Fisheries Council considers linking halibut bycatch to abundance
The three representatives from the Kenai Peninsula in Juneau signed a letter to the council that oversees the commercial fishery in Alaska’s federal waters, joining a bipartisan chorus of voices demanding a reduction in halibut bycatch.
Specifically, representatives are asking the North Pacific Fisheries Management Board to endorse Alternative 4 at its meeting next week, which would link the trawler fleet’s fishery to the abundance of halibut in the area. the Bering Sea.
This is a strategy called abundance-based management, and according to one proponent it would reduce the number of halibut that are accidentally picked up by trawls each year in western Alaska.
Andy Mezirow is a charter operator in Seward and a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. He said it’s a complicated question – an issue the board has been considering for years.
âIf it was just a simple math problem, it would be a much easier problem,â he said. “But this is not the case.”
The issue of bycatch has generated a lot of buzz.
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Board has heard hundreds of accounts of salmon bycatch this year and the state is forming an Alaska Bycatch Task Force to address the issue.
The Bering Sea halibut, in particular, is a species of concern to fishermen in western Alaska.
There are already limits to the amount of bycatch the Amendment 80 fleet can take. This fleet – named after the regulations that set its harvest quotas – is made up of fishermen and processors who catch groundfish in the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands. Mezirow said the council is looking specifically at the Amendment 80 sector, as it catches the largest amount of halibut bycatch from the region’s groundfish fisheries.
But the bycatch cap currently in place for the Amendment 80 fleet is fixed and is not adjusted to the abundance of halibut. Thus, when halibut abundance is low, bycatch represents a larger share of the overall pie. The last time the cap was changed was five years ago.
In their letter, lawmakers said there are currently few incentives for the trawler fleet to reduce the amount of bycatch it gets – around Â£ 2.8million each year. Republican Representative for Soldotna, Ron Gillham, is one of the representatives who signed the letter.
âAnd when they have to discard more dead halibut than the sport and commercial fishermen catch, that’s just not right. So there has to be something to stop the overfishing of bycatch, âsaid Gillham.
Supporters of Alternative 4 – including the hundreds of people who have submitted comments to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Board – say the board should link fleet activity to halibut abundance, with a range that fluctuates between the current ceiling and 45% less. Other alternatives on the table would set higher ceilings.
Mezirow said the council has long considered linking trawling to abundance. But he said it wasn’t easy to model what that might look like. The issue is complicated by the fact that a different body manages the halibut stocks – the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
And alternative 4 would probably have a colossal economic impact on the Amendment 80 fleet. The estimates from the draft environmental impact study show that the impact on the economy would far outweigh the gains. economic benefits resulting from the reduction of halibut bycatch.
âThe truth is some will be hurt no matter what we do, if we choose one of the options that will lead to a reduction, some companies will be more negative than others,â he said.
But Mezirow said there were social impacts to consider as well. The council heard from communities in western Alaska about how dependent they are on halibut, including native Alaskan fishermen. In a separate social impact statement, the council found that the alternatives could have significant impacts for these communities.
David Bayes said it was important. He is a charter operator out of Homer and has run charter associations for Homer and Alaska.
âFor me, the heart of this conversation is whether, as Alaskans, we want to examine how these regulations affect Alaska and the incomes of Alaskan people, or whether we want to zoom out and we focus on the benefits for the nation as a whole, âhe said. . âAnd the nation makes a lot of money out of it. But if this is done at the cost of local Alaskans, is it something that Alaskans want to support? “
He said the health of the Bering Sea halibut stocks could also have an impact on south-central fishermen. Trawlers in the Bering Sea tend to capture juvenile halibut in their nets.
Mezirow said it will be a tough conversation for the board next week.
âWhat people want is so far away that I don’t think the outcome of it will make everyone happy,â he said. âAnd that’s pretty standard in fisheries management these days, but it’s hard to go to a meeting and not make everyone happy.
The issue of halibut bycatch is second on the council’s agenda in December. Whatever decision the board takes, it will be submitted to NOAA Fisheries for approval.