Emergency halibut action fails on tie with Dersham absent

With one council member absent, an emergency action proposal to reduce Bering Sea halibut bycatch limits for 2015 failed on a tie vote by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council Dec. 13.

The failed motion, introduced by council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak, would have lowered the 2015 Bering Sea halibut bycatch limit by 33 percent from the current limit of more than 10 million pounds allocated between the pollock and bottom trawl fleets.

Voting against the proposal in the 5-5 vote were members John Henderschedt and Craig Cross of Seattle, Roy Hyder of Oregon, Bill Tweit of Washington state and National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region Assistant Administrator Glenn Merrill.

Alaskan members Fields, Dan Hull, David Long, Simon Kinneen and interim Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten voted yes.

Ed Dersham of Anchorage, the recreational fishing representative on the council, was absent for health reasons and had no alternate to fill his position.

Central Bering Sea Fisherman’s Association consultant Heather McCarty believes Dersham may have been the one vote needed to pass the motion.

McCarty represents the Community Development Quota organization for St. Paul, whose residents receive halibut quota and are facing a near-total closure of their fishery in 2015.

“It’s speculation, of course,” McCarty said about whether Dersham would have supplied a winning vote.

But the general feeling was that the sport fishing representative would have been more amenable to an action that more directly benefits small boat fishermen rather than the larger trawl industry.

The 2014 halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea, or Area 4, was 6.13 million pounds, 65 percent of the total halibut bycatch allocation. From the Bering Sea to the Northern California coast, total halibut bycatch was more than 9 million pounds in 2014 compared to 7.89 million pounds in 2013.

“The Bering Sea trawl fleet can go another 20 percent over in 2015,” Fields said. “They go on with their business with no incentives, no sanctions, and no penalties for catching as much as they caught in 2014.”

Halibut catch is governed by two separate bodies, the North Pacific council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission. The IPHC sets the annual harvests for the directed halibut fisheries and the council manages halibut bycatch, which is set in regulatory stone and does not shift with halibut abundance.

The pollock fleet receives a halibut bycatch allocation of 900 metric tons, or nearly 2 million pounds; the non-pollock trawl fleet receives a halibut bycatch allocation of 3,675 metric tons, or nearly 8.1 million pounds. Combined, the pollock and non-pollock trawl fleets harvest more than 1.5 million metric tons of fish each year.

Central Bering Sea Fisherman’s Association Vice President Jeff Kauffman said the directed fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, or BSAI, have been harder and harder pressed to make ends meet as the trawl fleets get more and more of the halibut as bycatch as a percentage of the total removals.

In 2014, directed BSAI halibut fisheries accounted for only 20 percent of halibut removals. He projects that the directed fisheries would get as little as 7 percent of the halibut if the International Pacific Halibut Commission adopts the recommended 2015 halibut blue line.

According to Peggy Parker, executive director of the Halibut Association of North America, 66 percent of the 2014 halibut removals were bycatch instead of the directed fisheries in the subareas known as Area 4CDE, which surround the Pribilof Islands. 

“Halibut bycatch is assigned in an unsustainable way,” Parker told the council during public testimony. “Unlike all other bycatch, halibut is set in regulation, not tied to halibut abundance.”

At the council’s June meeting, the council asked the trawl fleets to take voluntary measures to reduce their halibut bycatch by 10 percent. The vessels did what they could to reduce bycatch and were surprised by the emergency reduction proposal.

“I don’t believe this meets the action requirements for emergency criteria,” said Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, which represents six of the large trawl companies focused on pollock. “I’m a little disappointed with comments about the Bering Sea needing to ‘wake up.’ We’ve been concerned about halibut in the Bering Sea for a long time. The industry did reduce their bycatch through voluntary measures.”

From 2009 to 2013, the average halibut bycatch mortality rate for the At-Sea Processors Association was 0.45 halibut for every metric ton of pollock. Their 2014 mortality rate was 0.18 per metric ton.

The average 2009 to 2013 halibut bycatch mortality was 172 metric tons, or about 379,000 pounds; in 2014 halibut bycatch decreased to 80 metric tons in 2014, or about 176,000 pounds, a 54 percent reduction.

Representatives from the Seafood Cooperative, an organization representing the non-pollock, bottom trawl fleet, reduced their halibut bycatch as well. Jason Anderson commented that industry followed the voluntary bycatch directive and shouldn’t be further managed.

 “We’ve done what you asked us to do,” said Anderson. “Overall, our bycatch is about 1,100 metric tons less than in 2013.”

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

11/18/2016 - 11:17am