New restrictions would cut halibut bycatch in groundfish fisheries

Trawl sector says the decision will be devastating, coastal residents say it will boost their halibut access

A six-year battle over the incidental catch of an estimated 2.8 million pounds of halibut annually by trawlers in the Bering Sea has prompted federal fisheries managers to put new regulations in place to curb that harvest by up to 35 percent.

The action Monday, Dec. 13, by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, will reduce halibut bycatch in the groundfish fishery by up to 35%, which according to the council’s own analysis would mean a $110 million loss to the Washington-based trawler fleet.

Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, which represents five member Washington-based companies whose 19 trawlers harvest groundfish in the Bering Sea off Alaska, called it “a sad day for science-based fishery management in Alaska.”

Woodley said the council’s analysis shows that this decision will not result in increases in harvest quota that the directed halibut fishery is looking for, and that the action does not meet standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act.

Woodley said the trawlers “are exploring all options due to the unprecedented nature of this decision.”

But for halibut fishermen who live and fish in Alaska communities in the Bering Sea region, the council’s decision means more access to halibut in these times of low abundance, said Jeff Kauffman, a veteran halibut harvester and vice president of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association.

“The state responded to our requests to consider the availability of halibut for directed fisheries at all levels of stock abundance,” Kauffman said. “While we and many others advocated for a solution that would have gone further to reduce bottom-trawl bycatch, we understand the multiple considerations facing the council, and consider this an important step in achieving our goals of equitable access and conservation of the halibut biomass.”

The council motion by Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, calls for prohibited species catch limits to be determined annually based on the most recent surveys.

Among the dozens of pieces of testimony delivered to the council was a letter from a bipartisan group of Alaska legislators urging more equitable management of the halibut resource for Alaskans.

In his written testimony to the council Woodley said that the fleet he represents, known as the Amendment 80 Sector, directly employs some 2,150 crew members and supports some 2,800 year-round jobs in remote Alaskan communities where they make port calls, plus another 2,000 people in jobs in the Puget Sound region.

These crews sustainably harvest yellowfin sole, rock sole, flathead sole, Pacific cod, Atka mackerel and Pacific Ocean perch, while meeting the highest sustainability standards in the world, he said. He urged the council to take no action on options under consideration.

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka, was among those testifying for better abundance-based management of the halibut resource.

“The current pressure to conserve the halibut resource is borne by the directed halibut fisheries having lower catch limits at lower levels of halibut abundance,” she said. “Lower bycatch limits at lower levels of halibut abundance will share the conservation mandate and sustain economies of halibut-dependent communities.”

“History shows that the reduced limits can be met with minimal economic impacts on the Amendment 80 sector,” Behnken said. “Amendment 80 (sector) will only change its behavior and fully implement tools to reduce bycatch if it is forced to do so.”

St. Paul Island harvester Simeon Swetzof Jr. told the council in his written testimony that the future livelihood of the local economy at Saint Paul and the traditional Unamgax halibut fishing culture are totally dependent upon a properly managed Bering Sea halibut resource.

Swetzof said the city had development its local commercial fishing-related economy and infrastructure since 1980 as well as providing subsistence halibut for the community. St. Paul is also heavily dependent on the commercial Bering Sea snow crab (opilio) fishery, he said, but with the Bering Sea 2021-22 snow crab fishery allowable catch recently reduced from 45 million pounds to 5.6 million pounds the future economy of the community is now more dependent on the halibut fishery than ever before, he said.

“Halibut bycatch must be reduced immediately to protect the resource and those who depend on it,” he said.