Bycatch spike, meeting spur trawl stand down

Gulf of Alaska trawlers are flocking to a meeting in Portland, leaving behind a halibut bycatch situation the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is attempting to fix.

The trawlers have complaints with council process, but are also standing down from a halibut bycatch spike resulting from a pollock price dispute with area processors.

Industry sources say the stand down was already underway prior to a letter from prominent Gulf of Alaska trawl organizations on Jan. 28 asking for the council-related stand down. Trawl industry representatives said the two stand downs are unrelated.

Thirty-four Central Gulf of Alaska trawlers and 19 Western Gulf of Alaska trawlers have agreed not to fish from Feb. 3-6, showing solidarity with those trawlers traveling to Portland to testify at the council meeting.

No pollock, lots of halibut

Before the Jan. 28 letter, a pollock price dispute spun into high halibut bycatch.

Processors set a low pollock price for the Gulf of Alaska this year; sources said processors are offering 8 cents per pound for pollock less than 800 grams (1.78 pounds) in weight compared to a more typical 12- to 15-cents range. These smaller fish, the majority of this year’s early catch, also have little roe for finished products, and those prices are relatively low as well.

In response, trawlers who’d come to the Central Gulf for pollock fished for groundfish instead and their nets filled with halibut bycatch. 

While fishing for non-pollock groundfish such as Pacific cod, the Central Gulf of Alaska groundfish fleet collectively caught 110 more metric tons of halibut this year than through the same period in 2015, or about 242,000 pounds.

“Last week, they thought they were getting into some halibut and getting some high rates,” said Mary Furuness, a resource management specialist with the Alaska Region of National Marine Fisheries Service. “We were getting PSC (prohibited species catch) rates extrapolated to the rest of the fleet from the observers. So they decided to have a voluntary stand down and stop targeting non-pollock species.”

Through Jan. 24, the fleet caught 118 metric tons of halibut compared to the same period in 2015 when they caught only 8 metric tons. 

Gulf of Alaska processors say they are not taking deliveries for trawl-caught groundfish, though managers clarify it is a vessel decision not to fish, not a processor decision not to accept deliveries.

Both the Kodiak Ocean Beauty and Kodiak Trident Seafoods, two of the region’s largest processors, have confirmed their fleets are standing down.

Gearing down for Portland

Julie Bonney, executive director of Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, said the stand down’s organizers set the current council-driven stand down date on Jan. 18, two days before the season began and the halibut bycatch rate spiked.

 “This is really quite unique,” said Bonney. “Fishermen agreeing to stand down, essentially losing income, in order to make this trip to provide their input demonstrates just how important this change in management is to the fishing industry.”

Each vessel will likely lose between $30,000 to $50,000 in total revenue, she estimated; vessels lose two trips worth of fishing over the four-day stand down. Similarly, the Gulf’s 1,500-odd processor workers could lie idle and payless in shoreside bunkhouses with no fish to scale and gut.

Bob Krueger, executive director of Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, said the stand down’s organizers wanted to show unity.

“We don’t want someone going out and fishing while other vessel crew are closing operations to go to Portland,” he said. “It’s a fairness issue for everybody.”

Salmon and halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska drives the council’s agenda for early 2016. The council has lowered the bycatch caps for halibut and set caps for chinook salmon for the Gulf fisheries in the last few years and will decide on an entirely new management scheme in 2016 or 2017.

The 2016 halibut cap dropped 3 percent from 2015, and the council could potentially lower it further.

On Jan. 29, the executive directors of some of Gulf’s largest trawler organizations circulated a second letter to media explaining the rationale behind the stand down, outlining criticisms of proposed bycatch management. The letter described a host of issues the fleet has with the council’s latest Gulf of Alaska options.

The Gulf of Alaska groundfish fishery is one of the few fisheries in the North Pacific that has no quota system, which assigns individual vessels specific amounts of fish every season. Most other fisheries have such management, ending derby style fishing where the “race for fish” makes the occupation dangerous and unpredictable and results in greater bycatch rates.

Trawlers also have high bycatch rates for halibut and chinook salmon. Both fish are in a low abundance state compared to previous decades. Managing bycatch is a top priority for the North Pacific council.

New management has already proven problematic. In 2015, chinook salmon bycatch caps closed Western Gulf trawlers down prematurely; the council had to make an emergency shift of chinook salmon bycatch quota for the fleet to resume fishing.

“The management structure we have right now just does not work,” said Krueger. “We’re set up to fail again unless we get another management structure. The last thing the state needs is to have the economy of the Gulf melt down.”

Preferred alternatives

Trawlers protest one alternative in the current management package, which they say didn’t have enough public input before an Alaska council member added it in October 2015.

The trawlers’ preferred alternative, they said, came from former Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell after two hard years of public input throughout the council process. The Alaska ADFG commissioner holds one of 11 voting seats on the North Pacific council.

In 2014, however, Gov. Bill Walker entered the governor’s mansion and brought new fisheries managers with him. He appointed Sam Cotten to fill Campbell’s commissioner position.

During the council’s October meeting in Anchorage, Cotten forwarded a new option to the Gulf of Alaska bycatch management discussion, naturally without the same amount of input as Campbell’s.

Gulf of Alaska trawlers say the option does nothing to help bycatch, and could damage the Gulf’s economy.

Cotten’s option, Alternative 3, only creates an individual quota system for bycatch, rather than for the target species. Trawlers say this does nothing to end the race for fish, as vessels will simply fish up to their individual bycatch limit instead of the fleet wide limit.

This would depart from other North Pacific area management, which gives quota for both bycatch and directed species.

“Alternative 3 introduces a catch share program significantly different from those programs already implemented in other Alaska fisheries,” reads the trawlers’ letter to the council. “In fact, so far as we are aware, there are no programs in any fishery worldwide similar to that proposed under Alternative 3.”

Further, Alternative 3 doesn’t have the same community protections against overconsolidation, such as port landing requirements for on shore processors and vessel use caps.

“It is difficult to understand why the Council would pursue management measures that hamstring the industry’s ability to provide these economic benefits to Alaska’s fishery dependent communities while also meeting the Council’s bycatch reduction requirements,” reads the letter.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

02/03/2016 - 3:05pm