NPFMC nears crucial decision on halibut bycatch, with $100 million potentially at stake
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) is again considering whether or not to implement abundance-based management of halibut bycatch on the groundfish fleet, a decision that stakeholders say could cost Alaska’s Amendment 80 fleet more than $100 million.
The council faces four distinct alternatives on how to manage the amount of halibut bycatch the Amendment 80 fleet – which catches a variety of flatfish, rockfish, Atka mackerel, Pacific Ocean perch and Pacific cod in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska – should be allowed to catch. The four alternatives ask the council to either maintain the status quo on halibut bycatch or ask the Amendment 80 fleet to reduce it by various amounts, up to a maximum of 40%.
The council is considering reducing halibut bycatch following a request from the directed halibut fishery, which is facing a steady decline in halibut in the Pacific. While the council voted for a 2021 catch limit increase of 2.6 million pounds from 2020, anglers are still calling on the Alaskan government to reduce bycatch and manage its fisheries with more directed fisheries.
“If trollers, gillnetters, seiners, sport fishers, and tribal citizens all over Alaska are forced to stay off the fish while trawlers keep their nets in the water, we have a serious management, and it’s high time to right this ship,” Alexus Kwachka, who fishes in Kodiak and Bristol Bay and served on the North Pacific Council’s advisory board, told National Fisherman.
Directed fishermen in Alaska said the council was prioritizing trawlers over maintaining directed fishing, jeopardizing their livelihoods.
“Currently, the council is optimizing the trawl fishery at the expense of Alaskan fish and fisheries. That has to change,” Linda Behnken, a Sitka, Alaska-based fisherman and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen‘s Association, told National Fisherman. “We need to protect fish habitat, reduce bycatch, and prioritize Alaska’s historic fisheries before it’s too late.”
This isn’t the first time the NPFMC has considered big cuts to the halibut bycatch quota, or the first time that so much money has been at stake in their decision. The council has considered a similar proposal in the past – in 2015, for example, the council faced an almost identical decision that Amendment 80 stakeholders said would cost it millions in lost revenue. This time the council decided to reduce the halibut bycatch allocation by 25%.
The fleet was successful in reducing bycatch numbers, but that was due to multiple mitigating factors, Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, told SeafoodSource. According to Woodley, a major factor in reducing fleet bycatch was the closure of the Fishing Company of Alaska in 2016, which he said was “notoriously very poor in bycatch performance.”
“We have been accused of playing ‘hide football’ and ‘why can’t we repeat our performance from 2015’,” he said. “In 2016, this company went out of business, they stopped fishing flatfish because they couldn’t keep up with the new requirements. They were bought out in January 2017 by two other Amendment 80 companies, and those companies started at a more reasonable bycatch rate.
In addition, bycatch had increased in the years preceding the council’s decision – 2013 and 2014 – due to the fact that some boats had been forced to leave their normal fishing grounds in the Aleutian Islands due to regulations concerning the protection of fish. Steller sea lions.
“Those restrictions on Steller sea lions have been lifted and those boats have been able to return to the Aleutians,” Woodley said. These boats historically have less bycatch, according to Woodley.
Another key factor in reducing bycatch was the introduction of deck sorting, which at the time was approved as an experimental tool to reduce bycatch in 2015. Now all boats in the fleet use the sorting on deck, which means that bycatch reduction is not possible. not repeatable.
“These were one-time things that helped reduce our bycatch, and they’re not repeatable,” Woodley said.
According to a position paper published by the forum, the Groundfish Forum fleet has reduced its bycatch by 49% since 2017. The fleet’s halibut bycatch currently stands at around 0.4% of the total catch, which is lower than the Canadian west coast groundfish bycatch rate. trawling, which “is often held up as an example of low bycatch rates,” the Groundfish Forum said.
The Groundfish Forum said the council’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) found that reducing halibut bycatch will not have much of a positive impact on halibut fishing, even at the most drastic levels. .
“We understand the concerns about directed fishing. We know they’re going through a tough time and have been for a few years,” Woodley said. “Overall, this management structure based on abundance and the returns they’re going to get will do next to nothing to solve their problem.”
Five years of council analysis has found there will be little difference in future halibut spawning biomass under all alternatives – including the ‘no action’ option, according to the Groundfish Forum position paper.
“The DEIS makes it clear in all of the alternatives that there will be no conservation benefit to halibut spawning stock biomass,” Woodley said.
If bycatch reductions were to take place, the Groundfish Forum has estimated that losses to the Amendment 80 fleet could be between USD 68 million and USD 138 million (EUR 60 million and EUR 122 million) per year. Conversely, the directed halibut fishery would experience increases of less than USD 3 million (EUR 2.6 million), even at the largest reductions in bycatch. Additionally, the volume of protein caught would be significantly reduced if bycatch reductions were established, he said, his calculations being based on production estimates from 2016 to 2020 showing that 132 meals of mackerel, sole and of plaice would be lost for every meal of halibut gained.
“DEIS is also saying it’s going to have negative net benefits to the nation,” Woodley said. “I’ve never seen a DEIS where you don’t have a conservation benefit, you have a net negative nation benefit, and you don’t really solve the problem.”
An initial NPFMC advisory committee considered the matter on December 6, but failed to reach a decision on which alternative to recommend to the board. A vote on the recommendation of Alternative 4, which would have reduced bycatch by the highest amount, did not advance in a close vote (nine in favour, 11 against), and the advisory committee did not made recommendation for none of the alternatives.
Regardless of the board’s final decision, the issue has taken on political importance in Alaska. Alaska gubernatorial candidate Les Gara called on Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy to do more to mitigate bycatch.
“How much Alaskan fish bycatch does the Seattle-based factory trawler fleet waste?” gara said in a tweet.
In response, Dunleavy formed the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force to examine the issue and propose solutions to reduce bycatch of high-value fish resources in Alaska state and federal waters.
“Alaskans from all walks of life want to better understand the bycatch problem,” Dunleavy said. “I look forward to the task force’s work and recommendations on ways to better understand the issues and impacts of bycatch to further protect our state’s incredible fishery resources.”
Photo courtesy of NOAA