The 15-member North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (or, simply, Council) wrapped up a week of meetings on June 9th after reviewing hundreds of pages of scientific analysis, hearing testimony from over 150 concerned members of the public and debating for the better part of two days on how many metric tons of halibut commercial fishing trawlers in the Bearing Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) should be allowed to annually catch, kill and throw back into the ocean, wasted.
In the end, Council members decided to call for a reduction-in-name-only…one which makes it look like they are trying to be responsible stewards of fisheries resources, but which in fact will have almost no effect whatsoever on the status quo.
Commercial fishing trawlers that work in the chilly, richly productive BSAI waters are relatively few in numbers—only about 75—but they are typically large vessels which annually catch millions of cod, pollock, mackerel and flounder in big nets towed astern. In the process of catching these ‘target’ species, trawlers intercept a lot of ‘non-target’ species like halibut and salmon, which they are prohibited from retaining and selling because of the historical importance of these non-target species to other fishermen—typically small-boat fishermen who use a much more selective hook-and-line method to catch fish.
Trawlers are supposed to release their so-called ‘bycatch’ alive, if possible. It doesn’t typically work out that way, though. In the five-year period from 2008-2013, the amount of halibut bycatch mortality in the BSAI area averaged about 3,475 metric tons, or more than 7.5 million pounds of dead and discarded fish per year. This is a staggering amount which fisheries scientists generally agree has been a major factor contributing to the general decline in halibut abundance (reduced spawning biomass) throughout the North Pacific over the last 25 years.
Back in 1986, the Council adopted a halibut bycatch cap in the BSAI which was intended to keep trawlers from killing too many incidentally caught halibut, preventing other users of the resource—sport fishermen, small-boat commercial hook-and-line fishermen, subsistence fishermen—from being able to meet their needs. That halibut bycatch cap was set at 4,500 metric tons.
With the decline in halibut abundance in recent years, public pressure forced the Council to revisit the question of how much bycatch is too much. So at the meeting in Sitka, Council members wrestled with the issue. Eventually and with much deliberation and debate, they decided that the halibut bycatch cap which has been in place for nearly thirty years should be reduced by 21%.
That’s a good thing, right? Well…not so much. Not if you look carefully at the numbers.
A reduction of 21% applied to the old bycatch cap yields a new bycatch cap of about 3,500 metric tons. This new cap is actually more than the five-year average bycatch mortality of 3,475 metric tons…which means that it will only be marginally constraining on trawl bycatch going forward. Furthermore, if the halibut spawning biomass continues its downward trend over the coming decade, the new cap soon won’t be constraining at all. The status quo will prevail, and a reasonable man would have to conclude that, eventually, only trawlers will be allowed to catch halibut…and only as bycatch.
The Council took one other disappointing (in our opinion) action at their Sitka meeting. They formally supported a petition for emergency action by the Secretary of Commerce to allow a group of Kodiak-based trawlers to obtain relief from their current King salmon bycatch cap, temporarily bumping it up by an additional 1,600 fish.
There are real ecological and socioeconomic ramifications associated with unsustainable fishing practices.
King salmon are incidentally killed by Kodiak trawlers fishing target such species like Yellowfin sole and Arrowtooth flounder in the Gulf of Alaska. This year, the Kodiak trawl fleet bumped up against its King salmon bycatch cap in early May, long before their limit of target fish was taken. This resulted in the forced suspension of trawling effort, which normally continues through the summer and into the fall. The fleet was forced to leave large amounts of harvestable—and profitable—target fish in the ocean due to the fact that they had reached their bycatch limit of non-target King salmon.
There are real economic hardships associated with Kodiak boats being forced to remain idle and Kodiak processors laying workers off because there is no product coming into the plants. We don’t deny this. But there are real ecological and socioeconomic ramifications associated with unsustainable fishing practices, too, which remove tens of thousands of King salmon each year from the Gulf of Alaska, preventing those fish from swimming, in due course, toward their spawning grounds along the coasts of Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California where they support sport fishermen, subsistence fishermen and the livelihoods of small-boat commercial fishermen in small fishing communities from Sitka Sound to Monterey Bay.
The Council’s decision to support a modest temporary increase in the King salmon trawl bycatch cap in the Gulf of Alaska does not, in itself, pose a threat to the stock or to other users of the resource. But it must not be allowed to set a precedent. The Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, which is the law of the land (or law of the ocean, in this case) calls for the reduction of bycatch to the extent practicable. This isn’t being achieved if, instead of being reduced, bycatch is actually routinely, if temporarily, increased.