Wednesday, March 18, 2015

NPFMC Gears Up for Bering Sea Halibut Bycatch Decision

With Alaska’s commercial halibut fishery underway, for a harvest limit of 18,474,000 pounds, federal fisheries managers are continuing to wrestle with the thorny issue of halibut caught incidentally in Bering Sea groundfish fisheries.

A final decision on prohibited species catch of halibut in Bering Sea groundfish fisheries is scheduled for the June meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Sitka.

At its February meeting in Seattle, the NPFMC modified alternatives under evaluation for final action, with a substantiated change in expanding the range of potential reduction for each prohibited species catch limit under consideration.

The council expanded potential reductions to each sector’s prohibited species catch limit up to 50 percent.

The council also adopted recommendations from staff to align the language of the prohibited species catch reduction options to the council’s intent of evaluating a reduced limit for all target fisheries currently subject to halibut limits, and also included separate sub-options for Amendment 80 cooperatives and limited access.

When bycatch rises, catch limits to directed halibut fisheries are adversely affected.

Numerous fishermen have testified before the federal council that halibut bycatch must be reduced because of its economic impact on residents of coastal Alaska who fish for halibut. They have also voiced concerns about declining halibut biomass, and sustainability of halibut stocks.

But Dennis Moran, president of Fishermen’s Finest Inc., one of the Amendment 80 participants in the groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea, argues that further cuts in prohibited species catch of halibut in the Bering Sea groundfish fisheries would have adverse economic impact, including jobs, in the multi-million dollar fishery.

“The low ebb of the halibut biomass right now is a problem, but if the only tool you use is reallocation (of the halibut resource), you are going to make a mess, and our concern is they are on track to make a mess,” he said.

Moran said there are other economic considerations at stake, including a new multi-million dollar vessel being built in Anacortes, WA, to be ready for the fishery in three years. “We look the lead at the end of last year, signed the contract, and it will work, but it can’t work if all of a sudden they yank all the fish away from you,” he said.

“We have made the investment (of $60 million to $90 million), which will provide 600 jobs for three years, in Washington State,” he said. “What pays for that is the fish. If you mess around with allocation rules midstream, people will be afraid to make the investment.”

Moran also contends that halibut bycatch has ebbed substantially since 2007, when their fishery was rationalized with Amendment 80, and that while Amendment 80 and American Fisheries Act catcher processors have full observer coverage, the hook and line fleet and directed halibut fishermen do not.
The IPHC is interested in working with NMFS and the NPFMC to develop a comprehensive, long-term plan for bycatch management in Alaska, they said.

The NPFMC is expected to hear more testimony at its June meeting arguing the sustainability and economic arguments surrounding this issue, including options to reduce that prohibited species catch limit of halibut up to 50 percent.

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