Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Setting the Record Straight on Bering Sea Halibut Bycatch

From the Fleet


We, as Alaska Longline Fishers, are joined by Washington State halibut fishermen who also fish Alaskan waters. In 2012, statewide, 2,009 residents and 565 non-Alaskans held halibut quotas for Alaska waters; and 1,168 crew, as well. Thousands more are deckhands.

Many longliners fish the Area 4 districts, waters of the bering sea, where the trawl bycatch problem is at its worst. In 2012, 308 Alaskans held 14.8 million pounds, and 186 non-Alaskans held 18.2 million; on average, the non-Alaskan holdings averaged twice what Alaskans held per person.

The Alaskan Halibut fishery started in 1888, and we have a history exceeding 90 years in the bering sea. Since the quota privatization program baseline years of 1992-94, after implementing Individual Fishing Quotas, the active halibut vessels declined from 3,450 to 1,013 in 2012; each vessel carrying a crew of four. Wages are down 50 percent over the last 6 years, which fits the 52 percent reduction in overall quotas in the same period.

In Areas 4A-D, over the past 10 years, halibut longliners have also endured a 73-percent cutback in Bering Sea-directed halibut catch limits, in large part because of uncontrolled selfish actions of the BERING SEAAI trawl fleet, such as the Amendment 80 vessels.

Those 20 to 25 smaller factory trawlers primarily fish yellowfin sole, rock sole, Atka mackerel and other species, on the bottom of the BSAI – critical halibut habitat. In 2013, their total wholesale revenues were $289 million. With no ex-vessel payments for the fish gifted in trawl quotas, they must use the wholesale values, whereas longliners supply fish to others and note values as ex-vessel receipts. In the bering sea, A80-CPs continue with bycatch apportionments of 5.1 million pounds, or more (5.9 million pounds last year), of non-target species, i.e. halibut, annually.

A recent NBC News article stated, “In 2014, trawlers hauled up 4.4 million pounds of halibut in the bering sea. They threw most of it back dead. The longline fishery, by contrast, was limited to 1.2 million pounds of halibut.”

Importantly, in terms of law enforcement, longliner violations are primarily administrative, permit licensing; i.e. just paperwork blunders. Meanwhile, the trawlers’ failures to mitigate bycatch are factual harms to the quantity of fish resources. Amendment 80 catcher processors now believe they should be allocated permanent bycatch quotas, or allowed to retain and sell halibut, firmly emplacing, legitimizing and rewarding ongoing harms to the environment, not mitigating.

The halibut slaughtered is merely called bycatch, or PSC – a hollow acronym – because they no longer admit nor commit to the real legal description: prohibited species catch. Prohibited, by legal standards, in order to minimize bycatch and reduce mortality, as conservation goals, too.

The quotas and bycatch limits are largely dictated by the International Pacific Halibut Commission recommendations that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council finalizes. Established in 1923, the IPHC can do nothing about the outrageous bycatch of trawlers in Alaskan waters, despite their devastation of ocean bottom habitat and its sea life like halibut. Neither can longliners, despite having authentic rights as halibut quota holders.

The NPFMC and National Marine Fisheries Service must take serious action this year. Averaging nearly 60 million pounds of total allowable catch from 1998 to 2004, overall Alaska halibut TAC dropped to 23.3 million pounds by 2012 (4.4 million in the bering sea area 4), with percentage drops varying by districts across the coast.

Indiscriminate wanton waste in bering sea fisheries by trawlers who fail to employ halibut exclusion devices and adapt fishing methods to avoid bycatch must end. Their recklessness and greed has been supported by too many untrue talking points and outright lies by trawl interests; and soon they will attempt to lie in a petition to Governor Jay Inslee of Washington and beyond. In desperation, fraud and deceit are becoming the tools of choice.

Our halibut longline fleet’s situation is evidenced by documented facts. Ten years ago, my targeted halibut quota was 230,000 pounds (109,158 of that in the Bering Sea); and that same quota is now about 64,000 annual pounds (27,252 in the Bering Sea). My overall catch revenues dropped by nearly $1 million annually ($475,000 in areas 4ABD), and many tens of millions more for the multistate fleet collectively in Alaskan waters.

Our product is largely consumed within the USA. In contrast, the Amendment 80 products are largely shipped to China, and USA secondary processing jobs are thereby avoided. Governors and the NPFMC should take seriously the national and regional implications of such conduct of trade, and who really benefits.

Halibut fishermen’s public comments, and the honestly calculable economic losses incurred, are finally entering the NPFMC’s policy options with meaningful impact. Long-term foot-dragging by the NPFMC is changing, and bycatch is finally becoming a top priority, as possible cuts in trawler bycatch of halibut by up to 50 percent enter the realm of management options.

Trawlers who call this a reallocation clearly have a distorted sense of entitlement, coupled with the greedy nerve to confuse facts with trawl fairytales.

The Amendment 80 factory trawlers are currently circulating an open petition destined for Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, to allegedly protect Washington businesses. It is a distorted set of lies, such as “Team Alaska – aka the 6 voting members of the State of Alaska delegation to the federal NPFMC, intend to reallocate 35 percent to 50 percent of the annual Halibut quota from these Washington State companies to a handful of local Alaskans – principally 25 Pribilof Island halibut permit holders.”

The cutback percentages (30-50 percent) proposed for analysis are about measured, best-science-based reductions in bycatch, to which trawlers hold no legal titles (quite the contrary). The management measure is designed to follow federal standards, requirements to reduce and mitigate the harms to other fishing segments, under the MSA fishery law.

Another fabrication in the clipboard sign-on petition is that such bycatch mitigation will somehow actually reduce the A80 trawlers’ own quotas and catches in other species. Wrong. They merely have to adapt, as have other fleets, and ‘fish cleaner’. When they adhere to a new lower-bycatch rule, they can still build new vessels based on the same gross revenues as today. Meanwhile, the longline halibut stocks and annual fishing revenues can grow.

The petition’s biggest deceit is stating “this reallocation (sic) … over the next 10 years … will cause the loss of $1.2 billion and 4,900 jobs in the Washington State fishing and shipbuilding industry.” Halibut longliners, too, construct new vessels and create direct, indirect and induced jobs in Alaska and Washington, which will be ever more so given serious halibut bycatch mitigation.

It is a felony, under Title 16 U.S.C. section 1857 (I) of the Magnuson-Stevens Act section 307 – Prohibited Acts, to knowingly and willfully submit false information to the governors, NPFMC or Secretary of Commerce. If the A80 fleet’s supporters do submit the petition, with the false testimonies outlined, to Governor Inslee, then Alaska’s governor and attorney general should immediately challenge it as a federal felony by asking NMFS and the Secretary of Commerce, and Inspector General’s office to prosecute.

The petitioners mention Section 4 of the Washington State Constitution, in an attempt to put an official face on the effort. Alaska has much clearer constitutional provisions about the rights of all residents to benefit from a maximum net profit from the fisheries commons, as does the MSA. Distortions, false testimonies, and blatant lies must not be tolerated. In the end, it is about preserving many fisheries fleets, US jobs, and keeping Alaska’s coastal communities vibrant. That future cannot include wanton waste of halibut.

Ludger Dochtermann

F/V Stormbird & F/V North Point

Kodiak, AK

Co-written by Stephen Taufen, Groundswell Fisheries Movement


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