After six years of discussion, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council appears poised next month to rein in the fixed cap of over four million pounds of halibut bycatch by a fleet of about 20 boats targeting flatfish in the Bering Sea. Their take comes off the top of all other users.

At a bycatch hearing this week by the Alaska legislature’s House Fisheries Committee, Representative Sarah Vance of Homer asked Dept. of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang about the State of Alaska’s position.

“We are going into a council meeting, we are reviewing all the materials at the present time but we don’t have a position yet on what we’re going to do. We are going to take a step though to have a significant reduction in halibut bycatch but which alternative would be premature to postulate that we will ultimately support until we’re done reading all the materials in advance of that meeting.”

All of the flatfish bottom trawlers are based in Seattle and owned by “six or so companies,” said Council director, Dave Witherell. Vincent-Lang quickly came to their defense.

“I think this question is interesting because the ownership of these vessels, although they may be homeported in Seattle, they pay significant fishery taxes to the state of Alaska as part of landing taxes and want we’re seeing is the ownership of these vessels is increasingly becoming Alaska-based with the CDQ organizations in Western Alaska basically buying into this industry. So again, that contributes a lot to  the coastal economies of those CDQ based programs all throughout western Alaska. Although one can look at it as whether they’re home ported in a certain point, I think you have to look at it as where the benefit of some of that fish taxes and CDQ ownership may be coming back into local communities as an important factor.” 

There are six Community Development Quota groups that represent 65 communities within 50 nautical miles of the Bering Sea coast: Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, Coastal Villages Region Fund, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association and Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. All are allocated portions of each year’s catches of nearly every species caught in the Bering Sea, and all owners or part owners of large fishing vessels.

Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka asked Commissioner Vincent-Lang about the State’s perspective on habitat impacts by trawlers on crabs and other species.

“I am going to defer an answer on that because I have not given that a good deal of thought. I will speak to my staff and promise to get back to you with an assessment on that. But I have not  really dug down into that issue to be able to answer in a good manner right now.”

Rep. Ortiz of Ketchikan questioned the makeup of the Council, notably its lack of indigenous members. Council director Dave Witherell responded —

“To answer that, the appointments of the membership are made by the governors of Alaska and Washington. If the governor of Alaska wants to appoint someone who’s Native to be on the Council. the governor can do so.”

The bycatch meeting was excellent and very informative and also covered salmon, crab and much more.

Presentation by Dave Witherell, director of the NPFMC

 Presentation by Glenn Merrill, NOAA Fisheries/Alaska

 Video of AK House Fisheries Committee meeting on bycatch