Seawatch: North Council nixes bycatch mitigation proposal

NPFMC needs to adopt more holistic approach to management, advisor says.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council took final action to create a Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands limited entry program for the cod trawl fishery in their October meeting, but dropped a gear provision element that would have provided more flexibility for trawlers to avoid bycatch by being able to lease quota to other gear types.

The gear provision element would have made it possible for boats fishing pot gear to lease quota from a trawl boat or for a trawler to take their quota on a pot boat if they were encountering high halibut or other bycatch.

Advisory panel member Erik Velsko said it was unfortunate that the provision got dropped and that the decision was largely based on an effort by the trawl lobbyists to paint the pot fishery as dirty.

“They were almost painting a picture that pot cod is dirtier than trawl,” Velsko said.

Part of that came from a National Marine Fisheries Service estimate that half of the crab caught as bycatch in cod pots and thrown overboard don’t survive.

“They need to do another study and get that readdressed because that’s just not true,” he said.

He guessed the mortality percentage is probably closer to 5% since the pot cod fishermen are not generally fishing extreme cold temperatures that freezes the lungs of the crab, and that there have been no studies of how many crab are squashed on the bottom and killed by hard-on-bottom trawling in fisheries like yellowfin sole.

He said that “unobserved mortality” in the trawl fishery is an issue that needs to be addressed, sooner rather than later.

Velsko also said that the Bering Sea seems to be in pretty bad shape and managing for sustained yield of one large biomass species such as cod or pollock at the expense of species with a smaller biomass but higher monetary value such as crab, halibut and black cod is short-sighted.

“Back when we set all these limits (on bycatch), there was plenty of fish to go around, and stuff starts necking down here,” he said.

He said that static caps on bycatch lead to situations like now where the trawl fleet catches and discards more pounds of halibut than what is allowed in the directed fishery.

He has been advocating for an abundance-based cap on bycatch, but said that with the deep pockets of the trawl interests that lobby the Council, he’s not optimistic.

However, he says something needs to be done.

“They need to take a more holistic approach to management,” he said.

Cristy Fry can be reached at

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