Bering Sea halibut bycatch cut leaves both sides unhappy

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted 6-3 on Sunday afternoon in Sitka to cut by 25 percent the amount of halibut that pollock and cod trawlers can catch in the Bering Sea.

On paper, that’s good news for halibut fishermen, who have been demanding a cut in halibut bycatch. In reality, the cut is less than many fishermen had been seeking, and they left Sitka’s Centennial Hall disappointed.

“I don’t want anybody to leave this meeting thinking this is a step backward,” said council vice chairman Bill Tweit during the meeting.

Tweit, of the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife, was immediately met by shouts from fishermen in the audience. About an hour earlier, Tweit had suggested an amendment that reduced the cut from 33 percent to 25 percent. 

The 33 percent figure, brought forward by Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, was itself a reduction from a suggestion of 45 percent brought forward by the council’s advisory panel.

Bycatch is to commercial fishing what tailings are to gold mining; it’s what’s brought up while going after something else. The key difference for fishermen is that you can eat the tailings, and some people prefer them.

Under federal law, bycatch can’t be kept. It must be thrown overboard, leading to the waste of thousands — if not millions — of pounds of edible fish.

The Bering Sea pollock and cod fishery is by far the largest by-pound sector of Alaska’s fishing industry, with catches in the billions of pounds annually. According to statistics kept by the National Marine Fisheries Service, bycaught halibut make up only 3.24 percent of the total catch of the Amendment 80 fleet — the largest segment of the pollock and cod trawlers and the segment that will see the 25 percent reduction.

Expanded over billions of pounds of total catch, that 3.24 percent becomes massive. In 2014, 70 percent of all halibut caught in the Bering Sea were caught as bycatch, according to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. This year, the IPHC estimates 93 percent of Bering Sea halibut catches will be bycatch.

Halibut bycatch is capped in amounts set by the North Pacific council, and in the days before Sunday’s vote, fishermen passionately argued in favor of a lower cap.

Halibut fishermen have repeatedly seen their catch limits lowered in the past decade, but the bycatch cap hasn’t kept pace. In testimony, halibut fishermen in the central Bering Sea said they needed trawl bycatch reduced by at least 41 percent to have the bare minimum amount of halibut to keep their fleet operating.

The issue turned into a David and Goliath struggle for many fishermen, with the 500-person community of St. Paul (represented by the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association) pitted against the multimillion-dollar trawling industry. Many trawlers are based Outside, adding geographical conflict to the mix as well.

Duncan Fields of Kodiak suggested postponing a final decision until October, but that proposal was defeated 5-6 as Alaska member and sport fisherman Ed Dersham broke ranks and voted with the non-Alaska members of the council.

Two Alaska members of the council were recused from the final vote, and Dersham again broke ranks on that final decision, leading to the 6-3 tally.

Final decision:

• Amendment 80 cooperatives have halibut bycatch limit reduced by 25 percent (to 1,745 metric tons);

• Amendment 80 limited-access fishery has limit reduced by 40 percent;

• BSAI trawl limited-access sector reduced by 15 percent (to 745 metric tons);

• Hook and line sector limit reduced by 15 percent; and

• CDQ halibut PSQ limit reduced by 15 percent.

James Brooks is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.

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