Credit: constantinealexander.net

    Halibut catches fluctuate based on the ups and downs of the stock from California to the farthest reaches of the Bering Sea. If the numbers decline, so do the catches of commercial and sport fishermen.

            But similar reductions don’t apply to the boats taking millions of pounds of halibut as bycatch in other fisheries.

            In the Bering Sea, for example, there is a fixed cap totaling 7.73 million pounds of halibut allowed to be taken as bycatch for trawlers, longliners and pot boats targeting groundfish, with most going to trawlers. The cap stays the same, regardless of changes in the halibut stock. Nearly all of the bycatch gets tossed over the side, dead or alive, as required by federal law.

            Stakeholders are saying it is time for that to change.

            This month, after four years of analyses and deliberation, managers are moving towards a new “abundance based” management plan that would tie bycatch levels to the health of the halibut stock as determined by annual surveys.

            Levels of bycatch (also called “prohibited species catch or PSC”) are set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in waters from three to 200 miles out, where the bulk of Alaska’s harvests come from. In several regions, the bycatch allowed each year exceeds the catches that can be taken by fishermen who count on halibut to keep their small, seagoing businesses afloat.

            In a letter to the NPFMC, fisherman Josh Wisniewski of Homer cited a 2013 scenario.

            “The total amount of halibut that could be removed…was less than the prospective amount of halibut bycatch allowed. In other words, we didn’t have enough fish in the water to cover allowable bycatch and there would have been no directed fishery. Only emergency negotiations preserved opportunity for directed fishermen,” he wrote, adding “when halibut abundance declines, the proportion to the bycatch users increases and the amount to the directed halibut users decreases.”

            “I believe it is imperative, as a matter of conservation and equity, that the Council continue to move forward and develop an abundance-based management approach that provides the ability for the bycatch cap to go up and down based on stock abundance. The fixed cap, under today’s halibut stock status, is both outdated and inequitable,” Wisniewski added.

            Along with halibut, the NPFMC is getting an angry earful for the amount of sablefish (black cod) that’s also going over the side by the big, mostly Seattle-based boats fishing for deep water flatfish in the Bering Sea.

            Scientists with the NPFMC revealed last week that sablefish bycatch of nearly five million pounds has been taken by Bering Sea trawlers this year, more than triple their allowance of 1.4 million pounds. They said that “given current information, there is a good chance that the Bering Sea overfishing limit for sablefish in 2019 will be exceeded.” That would close all directed sablefish fisheries in federal waters for the rest of the year.

            In a letter to the Council, Linda Behnken of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, called “the amount of trawl inflicted mortality unacceptable.”

            The Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owner’s Association and Deep Sea Fishermen’s Union agreed.

            “Our first concern is that, by allowing the bycatch to reach these levels, any assumption that we were saving fish to help rebuild this resource cannot be sustained,” both wrote in a letter to the NPFMC, adding, “Having nearly 5 million pounds of bycatch of juvenile sablefish is not acceptable, ever, and particularly if this is becoming an annual event.”

            The numbers of fish coming and going over the side as bycatch in the Bering Sea are straightforward because nearly all of the boats are required to have 100% observer coverage. That’s not the case in the Gulf of Alaska where in 2018 observer coverage included just one out of every six fishing trips.

            Based on those observations, groundfish trawlers in the Central Gulf caught nearly 4.7 million pounds of sablefish as bycatch, more than double their 2.3 million pound allotment.

            Halibut bycatch in the Central and Western Gulf in 2018 totaled 2.1 million pounds, nearly all by trawlers with longliners a distant second.

            They also took 16,802 Chinook salmon, according to state and federal data compiled by Oceana.  “For comparison, the total Chinook allocation for all sport fishing in all of Southeast Alaska is only 23,900 fish,” Jamie Karnik, Oceana’s Juneau-based Pacific Communications Manager said in a statement.

            IPHC researchers have cautioned that Gulf bycatch numbers could be much higher due to the data gaps.

            “This is important not only for overall observer coverage, but for the ‘observer effect,’ where it has been shown that on average over the last three years bottom trawl vessels caught 30% less fish overall when they had an observer on board, yet those trips are used as the baseline for data on unobserved trips,” Karvik said.

            There’s not a fisherman alive who likes throwing fish over the side. Many Gulf trawl fishermen and trade groups for years have urged the NPFMC to craft a new management plan to “slow the race for fish” and allow them to fish cooperatively or under a catch share program.

In June 2012, the Council initiated the process but in 2016, citing too much division among stakeholders, all work on a Gulf trawl bycatch management plan was postponed “indefinitely.”

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