What a difference a year makes for the halibut bycatch controversy in the Bering Sea at the December meetings of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Anchorage. The flatfish factory trawlers, vilified for much of this year, reported vigorous and voluntary efforts at halibut conservation, and even received praise from the Pribilofs. Their zeal was prompted by what might be termed resolution number two-by-four of the fish council last summer, which slashed halibut bycatch by 25 percent.
Annual fees paid by holders of catch shares in Alaska’s halibut, sablefish and Bering Sea/Aleutian Island king crab fisheries will rise for the 2015/2016 season to meet costs of management and enforcement.
Kristie Balovich, budget officer for the Alaska region office of NOAA Fisheries, said Dec. 10 that coverage fees for the 2015/2016 BSAI king crab fishery went up to 1.48 percent and to 3 percent for halibut and sablefish.
Halibut dominated the federal fisheries process in 2015, with each sector fighting over reduced allocations.
Directed halibut fishermen in the North Pacific have watched their quotas drop while the trawl industry prosecuting Bering Sea groundfish has had a relatively static bycatch limit for 20 years. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council governs bycatch while the International Pacific Halibut Commission governs directed removals, and the two have not coordinated on the decline in harvestable halibut biomass.
NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comment on a proposed rule that would reduce bycatch limits for Pacific halibut in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) groundfish fisheries.
Bycatch is also known as “prohibited species catch,” or PSC. The proposed fishery management plan amendment, "Amendment 111," would reduce PSC limits for halibut in specific amounts in four groundfish sectors:
- Amendment 80 sector (non-pollock trawl catcher/processors) by 25% to 1,745 mt;
- BSAI trawl limited access sector (all non-Amendment 80 trawl fishery participants) by 15% to 745 mt;
NOAA Fisheries is seeking letters of public support through Oct. 23, for 10 people, including two incumbents, for two presidential appointments as U.S. commissioners to the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
Terms expire on Dec. 31 for current commissioners Don Lane of Homer and Bob Alverson, of Seattle.
Staff of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council have begun working on a discussion paper for the council’s October meeting, exploring ways to index Bering Sea and Aleutian Island halibut prohibited species catch limits to a metric of halibut biomass.
The Bering Sea is a tough, unforgiving environment. As Alaska Native peoples we have survived and flourished for thousands of years by sustainably harvesting this sea’s bounty, including the noble Pacific halibut. Our home, the island of Saint Paul in the Pribilof Islands, is located in the central Bering Sea in the heart of the nation’s richest commercial fisheries.
In Sunday’s guest column, the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association referred to trawl fishing as a grave threat and an “environmentally disastrous policy” that has devastated their halibut fishery and “plundered the Bering Sea.”
As a fishery scientist who has worked for more than 20 years with trawl fishermen to reduce salmon, crab and halibut bycatch, I find the recent rhetoric around proposed North Pacific Fisheries Management Council changes to the Bering Sea halibut bycatch cap very frustrating. In particular, I hear media campaigns underwritten by environmental NGOs claiming, “It’s been 20 years since the halibut bycatch cap was last reduced,” implying that this has created a conservation issue.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will spend the first four days of its weeklong meeting in Sitka beginning June 3 deciding on a series of deep cuts in the halibut bycatch allocation for the Bering Sea groundfish bottom-trawl fleet, but it may do so without a majority of the votes on the final decision coming from the Alaska delegation.
Nowhere do people have as much opportunity to speak their minds to fish policymakers as in Alaska. And as a key decision day approaches, a groundswell of Alaska voices is demanding that fishery overseers slash the halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea.
Many Alaskans are speaking out against the more than 6 million pounds of halibut dumped overboard each year as bycatch in trawl fisheries targeting flounder, rockfish, perch, mackerel and other groundfish -- not pollock.
In the last ten years, Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands trawl fisheries have killed and discarded 62.6 million pounds of halibut as bycatch. A significant percentage of these juvenile halibut, averaging a little less than five pounds, would have migrated over time to the east, populating the Gulf of Alaska, Southeastern Alaska, and eventually all the way to Northern California. So although the bycatch of halibut is occurring far away in the Bering Sea, its effect is being felt all over Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
There’s no doubt that the recent announcement of shutting down directed fishing for groundfish will have an effect on Alaska fisheries, particularly for cod, but U.S. fisheries officials told SeafoodSource that this doesn’t mean no one can fish for cod and flatfish.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will hold its second meeting of 2015 from April 8-14 at the Anchorage Hilton.
The council's biggest agenda item will be final action on measures to reduce chinook and chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. The alternatives, introduced for public review in December 2014, include both voluntary and regulatory controls to shorten seasons, provide incentives, and reduce bycatch caps.
A lot has changed in Alaska since commercial vessels began fishing for halibut off the coastline in 1888, but in almost 130 years, halibut has remained a staple of the state’s fishing economy and culture. Along with salmon and crab, no species of fish captures the Alaska imagination and fills Alaska pocketbooks more than halibut.
JUNEAU -- Commercial fishermen who make their living in federal waters off Alaska are watching as Gov. Bill Walker prepares to announce a set of appointments to the board that manages the multibillion-dollar fishing industry in the North Pacific.
One of the principal roles of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is overseeing the massive, Seattle-based factory fishing vessels that catch and process lower-value groundfish like pollock, mackerel and sole.
Federal fisheries managers are slated to take final action in early April on the incidental harvest of Chinook and chum salmon in the Bering Sea pollock fishery.
Also on the agenda for the April 6-13 meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Anchorage are final action on Gulf of Alaska sablefish longline pots, an update on Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands salmon bycatch genetics, a discussion paper on Area 4A halibut retention in sablefish pots, and an initial review of observer coverage on small catcher processors.
What would you do if you lived hundreds of feet below the ocean surface? Where would you eat? When would you sleep? Where would you procreate? Julie Nielson is a PhD student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“I’m studying the movement of halibut in Glacier Bay,” Nielson said. “We’re trying to figure out if halibut leave Glacier Bay during the winter on spawning migrations and if they do, do they return the following summer?”