Halibut bycatch issue: A poster child for complex fisheries policy in Alaska

What a conundrum. How does the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council respond to the proposed 50 percent reduction of halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands groundfish fishery requested by halibut fishermen in the region, without significantly impacting the Amendment 80, Trawl and Freezer Long Line vessels in their stead?

Regardless how you look at it or what your personal involvement in any of the above fisheries is, major policy shifts in any of the multiple fisheries in the Bering Sea can absolutely impact fishery dependent communities such as ours negatively, and the catch is that if nothing is done, it could do the same to communities in the region who depend on the small vessel halibut fishery instead. How do you find the balance?

In Unalaska, we are dependent on sustainable, accountable fisheries policy and we understand that there are differences of opinion regarding council action between our different participants due to gear types, vessel size and species. We have always done our best to stay out of allocative issues because of this, but also feel it is vitally important to stay actively involved in the NPFMC process of policy development and regulation. This issue is just as important to us as it is to other communities in the region as we have thousands of community members who work with these vessels at our port, in our stores, in our warehouses and many other support service sectors. Our fisheries-based tax revenue funds our schools, our nonprofits, our roads and our senior center to name a few. The vessels that participate in the BSAI groundfish and cod fisheries are a significant piece of our economic stability, and anything that negatively affects them affects us as well.

The current rules that disallow the vessels to deck sort their catch, where juvenile halibut can be separated and released, substantially decreasing the high mortality rate should be changed as some vessels are already practicing this voluntarily and seeing real results. Develop policies to require/allow the practice whenever safe and practicable. The use of excluders and slowing trawl speed are also proving successful and should be encouraged and promoted as well. Those deciding on the BSAI halibut bycatch reduction should take these and other options and practices into serious consideration instead of cutting the cap by the requested 50 percent and calling it good. Substantial reductions can be achieved and we should build on this, not ignore it and just cut the cap so deeply. That doesn't seem balanced.

Alaska's fisheries are incredibly diverse and abundant, and Alaskans like me are very proud to be a part of our maritime fisheries culture and history. There is no question that we have challenges, and no doubt that it is all of our fisheries partners, large and small, from Kodiak or Seattle, that make us so unique and successful at managing our fisheries and our communities. I truly hope that the NPFMC takes all of these things into consideration when they are asked to pick a number from 10 to 50 percent at the June Council meeting in Sitka.

Shirley Marquardt is the mayor of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

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