It’s hard for many of us to keep up on what’s happening on the policy front during the long, busy days of summer. Fortunately, our fisheries policy guru Shannon Carroll has the latest on the Young Fishermen’s Development Act from D.C. and key takeaways from June’s North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting.
Young Fishermen’s Development Act
AMCC is extremely appreciative of Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) for cosponsoring the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, a bipartisan and bicoastal bill that would give fishing communities a needed boost by addressing steep and growing obstacles facing the next generation of America’s commercial fishermen. The Senate legislation, which aligns closely with a House version introduced in April by U.S. Reps. Don Young (R-AK) and Seth Moulton (D-MA), would launch the first coordinated, nationwide effort to train, educate and assist the next generation of commercial fishermen, providing grants of up to $200,000 (totaling $2 million annually) through NOAA’s Sea Grant Program. The introduction of the legislation in both the House and Senate clearly reflects the Alaska delegation’s commitment to improving access to our state’s fisheries.
While we are grateful for the introduction of the bill, it is essential that we continue to build support for this important piece of legislation.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) met in Juneau this past month, and as always, the June meeting was busy.
Abundance-based management for Bering Sea halibut bycatch
The Council made tangible progress on the issue of abundance-based management (ABM), by providing further direction for the ABM workgroup related to the various indices of abundance under consideration. The Council also provided input on, among other things, the range of starting points and the types of control rules it would like to see it would like to see in the next discussion paper. Importantly, the State of Alaska, in making the Council’s motion, explicitly reiterated that it supported the development of ABM in a timely manner because it wants to rebalance the parity between the directed halibut fishery and the groundfish fishery, while also reducing bycatch and ensuring a directed fishery in the Bering Sea.
AMCC continues to view ABM as a means of providing a science-based approach to halibut bycatch management in the Bering Sea. The development of this policy has been slower than we expected; nonetheless, we see great value in ensuring that the foundation of the policy—the index of abundance—is well vetted and robust. At the same time, we also recognize that the root of this issue is the prioritization of the groundfish fishery bycatch over the directed fishery, particularly at low levels of halibut abundance. This is an essential element of this action and one that requires a timely resolution, as continued access to the halibut resource is of great cultural and economic significance to the communities in the Bering Sea. These two concepts—a science-based approach to halibut bycatch and reprioritization of the directed halibut fishery—are not at odds and we believe that the Council is on right path to accomplish both.
Central Gulf of Alaska Tanner Crab
After reviewing a discussion paper on existing federal protections for Tanner crab in the central Gulf of Alaska, the Council initiated a follow-up discussion paper that will provide data on flatfish trawl and pot cod fishing effort in specific areas off of Kodiak, as well as observer coverage rates in those areas.
The Tanner crab fishery is an important small-boat fishery for communities throughout Kodiak Island. The State of Alaska has closed the fishery for the last four years due to poor abundance of mature male Tanner crabs. While there are likely many factors involved in the recent low abundance of crab in Kodiak, AMCC supports the Council’s efforts to ensure that it has the data it needs to make informed decisions regarding habitat closures, bycatch limits, and observer coverage.
North Pacific Observer Program
The Council made reviewed the observer program annual report, which provides a scientific evaluation of the deployment of observers so that the Council can assess whether the objectives of the Observer Program have been met. This review was done in the context of reviewing the 2018 Annual Deployment Plan and the renewal of the partial coverage observer contract. The Council expressed concerned over the levels of funding for the observer program, which have resulted in lower levels of observer coverage. To address these concerns, the Council tasked a subgroup of the Observer Advisory Committee to consider options to address low sampling rates in partial coverage, and a scoping of data concerns and potential solutions related to vessels delivering to tenders. The subgroup will report its findings this fall.
As we look ahead to the October meeting, several policy priorities are emerging:
Abundance-based management for Bering Sea halibut bycatch
For the third meeting in a row, the Council will seek to make progress on ABM. The discussion paper for the October meeting will likely provide a significant amount of substantive information as the Council looks to begin selecting alternatives and options to move forward.
Bering Sea Fishery Ecosystem Plan
The Council will be taking a preliminary look at the proposed fishery ecosystem plan (FEP) for the Bering Sea. AMCC has been actively engaged and in support of the Bering Sea FEP. We believe that the FEP presents an opportunity to build more adaptive and resilient management processes that can better reduce bycatch, conserve important habitat, protect marine food webs, monitor ecosystem health, and evaluate the ecological, social, and economic trade-offs of different management actions. The meeting in October will be an important opportunity to help define the direction of the FEP in a way that can help achieve our shared fishery goals.
Shannon Carroll is AMCC’s deputy director.
By Shannon Carroll
This month, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) wrapped up its final meeting of 2016 by pulling the plug on the Gulf of Alaska Trawl Bycatch Management Program. Citing an impasse in discussions between the State of Alaska and members of the trawl and processing sectors, the Council passed a motion tabling further action on the agenda item. The program, which has been under development for several years, was designed to provide groundfish fishermen with the “tools” to harvest target species while operating under reduced halibut and Chinook bycatch limits.
From the beginning of the Walker administration, the State of Alaska and the groundfish sector differed over the whether a catch share-type program was the right tool for the job. After a contentious meeting in Kodiak this past June, AMCC was optimistic that a middle ground – one that would bring greater stability to the groundfish sector while also addressing community concerns regarding past catch share programs – could be reached. Nonetheless, members of the Council likened the current impasse to being stuck on a sandbar, and in a 8-3 vote decided that it was better to take a step back from the proposed program.
Despite tabling the action, the Council initiated several discussion papers involving the Gulf of Alaska trawl fishery. These analyses will evaluate, among other things, modifying season start dates and sea lion closures in the groundfish trawl fishery, current protections and stock information for Tanner crab, and the hurdles to implementing abundance-based halibut bycatch management in the Gulf of Alaska. While AMCC sees value in these efforts, we remain hopeful that the Council will continue working towards a comprehensive management structure that fits the unique characteristics of the Gulf of Alaska.
Looking beyond the Gulf of Alaska trawl fishery, and into 2017, AMCC will continue to engage on issues at the Council that affect the sustainability of federal fisheries and impact the next generation of fishermen. At the February meeting in Seattle, the Council’s abundance-based halibut bycatch working group will be hosting a workshop to update and gather input on its effort to develop an abundance index for halibut. While this process has proven more complicated than we initially expected, AMCC continues to support moving towards a policy that establishes halibut bycatch caps based on the abundance of the stock. The Council will likely review the working group’s efforts during its April meeting in Anchorage. Also during the February meeting, the Council will hear recommendations from the Halibut/Sablefish IFQ Committee. These recommendations stem from the 20-year review of the Halibut/Sablefish IFQ program.
Finally, the Council will continue work on the Bering Sea Fishery Ecosystem Plan (FEP)—a tool that will hopefully lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the Bering Sea ecosystem and its relationship to Council management actions. The Council recently appointed members to the Bering Sea Ecosystem Team, which will be the lead on developing the FEP. The team is expected to report to the Ecosystem Committee in February, and to the Council in April.
AMCC continues to champion the Council’s efforts to implement ecosystem-based measures through the Bering Sea Fishery Ecosystem Plan. We greatly appreciate the work that has gone into the FEP development thus far and look forward to ensuring that the FEP includes defined ecosystem-level goals and measurable objectives and outcomes.
Shannon Carroll is AMCC’s Fisheries Policy Director. He can be reached at 907.277.5357 or via email.
By: Shannon Carroll, Fisheries Policy Director
Last June, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) promised to take further action on halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea. Over the course of the past several meetings, the Council has followed through on that promise, developing a draft strategic plan for halibut issues, strategies for improved communication with the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), and a framework for an abundance-based halibut bycatch policy.
During the April Council meeting in Anchorage, the Council voted to continue evaluating an abundance-based approach to halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea. This followed a presentation by the abundance-based bycatch workgroup—which consists of Council, National Marine Fisheries Service, and IPHC staff—as well as testimony by halibut stakeholders, including AMCC. The workgroup’s current focus is determining an index for halibut abundance that can, among other things, be used to effectively capture the impact of bycatch removals on Bering Sea halibut. The workgroup will continue analyzing various indicators used to measure halibut abundance and will be holding a public workshop sometime in August. Abundance-based halibut management will likely be on the agenda again in October.
AMCC appreciates the Council and workgroup’s continued effort find a long-term solution to halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea. A robust, scientifically-sound abundance index is a key step in this process. We look forward to continuing to providing input on this effort.
More on the full range of issues covered in the April meeting can be found in the Council’s newsletter.
The next NPFMC meeting will be held June 6-14 in Kodiak. At that time, the Council will be hearing community and stakeholder testimony on the the Gulf of Alaska Trawl Bycatch Management program.
For more information on Council actions and upcoming meetings, visit npfmc.org.
By: Shannon Carroll, Fisheries Policy Director
Here is the latest news for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s work on halibut bycatch.
Halibut Management Framework
Since June 2015, The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) has been working to develop a Halibut Bycatch Framework (Framework). The goal of the Framework is to serve as a strategic planning device for future halibut management actions along with improving and increasing communications with the International Halibut Commission (IPHC).
The Framework is often described as a “living document,” with the intention to continue refining and adjusting the document to fit ongoing Council needs. After receiving input from stakeholders, including AMCC, during the October and December Council meetings, the five halibut management objectives:
- Manage halibut bycatch in the groundfish fisheries and harvests in the commercial, guided and non-guided recreational, and subsistence fisheries consistent with the Council’s Magnuson-Stevens Act conservation objectives.
- Manage halibut bycatch to balance the objectives of directed users and bycatch users in both the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) and the Gulf of Alaska (GOA).
- Pursue an abundance based approach to managing halibut bycatch and directed harvests in coordination with the IPHC.
- Provide for the sustained participation of historic participants and fishery dependent communities.
- Maintain monitoring and catch accounting programs for halibut users in the BSAI and GOA in order to provide the data necessary for management needs.
The Framework has also led to more formalized communication with the IPHC, including the formation of a Halibut Management Committee and likely development of a Joint Council/IPHC Committee that would meet on an annual basis. The Council will be reviewing the Framework again during the April Council meeting in Anchorage, so stay tuned for news regarding that review process.
Abundance-Based Halibut Bycatch Management in the Bering Sea
AMCC has been working with other halibut user groups to push for a halibut management structure that links both catch and bycatch limits to halibut abundance levels. This is in contrast to the existing structure, where bycatch limits are fixed, regardless of halibut abundance. An abundance-based management structure would help both the IPHC and Council better share the responsibility of halibut conservation. Currently, the IPHC manages only the directed fishery and cannot make reductions to bycatch limits during times of low abundance. Were the Council to adopt abundance-based management, it would have an additional tool to protect halibut stocks at periods of low abundance.
The Council has recognized the potential value of this approach and has formed an interagency workgroup comprised of staff from the Council, the IPHC, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. This workgroup has been tasked with developing alternative approaches to abundance-based management and will be providing advice to the Council during either the April or June Council meeting.
Stay tuned for more halibut bycatch updates following the April Council Meeting!
By: Hannah Heimbuch, Community Fisheries Organizer
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) met for its final meeting of 2015 in Anchorage this month, setting groundfish harvest numbers for the coming year, while also diving into a wide range of other topics. Bycatch, along with abundance- and ecosystem-based management, continued as major themes for the Council.
In other bycatch conversations, the Council reviewed a roadmap outlining the analytical process for the development of a Gulf of Alaska Trawl Bycatch Management Program. After revising and adding to the range of alternatives under consideration in October, Council and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) staff produced a work plan which lays out proposed steps to develop a Draft Environmental Impact Study by the end of 2016. Throughout this ongoing bycatch management initiative, AMCC has advocated for measures built into the program that protect community access to fishing rights, and options for the continued reduction of bycatch. We appreciate and look forward to the analysis of the new alternative introduced by Commissioner Cotten which would only apportion Chinook salmon and halibut to voluntary inshore cooperatives based on their members vessels. This is a new and innovative approach to provide for a cooperative style management without allocating the target species and thus the associated fishing rights.
As the need for information and options around bycatch management continues to increase, the Council is also exploring the potential of abundance-based halibut bycatch limits. The Council voted to initiate a workgroup, collaborating with NMFS and the International Pacific Halibut Commission, to evaluate options for moving bycatch management away from fixed limits, and toward limits that fluctuate with abundance (much like harvest). AMCC supports a move toward a bycatch management system that is more responsive to both conservation needs and balance between sectors, particularly in times of low abundance. The Council also tasked the workgroup with evaluating bycatch of juvenile halibut in terms of their long-term potential spawning potential. This is another important consideration, recognizing the stock-wide impact of removing large numbers of juvenile halibut, as seen in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands groundfish fisheries.
Finally, the Council has also advanced the topic of ecosystem-based management after hearing staff reports and a discussion paper on a Bering Sea Fishery Ecosystem Plan (FEP). Going forward, Council staff is tasked with developing the core FEP, and taking steps toward forming a Bering Sea FEP team and plan for public outreach. The Council has long been a leader in implementing ecosystem-based fishery management measures into its fishery management policies and the FEP is an important step in furthering that tradition.
For more information on Council actions and upcoming meetings, visit npfmc.org.
Halibut Bycatch Updates
For more than a year, dual concerns regarding declining halibut stocks and community access in the Bering Sea have been a hot button issue for both the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (the Council). Despite committed efforts by a diverse array of stakeholders, the precarious state of the Bering Sea halibut fishery remains uncertain heading into the end of 2015.
International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC)
During its December interim meeting, the IPHC will be releasing its 2015 stock assessment and 2016 harvest decision table. The stock assessment provides managers with the status of halibut throughout its range in the North Pacific, while the harvest decision table guides the Commission’s decision-making as it sets the annual catch limits for 2016. These reports will play a significant role in whether the fishermen in the Bering Sea will have a directed fishery in 2016.
The IPHC is also in a state of transition: in the coming months, the Commission will be hiring a new Executive Director to oversee the IPHC. Additionally, President Obama will make appointments for the two U.S. public seats on the Commission by early 2016. Our hope is that whoever fills these roles will effectively advocate for coastal communities and conservation of the resource, while also bridging the communication and decision making gap between the IPHC and the Council.
More at: www.iphc.int
North Pacific Fishery Management Council (the Council)
The Council’s December meeting is fast approaching and it is filled with halibut bycatch agenda items. The Council will first take action on 2016 catch limits for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island groundfish fisheries, where it may consider reducing catch limits for fish with high rates of halibut bycatch. Although an unorthodox approach in some ways, a reduction in groundfish catch limits could provide short-term relief to both the resource and the halibut-dependent communities of the Bering Sea.
With long-term solutions in mind, the Council will also take up two agenda items that could provide significant improvements to halibut management. First, it will continue public scoping on its draft Halibut Management Framework. The draft framework could provide for more regular and meaningful communication between the Council and the IPHC, as well as enhance avenues for stakeholder input. Next, the Council will be reviewing a discussion paper on abundance-based management for halibut bycatch. AMCC fully supports the Council’s efforts to move toward abundance based management, provided the new management approach contains appropriate conservation and community safeguards.
Proposed Bycatch Rule
The National Marine Fisheries Service is seeking public comments on the proposed rule that would implement the Council’s bycatch recommendations from this past June. Comments are due December 28, 2015. This is your opportunity to tell the National Marine Fisheries Service that the Council did not go far enough in reducing bycatch.
You may submit comments on the proposed rule via the Federal e-Rulemaking portal. Go to www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2015-0092, click the “Comment Now!” icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach your comments.
By Hannah Heimbuch
It’s amazing what you can fit into three days. In the case of three Alaska Marine Conservation Council (AMCC) staff members this October, it was more than 6,000 miles, a half-day of lobbying training and several dozen meetings with congressional offices, agency leaders, and conservation partners in our nation’s capital.
This trip to Washington, D.C. was my first, and allowed me to witness firsthand what it looks like when diverse groups truly collaborate in pursuit of a better future. This is the promise I see in the Fishing Communities Coalition (FCC).
Presenting as a unified voice on national fisheries policy, the FCC is made up of conservation-minded, community-based fishing organizations that have found common ground in their policy concerns, despite hailing from different corners of America’s coastline. At present, the FCC includes AMCC and the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, both from Alaska; the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholder’s Alliance, from Texas; and the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, both calling New England home.
For a few short, busy days, we joined our partners from the FCC to visit House and Senate offices on Capitol Hill. We were there to introduce ourselves to decision makers from coastal states across the country. Collectively, we spoke to agency leaders and congressional staffers, covering a variety of policy issues important to our small boat fleets: bycatch reduction, electronic/at-sea monitoring, community access to local fisheries, and improved fisheries data collection, and a strengthened Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) reauthorization bill.
As House and Senate offices look at options for MSA reauthorization moving forward, the FCC believes it is vital that this important law uphold or enhance current standards of science-based, conservation-minded fisheries management, while also ensuring access for local communities. These essential measures guide the sustainability of our nation’s fish stocks and fishing communities.
In the bycatch realm, we shared important information about the halibut bycatch crisis occurring in the Bering Sea — from the massive removal of juvenile halibut by trawl vessels, to the precarious health of directed halibut fisheries coast-wide. The group reminded congressional delegates of the national importance of the halibut fishery, and of the bad precedent being set, with halibut bycatch becoming the priority use of halibut in the North Pacific.
Group members also voiced a need for progressive policies supporting robust at-sea or electronic monitoring, and cohesion of those practices across Council regions. Issues of insufficient data, major funding challenges, and ease of small-boat monitoring were important coalition-wide, including to small boat fleets in New England deeply concerned about excessive haddock bycatch.
Finally, we communicated the continued need to support local access to fisheries. The coalition shared the success stories and ongoing needs for those access rights by pointing out unique community solutions across the country, such as permit and quota banks, while also pushing for improved community access provisions in the reauthorized MSA.
During our Capital Hill visits, our coalition team divided up into two groups and managed to make 21 meetings with Senate and House staffers in a single day. We covered some significant ground — both under our feet and in our policy work — using our united voice to amplify these important issues. We were able to meet directly with two Alaskan delegates, Senator Lisa Murkowski and Representative Don Young. Sitting next to fellow fishermen and fisheries leaders from around the country, and speaking together for responsible policies, was a truly empowering experience.
It is AMCC’s hope that as we continue to advocate for federal policies that support a sustainable fishing future, we can offer that experience to more of our community fishermen, infusing voices from Alaska’s small boat fisheries into this national arena. We believe it’s particularly vital that young fishermen are given the opportunity to participate in this policy work, something I personally look forward to developing.
Those of us that hope to be fishing for the next 30 years — those of us that want to continue the tradition of fishing families and strong local fisheries — must help to guide the long-term vision of the federal policies that do and will shape management of our marine resources. We must demand robust science- and conservation-based standards that allow fisheries, communities and ecosystems to thrive together.
It was incredibly encouraging to see the FCC paving the way for more community voices — the young and veteran alike — to be heard in a meaningful and collaborative way at a national level. As I head back home to Alaska, it is with the knowledge that our local, regional and statewide work is united with this national conservation ethic, of which AMCC and its members should be proud.
After a busy summer season, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (the Council) was back together again for its October meeting in Anchorage, with strong focus on observer plans and electronic monitoring, as well as groundfish and halibut bycatch management.
The Council sent the annual deployment plan for groundfish observers in the partial coverage fleet forward, with specifications that would change how observers are dispersed among the groundfish fleet, if approved during final action in December. The change would assign observers based on gear type, with 14% coverage rates recommended for the pot and longline fleet and 29% for the trawl fleet. This is a positive change, as deciding observer time based on gear type will allow for more of the total catch to be observed, and give the industry more data to work with when making major harvest decisions.
Electronic monitoring (EM) is set to enter its first round of field trials, following Council approval of an EM pre-implementation plan for 2016. The Council has been discussing EM as a tool for monitoring fishing vessel activities, such as catch and bycatch, to expand the tools already available in the observer program — particularly for vessels that have difficulty accommodating observers. These initial trials will be run out of the ports of Homer and Sitka, on select pot and longline vessels that have volunteered for the program. We look forward to the results of these trials and the important data-gathering tools that EM could offer our fisheries as the program develops.
The Council unanimously approved an initial review motion modifying Bering Sea Aleutian Islands (BSAI) trawl observer coverage to allow vessels to opt into the 100% coverage pool. Previously, some vessels opted to carry 100% coverage so that a switch from a partial observer fishery to a full coverage fishery did not require them to stop to pick up another observer and to maintain confidence in bycatch rates at the vessel-level within the coops. However, this choice has frequently resulted in those vessels paying double fees. AMCC supports the motion, as it removes the duplicate fee, and will hopefully result in more boats opting into the 100% coverage category.
The council has taken another step in the ongoing exploration of Gulf of Alaska Trawl Bycatch Management options, voting forward a set of alternatives for staff analysis following a full day of reports, testimony, and discussion. The alternatives explore a variety of ways to manage bycatch among Gulf trawl fisheries and individual vessels. Commissioner Cotten introduced a new alternative which would apportion Chinook salmon and halibut bycatch to inshore fishing coops — on a voluntary basis — based on their members’ vessels. The alternatives maintain an option for Community Fishing Associations (CFAs), which have the potential to anchor quota to Gulf communities and to mitigate some of the adverse impacts of catch share programs. The Council also included options for further reduction of halibut and salmon bycatch. AMCC is pleased that the Council is moving forward with analysis of a broad suite of options, and that a CFA option is among those being considered. We look forward to a robust discussion following the next step of analysis, and the opportunity to weigh all of the material and find what is the best way to manage bycatch for sustainable and diverse fisheries and fishing communities in the Gulf.
On the halibut bycatch front, the Council passed a motion indicating its intent to consider reducing the total allowable catch (TAC) for targeted groundfish species that have high bycatch rates. Final action on groundfish TACs will be in December. The Council also unveiled its draft Halibut Management Framework, which is, among other things, intended to develop a framework for improving coordination between the International Pacific Halibut Commission and the Council. Although the Council responded to initial feedback during the October meeting, the framework will undergo further public and council review prior to the December meeting.
The Council will continue to analyze a Gulf of Alaska Chinook salmon bycatch reapportionment and may take final action in December. The proposed alternatives would provide NMFS in-season managers the authority to move allowable bycatch between the Pollock and other groundfish sectors (non-pollock/non-rockfish). The proposed action will not increase the overall cap beyond the 32,500 current limit. However, combining the two caps creates a different scenario, and options to limit Chinook salmon reapportionment are important elements to consider in the action going forward. While AMCC supports actions that give the fleet tools for keeping bycatch below the cap while still executing target fisheries, we continue to prioritize maintenance or reduction of current bycatch levels.
Although the North Pacific Fishery Management Council failed to recommend meaningful halibut bycatch reductions in the Bering Sea groundfish fishery this past June, there is still time to tell the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to take action. Ask our Alaskan Congressional Delegation to urge NMFS and the Secretary of Commerce to protect the halibut resource and Alaskan coastal communities.
Please submit this letter and show your support for reducing halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea by October 28, 2015.
By Shannon Carroll, Fisheries Policy Director
Originally featured on the Marine Fish Conservation Network
June was a bad month for fishery-dependent, coastal communities. On the back of the passage of H.R. 1335—a bill that puts short-term economic gains ahead of sustainable fisheries—the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) failed to impose significant bycatch cuts to the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island trawl fleet.
As was noted a few weeks ago, Pacific halibut stocks have been in decline for the past fifteen years. But because bycatch limits have remained relatively static over that time, directed users (those who specifically target halibut in a commercial, recreational, or subsistence fishery) have carried the responsibility of conservation alone, with commercial fishermen in the Bering Sea taking around a 70% reduction in harvest between 2011 and 2014. This situation reached a new level of absurdity in 2014, when the groundfish fishery removed more halibut as bycatch than the entire directed halibut fishery.
While the cuts made by the directed fishery have been felt across the North Pacific, these cuts have been particularly painful for the remote communities of the Bering Sea, such as St. Paul, where the economies and social fabric are nearly entirely dependent on halibut fishing. Coming into the Council meeting, these communities needed more than a 40% cut to bycatch in order to have a directed fishery in 2016.
Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Council must, when amending fishery management plans, adhere to ten national standards that ensure sustainable and responsible fisheries management. These national standards have inherent tension, and it is the Council’s job to find balance within these mandates. In the case of halibut bycatch, the Council primarily focused on National Standards 1, 8, and 9. National Standard 1 mandates that the Council prevent overfishing while also achieving optimum yield. National Standard 8 requires that the Council consider community involvement and provide for sustained community participation in the fishery. Finally, National Standard 9 directs the Council to reduce bycatch to the extent practicable.
Balancing these standards is difficult, and because these standards are created to provide some discretion to the Council, they do not dictate a specific outcome. Nonetheless, the halibut bycatch decision demonstrates the limits of these standards, at least with respect to how the standards are disproportionately weighted towards the economics of an industrialized groundfish fleet.
The Council’s decision resulted in an aggregate 21% cut to bycatch caps, which only amounts to a 0.7% reduction from 2014 bycatch mortality levels. For the Council, which was short two Alaskan votes due to recusals, the potential economic impacts of decreased groundfish harvest outweighed the smaller economic losses to halibut users. Simply, the Council was unwilling or unable to evenly weigh the benefits of small-scale, community fisheries with those of the industrialized trawl fleet.
This decision will have a significant negative effect on directed halibut users, especially those in the Bering Sea. But it can serve the purpose of shaping our current discussions with respect to Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization. Specifically, the Council’s decision highlights some of the limits of the current Magnuson-Stevens Act when it comes to addressing bycatch.
Under current standards, curtailing bycatch is limited by the vague and subjective practicability standard and the predominate view that optimum yield trumps bycatch reduction. As the recent Council meeting demonstrates, such standards undervalue community fisheries and overlook the fact that not all bycatch is the same, particularly when one fishery’s bycatch supports coastal communities from Nome, AK to Seattle, WA.
Moving forward, strengthening bycatch reduction provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act must be a key component of any reauthorization bill. Although the law does mandate some reduction, it must do a better job of distinguishing between different types of bycatch, including bycatch that is itself a valuable and fully utilized fishery. Further, it must also direct the Council to give more weight to sustained community participation as well as indirect economic and social dependence.
Absent such protections, small-scale fisheries that lack the economic clout of the groundfish fleet will continue lose in the National Standards balancing act.