A lot has changed in Alaska since commercial vessels began fishing for halibut off the coastline in 1888, but in almost 130 years, halibut has remained a staple of the state's fishing economy and culture. Along with salmon and crab, no species of fish captures the Alaska imagination and fills Alaska pocketbooks more than halibut.
So it comes as little surprise that the Bering Sea fishery's estimated 4.5 million pounds of halibut bycatch in 2014 has lot of people concerned. But figuring out how to lower that number without undermining profits in other ground fisheries is a complicated and touchy subject.
The 2015 halibut season opened on March 14. This year, the International Pacific Halibut Commission recommended a total catch limit of 29.223 million pounds for Alaska, Canada and the Lower 48. This total allotment was divided among the regions based on local information and fishing practices.
This year, catch limits were higher than in 2014 for most regions. Among the few exceptions was area 4CDE, the management area that covers much of the Bering Sea. Catch limits there were set to drop, but after hearing testimony about the negative impact on the local fishery, the allotment was raised to match the 2014 limit.
Still, long-term concerns about the sustainability of halibut stock in Western Alaska has fishermen in St. Paul worried.
In the Pribilofs, the halibut fishery has an important socioeconomic impact. While roughly 80 percent of St. Paul's city revenue comes from the snow crab fishery, much of the rest comes from halibut long-line fishing.
When the IPHC released its annual harvest policy, the initial directed fishery allotment for Area 4CDE tallied at just 520,000 pounds. That was a 60 percent reduction in the quota from 2014.
"We can't even put our boats in the water with that amount," said St. Paul Mayor Simeon Swetzof.
After taking comments from interest groups in the area and looking closely at data, the IPHC raised the quota to 1.285 million pounds for the area. Keeping the allotment that high however, risks sustainability.
According to Rachel Baker, fisheries management specialist with the NOAA, bycatch needs to be reduced by 43 percent in order for the IPHC annual harvest policy to specify the same catch allotment in coming years. That number was raised with the assumption that bycatch would be reduced, according to IPHC assistant director Stephen Keith.
"The community is very grateful for the ability to come up with a solution for keeping the quota high," Swetzof said.
Pressure to reduce bycatch has come from environmental groups, fishermen and politicians. In Southwest Alaska, where revenues depend almost entirely on fishing, even municipalities have begun to push the issue.
At the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference meeting in Anchorage earlier this month, a resolution was put forward that proposed to make efforts toward reducing halibut bycatch by 50 percent for the Amendment 80 fleet.
Over the past decade, the resolution said, commercial catch limits for halibut have been cut by 64 percent, while halibut bycatch limits for the groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea haven't been significantly reduced for 30 years.
The resolution failed to pass, and 63 percent of the meeting attendees voted against the measure. Many of the communities depend on trawl fisheries for a significant portion of their economy, and much of that fishery occurs in the western Aleutians and Pribilof Islands region.
"The Bering Sea trawl fleets are very important to the economies of Unalaska, Dutch Harbor and Kodiak. And those fleets have made tremendous efforts to address the bycatch issue," said at-large member Joe Sullivan, who asked that conference attendees abstain from voting for the resolution.
"The fish that come out of the Bering Sea feed the world. But I'm not going to stand here and act like we don't have a problem. We do have a problem," Swetzof said at the conference.
The Bering Sea trawl fleet has worked to reduce its percentage of bycatch in recent years, and the industry has a number of tools it uses to keep halibut mortality low.
Many trawl nets are fitted with halibut excluders, which allow halibut to slip through the top of the net, while keeping the target species in the net.
Getting halibut back in the water while still alive may seem obvious. Mortality rates for halibut caught in non-targeted trawl fisheries run as high as 80 percent. More efficient deck sorting techniques have shown that number can be reduced by as much as 30 percent.
For the groundfish industry, the incentive to cut bycatch doesn't just depend on good faith. If too many non-targeted fish are caught, bycatch caps can put a stop to fishing for target species, which results in lost money. And the amount of money involved is huge.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has been debating whether to reduce those caps for halibut since January. They hope to reach a decision and take action on the proposal by their June meeting in Sitka.
Halibut migration habits don't help to make the task of managing the species any less complicated. Halibut caught in the western Aleutians have been tracked all the way to the Washington coast, some 2,000 miles away.
Their capacity for traveling has led to the stock being managed as a coast-wide fishery under a treaty with Canada, and the effort to conserve viable halibut population falls mainly to the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
The IPHC conducts an annual stock assessment to determine how much halibut will be available to harvest for the following year.
The amount of exploitable halibut stock is established by taking the estimated number of halibut and subtracting the sport harvest, the subsistence harvest and the estimated bycatch from that total number. The commercial harvest policy is based on a percentage of that stock.
The final limits are allocated by regional groups, including NPFMC, based on the recommendations of IPHC.
Halibut stock levels have declined across the Pacific over the past 20 years, but have stabilized recently. In Area 4CDE, halibut populations have been declining over the past two decades as well, but the bycatch of halibut has not declined at that same rate.
With bycatch concerns impacting everything from the sport fishery to the state capital, boat captains and bureaucrats alike have struggled with balancing multiple fishing interests and the long-term impact on the fish.
"Halibut has been one of the fish we've been living off for hundreds of thousands of years," Swetzof said. He hopes that in St. Paul, they'll be able to continue fishing for halibut in years to come.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.