By Chris Woodley, Fishermen’s News Online [Opinion], February 2015 —

When the 2014 fishing season in the Bering Sea / Aleutian Islands wrapped up in late December, flatfish trawl fishermen within the Alaska Seafood Cooperative (AKSC) had successfully reduced their overall annual halibut bycatch by 93 metric tons (mt) over 2013 and had reduced their cumulative 3rd and 4th quarter halibut bycatch amounts by 106 mt as compared to the 5-year average for those same quarters. The action taken by AKSC was in response to a motion made in June 2014 by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) that requested individual Bering Sea fishing sectors voluntary cut their halibut bycatch usage by 10 percent over their 5-year average for the 3rd and 4th quarter of 2014. The goal of the reduction was to ensure that the Bering Sea directed halibut fishery in Area 4CDE would have sufficient fish for the 2015 season. The AKSC reduction of 106 mt below the 5-year average exceeded the Council’s request and should have gone a long way to maintaining the 2015 directed halibut fishery harvest.

Unfortunately, at the recent NPFMC December meeting in Anchorage, AKSC fishermen learned that while they had met the Council’s by-catch reduction goal, their efforts didn’t produce the desired outcome in Area 4CDE. This was due to disconnects in bycatch accounting practices between the NPFMC and the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC). In this situation, NPFMC had requested an overall reduction in bycatch, but what was actually needed was a reduction in Area 4CDE. Because the reductions by AKSC flatfish fishermen occurred throughout the Bering Sea, instead of being targeted within specific management areas, the directed halibut fishery in Area 4CDE may be reduced in 2015, possibly leaving small boat fishermen on the beach.

John Gauvin, Fishery Science Projects Director for the cooperative, expressed his concern. “We thought we were doing everything right in 2014. Halibut avoidance is always the first thing we talk about. How much halibut is in each tow, what are the depths or areas to avoid, where are the bycatch hot spots? We are determined to do what we can to help the directed fishery.”

Now armed with improved guidance from IPHC, AKSC members have re-invigorated their commitment to reduce halibut bycatch in 2015. AKSC is carefully analyzing fishery data with IPHC to fine-tune not only where the bycatch reductions need to occur, but also what size halibut need to be protected. AKSC members hope that by meeting IPHC expectations for 2015 that the IPHC will be able to maintain a sufficiently large directed halibut fishery for small boat fishermen in Area 4CDE.

It is equally important that the AKSC have sufficient access to bycatch in order to fish for yellowfin sole, rock sole, flathead sole and Pacific cod. In 2013, the value of these fisheries totaled more than $300 million and generated more than three million dollars in landing tax for the State of Alaska. The flatfish trawl catcher-processor sector directly employed 1,780 fishermen and fish processors in 2013.

Complicating the bycatch issue is a federal regulation requiring trawlers to keep halibut on board until the haul has been sampled by fishery observers on-board the vessel. Under current regulations, halibut are moved into holding bins with the rest of the catch and only returned to the water hours later. Approximately 80% of the halibut are dead at this point.

Gauvin and AKSC members are working with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Alaska Fisheries Science Center to allow halibut bycatch to be accurately accounted for and carefully returned to the water as soon as the catch is brought up on deck. This process, known as “deck sorting,” was tested in 2012 and achieved success by quickly returning halibut into the water with dramatically lower mortality rates. Returning more live halibut to the water would greatly lower AKSC’s overall bycatch mortality and would directly benefit Area 4CDE directed halibut users.

AKSC is currently working with the NMFS to re-certify the 2012 process so halibut deck sorting can occur in the 2015 season. If this can be achieved, the anticipated halibut savings in the flatfish trawl fleet may relieve pressure on the IPHC to make cuts to the halibut directed fishery.

Jason Anderson, manager with the AKSC stated, “It is imperative that we be able to use common sense tools such as deck sorting to reduce halibut mortality. This is an action our fleet could take now and would go a long way towards keeping a viable halibut fishery for small boat fishermen in the Bering Sea.”

Chris Woodley is the Executive Director for Groundfish Forum, which represents five companies that operate 16 trawl catcher/processor vessels in the yellowfin sole, rock sole, flathead sole, Atka mackerel, cod, and rockfish fisheries of the North Pacific. Groundfish Forum is dedicated to developing solutions to fishery problems such as discards, incidental catches, and impact on habitat while promoting the economic importance and viability of the fleet.