by Clem Tillion, Halibut Cove courtesy of Seafood News
“Fisherman is making fillets of Halibut in Seward, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Getty Images”
I sat on the North Pacific Fur Seal Commission; it was created in 1910 to manage and protect the fur seals of the Pribilof Islands. I’m one of the few Commissioners still around, and I’m still devoted to helping the communities of the Pribilofs survive – and thrive. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has the chance this week in Homer to protect the fishermen of St. Paul and St. George Islands in the Pribilofs, and many more, by protecting the halibut they harvest from the Bering Sea.
Historically, residents of St. Paul Island, most of whom are Unangan (Aleut), were conscripted by the Russian and then the United States Government in the commercial fur seal harvest. After the commercial fur seal harvest was phased out in 1983, St. Paul Island’s residents turned to commercial fisheries for their survival, with the encouragement of the US and State governments. The Pribilofs are the only Aleut region that does not have access to salmon, so the islands were granted all the halibut Community Development Quota (CDQ) in the management area surrounding them (4C). This, in turn, justified critical federal, state, local, and private infrastructure investment. Examples of these investments, which were built in part to support the halibut fishery, include the Small Boat Harbor, concluded in 2010 at a cost of almost $21 million, and the Saint Paul Harbor, which with recent improvements totaled almost $100 million.
In addition to the harbor investments, St. Paul upgraded and built a number of infrastructure facilities and utilities critical to the development of a fisheries-based economy, in which the development and pursuit of a halibut fishery weighed heavily. A bulk fuel farm; an outfall/sewer utility; water and electric utilities; a landfill; airport and road upgrades were all built over a period of 40 years at a considerable cost to the public and to the community. These investments are in the range of $30-40 million. Much of the debt on this infrastructure is still owed by the City.
All in all, over $150 million in public funds were invested on St. Paul Island after 1983 to help develop a fisheries-based economy and provide local fishermen with the infrastructure to develop and pursue the halibut fishery. Individual fishermen in turn invested their families’ futures in boats and equipment and halibut quota, and developed a thriving local halibut fishery.
The halibut fishery is currently the primary source of employment and income for St. Paul residents. Of the 391 residents of St. Paul Island, 75 participate directly in the CDQ/IFQ halibut fishery in the summer months, and depend on a viable halibut fishery for their livelihoods and survival. This figure—which includes 14 to 16 fishermen/vessel owners who each hire an average of 5 to 6 crewmembers and baiters per vessel—represents more than 35 percent of the St. Paul Island’s working-age population.
Numerous other residents of St. Paul are employed in businesses that provide support services to the halibut fishery and fleet, including fuel, storage, groceries, and catch processing and packaging. Like the fishermen, these individuals are also directly dependent upon a viable and economically sustainable halibut fishery. No source of employment is more important to the economic prosperity of the community’s residents. Unfortunately, the income generated and the participation in the local halibut fishery has fallen in the past five years to below the long-term average, as the halibut resource has declined.
St. Paul Island’s reliance on the halibut fishery is not limited to direct employment in the fishery itself. St. Paul Island is a unique community that has the largest concentrated population of Unangan and Unangam Tunuu (Aleut-speakers) in the world. As such, halibut is an important and culturally significant subsistence fishery that is key to St. Paul Island’s cultural and psychological wellbeing.
Moreover, the fishermen/vessel owners who are engaged in the directed halibut fishery are the community’s only small business owners. They are the source of economic opportunity, as well as the community’s political and business leadership. The opportunities in the halibut fishery have also attracted some younger residents back to St. Paul Island, and their children help sustain the St. Paul School. St. Paul Island’s halibut fishermen are the community’s compass holders.
Unfortunately, St. Paul Island’s economic and cultural base is in jeopardy yet again. Having transitioned its economy to halibut with the US Government’s sponsorship, the same government’s failure to place appropriate and necessary limits on halibut bycatch (Prohibited Species Catch or PSC) now threatens to deny the people of St. Paul Island continued access to the resource they were encouraged to depend upon.
From 2012 to the present, the groundfish fleets in IPHC areas 4CDE (much of the Bering Sea) have caught as bycatch in their target fisheries – and discarded as waste – more halibut than the fleet that catches halibut commercially.
Specifically, bycatch mortality in this period has been two and a half times the amount of directed halibut mortality.
The North Pacific Council has been working for four years on a new way to manage halibut bycatch, based on halibut abundance. All groundfish and salmon fisheries in the state and federal waters off Alaska, and the directed halibut fishery, are managed on species abundance. Salmon PSC limits are driven by salmon abundance.
The Council is charged with developing a program for responsible management of halibut bycatch. The groundfish harvesters must be bound by the same principles as directed users. When halibut abundance declines, commercial and sport halibut limits go down. Bycatch limits should also go down, protecting the halibut-dependent peoples and communities of the Bering Sea.
Photo Credit: choja/iStock/Getty Images Plus