Bering Sea halibut bycatch increases as council considers cod options

  • Halibut bycatch, the taking of the fish by vessels targeting other species, increased in 2019 as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council considers options for the Pacific cod sector. Among the options are allocating harvest quotas that would slow down the race for fish and in theory allow fishermen to avoid bycatch. (Photo/File/AJOC)

Editor's note: This article has been edited to correct the coastwide bycatch numbers. The bycatch numbers across Alaska exceeded the fishery limits, but in individual areas the bycatch was lower in 2019 than in 2018. Bycatch increase in areas 4 CDE+CA, in the Bering Sea.

In the Bering Sea, commercial fishermen caught more halibut as bycatch this year, though overall bycatch in Alaska fell.

Data released preceding the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s upcoming interim meeting shows that almost all the regulatory areas of Alaska from Southeast to the Bering Sea — areas 2C through 4E, respectively — caught less halibut as bycatch in 2019 than they did in 2018, though the areas all still exceeded their fishery limits, with the exception of Area 4B.

Coastwide, from California and British Columbia through the Bering Sea, bycatch decreased from a little more than 6 million pounds to about 5.89 million pounds, though bycatch in areas 4 CDE+CA increased from about 2.98 million pounds to about 3.22 million pounds.

Overall, commercial fishermen have landed about 16.5 million pounds of halibut in Alaska in the 2019 season, 13 percent less than the fishery limit. Alaska made up most of the non-directed commercial discard mortality, with about 5.56 million pounds.

The IPHC will hold its interim meeting Nov. 25 in Seattle to review the stock assessment and season information, among other information, prior to its full annual meeting scheduled for Feb. 3-7, 2020, in Anchorage, where the commission adopts its season limits and regulations.

Most of the non-directed commercial discard mortality — the technical IPHC term for bycatch — went to the trawl fleet, as it has in the past.

There was also a small increase in Southeast Alaska’s bycatch numbers, though the area doesn’t have a trawl fleet and overall catch was down from the 2018 season.

Halibut bycatch is a sticky problem throughout Alaska’s commercial fisheries. The high-volume trawl fleet targets a variety of species, including flatfish, that share habitat with halibut.

While longliners can use larger hooks to avoid catching immature halibut, trawlers use large nets that don’t necessarily predict what will come up. To control the bycatch, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council sets prohibited species catch, or PSC, limits; when the limit on bycatch is reached, the fishery is restricted or closed.

In the case of the Pacific cod fishery in the Bering Sea, this has been happening more and more often. Declining total allowable catch, or TAC, limits for Pacific cod increasingly shorten the season and pressure boats to work quickly, hoping to catch enough cod before the cap is reached.

Because they work quickly, they increasingly may not take precautions to avoid bycatch, adding the pressure of the fishery closing more quickly as the PSC limit is reached. Combined with pressure on the stock from directed fishing and changing ocean conditions, researchers and stakeholders have raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of the stock.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is working on a major program aimed partially to control halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea: rationalizing the Pacific cod fishery in the Bering Sea, aiming to alleviate the pressure on the halibut there by eliminating what stakeholders call “the race for fish.”

During the council’s meeting in October, the members approved a list of options and elements for preliminary analysis for the Pacific cod fishery, including a number of particulars for a cooperative-based limited access privilege program in the fishery. Within the purpose and need statement, reducing bycatch is identified as one of the goals.

The North Pacific Fisheries Association’s members want to see permanent measures to reduce bycatch included in the program, including mechanisms to change the plan if bycatch isn’t reduced, and encouragement to transition to more selective gear types.

“We are encouraged that bycatch reduction is a top priority for the Council, and an integral part of the Purpose and Needs Statement for this topic,” wrote NPFA President Malcolm Milne in a letter to the council. “However, we have increasing concerns about the council’s ability to achieve that intent through a program that, despite strategic design, still codifies use of and permanent access rights to gear with high bycatch rates.”

Pacific cod is a high-volume fishery, while halibut, on the other hand, is a high-value fishery. To sustain the communities that depend on cod, the high volume needs to come in, wrote Pacific Seafood Processors Association President Chris Barrows in a letter to the council.

The processors recognize that something needs to be done to address the race for fish but encouraged the council to consider the investment and dependence on cod of all sectors before moving forward with a cooperative based model for rationalizing the Pacific cod fishery.

“All sectors are reliant on a healthy resource, improving bycatch, robust monitoring, and a safely prosecuted fishery,” he wrote. “As we make changes to better accomplish those objectives, we want to encourage inclusion and consideration of all dependent sectors, including shoreside processors and the communities in which we operate.”

Both Pacific cod rationalization program and an abundance-based management program — which would allow PSC limits to flex with the biomass assessments in the Bering Sea rather than being fixed — have potential to address the issue, but the particulars are still unclear, said Peggy Parker, the executive director of the Halibut Association of North America.

The abundance-based management program is meant to help alleviate the problem of a non-directed fishery still taking Pacific halibut when a directed fishery is shut down or curtailed because of a lack of sufficient fish.

“We could have a situation where the directed fishery is shut down, but bycatch is still allowed,” she said. “I really recognize the strong feelings they have not to shut down the flatfish fishery, the pollock fishery, any of that … We don’t want to shut down these really important-to-the-national-economy fisheries, but we also don’t want to lend a hand to what could be severely damaging to the halibut stock.”

The bycatch issue in the Bering Sea goes outside its geographic confines, too, she said — halibut migrate extensively from west to east. With heavy fishing pressure on all age groups in the Bering Sea, the question extends to the other regulatory areas whether the Pacific halibut stock can withstand that level of bycatch. In either case, both measures are far to implementation yet.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be enough, because we don’t really have a good clear picture yet of what either of those are going to look like,” she said.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/07/2019 - 3:58pm

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