Commentary: Implement abundance-based management of halibut bycatch

Fishing vessels in Cordova Harbor. (June 21, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

By Phillip Lestenkof, Brian Ritchie and Linda Behnken
For The Cordova Times

In Alaska, we are proud of our fisheries. Our ability to harvest fresh, wild seafood for our freezers, for recreation, or as part of our income is unique, and we are fortunate to live in a place where those opportunities still exist. The vastness of our oceans, our pristine habitat, and our traditions of responsible harvest sometimes make it feel as though our seafood resources are inexhaustible.

But the founders of our great state knew they were not. That is why, when they wrote Alaska’s Constitution, they included a sentence that required all state resources to be managed “on the sustained yield principle.” That means we don’t take more than the resource can afford to lose and still replenish itself. No other state was so aware of nature’s cycles and the need to honor them to include “sustainability” — or abundance-based management — in their constitution.

Alaska’s halibut numbers are at historical lows, and the amount of halibut available to Alaska’s commercial and charter fisheries has followed suit. While commercial and charter businesses worry there may soon be too few fish to operate, catches of halibut in Alaska’s bottom trawl fisheries — who target other fish, not halibut — are on the upswing. This is known as bycatch, and the large trawl vessels have plenty of room before they hit bycatch limits set when halibut were more abundant.

Last year, more than 1.43 million halibut were thrown back as trawl bycatch statewide. In the Bering Sea in 2019, more halibut were caught by bottom trawlers than all other user groups in the region were allowed to harvest, combined. And while a certain level of bottom trawl run-in with halibut is unavoidable when the fishery operates, current limits do little to help reduce bycatch when the halibut population and other fisheries need the most help.

This week the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will be considering a new program to manage halibut bycatch. The proposal is called Abundance-Based Management. It would mirror the way groundfish, crab, salmon and all other halibut are sustainably managed. Alaska’s sport and directed commercial halibut fisheries are managed sustainably for future generations.

Representatives of directed halibut fisheries, communities who rely on halibut commerce, subsistence harvesters, and sport fishermen are asking the council to do the same thing: Set reasonable bycatch limits based on the abundance of halibut. Then when commercial and sport halibut catches are limited by a decline in halibut numbers, bycatch will also be limited. This is a logical and equitable solution that would benefit Alaskan businesses and communities.

The council majority are Alaskans. It is critical that Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his administration stand tall for Alaskans by advocating for the implementation of Abundance Based Management of halibut bycatch. The state has pledged to support ABM in the past. It is imperative that they encourage the council to make decisions that support Alaskans whose ways of life, cultures, livelihoods, businesses and communities depend on healthy halibut resources.

This is one of those important moments in time where there is broad agreement among all halibut user groups: indigenous leaders, charter operators, commercial captains, their crew, and personal use fishermen; we are all Alaskans who love our communities, our families and our way of life. We are standing together to protect the sustainability of our fisheries for future generations. Of a total of 113 comment letters to the Council on halibut ABM, 112 reflect the statewide support for this solution.

For the past five years the council has been tip-toeing towards abundance based management for halibut bycatch. The council and the Dunleavy administration now can remedy the halibut bycatch problem and restore equitable use by implementing abundance based management for this iconic Alaska fish.

Phillip Lestenkof is a subsistence of halibut fisherman for 51 years and commercial halibut fisherman for 38 years at Saint Paul Island, and president of Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. Brian Ritchie is a charter halibut fisherman based in Homer, an Alaska Marine Conservation Council Fellow, and holds a master’s degree in environmental science with a focus on Pacific halibut spatial dynamics. Linda Behnken has fished commercially for halibut since 1982. She also longlines for sablefish and trolls for salmon with her family out of Sitka. She is the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and a founding board member of the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust.