Current data suggests that the survival of halibut bycaught in trawls increases with the following:
- Codends smaller than 30-40 tons;
- Tows that are shorter than three hours; and
- Halibut returned to the sea within 20 minutes of the net being brought on board.
Current NMFS regulations require observers to determine species composition from basket samples. Observers are required to sample unsorted hauls to determine whether the vessel is in violation of bycatch rate regulations under the Vessel Incentive Program (VIP). These VIP regulations, in effect, decrease the survival rate for halibut bycaught in trawls because halibut are sometimes out of the water for an hour or more. In addition, this program has not successfully deterred chronic and egregious violators because, due to the difficulty of case documentation, only a few cases have been prosecuted since the program began in 1992.
Groundfish Forum’s Halibut Mortality Avoidance Program will allow vessels that are concerned about halibut bycatch and bycatch mortality to quickly return halibut to the sea in a controlled manner that allows for proper handling and accounting.
The key elements of the program proposed by Groundfish Forum are:
- Codends must be slowly dumped from a position forward of the fish hold that allows observers, assisted by crew members, to collect halibut;
- A NMFS observer must be present on deck to supervise deck sorting of all sampled hauls; most larger vessels will require two observers instead of a single one;
- Vessels must restrict towing time and codend size to promote survivability of halibut; and
- No processing of fish from the haul can commence until after deck sorting is complete and the observer is stationed in the factory.
If the NPFMC and NMFS approve this program, Groundfish Forum anticipates the following benefits:
- Lower trawl halibut mortality would decrease the effect of trawl fisheries on halibut stocks, which could lead to more halibut available for harvest in directed halibut fisheries; and
- Flatfish and cod trawl fisheries which are currently constrained by halibut caps (not by the total allowable catch quotas) will take more of their catch quotas.
Longer flatfish and cod seasons increase the revenues to the industry and service sector. The costs to the industry from early shut downs of trawl fisheries are avoided.