New halibut bycatch limits for Bering Sea bottom trawlers begin in January

After nearly 10 years of discussion by the NPFMC, trawlers will be held to the same standard as all other AK halibut users.

by | November 27, 2023

Filed Under Bycatch | Halibut | Management | NPFMC | Trawl

Bycatch will be based on ups/downs of the halibut stock and not a fixed cap

 Final Rule for Abundance-Based Management of Halibut in the Bering Sea Published Last Week

By Peggy Parker
SeafoodNews.com

November 27, 2023

On November 22, NOAA Fisheries published Amendment 123 to the Fishery Management Plan for Groundfish of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands management area. It is a final rule after nearly a decade of work among industry stakeholders at the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. Recommended by the council two years ago, it would bring halibut bycatch — taken by bottom trawl gear while targeting other species —  to be managed by stock abundance in the area, just as halibut caught with longline gear and pots is managed for the direct fleet.

The Amendment 80 sector, which takes a majority of the halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea, is a fleet of nearly 20 trawl catcher-processor vessels in the Bering Sea that target Pacific cod, Pacific Ocean perch, Atka mackerel, and rock, yellowfin, and flathead sole.

The agency notes that the rule “… minimizes halibut prohibited species catch to the extent practicable without compromising the ability to attain optimum yield in these fisheries.”

The Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Fishery Management Plan had previously set the annual halibut mortality prohibited species catch limit for the Amendment 80 sector at 1,745 metric tons.

Halibut abundance throughout Alaska has shown sign of a slow decrease In recent years, prompting a decline in catch limits for the commercial halibut fleet. Over the same timeframe, limits on the maximum amount of halibut prohibited species catch allowed in the groundfish fisheries have remained constant.

Amendment 123 replaces the previous static halibut prohibited species catch level of 1,745 metric tons for the Amendment 80 sector. It establishes a process for annually setting the halibut prohibited species catch limit for the Amendment 80 sector based on the most recent halibut abundance indices.

The Council will use two indices to determine abundance: the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s (IPHC) survey using longline gear and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) survey, which uses trawl gear and catches all sizes of halibut. IPHC’s survey gear catches mostly adult halibut that are of legal size (32 inches).

Using the two indices provides a range of limits based on abundance, starting from the current limit of 1,745 metric tons, when abundance is high in the IPHC index and either high or low in the NOAA Fisheries index and going down to 35 percent below the current limit when abundance is very low in the IPHC index and low in the NOAA index.

The final rule is effective on January 1, 2024, and the limits established by this action will apply to fishing by the Amendment 80 sector in 2024.//

Some background

Last December, after nearly ten years of discussion, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted 8-3 to apply a new rule to Bering Sea trawlers “to protect the resource and provide additional harvest opportunities for Alaska’s commercial halibut fisheries and communities.”

The new rule that begins on January 1, 2024 – called “Abundance Based Management” – means halibut bycatch taken by 19 Seattle boats comprising the so-called Amendment 80 fleet, will be based on the ups & downs of the halibut stock. The non-pollock trawlers catch and must discard halibut as bycatch while they target flounders, cod, perch, mackerel and other on-bottom species.

While Alaska subsistence, commercial and sport fishermen all see their yearly halibut catches fluctuate depending on the abundance of the halibut stock, that standard has not been applied to the trawlers. They have had a fixed cap that in recent years has been “reduced” to roughly four million pounds per year of halibut bycatch.

In response to the NPFMC vote, the Seattle boats threatened to take legal steps to prevent the new rule from being implemented – obviously, to no avail.

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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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