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Trawlers waste 104 tons of Alaska halibut

Craig Medred

The Seattle-based trawler Alaska Beauty recently had a great week of halibut fishing in the Gulf of Alaska, according to the latest reports from the Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Only one problem: Alaska Beauty wasn't supposed to be fishing halibut; it was supposed to be fishing cod.

Despite that, 43 percent of its catch was halibut. All of that halibut, by law, must be dumped back into the sea. Most of it goes back dead. Some Alaskans are starting to get angry at this sort of large "by-catch" of halibut by Pacific Northwest and Kodiak-based trawlers at a time when the species' stocks are declining, and Alaska charter and commercial longline fisheries are locked in a bitter battle over every flatfish.

Against that backdrop, the tolerance of halibut waste in the trawl fishery is wrong, critics say. An anonymous blogger who goes by the name of Tholepin has been hitting back hard at the powerful economic interests that largely run the North Pacific Management Council.

"228,800 pounds of halibut wasted by draggers just last week," Tholepin notes in the latest post. "Value? In cash terms to longliners, about $1.6 million. In lost reproductive potential, in lost growth potential, in long-term resource damage; all unknowns ... but far in excess of the cash value lost. All in one week. Are we sure that is the full extent of the damage? Not at all, as the observer program is badly flawed."

Alaska Dispatch does not normally cite anonymous blogs, but the numbers and math here are verifiable -- as is the observation on observers.

Observers have sought more input to the Council, and so far they have been denied. According to Elizabeth Mitchell of the Association for Professional Observers, the Council now tells the "North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program (NPGOP) essentially how, when, where and what to monitor. Observers no longer monitor the fishery and are no longer an independent source of information to monitor commercial fisheries. They're mostly quota trackers these days."

The Council has run the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea fisheries almost carte blanche for the past two decades, but it suffered a rare rebuff from NOAA earlier this month. NOAA, the federal agency charged with overseeing the Council, raised serious questions a Council plan to restrict Southcentral charter halibut fisheries.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com