Fishing council ties bycatch limits on Bering Sea trawlers to halibut abundance

The white underside of halibut lie in a metal tub
Bering Sea trawlers tend to scoop up juvenile halibut in their nets. Commercial and subsistence fishermen in Western Alaska say that doesn’t leave enough halibut for them to catch in years when abundance is low. (Angela Denning/KFSK)

The council that manages fishing in federal waters voted last week to link groundfish trawl fishing in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands to halibut abundance. The action caps — at least for now — a six-year debate about curbing halibut bycatch in Alaska.

For many who have been following that debate, the decision comes as a surprise because it’s expected to deal what trawlers say is a crushing blow to their fishery.

But members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council said it was also important for them to consider how high levels of bycatch hurt small-boat halibut fishermen in Western Alaska — even if they didn’t go quite as far as advocates from those communities had hoped.

The action that ultimately passed Monday came from Rachel Baker, the deputy Fish and Game commissioner who represents Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration on the council. She said it will incentivize the trawl industry to reduce the halibut they incidentally catch in their nets.

When halibut stocks are low, the cap on prohibited species catch, or PSC, will also drop.

“Mr. Chair, this council clearly would rather not impose additional costs that could result in reduced groundfish harvest and revenues, if we had other management options,” Baker said. “But again, halibut is fully used in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, and at the low and very low index state, mortality from PSC should decline in response to reduced amounts of halibut available for all users.”

The new limits apply to a group of fishermen and processers called the Amendment 80 fleet, which catch and process groundfish in the Bering Sea.

Halibut is a prohibited species for the fleet and must be discarded. That trawl sector catches the largest amount of halibut bycatch in the region — an estimated 2.8 million pounds each year. Other Bering Sea fishermen say that reduces their opportunities to catch halibut, particularly as spawning halibut stocks decline there.

As it is now, the bycatch cap in place for the fleet is fixed and is not adjusted to halibut abundance. So when halibut abundance is low, bycatch is a larger slice of the overall pie. The last time the cap was changed was five years ago.

The council voted to make that cap dependent on the abundance of halibut in the area. Under the new guidelines, when halibut abundance is high, the fleet could catch the same amount of bycatch it is limited to now. But when halibut abundance is very low, that cap would drop by 35%.

Chris Woodley is executive director of the Groundfish Forum, the fishery association that represents those trawlers, said the fleet has been working to lower its halibut bycatch already and called Monday’s decision “devastating.”

“Because we’re being told to do better without more tools,” he said. “And that’s going to harm crew members, it’s going to reduce our revenues …. and harm our crewmembers’ families.”

He said without new tools to curb halibut bycatch, the fleet will have to stop fishing earlier in the season to meet those lower caps. Woodley said the 2,200 crew members the fleet employs — many from out of state — will bear much of the impact as the fleet’s fishing opportunities change. Analysis suggests the action will result in tens of millions in losses for the fishery.

Anne Vanderhoeven, a member of the council who works with Arctic Storm Management Group in Seattle, found that concerning.

“I find cuts at the levels in the motion to be punitive — cuts to the Amendment 80 fleet — to reallocate halibut from one user group to another with no real conservation benefit,” Vanderhoeven said. “And cuts at these levels could put some Amendment 80 companies out of business and I don’t think that’s the right thing to be doing here.”

But council members said they’re also taking into account the social and cultural impacts of bycatch.

The halibut fishery in St. Paul, a small island community in the Bering Sea, originated in the 1980s as the commercial seal harvest there was phased out. Today, it’s the primary source of income for the 355 residents there, according to a packet submitted to the council by the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association ahead of the decision.

Lauren Divine, with the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, said that value is immeasurable — and not purely economic.

“What is the value of the health of the halibut population?” she said. “The Bering Sea ecosystem? The connected, large marine ecosystems of Alaska that are vital to our people, family, communities, business cultures and the nation?”

Divine and other tribal leaders had been pushing for another option this week, Alternative 4, which would have taken an even bigger swing at reducing bycatch. They said that would have also opened up more fishing opportunities for small-boat fishermen like those in St. Paul.

That alternative was also backed by a bipartisan coalition of Alaska legislators and fishermen’s associations across the state, who provided hours of testimony to the council last week.

Marissa Wilson is a member of the council’s advisory panel and a fisherman based in Homer. She said the council’s impact analysis did not take into account the impacts of bycatch on communities around Alaska.

“There are values involved in this decision that are not adequately captured,” she said. ” And there are grave, intergenerational consequences of choosing any alternative besides four.”

The council said it can’t guarantee reducing bycatch will help out halibut fishermen.

It’s actually a different council that manages halibut stocks — the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Commission scientist Allan Hicks told council members changing the cap will have little impact on halibut spawning biomass in the region.

But it will likely change the amount of halibut commercial and subsistence fishermen are able to catch. Council Member Andy Mezirow, a charter operator in Seward, said it’s important to share the burden of halibut conservation between sectors.

“The Amendment 80 fleet may in fact have to face doing more with less,” he said. “But we are moving this action one step closer to having all fishermen share in this burden.”

Mezirow voted “yes” on Monday’s motion, as did the other representatives to the council from Alaska. The motion passed the council 8-3.

Jeff Kauffman is celebrating that decision. He’s the vice president of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and a commercial halibut fisherman.

He said while the measure doesn’t go as far as he would’ve liked, it’s an exciting step in the right direction.

“This is a big day for St. Paul and the Indigenous small-boat fishermen that live there,” he said. “Because the halibut fishery is so important for St. Paul, we spent six years and tremendous resources and efforts to get to this better place.”

This week’s decision marks the first time the federal council has linked halibut bycatch to abundance, Mezirow said. The council will likely take up more bycatch issues next year.

NOAA Fisheries will have to review the final action before it goes into effect.

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