Halibut Workshop Slated for April 24-25 in Seattle

By Margaret Bauman

Methodology and accuracy of the estimation of halibut bycatch will be under discussion at an April workshop in Seattle aimed at getting more information in advance of final action in June on Gulf of Alaska halibut prohibited species catch by federal fisheries managers.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is expected to take action at that meeting in Kodiak to reduce the prohibited species catch limit.

The workshop, organized by the International Pacific Halibut Commission and the NPFMC, is set for April 24-25. It will broadcast over an Internet website, with presentations for viewing and audio of the entire session, but will not be interactive, said Bruce Leaman, executive director of the IPHC.

It was prompted by testimony taken by the NPFMC at its June 2011 meeting in Nome from six people who identified themselves as the “halibut workgroup.”

They included Lori Swanson, executive director of the Groundfish Forum; John Gruver, intercoop manager, United Catcher Boats; Stephanie Madsen, executive director, At-Sea Processors Association; Heather McCarty, a fisheries consultant whose clients include the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association; Paul MacGregor, an attorney whose clients include the At-Sea Processors Association, and Julie Bonney, owner of the Groundfish Data Bank. McCarty is the wife of Jim Balsiger, an IPHC commissioner and regional administrator for Alaska fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

At the conclusion of that meeting, the council directed staff to send a letter to the IPHC requesting cooperation and assistance with a halibut migration and stock assessment review workshop.

The workshop is to include short summary presentations from agency science staffs and invited industry science representatives, with a scientific panel to be charged with providing a review of the discussion and its findings. The panel is to include staff from IPHC, the Council, the NMFS Alaska Fisheries Science Center, the council’s scientific and statistical committee, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, independent scientists sponsored by the fishing industry and two independent, external scientific experts on bycatch issues.

The council is evaluating proposed reductions to the halibut prohibited species catch limits for trawl/longline fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska. The council noted in a draft document in January chat on bycatch estimation, “there is broad agreement that the current levels of bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska are poorly understood, partly because of necessary extrapolations to vessels not subject to observer coverage, and are not subject to high confidence intervals.

“Recognizing that the groundfish observer program in the GOA is being restructured to address these deficiencies and to provide better use of available observer coverage, a review and assessment of bycatch estimation at this workshop could be very informative to that restructuring process,” the council document said.

Some concern has been expressed by those engaged in halibut fisheries over the fact that the panelists include two scientists hired by the groundfish, trawl sector, identified as Steve Martell of the University of British Columbia and Tom Jagielo, who is retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Also participating in the panel will be two independent academics considered to be experts on bycatch, said Jane DiCosimo, a senior plan coordinator with NPFMC. They are Michelle Allen of the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Belfast, Ireland, and John Neilson, a research scientist with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in New Brunswick, Canada.

Workshop materials are to be posted at www.iphc.int as they become available, the IPHC said.

Bob Alverson, general manager of the Fishing Vessel Owners Association in Seattle, expressed concern that Martell has been provided working space at IPHC and access to its files.

“I find it unprecedented to have an advocacy group with their own scientists having their own desk at IPHC and with complete access to their data,” he said.

“Has NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) ever provided that openness? I think if we had an issue, I don’t think NMFS would provide us that kind of access.”

According to Leaman, the decision to allow Martell such access to IPHC was a result of “a process we established in discussions with the trawl sector before the workshops came up.” Leaman said that the trawl sector had made a request to get the IPHC computer codes for its models and that Martell is currently working with the IPHC in its offices.

“This is something where the staff met with some representatives of the trawl sector before the workshop got generated and we agreed to do it,” he said.

Similar requests have not come from the halibut sector, he said.

Alverson said there was some consideration of finding such representatives for the halibut sector, but none were found that they felt they could sponsor.

“We have confidence in the IPHC to defend their position,” he said. “I think ‘let’s have the circus. Let the trawlers make their case and let the IPHC, which has been studying this for 90 years, make their case. They believe that for every pound of immature halibut taken in bycatch there is a loss of 2.2 pounds in the spawning biomass. The trawl industry is questioning these things. Let’s see that they come up with.

“I think they will find the IPHC general theories are sound and the resource is in a declining state in the Gulf of Alaska and because of that overall concern, the hard caps in the Gulf of Alaska need to be reduced,” he said.

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said she is looking forward to a productive review of IPHC stock assessment and migration processes and data. “There is an idea in the trawl industry that if they review the IPHC models they will find something inappropriate,” she said. “All of us want to make sure we have the best possible science. If new ways come to light to view, the IPHC and commissioners will be open to that.

“I expect it to be a good, objective review of the IPHC’s methodology.”

Background information on the workshop and more details on topics to be discussed are on the NPFMC website at http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/PDFdocuments/halibut/HalibutBycWkshop0412.pdf.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at margieb42@mtaonline.net.