NOAA lowers bycatch limits

NOAA lowers bycatch limits

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced plans to lower the bycatch limits for halibut in the Gulf of Alaska for the trawl and hook and line fisheries effective either immediately or phased in over the next three years.

Hook and line catcher processors will see a 7 percent reduction implemented this year; hook and line catcher vessels and trawlers will see a 15 percent reduction over three years.

A phased-in halibut bycatch reduction schedule allows the affected industry sectors time to adapt to the reduced halibut bycatch limits. The jig gear and pot gear sectors are not affected by this rule, as they historically have been exempt from halibut bycatch limits. 

The combined cuts could potentially save up to 750,000 pounds of fish, although the affected fisheries rarely, if ever, bump up against the caps.

At a time of record low quotas for the directed halibut fishery, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council recommended reducing the annual halibut bycatch limits for the commercial groundfish fisheries to minimize halibut bycatch in those fisheries to the extent practicable and promote conservation of the halibut resource. 

In addition, the halibut bycatch reductions could potentially increase the amount of halibut available to catch in the directed halibut fisheries, such as the commercial IFQ fishery and the charter halibut fishery. 

The reductions came after an urgent push from a wide range of fishing groups and other stakeholders. The Alaska Marine Conservation Council alone gathered over 1,500 signatures on a letter calling for the cuts.

“Halibut is absolutely critical to Alaskans,” said Theresa Peterson, a commercial fisherman in Kodiak and Kodiak outreach coordinator for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

“Our fisheries, businesses, economies and communities here in Kodiak and beyond rely on this vital resource. It is hard to believe more than 5 million pounds of these precious fish are thrown away as bycatch each year in the Gulf of Alaska and it’s long past time to lower these limits,” she said.

This is the first significant reduction in bycatch limits for trawlers since 1989. Bycatch has a disproportionate impact on the resource. A recent study found that 1 pound of halibut lost to bycatch equates to a loss of about 1.5 pounds of halibut in the halibut spawning biomass.

It occurs coast-wide, throughout the range of the species. Roughly half of the annual halibut bycatch by weight is composed of small juvenile halibut, although this varies by area.

Cristy Fry has fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com. 

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