In recent seasons, halibut users across the state have been tightening their belts. The biologists tell us that though the total number of halibut in Alaskan waters is at a very sustainable rate, those halibut are now growing more slowly than usual. Since halibut are regulated based upon the "total number of pounds in the sea," instead of the "total number of fish in the sea," the longline and charter fleets are facing allocation cutbacks. We've adjusted our businesses, our personal lives and those of our families to conserve in a time of resource decline.
I was born and raised in Homer, and halibut have always been part of my life. At age 32, I've logged 16 years in the charter fleet as a deckhand and captain, have served as president of the Alaska Charter Association and board member of the Homer Charter Association, and held a seat on the Southcentral Alaska Fish and Game Advisory Committee. Halibut fishing, which began as weekend nirvana at age 5, has now become a convoluted web of politics, regulation and money trails. I've watched as longline and charter halibut allocations have declined steadily, and have long awaited the day when regulators would hold trawlers accountable for their waste.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission has proposed a 70 percent reduction in halibut harvest for the central Bering Sea region, the most recent cut in a steady quota decline. In the meantime, halibut bycatch caps in the region's trawl fisheries have remained largely unchanged for decades. If these numbers hold true for the 2015 season, 92 percent of halibut harvested in the Bering Sea will go overboard as bycatch. You read that right, 92 percent of the allowable halibut catch is caught, smashed in the nets, and then shoveled back into the water. While some portion is allowed to be donated to food banks, millions of pounds each year are discarded.
Though the halibut stocks in the Bering Sea may seem unimportant to Anchorage and the Peninsula, the northeastern migration of growing halibut means problems that begin in the Bering Sea will soon enough carry through to our area. Though the Bering Sea is a remote region, what precedent does Alaska set by allowing this blatant abuse of one of our most valuable and symbolic resources?
Charter and commercial longline fishermen have had no choice but to reduce their catch in the face of low halibut numbers. As the Bering Sea halibut fleet looks at pulling that belt even tighter, the trawl fleet has continued to harvest a declining stock at status quo levels. In 2014 that was more than 6 million pounds of bycatch for the trawl fleet alone. Though some voluntary reductions in bycatch have been a step in the right direction, the state of the resource begs for a mandated harvest reduction from the trawl sector. Putting the burden of conservation on just the charter and longline fleet is a failure of our management system, and disastrous for the halibut fishermen and communities that depend on the resource.
A proposal to take emergency action to reduce trawl bycatch caps in certain Bering Sea fisheries failed at the December meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council -- by one vote. Fisheries organizations across the state as well as the six Alaska members of the council have requested emergency action from the U.S. secretary of commerce to reduce bycatch caps before the 2015 season.
For many years, friends, clients and colleagues have asked how it is possible that the trawlers could continue to abuse the halibut stocks at such an unprecedented rate. The answer is, and has always been, money. The trawl industry spends a lot of money every year lobbying U.S. politicians and the NPFMC. Our only hope at this point seems to be the voting power of the fisheries councils and commissions such as the NPFMC and IPHC, and the hope that they will do the right thing for Alaska and for the resource no matter what the politics.
The NPFMC will discuss a bycatch reduction at its February meeting, though final action won't happen until June. While it is essential to support this measure through the policy process, only an emergency action from the U.S. secretary of commerce can change the status quo in time for the 2015 fishery.
Feeling like things are hopeless? In the past two decades, while Alaska bycatch caps have stayed the same, the Canadian halibut fishery has faced their own trawl bycatch issues. Their councils mandated 100 percent observer coverage and individual accountability. Their bycatch went from 2 million pounds to 200,000.
David Bayes is a lifelong Alaska fisherman based in Homer.
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