FISH FACTOR: Halibut, sablefish bycatch levels front and center again for council
Halibut catches fluctuate based on the ups and downs of the stock from California to the farthest reaches of the Bering Sea. If the numbers decline, so do the catches of commercial and sport fishermen.
But similar reductions don’t apply to the boats taking millions of pounds of halibut as bycatch in other fisheries.
In the Bering Sea, for example, there is a fixed cap totaling 7.73 million pounds of halibut allowed to be taken as bycatch for trawlers, longliners and pot boats targeting groundfish, with most going to trawlers. The cap stays the same, regardless of changes in the halibut stock. Nearly all of the bycatch gets tossed over the side, dead or alive, as required by federal law.
Stakeholders are saying it is time for that to change.
This month, after four years of analyses and deliberation, managers are moving towards a new “abundance based” management plan that would tie bycatch levels to the health of the halibut stock as determined by annual surveys.
Levels of bycatch (also called prohibited species catch, or PSC) are set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in waters from three to 200 miles offshore, where the bulk of Alaska’s harvests come from.
In several regions, the bycatch allowed each year exceeds the catches that can be taken by fishermen who count on halibut to keep their small, seagoing businesses afloat.
In a letter to the council, fisherman Josh Wisniewski of Homer cited a 2013 scenario.
“The total amount of halibut that could be removed…was less than the prospective amount of halibut bycatch allowed. In other words, we didn’t have enough fish in the water to cover allowable bycatch and there would have been no directed fishery. Only emergency negotiations preserved opportunity for directed fishermen,” he wrote, adding “when halibut abundance declines, the proportion to the bycatch users increases and the amount to the directed halibut users decreases.”
“I believe it is imperative, as a matter of conservation and equity, that the Council continue to move forward and develop an abundance-based management approach that provides the ability for the bycatch cap to go up and down based on stock abundance. The fixed cap, under today’s halibut stock status, is both outdated and inequitable,” Wisniewski added.
Along with halibut, the council is getting an angry earful for the amount of sablefish, or black cod, that’s also going over the side by the big, mostly Seattle-based boats fishing for deep water flatfish in the Bering Sea.
Scientists with the council revealed last week that sablefish bycatch of nearly 5 million pounds has been taken by Bering Sea trawlers this year, more than triple their allowance of 1.4 million pounds.
They said that “given current information, there is a good chance that the Bering Sea overfishing limit for sablefish in 2019 will be exceeded.” That would close all directed sablefish fisheries in federal waters for the rest of the year.
In a letter to the council, Linda Behnken of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, called “the amount of trawl inflicted mortality unacceptable.”
The Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owner’s Association and Deep Sea Fishermen’s Union agreed.
“Our first concern is that, by allowing the bycatch to reach these levels, any assumption that we were saving fish to help rebuild this resource cannot be sustained,” both wrote in a letter to the NPFMC, adding, “Having nearly 5 million pounds of bycatch of juvenile sablefish is not acceptable, ever, and particularly if this is becoming an annual event.”
The numbers of fish coming and going over the side as bycatch in the Bering Sea are straightforward because nearly all of the boats are required to have 100 percent observer coverage. That’s not the case in the Gulf of Alaska where in 2018 observer coverage included just one out of every six fishing trips.
Based on those observations, groundfish trawlers in the Central Gulf caught nearly 4.7 million pounds of sablefish as bycatch, more than double their 2.3 million-pound allotment.
Halibut bycatch in the Central and Western Gulf in 2018 totaled 2.1 million pounds, nearly all by trawlers with longliners a distant second.
They also took 16,802 chinook salmon, according to state and federal data compiled by Oceana.
“For comparison, the total chinook allocation for all sport fishing in all of Southeast Alaska is only 23,900 fish,” Jamie Karnik, Oceana’s Juneau-based Pacific Communications Manager said in a statement.
IPHC researchers have cautioned that Gulf bycatch numbers could be much higher due to the data gaps.
“This is important not only for overall observer coverage, but for the ‘observer effect,’ where it has been shown that on average over the last three years bottom trawl vessels caught 30 percent less fish overall when they had an observer on board, yet those trips are used as the baseline for data on unobserved trips,” Karvik said.
There’s not a fisherman alive who likes throwing fish over the side. Many Gulf trawl fishermen and trade groups for years have urged the council to craft a new management plan to “slow the race for fish” and allow them to fish cooperatively or under a catch share program.
In June 2012, the Council initiated the process but in 2016, citing too much division among stakeholders, all work on a Gulf trawl bycatch management plan was postponed “indefinitely.”
Cod in the USA
Many Americans are skeptical about buying fish and the mislabeling of seafood is rampant. One fishing company is removing all the guesswork from consumers.
“America’s Cod Company” is the new red, white and blue brand that Alaskan Leader Seafoods is splashing all over its packaging. The company’s four longliners fish for cod in the Bering Sea.
“We’re sitting here with this amazing Alaska fishery, which we’ve all been born into, and we just want to represent it. Across America there’s so many foreign products that I think the domestic consumer is interested in something that’s Made in the USA,” said Keith Singleton, head of Alaskan Leader’s value added division.
The company was selected last week as a leading innovator by Seafood Source in its 20th annual list of the top 25 U.S. seafood suppliers, citing its consumer friendly, pop in the oven cod with flavored sauces and the latest, a Fish and Chips kit which will debut at next month’s Alaska Symphony of Seafood.
Big wins at the Symphony’s new products competition two years ago has led to shelf space at Costco and a pet food deal with Purina. The pet food market, Singleton said, fits the company’s goal to use every part of the fish.
“The cod liver oil is spoken for and we have a great stomach program and we’ve got a roe program,” he said. “On the pet food side, we have the head program. It’s a growing portion of our business and we’re all about one hundred percent utilization. We’re not there yet, but we’re darn close. And we’re very proud of that.”
October is National Seafood Month
Be sure to celebrate Alaska seafood, fishermen, processors and all the related industries that keep fishing communities afloat!