Preliminary data on the first year of the restructured North Pacific groundfish and halibut observer program shows greater overall retention of the harvest in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands than in the Gulf of Alaska.
The preliminary findings presented to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Anchorage in early October came from officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
For halibut alone, the preliminary data showed that an estimated 1,532 metric tons of halibut were retained by hook and line catcher vessels in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands between Jan. 1 and Aug. 30, with an estimated 269 metric tons discarded. In the Gulf of Alaska, the halibut harvest in the catcher vessel hook and line fleet was 8,463 metric tons, and an estimated 9,205 metric tons discarded.
For sablefish, the preliminary estimate showed that catcher processors on hook and line vessels in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands retained an estimated 325 metric tons, while discarding 10 metric tons. In the Gulf of Alaska, hook and line catcher processors harvested an estimated 629 metric tons of sablefish, and discarded 10 metric tons.
The report specified, by species, the observed total metric tons of fish retained and discarded in each area, plus a second row of figures showing estimates of all catch on all fishing trips regardless of whether it was observed. The report does not provide an explanation of why so many metric tons of groundfish and halibut from either area were discarded.
Some of it has to do with what the industry refers to as “bad actors,” harvesters who continue to fish in areas where there is a high amount of fish they are not targeting, and some has to do with myriad fishery management regulations.
In the case of significant discards of halibut in Gulf of Alaska hook and line fisheries, for example, regulations dictate that halibut quota shareholders must discard all halibut below the 32-inch minimum size limit. The commercial halibut fishery has been challenged for several years now not only by decreased abundance of halibut, but by the decreased size of halibut. Research to date has not pinpointed why so many halibut are not growing as fast and large as they used to.
The NPFMC can make recommendations, but only the International Pacific Halibut Commission can change regulations restricting the size of halibut that can be retained by individual fishing quota holders and others who catch halibut as bycatch in other directed fisheries.
Regulations governing the sablefish fishery, by comparison, dictate that sablefish quota shareholders must retain all sablefish captured, regardless of size.
Another contributing factor to high halibut discard in hook and line fisheries is the capture of halibut by several hook and line fishery vessels lacking halibut IFQ.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission has calculated that the mortality rate of halibut discarded in the hook and line fishery is 16 percent.
The preliminary retention and discard data from all observed fisheries will be updated as the observer program continues.