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Council reaches disappointing decision on bycatch cuts

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) spent a large part of its deliberations in Sitka last week focused on Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI) halibut bycatch. Following significant public testimony, the Council, in a 6-3 vote, approved an aggregate 21% reduction in halibut bycatch across all BSAI groundfish sectors.

Many Alaskans were left disappointed by the decision. Alaska voting members Duncan Fields, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, and Council Chairman Dan Hull opposed the amended motion, saying the reduction did not come close to addressing either the conservation needs of a declining halibut stock or the needs of Bering Sea halibut fishermen trying to maintain a directed fishery.

The decision comes after growing concern for the health of halibut stocks and halibut-dependent communities in the North Pacific. The Bering Sea serves as a nursery to the majority of the Pacific’s juvenile halibut, with the majority of juveniles migrating eastward, down the West Coast. Halibut stocks in the Bering Sea have been declining for over a decade, however, and halibut fishermen coast-wide have experienced a corresponding reduction in harvest quota — particularly in the Bering Sea. Recreational fishermen have also faced significant restrictions on their activities. Yet, bycatch caps for the BSAI groundfish fishery have remained relatively static for the last 20 years. The situation came to a head in 2014, when the BSAI groundfish fishery groundfish fishery removed — as bycatch — seven times more halibut than the directed fishery harvested.

“Though a step in the right direction, the Council’s reduction falls short of the cuts needed to ensure the sustained participation of Bering Sea communities in the halibut fishery, and fails to adequately address the conservation concerns voiced over the past week,” said Shannon Carroll, Fisheries Director for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “While we’re glad to see that the Council is committed to working towards a better solution in the future, we feel that the Council missed an opportunity to protect one of our state’s most important fisheries.”

AMCC is disappointed that the Council did not take a meaningful action toward the long-term conservation of both the resource and the halibut-dependent communities where the resource represents more than economic opportunity. Looking toward the future, AMCC will continue to work with diverse user groups to further reduce bycatch in the Bering Sea. Though still in the earlier stages of the process, other tools for bycatch reduction were discussed at the meeting, including abundance-based caps and increased collaboration between the Council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

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