KCAW: Sitka Assembly backs policy to limit halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea

The 19 Seattle-based bottom trawlers that take the bulk of AK halibut bycatch call a reduction "arbitrary, capricious and contrary to the law.

by | June 3, 2024

Halibut bycatch by trawlers comes off the top of all other users; Seattle A80 trawlers sue NOAA for more!

Posted by Katherine Rose | May 29, 2024

The Sitka Assembly is backing a change to fisheries policy that would limit trawl halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea. The move comes after a policy change last year at the national level led to a lawsuit filed against the National Marine Fishery Service.

Linda Behnken leads the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. Speaking to the assembly at a meeting on May 28, she said a change to fishery management policy in 2015 to bring down the caps on halibut bycatch by 25 percent was a big win. Advocates then started to push the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to tie bycatch caps to the abundance of halibut, rather than a flat number. 

“When the caps were set, there was a whole lot more halibut out there, and we reduced our directed fisheries,” Behnken said. “Everybody who targets halibut is conserved, but those bycatch caps stayed disproportionately high, to the extent that over the last decade, there was about 38 million pounds of halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea by this one sector that’s the biggest offender there.” 

Behnken said in 2021, after six years of work, the National Marine Fisheries Service adopted an amendment tying trawl bycatch to abundance. Then lawyers got involved. 

“After that amendment was implemented by the National Marine Fishery Service, the trawl sector filed a lawsuit against it,” Behnken said. “A group of us have moved to intervene on behalf of the federal government, to be part of the lawsuit so we can present our side of this case.”

While the Bering Sea is far from Southeast, Alaska, she said resolutions from Sitka and other communities would help demonstrate to the courts how important this action is to Alaska’s fishing communities. 

Assembly member Chris Ystad, who co-sponsored the resolution, agreed. 

“As a Southeast fisherman, an Alaskan and someone who enjoys halibut, I thought this was absolutely wonderful and necessary for the future of the resource, not just for commercial fishermen like myself, but for everyone who utilizes the resource,” Ystad said. “This is something that we’ve been needing in the fishery. It’s something that we’re slowly, slowly working towards is a little more accountability for all of our users.”

With little discussion, the assembly passed the resolution unanimously. 

Read the resolution here

OPINION: “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics” – Mark Twain

By Erik Velsko and Linda Behnken
October 8, 2021

On one point we agree with Mr. Dennis Moran of Fishermen’s Finest: inadequate cuts to halibut bycatch will not solve the ecological, economic or cultural devastation associated with bycatch, which in the Bering Sea includes halibut, salmon, crab, herring, sablefish and other species important to the ecosystem and to the fishing communities of Alaska. 

The bottom trawl (Amendment 80) fleet is the largest user of halibut as bycatch, which is otherwise known as Prohibited Species Catch and by law must be avoided. If caught, it must be thrown overboard. We don’t reward people for catching and selling fish they should be avoiding. 

The millions of pounds of halibut taken by the trawlers is not an allocation – it is a species prohibited to the trawl fleet.  The trawlers catch halibut along with their allocations of groundfish. The groundfish are frozen on board and transferred at sea to foreign trampers for international markets; a couple of Alaska communities receive a fish tax on those transfers. The fishing revenues flow mostly to the Seattle area. 

The commercial halibut fishermen who have the legal right to harvest halibut in the Bering Sea come from Homer and Petersburg, Juneau and St. Paul, Seattle and Unalaska. There are 391 commercial halibut permits in the Bering Sea, and each vessel employs two to five crewmembers. 

The millions of pounds of halibut caught as bycatch by the trawl fleet – those fish over 26 inches – are taken directly off the top of the total pounds of halibut allowed to be taken annually in the Bering Sea.

The commercial halibut fishermen get what is left. 

In 2014, the worst example, the trawl fleet caught and discarded 4.77 million pounds of halibut in the Pribilof Island Area of the Bering Sea alone – 78% of total removals – and the commercial halibut fleet caught 1.24 million pounds – 20% of total removals. It’s upside down.

This enormous bycatch affects more than just the Bering Sea. Halibut are a long-lived, migratory species. Larval halibut float west with the current, settle to the bottom in the nursery grounds of the Bering Sea, then swim back to the Gulf of Alaska as they grow stronger and mature—at least if they are not caught first in a trawl.  For this reason, halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea, particularly bycatch of juvenile halibut, affects every halibut fisherman from the Bering Sea through Southeast Alaska, if not clear down to California. Managers adjust catch limits in all downstream areas to protect stocks from the impact of juvenile halibut bycatch.  

That means over 3,000 commercial halibut fishermen, 955 halibut charter operators, several thousand halibut sport fishermen and over 4,000 subsistence harvesters are all affected by halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea.  Claiming this issue affects only the Pribilof Island fishermen displays a distinct misunderstanding of halibut biology and management. 

That said, the impact is profound to the people of the Pribilof Islands and 15 other mostly Alaska Native Bering Sea communities identified in the NPFMC’s action analysis.  The Aleut people of the Pribilof Islands rely on halibut for subsistence and commercial harvest.  There are no salmon streams on the Islands and precious few alternative sources of income.  Halibut is economically and culturally central to life on the island; families work together to harvest and process halibut.  

For the Pribilofs and other Native communities, losing access to halibut means losing culture, and ultimately represents the extinction of unique peoples.  These losses cannot be measured in dollars and cents — not in Alaska Native cultures and not in the mainstream culture of the United States. 

Mr. Moran’s op-ed suggests the problem could be solved by 1) allowing trawlers to retain halibut and 2) encouraging a private “deal” between the A80 factory trawl fleet and the Aleut people of the Pribilofs.  Trawlers retaining and selling halibut, rather than reducing bycatch, would create an actual allocation, an incentive to target halibut, which are five to ten times more valuable than most groundfish. It will do nothing to address the economic or cultural impacts to the halibut fishermen of the Bering Sea or the Gulf of Alaska—it will simply mean more halibut is killed by trawlers without repercussion.  

Mr. Moran’s vision of the A80 fleet profiting from their prohibited catch by selling it is, frankly, thinly-veiled greed. He wants his 200-foot vessels to have a halibut allocation so he can sell the halibut they catch, which are smaller in size, larger in numbers, and far more valuable to the resource and fishing communities if allowed to grow and mature.

Mr. Moran’s purported economic analysis also bears little relation to reality. The numbers he uses are misleading, and both the latest Council economic assessment and the Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) warn against performing exactly that type of comparison. Why does he assume that reducing halibut bycatch only affects 15 vessels when thousands fish for halibut?  As Mark Twain wrote, misleading numbers are the worst type of misinformation. 

The Council has been working on a Bering Sea/Aleutian Island Halibut Abundance-based Bycatch Management for six years. Their staff, and that of the International Pacific Halibut Commission, have help shape alternatives focused on the Amendment 80 fleet. The truth is that Mr. Moran’s comparison is impossible in large part because the A80 fleet closely guards information on how much it actually costs (or perhaps doesn’t) to reduce halibut bycatch. One must wonder why, if the halibut bycatch is worth so little, Mr. Moran is so keen to allocate it to the A80 fleet?

As for the private deal suggested by Mr. Moran? Such a ‘deal’ has been repeatedly rejected both publicly and privately. The people of the Pribilof Islands understand the value of the halibut resource to ALL Alaska communities, ALL commercial halibut fishermen, ALL sports users and charter operators. 

Alaska is facing a fisheries crisis driven in part by management decisions that have prioritized trawl bycatch over directed fisheries, Alaska communities, and Indigenous cultures.  In addition, the visible effects of climate change on Alaska’s marine ecosystems, its fisheries, and dependent communities, adds a potent and destabilizing element to an already bleak picture.  All of this calls for prudence and conservation of the existing fishery resources.  There is still time to correct the course; the December decision on halibut bycatch at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will be pivotal.

Equally important are management decisions protecting Alaska’s salmon, herring, crab and sablefish.  Alaska needs a deep paradigm shift, to move away from protecting optimum yield in the industrial fisheries at such a high cost, and towards optimizing the health of resources and communities. We can construct a vibrant future or continue to hammer our world-famous fisheries.

Erik Velsko is a fisherman based in Alaska and Linda Behnken is a fisherman and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. Behnken has also served as Commissioner on the International Pacific Halibut Commission and as a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. 

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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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