Federal fisheries managers have approved a regulatory package which could reduce the future incidental halibut catch from trawlers fishing in the Bering Sea by up to 35%, a move that could result in a multimillion-dollar loss to Washington-based flatfish fishermen.
The decision of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on abundance-based management of halibut in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands came on an 8-3 vote after several days of passionate testimony in support and opposition.
The council’s decision – made during the Dec. 13 virtual meeting – would have a devastating effect on the federal flatfish fishery off Alaska with no significant improvements to the halibut fishery, according to Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, a trade association that represents five member companies that operate trawlers in federal waters off Alaska.
Woodley said such action would, according to the council’s own analysis, result in a $110 million loss to Washington-based harvesters, as well as the loss of over 200 million affordable seafood meals.
“For the first time in its history, the council has ignored science and its own analysis and chosen a path that has no conservation benefit and results in a net negative benefit to the nation,” Woodley said, adding that the council ignored the potential that at least one flatfish company could be forced out of business.
“We believe this action does not meet the standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and we are exploring all options due to the unprecedented nature of this decision,” he said.
But Jeff Kauffman, a veteran halibut harvester and vice president of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association (CBSFA), said the decision would give fishermen in the Pribilof Islands and commercial halibut harvesters around the Bering Sea more access in these times of low abundance.
“The council 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.”
CBSFA is a community development quota entity allocated a percentage of all Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands quota for groundfish, prohibited species, halibut and crab via the Western Alaska Community Development Quota Program.
Kauffman praised Alaska Department of Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker for her leadership regarding the regulatory package, in the works since 2016, as well as five council members who represent Alaska, along with a Washington state member and the representative of the National Marine Fisheries Service for their votes in favor.
Opposing votes were cast by two members from Washington state and one from Oregon.