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Trawlers absorb 15 percent cut in halibut bycatch -- but not until 2014

Amanda Coyne

After four days of contentious hearings, federal fisheries managers on Friday voted to reduce the bycatch of halibut caught by trawlers and certain other commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Alaska by 15 percent. That number is not as high as some sought, but several council members thought it was a good compromise.

It’s the first time since 1989 that the halibut bycatch has been restricted, and the billion-dollar trawling industry has for years lobbied hard against any bycatch limits.

The bycatch reduction comes off the top of the trawlers' 5 million pound cap and goes into effect in 2014. Members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved it 10-1 at the close of Friday’s meeting in Kodiak.

“This action will help protect the health of the halibut population and the jobs of thousands of commercial and charter halibut fishermen in our coastal communities who rely on halibut,“ said Theresa Peterson, fisherman and Kodiak Outreach Coordinator for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

The Gulf of Alaska is a nursery for Pacific halibut and ground zero for the 49th state's largest commercial and sport halibut fisheries. In recent years, the halibut population has been shrinking -- as has the average size of the flatfish landed.  

Certainly, competition with other fish for food is partly to blame. Arrowtooth, a fish basically inedible for humans, is now the largest biomass in the Gulf after decades of U.S. federal government management of the fishery.

But the trawling industry, big-money players in the federal fishery, takes and kills a lot of halibut while pursuing pollock--a fish widely marketed for fish sticks and a variety of other products--cod and other fish. Trawlers use big nets that basically strip-mine the ocean and kill other fish. Trawlers are not allowed to keep the halibut bycatch for fear that, if permitted, they would target the highly valuable flatfish. So halibut are dumped back in the ocean. Many of these fish, having been caught up in the nets for hours, are dead before they’re dumped back.

The only recourse is to limit the number of halibut that trawlers can catch before they must stop fishing -- and now that limit is tighter than ever. The harvests of commercial halibut and sport fishermen have already been severely reduced over the past few years, in some cases by 50 percent.

All this has caused tensions and infighting between the trawling industry and the sports and commercial fisheries. Go into nearly any place where people in Kodiak gather, and you’ll hear heated discussions about trawlers and bycatch.

Ken Calson, a longliner who has fished Alaska waters for 29 years, is among the fisherman who calls trawlers “draggers.” More often than not, an expletive of some sort proceeds the term. He was in Kodiak this week, but didn’t dare attend the meetings.

“I’d just come unglued,” he said. He said that the reduction in bycatch is a start, but he figures it’s too late. “The halibut’s about over if they don’t stop it all together,” he said.

Others were more optimistic about the fate of the halibut fishery. “On behalf of our organization and the over 1,500 sport, commercial, subsistence harvesters and other halibut users across Alaska who called for reducing waste, we thank the Council for taking meaningful action to protect our halibut resource," said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda@alaskadispatch.com