Industry Again Asked to Reduce BSAI Halibut Mortalities

Federal fisheries managers are asking all industry sectors to voluntarily undertake efforts to reduce halibut mortalities in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, by 10 percent from the current five-year average levels, through the 2014-15 fisheries.

To evaluate progress in these efforts, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council also requested in a motion passed June 8 during its summer meeting in Nome, that industry report back to the council on measures being implemented and developed, and, to the extent possible, the effectiveness of those measures in terms of absolute reductions in halibut mortality.

During its summer meeting, the NPFMC also approved motions initiating an analysis of Chinook and chum salmon bycatch measures in the Bering Sea pollock fishery with five alternatives, and an observer program motion to develop a draft 2015 annual deployment plan for council review with several considerations.

Halibut Bycatch
The halibut bycatch motion encouraged the National Marine Fisheries Service to continue working closely with the Amendment 80 sector to develop deck sorting procedures and technologies that could reduce halibut mortalities, in order to initiate regulatory changes for a full-scale program.

The council also asked NMFS to work with the International Pacific Halibut Commission to provide halibut bycatch and discard size data from the observer program in a form that can be better incorporated into IPHC stock assessments.

And the council asked NMFS to evaluate the potential for the Amendment 80 flatfish flexibility program, a change to the Amendment 80 trawl season opening date from Jan. 20 to Jan. 1, and changes to the current Amendment 80 area closures, to reduce halibut prohibited species catch use.

Council member Duncan Fields, of Kodiak, said he was supporting the action with reluctance, saying the motion did not go far enough fast enough.

“I wish there were more tools at our disposal to address the halibut PSC concerns,” Fields said, in comments addressed to the council through Chairman Eric Olson.

“The bottom line is, mister chairman, the industry, which is a wonderfully, hard working, productive, innovative industry, is still taking five to six million pounds of halibut out of the Bering Sea on an annual basis, and I appreciate all the reasons that halibut is needed but I also appreciate the need for conservation, the need to recognize the impact of PSC both in the Bering Sea as well as in the Gulf of Alaska.

I think we are taking a tepid step in the right direction,” he said. “I will support the motion, but I personally don’t believe we are going far enough fast enough, given all we know about the halibut resource, and what I suspect we will learn about that resource in the next couple of years.”

In testimony prior to passage of the motion, the Alaska Concerned Halibut Users asked the council to take several immediate steps, including initiating a fast-tracked process to allow changes in deck sorting procedures on vessels in some groundfish fisheries to reduce halibut mortality, as has been suggested by the Amendment 80 fleet. The coalition also urged a voluntary groundfish industry sector reduction in halibut bycatch by 300 metric tons in the near term, and for periodic reports on industry progress.

They also asked that subsequent analysis should consider the accuracy of existing observer protocols relative to estimating halibut bycatch mortality.

The coalition was organized in response to the declining status of halibut in the Bering Sea, as well as the need to reduce bycatch in groundfish fisheries.

Signers of that testimony included Ernie Weiss, Aleutians East Borough; Linda Behnken, executive director, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association; Ken Weaver, city manager of St. Paul; Buck Laukitis, North Pacific Fisheries Association; Ragnar Alstrom, executive director, Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association; Larry Cotter, chief executive officer, Aleutian Pribilof Island Development Corp .; Phillip Lestenkof, president, Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association; Per Odegaard, president, Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association; and Jeff Stephan, manager, United Fishermen’s Marketing Association.

“While halibut populations and directed fisheries have declined dramatically, the halibut PSC limits in the BSAI have remained relatively unchanged, and PSC numbers have declined at a much lower rate than the directed fisheries,” said Kelly Harrell, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, in her written testimony. “In 2013, the Bering Sea bycatch was 5.2 million pounds – significantly greater than the directed harvest in the same area. By regulatory area the comparisons are even more stark: in area 4A bycatch represented 89 percent of the directed fishery landings and 205 percent in area 4CDE.

“In this context of a declining resource and declining catch limits, it is imperative that bycatch limits are also reduced.”

Cuts in catch limits “have and will continue to have dramatic effects on our fisheries, businesses, economies and communities that depend on the halibut resource. Each halibut caught as bycatch has a direct effect on the spawning biomass and yield available to other sectors now and in the future,” she said.

Harrell also urged an immediate reduction in halibut PSC limits in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries. “To serve conservation needs, we need the halibut currently wasted as bycatch to have an opportunity to mature and contribute to the spawning biomass,” she said.

IPHC Commissioners Robert Alverson and Donald Lane, both representing the United States on that international council, suggested in their testimony that the council ask for all industry gear sectors to set a short-term goal of 18 months to reduce the bycatch of halibut by 300 metric tons and a long term goal of a 20 percent reduction.

“If there is a lack of effort from industry to participate in these goals, the council should take regulatory actions to require the industry to meet reduction goals,” Alverson and Lane said. “If there was an industry effort to reduce bycatch by 300 metric tons in the next 18 months, this would go a long way in helping the commissioners not take the additional 33 percent reduction in Areas 4 CDE for 2015. This reduction by the IPHC would likely have the effect of closing the Bering Sea to directed halibut fishing and leaving the bycatch fisheries.”

Also among letters of written testimony was one from Jan Standaert, president of the Deep Sea Fishermen’s Union in Seattle.

“Asking for a 300 metric ton reduction in the halibut bycatch, with a long term goal of 20 percent of the PSC, is a very reasonable and a comforting action for the many fishermen who are looking toward the future,” Standaert said.

Salmon Bycatch
The council said the current chum salmon bycatch reduction program does not meet the council’s objectives to prioritize Chinook salmon bycatch avoidance, while preventing high chum salmon bycatch and focusing on avoidance of Alaska chum salmon stocks, allowing flexibility to harvest pollock in times and places that best support those goals. Incorporating chum salmon avoidance through the incentive plan agreements should more effectively meet those objectives by allowing for establishment of chum measures through a program that is sufficiently flexible to adapt to changing conditions quickly, the council said.

The alternatives include one to revise federal regulations to lower the performance standard in years of low Chinook salmon abundance, with low abundance defined as fewer than 500,000 king salmon. Sectors that exceed the applicable performance standard in three out of seven years would be held to their proportion of the hard cap of 47,591 in perpetuity, with options of a 25 percent reduction (36,693) or 60 percent reduction (19,036).

In testimony prior to passage of the salmon bycatch motion, the council also heard lengthy testimony, including a request to initiate emergency regulations and ensure that appropriate bycatch limits are in place.

Five entities, including the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, and three Alaska Native organizations, urged the council to develop a problem statement and move forward with an analysis for Chinook salmon bycatch that includes reducing the overall hard cap and performance standards under the current Amendment 91 structure from 60,000 to 20,000, and a performance standard/cap without incentive programs from 47,591 to 14,500.

The group also asked for consideration of regulatory provisions to shorten the pollock season end dates when Chinook salmon rates increase while pollock catch rates decline in late September/October, and for additional changes to the incentive plan agreements to further reduce bycatch to be adopted by industry, but not as an alternative to regulatory mechanisms.

Observer Program
The council motion on the observer program asks the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Alaska Fisheries Science Center to develop the draft 2015 annual deployment plan for council review with several considerations.

The motion notes the council’s support of NMFS recommendations to move participants in the vessel selection pool into the trip selection pool. The council also requested that NMFS maintain a higher observer coverage rate for all trawl vessels and fixed gear vessels over 57.5 feet in the revised trip selection pool, in order to expand coverage on PSC limited fisheries, consistent with past council recommendations.

Copies of all advisory panel and scientific and statistical committee reports, as well as issues and reports heard at the council meeting are online at

The council’s June newsletter summarizing events during the Nome meeting will be online later in the month at .