Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Federal Fisheries Council Continues to Wrestle With Halibut Bycatch Issue

Concerns over the fate of the directed halibut fishery in the Pribilof Islands prompted lengthy discussion during the December meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Anchorage.

Council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak introduced a motion for emergency regulation to reduce the 2015 BSAI halibut bycatch allocation by 33 percent, out of concern for harvesters in areas C, D and E, saying that to avoid such emergency action would be shirking the council’s responsibility for fisheries management.

The council should not stand by while, he said, in 2015, the non-directed halibut fishery discards over 90 percent of the available Bering Sea/Aleutian Island halibut resource and the Area 4CDE fishery is almost non-existent.

The motion failed in a vote of the council, and the matter is expected to come under discussion again at the January meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which sets the quota for each area halibut fishery.

Clem Tillion of Halibut Cove, a long time commercial fisherman, former council chairman and former state legislator, called the council’s action “unconscionable.”

The council’s action, he said gave quota for halibut bycatch to be thrown away, while putting the little boats at risk for being denied the right to a directed halibut fishery.

Acting Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten noted that while council is an advisory body, the National Marine Fisheries Service actually sets bycatch levels, and can change them by emergency action. The state, he said, wants those bycatch levels reduced so there will be more fish for the directed fishery.

While hoping for a positive response from the IPHC, “we feel right now that the ball is in the court of NMFS,” he said.

Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, acknowledged that bycatch allocations of halibut to the groundfish fisheries were greater than allocations for the directed halibut fishery, but said that the Groundfish Forum has been working since 1996 to reduce that bycatch. Measures taken to date, including the design of new gear, have reduced halibut bycatch in his Amendment 80 coop by 25 percent, he said.

The issue, said Fields, is about asking the question “as a fundamental value of the American people, as a public resource of this country, can or should we continue to waste and throw away six or seven million pounds of halibut? “What are our values on an iconic resource like halibut, that concerns me relative to the council process,” he said.

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