For the past four years, Seattle-based Fishing Company of Alaska has had the fleet’s highest rate of dumping halibut, which federal rules say must be discarded if caught by trawlers.
There are big differences within the bottom-trawl fleet that works the Bering Sea in how much halibut is caught and discarded, a Seattle Times analysis found.
For the past four years, Fishing Company of Alaska, a Seattle firm, has had the fleet’s highest rate of dumping halibut, which federal rules say must be discarded if caught by trawlers.
During the past two years, Fishing Company of Alaska’s four catcher-processors vessels have caught and discarded halibut at more than twice the rate of the vessels that harvest fish through the fleet’s other cooperative, according to the analysis of catch data.
The data indicate that the other group, the Alaska Seafood Cooperative, has put a higher priority on avoiding halibut, which are inadvertently caught as the trawlers net other bottom-dwelling species
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For Fishing Company of Alaska, the high rate of halibut discards are part of a troubled track record in the North Pacific harvests.
In 2007, the company was fined almost $450,000 to settle charges of fishing in closed areas and other illegal activity by several of its vessels. It was one of the largest such fines ever paid for fishery-conservation violations in the North Pacific, according to federal officials.
In 2008, Fishing Company of Alaska lost one of its vessels, the Alaska Ranger, which sank in the Bering Sea in an accident that killed five crew members and spurred a major Coast Guard inquiry.
Through the years, the company has come under scrutiny for the use of Japanese fishmasters who help conduct the harvest.
Former Fishing of Company employees have accused the Japanese fishmasters of undermining the power of U.S. skippers charged with running the vessels.
And Mike Szymanski, a former Fishing Company of Alaska official, said the Japanese fishmasters haven’t made a priority of avoiding halibut.
“They don’t fish in a very responsible manner. It’s a Japanese style of fishing with long tows and faster speeds, which precipitates picking up more halibut,” Szymanski said.
But Fishing Company of Alaska is now trying to improve its performance, according to Bill Orr, a company consultant.
Orr said the cooperative organized by the company recently adopted new rules that will reduce halibut discards, and that crews’ performance will be evaluated on how well they follow these new rules.
“The expectation is that halibut (discard) rates will be lowered,” Orr said.