Trawlers lawyer up to oppose reducing halibut bycatch

It's another Seattle trawler example of "conservation is everyone else's problem."

by | February 27, 2023

Filed Under Bycatch | Halibut | Management | NPFMC

In another example of ‘conservation is everyone else’s problem, the Seattle-based trawl group Groundfish Forum is taking legal steps to prevent the new “Abundance Based Management” program to reduce halibut bycatch from being implemented.

The new rule, set to be in place by next year, means halibut bycatch taken by Bering Sea bottom trawlers will be based on the ups & downs of the stock – like all other users.

Here is the first page of their lawyer’s letter:

The Groundfish Forum represents 19 large, non-pollock trawlers that target flounders, cod, perch, mackerel and other on-bottom species in the Bering Sea. For decades, the fleet has had a fixed cap for halibut bycatch of roughly four million pounds per year.

While Alaska subsistence, commercial and sport fishermen all see their yearly halibut catches fluctuate depending on the health of the stock, that has not been applied to the halibut taken as bycatch by the so-called Amendment 80 trawl fleet.

But in December, after six years of discussion, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted 8-3 to apply the same rule to the trawlers “to protect the resource and provide additional harvest opportunities for Alaska’s commercial halibut fisheries and communities.”

A press release from the Groundfish Forum called the Council action “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.”

Why do trawlers oppose every protection for Alaska fish, crab?

I believe strongly that, like it or not, the trawl sector is an important economic component of Alaska’s fisheries, especially for communities like Dutch Harbor, Kodiak and Sand Point. I also believe that no skippers/crews like to toss crab and fish over the side. They are abiding by outdated laws defined in the Magnuson-Stevens Act that require them to do so.

Trawlers claim they are “partners” in Alaska’s fisheries. Why are they unwilling to make any sacrifices to protect Alaska’s fishery resources?

They oppose a chum cap to protect Western Alaska returns…they oppose a six month emergency moratorium on trawling in the Bristol Bay red king crab savings zone to protect mating/molting crab…the impacts of trawl bycatch are completely omitted from the NPFMC 10-year snow crab rebuilding plan…they refute findings that “mid-water” trawl gear is sometimes on the bottom more than 80% of the time, calling it “unscientific”…trawlers in the Gulf of Alaska oppose the call for more observer coverages of their catches…and now one trawl sector opposes a floating cap to reduce halibut bycatch that is applied to all other users.

laine welch

In the words of Duncan Fields, a former NPFMC member and AK Bycatch Review Task Force member, there must be a “more even handed approach to bycatch reduction” and one gear type – trawlers – has “most favored status.”

Is it because the NPFMC is top heavy with voting members who are fully invested in large Bering Sea trawlers?

As was stated at a June 2021 NPFMC meeting: “they believe that trawl vessels must continue operating year-round even with high bycatch rates because cost accrual on such large platforms would be unsustainable.”

It’s clear that under current management, the sustainability of the Alaska fishery resources is a lower priority than trawl “cost accrual.”

Note the NPFM stamp of approval of the Groundfish Forum by allowing its logo to appear on promotional literature.

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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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