Commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen and fishing communities find common ground in call for bycatch reduction in the Bering Sea
For more information, please contact:
Hannah Heimbuch, Fisherman & Community Fisheries Organizer at the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, (907) 299-4018
Jeff Kauffman, CEO St. Paul Fishing Company, (907) 952-2476
Simeon Swetzof, Mayor, City of St. Paul, (907) 546-4472
Linda Behnken, Executive Director Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, (907) 747-0695
Across the state, letters and resolutions supporting the reduction of halibut bycatch caps in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI) fisheries are surfacing — calling attention to a widespread and diverse movement for change. As directed halibut fisheries in the Bering Sea have reached crisis-level lows, bycatch limits on that same species remains at its decades-long level of 7.3 million pounds. Despite some voluntary bycatch reductions by the fleet, BSAI fisheries killed and discarded seven times more halibut (animals, not pounds) in 2014 than the directed fishery landed in that same region.
For fisherman Jeff Kauffman — an Alaska Native from St. Paul Island and IFQ holder in five IPHC regulatory areas — this represents a trend of inequity that he’s seen grow in his 30 years of halibut fishing. After the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) determines the annual harvest, they take the bycatch numbers off the top. The remainder goes to directed halibut fisheries. The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) system determines bycatch limits.
“Halibut bycatch comes off the top,” Kauffman said. “As directed halibut users, we are always last. It’s been very inequitable — the way the situation has been handled. There has been a defacto reallocation from the directed fisheries to the bycatch fisheries.” That reallocation trend has occurred in response to a major conservation concern for the halibut resource. In the last 10 years, halibut quota in the Bering Sea has been reduced by 63 percent in an effort to conserve a dwindling stock.
“Conservation of the halibut stock is riding solely on the backs of the halibut fishermen,” Kauffman said. “The bycatch allocations have remained relatively the same for decades. We feel that it’s only fair that all users of the halibut resource share equally in the conservation of the resource.”
In June, the NPFMC will take final action on a measure that proposes up to a 50 percent reduction in the cap on halibut bycatch in BSAI fisheries. Across the state, diverse voices have emerged in support of this measure — seen as vital not only for restoring some sort of economic equity to the BSAI fisheries system, but for essential conservation steps. 70 to 90 percent of under-26-inch halibut are slated to migrate out of the BSAI upon maturity. The average size of the one million halibut caught as bycatch in the BSAI in 2014 was 4.76 pounds, less than half the weight of a typical 26-inch halibut. This high rate of juvenile halibut harvest in the bycatch fisheries is troubling to halibut fishing communities coast-wide, and the potential stock impact across the North Pacific has many calling for a change in the status quo.
“As a younger fisherman beginning to invest my future in Alaska’s fisheries, I don’t have any choice but to advocate for a better legacy of management,” said Hannah Heimbuch, a commercial fisherman from Homer and Community Fishery Organizer for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “I want to keep fishing halibut. I want to see fish stocks thriving across the North Pacific coast. I want Alaska to be home to healthy coastal communities that have access to that vital resource. That won’t happen if we continue to prioritize a massive take of bycatch over the directed fisheries. I don’t want to see any fisherman put out of business, but that is what will happen in coastal Alaska if we refuse to include the groundfish sector in the regulatory conservation of the halibut resource.”
On April 15, a group of Alaska legislators sent a letter to the NPFMC, urging them to make a 50 percent reduction in BSAI halibut bycatch to ensure the continued viability of Alaska’s directed halibut fisheries. That letter was signed by Senators Lyman Hoffman, Donny Olson, Dennis Egan and Peter Micciche; as well as Representatives Bryce Edgmon, Bob Herron, Neal Foster, Cathy Munoz, Paul Seaton, Johnathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Dan Ortiz and Jim Colver.
A letter sent this week to the Alaska Congressional Delegation requesting their support in reducing halibut bycatch included the following signees:
Alaska Longline Fisheries Association
Alaska Marine Conservation Council
Alaska Trollers Association
Aleut Community of Saint Paul Tribal Government
Aleutians East Borough
Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Corporation
Central Bering Sea Fisherman’s Association
City of Saint Paul Island, Alaska
Coal Point Seafood Company
Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association
Halibut Association of North America
Homer Charter Association
North Pacific Fisheries Association
Pioneer Alaskan Fisheries, Inc.
United Fishermen’s Marketing Association
At their April 14 meeting, the Homer Area Advisory Committee for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game discussed and unanimously passed a resolution asking for a 50 percent reduction of halibut bycatch caps in the BSAI. The City of Sitka and the Kenai Peninsula Borough passed similar resolutions earlier this spring, and organizations, committees and city councils around the state are considering passage of the same in the coming month.
Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Salmon Bycatch
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (the Council) concluded its April meeting last week following several days of discussion on the issue of salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands fisheries. In-river salmon fishermen who are experiencing low returns of king salmon and restrictions on traditional subsistence harvest expressed deep concerns for the conservation of the ailing Chinook population in western Alaska. On the other side was testimony from the pollock fleet unwilling to drop bycatch caps. AMCC supported the western Alaska communities in urging a reduced bycatch cap because of the serious state of the Chinook population and dire circumstances for families who rely on Chinook for local economies and way of life.
The Council adopted a suite of measures anticipated to reduce Chinook and chum salmon bycatch. A key part of the Council’s decision, and the focus of much of the debate, was lowering the hard cap and performance standard for Chinook salmon in times of low abundance. The State of Alaska led a strong charge to provide protections for Western Alaska salmon stocks. Commissioner Sam Cotten put forward a motion calling for a 35% reduction in the performance standard and a 33% reduction in the hard cap. Those numbers were amended by Washington State’s representative to a 25% reduction in the hard cap and a 30% reduction in the performance standard. This lesser reduction is what passed in the Council’s final motion, 10-0. The lower performance standard and hard cap apply in years of low Chinook salmon abundance –years in which the combined total run size for the Unalakleet, Upper Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers is less than 250,000 fish. In years when the stock falls below that boundary, the hard cap would be reduced from 60,000 fish to 45,000, and the performance standard from 47,591 to 33,318.
Beyond the changes to the caps, the Council’s action incorporates important mechanisms to reduce Chinook and chum salmon bycatch in all conditions of salmon abundance. Incentive Plan Agreements (IPAs) create incentives for vessels to reduce bycatch. With this latest action, chum bycatch reduction measures will be incorporated into the Chinook IPA. The Council also added additional provisions to the IPAs — including enacting penalties or restrictions for vessels that maintain higher Chinook bycatch rates than others, requiring the use of salmon excluder devices, and restrictions on bycatch in October, which is historically a time of high bycatch. The options the Council selected under Alternative 4 allow the pollock fishery the flexibility to catch more of their harvest in the late A season, potentially shifting harvest effort away from the high bycatch times later in the year.
On Deck: Halibut Bycatch at June NPFMC Meeting
We leave the April Council meeting behind with a close eye on June’s upcoming halibut bycatch decision in Sitka. The Council will be taking final action to reduce halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands groundfish fisheries by up to 50 percent. After major declines in the directed fishery over the last 10 years, and a steady rate of bycatch in major groundfish operations, it’s critical that the Council reduces halibut bycatch in June. We will continue to keep you informed in the coming weeks about ways you can help support meaningful halibut bycatch reductions. For more information and past updates on the halibut bycatch crisis, click here.
by Sam Baker & Rachel Donkersloot
Last week we returned rejuvenated from the annual Bioneers Summit Conference in San Rafael, CA. The multifaceted event, what speaker, author and activist Naomi Klein describes as a ‘transformational meeting of minds’ melds conversations about indigenous rights, local and sustainable food systems, women’s rights, and other social and scientific topics, and left a strong imprint on both of us and re-ignited a spark of creativity in our work at AMCC.
We were both particularly impressed by the amazing work that is being done by groups like the Greenhorns,and the National Young Farmers Coalition who are actively addressing the challenges that new and young farmers in the U.S. face today through innovations and tools like Farm Hack and Agrarian Trust and epic awareness raising endeavors like the Vermont Sail Freight Project. While we were learning about all of the inspiring work and resources aimed at young farmers, we were reminded that there is overlap and opportunity here in Alaska, and AMCC hopes to help foster the type of community and support for young fishermen that is gaining traction among our friends in the farming world.
While we study issues like the Graying of the Fleet, and work to inform fisheries policy that protects working fishermen and benefits our fishery dependent communities, we hope also to facilitate the creation of forums for young fishermen and to advance the discussion on linkages between intergenerational access, community sustainability and resilient, regional food systems.
We intend to continue our conversations with luminaries like Severine von Tscharner Fleming of the Greenhorns and Dune Lankard of the Eyak Preservation Council in the coming months and to invite others to the table to take part through upcoming events like the Alaska Food Festival & Conference. AMCC has organized two fisheries focused panels at the conference which will hopefully serve as a springboard for potential solutions to some of the challenges Alaska’s community-based fishermen face today surrounding access and profitability.
On a final note, food systems, young farmers and land access rights may have piqued our primary interest at the conference , but various iterations of citizen science also caught our attention. Hearing from groups like Public Lab in the Gulf of Mexico, we were inspired to think of the many ways we could engage Alaskans through citizen science on important research like ocean acidification. We are excited to announce that this approach will fit into some new work we will be doing next year to bring informational and interactive ocean acidification kiosks to communities throughout coastal Alaska.
Overall, the Bioneers Conference was one of great learning and great brainstorming and we are lucky to have had the opportunity to attend. We wish there was space for us to share all of the exciting science and social endeavors we learned about at the conference. For now though, we are happy to be home in Alaska and we are ready to get back to work turning some of these ideas into concrete and collaborative projects aimed at achieving triple bottom line benefits for people, profit and planet.