The Seattle-based trawl fleet faces new economic threats in the debate over Bering Sea halibut fishing rules.
IN Sunday’s guest column, the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association referred to trawl fishing as a grave threat and an “environmentally disastrous policy” that has devastated their halibut fishery and “plundered the Bering Sea.”
Frankly, the association’s anti-trawl sensationalism is more fitting of a radical environmental group than a major Bering Sea fishery organization. Far more concerning than their exaggerations, however, is their reckless proposal to immediately take 50 percent of halibut bycatch away from trawl fishing fleets and reallocate that fish to the halibut fishermen who use longline gear.
A reallocation of this magnitude would have disastrous economic outcomes for trawl fishermen and maritime communities in Puget Sound and Alaska.
Bycatch occurs in every fishery. In the Bering Sea flatfish fisheries, halibut comingle with various target species that include yellowfin sole, rock sole, flathead sole and others. Since 2008, these flatfish fisheries have developed bycatch reduction techniques that have been highly successful to avoid bycatch — from modifying fishing gear to reducing bottom contact to the use of “excluders” that enable more large halibut to escape the net before it’s drawn to the surface.
Since 2008, some companies have reduced halibut bycatch by 25 percent. Because these companies make more money when they avoid halibut bycatch, they have been able to reduce their bycatch to less than 1 percent of their total groundfish harvest. Today, the overall halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea has been reduced by nearly 50 percent from its historical highs. There is no “plunder” here.
Bycatch is not driving the lack of fishing opportunities for the longline fishermen; management of the longline halibut fishery significantly contributed to recent steep declines in available commercial catch. Recent analysis shows that the longline fishery catch limits were set too high for 10 consecutive years resulting in over-harvest.
Beginning in 2012, the International Pacific Halibut Commission began reducing commercial catch, bringing it in line with a sustainable harvest strategy.
Also at issue is the abundance of adult-sized fish. According to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, halibut are growing more slowly and are not as available to catch by the longline fishery. Size-at-age issues have happened in the past, at a time when there was no large-scale groundfish fishery that halibut fishermen could point to as a possible cause. The halibut fishery has not been devastated by bycatch, the decline in the longline fishery is just a drop from grossly inflated catch limits to sustainable harvest levels.
In developing the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, Congress did not want bycatch-reduction provisions to be used as a cudgel that would destroy fisheries that have bycatch. A 50 percent reallocation of halibut could cost upward of $100 million in the first year and would result in boats being tied up and hundreds of fishermen losing their jobs.
In Alaska and Washington, there would be reduced port calls and product offloads, lost fuel and provision sales, and reduced fishery landing taxes. A 50 percent reallocation would also likely destroy efforts by some companies to recapitalize their fleet of aging vessels. This would cost hundreds of jobs in Washington shipyards and other maritime-support businesses. This is not the kind of bycatch management that Congress had in mind.
Given that fishermen have already reduced bycatch, halibut stocks are not threatened by bycatch and that a 50 percent reallocation would be an economic disaster, one has to ask if the best solutions are being considered? We hope that the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council proceeds with caution, implementing smaller cuts that are practical and achievable.
Fundamental halibut and bycatch-management reforms — such as abundance-based bycatch management, improvements to stock assessments and revisiting the wasteful discarding of dead halibut — are wise policies that should all be on the table.