Editorial: Council gets it right on bycatch, more work to do

“Glacial” is the word most often used to describe the North Pacific Fishery Management Council process, but that’s actually unfair to glaciers.

Not even time-lapse photography would reveal much movement on reducing halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska until the council’s vote June 8 in Kodiak to cut it by 15 percent starting in 2014.

The only previous cut in trawl halibut bycatch was a 27.4 metric ton reduction for the rockfish program passed in 2010 that represented about 1.4 percent of the 2,000 metric ton, or 4.4 million pound, trawl halibut bycatch allotment in place since 1986.

Rather than compromise on the amount of the reduction, as many expected, the council compromised with the trawl fleet on time by phasing in the maximum cut under consideration over three years.

We applaud the council action as an important first step, and encourage the members to continue pushing toward more meaningful measures to reduce bycatch even further.

The trawl fleet made a series of self-defeating arguments against cutting halibut bycatch, taking the position the move was more allocation than conservation, pointing fingers at discards in the commercial halibut fishery, suggesting trawlers are balancing the ecosystem by removing arrowtooth flounder and juvenile halibut, and even attacking the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

A majority of the council — namely, the Alaska delegation — didn’t buy any of that.

However, we agree with the trawl fleet that some sort of organization of the Gulf fishery is necessary, and that a reduction in bycatch of much more than 15 percent is possible along with it. That said, the council acted properly to not trade a bycatch cut for a trawl catch share program that will take five years or more to craft and implement.

Both the Bering Sea catcher-processor groundfish fleet and the Gulf rockfish program have demonstrated that significant bycatch savings are possible under a cooperative fishing program. Bycatch dropped 80 percent in the first year of the rockfish program in 2007 and the Bering Sea fleet has continued to cut its bycatch since 2008 despite an increasing biomass of halibut on their grounds.

The council must use this time wisely to make real progress for a lasting management solution in the Gulf.

Catch share programs of the type sought by the trawl fleet are inherently controversial based on legitimate philosophical differences about the degree to which a public resource becomes privatized, and at least in the case of the rockfish program the council has shown an ability to address some of those concerns.

In the rockfish program redesigned over several years and passed in 2010, the council prevented consolidation through vessel use caps, cut mandated processor ties while also setting a minimum amount of companies that can take deliveries, and directed more of the harvest shoreside to Kodiak.

The council also cut the bycatch allowance, incentivized more bycatch savings by limiting the amount that can be rolled over to subsequent seasons, and forced the fleet to work together by requiring membership in cooperatives to access harvest quota. The council also put a 10-year sunset date on the program to limit speculation and affirm public ownership of the resource.

It remains to be seen whether the sunset date was the proper way to limit ballooning costs of entry that typically accompany rationalized programs where shares are bought and sold at 5-1 rates to dockside prices, but it was an action that showed at attempt by the council to address a real problem.

The North Pacific council was once on a path toward Gulf rationalization early last decade. Then the Bering Sea crab rationalization took effect in 2005. Two-thirds of the fleet was tied up overnight, and 1,000 crew positions were gone from one season to the next.

By allowing unlimited quota stacking and leasing, the program made millionaires out of a handful of initial shareholders and slashed crew pay by more than half from historical percentages in some cases.

The fallout from the crab program, with ground zero centered in Kodiak, killed the Gulf rationalization efforts.

If the council has trouble pursuing a rationalized management program in the Gulf because of public reservations, the failure to correct the crew situation in the crab program is a major reason why those hard feelings still exist.

The current council didn’t construct the crab program back in 2003, but it hasn’t moved an inch to resolve this issue even after being confronted with compensation tables in 2010 showing the situation has deteriorated to the point at which crew who harvested 150,000 more pounds of lucrative Bristol Bay red king crab than others actually received less pay because of lease rates and quota stacking.

A myriad of forms and regulations apply to federal fisheries, but this council hasn’t mustered the ability to require so much as a standardized settlement sheet for crew or the reporting of leasing data as a condition of receiving annual shares. This despite having the opportunity to do so in February when it adopted revisions to the economic data reporting system.

Rather than require the kind of data that would have gotten more clearly at the issue of crew compensation, the council curtailed reporting requirements in an action that its own Scientific and Statistical Committee called a betrayal of the social contract implicit in the crab program.

There is a direct correlation between the lack of an organized Gulf fishery today and the mistakes that were made — and continue to be made — in the Bering Sea crab fishery regarding the allocation of a public resource and how those benefits should be distributed.

The council took a sensible action regarding halibut bycatch. Some would call it too little, too late. We consider it better late than never. When it comes to organizing the Gulf fishery, to borrow a title from Steppenwolf, it’s never too late to start all over again.

But as the council embarks once again on this effort, it’s worth remembering why it has taken so long to return to this point — and that the underlying issue that set the council back remains unresolved.

Updated: 
06/14/2012 - 7:36pm