NPFMC Gears Up for Bering Sea Halibut Bycatch Decision

With Alaska’s commercial halibut fishery underway, for a
harvest limit of 18,474,000 pounds, federal fisheries managers are continuing
to wrestle with the thorny issue of halibut caught incidentally in Bering Sea
groundfish fisheries.
A final decision on prohibited species catch of halibut in
Bering Sea groundfish fisheries is scheduled for the June meeting of the North
Pacific Fishery Management Council in Sitka.
At its February meeting in Seattle, the NPFMC modified
alternatives under evaluation for final action, with a substantiated change in
expanding the range of potential reduction for each prohibited species catch
limit under consideration.
The council expanded potential reductions to each sector’s
prohibited species catch limit up to 50 percent.
The council also adopted recommendations from staff to align
the language of the prohibited species catch reduction options to the council’s
intent of evaluating a reduced limit for all target fisheries currently subject
to halibut limits, and also included separate sub-options for Amendment 80
cooperatives and limited access.
When bycatch rises, catch limits to directed halibut
fisheries are adversely affected.
Numerous fishermen have testified before the federal council
that halibut bycatch must be reduced because of its economic impact on
residents of coastal Alaska who fish for halibut. They have also voiced
concerns about declining halibut biomass, and sustainability of halibut stocks.
But Dennis Moran, president of Fishermen’s Finest Inc., one
of the Amendment 80 participants in the groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea,
argues that further cuts in prohibited species catch of halibut in the Bering
Sea groundfish fisheries would have adverse economic impact, including jobs, in
the multi-million dollar fishery.
“The low ebb of the halibut biomass right now is a problem,
but if the only tool you use is reallocation (of the halibut resource), you are
going to make a mess, and our concern is they are on track to make a mess,” he
Moran said there are other economic considerations at stake,
including a new multi-million dollar vessel being built in Anacortes, WA, to be
ready for the fishery in three years. “We look the lead at the end of last
year, signed the contract, and it will work, but it can’t work if all of a
sudden they yank all the fish away from you,” he said.
“We have made the investment (of $60 million to $90
million), which will provide 600 jobs for three years, in Washington State,” he
said. “What pays for that is the fish. If you mess around with allocation rules
midstream, people will be afraid to make the investment.”
Moran also contends that halibut bycatch has ebbed
substantially since 2007, when their fishery was rationalized with Amendment
80, and that while Amendment 80 and American Fisheries Act catcher processors
have full observer coverage, the hook and line fleet and directed halibut
fishermen do not.
The IPHC is interested in working with NMFS and the NPFMC to
develop a comprehensive, long-term plan for bycatch management in Alaska, they

The NPFMC is expected to hear more testimony at its June
meeting arguing the sustainability and economic arguments surrounding this
issue, including options to reduce that prohibited species catch limit of
halibut up to 50 percent.