Opinions

Fishery council must act to reduce Alaska halibut bycatch

pollock

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, or NPFMC, has hardly been an Alaska household name, but we think it should become one. The 11-member council makes fisheries policy for the North Pacific Ocean that greatly shapes Alaskans’ livelihoods and lives, including an awfully big decision in the coming days that all Alaskans should know about.

This decision is an “all the marbles” decision to reduce — or to fail to reduce — how much halibut the Seattle-based Bering Sea groundfish trawl fishery can catch and discard as bycatch. Bycatch is when a “non-target” species of fish is accidentally caught while fishing — and is almost always discarded, often dead or dying, back to the ocean.

This is a very important decision for all Alaskans who care about our fisheries and our halibut. We believe halibut trawl bycatch caps must be substantially reduced. We believe most Alaskans feel similarly.

Right now, 3.3 million pounds of halibut are caught and discarded by the Bering Sea trawl fleets every year. Of the various trawlers in the Bering Sea, the 19 vessels that constitute the groundfish bottom trawl fleet — also known as the “Amendment 80″ fleet — are the biggest contributors to halibut bycatch.

Currently, halibut trawl bycatch is managed through a fixed limit. As the number of halibut in the Bering Sea has declined over the years — itself a cause of concern — the trawl fisheries have taken an ever-increasing proportion of the remaining halibut.

Under the current management system, if halibut further declines it’s increasingly possible that literally 100% of the Bering Sea halibut available to harvest will be allocated to the trawl fleets for bycatch.

It’s worth mentioning that all 19 of the 19 vessels in the groundfish bottom trawl fleet hail from Seattle. None from Alaska. The groundfish bottom trawl fleet catches and processes its catch at sea — not on shore in Alaska communities — and ships the catch to Asia.

The groundfish trawl fleet pays a modest fisheries landing tax to the state of Alaska, although in 2020 one of the Seattle-based groundfish trawl companies, Fishermen’s Finest, sued Alaska claiming the tax was unconstitutional and that the state of Alaska should not be able to collect this tax. The Alaska Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the fisheries landing tax.

In sum, this situation must change. Halibut trawl bycatch caps must be reduced. And Alaska’s — not the Seattle-based groundfish trawl fleet’s — interest must be given due consideration, especially by the Alaskan members of the Council.

Fortunately, the state of Alaska, and specifically Gov. Dunleavy and Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, have the power to do this.

Of the 11 voting members on the council, five are appointed by Gov. Dunleavy, and the state of Alaska directly controls a seat that is reserved for the Fish and Game commissioner, Doug Vincent-Lang. Alaska controls a majority of the 11 seats on the council; the remainder are held by members from Washington and Oregon and the federal government.

In the coming days, the 11 members of the council will choose from one of four options — alternatives 1, 2, 3, and 4 — to reduce halibut trawl bycatch in the Bering Sea.

Alternatives 1 and 2 are effectively the status quo — not surprisingly, alternative 1 is supported by the groundfish trawl fleet.

Alternative 3 effectively represents an incremental decrease to halibut trawl bycatch limits — and, in some scenarios, actually allows for an increase in bycatch.

Alternative 4 represents a meaningful decrease to halibut trawl bycatch limits.

We support Alternative 4, and we hope and expect that Gov. Dunleavy, Commissioner Vincent-Lang, and the state of Alaska will use its leadership position on the council to represent Alaskans, select Alternative 4, and reduce halibut trawl bycatch in the Bering Sea.

We are of diverse political affiliations and worldviews, but we are united on this issue. And it’s not just us. Twenty-eight of the 60 elected Alaska legislators, from Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, on the right to Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, on the left, representing hundreds of thousands of Alaskans, share our position in supporting alternative 4. Let’s hope the council listens.

Reps. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, and Sarah Vance, R-Homer, are members of the Alaska House of Representatives who represent coastal Alaska communities.

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