Status quo on trawl bycatch unacceptable

The summer of 2014 represented a different kind of summer for Alaska fishermen. While commercial halibut fishermen have had their catch limits reduced for a number of years, this year the reductions hit charter fishermen in Southcentral Alaska as well. 

Anyone who went out on a charter boat out of Homer, Whittier, Seward or Kodiak knows that this year, fishermen could only keep one halibut of any size, and the second halibut had to be smaller than 29 inches. Fishermen throughout the Gulf of Alaska faced restrictions on fishing for king salmon as well. 

While the restrictions hurt, we’re all willing to do our part to help give the struggling king salmon and halibut populations a chance to recover. However, as we all make sacrifices in commercial, sport, personal use and subsistence fisheries to support these iconic Alaskan fish species, our attention turns to another group of harvesters that has not been restricted nearly to the same degree — the Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries. 

A series of articles in the Alaska Dispatch this summer provided some good background on the history of this problem. In short, in 2012, after 20 years of unchanged halibut bycatch limits for the Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council took action to reduce the halibut bycatch limit by 15 percent, to be phased in over three years. After the first step of this reduction (7 percent), in 2014 the halibut bycatch limit for the trawl fisheries is just over 4 million pounds. 

While the reduction was a first step in reducing bycatch, it pales to the more than 73 percent reduction in the catch limit experienced by the commercial halibut fishery in the Gulf of Alaska over the last 10 years. The council also has put the first limits on chinook salmon bycatch for the trawl fishery in place in recent years. Once these rules go into place, the total chinook salmon bycatch limit for the trawl fisheries will be 32,500 chinook salmon. Again, as any sport, subsistence and commercial fisherman who had to forego harvest of chinook salmon this summer knows — that is a lot of fish.

At the end of the day, despite the council’s best efforts, thousands of kings and millions of pounds of halibut continue to be taken from the Gulf of Alaska as trawl bycatch.  This is wasted resource. This level of waste is particularly appalling since it is occurring at a time when our commercial and sport fishing businesses are reeling from the extremely difficult sacrifices they’ve made in response to continued cuts to catch limits and fishing closures —  all due to frighteningly small returns.

So the council is back at the table, this time to develop a new management plan that will provide the trawl fleet with the tools needed to better address bycatch problems. Called the Gulf of Alaska Trawl Bycatch Management Program, the council is currently working through the details of the new program but it will likely take another couple of years before we see change on the water.

Here lies the problem: Ironically, to date, the council has yet to identify or discuss what kinds of bycatch reductions the new program will achieve. The risk here is that the new program will only provide the trawl fleet with the tools to meet the bycatch limits that are already in place.

Maintaining the status quo is not enough. The council’s recent actions to lower bycatch limits are important but they are only first steps, and they are small first steps at that. The new management program must include concrete reductions in bycatch as well as 100 percent observer coverage. One hundred percent observer coverage is vital to ensuring that fishery management decisions are based on accurate data. 

The time to start talking about this is now. The council will take up this issue and hear public comment Oct. 10-11 at the Hilton in downtown Anchorage. They also accept written comments — send your written comments to npfmc.comments@noaa.gov to make sure your voice is heard on this important matter.

During the fisheries debates in Kodiak a couple of weeks ago, Gov. Parnell talked big about how important bycatch reduction is. For all of us — it’s time to translate those words into action and make sure real reductions in bycatch of these quintessentially Alaskan species of king salmon and halibut starts now.

Pete Wedin is the owner and operator with his wife, Debra, of Capt. Pete’s Alaska operating the F/V Julia Lynn out of Homer.

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