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
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.