Halibut comments rolling in, salmon opener underway
Nowhere in the world do people have as much opportunity to speak their minds to fish policy makers as they do in Alaska. As decision day approaches, a groundswell of Alaska voices is demanding that fishery overseers say bye-bye to halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea.
They are speaking out against the more than 6 million pounds of halibut that are dumped overboard each year as bycatch in trawl fisheries that target flounders, rockfish, perch, mackerel and other groundfish (not pollock).
The bycatch levels, which are set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, have not been changed for 20 years for the so-called “Amendment 80” fleet of 28 Seattle-based trawlers. At the same time, the halibut catches for commercial, sport and subsistence users have been slashed every year for 14 years due to stock depletion and slow growing, small fish.
The North Pacific council will decide on cutting the halibut bycatch level by up to 50 percent when it meets the week of June 1 in Sitka.
Federal data show that the multi-billion pound trawl fisheries discarded seven times more halibut in 2014 than were landed by fishermen in the same Bering Sea region.
“Halibut bycatch comes off the top,” said Jeff Kauffman of St. Paul, one of nearly 2,000 Alaskans who holds fishing shares of the halibut stocks. Kauffman has seen his region’s share of the small boat halibut catch dwindle by 63 percent to less than 400,000 pounds.
“There has been a de facto reallocation from the directed fisheries to the bycatch fisheries,” he said. “Conservation of the stock is riding solely on the backs of the halibut fishermen.”
“Alaska is the model for fishery sustainability and we should not prioritize bycatch over all the other harvests. And this is what we are seeing out in the Bering Sea,” agreed Theresa Peterson of Kodiak, an outreach coordinator for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
Just because the fish is far away, doesn’t mean it has no impact on all other fishing communities, she pointed out.
“Tagging studies show clearly that a halibut born in the Bering Sea could end up virtually in any management area within a couple years of its life. It’s a bycatch issue that affects all user groups throughout the state,” Peterson said.
Data also show the average size of the halibut caught as bycatch last year in the Bering Sea was 4.76 pounds, less than half the weight of a typical 26-inch halibut. Between 70 percent to 90 percent of those smaller fish are slated to migrate out of the region upon maturity.
So far, 16 Alaska groups and communities have passed resolutions and/or written strongly worded letters to the North Pacific council pushing for a 50 percent bycatch cut. A dozen Alaska legislators also have written to urge the council to make the cut.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Bering Sea fleet said the current bycatch issue draws “reckless conclusions.”
The fishermen have worked extremely hard to reduce bycatch by maximizing halibut avoidance, said Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum.
“Suggesting that a 50 percent reduction in bycatch is a ‘fair share’ action is ridiculous. There is nothing fair, equitable or reasonable in using the blunt tool of a 50 percent reallocation that could cost hard working Alaskans and fishermen hundreds of jobs, and could remove well over $100 million dollars from the State of Alaska’s economy in a single year,” Woodley wrote in an open letter to the industry.
“This iconic species to subsistence, commercial and sport users is too valuable to waste and we can do better,” Peterson rebutted. “It has been 20 years since that bycatch level has been addressed in a meaningful way. It is absolutely time to act.”
Public comments will be accepted by the council through May 26.
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Few fishermen go to sea without their Vicky – the small, sharp Victorinox Swiss Army knife used for everything that needs a quick cut. But traditional knife sheaths point downward, and Vickys can badly poke fishermen scrambling atop huge pots used for crab or cod. To prevent injuries, fishermen customarily duct tape the knives sideways to their belts.
Anne Morris of Sand Point knew there had to be a better way. She designed and made a snazzy new Vicky sheath that lies horizontally on belts — pokey problem solved.
The knife sheath topped 23 entries to win the $1,000 first place prize last month at the Aleutian Marketplace Business Idea Competition, hosted each year by the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association and the Aleut Corp.
“A big safety issue in my presentation was it is quicker to get the knife out of the sheath with it lying horizontal,” Morris said. “A big reason they wear the Vicky, too, is because nobody wants to go over with a crab pot.”
She credits her son, Justin Drew, a pot cod fishermen, for the winning idea and has dubbed it the JD Beltz. The Marketplace competition is two-tiered and Morris now moves to a business plan phase that begins in October.
“My idea is to include the sheath, the belt and the knife as a package deal. It might change as I get further along,” she said, adding that she hopes to work with a manufacturer and have the Vicky sheaths available by next year.
Alaska’s 2015 salmon season officially began on May 14 with the first runs of reds and kings to the Copper River near Cordova. In coming weeks salmon openers will kick off all over Alaska and regional catch forecasts are up across the board.
In all, Alaskans are bracing for a huge season – state managers project a harvest of 221 million salmon, 39 percent higher than last year.
Driving the numbers are big forecasts for both sockeye and pink salmon. A whopping 59 million sockeye catch is set to come out of Alaska this summer, a 33 percent increase and the largest harvest since 1995. A sockeye catch of more than 38 million is projected at Bristol this summer.
For those hard to predict pinks, the statewide harvest could top 140 million, a 46 percent increase. At Southeast Alaska, home to the state’s largest wild pink salmon runs, the catch is pegged at 58 million fish.
Chum salmon harvests are expected to double this year to more than 17 million. On the downside, a coho harvest of 4.6 million would be a drop of nearly 2 million fish from last year.
You can track salmon catches daily during the season via the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Blue Sheet.