North Pacific halibut decline isn't a simple issue

There is a fierce debate going on in the North Pacific right now over halibut. At issue is low halibut biomass, impacts of halibut bycatch and the quota for the directed halibut fishery in the Bering Sea. The debate has sparked sharp rhetoric, lots of finger pointing and a mostly one-sided discussion about the issue.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission staff has recommended that the catch limit for the directed fishery in the Bering Sea (area 4CDE) be significantly reduced. In response, fishermen from the affected area have called for emergency action to reduce the halibut bycatch limits in the groundfish fisheries by 33 percent in 2015. It is understandable that a reduction in the directed fishery of this magnitude, after years of lower quotas, would elicit a call for drastic measures.

The impacts of a reduced catch in the directed fishery and dependent communities have been well articulated but the impacts of the potential halibut bycatch reduction on the other fisheries have not. While this debate is more than a discussion about cost, benefits and economics, it is important to put these issues on the table, as they are necessary to provide the full context and scope of the debate.

The Amendment 80 (A80) sector, which targets flatfish, rockfish, cod and Atka mackerel, provides significant economic benefits to Alaska and the nation. In catching almost 725 million pounds of fish a year, the fleet directly employs nearly 2,000 fishermen, processors and crew. The Five-Year Review of the Effects of Amendment 80, written for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in October 2014, found that the A80 sector accounts for more than 9,300 direct and indirect jobs in Alaska and across the United States. The economic impact of the A80 fleet in Alaska equates to about 4,500 jobs. It also accounts for $31 million in Alaska taxes, $69 million in Alaska labor income, and $96 million in Alaska household income. Much of this benefits coastal communities where the fleet makes regular port calls.

Because the debate is about halibut and its value to the directed fishery, it is important to also quantify the value and importance of halibut to the Amendment 80 fleet.

While halibut commands a high price in the marketplace, the average annual value of the directed halibut fishery in the Bering Sea is $32 million (2011-2013). The value of the Amendment 80 Bering Sea trawl fisheries, utilizing incidentally caught halibut, is approximately $368 million for the same time period. According to the five-year review of the A80 program, a metric ton of halibut is worth an estimated $11,500 in the directed halibut fishery and $150,000 in the Amendment 80 trawl fisheries.

The directed halibut fishery is the only fishery that is allowed to retain and sell halibut. Halibut caught incidentally in other fisheries in Alaska, most of which have a long history of sustainable management, are required by regulation to be discarded, dead or alive.

All of the vessels in the A80 fleet carry two federal observers to monitor and record the catch and discards. Regulations require the fish to be counted and sampled before being released, which increases the mortality of the bycatch. The A80 sector has been working with National Marine Fisheries Service and various equipment vendors for years to develop and implement a system of deck sorting to allow rapid monitoring and recording of halibut bycatch so that the fish may be returned to the sea with lower mortality. NMFS is likely to approve an experimental deck sorting program for 2015.

The Amendment 80 program itself, implemented in 2008, reduced the halibut bycatch limit to 2,325 metric tons from the sector's historic average use (2003-2007) of about 2,650 tons. The actual bycatch since implementation of Amendment 80 averages about 2,000 tons. Fishermen use halibut excluders, on-the-grounds communications, gear modification, changes in areas and fishing times, real-time reporting and historic information to minimize halibut bycatch. Deck sorting should further reduce it.

The current debate about halibut in the directed fishery and incidentally caught in the trawl fisheries in the Bering Sea is a classic fishery dilemma. There are always trade-offs in fisheries management and both positive and negative impacts from fishing. While the economic arguments for each side are only part of the story here, it is vital that the full picture of costs and benefits be on the table and part of the debate. The public deserves to see the full picture and understand how we got to where we are.

Chris Woodley is executive director of Ground Fish Forum, based in Seattle.

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.

Chris Woodley

Chris Woodley is executive director of the Ground Fish Forum, based  in Seattle.