April 28, 2015
Alaska Groups, Communities Urge Council to Lower Halibut Bycatch
Commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen and fishing communities find common ground in call for bycatch reduction in the Bering Sea
Across the state, letters and resolutions supporting the reduction of halibut bycatch caps in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI) fisheries are surfacing — calling attention to a widespread and diverse movement for change. As directed halibut fisheries in the Bering Sea have reached crisis-level lows, bycatch limits on that same species remains at its decades-long level of 7.3 million pounds. Despite some voluntary bycatch reductions by the fleet, BSAI fisheries killed and discarded seven times more halibut (animals, not pounds) in 2014 than the directed fishery landed in that same region.
For fisherman Jeff Kauffman — an Alaska Native from St. Paul Island and IFQ holder in five IPHC regulatory areas — this represents a trend of inequity that he’s seen grow in his 30 years of halibut fishing. After the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) determines the annual harvest, they take the bycatch numbers off the top. The remainder goes to directed halibut fisheries. The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) system determines bycatch limits.
“Halibut bycatch comes off the top,” Kauffman said. “As directed halibut users, we are always last. It’s been very inequitable — the way the situation has been handled. There has been a defacto reallocation from the directed fisheries to the bycatch fisheries.” That reallocation trend has occurred in response to a major conservation concern for the halibut resource. In the last 10 years, halibut quota in the Bering Sea has been reduced by 63 percent in an effort to conserve a dwindling stock.
“Conservation of the halibut stock is riding solely on the backs of the halibut fishermen,” Kauffman said. “The bycatch allocations have remained relatively the same for decades. We feel that it’s only fair that all users of the halibut resource share equally in the conservation of the resource.”
In June, the NPFMC will take final action on a measure that proposes up to a 50 percent reduction in the cap on halibut bycatch in BSAI fisheries. Across the state, diverse voices have emerged in support of this measure — seen as vital not only for restoring some sort of economic equity to the BSAI fisheries system, but for essential conservation steps. 70 to 90 percent of under-26-inch halibut are slated to migrate out of the BSAI upon maturity. The average size of the one million halibut caught as bycatch in the BSAI in 2014 was 4.76 pounds, less than half the weight of a typical 26-inch halibut. This high rate of juvenile halibut harvest in the bycatch fisheries is troubling to halibut fishing communities coast-wide, and the potential stock impact across the North Pacific has many calling for a change in the status quo.
“As a younger fisherman beginning to invest my future in Alaska’s fisheries, I don’t have any choice but to advocate for a better legacy of management,” said Hannah Heimbuch, a commercial fisherman from Homer and Community Fishery Organizer for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “I want to keep fishing halibut. I want to see fish stocks thriving across the North Pacific coast. I want Alaska to be home to healthy coastal communities that have access to that vital resource. That won’t happen if we continue to prioritize a massive take of bycatch over the directed fisheries. I don’t want to see any fisherman put out of business, but that is what will happen in coastal Alaska if we refuse to include the groundfish sector in the regulatory conservation of the halibut resource.”
On April 15, a group of Alaska legislators sent a letter to the NPFMC, urging them to make a 50 percent reduction in BSAI halibut bycatch to ensure the continued viability of Alaska’s directed halibut fisheries. That letter was signed by Senators Lyman Hoffman, Donny Olson, Dennis Egan and Peter Micciche; as well as Representatives Bryce Edgmon, Bob Herron, Neal Foster, Cathy Munoz, Paul Seaton, Johnathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Dan Ortiz and Jim Colver.
A letter sent this week to the Alaska Congressional Delegation requesting their support in reducing halibut bycatch included the following signees:
Alaska Longline Fisheries Association
Alaska Marine Conservation Council
Alaska Trollers Association
Aleut Community of Saint Paul Tribal Government
Aleutians East Borough
Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Corporation
Central Bering Sea Fisherman’s Association
City of Saint Paul Island, Alaska
Coal Point Seafood Company
Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association
Halibut Association of North America
Homer Charter Association
North Pacific Fisheries Association
Pioneer Alaskan Fisheries, Inc.
United Fishermen’s Marketing Association
At their April 14 meeting, the Homer Area Advisory Committee for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game discussed and unanimously passed a resolution asking for a 50 percent reduction of halibut bycatch caps in the BSAI. The City of Sitka and the Kenai Peninsula Borough passed similar resolutions earlier this spring, and organizations, committees and city councils around the state are considering passage of the same in the coming month.