ALFA intervenes in federal lawsuit to protect halibut

Halibut bycatch comes off the top of catch limits for halibut fishermen. Bycatch by the A80 trawlers is more than the yearly catches allowed for many Alaska regions, Canada and the West Coast.

by | January 23, 2024

Counteracts Seattle trawlers’ lawsuit over a new rule to reduce halibut bycatch

The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association of Sitka is intervening on the side of the federal government in a lawsuit that aims to protect halibut taken as bycatch in the Bering Sea by bottom trawlers.

Here is the letter by ALFA executive director, Linda Behnken, announcing the intervention in the Cordova Times and other media:

Dear editor: 

On December 19, 2023 the Amendment 80 (A80) trawl fleet sued to prevent implementation of the Bering Sea halibut bycatch regulation that ties bycatch limits to halibut abundance. While not unexpected, the refusal by the A80 fleet to share in the conservation responsibility for halibut is disturbing.   

Legal documents for this action identify that the A80 trawl companies were responsible for 23.8 million pounds of halibut mortality from 2010-2019. Bycatch levels not only exceeded limits set for the directed fishery but in some years bycatch threatened to preclude the local halibut fishery completely. 

Bycatch is deducted from the total allowable catch before catch limits are set for the directed halibut fishery. Bycatch limits, set when halibut were far more abundant, have never been triggered. Meanwhile catch limits for the directed halibut fisheries have been steadily reduced as halibut abundance has declined to protect the stocks from overharvest.     

After six years of analysis, testimony, and debate, the Council voted to connect bycatch limits to halibut abundance, lowering bycatch caps when stocks are low to prevent overfishing. Council action reduced bycatch limits below then current trawl bycatch levels by only 2.4%. Based on current abundance, the caps set by the Council action are now above the estimated 2023 trawl bycatch mortality number and above the trawl bycatch average from 2018-2022 – but even that sharing of conservation is too much for the A80 fleet.   

Over two-thirds of the direct earnings from the halibut fishery accrue to Alaska communities. Overall, 78% of fishery participants are Alaska residents and Alaska shore-based plants process almost all the halibut harvested off Alaska. The most recent data summarizing Southeast Alaska resident participation (2022) shows that Southeast Alaska residents fished 567 halibut permits, harvesting 6.2 million pounds of halibut worth $39.5 million in ex-vessel values. All that is at risk with this lawsuit. 

The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and its long-term allies will intervene in the lawsuit on the side of federal managers to protect halibut stocks and our fishing communities.  

DONATE to help protect halibut!

Contribute at alfafish.org with the memo “halibut lawsuit” and your funds will be dedicated to that cause.

You can also DONATE HERE

Contribute like the future of the halibut stock–and of your fishery–depend on it.

linda behnken, alfa director

“Conservation is everyone else’s problem” – Seattle trawlers

The lawsuit was filed last year by the Seattle-based trawl group Groundfish Forum over the new “Abundance Based Management” program that was implemented in January 2024. That trawl fleet is responsible for up to 80% of halibut discards, according to a draft Environmental Impact report by the NPFMC.

The new rule means halibut bycatch taken by a fleet of 19 Bering Sea bottom trawlers will be based on the ups & downs of the stock – like all other users.

Groundfish Forum’s member companies include Fishermen’s Finest, Northstar Fishing, Ocean Peace, O’Hara Corporation and United States Seafood, which claim the halibut regulation “unfairly targets them.”

A press release from the Groundfish Forum called the Council action to pass the new bycatch regulation “a very sad day for science-based fishery management in Alaska.”

“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,” stated executive director Chris Woodley, adding: “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.”

“Cost accruals” trump conservation

“Most A80 companies rely on a full and varied season to run their business. When constraints such as high Pacific cod or halibut bycatch rates emerge, vessel operators do not have the option to cease fishing completely because cost accrual on such large platforms would be unsustainable.

“Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) Halibut Abundance-Based Management (ABM) of Amendment 80 Prohibited Species Catch (PSC) Limit, September 2021 – page 120:

The A80 trawl fleet has the endorsement of the NPFMC!

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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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