Halibut are a keystone species to many Alaskans and to our state. Supporting fishermen from the Bering Sea to Southeast, the economic, cultural, and ecological importance of halibut is vital to our state’s identity. Unfortunately, halibut stocks statewide have declined dramatically in recent years, forcing fishermen to endure significant restrictions to commercial, recreational, and subsistence opportunities. These restrictions are particularly pronounced in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island (BSAI) region, where fishery managers have reduced commercial halibut landings by 63% since 2005.
Yet, as halibut users across the North Pacific have faced deep cuts to their harvest opportunities, halibut bycatch in the BSAI groundfish trawl fishery has actually increased, reaching 4.56 million pounds in 2014. The inequity of the current situation is astounding—in 2014 bycatch was over 250% greater than the directed halibut harvest in the Bering Sea. Not surprisingly, then, as Bering Sea halibut fishermen face the potential of forgoing a commercial season in 2016, many in the state are demanding that the Bering Sea trawl groundfish fishery share the responsibility of conservation by reducing halibut bycatch.
The management regime for halibut is relatively complicated. While directed harvests for the BSAI halibut fishery are set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), bycatch of halibut in the groundfish fisheries is in the hands of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (the Council). The IPHC has no direct authority over the amount of halibut taken as bycatch and relies on policy makers on the Council to regulate bycatch of halibut through the use of bycatch limits (also known as “caps”) on the BSAI groundfish fishery.
The Council took up the issue this past June, recommending 21% cuts to halibut bycatch in the BSAI groundfish fishery. And, although these cuts look significant on paper, the on the grounds effect is minimal: the net change of the new bycatch caps from the 2014 levels is only 0.7%. These cuts fail to address conservation concerns in the halibut fishery and fail to ensure that fishermen in the Bering Sea will have a meaningful halibut fishery in 2016. While the Council failed to take action in June, AMCC continues to work to reduce halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea.