Unalaska City Council takes informal action on halibut bycatch cuts

UNALASKA — Even without a formal resolution, the Unalaska City Council does agree with the mayor that any cuts to halibut bycatch allowed to trawlers should not exceed 10 percent, according to Mayor Shirley Marquardt.

Last week's Journal (May 31 edition) incorrectly reported that she failed to win the city council's support on the issue.

The city council unanimously voted April 28 to send her to the June meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Sitka.

The mayor also asked the council to endorse a letter to the NPFMC on the bycatch issue, which she said they did informally later in the meeting, by nodding their heads in agreement.

The bycatch issue was not mentioned in the meeting's agenda, and the issue arose during the mayor and council travel agenda item.

“It has always been informal. It does not require a resolution,” the mayor said.

Said council member Tom Enlow at the meeting, “I'm confused. The motion is to authorize travel, and we've got this letter mixed in with it. If the city wants to make a comment on it, that's great. But I think we should get back to authorizing some travel here, and not get bogged down with the content of response on a particular issue. Some representative of the city has always been at a council meeting.”

However, a city representative probably won't attend the Sitka meeting. Marquardt said she's unable to attend due to a scheduling conflicts. And city natural resources analyst Frank Kelty, who usually goes, said he can't attend, as all the hotel rooms are sold out in Sitka.The NPFMC meets June 1 through June 9 in the Southeast Alaska town.

At the April 28 meeting, Marquardt called for a halibut bycatch reduction of no more than 10 percent, versus the 50 percent supported by a group of Alaska state legislators.

The contentious issue pits small boat fishermen with halibut individual fishing quotas against much larger vessels targeting flounders and cod, but which also catch unintentionally catch halibut which they are not allowed to keep. Much of that halibut bycatch is returned to the ocean dead.

The city council did vote to pay her way to the meeting, but avoided the halibut bycatch issue.

Alaska state legislators are requesting a 50 percent bycatch reduction aimed at helping small boat halibut fishermen, according to a letter sent last month to the NPFMC,signed by three southwest Alaska politicians, including Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D, Bethel, Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D, Dillingham, and Rep. Bob Herron, D, Bethel, and others.

Marquardt and Kelty both warned of a damaging effect on the local economy, if the fish council cuts the Bering Sea halibut bycatch allowance by what Kelty called an “extreme percentage,” with potential impacts in the “millions of dollars.”

The fish versus fish battle puts halibut one side, facing off against yellowfin sole and rock sole and turbot and other flatfish, and Pacific ocean perch and Atka mackerel, sold mainly in Asia by the Seattle-based distant water fleet.

Kelty said the city had received written requests for support from the Groundfish Forum, representing flatfish factory trawlers, and Fisherman's Finest, the owner of the factory trawlers American No. 1, and U.S. Intrepid..

According to Marquardt's letter addressed to the NPFMC, “If the level is set over a 10 percent reduction, we are very concerned about the impact to the many support sector businesses here in Unalaska as well as a significant drop in our fish tax and sales tax revenues, so critical to our continued economic stability here in the Aleutian Islands.”

Marquardt also said the trawlers have already taken significant steps to reduce halibut bycatch, and want to do more.

But city council member and small boat fisherman Roger Rowland said halibut fishermen are suffering from declining quotas. “The halibut fleet has done all the conservation,” he said.

Marquardt said the issue affects the Amendment 80 fleet of factory trawlers, the freezer longliners which hook and freeze Pacific cod at sea, and cod catcher vessels.

“A substantial change in the halibut allowable bycatch numbers for these vessels could be extremely negative to a coastal community that depends on a stable, year round fishing effort. The result of putting at significant risk our current level of local businesses, jobs, and revenue is of great concern to us,” she wrote.

The halibut bycatch issue arose earlier at the NPFMC, during the December meeting in Anchorage, with much of the concern coming from small boat halibut fishermen in the Pribilof Islands. Halibut fishermen complained that trawlers are allowed to waste more halibut as bycatch than the small hook and line IFQ boats will be allowed to catch and sell, a policy called “unacceptable” by St. Paul Mayor Simeon Swetzof.

Jim Paulin can be reached at [email protected]

11/21/2016 - 8:19pm