Halibut Bycatch in the Bering Sea
Bycatch is always a somewhat alarming topic – by definition it always refers to wasting one species or type of fish to catch another. In the Bering Sea this year, however, things have reached a new low. If proposed catch limits for the directed halibut fishery in the central Bering Sea (Areas 4CDE) are adopted by the International Pacific Halibut Fishery, this year 92% of the halibut caught in that area will be caught as bycatch, with only 7% leftover for the directed fishery. In other words, for every 1 halibut caught in the directed fishery, 13 will be wasted as bycatch! This is not the way to balance the needs of the directed fishery and those of the fisheries who catch halibut as bycatch. In this case it’s particularly egregious because it puts the directed fisheries, with a long history of harvest in this area and little else to rely upon for income, virtually out of business.
Fortunately, there are ways to address this issue. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council meets in Seattle February 2-10 and Bering Sea halibut bycatch is a big agenda item. At this meeting the Council will finalize the options they’re looking at to reduce bycatch. It’s important that they hear from people about the urgent need to reduce halibut bycatch, and that reductions in the bycatch caps of at least 50% should be considered. The schedule for the meeting can be found here, and the full agenda can be found here. All discussion papers are available via the agenda. Public comments must be submitted by 5pm Alaska time on January 27 to be included in the Council’s briefing books.
More About the Issue of Halibut Bycatch
In recent years, halibut stocks have continued to decline in the Bering Sea Aleutian Islands fishery, forcing fishermen to weather significant quota cuts. The IPHC’s recommended harvest for 2015 represents a 71% reduction for the directed fisheries in this region, beyond the 69% reductions the directed fisheries have already taken from 2007-2013. Meanwhile, the bycatch limits for the groundfish fisheries that operate in the same area have remained unchanged at over 7 million lbs. Two fisheries alone – the yellowfin sole and rock sole trawl fisheries – were responsible for 57% of the total halibut bycatch in 2014!
While directed harvests for the halibut fishery are set by the IPHC, bycatch of halibut in the groundfish fisheries is in the hands of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (the Council) to regulate bycatch of halibut. The Council considered a request for emergency action to reduce halibut bycatch limits in the Bering Sea by 33 percent at their December 2014 meeting. This measure failed to pass by one vote, with the council split on a 5/5 vote and the Alaska contingent united in favor of emergency action. This request for emergency action has since been submitted to the United States Secretary of Commerce directly by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner along with the other five Alaska members of the Council.
Council Action in February
While the emergency action request is being considered, the Council is also in the midst of an action via their regular rulemaking process to look at the issue of halibut bycatch. In June 2014 they passed a motion to look at a broad range of measures aimed at reducing halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea. The motion includes options for reducing the current halibut bycatch limits by sector by 10-35%, and includes a number of possible measures as well.
In February, the Council will look at an analysis of all of these options and will make any changes for which they wish to see further analysis for final action in June 2015. We think it’s important to expand the range of reductions being considered to include at least up to a 50% reduction. Because actual halibut bycatch is below the cap levels, a 10% reduction in the cap is meaningless, and even a 35% reduction is just starting to reduce bycatch for some sectors.
Halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea is an issue of importance for anyone who cares about halibut. While the situation is contrary to basic principles of equity and fairness for the directed halibut fisheries in the Bering Sea, it’s also has implications far beyond the Bering Sea. “Juvenile halibut leave the Bering Sea and populate areas all over the state as they mature,” wrote longtime Bering Sea fishermen and AMCC founding member Buck Laukitis in a recent editorial. “What happens in the Bering Sea matters to everyone from Nome to California when it comes to halibut populations.”
How to Participate:
- Comment: To submit comment for consideration by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, send written comments by Tuesday, Jan. 27 2015 to firstname.lastname@example.org. The comments must identify the submitter by legal name, affiliation, and date, and must also identify the specific agenda item by number. You can also submit comments to the Council yourself after the deadline – just make sure to bring 25 copies for distribution to the Council.
North Pacific Fishery Management Council
605 West 4th Ave, Suite 306
Anchorage, AK 99501
Fax: (907) 271-2817
Re: Agenda item C-5 Bering Sea Halibut PSC.
- Attend the Council meeting: The Council takes public comment on every agenda item. The meeting starts Feb. 2 and runs through Feb. 10 at the Renaissance Marriott hotel in Seattle. To testify in person, sign up at the Council meeting before public comment on that agenda item begins.
- Listen online: Visit https://npfmc.adobeconnect.com/february2015 for live broadcast of the Council meeting.
- Support AMCC’s work on these important issues: AMCC has staff at every Council meeting, advocating for the health of our marine ecosystems and fishing communities. Membership and individual donations are essential to maintaining our role. Help support our work by investing in healthy oceans and coastal communities today: donate now.
What We’re Reading:
BSAI Halibut PSC Limits Initial Review from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council
Major bycatch reduction essential to halibut fishery, by David Bayes, Op-ed in the Homer Tribune
Canada-U.S. delegates meet in B.C. to discuss halibut ‘wastage’ in Bering Sea by Keven Drews, The Canadian Press
If we don’t protect Alaska halibut, there will be no fish to fight over by Shannon Moore, Op-ed in the Alaska Dispatch News
Halibut bodies to meet amid growing bycatch concerns by DJ Summers, Alaska Journal of Commerce