf of Alaska fisheries. Without adequate data, fishery managers cannot make scientifically sound decisions to arrest substantial declines in the king salmon and halibut populations that inhabit or migrate through the Gulf of Alaska.

"The Boat Company is injured when fish populations that are targeted by recreational fishermen are depleted to a level that the allowable recreational catch of such fish is reduced, as has happened here," the complaint said. "This depletion is caused, in part, by the (National Marine) Fisheries Service's inadequate bycatch data collection and minimization efforts in the Gulf of Alaska commercial groundfish fisheries."

Olson said Dec. 29 that he expects a response within two months. A cost-efficient program for monitoring the catch has vexed the industry for years. On Nov. 21, the service published a final rule implementing changes to its observer program, the only tool used to estimate discard in the trawl fisheries.

Fishery stakeholders had expected the restricted program would improve coverage of fisheries that remove the largest volumes of halibut and king salmon as bycatch. Instead, in The Boat Company's view, National Marine Fisheries Service developed an expensive and inefficient program that diverts observer coverage from trawl vessels to smaller vessels that use lower impact, selective fishing gear. It contends the program fails to meet standards mandated by Congress via the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act.

The 29-page lawsuit notes that halibut is a highly valuable subsistence, recreational, and commercial fish species that has experienced significant population declines over the past decade. "In Southeast Alaska, Area 2C, the guideline harvest level for the charter sector has declined from 1.4 million to 788,000 net pounds over the past five years, and fishery managers have implemented restrictive management measures to keep the sector within its allocation," the complaint notes.

The document also alleges trawl fisheries take three-fourths of the halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska, and that the International Pacific Halibut Commission scientists believe that bycatch estimates for the Gulf of Alaska are minimum estimates. "The IPHC experts also conclude that low levels of observer coverage undermine the accuracy of the estimates," and that NMFS "acknowledges current levels of halibut prohibited species catch in the Gulf of Alaska are poorly understood," the document said.

Chinook salmon fisheries are also in trouble, with average sport and commercial harvestable numbers of Chinook salmon declining in many fisheries across the state.

Margaret Bauman is a reporter for The Cordova Times.  Used with permission.  Reach her at mbauman@thecordovatimes.com