Council adds 50% option for bycatch cut

SEATTLE — In January, the International Pacific Halibut Commission put a Band-Aid on a Bering Sea halibut situation that needs a blood transfusion from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Halibut fishermen earned a breather in 2015, with slightly raised allocations all around and a status quo 1.285 million pounds for the central Bering Sea quota holders, but the bulk of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s February meeting took a look at every way possible to get those numbers higher.

The council voted on Feb. 8 to release an amended table of halibut bycatch reduction options for public review. In the meantime, Northern Economics, an Anchorage firm, will study the economic impacts of the proposed reductions after a rough cross-examination by council and staff for its initial report.

The council will take final action on the reduction proposals in their June meeting in Sitka.

The motion added 40 percent, 45 percent and 50 percent options to each of the originally proposed reductions and was part of a larger package of halibut bycatch reduction proposals and studies that received no action. It was introduced by council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak and passed with a 9-2 vote.

Council members John Henderschedt and Craig Cross, both of Seattle, voted against the motion.

The amended motion recommends the following reductions in prohibited species catch limits in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands groundfish fisheries, more than one of which may be chosen. It covers all fleets in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fisheries for 10 percent, 20, percent, 30 percent, 35 percent, 40 percent, 45 percent, or 50 percent reductions.

The limited access Amendment 80 bottom trawl fleet of catcher-processors has a 60 percent option for a halibut bycatch limit reduction.

The original requested study only analyzed reductions up to 35 percent. Fields’ motion incorporated changes recommended by the council’s Advisory Panel to analyze greater options. The panel voted 22-1 to add 50 percent reductions to the study after receiving a wealth of public testimony regarding the projections of halibut to the directed fishery under each option.

Now, halibut fishers say they need a higher percentage of cuts to halibut bycatch than the 35 percent formerly considered. According to calculations made by the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, or CBSFA, and used by council, a 35 percent industry-wide halibut bycatch reduction in the Bering Sea would yield less than the current 1.285 million pound allocation for Area 4CDE. Area 4CDE is the regulatory area for the Central Bering Sea surrounding the Pribilof Islands.

CBSFA members from St. Paul island stressed the current harvest level is the bare minimum for sustaining their businesses.

The 1.285 millions pounds are a historical low, yet are greater than the biological recommendation, or blue line, made to the International Pacific Halibut Commission by its scientists. The commission’s 4CDE allocation more than doubled the blue line of 520,000 pounds on recommendation from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The department has been considering an emergency 33 percent halibut bycatch reduction request sent to it by the six Alaskan members of the North Pacific council after a failed motion to do the same at the council’s December meeting. The department sent a letter recommending higher allocations than the blue line for Area 4CDE, but made no intent known regarding the emergency cut. Cuts now fall entirely on the council’s shoulders to make in time for the international commission’s 2016 halibut season allocations.

CBSFA Special Projects Manager Ray Melovidov used commission numbers to reach the conclusions. A 42 percent bycatch cut would be needed to allow for 1.285 million pounds of halibut to the 4CDE halibut fishery. The current 10-year average (2005-14) Area 4CDE catch limit is 3.2 million pounds; the 2011 limit was 3.72 million pounds.

A 50 percent bycatch limit reduction would result in 1.5 million pounds of halibut to the directed fishery in 4CDE, and a 67 percent reduction is needed to get back to the average.

The council has to consider industry bycatch cap reductions in the light of voluntary fleet measures and the relative value of halibut to the groundfish fleets.

In a 2014 meeting, the council asked the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands groundfish fleets to take voluntary measures to reduce their halibut bycatch by 10 percent. In Seattle, each fleet presented progress reports on how much they had been able to reduce the mortality rates and total encounters with halibut.

The of groundfish bottom trawl catcher processors — known as Amendment 80 after that section in the fishery management plan — has the highest encounter rate and mortality rate concerning halibut.

According to in-season management report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fishing sectors took a total of 3,391 metric tons (7.47 million pounds) of halibut bycatch mortality in 2014, which lowered the halibut mortality rate by 3 percent from the 2009-2013 average of 3,482 metric tons (7.67 million pounds). A metric ton equals 2,204 pounds.

Of that total, 2,136 metric tons were by Amendment 80 vessels, a 4 percent increase from the most recent five-year average of 2,048 metric tons.

The next highest was the hook-and-line catcher-processors with 367 metric tons, a 28 percent reduction from their five-year average of 512 metric tons.

Though total mortality reduction fell short of the requested voluntary 10 percent, trawlers and long liners stress that vessel cooperatives have had much greater success rates.

The groundfish fleets favor incentives that encourage cooperatives and voluntary measures instead of regulatory measures. The additions of deck sorting and a developing electronic monitoring system, trawlers say, are effective new tools for halibut management, and that no regulatory action can be as effective as the market correcting itself in response to changing scenarios. A 50 percent cap reduction, for some, is simply unreasonable.

“Over the last few days and back into December, we heard discussion of these 30 and 35 percent reductions,” said Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, which represents 14 of 18 Amendment 80 vessels. “Now it’s 50 percent, 67 percent. Those are not practical. Those are not reasonable. We need to have the tools and the time to demonstrate that we can reduce our bycatch.”

There were several sticking points in the council process, but the stickiest was an economic impact report the council requested, which was contracted to Anchorage firm Northern Economics. Marcus Hartley of Northern Economics presented the report to a heavy amount of criticism from the Scientific and Statistical Committee, or SSC, and Advisory Panel before being presented to council.

The SSC identified four critical areas where the report lacked appropriate depth. First and foremost, the assumptions on which the study was built weren’t made clear enough. Each council body in turn spent the majority of Hartley’s presentation asking for clarifications.

The committee objected to the study’s lack of incorporation of the mortality of halibut under 26 inches, or U26 mortality. U26 mortality accounting played a big role in the joint meeting between the council and the International Pacific halibut Commission.

Commission scientist Ian Stewart delivered a presentation on a new mortality accounting framework incorporating U26 halibut, which could theoretically lead to more accurate biology and allocations.

The committee and Advisory Panel also felt the study lacked adequate analysis of voluntary or incidental changes in the fishery itself. Even though a full report on industry efforts was made to council, the report didn’t incorporate any of those assumptions into its models.

Finally, the committee felt that Hartley’s study didn’t have enough analysis considering the indirect economic and social impacts of the bycatch cap reductions, notably to coastal communities.

Now, Northern Economics will have to incorporate analysis of 40 percent, 45 percent and 50 percent reductions in addition to more depth on the SSC’s four problem areas.

Though the council voted to open the proposed reductions to public review, this new study won’t likely be ready until May, shortly before the June meeting where council will take final action.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

11/18/2016 - 4:05pm