New rule to cut trawl halibut bycatch readied for the Bering Sea

Amendment 123 means halibut bycatch taken by Bering Sea bottom trawlers will be based on ups & downs of the stock, like all other users.

by | January 12, 2023

Filed Under Bycatch | Halibut | Management

Removes fixed trawl halibut bycatch cap; Public can weigh in through Feb. 7

Photo credit: CTV News

A fishery management change finally means that Bering Sea trawlers will be abiding by new rules when it comes to Pacific halibut.

Their bycatch cap will soon be based on the ups and downs of the halibut stock and not be set at a fixed cap as has been the case since 2008.

The Abundance-Based management plan – Amendment 123 – has been published in the Federal Register as a proposed change to the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Groundfish Fishery Management Plan. NOAA Fisheries is inviting public comments through February 7. That is the last step before the new rules are given final approval and implemented in coming months.

Alaska subsistence, commercial and sport fishermen all see their yearly halibut catches fluctuate depending on the health of the stock. But that has not applied to the halibut taken as bycatch by a fleet of 18 Seattle-based bottom trawlers whose cap has held steady at nearly four million pounds. The so-called Amendment 80 non-pollock fleet targets Pacific cod, perch, mackerel, rockfish and various flounders in the Bering Sea.

The action was initiated in December 2021 after six years of discussion by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The NPFMC voted 8-3 to make the change to protect the resource and provide additional harvest opportunities for Alaska’s commercial halibut fisheries and communities.

The Sitka- based Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) has stated in numerous testimonies and comments that reductions in adult and juvenile halibut bycatch would benefit coastal residents in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

While a nearly 80% share of the value of ALL Alaska groundfish goes out of state, ALFA points out that halibut values largely remain in local communities.

“The high level of Alaskan ownership of halibut fleets and permits means that most halibut fishery revenues and earnings are spent locally on goods and services generating benefits for local economies. According to the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), 71% of direct earnings from the halibut fishery in 2019 accrued to Alaska communities.” ALFA stated.

“In contrast, the 18 Amendment 80 companies operate out of the Seattle metropolitan area which is the physical residence for their vessels, firms and crew and support service providers.  A large portion of their revenues will never enter Alaska coastal community economies. Only one Alaska community, Dutch Harbor, generates meaningful revenue from Amendment 80 company product offloads and transfers and a few other communities receive infrequent port calls. These few communities also participate in the halibut fishery and would benefit from lower bycatch limits.”

Seattle-based Amendment 80 bottom trawlers at Dutch Harbor

In another example of ‘conservation is everyone else’s problem,’ (as seen with recent attempts at Bering Sea crab protections), trawl reps had long pushed for no changes to the fixed halibut bycatch cap.

A press release from the Seattle-based Groundfish Forum, which represents the Amendment 80 fleet, called the Council action “a very sad day for science-based fishery management in Alaska.”

Executive Director Chris Woodley said in a saber-rattling statement: “For the first time in its history, the Council has ignored science and its own analysis and chosen a path that has no conservation benefit and results in a net negative benefit to the nation… During its discussion, the Council ignored the potential that their action could put at least one flatfish company out of business, so we don’t take this issue lightly. We believe this action does not meet the standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and we are exploring all options due to the unprecedented nature of this decision.”

The trawler group stated that abundance-based halibut management “will result in devastating effects to the federal flatfish fishery off Alaska (the Amendment 80 fleet), no significant improvements to the halibut fishery, and a negative net benefit to the nation,” adding: “The action will reduce halibut bycatch in the flatfish fishery up to 35%, which according to the Council’s own analysis will result in a $110 million loss to the Washington based flatfish fishermen, threaten thousands of living-wage, blue-collars jobs, and cause the loss of over 200 million affordable seafood meals.”

On average, more than half of the halibut taken as bycatch by the Amendment 80 bottom trawlers each year over the past decade are juveniles, said ALFA executive director Linda Behnken.  

“Juvenile halibut killed as bycatch would otherwise grow over a period of years and support future fishery yields for Alaska fishing communities,” Behnken said. “Recent IPHC estimates suggest that every 2.2 pounds of eliminated bycatch in the immediate short-term (2019-2021) would generate a 2.7 to 2.8 pound coastwide yield gain to directed fisheries.”

Behnken is a former, longtime member of both the NPFMC, which sets halibut bycatch levels, and the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), which oversees the halibut resource and sets annual catch limits.  

As shown in the example below, more halibut is taken as bycatch by trawlers in the Bering Sea region (Area 4CDE)  than has been harvested by local fishing fleets.

Credit: ALFA

Behnken points out that people talk about Bering Sea halibut taken as bycatch in terms of poundage. But  that doesn’t account for the tiny, baby halibut scooped up from the ocean bottom that literally affect the halibut stock thousands of miles away.

Credit: ResearchGate

An opinion piece by Behnken and fisherman Eric Velsko of Homer pointed out that tiny, larval halibut float west with the current and settle to the bottom of the nursery grounds of the Bering Sea. Halibut  are a long-lived, migratory fish and as they grow, they swim from the Bering Sea back to the Gulf of Alaska to Southeast Alaska, downstream to British Columbia, and all the way to California.

That means that over 3,000 commercial halibut fishermen, 955 halibut charter operators, several thousand halibut sport fishermen and over 4,000 subsistence harvesters all are affected by halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea, they said.

As shown in the table below, more halibut is taken as bycatch by trawlers in the Bering Sea region (Area 4CDE)  than has been harvested by local fishing fleets.

Voice support HERE for Amendment 123 by February 7.

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.


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