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Fishery council adopts tighter Bering Sea halibut bycatch limits based on stocks

A fishery council has implemented a new Bering Sea halibut bycatch system for factory trawlers.
Published: Dec. 21, 2021 at 4:58 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The governing body in charge of regulating halibut bycatch limits in the Bering Sea has adopted a new management system based on stocks of the valuable groundfish.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted the policy earlier in the month on an 8-3 vote. It’s set to go into effect in 2023.

Currently, there is a static cap on halibut bycatch for the Amendment 80 trawl fleet. If the fleet hits that cap, the fishery would close.

Advocates of tighter bycatch limits have said the current cap is too high. Since 2015, when the council last amended bycatch regulations, they have pushed for them to be lowered.

On Dec. 13, the council enacted an abundance-based system proposed by the state of Alaska. When stocks of halibut are high, the caps stay the same for the trawl fleet. If stocks drop to their lowest levels, the current limits for the trawl fleet would drop by as much as 35%.

“This is a really big step in the management of halibut bycatch,” said Heather McCarty of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. “It will be instrumental, we hope, in creating more equity between the bycatch users of halibut and the commercial and sport users of halibut.”

McCarty represents one of six commercial fishing associations in the region that longline for halibut. The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association had advocated strongly for even stricter limits but celebrated the “compromise” decision while anticipating legal challenges.

Federal fisheries data shows that halibut stocks have dropped in the Bering Sea since the 1990s. The fish can migrate thousands of miles and Bering Sea stocks can impact numbers across the Gulf of Alaska.

Under federal law, the Bering Sea trawl fleet is prohibited from keeping halibut. It catches 2.8 million pounds of the fish on average each year and discards them, many of which die in the process.

The fleet has successfully enacted procedures to reduce halibut bycatch by half since the 1990s as it targets groundfish like sole and yellowfin sole.

Chris Woodley, executive director of Groundfish Forum, represents the 19 Seattle-based ships that make up the Amendment 80 trawl fleet. He says shrinking the bycatch limits risks jobs and could cost the industry tens of millions of dollars each year.

“We directly employ 2,200 crewmembers annually and from these fisheries our crewmembers produce over 600 million meals annually for consumers across the globe,” he said in testimony to the council.

Woodley said it was a “sad day” when the council made its decision and that the forum is exploring “all options.”

The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, an Alaska Native tribal organization, had called for the strictest bycatch limits. Karen Pletnikoff, the association’s environmental and safety program manager, said halibut is celebrated through dances, in song and “in sharing a young person’s first catch.”

“It is our responsibility to our creator to respectfully use the resources we were given, as we were given halibut,” she said to the council.

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