Fishermen spar with bycatch cuts delayed

SEATTLE — Less than a year after telling the public Gulf of Alaska halibut bycatch would be reduced in 2012, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has bowed to a variety of pressures from bureaucratic to biological, and cuts won’t take effect until at least 2014.

Last April, the council initiated work on cutting halibut bycatch through its annual quota process that takes place each December, which is allowed under the current fishery management plan, or FMP, for the Gulf and would have put the cuts in effect this year.

However, National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for implementing council actions, flagged numerous administrative difficulties with that approach and at its October meeting the council elected to amend the FMP under the belief that reductions could take effect in 2013.

NMFS informed the council Feb. 1 that its current workload wouldn’t allow a 2013 implementation even with a final decision this April (now postponed until June).

NMFS cited the Jan. 19 order by U.S. Alaska District Judge Timothy Burgess that found the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act when establishing wide-ranging fishing closures for Pacific cod and Atka mackerel in the western Aleutian Islands to protect food sources for endangered Steller sea lions.

The state of Alaska and a coalition of fishing groups sued to overturn the closures after NMFS published the interim final rule in December 2010.

While allowing the restrictions to stand, Burgess intends to require NMFS to prepare an environmental impact statement, or EIS, to support its action, a time-consuming process the agency unlawfully avoided as it rushed to put the closures in place to start the 2011 fishing seasons. NMFS staff on Feb. 6 estimated crafting the EIS will take at least two years.

NMFS was also hit with two more lawsuits Jan. 23 and Jan. 24 challenging the revised Gulf rockfish catch share program passed by the council in June 2010 set to take effect this May (see sidebar, page 4).

Not least among the pressures applied to the council was that from the trawl fleet, which has an annual bycatch limit of 4.4 million pounds in the Gulf established in 1986 that the council is targeting for cuts ranging from 5 percent to 15 percent.

The trawl fleet has argued successfully to this point that slowing growth rate — not bycatch — is the reason for declining amounts of halibut larger than 32 inches available for commercial harvest, and that the cuts contemplated by the council have a greater chance of damaging their sector than benefitting the resource.

Further, trawl industry representatives and fishermen have taken a page from the charter sector playbook by asserting that cuts to their fleet are more about allocation than conservation because the amount of their halibut bycatch larger than 26 inches — the size used to set quotas — won’t be saved but rather will be shifted to the commercial fishery.

The trawl position was in the minority of public comment heard Feb. 3 at the council meeting. Of the 31 individuals who gave testimony — including eight members of the Deep Sea Fishermen’s Union who stood as one before the council — 25 spoke in favor of cutting bycatch.

The graveness of the halibut situation imperils nearly every fishing operation in the Gulf of Alaska. Directed commercial and recreational users have already taken major cuts in harvest and the potential for reductions in bycatch threaten to shut down major segments of the trawl fleet.

Commercial halibut fishermen in the central Gulf have had their catches cut in half since 2009 and in Southeast by some 80 percent since 2006. Adding to the frustration for commercial halibut fishermen is that removals such as trawl bycatch and the recreational take are subtracted first before their quotas are set.

In Southeast, the charter sector went over its allocation by a cumulative 3.7 million pounds from 2004 to 2010, and up until 2007 each year’s overage was deducted from the following year’s commercial quota.

That means as the exploitable harvest declines, bycatch and sport takes represent a larger and larger percentage of the removals.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission has concluded that trawl bycatch contributes to both lost yield in the area it occurs — for fish larger than 26 inches — and down the coast to northern California for those less than 26 inches.

However, the IPHC has also noted that the greatest lost yield since 2004 has been caused by overharvest as a result of wrongly estimating the amount of those fish larger than 26 inches. For instance, the IPHC revised its estimate of those fish downward from 318 million pounds to 245 million pounds in 2011 alone.

While there is a large amount of uncertainty in the estimates of bycatch because of limited observer coverage in the Gulf, that alone cannot be responsible for a correction of some 73 million pounds in one year.

As it attempts to balance its obligations under the Magnuson-Stevens Act to achieve optimum yield while minimizing bycatch to the extent practicable, the council is creating an atmosphere of regulatory dissonance for trawlers.

While pushing bycatch control measures for chinook salmon, tanner crab and halibut along with trawl sweep modifications, the council is simultaneously creating a race for history that could frustrate those efforts by tiptoeing ever closer toward rationalizing the Gulf of Alaska by assigning private fishing privileges.

Fishing privileges, or catch shares, are typically assigned by catch history. With the potential for a Gulf-wide catch share program on the horizon, fishermen may now have a greater incentive to maximize their target catch rather than to reduce bycatch.

That tension is taking place in the pollock fishery, which will have a cap on chinook salmon bycatch take effect during the summer and fall seasons this year. The annual cap of 25,000 passed by the council last June in Nome will be applied on a pro-rated basis with the central Gulf allowed 8,929 chinooks and the western Gulf 5,598.

The council action spurred the pollock fleet of about 35 vessels to voluntarily allocate the pollock harvest among themselves — a process made easier in 2012 by a large increase in quota —to slow down the fishery and allow for hot spot reporting and stand downs to avoid chinook bycatch. The pollock fleet is voluntarily standing down at present until it targets roe at the end of this month.

The fleet has pressed processors for faster reporting of chinook salmon counts after deliveries and is seeking a permit for continued work on salmon excluders this fall.

In the first year of a sector split among longline and trawl vessels for Pacific cod allocations, bycatch savings are possible without competition between the gear groups but like pollock, racing for history could take precedence.

While they contend that bycatch is not the problem with the halibut resource — or, for that matter, with poor chinook returns around the state — trawlers have told the council if it wants to reduce bycatch it needs to give the fleet the “tools” in the form of a catch share program to end the race for fish.

Savings that could be achieved under a system encouraging cooperative fishing behavior is apparent in the Gulf rockfish program that began in 2007. With fishing quota assured, the rate of halibut bycatch for trawl catcher vessels declined from 20 pounds per ton of rockfish to 4 pounds per ton in the first year.

02/14/2012 - 8:16am