In Their Own Words: How Both Sides Frame Halibut Bycatch

By Peggy Parker and John Sackton

Note: Peggy and John come at the halibut bycatch issue from different perspectives and backgrounds. Peggy, in addition to being Science and Sustainability Editor for SeafoodNews, is Executive Director of the Halibut Association of North America, and has been an advisor to the IPHC for many years. John’s background is with trawl fisheries in Alaska, as his first ten years in Alaska involved putting fish processing equipment on board catcher processors. His inclination as Publisher of Seafood News has been to strongly value trawl fisheries. We come at this issue from different backgrounds, as do the industry advocates in Alaska as well. We decided to just be up front about our reporting, and state our perspectives directly as that impacts or influences an article.

For this article, Peggy has interviewed people on both sides as to how they would frame the halibut bycatch issue before the council.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has cleared the decks for next month’s meeting beginning June 1st in Sitka, to focus on halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea.

More than three days of the meeting will be dedicated to the halibut bycatch. At issue is a Council motion to revise the existing halibut bycatch cap in the Bering Sea. Options range from doing nothing (a virtual impossibility) to choosing a percentage reduction anywhere from 15% to 50% or higher.

Halibut IFQ holders have seen an approximately 50% decline in their annual quotas as halibut populations have retreated from their optimal conditions more than a decade ago. At the same time, trawl fisheries in the Bering Sea, especially the Amendment 80 cooperatives that fish on flatfish, cannot function without an allocation of halibut bycatch.

Until this year, halibut by catch was simply taken off the top of the US allocation for the directed fishery. However this year, the directed fishery levels for Bering Sea areas 4CDE set by the IHPC was potentially so low as to make the fishery not viable. This set up the current situation where the North Pacific Management Council is reviewing bycatch caps.

For months, members of industry from both the halibut and groundfish sectors have lobbied government representatives in Juneau, Olympia, and Washington, D.C.

Sector leaders are using citizen petitions, letters, fact sheets, phone calls and Tweets to get their message across.

There are several major areas of disagreement. First, there is an argument over whether this is a conservation issue or an allocation issue. The groundfish trawlers argue that it is primarily an economic allocation, under which certain rules apply. Halibut users argue it is a conservation issue. Under US national standards, a conservation issue has a strict definition as impacting the biological and ecological health of the stock.

Second there is an equity disagreement. Historically in Alaska, directed users have priority. Yet most fisheries in Alaska depend to some extent on bycatch, and historically these needs have been accommodated, but within very strict limits.

Fisheries are shut down when they have reached their limit on prohibited species – which would apply to groundfish under various halibut bycatch caps. The equity issue is complicated in that the IPHC is established to manage halibut exclusively, while the N. Pacific Council has US legal requirements to manage halibut bycatch along with all the other commercial species in federal waters.

Third, there is investment and economics. Many halibut users have paid high prices for quotas, simply to see some of that value disappear as the stocks have retreated. At the same time, Amendment 80 harvesters have formed coops, rationalized, and invested heavily in developing an Alaska non-pollock trawl fishery. Both sides have big financial commitments that could be threatened.

SeafoodNews asked several of the players how they would describe the problem for those not so intimately involved. Their comments follow.

Chris Woodley, Executive Director of the Groundfish Forum, a trade association of five flatfish trawl companies under Amendment 80, says everyone understands the importance of reducing bycatch, and says the Amendment 80 fleet has already been successful in reducing bycatch. These reductions are reflected in IPHC and council data.

Halibut Bycatch in Groundfish Fisheries

“The concern we have,” Woodley says, “is that using the blunt tool of reallocation may not only not solve the problem, it could make it worse. A 50% reduction would shift the focus and make it ten times larger.

“I think the biggest problem is the time crunch. There’s a large push to get this resolved in June. i think there’s probably some good ideas that have not come to the surface yes, as the Council is focused on the reallocation issue.

Woodley says there’s a saying in the Coast Guard, his former employer: “If you want it bad, you get it bad,” saying there are potential tools like abundance based caps that have not been fully explored.

“The other big thing for us is the Amendment 80 fleet employs some 2,000 people who work on our boats, they and their families are dependent on fishing jobs.

“A 50% cut would mean we would tie up our boats in June,” Woodley said.

“Our efficiency on halibut is .6%,” says Woodley. “Our target species is 99.4% of the catch.”

“The last thing I want people to know is how our cargo is handled. All our cargo goes to Dutch Harbor and is hauled away in containers or tramp vessels. It takes stevedores, tugs, marine pilots, millions of dollars and hundreds of people to get that cargo to its destination. We spent $45 million in fuel in Alaska last year.”

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka, says there are three ways to frame the issue.

“First, there is clearly a conservation issue – reduced biomass, lower growth rate, reduced removals from stocks in all the directed fisheries. There is only one component where managers have not reduced removals from the stock which is bycatch. You can’t protect a species unless all sectors reduce their removals.”

She asks a rhetorical question, “If it’s just an allocation issue why isn’t it that when the directed fishery gets a cut in their TAC and other users don’t?”

“You can go further in saying that the fish taken in the trawl fishery are small, they are the rebuilding potential of the stocks. It’s a no-brainer that if you don’t take care of the little fish you’re not going to have a stock in the future.”

Secondly, Behnken says, is the equity perspective. “Pacific halibut is a 100-year old fishery, a flagship on an international scale that has been prosecuted for all this time at a level that reflects successful fishery management. It’s got a long track record of harvesters and processors commitment to stewardship who have gotten it to this point. Now they’re watching this high volume industrialized fishery that is plowing through and killing fish in pursuit of something else.

“Lastly,” Behnken says, “it doesn’t have to be an AM 80 disaster. You can look at their own numbers on reducing bycatch. They have to be honest about meeting the standard “to the extent practicable”. Their own science says they could cut halibut bycatch and still harvest their target species at current levels. Society just won’t tolerate the level of waste in bycatch anymore.”

Behnken also mentioned “regulatory takings”, a problem NMFS has recognized when an established fishery suffers from regulations that require investments and further regulations that alone diminish the value of the investments. “Fishermen invest in quota at huge levels, then due to reallocations the resource quota is gone, but the initial debt remains,” she explains.

Jason Anderson, manager of the Alaska Seafood Coop, the largest of the two Amendment 80 Coops and the one that has worked the closest with the IPHC to determine ways to reduce halibut bycatch, takes a breath before he comments.

“Other people have made the argument of how much of an economic impact this would make on the Amendment 80 fleet if high cuts are put in, so I won’t repeat that.

“A lot of why I’m frustrated is we know how difficult this problem is. If you talk with a captain, they’re feeling squeezed.

“There are six different hard caps, all these different bycatch rules, and limits on species that aren’t hard caps but the Council has asked them to stay away from it, like salmon and pollock.

“We can retain pollock up to 20% of the basis species. NMFS sees there is a lot of pollock bycatch and we get pressure from the pollock guys.

“Captains on AM80 vessels have a different job than other skippers – they have to make money like everyone, but they spend a lot of their time avoiding other fish. They use every skill they have to make sure the haul is what they’re after, otherwise they have to move away.”

Another constraining species for the flatfish fleet is Pacific cod. “The hard cap that is part of the Am80 species group, the ratio of cod to target species is only 10%.”

Anderson says the current closed areas were established before the crab and halibut fisheries were rationalized and are antiquated.

“It’s not a race for fish anymore. We now have hard caps. Something that would really help us with bycatch would be to open more of those areas to catch targeted species. You can watch the fleet follow a school of targeted species right to the boundary of a closed area, then go around it and wait on the other side for the school to emerge. There’s no reason any longer to keep those areas closed.”

Amendment 80 vessels have a clear incentive to avoid halibut bycatch. The vessel permit has a history of each vessel, and each quota that is assigned to each vessel. When a vessel doesn’t perform to standards, there are penalties.

“The criminal and financial repercussions are so high that we all make sure this doesn’t happen, Anderson says. “The dynamic that sets up is you have this incentive at the beginning of the year. There is a limit, but we set a smaller limit so we have some buffer.”

The Alaska Seafood Coop is experimenting with a deck sorting procedure that could reduce halibut mortality even further. Using that and/or halibut excluders may reduce halibut bycatch by 20 percent.

“We’re working hard on what we can do to meet that goal,” Anderson says.

Bob Alverson, executive director of the Fishing Vessel Owners Association says the issue is simple.

“This is a classic example of a long-lived species that has gone through a down cycle. At the lower end of that cycle, for a species that lives as long as halibut does, you’ve got to be more protective.” The oldest halibut the IPHC has documented was 55 years old, for both male and female.

“Reducing mortality is an important element of the protective measures,” Alverson says. “The directed fleet has reduced their removals by over 50% in the last 6 years. There is a concern that the high take of juveniles in the nursery grounds in the Bering Sea are choking off the rebuilding of this resource.

“The Amendment 80 fleet, through twenty years of scientific studies, has developed a means to reduce that bycatch using deck sorting. Now it’s time to implement what everybody has learned through the EFP (Experimental Fishing Permit) process.

“The question now is why shouldn’t the EFP results be implemented to the degree they state can be achieved: 24% reduction of current takes. I’m referring to the 1995 study and all the studies since then, none of them suggest the actual reduction would be any less.”

In the coming weeks, before the council meeting, we will be publishing more detailed views and arguments that will be made before the council.