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Fishermen give emotional testimony on bycatch caps at Sitka meeting

SITKA -- Emotions are running high as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council considers a proposal to reduce halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea.

Sitka radio station KCAW reported Saturday that halibut fishermen are pushing the council to reduce how much fish can be accidentally taken and discarded by boats targeting other species. Trawlers and others say they've already reduced bycatch voluntarily and that lower limits would be disastrous.

Some worry that if fleets continue to take bycatch at current levels they will endanger halibut stock and the future of halibut fishing.

The council's advisory panel, which is made up of industry representatives, had recommended the council reduce the limit on how much bycatch can be caught by up to 45 percent for some gear types.

Trawler captain John Nelson said his fleet isn't getting credit for the extensive measures they've already put in place to avoid bycatch, including changing when and where they fish and using nets that allow larger halibut to escape.

A 50 percent cut in the bycatch cap would force his fleet to shut down part of the year, and crew members would lose their jobs, Nelson said.

That's already happened to halibut fishermen, said Frank Balovich of Sitka. Longliners like him have absorbed big cuts, and it's time for the groundfish fleet to take theirs, he said.

"I mean, why is their family more important than mine?" Balovich asked. "Why are their kids more important than mine? Why is their boat more important than mine? Why is their crew more important than mine?"

Trawlers echoed that argument.

"Why is a crew member on a directed halibut boat more important than a crew member's livelihood on a trawl boat?" said Heather Mann, of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative. "It's not. It's not more important."

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