NPFMC Gears Up for Bering Sea Halibut Bycatch Decision


Garrett Elwood, left and Daniel Tucker bring a halibut onboard the longline vessel Western Freedom. Photo by Sharon Elwood courtesy of Western Freedom Seafoods.

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 on the agenda for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its June 1-9 meeting in Sitka.

At the NPFMC offices in Anchorage, staff are preparing a draft environmental assessment/regulatory impact review/initial regulatory flexibility analysis, also known as an EA/RIR/IRFA, which aims to help the National Marine Fisheries Service determine if an environmental impact statement is needed to effectively determine how to resolve the issue of halibut bycatch in the multi-million dollar bering sea groundfish fisheries.

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After preparation of a final environmental assessment, NMFS will have to review the document to determine the extent proposed reduction of prohibited species capture of halibut in the groundfish fisheries would have significant economic impact. NMFS could issue a finding of no significant impact, also known as a FONSI, or determine that an environmental impact statement is needed.

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, noted NPFMC staffer Diana Evans in her meeting report.

While the International Pacific Halibut Commission sets annual catch limits for the commercial and sport harvest of halibut, it is the responsibility of NPFMC to set the limits on incidental harvests of halibut in other directed fisheries.

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. Along with environmental groups, they have also voiced concerns about declining halibut biomass, and concerns about sustainability of halibut stocks.

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But Dennis Moran, president of Fishermen's Finest Inc., one of the Amendment 80 participants in the groundfish fisheries in the bering sea, sees the issue differently.

In Moran's view, further cuts in prohibited species catch of halibut in the bering sea groundfish fisheries would have adverse impact on the multi-million dollar fishery, and the jobs of some 4,200 people employed in the industry.

"A human being is a human being, if he lives in St. Paul (Alaska) or Whidbey Island (Washington)," said Moran.

"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 said.

Fishermen's Finest, based in Kirkland, Washington, contends on its website that NMFS and the Alaska delegation on the NPFMC "have declared their intention to eliminate the Amendment 80 halibut allocations to appease the Canadian dominated IPHC and the 25 halibut fishermen in the Pribilofs."

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Moran said there are other economic considerations at stake, including a new multi-million dollar vessel being built in Anacortes, Washington, to be ready for the fishery in three years. "We took 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.

Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, backs up Moran's contention of reduced halibut bycatch. He noted in commentary for Fishermen's News in February of this year that during the 2014 fishing season in the bering sea and Aleutian Islands, flatfish trawl fishermen within the Alaska seafood Cooperative reduced their overall annual halibut bycatch by 93 metric tons over 2013.

Still, the targeted species of the Amendment 80 fleet are swimming on the ocean's bottom, along with halibut. Members of the At-Sea Processors Association are fishing for pollock at mid-water depths, so have less of a problem with halibut bycatch, he said.

"Our objective is to catch as much of our target species as we can and catch as little halibut," he said. "For every ton of halibut we catch as bycatch, we can catch 200 tons of our target yellowfin sole and rock sole. If one ton of halibut is taken away from us on an allocation, it prevents us from catching 200 tons of rock sole."

In 2014, in fact, Moran said, his company was able to harvest 100 percent of its allocation, plus some for other members of their Amendment 80 co-op who were unable to harvest theirs. That grossed about $400 million in sales, he said.

Principal markets include China, where the fish is processed and shipped back to buyers. "It's an export market, a big balance of trade issue," he said.

Another groundfish industry insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, said one problem the groundfish fishery faces is that while halibut harvesters have the IPHC, the trawl industry has no representation in that organization. It's a highly charged issue, but the IPHC has one leg up (for directed halibut harvesters) because they have an organization and trawlers do not, he said.

On March 9, in a letter to Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the IPHC noted that directed fishery harvest opportunities for Area 4CDE in the bering sea are substantially reduced each year to account for halibut mortality in bycatch fisheries, which IPHC staff have initially estimated at 4.82 million pounds for 2015.

Given this level of bycatch and the biomass available for harvest in area 4CDE, the application of the commission harvest policy resulted in an available harvest of 520,000 pounds remaining for the directed fishery, said IPHC commissioners James Balsiger, for the US, and Paul Ryall, for Canada.

During its annual meeting in January, there were numerous appeals from directed harvesters in Area 4CDE about the impact of bycatch on their fishing opportunities and resulting socioeconomic effects on their communities. These harvesters said the proposed 2015 catch limit was insufficient to support a directed fishery that was economically viable.

The IPHC also heard at that meeting from groundfish fishery spokespersons who described their efforts to reduce halibut bycatch in the bering sea. Several of these groups committed to achieving specific bycatch reduction targets in 2015 that could be reallocated to the directed fishery, Balsiger and Ryall said. After consideration of all this testimony, the IPHC voted to increase the directed fishery catch limit in Area 4CDE to 1,285,000 pounds.

The coast-wide halibut biomass appears to have stabilized over the last several years after a long term declining trend that was most pronounced in much of Areas 3 and 4, they noted. In response to the decline, catch limits for directed fisheries have been lowered significantly, resulting in a 52 percent coast-wide reduction in the directed commercial fisheries catch since 2010.

By contrast, bycatch mortality has declined by only 10 percent over the same period and currently accounts for more than 20 percent of coast-wide annual halibut removals.

"Commissioners were encouraged that your letter," they told Sobeck, "spoke to making bycatch reductions in both the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska, and reassured by your statement that NMFS will develop measures to achieve these reductions should the Council fail to submit a plan for implementation in 2016."

The IPHC is interested in working with NMFS and the NPFMC to develop a comprehensive, long-term plan for bycatch management in Alaska, they said.

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.


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