SEAFOODNEWS.COM [Opinion], February 16, 2015
By Capt. TJ Durnan

Folllowing is a letter to the editor by Capt. TJ Durnan, skipper of the the F/V Constellation a member vessel of the Amendment 80 fleet. Capt. Durnan writes about the measures the fleet has taken to reduce its halibut bycatch levels. Capt. Durnan’s letter is in response to some scrutiny the Amendment 80 fleet has faced with the halibut bycatch issue currently before the International Pacific Halibut Commission and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. – MR

Dear SeafoodNews,

With halibut catch by all sectors of Alaska’s fishing industry coming ever more into focus, and a disproportionate amount of scrutiny being directed at a very few ‘Amendment 80’ boats, it’s time that this small fleet’s story is told from the perspective of the pilothouse.

I started my time in Alaska’s fishing industry in 1991, a kid fresh out of school. I worked in several different small and large boat fisheries before arriving in my current spot on the Constellation, an Amendment 80 vessel, in 2002. Just about everybody in our fleet shares a similar story-a lifetime spent fishing, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

For as long as I’ve been fishing in this fleet, we have collectively tried to fish as cleanly as possible. We all put a great deal of effort into not just avoiding halibut, but also strive to sell everything we catch. We retain over 90% of what’s brought on board, an unheard-of level in mixed species groundfish fisheries.  Our cooperative generates well over 100 tons of high-quality, sustainably caught seafood for every single ton of halibut used.

I would be very interested in seeing our retention numbers compared to other fisheries, particularly the directed halibut fishery, but it seems that reliable information about just how much fish that fleet is discarding is hard to come by. Unlike the Amendment 80 fleet, which has worked with 200% observer coverage since 2008, the halibut fleet is largely unobserved.

So, what have we done to reduce our halibut take?

– We are required by law to put everything that we catch into our holding tanks, which results in a high mortality rate for the halibut.  Beginning in 2009 and continuing today we are working with NMFS to implement a deck sorting program to remove a high percentage of halibut from the deck, and carefully release them back into the water, greatly improving survival.

– We have been designing and refining excluders for over 20 years. With so many small halibut on our fishing grounds, many the same size as our target fish, these excluders do have limits on their effectiveness.

– Word of high halibut areas is quickly distributed between boats on the grounds in real time. Home offices and third party data services also help to share this information.

– Fishing techniques have evolved over the years. Highly efficient pelagic doors allow boats to tow slower, enabling many halibut to outswim the gear.

The halibut issue is nothing new for us. My fleet has made great strides, almost entirely on its own initiative, in reducing halibut catch over the years. Even with recent trawl surveys showing the large number of small halibut, we have managed to stay under a hard cap that is about 400 tons lower than our pre-Amendment 80 use.

NMFS has recently gone on record stating that the halibut stock is consistent with long-term averages, and would not be considered to be overfished by its own criteria.  The quota for halibut is largely set based only on the biomass of large fish. We are seeing stable or increasing numbers of small fish which are growing very slowly, taking much longer to become part of this ‘exploitable’ biomass.

This is the root of the problem. It’s not that there aren’t any halibut around, they just aren’t growing big enough to be retainable by the directed fishery. The minimum size limit set by halibut managers creates a lot of wasted, dead halibut by the directed fishery which could be brought to market. One has to question the reasoning for conducting a fishery where most of the catch is not allowed to be retained, and also why this size limit has not changed despite the fact that the fish are much smaller at a given age now than they were when the size limit was introduced.

So, my proposal is this: Let’s all get a little less shrill, and once and for all get away from such an adversarial approach to each other. It’s the 21st century, and we’re smart enough to do better than we currently are on this issue.  Ultimately, we are all trying to accomplish the same thing; a decent life for our families, work that we love to do, and opportunities for the next generation. For our part, we can demonstrate that we’ve done a huge amount of good work in trying to be proactive on this issue, clearly more than any other sector, and this work continues today.

Capt. TJ Durnan