By DJ Summer/Alaska Journal of Commerce —


SITKA — The North Pacific Fishery Management Council made its second controversial compromise of the year on June 7, again related to bycatch in the Bering Sea and again after lengthy, impassioned testimony.

The council passed an amended motion, submitted by Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten and amended by Washington State council member Bill Tweit, to cut the halibut bycatch rates for the Bering Sea groundfish fleet.

Amendment 80 cooperatives’ cap will be cut by 25 percent, the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Trawl Limited Access Sector by 15 percent, non-trawl groundfish sectors including hook and line Pacific cod vessels by 15 percent, and Community Development Quota by 15 percent.

Like the April decision to cut salmon bycatch for the Bering Sea pollock fleet, the council’s June cuts left both sides of the issue feeling punished for a situation they blame on the council itself, along with the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

“We got screwed,” said Myron Melovidov, chairman of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. “Plain and simple.”

Groundfish fishermen in the so-called Amendment 80 fleet, for their part, insist the cuts are deeper than they are equipped to handle.

“It’ll be hard,” said Groundfish Forum executive director Chris Woodley. “We don’t have any more tools at our disposal to deal with a 25 percent cut.”

Melovidov’s association in the Central Bering Sea is the core of a bitter dispute between Seattle-based groundfish trawlers and coastal Alaska small boat fishermen.

Directed halibut fishermen in the North Pacific have watched their quotas drop while the trawl industry prosecuting Bering Sea groundfish has had a relatively static bycatch for twenty years.

Simply put, the halibut pie is smaller than before, and the directed fishery only gets a small piece. In 2014, 70 percent of halibut removals were bycatch, not directed removals by the mostly small-boat, independent halibut fishermen. At the current projected harvest level, International Pacific Halibut Commission biologists estimate that 93 percent of all 2015 halibut removals in the Bering Sea would be from bycatch, not the directed fishery.

The cuts amount to a compromise too much for one side of the issue and not enough for the other. “Blunt tool” became the catchphrase of the week as the council reconciled with imprecise information and masses of variables, conceding that sector-wide cuts were a sledgehammer where a scalpel was needed.

The compromise, already complex with six fishery sectors and dozens of individual vessels, was further complicated by the recusals of Alaskans Simon Kinneen and David Long over financial conflicts of interest. The Alaska delegation, a majority of six on a normally 11-member council, was reduced to four, with Alaska sportfishing representative Ed Dersham voting against fellow Alaskans.

Trawl groups already in the midst of bycatch reduction felt slighted by an ungrateful and fickle council. In June 2014, the council told the Bering Sea groundfish fleet to reduce bycatch by 10 percent, which Amendment 80 coops insist they did in the latter half of the season. Amendment 80 cooperative The Alaska Seafood Cooperative was allocated 3.7 million pounds of halibut bycatch in 2014 and used 3.3 million. The other Amendment 80 cooperative, the Alaska Groundfish Cooperative, was allocated 1.6 million pounds of halibut bycatch and used 1.5 million.

On the other side, halibut fishermen need deeper cuts to maintain a livable allocation. According to most analysis, the Bering Sea groundfish fleet would need at least a 41 percent reduction in order for the fishermen in the Central Bering Sea regulatory Area 4CDE to keep a 1.285 million pound halibut allocation they say is the bare minimum they need to stay in business.

Even Cotten admitted that his initial motion was too weak to solve the problem, but the only way to move forward until a better range of options can be found.

“I’m confident that a more elegant solution can be found in October,” said Cotten. “It’s a bare minimum, and maybe even below that.”

Cotten’s 33 percent is a throwback to last year, when he and five Alaska members of the North Pacific council sent a letter to National Marine Fisheries Service Assistant Administrator Eileen Sobeck on Dec. 18 asking for an emergency reduction in Bering Sea halibut bycatch of that exact amount.

In response, Tweit introduced an amendment to lower the reduction percentages for the Amendment 80 cooperatives by 25 percent, the BSAI Trawl Limited Access Sector by 15 percent, non-trawl groundfish sectors by 20 percent, and Community Development Quota by 15 percent.

Alaska members of the council objected, accusing Tweit of trying to fudge numbers just enough to have no effect on trawler operations.

“I supported the commissioner’s motion, because it meant the balancing of equities and responsibilities for the Bering Sea,” said Fields. “The current motion does not. I see this motion as the classic example of pointing the finger at another body (the IPHC).”

According to five-year averages of actual bycatch usage levels, Tweit’s cap reductions would only reduce bycatch by 17 percent for Amendment 80, two percent for BSAI Trawl Limited Access Sector, and have no net change for any of the other sectors. In Area 4CDE, the probable increase in directed catch, under Tweit’s options, around 280,000 pounds, when the area needs 700,000-800,000 pounds at minimum to stay at their current, baseline allocation level.

“We’ll still take a 38 percent reduction (from 1.285 million pounds) in 2016,” said Melovidov.

Tweit admitted the cuts didn’t go far enough, but said the council has no choice now but to act quickly and try to find a more nuanced solution later in the year.

“I fully expect we will see performance beyond that. (The council’s Scientific and Statistic Committee) recommends an iterative approach of refinement over time,” said Tweit. “This is the first step in that iterative approach.”

NOAA’s representative on the council, Glenn Merrill, submitted the amendment to Tweit’s amendment to raise the BSAI Trawl Limited Access Sector cut percentage from 15 percent to 20 percent.

Other council members had different ideas about how to deal with an imperfect set of options. Fields introduced a substitute motion to postpone the motion to October while the council revisits the issue with better information, an option floated to the council June 6 by CBSFA lobbyist Heather McCarty.

“We’re spinning our wheels,” said Fields. “The wiser choice today is to roll up our sleeves, find additional tools, do better analysis, and find a better solution.”

Merrill and others voiced apprehensions of potential political pushback and litigation, as the DOC’s Sobeck and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior Kevin Washburn both sent letters asking for a “viable” fishery in 2016. Further, postponing final action until October would preclude any action for the 2016 Bering Sea groundfish or halibut seasons.

“This is an interesting approach,” said Merrill. “I’m concerned about the potential implications a delay has to implement any kind of bycatch reduction measures for 2016.”

Because the postponement was not a final motion, as specified by federal statute, recused members Long and Kinneen could vote. Despite the inclusion of the Alaskans, however, Fields’ motion failed 5-6, with Alaska member Ed Dersham voting with Washington and Oregon delegates Tweit, Merrill, Kenny Down, Roy Hyder, and Craig Cross.

Long’s and Kinneen’s recusal went back into effect for the final action, and Tweit’s motion as amended passed 6-3, with Dersham again voting with the Pacific Northwest representatives and Glenn Merrill.