EDITORIAL: Council, trawlers must be accountable for bycatch

Two out of three ain’t bad, unless you’re talking about trawl halibut bycatch.

As this issue of the Journal went to press, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council was kicking off 20 hours of staff reports, public comment, and ultimately, final deliberations in Kodiak about the decades-old issue of reducing the allowable bycatch of halibut by trawlers and cod longliners in the Gulf of Alaska.

Inside the thousands of pages of documents prepared over the years dealing with halibut bycatch is one bit of information that council members should keep at the top of their minds as they make a decision.

According to data collected by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, 62.5 percent of trawl halibut bycatch by weight are fish larger than 26 inches. With an annual bycatch limit of about 4.4 million pounds that has barely been adjusted since 1985, that amounts to 2.75 million pounds per year of fish larger than 26 inches taken by trawlers.

Why does this matter? It matters because the amount of halibut estimated to be larger than 26 inches is the basis of the harvest quotas set annually by the IPHC. Halibut must be larger than 32 inches, not 26, to be retained, but at current $6 per pound prices it’s a safe estimate that trawlers take legal-sized halibut worth upward of $10 million each year.

Trawl fleet representatives have aggressively pushed the information from the same analysis that shows three out of four fish in their bycatch are less than 26 inches, but never do they mention the fact that roughly two out of every three pounds are not.

They’ve also pointed fingers at wastage in the commercial halibut fishery where some sub-legal fish die after being discarded.

Some comparisons are apples to oranges. This argument is more like apples to hamburgers. When a halibut is caught by a trawler, it’s a death sentence more than 80 percent of the time for fish big or small.

The discard mortality rate for sublegal halibut by longliners is estimated to be 16 percent.

This leads nicely to another argument the trawlers are making — that this is really about allocation and not conservation because the halibut they aren’t allowed to take will be harvested by the commercial and recreational users instead.

Bycatch is not an allocation issue. Allocation fights are between directed users — commercial, sport and subsistence. For trawlers and cod longliners, halibut is a prohibited species catch. By definition, they shouldn’t be taking any of it.

Fisheries management allows for takes of certain amount of bycatch, but the North Pacific council cannot allow for preserving the bycatch status quo for a few boats to take precedence over their primary responsibility to manage the Gulf of Alaska sustainably for all users.

Some members of the council have attempted to cop out of bycatch cuts by arguing the North Pacific doesn’t have a halibut management plan. Indeed that is true, but it does have a groundfish plan that includes halibut bycatch limits and requirements for closures if a sector exceeds its limit.

That begs a simple question: If halibut bycatch has no impact, why have a limit or require closures at all?

In fact, it’s already an established part of council management that halibut bycatch has impacts and they must be controlled.

Now is not the time for the council to shrink from its job to live up to the “Alaskan model” it so often lauds itself for, especially at a time when the IPHC is doing everything it can to conserve the halibut resource that provides a livelihood for thousands of Alaskans as well as our friends in Canada and the Lower 48.