More on Halibut By-catch: Don’t Lose Sight of Huge Progress Already Made in the Bering Sea

By Chris Woodley, [Opinion/Letter] – June 2, 2014

Chris Woodley is with the Groundfish Forum, a data gathering and research group affiliated with the Alaska Seafood Cooperative.

Next week representatives from the North Pacific fishing industry, fishery managers, environmental groups, Alaska Natives, various Community Development Quota groups and other stakeholders will all converge upon Nome, Alaska to participate in the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) meeting.

Among the many agenda items will be extensive input and decisions made on the issue of Bering Sea / Aleutian Island (BSAI) halibut bycatch. These discussions and decisions on bycatch are being made against a backdrop of similar discussions being held at the national level.

Congress is currently engaged in efforts to re-authorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Act and has included language on bycatch; the environmental group Oceana has recently published their own report regarding national bycatch issues.

Alaska and Washington-based fishing industry associations and individual fishermen are publishing their own letters on this important topic. Recently, the University of Alaska hosted a multi- day fishery conference addressing by-catch problems, research, and solutions.

With so many different stakeholder agendas and data points currently circulating within public view, it is easy to become lost in the sea of statistics and claims. It is even easier to lose track of those assertions that may not be entirely accurate, or to support solutions that though well-intentioned, are problematic or counter-productive in their execution.

There is no magic bullet to reduce halibut bycatch in the BSAI and every fishery sector operating in the BSAI has halibut as a bycatch species.

The commitment of each sector, including the directed fishery, to reduce their bycatch is critical.

It is a problem shared by all gear types and while different solutions will be needed for different fleets, the tools, or the process to develop the tools, fully exist within the authorities and capabilities of the NPFMC and the ingenuity of its stakeholders.

According to the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), BSAI halibut bycatch in areas 4A, 4B, and 4 CDE, across all gear types has declined during the 2002-2013 period by approximately 18%.

While some bycatch amounts have increased during this period among the various BSAI fishing industry sectors, the non-pollock catcher processor trawl sector (aka the Amendment 80 fleet) has been a leader in halibut bycatch avoidance and minimization.

The Amendment 80 fleet’s halibut bycatch has declined by approximately 24% since the sector transitioned to a catch share / fishery cooperative management plan beginning in 2008.  The data for these years was verified by 100% observer coverage in 2006 and 2007, and 200% observer coverage since 2008.

These significant reductions in halibut bycatch by Amendment 80 vessels have been made through the implementation of cooperative fishing management practices.

While this decline in halibut bycatch is great news and underscores the powerful management tools associated with cooperative fishery management; it is also the result of extremely hard work, behavioral changes within the fleet, and extensive gear modifications.

Even with these changes under our belt, reduction of BSAI halibut bycatch to the maximum extent practical continues to be the highest priority for the Amendment 80 Sector.

Specifically, the Amendment 80 Sector is continuing its efforts to reduce bycatch through sponsoring and conducting field research with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Alaska Region Fishery Monitoring and Analysis Division to determine how much halibut mortality can be reduced through on-deck sorting, rapid measurement and careful release of caught halibut; pursuing changes to fishery management regulations (called the Flatfish Flexibility Program) which will go into effect in January 2015; and through continued exercise of cooperative management, improving information sharing between sectors to avoid bycatch and to reduce late season halibut bycatch rates.

In summary, the Amendment 80 Sector as a whole and Groundfish Forum and Alaska Seafood Cooperative in particular are fully committed to the continued reduction of halibut bycatch in the BSAI fisheries.

We are fortunate in that there are decades of sound scientific research, catch data and a robust fishery observer program from which the NPFMC can base its careful and transparent decisions. We look forward to working with the NMFS, the NPFMC, the IPHC and other key stakeholders to addressing this important issue.

Groundfish Forum represents five companies who operate 16 catcher processor vessels in the mixed flatfish species, rockfish, Atka mackerel and cod fisheries of the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska.  All members of Groundfish Forum are also members  of the Alaska Seafood Cooperative.