Halibut Bycatch Limits Tightened for Gulf of Alaska

Federal fisheries officials have implemented a plan approved in 2012 by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to tighten limits on the incidental capture of halibut in commercial groundfish fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska.
The final rule was published Feb. 20 in the Federal Register.

Amendment 95 to the fishery management plan for groundfish in the Gulf modifies halibut prohibited species catch management in the Gulf by establishing halibut prohibited species catch limits for the Gulf in federal regulation and reducing Gulf halibut prohibited Species limits for the trawl and hook-and-line gear sectors.

The reduction to the trawl gear PSC limit also proportionately reduces a subset of trawl halibut PSC limits, also known as sideboard limits, for American Fisheries Act, Amendment 80 and Central Gulf of Alaska rockfish program vessels.

The regulations also incorporate three measures to minimize adverse economic impacts on fishing industry sectors.
Bruce Leaman, executive director of the International Pacific Halibut Commission, said that the commission would like to see estimates of the incidental catch of halibut in these fisheries continually validated and the program expanded for broader coverage.

Leaman noted that there is not a lot of recruitment going on at this time in the halibut fishery, so that the IPHC is not expecting a rapid turnaround of stock biomass as a result of this action.
From the perspective of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, in Sitka, Alaska, this action is long overdue, particularly given the dramatic reductions in the commercial catch limit, so that stocks are allowed to rebuild, said Linda Behnken, executive director of ALFA.

“Year classes have been below average for a decade,” Behnken said. “Fish are growing more slowly, so the biomass is down more than the numbers would indicate. There is no clear sign of a strong recruitment year, a strong year class coming,” she said. “This will help to take much pressure off that young component of the stock, give them a chance to grow and promote rebuilding.

“We would all like to see a bigger reduction in bycatch, but the council did actually adopt the largest percent reduction alternative at that June meeting and then phased it in over time.”

While the capture plan was a long time coming, it is an important part of jointly sharing and conserving the halibut resource, and an allocation in place that will allow harvesters to work together to rebuild stocks, she said.