Time to make voices heard on halibut bycatch

Something big is coming up, and I don’t mean a halibut. After years of study and foot-dragging, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is finally considering reducing the outrageous amount of halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska.

What’s halibut bycatch? It’s what happens when a commercial trawler or long-liner tries to catch cod, pollock or some other species and, in the destructive, unsustainable process, the vessel catches halibut and other fish. Under current regulations, the trawl and long-line fleet can catch more than 5 million pounds of halibut bycatch, all of which must be thrown back, a rule meant to prevent them from profiting from bycatch. Many of these halibut are dead. Reduced to an acronym — “PSC,” for prohibited species catch — they sink to the bottom, utterly wasted.

The NPFMC should’ve reduced halibut bycatch years ago. This bycatch is now affecting fishing opportunity and, more importantly, halibut productivity. A recent study found that 1 pound of halibut lost to bycatch equates to a loss of about 1.5 pounds of halibut in the halibut spawning biomass.

Let’s put it another way: Trawlers, mainly targeting Pacific cod, are incidentally killing halibut, cutting into the number that you and I could be catching, whether we fish for halibut for sport, subsistence or commercially. What’s worse, the trawlers are killing a great many halibut before the fish are mature enough to reproduce.

Most of us don’t see many trawlers, but they’re out there. Sometimes called draggers, they pull large nets through the water, either on the bottom or at mid-water depths. Some are small boats, operated by families out of Alaskan ports. Others are huge factory ships owned by foreign corporations and based in Seattle.

The current regulation that allows a bycatch of 5 million pounds of Gulf of Alaska halibut hasn’t significantly changed since 1986 for trawl fisheries, where most of the halibut bycatch occurs. While that regulation remains unchanged, the portion of the halibut biomass available for harvest has declined by more than 50 percent in just the past 10 years. This decline has resulted in stricter regulations for fishermen and higher costs for everyone who eats halibut. In Southeast waters, it led to charter-boat anglers being able to harvest only one halibut less than 37 inches in length per day. Charter operators in Homer, Seward, Whittier and Valdez fear the same thing will happen here.

At its June 6-12 meeting in Kodiak, the NPFMC will be considering cutting the halibut bycatch by a range of 5 to 15 percent. Let’s hope council members do the right thing and choose the 15 percent reduction. It’s time they stopped talking and studying and took action.

What can you do to help?

Visit the Alaska Marine Conservation Council’s Web page (www.akmarine.org), and sign onto their letter to the Council. Add a note, telling the Council to reduce the bycatch by 15 percent. Tell your friends to do the same. If you can, attend the NPFMC meeting in Kodiak. If you want to continue catching and eating halibut, here’s your chance to prove it.

12/05/2016 - 9:48pm