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Halibut Bycatch Crisis in the Bering Sea

by AMCC Homer Staff, Hannah Heimbuch

In recent years, halibut stocks have continued to decline in the Bering Sea Aleutian Islands fishery, forcing fishermen to weather significant quota cuts. As the region looks at another decline in quota — to be determined at the upcoming meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) in late January — the pressure is on to reduce Bering Sea trawl halibut bycatch caps as well.

The IPHC staff recommendations for 2015 propose reductions to allowable harvest by directed halibut users of more than 70 percent for areas 4CDE in the central Bering Sea. The IPHC has no direct authority over the amount of halibut taken as bycatch and relies on policy makers on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (the Council) to regulate bycatch of halibut. If bycatch caps remain unchanged, 2015 could see a stark disparity between bycatch and directed halibut harvest — approximately 13 to one. That’s one fish landed and sold by halibut fisherman, compared to 13 caught and discarded as bycatch. As Bering Sea halibut fishermen experience record lows, this disparity has become economically crippling.

The Council considered a bycatch measure at its December meeting in the process of considering catch limits for the 2015 groundfish fisheries. During the harvest specification process they took up a request for emergency action to reduce halibut bycatch limits in the Bering Sea by 33 percent. 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. The sixth Alaska council member was absent due to kidney transplant surgery.

Since that time, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner along with the other five Alaska members of the Council submitted a letter to the United States Secretary of Commerce requesting action on this emergency measure. We (AMCC) submitted a letter supporting that request, as did the North Pacific Fisheries Association, the Alaska Longline Fisherman’s Association and a contingent from St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea — including the Central Bering Sea Fisherman’s Association, the City of St. Paul, the Tribal Government of St. Paul and the Tanadgusix Corporation. There is not only a clear need, but significant and diverse support throughout the fishing industry and its communities for a reduction in bycatch caps.

“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.”

A proposed reduction of BSAI halibut bycatch caps by up to 35 percent is currently scheduled for analytical review at the February Council meeting, with final action on the item slated for June. AMCC continues to support a reduction in bycatch caps through this Council process, but believes strongly that the BSAI halibut fishery meets the standards that the Magnuson-Stevens Act outlines for emergency action. Failure to take this action, in light of imminent quota reduction in the directed fishery, is likely to cause substantial harm and disruption to the halibut fishery and those dependent on it, before standard rule-making procedures can be carried out. AMCC supports an immediate reduction in BSAI halibut bycatch caps in time for the 2015 fishery — an emergency action by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce allowed for under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and warranted by the current state of the fishery.

Meeting Dates:        

International Pacific Halibut Commission — Vancouver, British Columbia — Jan. 26-30

North Pacific Fishery Management Council — Seattle, WA — Feb. 2-10

Joint Meeting of the IPHC and the Council — Seattle, WA — Feb. 5

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 The comments must identify the submitter by legal name, affiliation, and date, and must also identify the specific agenda item by number.

To testify in person, sign up at the Council meeting before public comment on that agenda item begins.

Listen In: NPFMC: Visit for live broadcast of the Council meeting. IPHC: Visit for updates on the IPHC annual meeting including webcast information.

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