From National Fisherman

Council cuts Alaska halibut bycatch caps for groundfish fleet

 Jessica Hathaway 

With four proposed alternatives on the docket to amend the management of halibut bycatch in Alaska’s Amendment 80 groundfish trawl fleet, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted Monday, Dec. 13, to approve a compromise between Alternatives 3 and 4.

“The preferred alternative balances the interests of the two largest halibut user groups in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands — the directed commercial halibut fishery and the Amendment 80 sector — by establishing abundance-based halibut [bycatch] limits for the Amendment 80 sector,” said Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, who devised and presented the compromise to the council.

The bulk of public comments called for significant changes, with many halibut stakeholders urging council members to support Alternative 4.

“While that would be a conservation and management action many in the public comments desired, I found it impractical at this time,” said Council Member Kenny Down, former CEO of Blue North Fisheries, of Alternative 4, which called for the deepest bycatch cuts to halibut bycatch in the A80 fleet, which harvests a variety of flatfish, rockfish, Atka mackerel, Pacific Ocean perch, and Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.

In then end, the council voted to manage the trawl fleet’s halibut bycatch based on abundance, not cut and dry hard caps, so all halibut user groups would be equally responsible for and responsive to shifts in abundance.

“While not as significant a reduction as was included in Alternative 4, the hybrid retains the existing bycatch limit at times of high abundance and reduces the bycatch limit by 35 percent below the existing limit at very low levels of halibut abundance — both substantial improvement over alternative 3,” Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka, told NF.

Baker’s compromise (illustrated in the graph below) combines input from the two abundance indices for the halibut fishery — the NMFS Eastern Bering Sea trawl survey and the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s setline survey. If the surveys reflect a high level of abundance, the current level of bycatch would remain in place. The cap would be reduced in kind with a reduction in surveyed halibut biomass.

“This abundance-based approach is much like the management approach for the directed commercial halibut fisheries off Alaska, which establish annual catch limits that vary with established measures of abundance,” Baker added.

“An imbalance was created as the bycatch users took an ever-increasing proportion of the available halibut, and the directed halibut fishermen bore the burden of conservation of the resource,” said Ray Melovidov, COO of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and a second-generation halibut fisherman. “This action will result in the two user groups sharing that burden, and will better manage the resource.”

In the meeting’s discussion and in public comments following the vote, council members and stakeholders have thanked Baker for her work in creating the compromise.

Trawl fleet stakeholders urged the council to approve the first alternative, calling for no changes to halibut bycatch, which does not decrease with reduced halibut abundance. They say significant bycatch reduction would likely push some fleet members out of business, would result in a dramatic reduction of wild domestic seafood in the marketplace, and is unlikely to improve the overall halibut biomass.

“We believe this action does not meet the standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and we are exploring all options due to the unprecedented nature of this decision,” said Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, a trade association that represents some members of the Amendment 80 fleet. “We are also concerned that the analysis shows that this decision will not result in the increases in harvest quota that the directed halibut fishery is looking for.”


                                               Chris Woodley is executive director of the Groundfish Forum and  a United Fishermen of Alaska board member 


However, reducing bycatch and boosting biomass are not always two sides of the same coin. The inequity the council is addressing with this motion is not as simple as who gets to catch the halibut but rather who shares in catch cap reductions when the biomass is low, given the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s call to reduce bycatch “where practicable.”

“Given all the factors that we have to consider, the motion does provide a balance to try to minimize bycatch at all levels of halibut abundance,” said Council Member Nicole Kimball, vice president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “And it really at its core serves to fix the situation in which only halibut fisheries decline when halibut biomass declines. And it remedies this inequity in a way that I think is defensible under the Magnuson Act.”

Council members also spoke to their endeavors to answer to all of the National Standards in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which address bycatch, community participation in fisheries, allocations and the best available science, among other factors.

“We are balancing multiple national standards,” said Council Member Cora Campbell, president and CEO of Silver Bay Seafoods, emphasizing the council’s responsibility to adhere to multiple, complicated and sometimes conflicting requirements. “All at once, we’re trying to achieve OY (optimum yield), allocate fishing privileges equitably, provide for sustained participation of fishing communities, and minimize bycatch to the extent practicable. And as difficult as that is, I believe that this motion strikes the appropriate balance and meets all of the national standards.”

With an array of national standards on one side and a complicated biomass with a vast range of user groups on the other, council members were pressed to thread multiple needles in creating a final motion.

“This council regularly tackles difficult issues, and this topic has consistently been one of those really challenging ones, given the large number of variables that impact halibut management,” said Baker. “The process to develop this ABM program reflects the difficulty of addressing a broad diversity of fishing industry, community and tribal interests that we’ve heard about throughout this process and are reflected in our analysis.”

Council members also acknowledged that the cuts would result in some hardships for the trawl fleet.

“The Amendment 80 fleet may have to forego some amount of profitability to reduce halibut mortality,” said Down. “Real efforts to reduce bycatch are net negative for all fisheries initially.”

But hardship alone is not a reason to abandon the call for bycatch reduction where it’s practicable, as is the call of National Standard 9.

“There is a balance in all industrial [regulation] in this world of natural resources between conservation and profit,” said Down, who also acknowledged benefits provided by the catch of the Amendment 80 fleet.

The shift to an abundance-based management program for groundfish bycatch has also resulted in an abundance of attention from Alaska’s coastal communities and fisheries stakeholders, who have been more engaged on social media and in virtual council meetings as a result of pandemic-induced lockdowns and familiarity with virtual meeting technology.

“Public engagement and the public testimony and advocating for positions on issues like this one are a cornerstone of the council process,” said Council Member Andy Mezirow, a charter fishing captain in Seward, Alaska.

Mezirow went on to caution that while public engagement is critical to the process, the level of discourse should remain fact-based and professional.

“On this agenda item at this very meeting,” Mezirow said, “we’ve seen members of this council and its advisory bodies on social media get threatened, calls for their businesses to be boycotted, and their character slandered for supporting a reasoned alternative that in fact results in a huge bycatch reduction.”



December 13, 2021

Contact: Jeff Kauffman, Vice-President, 907 952-2476
Ray Melovidov, COO, 907 306-4801

North Pacific Council Action Takes An Important and Meaningful Step On Abundance-Based Management of Halibut Bycatch (ABM)

Led by the State of Alaska, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) today took final action on a regulatory package to manage halibut bycatch by bottom trawlers in the Bering Sea based on the abundance of halibut, an innovative approach that will help bring equity and stability to directed halibut users and dependent communities across Alaska.

“This Council decision will help give CBSFA, the halibut fishermen of St. Paul, and commercial fishermen in communities around the Bering Sea more access to halibut in these times of low abundance,” said Jeff Kauffman, CBSFA Vice-President and life-long halibut fisherman.

Kauffman praised ADFG Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker’s leadership in this action that began in 2016, as well as the other five Council members representing Alaska. They were joined by a Washington State member, and the representative of the National Marine Fisheries Service in the 8 to 3 final vote.

The action was opposed by the other two Washington members and the Oregon member.

“The State responded to our requests to consider the availability of halibut for directed fisheries at all levels of stock abundance,” said Kauffman. “While we and many others advocated for a solution (Alternative 4) that would have gone further to reduce bottom trawl bycatch, we understand the multiple considerations facing the Council, and consider this an important step in achieving our goals of equitable access and conservation of the halibut biomass.”

CBSFA members are completely dependent on the directed halibut fishery for their livelihood and culture, but have seen their fishery catch limits reduced dramatically as the halibut resources declined, while the limit for trawl bycatch of halibut stayed the same.

“An imbalance was created as the bycatch users took an ever-increasing proportion of the available halibut, and the directed halibut fishermen bore the burden of conservation of the resource,” said Ray Melovidov, CBSFA COO and a second-generation halibut fisherman. “This action will result in the two user groups sharing that burden, and will better manage the resource.”

The new management procedure will decrease or increase halibut bycatch limits as halibut numbers decline or rise.

Fishery Council Approves New Restrictions on Bering Sea Trawl Fleet’s Incidental Take of Halibut

Copyright © 2021 The Seattle Times
By Hal Bernton
December 14, 2021

A federal fishery council vote Monday could set the stage for future cuts of up to 35% in the incidental halibut take of a largely Washington-based trawl fleet that targets yellowfin sole and other flatfish.

The high-stakes 8-3 vote in an online meeting by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is likely to result in a big financial hit to this fleet of 19 bottom-trawl vessels. The fleet’s annual $350 million in revenue could be reduced by up to $110 million if halibut stocks are found in surveys to be in very low abundance, according to industry officials.

The council action followed several days of often emotional testimony in an ongoing fisheries battle over the scope of the trawlers’ catch of a revered flatfish — found off the west coast, British Columbia and Alaska — that surveys indicate have largely been in decline during the past 15 years.

In 2019, the bottom-trawl fleet’s incidental take, or bycatch, of halibut tallied nearly 3.1 million pounds as vessels used huge nets to scoop up 635.4 million pounds of yellowfin sole and other flatfish. For the trawl fleet, these halibut are a prohibited species and must be jettisoned overboard.

Some of those trawl fleet’s halibut discards survive. But in 2019, 1.4 million pounds’ worth of halibut did not survive the nets. And over the years, the scope of these discards has angered tribal, sport and commercial fishers who land these fish with hook-and-line gear.

The bottom-trawl fleet’s current cap is a fixed amount that does not vary from year to year. If the fleet reaches that cap, the vessels must stop fishing. The council lowered that cap by 25% in 2015 and the fleet has stayed under the limit. But that action did not quell the movement to further lower trawl discards.

Opposition has flared among halibut fishers in the Northwest and Canada, and has been very intense in Alaska coastal communities.

Halibut fishers have seen their own quotas shrink and have demanded that the trawl fleet’s halibut take also come down. In many Alaska costal communities, halibut is often both an important local food source and also a significant source of revenue when sold for processing and delivery to seafood markets in the United States and elsewhere.

“Halibut bycatch must be reduced immediately,” said Simeon Swetzoff Jr., a former mayor of St. Paul in Alaska’s Pribilof Island and a Bering Sea halibut fisher who has long lobbied to limit the trawl discards.

In the Bering Sea region, the amount of halibut last year thrown overboard by the trawl fleet exceeded the amount caught by hook-and-line fishers. In his council testimony, Swetzoff said that the “bolts (on the trawl fleet) need to be tightened. … We have tried everything there is to possibly do.”

Representatives of the bottom-trawl industry say that over the past decade they have made major strides in reducing their bycatch. Those efforts include cooperative efforts to avoid halibut hot spots and deck-sorting to more quickly return halibut to the sea. They are doubtful they can make further reductions to comply with the council action, which could reduce their discard quotas by up to 35% in years when surveys indicate halibut are in very low abundance.

“We are shocked that the council made this decision, and come to this conclusion,” said Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, which represents the bottom-trawlers known as the “Amendment 80” fleet.

Woodley said that the fleet is a huge provider of frozen fish protein. Much of that fish is exported to Asia but it includes fillets marketed as flounder skinless fillets that can be found in U.S. supermarkets. He said the action will hit hard not only boat owners but also some 2,200 crew who catch and process this fish.

Industry officials say that they would likely have to tie up their boats long before their total flatfish quotas are caught. That could result in this fleet providing up to 200 million less fish meals, according to statement released by the Groundfish Forum.

Woodley noted that an analysis by council staff found that the overall “net benefits to the nation” from this action would be negative. He said no decision has been made by his group about whether to eventually pursue legal action over the council’s action.

The council, with 11 voting members, was formed by congressional legislation and is empowered to come up with harvest rules that are then put into final form by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

The council is composed of fishing industry as well state and federal officials, with Alaskans controlling the biggest share of the voting seats on the council.

Alaska council members who voted in favor of the message were joined by one Washington state council member and a federal representative.

Their leadership to push through was praised by Jeff Kaufman, a vice president of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association who said it will “better manage the resource.”

Those opposed included Bill Tweit, a Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife official who questioned whether the surveys that would be used to determine halibut abundance were accurate enough to put this new rule into action.

“No changes to this framework would make this defensible and actually functional,” Tweit said during the council meeting. In his remarks, Tweit also said that the current conservation management is capable of maintaining adequate stocks of spawning halibut.