Fisheries council considers linking halibut bycatch to abundance

Dec 4, 2021

Some communities in Western Alaska rely on halibut as a commercial and subsistence resource.
Credit Angela Denning / KFSK

All three Kenai Peninsula representatives to Juneau have signed onto a letter to the council that oversees commercial fishing in Alaska’s federal waters, joining a bipartisan chorus of voices demanding reduction of halibut bycatch.

Specifically, representatives are asking the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to approve Alternative 4 at its meeting next week, which would take the most significant swing toward linking the trawl fleet’s fishing with halibut abundance in the Bering Sea.

It’s a strategy called abundance-based management and it’s one proponents say would curb the number of halibut that get incidentally scooped up by trawl nets each year in Western Alaska. 

Andy Mezirow is a charter operator in Seward and a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. He said it’s a complicated issue — one the council has been considering for years. 

“If this was just a simple math problem, this would be a much easier issue," he said. "But it’s not.”

The bycatch issue has generated a lot of buzz.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council heard testimony from hundreds on salmon bycatch this year and the state is forming an Alaska Bycatch Task Force to tackle the issue.

Halibut in the Bering Sea, in particular, is a species of concern for fishermen in Western Alaska.

There are already limits to how much bycatch the Amendment 80 fleet can take. That fleet — named for the regulations that set up its harvest quotas — is made up of fishermen and processors that catch groundfish in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. Mezirow said the council is looking at the Amendment 80 sector specifically since it catches the largest amount of halibut bycatch of the groundfish fisheries in the region.

But the bycatch cap currently in place for the Amendment 80 fleet is fixed and is not adjusted to halibut abundance. So when halibut abundance is low, bycatch is a larger slice of the overall pie. The last time the cap was changed was five years ago

In their letter, legislators said there’s currently little incentive for the trawl fleet to lower the amount of bycatch they get — an estimated 2.8 million pounds each year. Soldotna Republican Rep. Ron Gillham is one of the representatives who signed onto the letter.

“And when they have to throw back more halibut dead than the sports and commercial fisherman catch — that’s just not right. So there’s gotta be something done to stop the overharvest of the bycatch," Gillham said.

Advocates of Alternative 4 — including the hundreds who submitted comments to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council — say the council should link the fleet’s activity to halibut abundance, with a range that fluctuates between the current cap and 45 percent lower. Other alternatives on the table would set higher caps.

Mezirow said the council has long been considering linking trawling to abundance. But he said it has not been easy to model what that might look like. The matter's complicated by the fact that a different body manages halibut stocks — the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

And Alternative 4 would likely have a colossal economic impact on the Amendment 80 fleet. Estimates in the draft environmental impact statement show that hit to the economy would greatly outweigh the economic gains from not harvesting as much halibut bycatch.

"In truth, some will be hurt no matter what we do, if we choose any of the options that will result in reduction, there are some companies that will be more negative than the others," he said.

But Mezirow said there are social impacts to consider, as well. The council has heard from communities in Western Alaska about how dependent they are on halibut, including Alaska Native fishermen. In a separate social impact statement, the council found that the alternatives could have significant impacts for those communities.

David Bayes said that’s important. He’s a charter operator out of Homer and has headed charter associations for Homer and Alaska.

"To me, the heart of this conversation is whether we as Alaskans want to look at how these regulations affect Alaska and Alaskans’ incomes, or if we want to zoom out and focus on the benefit to the nation of the whole," he said. "And the nation makes a lot of money off it. But if that comes at the price of local Alaskans, is that something Alaskans want to support?”

He said the health of halibut stocks in the Bering Sea could have effects on Southcentral fishermen, as well. Bering Sea trawlers tend to catch juvenile halibut in their nets.

Mezirow said it’s going to be a difficult conversation for the council next week.

“What people want is so far apart that I don't think the outcome of this is going to make everybody happy," he said. "And that’s fairly standard these days in fisheries management, but it’s hard to go into a meeting knowing you’re not going to make everybody happy.”

The halibut bycatch issue is second on the council’s December agenda. Whatever decision the council makes will head to NOAA Fisheries for approval.