Coalition Defends Limits on Trawler Halibut Bycatch

Image: Groundfish Forum.

A dispute over the amount of halibut allowed as incidental catch by trawlers targeting groundfish in the Bering Sea has prompted the newly-formed Halibut Defense Alliance to intervene in litigation on behalf of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The coalition includes commercial fishermen, charter operators, processors and community organizations that represent halibut-dependent communities across Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, who support the NMFS decision to allow more bycatch when halibut abundance is high and less bycatch when abundance is low.

As of early March, the Justice Department was preparing the entire administrative record, with all related documents, to deliver to the federal judge in Anchorage. After that, both sides in the case were to bring their arguments forth to the judge, who’ll make a final decision in the matter.

The coalition contends the rules are critical to conserving halibut in the Bering Sea and beyond, and would ensure more equitable access to halibut fisheries by fishermen, tribes and communities.

On Dec. 19, 2023, the Groundfish Forum, which works to ensure the long-term viability of fisheries while promoting sustainable harvests on safe vessels, filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for Alaska in Anchorage, challenging NMFS’s halibut bycatch reduction measure in Amendment 123 of the Fisheries Management Plan for the Groundfish of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA).

The Groundfish Forum contends that NMFS’s action violates the MSA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and is politically motivated, arbitrary and unlawful allocation of fishing privileges that single out members of the Groundfish Forum for punishing restrictions that would result in economic losses potentially exceeding $100 million annually.

The Groundfish Forum is a trade association representing five member companies who operated 19 trawl vessels harvesting Alaskan groundfish species in the federally managed Amendment 80 fisheries off the coast of Alaska.

The Halibut Defense Alliance contends in its intervention that the Amendment 80 fleet (vessels that focus primarily on flatfish — i.e., flathead sole, rock sole, and yellowfin sole — and vessels that focus on Atka mackerel) is the single largest source of halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea and is responsible for the overwhelming majority of halibut bycatch across all trawl fisheries.

Nearly 90% of its bycatch in recent years has been concentrated in known halibut nursery habitat in the Bering Sea, the group said. It contends that excessive bycatch in these areas harms the halibut population all along the coast because the juvenile halibut the Amendment 80 fleet kills will not mature, reproduce or migrate to other areas.

The Halibut Defense Alliance notes that it has been in a 12-year fight to limit halibut bycatch on the Bering Sea, where it has advocated for “abundance-based” bycatch management since 2016. Setting fishery limits based on abundance is a fundamental fisheries management concept, the alliance said.

Rather than being held to this standard, the Amendment 80 fleet has been allowed to kill large amounts of halibut regardless of the status of the halibut population, but the new rules correct this inequity and protect community-based fisheries, the Alliance said.