It’s time to reduce Bering Sea halibut bycatch

The summer season is upon us and for many Alaskans this means fishing for one of the state’s most prized species — halibut. 

During the first week in June, federal fishery managers have an important opportunity to take a stand for those of us in Alaska that value and depend on the halibut resource. At their meeting in Sitka, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will vote on measures to reduce the amount of halibut that can be wasted as bycatch in other fisheries.  

Alaska’s high-value halibut resource has long been divided among commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen throughout Alaska and down the Pacific coast in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. Nonetheless, a significant amount of halibut is also taken and discarded overboard as bycatch by fleets fishing for groundfish species like flounders, sole and cod. 

The upcoming decision is about reducing this bycatch in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) groundfish fisheries. This region hosts some of the world’s largest groundfish fisheries; it is also where juvenile halibut grow up and later migrate south, supplying local fisheries from Alaska to California.

Over the past decade, commercial halibut fishermen in Alaska and other parts of the country have weathered steep reductions in their annual catch limits in response to a decline in the population. The sport fishing sector has also faced a myriad of restrictive regulations, including size and bag limits and reduction in days-at-sea.  

In the meantime, the caps on halibut bycatch in the BSAI have remained virtually the same for 20 years. Last year, because of this disparity in management, seven times more halibut were discarded (dead) as bycatch in the BSAI than were landed by commercial halibut fishermen in the same region. By weight, halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands groundfish fisheries topped five million pounds in 2014 — roughly one million fish at an average weight of under five pounds. Between 2008 and 2013, roughly 89 percent of halibut bycatch was attributable to the bottom trawl fleet. 

This high level of bycatch and waste of juvenile halibut has implications for the sustainability of the halibut population in Alaska’s waters. Yet, the responsibility for halibut conservation has disproportionately been shouldered by commericial halibut fishermen and the recreational sector. Many of these halibut fishermen live in our coastal communities and depend on this resource for their livelihood and sustenance.  The groundfish fleets that catch halibut as bycatch can and must do more — and our federal fishery managers must raise the standard for fishing practices to ensure the long-term sustainability of halibut, valued by Alaskans from Ketchikan to Nome. 

Bering Sea halibut fishermen, including small-boat fleets from rural coastal communities, are at the doorstep of this crisis. Because of the state of the halibut population and the scale of bycatch in large groundfish fisheries, less fish is available to support viable community-based fishing businesses on the Pribilof Islands, in Norton Sound and along the Kuskokwim Delta. In the management areas incorporating these regions of western Alaska, catch limits for halibut fishermen have been cut by 62 percent in the last five years. Commercial fishermen and communities from the Bering Sea are urgently calling on fishery managers to address this unconscionable and dire situation. They have been joined by other commercial fishing groups and communities stretching from Southcentral to Southeast, as well as by an array of recreational fishing groups and charter operators, in demanding a halt to current levels of halibut bycatch. This is an issue that unites diverse communities and sectors across Alaska in calling for better management of our halibut resource. 

A failure to adopt a meaningful reduction in the bycatch cap would be a failure to meet the basic principles of sustainable fisheries management that we so often lay claim to in Alaska. It defies requirements under the Magnuson-Stevens Act to minimize bycatch and to take into account the needs of communities in management decisions. In their deliberations over Bering Sea halibut bycatch, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council should and must meet conservation obligations, and balance diverse interests within the seafood industry. Clearly allowing groundfish fleets to throw away more halibut than halibut fishermen are allowed to land is an extreme situation that calls for bold action.

The deadline for submitting written comments to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has passed but Alaskans can still make their voices heard. We encourage Alaskans to stand together on this issue by contacting voting members of the North Pacific Council via phone or email to urge them to stand up for our halibut, clean fishing practices and strong stewardship for our shared fishery resources. Public input into this process is critical and contact information for North Pacific Council members can be found at: 

Kelly Harrell is the executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, and Jon Zuck is the board chair for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.