More Alaskans joining and funding lawsuit to protect halibut from bottom trawls

Alaskans are funding a lawsuit against Seattle bottom trawlers who want to take more halibut as bycatch.

by | March 1, 2024

Filed Under Bycatch | Halibut | Management | NPFMC | Trawl

Seattle bottom trawlers have sued NOAA over new limits on halibut bycatch

Coalition of Stakeholders and Communities Join Suit to Defend Abundance-based Halibut Bycatch

By Peggy Parker/SeafoodNews.com
March 1, 2024

A broad coalition of commercial fishermen, charter operators, processors and community organizations representing the wide range of halibut-dependent communities across Alaska and the Pacific Northwest have been granted intervener status in the suit filed by the Groundfish Forum against the Department of Commerce on Amendment 123, the rule that bases halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea for bottom trawls on abundance.

That rule was implemented January 1 this year and sets abundance-based limits on halibut bycatch in the bottom trawl fleet (also known as the Amendment 80 fleet) in the Bering Sea. Prior to Amendment 123, halibut bycatch limits were based more on what was needed for the groundfish fleet to achieve optimum yield for sole, flounder, and other non-halibut bottom species, rather than the abundance of the halibut stock. In 2014 the Council began the process of reducing halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea and later building an abundance-based limit. Members of the coalition, who call themselves the Halibut Defense Alliance (HDA) — were all involved in that lengthy process. 

The HDA was granted intervener status by the court last week. They are defending the rule and the process taken by the Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service to implement the rule.

The Amendment 80 fleet…is still the single largest source of halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea. Importantly, nearly 90% of its bycatch in recent years has been concentrated in known halibut nursery areas in the Bering Sea. Their bycatch in these areas harms the halibut stock coastwide because juvenile halibut caught by the Amendment 80 fleet will not mature, reproduce, or migrate to other areas. Alaska’s halibut fleet is prohibited from fishing nursery areas and uses gear that catches only adults.

peggy parker, seafoodnews.com

“Setting fishery limits based on abundance is a fundamental fisheries management concept: catch limits go up when abundance is high and go down when abundance is low,” the HDA said in a statement released yesterday. “While all halibut fishermen have been held to this standard, the Amendment 80 fleet of bottom trawlers was not. Instead, the Amendment 80 fleet was allowed to kill large amounts of halibut regardless of the status of the halibut population. The new rules correct this inequity and protect community-based fisheries.” 

The Groundfish Forum, of which the Amendment 80 fleet is a member, asked the court to vacate and remand the rule, fix it and the supporting analyses, including the final Environmental Impact Statement to reflect the flaws brought out in the plaintiff’s suit. 

One of the flaws mentioned is the Council’s decision to focus only on the Amendment 80 bottom trawlers in 2020, releasing pelagic trawlers (the pollock fleet), the freezer longliners (targeting cod) and other fleets off the hook. At the time, the action was supported by the council because future action would address halibut bycatch in those sectors. 

And it has. Halibut bycatch limits have been decreased in many of those sectors in recent years. 

“Halibut fishing is one of the most important sources of employment and income for coastal Alaska communities,” said Linda Behnken, Executive Director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, and a member of the HDA.

 “Halibut is also one of the most valuable fisheries in Alaska, involving hundreds of individual commercial, charter and recreational fishermen as well as marine repair businesses, fishing gear retailers, seafood processors, and other businesses that support and rely on the halibut fleet. Two-thirds of halibut fishery earnings accrue to Alaska communities and over three-fourths of fishery participants in the halibut fishery are Alaska residents. Put simply—the halibut fishery is fundamental to the socioeconomic health of coastal Alaska,” Behnken said.

 The new halibut bycatch rule was adopted with broad support by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2023. The new rules impose commonsense limits on halibut bycatch — allowing more bycatch when halibut abundance is high and less bycatch when abundance is low. They are critical to conserving halibut in the Bering Sea and beyond and will ensure more equitable access to the halibut fisheries by fishermen, tribes, and communities. 

Another member of the HDA, Hunter McIntosh, owns The Boat Company, a non-profit cruise line based in Southeast Alaska. “The Boat Company and halibut fishery stakeholders from all over Alaska and the Pacific Northwest have been asking the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to reduce halibut bycatch in the trawl fisheries to a level commensurate with direct fishery harvest losses and declines in the spawning biomass,” McIntosh said. 

“The new regulation challenged by the Amendment 80 trawl companies simply links bycatch limits for the trawl fleet responsible for most of the halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea to abundance.  The action provides the minimum bycatch reduction needed to protect a large number of communities that depend on commercial, subsistence and recreational halibut fisheries in the Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska and Pacific Northwest facing reduced access to halibut.”

“Homer, Alaska is the self proclaimed “Halibut Capital of the World,” noted Malcolm Milne, President of the North Pacific Fisheries Association (NPFA).

“ NPFA represents local longline fishermen who rely on the halibut resource and share a harbor with charter, sport and subsistence fishermen who all utilize halibut.  Amendment 123 to the Fishery Management Plan for the groundfish of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands went through a long, thorough North Pacific Fishery Management Council process with many levels of analysis and deliberation.  NPFA has stepped up to defend NOAA’s implementation of the Council’s long crafted decision, he said.” 

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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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