Bycatch debate far from being finished

Bering Sea halibut fishermen narrowly missed getting a reduction of trawl bycatch at the latest North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting after a tied vote on a petition for emergency action by the state of Alaska.

At issue are the drastic cuts being made to the directed halibut fishery in the Bering Sea and the lack of similar cuts to the bycatch mortality by trawlers.

At the December meeting, NPFMC member Duncan Fields of Kodiak introduced a motion for emergency regulation to reduce the 2015 Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands halibut bycatch allocation by 33 percent, but due to the absence of council member Ed Dersham, the motion failed.

That is not the end of it, however. 

The matter will come up at the annual meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission in January. The commission can request that the council reconsider the action at its next meeting in February.

The state can, and probably will, also appeal directly to National Marine Fisheries Service, which actually sets bycatch levels, according to fisherman and North Pacific Fisheries Association board member Buck Laukitis of Homer, who attended the NPFMC meeting.

However, it would send a stronger message if the council approves it when Dersham is back.

“They know they have the sixth vote,” Laukitis said. 

Time is of the essence, though, since Bering Sea groundfish trawling opens in January.

The problem is that the caps on halibut bycatch for trawlers are so high that the fishery is not constrained or motivated to fish cleaner.

“That’s what’s caused our problem. ... You’ve had a very high static cap that hasn’t changed, or changed very little, in 20 or 30 years, the halibut resource has declined. We’re at about 30 percent of where we were 10 years ago, and there are no good year-classes coming, so it’s not like this problem is going to go away,” Laukitis said. 

He would like to see a bycatch cap that is based on abundance, with a starting point that is meaningful in terms of resource conservation.

“What that starting point is, what I’d like to see and what (trawlers) would like to see is so far apart right now.. ..” he said. “We need to have some proportional reductions, or we won’t have a fishery.”

The IPHC staff recommendation is for a catch limit of 370,000 pounds in the directed fishery for the Bering Sea next year, down from 1.29 million pounds.

Last year the recommendation was for a catch of 640,000 pounds, but commissioners went well above that after hearing about how devastating that small of a quota would be.

“We’re bankrupt from last year, and now we’re looking at a 70 percent reduction,” Laukitis said.

Total halibut removals from the Bering Sea, including bycatch and wastage, is expected to be 5.23 million pounds.

“Society is not going to accept that 13 out of every 14 fish in the biggest part of the Bering Sea are going to bycatch,” he said.

Laukitis said that when the quota was two to four million pounds for 10 years, everyone was making a little money and it was not as much of an issue, but now that stocks are low, everything is turned on its head.

“Bycatch comes first, it comes off the top, and we’re left with the leftovers. That is not the way anybody anticipated this would be working.

“They’re getting all the fish, seemingly, and we’re left with nothing. It’s not fair, it’s not equitable, and it’s not the way the program is supposed to work.”

For a state that prides itself on sustainable fisheries, “it’s a real black eye,” he noted.

 

Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishermen can expect a so-so season next year if the forecast is correct, but it should be better than the 2014 season.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game prediction for 2015 is a total run of 5.8 million sockeye salmon with a harvest by all user groups of 3.7 million fish.

The 2014 harvest came in 1.1 million sockeye less than the forecast of 4.3 million. 

The 2015 forecast should come in right at the 20-year average run.

The Kenai River is expected to produce 3.6 million sockeye, slightly less than the 20-year average, while the run to the Kasilof is expected to be 12 percent over the 20-year average at nearly 1.1 million sockeye.

Upper Cook Inlet is expected to produce a commercial catch of 98,000 pink salmon, 176,000 chums, 161,000 coho and 6,700 kings.

The full forecast and summary of 2014 can be found at www.adfg.alaska.gov/.

 

Both blue and red king crabs were collected in November and December for Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation And Biology research, thanks to the crab industry and fishermen. 

Thirty egg-bearing red king crab were captured in Alitak Bay in early November.  

Ten broodstock crabs will be housed in Kodiak at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and 20 were shipped to Seward. 

Red king crab larvae that hatch from these females will be raised at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in spring 2015 to support continued research on the feasibility of stock rehabilitation in Kodiak. 

Blue king crab research will continue in 2015 thanks to the support of Bering Sea crabbers. Egg-bearing blue king crabs were collected in December and delivered to St. Paul by the F/V Bristol Mariner. 

Trident Seafoods housed the crabs and packed and shipped them to Seward. 

Females will be cared for at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery where AKCRRAB biologists will investigate the role of incubation temperature on hatch timing. 

AKCRRAB says that interest and support from the crab industry and fishermen is advancing king crab research in Alaska. 

Broodstock collection is expensive and time-consuming, and AKCRRAB could not continue without this partner support. 

They note that success in collecting red and blue king crab this year shows the dedication of scientists as well as the interest of industry and local fishermen in supporting king crab rehabilitation in Alaska. 

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.

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