Obama to appoint Behnken to International Pacific Halibut Commission

  • Linda Behnken, left, has been appointed by President Obama to the International Pacifici Halibut Commission. Here she is seen taking part in Gov. Bill Walker's transition committee for fisheries.

In a final round of appointments before his second and final term comes to a close, President Barack Obama announced on Nov. 3 his intent to appoint Linda Behnken to the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

Behnken is an Alaska fishing fixture and has served as an interim commissioner since July. The commission’s upcoming Nov. 29-30 meeting will be her first.

She currently serves as executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, an industry group that promotes the interests of Alaska’s small boat fishermen, and formerly served three terms on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that handles all federal fisheries from three to 200 miles off the Alaska coast. 

Behnken has a full schedule ahead of her, as halibut management is complex and has several issues needing fixes.

“My goal there is to work with other commissioners and stakeholders to update the harvest policy for the directed fishery, rebuild stocks, and reduce bycatch,” she said in an interview with the Journal.

Among other priorities, Behnken said she wants to revisit the harvest policy for halibut fishermen by expanding the range of information factored into harvest guidelines. She would prefer a harvest policy that accounts for fish of all sizes and ages instead of the current focus on fish over 32 inches, and accounts for mortality of all sizes and ages of fish.

Alaska halibut stakeholders say they have high hopes for Behnken’s commissionership.

“I think the industry is pretty pleased,” said Tom Gemmell, executive director of the Halibut Coalition. “She’s been a long time advocate for the industry.”

Gemmell praised Behnken’s grasp of management science, and in particular her involvement with an ongoing policy overhaul involving abundance-based halibut bycatch management.

“She’s always had a good grasp of the numbers,” said Gemmell. “I know she’s pretty engaged with the council process in this idea for abundance-based management and fixing this whole problem in the Bering Sea. It’s going to be a long-term process. But I think she’s got a good handle on that.”

The commission, or IPHC, is a joint Canadian-U.S. body that governs halibut management in the Pacific. Three commissioners from each country sit on the commission to set quota levels for halibut fishermen and perform the science necessary to run the fishery.

Obama announced Behnken’s appointment along with that of Charlie Swanton as a commissioner of the U.S. Pacific Salmon Commission, which jointly manages Canadian and U.S. salmon in Southeast and the Yukon River.

“The talent and expertise these individuals bring to their roles will serve our nation well,” wrote Obama of the appointments. “I am grateful for their service, and look forward to working with them.”

Behnken was already serving as interim commissioner after another halibut fisherman left the post. She took the job after commissioner Jeff Kauffman resigned. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration law enforcement had charged him with a halibut fishing violation, settled out of courts for $49,000.

This is Obama’s second honor for Behnken in 2016. In October, Behnken was named a “Champion of Change” for her work “promoting sustainable fishing and improving the lives of fishermen in Alaska and around the nation.”

Behnken’s appointment comes at a time when halibut managers are looking for solutions.

The North Pacific fishing world has focused heavily on halibut the last several years. Stakeholders have scrutinized the dual management of halibut between the IPHC and the U.S. North Pacific Fishery Management Council as clumsy and problematic.

Groundfish trawlers take halibut as incidental catch, or bycatch. Groundfish includes pollock and non-pelagic species such as Pacific cod, Arrowtooth flounder and rockfish.

The North Pacific council sets the caps for how much halibut the groundfish trawlers can take, while the IPHC sets the caps for how much the directed halibut fishermen can take. The IPHC’s caps shift according to how many halibut they predict are in the sea, but the North Pacific council’s caps stay largely the same from season to season.

This led to a situation in 2015 in which halibut fishermen ended up taking less halibut than the groundfish trawlers, who aren’t allowed to sell the incidentally caught fish. Behnken was one of the most vocal proponents of slashing the groundfish bycatch caps so the directed halibut fishermen could get more harvest. 

The IPHC and the North Pacific council are currently working towards a solution where their management methods are more in sync and the bycatch limits will be set according to halibut abundance as the directed harvest caps are.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

11/14/2016 - 1:17pm