The North Pacific Fisheries Management Board (NPFMC) is once again considering whether or not to implement management based on the abundance of halibut bycatch in the groundfish fleet, a decision that stakeholders believe could cost Alaska’s Amendment 80 fleet more than $ 100 million (€ 88 million).

The board faces four distinct alternatives on how to manage the amount of halibut bycatch that the Amendment 80 fleet – which catches various flatfish, rockfish, Atka mackerel, Pacific ocean perch and Pacific cod. in the Bering Sea / Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska – should be allowed to catch. The four alternatives ask the council to either maintain the status quo on halibut bycatch or ask the amendment 80 fleet to reduce them by various amounts, up to a maximum of 40 percent.

The council is considering reducing halibut bycatch following demand from the directed halibut fishery, which has faced a steady decline in halibut in the Pacific. While the council voted for an increase in 2021 to the catch limit of 2.6 million pounds from 2020, fishermen are still calling on the Alaskan government to reduce bycatch and manage its fisheries in mind. more to directed fisheries.

“If the trollers, gillnets, purse seiners, sport fishermen and tribal citizens of Alaska are forced to go without fishing while the trawlers keep their nets in the water, we have a serious problem. management, and it is out of time to right this vessel, ”Alexus Kwachka, who fishes in Kodiak Bay and Bristol and has served on the North Pacific council’s advisory committee, told National Fisherman.

The directed fishermen of Alaska said the council prioritizes trawlers to maintain the directed fishery, putting their livelihoods at risk.

“Right now, the board is optimizing trawl fishing at the expense of Alaskan fish and fisheries. That has to change, ”Linda Behnken, a Sitka, Alaska-based fisherman and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, told National Fisherman. “We need to protect fish habitat, reduce bycatch, and prioritize Alaska’s historic fisheries before it’s too late.”

This is not the first time that the NPFMC has considered drastically reducing the halibut bycatch quota, nor the first time that so much money has been at stake in its decision. The board has considered a similar proposal in the past – in 2015, for example, the board was faced with an almost identical decision that Amendment 80 stakeholders said would cost it millions of dollars in lost revenue. This time, the board decided to reduce the halibut bycatch allowance by 25 percent.

The fleet was successful in reducing the amount of bycatch, but this was due to several mitigating factors, Groundfish Forum executive director Chris Woodley told SeafoodSource. According to Woodley, a big factor in reducing bycatch by fleets was the closure of the Fishing Company of Alaska in 2016, which he said was “notoriously very, very bad for their bycatch performance.”

“We have been accused of playing ‘hiding football’ and ‘why can’t we repeat our performance of 2015’,” he said. “In 2016, this company went bankrupt, they stopped fishing for flatfish because they couldn’t keep up with the new requirements. They were bought in January 2017 by two other amendment 80 companies, and these companies started at a more reasonable bycatch rate.

In addition, bycatch had increased in the years leading up to the council’s decision – 2013 and 2014 – due to the fact that some vessels were forced to leave their normal fishing grounds in the Aleutian Islands due to regulations regarding fishing. protection of Steller sea lions.

“Those restrictions on Steller’s sea lions were lifted and these boats were able to return to the Aleutians,” said Woodley. These boats have historically had lower bycatch, according to Woodley.

Another key factor in reducing bycatch was the introduction of deck sorting, which at the time was approved as an experimental tool to reduce bycatch in 2015. Now all boats in the fleet are using sorting. by bridge, which means that bycatch reduction is not reproducible.

“These are one-off things that have helped reduce our bycatch, and they are not reproducible,” said Woodley.

According to a position paper released by the forum, the Groundfish Forum fleet has reduced its bycatch by 49% since 2017. The fleet’s halibut bycatch currently represents about 0.4% of the total catch, which which is lower than the bycatch rate for groundfish on the west coast of Canada. trawl fishing, which “is often cited as an example of low rates of bycatch,” said the Groundfish Forum.

The Groundfish Forum said the council’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) found that reducing halibut bycatch would not have much positive impact on the halibut fishery, even at the most drastic levels. .

“We understand the concerns of directed fishing. We know they’re going through a tough time and have been for a few years, ”said Woodley. “Overall, this management structure based on the abundance and the income that they will get will do next to nothing to solve their problem.”

Five years of board analysis revealed that there will be little difference to future halibut spawning biomass among all alternatives – including the ‘no action’ option, according to Groundfish Forum position paper.

“The DEIS makes it clear in all of the alternatives that there will be no conservation benefit for the halibut spawning stock biomass,” said Woodley.

If bycatch reductions occur, the Groundfish Forum estimated that the losses of the Amendment 80 fleet could be between 68 and 138 million USD (60 million EUR and 122 million EUR) per year. Conversely, the directed halibut fishery would experience increases of less than USD 3 million (EUR 2.6 million), even with the highest bycatch reductions. Additionally, the volume of protein captured would be significantly reduced if bycatch reductions were established, he said, with his calculations based on production estimates from 2016 to 2020 showing that 132 meals of mackerel, sole and plaice would be lost for each halibut meal gained.

“The DEIS also says this is going to have negative net benefits for the nation,” said Woodley. “I’ve never seen a DEIS where you don’t have a conservation advantage, you have a net negative benefit to the nation, and you don’t really solve the problem.”

An initial NPFMC advisory group considered the matter on Dec. 6, but did not make a decision on which alternative to recommend to the board. A vote on the recommendation for Alternative 4, which would have reduced bycatch by the highest amount, did not advance in a close vote (nine for, 11 against) and the advisory committee made no move. recommendation for none of the alternatives.

Regardless of the council’s eventual decision, the issue took on political importance in Alaska. Alaska gubernatorial candidate Les Gara has called on Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy to do more to mitigate bycatch.

“How much Alaskan fish bycatch does the Seattle-based factory trawler fleet waste?” »Gara said in a tweet.

In response, Dunleavy formed the Alaska Bycatch Review Working Group to examine the problem and propose solutions to reduce the bycatch of high value fishery resources in Alaska state and federal waters.

“Alaskan people from all walks of life want to better understand the problem of bycatch,” Dunleavy said. “I look forward to the work and recommendations of the Task Force on how to better understand the issues and impacts of bycatch in order to further protect our state’s incredible fishery. Resources.”

Photo courtesy of NOAA

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