NPFMC approaches pivotal decision on halibut bycatch, with USD 100 million potentially at stake

Published on
December 9, 2021
Halibut bycatch is once again at the center of a big choice for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) is once again considering whether or not to implement abundance-based management for halibut bycatch on the groundfish fleet, a decision stakeholders say could cost Alaska’s Amendment 80 fleet over USD 100 million (EUR 88 million).

The council faces four separate alternatives on how to handle the amount of halibut bycatch the Amendment 80 fleet – which harvests various flatfish, rockfish, Atka mackerel, Pacific Ocean perch, and Pacific cod in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska – should be allowed to catch. The four alternatives call for the council to either continue with the status quo on halibut bycatch, or ask the Amendment 80 fleet to reduce it by various amounts, up to a maximum of 40 percent.

The council is considering cuts to the halibut bycatch following a request by the directed halibut fishery, which has faced a steady decline of halibut in the Pacific. While the council voted for a 2021 increase in the catch limit of 2.6 million pounds over 2020, fishermen are still calling for the Alaskan government to reduce bycatch and manage its fisheries with the directed fisheries more in mind.

“If trollers, gillnetters, seiners, sportfishers, and tribal citizens throughout Alaska are being forced to go without fishing while trawlers keep their nets in the water, we have a serious management problem, and it is beyond time to right that ship,” Alexus Kwachka, who fishes out of Kodiak and Bristol Bay and has served on the Advisory Panel for the North Pacific council, told National Fisherman.

Directed fishers in Alaska have said the council has been prioritizing trawlers over sustaining directed fisheries, jeopardizing their livelihoods.

“Right now, the council is optimizing trawl-harvest at the expense of Alaska’s fish and fisheries. That needs to change,” Linda Behnken, a Sitka, Alaska-based fisherman and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, told National Fisherman. “We need to protect fish habitat, reduce bycatch, and prioritize Alaska’s historic fisheries before it is too late.”

This isn’t the first time that the NPFMC has considered big cuts to the halibut bycatch quota, or the first time so much money is at stake regarding their decision. The council considered a similar proposal in the past – in 2015, for example, the council was facing an almost identical decision that stakeholders in the Amendment 80 said would cost it millions in lost revenue. That time, the council decided to cut the halibut bycatch allowance by 25 percent.

The fleet managed to reduce the bycatch amount, but it was due to multiple mitigating factors, Groundfish Forum Executive Director Chris Woodley told SeafoodSource. According to Woodley, a big factor in the fleets reduction in bycatch was the closure of the Fishing Company of Alaska in 2016, which he said was “notoriously very very bad on their bycatch performance.”

“We’ve been accused of playing ‘hide the football,’ and ‘why can’t we repeat our performance from 2015,’” he said. “In 2016, that company went out of business, they stopped fishing flatfish because they could not keep up with the new requirements. They were bought out in January 2017 by two other Amendment 80 companies, and those companies began at a more-reasonable bycatch rate.”

In addition, bycatch had increased in the years prior to the council decision – 2013 and 2014 – due to some boats being forced out of their normal fishing grounds in the Aleutian Islands due to regulations regarding the protection of Steller sea lions.

“Those restrictions on Steller sea lions were lifted, and those boats were able to return back to the Aleutians,” Woodley said. Those boats historically have lower bycatch, according to Woodley.

Another key factor in the bycatch reduction was the introduction of deck-sorting, which at the time was approved as an experimental tool for reducing bycatch in 2015. Now, all boats in the fleet are using deck-sorting, meaning that reduction in bycatch isn’t repeatable.

“These are one-time things that contributed to reducing our bycatch, and they’re not repeatable,” Woodley said.

According to a position document released by the forum, the Groundfish Forum fleet has reduced its bycatch by 49 percent since 2017. The fleet's halibut bycatch currently sits at around 0.4 percent of the total catch – lower than the bycatch rate of the West Coast Canadian groundfish trawl fishery, which “is often held up as an example of low bycatch rates,” the Groundfish Forum said.

The Groundfish Forum’s said the council’s own draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) found that reducing halibut bycatch won’t have much positive impact on the halibut fishery, even at the most drastic levels.

“We understand the concerns out of the directed fishery. We know they’re in a hard time and have been for a couple of years,” Woodley said. “In the overall picture, this abundance-based management structure and the returns that they’re going to get are going to do hardly anything to address their problem.”

Five years of council analysis have found there will be little difference to the future halibut spawning biomass across all of the alternatives – including the “no action” option, according to the Groundfish Forum position paper. 

"The DEIS clearly states under all of the alternatives that there’s not going to be a conservation benefit to the halibut spawning stock biomass," Woodley said.

Should the bycatch reductions take place, the Groundfish Forum estimated losses to the Amendment 80 fleet could be between USD 68 million and USD 138 million (EUR 60 million and EUR 122 million) annually. Conversely, the directed halibut fishery would see increases of less than USD 3 million (EUR 2.6 million), even at the highest bycatch reductions. Additionally, the volume of protein caught would be vastly reduced if bycatch reductions are established, it said, with its calculations based on production estimates from 2016 to 2020 showing 132 meals from mackerel, sole, and flounder would be lost for every halibut meal gained.

“The DEIS also says that this is going to have negative net benefits to the nation,” Woodley said. “I’ve never seen a DEIS where you don’t have a conservation benefit, you have a negative net-benefit to the nation, and you’re not really solving the problem.”

An initial NPFMC advisory panel considered the issue on 6 December, but failed to make a decision on which alternative to recommend to the council. A vote on recommending Alternative 4, which would have reduced the bycatch by the highest amount, failed to move forward in a close vote (nine in favor, 11 against), and the advisory panel failed to make a recommendation for any of the alternatives.

Regardless of the council’s eventual decision, the issue has taken on political significance in Alaska. Alaskan gubernatorial candidate Les Gara has been calling for Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy to do more to mitigate bycatch.

“How much Alaska fish bycatch is the Seattle-based factory trawler fleet wasting?” Gara said in a tweet.

In response, Dunleavy formed the Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force to review the issue and offer solutions to reduce bycatch of high-value fishery resources in Alaska's state and federal waters.

“Alaskans of all backgrounds want to better understand the issue of bycatch," Dunleavy said. "I look forward to the work and recommendations of the task force on ways we can better understand the issues and impacts of bycatch to further protect our state’s incredible fishery resources."

Photo courtesy of NOAA

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