The North Pacific Fishery Management Council on Sunday voted to reduce by 25 percent the amount of halibut a Seattle-based bottom trawl fleet can catch and discard while pursuing other fish in the Bering Sea.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council on Sunday voted to reduce by 25 percent the amount of halibut a Seattle-based bottom trawl fleet can catch and discard while pursuing other species of fish in the Bering Sea.
The federal council’s 6-3 vote in Sitka, Alaska, capped days of emotional testimony and debate over how to deal with the trawl fleet’s bycatch of halibut that are netted as the fleet pursues large volumes of lower-value fish such as yellowfin sole.
Federal rules allow only hook-and-line fishermen, known as longliners, to bring the halibut to market. The trawlers are required to dump the halibut overboard, even though scientists estimate most of the fish do not survive.
During the past decade, the trawl fleet has jettisoned an estimated 82 million pounds of dead and dying halibut.
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The scope of those discards — at a time of concern about halibut stocks — has fueled a bitter North Pacific fish dispute that preoccupied the council during the Sitka meeting.
Owners and crews of some 20 largely Seattle-based bottom trawlers fear that cuts in their bycatch will erode the profitability of their fleet, while hundreds of halibut fishermen, many from Alaska, have been pushing for reductions in the trawl discards as their own harvests have declined.
The federal fishery council has 11 voting members drawn from Alaska, Oregon, Washington and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Six of those voting members are Alaskans, but two of them were disqualified to vote on the halibut issue due to a federal ruling that they had conflicts of interest.
The federal council had a series of options for cuts of as high as 50 percent in the halibut bycatch limit for the trawl fleet. And Sunday, an Alaska council member, Sam Cotten, proposed a 33 percent cut that he called “a bare minimum, maybe even a bit below.”
But Cotten’s motion was amended to a 25 percent cut by Bill Tweit, a Washington council member, who called it a “strong first step” that he said would be followed by more steps to tackle the halibut bycatch.
“I don’t want anyone to leave this meeting feeling we have taken a step backward,” Tweit said.
He was interrupted by hoots of disagreement from hook-and-line fishermen who attended the meeting and had pushed for a much higher bycatch cut.
Native fishermen said their villages have been hard hit by declines in longline harvests, and feared their commercial harvests in future years could get shut down all together.
The council also heard from skippers, crews and owners from the bottom trawl fleet, who said they were already taking actions to try to avoid halibut.
Bob Hezel, captain of the Seattle-based U.S. Intrepid, said halibut discards constitute less than 1 percent of the fish he brings on board his vessel.
“I have been trying to get away from halibut my whole fishing career,” Hezel said.