"Halibut is the fish for people who don't like to eat fish."
Clem Tillion told me that. It's true.
The halibut wars are on, folks, and I don't mean the Domino's Pizza ad slam from last year. There are a few silly voices trying to make the current arguments regarding halibut an allocation war. Sadly, they are wrong. It's way past allocation, folks, and now its a fight for preservation and sustainability.
Areas of the Bering Sea have not been managed to sustain halibut -- specifically Area 4CDE.
On behalf of the state of Alaska, six members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, including Alaska's current Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game Sam Cotten, have asked the National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to address the emergency of declining stock. Specifically, they want the bycatch of halibut currently allowed to be cut by 33 percent for the 2015 fishery.
I wonder sometimes if they make this stuff more complicated to keep us all glazed over while our resources flop on their decks. Just trying to figure out what commission is in charge of what and what council is supposed to find -- well, see, I've made my point. You almost need a flow chart. I am hoping being born in the Halibut Capital of the world helps me explain it.
Say the whole allocation for halibut in the Bering Sea is a pie. (Yum! Halibut Pie!) Well, there are multiple users that get to eat that pie. Every year the size of the pie is decided by the International Pacific Halibut Commission. They use the latest science to determine how big of a pie the area can handle. The NPFMC then gets to decide who gets how many pieces The trawlers get their slice of the pie through an allotment of bycatch and then dump it. The commercial halibut fleet catches theirs and then pays a landing tax.
The trawlers in this area, and there are less than 20 of them, are called the Amendment 80 fleet. They are fishing for rock sole and yellowfin sole bound for Asian markets. (Not to be confused with the fishstick fishery.)
The bycatch for the area last year was impressive. It should be noted that bycatch, also known as "prohibited species catch," includes halibut because they are so important to our state. They are second to salmon for species landed by small boats.
I'm going to give you some math, but I'll be gentle. I promise.
The halibut landed and dumped that were over 26 inches long amounted to 3.07 million pounds. Those were counted against the halibut pie. The halibut under 26 inches amounted to 1.75 million pounds. They were not counted against the pie. If you total the poundage of wasted halibut you get 4.82 million pounds.
The little guys under the 26-inch limit are a lot of individual fish and are what needs most to be sustained.
So, you are probably wondering how much of the rest of the pie is for the commercial fishing fleet who are actually trying to catch halibut?
They were just set a 370,000 pound allocation.
That means for every pound of halibut destined for market, 13 pounds are dumped. Wasted flesh. Crab food.
The letter sent to NOAA asking for an emergency ruling notes that the intentional (or directed) fishery has declined by 69 percent between 2007 and 2013 while the the limits for bycatch have remained the same.
How did it get this bad? Why didn't the NPFMC do something? They are the pie servers, after all!
They have tried. Last year they asked for a voluntary reduction of 10 percent. (Imagine if our speed limits were voluntary instead of posted.) That seems like a paltry request.
In December, the letter says, "a recent Council motion to request emergency action by the Secretary of Commerce to reduce the BSAI halibut (bycatch) limit by 33 percent failed DUE TO ONE OF THE UNDERSIGNED MEMBER'S ABSENCE DUE TO KIDNEY TRANSPLANT SURGERY."
I put the capital letters in for effect and would like you to read that again and maybe even out loud. The protection of this fishery failed in a 5-5 vote at the meeting last month. The halibut stocks and jobs of these fishermen, boat owners, crews, mechanics and cooks weren't protected because of one person's kidney problem. (It certainly is not his fault that the motion failed. I was delighted to see his signature on the letter to NOAA. Fish on, sir!)
Having attended a few of these meetings, I can tell you there's more politicking and back-scratching than the last days of the session in Juneau. The failure to protect the resource isn't recent. It's a systemic problem with the council. It's staggering the power of Outside corporate lobbyists on some council members -- specifically those members who aren't Alaskans. Lobbyists in Seattle are having an effect on millions of dollars worth of resource and jobs for Alaskans. This equivocates to wanton waste of a protein source that could feed the world if sustained. It should be stopped.
If we don't protect the halibut nursery now we aren't going to get to fight over who gets to catch it. And maybe, just maybe, its time to start discussing a fish tax on all halibut caught, not just the small percentage that gets landed by our local Alaskan small boat fleet.
Shannyn Moore is a radio broadcaster.
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, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com
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