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Fish council must strike a better balance on halibut bycatch

  • Author: Charlie Wilber
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published June 11, 2015

This commentary is written for all those who appreciate halibut. If you eat halibut, catch halibut, or have an interest in a healthy halibut resource you need to be aware of what happened at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Sitka this past week. Simply put, halibut stocks in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) area are down, and the problem is slowly affecting all of us.

Even though the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council voted late Sunday to reduce trawl bycatch by 21 percent, the result is smoke and mirrors. The trawl fleet has already been under this number, thus, the 21 percent voted on by the council is slightly higher than last years catch. The council's decision to reduce bycatch 21 percent only reduces the actual total by 1 percent. This trawl bycatch problem will continue to persist to the detriment of the halibut resource and the coastal communities that depend on it.

The amount of harvestable halibut is steadily decreasing. The Seattle-based factory trawl fleet has managed to secure the same bycatch cap for the past 20 years. Year after year the Seattle-based trawlers are allowed to kill and discard thousands of metric tons of high-value juvenile halibut in order to harvest low-value bottomfish which are sent to China for secondary processing. In the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, the trawlers were able to harvest and waste seven times more fish than the directed longline fishery was able to harvest. Last year, 1 million dead halibut (average weight 4.8 pounds) were thrown overboard. The residents of the area (St. Paul in particular) who have invested millions in Community Development Quotas (CDQs) and processing plants find themselves facing the very real possibility of having no directed halibut fishing in future years. Imagine the frustration of every sport, commercial, charter and subsistence fisherman sitting on the beach watching the trawl fleet kill and discard the entire harvestable amount of halibut. I can only imagine the outrage if that same scenario played itself out in Sitka.

Unfortunately, this problem is heading our way. As the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) gets more sophisticated in monitoring halibut, they're finding that the BSAI is a halibut nursery ground where many of the fish leave on a southbound migration. Tagged BSAI halibut have been recovered as far south as Northern California. In fact, 70 percent have been recovered in other areas. There's a good chance that the fish you caught at Vitskari Rocks in Sitka Sound originated in the Bering Sea. Since so many of these juveniles are killed and discarded by trawlers relentlessly scouring the BSAI, many halibut are never able to make the journey.

The council needed to make the long-overdue decision to reduce 20-year-old trawl bycatch cap by at least 50 percent. In 2014, 4.3 million pounds of dead halibut were thrown overboard. Public testimony at the council meeting in Sitka was overwhelmingly in favor of a reduction in bycatch. Whether the call for bycatch reductions gets any traction with the council remains to be seen. The Seattle-based factory trawl industry objects strenuously. They argue that they've tried to reduce bycatch, but cap cuts will bring financial hardship for the companies, crews, suppliers, Chinese processors and shareholders. Most of the commercial halibut fishermen who testified have seen their own halibut quotas reduced by 65 percent in the past 10 years. The trawlers have been able to enjoy the same quota for the past 20 years while all other user groups have responsibly shouldered the necessary conservation measures that ensure the health and sustainability of the halibut stocks.

The council has the ability and moral responsibility to correct this festering problem before halibut become 100 percent utilized as trawl bycatch. Since many of these juvenile Bering Sea halibut migrate southward, what's happening in the Bering Sea now has the potential to eventually threaten the halibut harvest coastwide.

A 50 percent bycatch cut will give the trawlers a strong incentive to clean up their act. I have great faith in the intelligence, ingenuity and innovation of the trawlers to tackle this problem. When I look at the trawl fleets tied up during the winter in Seattle, I am amazed at the size and complexity of these operations. These folks know how to solve problems.

A 50 percent quota reduction would also bring about short-term pain for long-term gain. The threat of having to tie up a $10-20 million boat because of going over a quota is strong incentive to innovate. Leaving big money sitting on the bottom is also strong motivation to find a solution. In this age of technological advancement there are solutions if you're forced to look hard enough. Those vessels who could solve this challenge would be able to stay fishing and increase their catches while others who could not innovate would be forced out of the fishery. In our economy those who can't adapt to shifting challenges eventually find themselves replaced by those who can.

The council needs to act on this issue before the halibut stocks that have been an important part of the Alaskan coastal economy for the past 100 years are threatened. Reducing trawl bycatch is good management for the halibut stocks and for the livelihood of all who depend on it. It's the right thing to do. The relationship of the Seattle trawl industry to Alaska is basically colonial. The resource and the money are extracted leaving an empty seabed with 1 million dead juvenile halibut. Some council members are heavily influenced by the trawl lobby and will always favor the Seattle fleet rather than the fish. But in the future, I'm hoping a majority of council members see the urgency and necessity in maintaining a healthy coastwide halibut resource.

Charlie Wilber has been fishing out of Sitka for 36 years, 30 of them in the halibut longline fishery. He is a member of the Alaska Longline Fisherman's Association, and sits on the board of directors of Seafood Producers Cooperative, for which he spent 4 years as chair.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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